The Scandal of Christmas

Note: This was originally a Facebook post back in 2014 and I’ve repeated it there occasionally, but I thought that it was also worth sharing here.

 

We’ve made Christmas pretty with twinkly lights, shiny decorations and well dressed characters in the nativity but we forget that Christmas was and is a story of scandal.

A baby born to poor, unmarried parents who were themselves descended from prostitutes, foreigners, adulterers, murders, and the absolute WORST king that Israel had ever had, a man who was describes as more evil than Israel’s enemy the Ammonites.

His birth was announced to shepherds, people at the very bottom of the social order. The rich, the important, and the popular were excluded.

Everything about the story is aimed at reminding us that God uses the weak, the small, the outcasts, the unpopular and the people that others call failures to do his greatest work.

The coming of the the Messiah was not the triumph of the establishment, but an invitation to everyone who has ever felt like they weren’t good enough, or rich enough, or just simply not “enough.”

The scandal of Christmas is that God came to earth to invite us all, regardless of wealth, race, popularity, nationality, or even goodness. He came to redeem and transform us, at his expense, so that we could *all* be invited into his house.

Never forget the scandal of Christmas because it was that very scandal that invited us in to become sons and daughters of God.

Merry Christmas everyone.

 

 

 

 


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21 Facts About Liberia

map-liberia21 Facts About Liberia

(taken from the Monrovia newspaper with some added explanation)

  1. Liberia is the 4th poorest country in the world (United Nations ranking)
  2. Liberia is the 8th unhappiest and most miserable Country in the World (UNDP)
  3. Liberia is the 8th hungriest nation (Concern International)
  4. 230,000 Liberian children suffer from chronic malnutrition (UNICEF)
  5. Liberia ranks #1 among the 10 worst countries for business in Africa (Forbes magazine)
  6. Food insecurity effects 650,000 Liberians (World Food Program)
  7. 65 percent of Liberian children do not attend primary school (UNICEF)
  8. 76 percent of Liberians live on US$1.25 per day (United Nations)
  9. Teenage pregnancy accounts for 38 percent of all live births (United Nations)
  10. Youth unemployment is as high as 85 percent (United Nations)
  11. Monrovia is the worst capital city in the world with a City Prosperity Initiative (CPI) ranking of 0.313. (For comparison, Oslo is #1 at 86.76, New York is #23 at 74.43, Manila is #44 at 55.81 and Nairobi is #49 at 47.77 per UN Habitat data)
  12. Only 25 percent of Liberians have access to safe drinking water (WaterAid International)
  13. Over 80 percent of Liberians lack access to a decent toilet (WaterAid International)
  14. Out of a population of 4 million, 3.7 million Liberians lack access to adequate sanitation. (WaterAid International)
  15. Over 500 children die every year from diarrhea in Liberia (WaterAid International)
  16. Liberia has just 298 doctors for 4.6 million people. The doctor-patient ratio is 1:15,436 (Ministry of Health) [For comparison, Switzerland has 3.6 per 1,000, the United States has 2.3 per 1,000, Kenya has 0.14 per 1,000 and Liberia 0.03 per 1,000]
  17. Liberia imports over US$200 million worth of rice even though it has 4.6 million hectare of arable land (Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN)
  18. The infant mortality rate in Liberia is 52.2 deaths to every 1,000 live births (CIA World Factbook) [For comparison, the United States is 6.86 per 1,000 and Japan is 2.0 per 1,000]
  19. The maternal mortality rate in Liberia is 725deaths to every 100,000 live births (CIA World Factbook) [For comparison, while Sierra Leone is #1 at 1,360, the United States is #138 at 14, and Greece is #184 at just 3]
  20. Out of 111 countries, Liberia ranks 101on the Global Hunger Index (United Nations)
  21. Out of 188 countries, Liberia ranks 177 on the Human Development Index (United Nations)

Who’s Your Favorite?

“Who’s Your Favorite?”

September 09, 2018*

By Pastor John Partridge

 

Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23              Mark 7:24-37             James 2:1-17

A quick quiz.

Which of you were the teacher’s pet?

Which of you were Mom’s favorite? Or, Dad’s favorite?

How many of you can identify, at work, the one person that sucks up to the boss and who, as a result, may or may not be the favorite?

We have names for people who are the favorite.  We may get jealous of others when they are the favorite, but when it occasionally happens to us, it can be kind of nice.

But we have favorites of our own.  That’s why, among all our friends, we have “best friends.”  We have favorite churches, and favorite pastors, favorite restaurants, favorite ice cream flavors, favorite foods, favorite places, favorite soft drinks, favorite candy bars, and all kinds of other things.

But there is danger here.

Simply because we are so accustomed to playing favorites, we are also prone to do so when we really shouldn’t.  We know that as parents, we shouldn’t have a “favorite” child, but many of us probably do anyway.  And the same thing is true spiritually.  Scripture provides clear warning that we need to be careful.

We begin in the book of Proverbs where we find all sorts of reliable “rules of thumb” that can often be used to guide our lives. (Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23)

22:1 A good name is more desirable than great riches; to be esteemed is better than silver or gold.

Rich and poor have this in common: The Lord is the Maker of them all.

Whoever sows injustice reaps calamity, and the rod they wield in fury will be broken.

The generous will themselves be blessed, for they share their food with the poor.

22 Do not exploit the poor because they are poor and do not crush the needy in court,
23 for the Lord will take up their case and will exact life for life.

Obviously, the specific warning that we find here is to remember that all of us are loved by God regardless of our economic circumstances.  Our natural reactions are to be a little in awe of people who have more than we do, perhaps to even be a little star struck by them, to want to be like them, and therefore tend to take their side in disputes, or at least, to stay out of a dispute that involves them.  At the same time, we tend to look down on people who have less than we do, to accuse them of being lazy or not working hard enough.  We don’t like people who don’t dress as well as we do, or who smell bad, or drive fifteen-year-old rust buckets.  We judge people who are missing teeth and can’t afford dentures or a trip to the dentist.

This isn’t something that came to us as adults.  We learned this from adults and from our peers when we saw how people treated the kids who couldn’t afford band camp, or who couldn’t pay for the class trip, or even go to Cedar Point or Kings Island, Kennywood Park, or even to the movies with the rest of our friends.  Our prejudice, and bias against the poor began early.  But that isn’t the example that we have from Jesus.  In Mark 7:24-37, we hear two stories of Jesus’ healing.  And the people that he healed, were not the people that one would necessarily expect.

24 Jesus left that place and went to the vicinity of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know it; yet he could not keep his presence secret. 25 In fact, as soon as she heard about him, a woman whose little daughter was possessed by an impure spirit came and fell at his feet. 26 The woman was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia. She begged Jesus to drive the demon out of her daughter.

27 “First let the children eat all they want,” he told her, “for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”

28 “Lord,” she replied, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

29 Then he told her, “For such a reply, you may go; the demon has left your daughter.”

30 She went home and found her child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

31 Then Jesus left the vicinity of Tyre and went through Sidon, down to the Sea of Galilee and into the region of the Decapolis. 32 There some people brought to him a man who was deaf and could hardly talk, and they begged Jesus to place his hand on him.

33 After he took him aside, away from the crowd, Jesus put his fingers into the man’s ears. Then he spit and touched the man’s tongue. 34 He looked up to heaven and with a deep sigh said to him, “Ephphatha!” (which means “Be opened!”). 35 At this, the man’s ears were opened, his tongue was loosened, and he began to speak plainly.

36 Jesus commanded them not to tell anyone. But the more he did so, the more they kept talking about it. 37 People were overwhelmed with amazement. “He has done everything well,” they said. “He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.”

The woman in the story was Greek.  A foreigner, an outsider, and a Gentile.  The Jewish people lived alongside of the Greeks and did business with them when the occasion demanded it, but at the same time, considered them to be unclean.  Jesus even compares helping her with giving the meal intended for your children to the dogs.  But her answer shows great faith.  The woman essentially tells Jesus that she knows that his power, and the power of his God, is so great that what she was asking was of no more consequence than the crumbs left under the table after dinner.

And Jesus heals her daughter.

In the second story, someone brings a man to Jesus who is deaf and who can barely speak.  In that society, it is most likely that this man was destitute.  It would have been difficult for a deaf man who could not communicate to find work, or to keep it.  The odds are good that he relied upon the generosity of his family, friends, and community for his very survival.  But Jesus doesn’t count that against him.  Jesus was the man who spent his time with tax collectors, prostitutes, sinners, and outsiders.  He was the one who spoke with, touched, cared about, healed, and loved lepers from whom everyone else would run away.  And Jesus was also the person that criticized the rich and the powerful and was so brutal in his estimation of them that he made enemies that would seek to end his life.

And with that in mind, Jesus’ brother James also draws special attention to this same subject and spells out what Jesus’ example should mean to us.  In James 2:1-17 we hear these words:

2:1 My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?

Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? Are they not the ones who are blaspheming the noble name of him to whom you belong?

If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. 11 For he who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker.

12 Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, 13 because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.

14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? 15 Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

Much like our own, the culture in which James lived valued rich people and looked down on the poor.  In fact, Roman culture ran on a system of patronage in which, to get ahead, people put themselves under the influence of wealthier people, helped those wealthy people to make more business contacts, look good in front of others, and get even wealthier.  In return, the wealthy people, or patrons, introduced you to more important and influential contacts, helped you grow your business and get wealthier yourself.  Wealthy patrons were the ones who donated the money to build monuments, or even paid to have major buildings constructed.  King Herod built major improvements to the entire city of Paneas and renamed it Caesarea Philippi to honor his patron Caesar Augustus.  As if that wasn’t enough, Herod also built almost the entirety of the new city of Caesarea Maritima (in which many of the buildings were so opulent\ that they were entirely covered by imported white marble) on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea for the same reason.

This system of patronage was a well-established and rigid system of “you scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours.”  Failing to do what your patron wanted could result in the ruin of everything that you had built.  But James fights against the system.  He insists that giving preference, or showing favoritism, to the rich, or discriminating against the poor was the same as sitting in judgement of them and therefore taking the place of God.  James wants to be sure that we understand that the poor are just as chosen, and just as loved, by God as we are, and just as chosen, and just as loved as the rich are.  What James wants to know, and this applies to us just as clearly as it did to those living under the system of Roman patronage, “Why do you show favoritism to the rich, when it’s the rich people that are taking advantage of you?”  Aren’t they the ones that are suing you and taking your property?  And aren’t they the ones that are blaspheming God and saying horrible things about Jesus?

Instead, James says, we need to listen to the words of scripture.  To love our neighbors, rich and poor alike, just as much as we love ourselves.  Showing favoritism is sin and condemns us just as if we were murderers.  Instead of showing favoritism, James says, we ought to be people who are known for showing mercy.  We should speak, and act, like people who will be judged by God.

Having faith without deeds is dead faith and it cannot save you.

The only faith that can save you is a faith that causes you to act like Jesus and to do what Jesus did.

You can’t play favorites.

Don’t tell a hungry person that you’ll pray for them.  Feed them.

Don’t send “warm wishes” to a cold person. Give them your coat.

Don’t send “good thoughts” or “positive energy” to the grieving.  Comfort them.

Because…

…Faith, without action, is dead.

 

_________

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*You have been reading a message presented at Christ United Methodist Church on the date noted at the top of the first page.  Rev. John Partridge is the pastor at Christ UMC in Alliance, Ohio.  Duplication of this message is a part of our Media ministry, if you have received a blessing in this way, we would love to hear from you.  Letters and donations in support of the Media ministry or any of our other projects may be sent to Christ United Methodist Church, 470 East Broadway Street, Alliance, Ohio 44601. These messages are available to any interested persons regardless of membership.  You may subscribe to these messages, in print or electronic formats, by writing to the address noted, or by contacting us at secretary@CUMCAlliance.org.  If you have questions, you can ask them in our discussion forum on Facebook (search for Pastor John Online).  These messages can also be found online at https://pastorpartridge.wordpress.com/. All Scripture references are from the New International Version unless otherwise noted.

The God Delusion

 

“The God Delusion”

October 15, 2017

By John Partridge*

 

Exodus 32:1-14                      Philippians 4:1-9                                Matthew 22:1-14

 

 

Have you ever lied to yourself?

 

It isn’t uncommon.  We lie to ourselves so that we don’t have to struggle with the realities of a difficult truth.  We pretend that our children are not grown up, or that they aren’t doing some things that we know they are probably doing.  We pretend that our parents never had sex despite the fact that our existence is obvious evidence to the contrary.  We pretend that the sins of our favorite political candidate are not as bad as the sins of the opposition, or we tell people that we can’t do math, simply because we find it difficult.

 

Philosopher Søren Kierkegaard said:

 

“There are two ways to be fooled. One is to believe what isn’t true; the other is to refuse to believe what is true.”

 

And this is the way that we often lie to ourselves about God.

 

In C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Aslan the Lion is the ruler of the land of Narnia and is an allegory for Jesus Christ.  In the book, we are reminded that humans often rewrite, reimagine, reinvent God into something that he isn’t.  In the one conversation, Susan, learns of Aslan from Mr. Beaver, who says…

 

“Aslan is a lion- the Lion, the great Lion.” “Ooh” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he-quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion”…  “Safe?” said Mr. Beaver …”Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

 

And that is the first of what I am calling “God Delusions.”  Humans deceive themselves that God is safe.  A cursory reading of either the Old or the New Testaments should cure us of such a delusion.

 

God is not safe.

 

God is a jealous God.  God will not allow us to worship anything or anyone more than we worship him.  God punishes sin.  God is not safe… but he is good.

 

Another time, the children remember something else that Mr. Beaver had told them about Aslan…

 

“He’ll be coming and going” he had said. “One day you’ll see him and another you won’t. He doesn’t like being tied down–and of course he has other countries to attend to. It’s quite all right. He’ll often drop in. Only you mustn’t press him. He’s wild, you know. Not like a tame lion.”

 

And that is, once again, a common delusion.  God is not tame and that frightens us.  And so, rather than being frightened, we pretend that God is something that he is not.

 

This is exactly what happened in Exodus 32:1-14.


32:1
When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, “Come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.”

Aaron answered them, “Take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me.” So all the people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron. He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool. Then they said, “These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.”

When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf and announced, “Tomorrow there will be a festival to the Lord.” So the next day the people rose early and sacrificed burnt offerings and presented fellowship offerings.  Afterward they sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry.

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Go down, because your people, whom you brought up out of Egypt, have become corrupt. They have been quick to turn away from what I commanded them and have made themselves an idol cast in the shape of a calf. They have bowed down to it and sacrificed to it and have said, ‘These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.’

“I have seen these people,” the Lord said to Moses, “and they are a stiff-necked people. 10 Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.”

11 But Moses sought the favor of the Lord his God. “Lord,” he said, “why should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand? 12 Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out, to kill them in the mountains and to wipe them off the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce anger; relent and do not bring disaster on your people. 13 Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Israel, to whom you swore by your own self: ‘I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and I will give your descendants all this land I promised them, and it will be their inheritance forever.’” 14 Then the Lord relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.

Last week we heard that the people were terrified of God.  And so, when Moses took too long to return from the mountain they imagined the worst.  None of them would go up the mountain to look for him, and their fear began to direct their thoughts.  “God is scary” they thought.   Perhaps God has killed him.  And if God has killed Moses, then we can make new gods that aren’t so scary and we will pretend that these are the gods that brought us up out of Egypt.

 

The people of Israel were prepared to do exactly what Kierkegaard described; to believe what wasn’t true, and to refuse to believe those things that, from their own experience, they knew were, absolutely, true about God.

 

Israel wanted a god that was tame and safe, despite knowing that the God that had rescued them from slavery was neither of those things.

 

We see the same thing in the Gospel stories about Jesus as the leaders, the teachers, and the Pharisees, ignored the facts and the evidence that they had seen with their own eyes. In Matthew 22:1-14, Jesus sums up their behavior.


22:1 
Jesus spoke to them again in parables, saying: “The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come.

“Then he sent some more servants and said, ‘Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.’

“But they paid no attention and went off—one to his field, another to his business. The rest seized his servants, mistreated them and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.

“Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. So go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.’ 10 So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, the bad as well as the good, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.

 

Since we live in a republic that elects its leaders, we should remember what it is like to live under a king.  This is something that everyone in Jesus’ time would have immediately appreciated.  Whether the ruler of their country called himself King, or Caesar, or Pharaoh, there were rules and expectations that everyone knew.  In this particular case, what is important is that a royal wedding is a big deal.  They don’t happen often, sometimes only once in a lifetime, and an invitation to such an event is of utmost importance.  An invitation from the king is really less of an invitation and more of a command performance.  The only thing that should excuse you from such an event is a funeral, and then only if the funeral that you are attending is your own.

 

In Jesus’ story, the people who were invited, and who were expected to attend, didn’t have an excuse.  They totally ignored the king, and went off instead to do something that was absolutely trivial in comparison.  Not only was this simply not done, it was a terrible insult to the king, and as you might expect, insulting someone who commands armies is not a great idea, especially in a world where life had little value.  Not only did these fools ignore the king, they decide to kill the king’s messengers.  These people suffered from a delusion.  They deceived themselves into believing that the king was tame.  And so, not unexpectedly, the king kills them and burns their city to the ground.

 

Anyone listening to the story could have predicted the outcome based on their personal experiences with their kings and those of neighboring nations.  But then, the king does something unexpected.  With a wedding already planned and a banquet already prepared, the king invites everyone he can find.  We are told that the king’s messengers went out to the streets or to the street corners to invite people to the wedding banquet.  There is language here that most of us miss unless we are reading the footnotes or following along in a biblical commentary.  What we miss is that the Jews often referred to the Gentiles as “the people of the streets” or as people who lived on the streets and street corners.  And so, when we are told that the king invited people from the streets, Jesus’ listeners would have understood that the king was inviting Gentiles to the wedding banquet.

 

But so what?

 

What does this all mean?

 

In Philippians 4:1-9, Paul puts it this way:


4:1 
Therefore, my brothers and sisters, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, dear friends!

I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. 3Yes and I ask you, my true companion, help these women since they have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.

 

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.

 

It is never safe for us to suffer from the delusion that God is safe, tame, and inconsequential.

 

You see, our God, is a god of peace.  Our god is a god of love.  Our god is a god of justice.  But much like the lion Aslan, God is neither tame nor safe … but he is good.

 

Ignoring the invitation of God, or the commands of God, is not a good idea.  It is not a good idea to sin and offend God.  Doing these things, believing that God doesn’t care, and expecting that God is powerless is delusional.

 

We must not allow ourselves to suffer from this God delusion.

 

Mr. Beaver and C.S. Lewis said it well. Our God is a lion- the Lion, the great Lion.  He’s wild, you know. Not like a tame lion.  He isn’t safe. But he is good. He’s the King, I tell you.

 

Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.

 

 

 

_________
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* You have been reading a message presented at Trinity United Methodist Church on the date noted on the first page.  Rev. John Partridge is the pastor at Trinity of Perry Heights in Massillon, Ohio.  Duplication of this message is a part of our Media ministry, if you have received a blessing in this way, we would love to hear from you.  Letters and donations in support of the Media ministry may be sent to Trinity United Methodist Church, 3757 Lincoln Way E., Massillon, Ohio 44646.  These messages are available to anyone regardless of membership.  You may subscribe to these messages by writing to the address noted, or by contacting us at subscribe@trinityperryheights.org.  To subscribe to the electronic version sign up at http://eepurl.com/vAlYn.   These messages can also be found online at https://pastorpartridge.wordpress.com/. All Scripture references are from the New International Version unless otherwise noted.

 

 

 

 

Pay What You Owe!

 

Pay What You Owe!

September 17, 2017

By John Partridge*

 

Exodus 14:19-31                    Romans 14:1-12                                 Matthew 18:21-35

 

 

How many of you have ever seen the 1976 movie, “Rocky” starring Sylvester Stallone?

 

We might be missing some of our younger friends, but I would think that by now, most of us have seen it, if not in movie theaters, then on television or on Netflix, or video, or something.

 

In any case, at the beginning of the movie, we learn that Rocky is a down on his luck, amateur boxer and to emphasize just how far down he is, we see that he makes extra money as a collection agent for a local loan shark.  The trouble is, he is too nice and gets in trouble for not breaking someone’s thumbs as he was told to do.  That is typical of how loan sharks have appeared in movies and television for years.  When you fall behind in your payments to a loan shark, some big thug pays you a visit and reminds you, often violently and painfully, that you are expected to pay what you owe.

 

And if you think about it, that’s something of a common theme in our lives.  We get letters from the bank, and the utility company, and the department store, and the credit card company, the Internal Revenue Service, and all sorts of other places every month that urgently remind us, just as forcefully and only slightly less threateningly, that we are expected to pay what we owe.

 

When people do things for us, whether they loan us money, or mow our grass, shovel our snow, they expect to be paid in return.  We expect the same when we work for others.  Not many of us would show up at work if our boss told us that there was no money to pay us.  But that brings us back to the story of the people of Israel in the land of Egypt.  Today we rejoin their story after they have fled their captivity, but now, having been pursued by the chariots of the army of Egypt, find themselves trapped between the swords and spears of the Egyptians, and the Red Sea. (Exodus 14:19-31)

 

19 Then the angel of God, who had been traveling in front of Israel’s army, withdrew and went behind them. The pillar of cloud also moved from in front and stood behind them, 20 coming between the armies of Egypt and Israel. Throughout the night the cloud brought darkness to the one side and light to the other side; so neither went near the other all night long.

21 Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and all that night the Lord drove the sea back with a strong east wind and turned it into dry land. The waters were divided, 22 and the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground, with a wall of water on their right and on their left.

23 The Egyptians pursued them, and all Pharaoh’s horses and chariots and horsemen followed them into the sea. 24 During the last watch of the night the Lord looked down from the pillar of fire and cloud at the Egyptian army and threw it into confusion. 25 He jammed the wheels of their chariots so that they had difficulty driving. And the Egyptians said, “Let’s get away from the Israelites! The Lord is fighting for them against Egypt.”

26 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea so that the waters may flow back over the Egyptians and their chariots and horsemen.”27 Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at daybreak the sea went back to its place. The Egyptians were fleeing toward it, and the Lord swept them into the sea. 28 The water flowed back and covered the chariots and horsemen—the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed the Israelites into the sea. Not one of them survived.

29 But the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground, with a wall of water on their right and on their left. 30 That day the Lord saved Israel from the hands of the Egyptians, and Israel saw the Egyptians lying dead on the shore. 31 And when the Israelites saw the mighty hand of the Lord displayed against the Egyptians, the people feared the Lord and put their trust in him and in Moses his servant.

 

All along, the god of Abraham has been a god of miracles.  He introduced himself to Moses by appearing in a burning bush, gave Moses a staff that turned into a snake so that he could re-introduce himself to the Pharaoh as a person of power, then brought about ten plagues to afflict Egypt until Pharaoh finally consented to allow the Israelites to leave, and finally leads and protects the Israelites with a pillar of cloud and fire.  And now, when it seems that hope is lost and the Egyptian army will either kill them or return them to their captivity, God creates a dry pathway through the sea through which the Israelites cross safely and in which every single Egyptian soldier dies.

 

God has done all these things, and yet he still promises more.  God still intends to keep his promises and lead Israel into the Promised Land where Israel can become a great nation and rule over themselves.  And in exchange for all of these miracles and the display of all of this power, what is it that God wants in return?  What will be required when God asks Israel to pay what they owe?

 

Nothing.

 

God’s generosity toward Israel is a gift and comes not from a desire to be repaid, but from the love that he has toward his people and the honor that God has in keeping the promises that he made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  The only thing that God gets in return for his generosity… is trust.

 

“And when the Israelites saw the mighty hand of the Lord displayed against the Egyptians, the people feared the Lord and put their trust in him and in Moses his servant.”

 

But God does want something in return for his goodness.  In Matthew 18:21-35, Jesus explains.

 

21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”

22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.

23 “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold [ten thousand talents – about 20 years’ wages for a laborers wages] was brought to him. 25 Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.

26 “At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ 27 The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.

28 “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.

29 “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’

30 “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. 31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.

32 “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ 34 In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

35 “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

 

The story of the Exodus told us that the people of Israel put their trust in God, and Jesus is clear that a part of trusting God is forgiving others in the same measure that we have been forgiven by God.  The debt that God has paid on our behalf is astronomically more than we could ever repay and while God does not send thugs to threaten us to pay what we owe, he does insist that our forgiveness flow down to the people we live with and work with every day.  So important is this principle, that Jesus warns us that failing to forgive others and treating them harshly, will cause God to judge us with the same measure and lack of forgiveness with which we treat others.

 

Finally we come to Romans 14:1-12, where we find Paul’s explanation of how we are to honor God.


14:1 
Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters. One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them. Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand.

One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind.Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone. If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living.

10 You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat. 11 It is written:

“‘As surely as I live,’ says the Lord,
‘every knee will bow before me;
every tongue will acknowledge God.’”

12 So then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God.

 

We are called to accept those people whose faith is not as strong as ours or whose understanding of scripture, at least in non-essential theology, leads them to a somewhat different interpretation than ours.  In Paul’s time, particularly because most meat was sold by butchers who cut, and resold, meat that had been sacrificed to idols, some Christians felt that it was a sin to eat meat.  Others felt that since idols weren’t real, that the meat was not “tainted” in any way and was acceptable to eat.  Paul’s advice was that these two groups should respect one another and not treat one another with contempt.  This idea of contempt and respect is important and it comes up again later in this same passage.

 

Paul also addresses the issue of which day should be a holy day because believers had come to worship on different days.  Just as Jews, Seventh Day Adventists, and a few others worship on Saturday, while most Protestant churches worship on Sunday, and Catholic churches often have worship on both days.  Paul points out that what is important is that both groups are, in their own way, attempting to honor God.  In fact, the same thing applies to the people that were arguing over meat, each group was, in their own way, doing their best to honor God in the way that they understood scripture.

 

And this is where Paul returns to that idea of contempt and respect, but here he asks why people judge one another.  This is a little puzzling because only last week we heard Paul say that we should take someone aside if we see them falling in to sin, but here he tells us that we should not judge a brother or sister in Christ.  How can we understand how these two ideas are not in conflict?  If we look closely, Paul associates judgement with contempt and he is also careful to note that these arguments were over what he calls “disputable matters.”  In that regard, it is important for us to distinguish between judgement and discernment, and also between sin, and disputable matters.  Paul wants to be sure that the followers of Jesus do not fall into sin and that we do the things that God has called us to do and avoid those things that God has called sin.  At the same time, Paul understands that not every dispute is critically important theologically.  We are called to be discerning over which disagreements are simply disagreements, and which are clear matters of God’s instruction.  In Paul’s time, some believers thought that eating meat was a sin and others didn’t, while some believed that worshiping on one particular day of the week was critical, while others didn’t.  Today we have similar disagreements between fellow believers.  Methodists believe that everyone should be invited to share at the communion table, while Catholics do not.  We believe that it is possible to turn you back on God and lose your salvation while our Baptist friends do not.  We believe that each individual has the free will to choose whether they will follow Jesus or not, and our Calvinist friends would describe that choice as predestined by God.  The followers of Jesus Christ have many theological disagreements over things that Paul might describe as “disputable matters” or that John Wesley might have described as “non-essentials,” but although we disagree, we are not to judge one another in such a way that we treat one another with contempt.

 

In the end, Paul reminds us that each of us will eventually stand before God and give an account of our lives.  And although we may disagree on how it is to be done, we must all do the best that we can to bring honor to God and to follow his commands.  We must all do the best that we can to treat one another with respect even when we disagree about what things are, and are not, important.  And all of these things are important because God has done so much for us that we can never hope to repay our debt.

 

God is not a loan shark that will send Rocky Balboa or some other thug to insist that you should “Pay what you owe.”

 

But what God wants in return is for us to forgive others and show mercy in the same measure that God has forgiven us and has been merciful toward us.

 

What God wants is for us to trust him enough to live as if scripture matters.

 

 

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* You have been reading a message presented at Trinity United Methodist Church on the date noted on the first page.  Rev. John Partridge is the pastor at Trinity of Perry Heights in Massillon, Ohio.  Duplication of this message is a part of our Media ministry, if you have received a blessing in this way, we would love to hear from you.  Letters and donations in support of the Media ministry may be sent to Trinity United Methodist Church, 3757 Lincoln Way E., Massillon, Ohio 44646.  These messages are available to anyone regardless of membership.  You may subscribe to these messages by writing to the address noted, or by contacting us at subscribe@trinityperryheights.org.  To subscribe to the electronic version sign up at http://eepurl.com/vAlYn.   These messages can also be found online at https://pastorpartridge.wordpress.com/. All Scripture references are from the New International Version unless otherwise noted.

 

 

 

 

 

Easter Sheeple

TRAVELER DIGITAL CAMERA“Easter Sheeple”

(Easter, So What? – Part 4)

May 14, 2017

By John Partridge*

 

Acts 2:42-47                           John 10:1-10                            1 Peter 2:19-25

 

Sheeple.

In in the midst of our polarized and inflammatory political debate, if you are on the internet you have probably heard the derogatory and disparaging term “sheeple.”  The word “sheeple” is intended to refer to people of an opposing political viewpoint and accuse them of blindly following the leaders of their political or religious organizations without giving any thought to whether those leaders are right, wrong, just, or unjust.  The difficulty for us, as the followers of Jesus Christ, is that Jesus, as well as the writers of the Old and New Testaments, often describe the followers of God as sheep.  And so, as we conclude our examination of the meaning of Easter, I want to spend some time today struggling with how being a sheep can be such a bad thing, if that is almost the same sort of language that Jesus used to describe us.

We begin this morning with a fairly typical statement of this type from John 10:1-10 where we hear Jesus address the leaders of Israel saying:

10:1 “Very truly I tell you Pharisees, anyone who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber.  The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.” Jesus used this figure of speech, but the Pharisees did not understand what he was telling them.

Therefore Jesus said again, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them. I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.

Jesus describes his followers as sheep but he also draws an important distinction by saying that he is the only good shepherd.  Others will act like shepherds, portray themselves as shepherds, describe themselves as shepherds, insist that they have been elected as shepherds, and even demand that the sheep follow them, all so that they can attempt to steal the sheep from the one true shepherd to whom they belong.  These false shepherds, Jesus said, only come as thieves and their goals amount to no more than theft, murder and destruction.  In stark contrast, Jesus, the good shepherd, came so that his sheep might have life to the fullest.

In his pastoral letter to churches in the Mediterranean, Peter touches on this same theme.  Peter teaches and encourages the followers of Jesus whose beliefs are in the minority and who they have begun to face increasing persecution. (1 Peter 2:19-25)

19 For it is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God. 20 But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. 21 To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.

22 “He committed no sin,
and no deceit was found in his mouth.”

23 When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. 24 “He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed.” 25 For “you were like sheep going astray,” but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.

Peter reminds us that as followers of Jesus, we are called to live our lives according to his example.  Because Jesus was insulted, abused, and even killed, without any retaliation on his part, despite his total innocence, we are expected to do the same.  We are called to do good no matter what.  We are called to do good, even when we suffer because of it.  Regardless of our suffering, regardless of the criticism we might receive, we must not stop doing good.  Peter understands that it is possible, even easy, to stray from the flock like sheep but he is clear that being a sheep, or being sheeple, can be a good thing but only if we follow the one true, good shepherd.

But so what?

That’s the question we’ve been asking for the last four weeks.

What difference does any of this make?  What difference does Easter make in our lives two thousand years later?  What does the Easter story tell us about how we should live our lives?  And again, we return to the book of Acts where we can learn from the eyewitnesses who watched the crucifixion and who saw Jesus, and ate with him, after his resurrection.  What they did tells us everything we need to know about what we should do. (Acts 2:42-47)

42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

Because of what they had seen, what they had heard, and what they had experienced, the followers of Jesus dedicated their lives to four things; the teaching of the apostles, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer.  Let’s review that list for a moment.  The followers of Jesus devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and, as simple as that sounds, we remember that what the apostles were teaching was nothing more than what Jesus had taught them and nothing less than what they have recorded and passed down to us.  What the disciples taught is what we find in the gospels, the Old and New Testaments, and what we regularly study today.  They also devoted themselves to fellowship, to simply being together, to friendship, to worshipping together, to studying and learning together.

They devoted themselves to the breaking of bread.  This might be interpreted was sharing communion together, but what is more likely is that it means that they shared meals together.  Sharing meals is something that we do with people with whom we are both friendly and familiar, and in ancient societies this familiarity is implied even more strongly.  There are few things in the time of the New Testament that demonstrated closeness better than sharing meals together.

And finally, they devoted themselves to praying together.  Two things stand out in that one simple phrase.  First, they prayed whenever they were together, which we often do, but second, their prayers were not simply cursory, or routine, or a mere formality, they devoted themselves to prayer.  Their prayers were common, deep, frequent, fervent, and filled with dedication and devotion.

All of the believers were together, they shared what they had… together, and they even shared with people who were in need, even if they weren’t believers.  Every day they spent time… together in the temple courts worshipping, teaching, studying, and learning… together.  Over and over and over we hear this story about people who not only followed Jesus but whom together, created a place where everyone could… belong.  You didn’t need to be rich, the poor could belong.  You didn’t need to be Jewish; Greeks, Romans, foreigners and other Gentiles could all belong.  Both the educated and the uneducated could belong; both men and women could belong.  One of the substantially distinctive elements of the early church following the resurrection of Jesus was that it was a place of belonging.  The things that they did together were so well known by the people of their community that everyone who knew them, or who knew about them, had a favorable opinion of them.  Everybody liked them because they did good for everyone.

So, as we live in a culture where behaving like sheep, and being criticized as “sheeple” is clearly not a good thing, how are we to understand it when Jesus himself refers to his followers (and everyone else) as sheep?

First of all, Jesus described people as sheep because it was a handy metaphor that everyone could understand.  More often than not, throughout history, our human nature causes us to behave in ways that are much like sheep.

We’ve earned it.

We wander away from the truth.  We lose our way.  We follow politics, political parties, and political leaders, Democrat and Republican and everything in-between, when they lead us in directions that aren’t good for us, and even when they follow paths that run contrary to the teachings of Jesus.  We follow religious leaders even when what they teach is not based upon, and sometimes totally contrary to, the teaching of Jesus or anything supported by scripture.

However, there are those people who act like wolves and the results, among humans, can be just as dangerous and just as deadly, as they are in the animal kingdom.

So are we sheeple?

Is that a bad thing?

Yes, it’s bad.

And yes, sometimes we earn the criticism that is directed at us.  But here is the difference: Jesus described us as sheep because it was a handy metaphor to describe how prone we are to wander away but also to describe our need for leaders that care for us at the risk of their own lives.  At the same time, Jesus recognizes that we are a lot smarter than sheep.  We make poor choices because we simply aren’t thinking.  We get into trouble because we aren’t careful and because we are not using the intelligence that God gave us.  We are capable of making good decisions and we can return to the right path when we make mistakes.

 

There are three lessons from today:

 

First, there is only one good shepherd.  Our real leader is not an elected official, or a country, or even a pastor or bishop.  The one person, the one example that we trust, is Jesus.  Everyone else should be followed with significant skepticism and regularly compared to Jesus, and what he has taught us, to make sure that we are staying on the right paths.

 

Being a sheep is not a bad thing, as long as we follow the right shepherd.

 

Second, do good always. Even if people criticize you, or persecute you, or harass you, or cause you suffering and pain, do good anyway.  Everyone around you should know who you are because of the good things that you are doing.

 

Third, we must dedicate our lives to learning what we have been taught, to fellowship, to breaking bread, and to prayer.  We must dedicate our lives, together, to creating a place where everyone can belong regardless of where they came from, what they may, or may not, have done in the past, or anything else.

 

The church must be a place of belonging.

 

If we can do these things, then I don’t care if someone wants to call us sheeple…

 

Because when do that, then we will truly be…

 

…Easter sheeple.

 

And that’s a good thing.

 

 

 

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* You have been reading a message presented at Trinity United Methodist Church on the date noted on the first page.  Rev. John Partridge is the pastor at Trinity of Perry Heights in Massillon, Ohio.  Duplication of this message is a part of our Media ministry, if you have received a blessing in this way, we would love to hear from you.  Letters and donations in support of the Media ministry may be sent to Trinity United Methodist Church, 3757 Lincoln Way E., Massillon, Ohio 44646.  These messages are available to anyone regardless of membership.  You may subscribe to these messages by writing to the address noted, or by contacting us at subscribe@trinityperryheights.org.  To subscribe to the electronic version sign up at http://eepurl.com/vAlYn.   These messages can also be found online at https://pastorpartridge.wordpress.com/. All Scripture references are from the New International Version unless otherwise noted.

 

Immigration and the Church

Immigrants with Statue of LibertyWhat should we do with immigrants?

What is the right thing to do?

Does the Bible offer any help or insight into this problem at all?

With all the press and politics surrounding the issue of immigration, regardless of our personal feelings, we often wonder what the Bible can tell us about how the church ought to approach the subject.  We might also simply wonder if the Bible has anything to say about immigration at all.

It does. 

The position of the Bible is clear and consistent through both the Old and New Testaments.

Its teaching begins early.  In Deuteronomy 26:4-6, Abraham is described as a “Wandering Aramean” and the people of Israel were commanded to remember it whenever they brought a sacrifice to the Tabernacle.

The priest shall take the basket from your hands and set it down in front of the altar of the Lord your God. Then you shall declare before the Lord your God: “My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation, powerful and numerous. But the Egyptians mistreated us and made us suffer, subjecting us to harsh labor.

God’s instruction to his people included this instruction so that even generations later, long after they had settled and built houses and cities in the Promised Land, they would remember who they used to be.  God built this into their regular system of worship so that his people would remember that their forefather was an immigrant and they themselves used to be a nation of immigrants, nomads, and wanderers.

Thousands of years later, the writer of Hebrews echoes that same message saying, 12 And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore.

13 All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. 14 People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. (Hebrews 11:12-14)

This reminds the people of God that all of us are only passing through this life and that we are fellow travelers as we pass between life and death.   This entire existence is only a temporary stopping point on grand journey through eternity.  Throughout scripture, we are reminded that in God’s eyes we are all foreigners and strangers.

In Hebrews 13:2, the instruction is even more specific saying, “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.”

But in Ephesians 2:18-20, Paul challenges us in another way with these words:

18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.

19 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.

Here, Paul says that not only were all of us foreigners and strangers in the eyes of God, the thing that made us belong to each other wasn’t ever our citizenship in any particular nation.  Instead, what makes us citizens, what makes us belong, what gives us a home, regardless of where we were born, what language we speak, or where we live, is our faith in Jesus Christ.

When we grapple with scripture, we begin to understand the larger picture regarding immigration.  Certainly, there is room for differing opinions about the policies of the United States, or the State of Ohio.  But we realize that no matter what policies we support, those policies absolutely must include treating foreigners and strangers the way that we would hope to be treated if our positions were reversed.  We are called to remember that our forebearers, and all of us, were once wanderers, strangers, and foreigners.  As so, as we meet the people who carry those labels today, we are called, by God, to treat them with humility, hospitality, compassion, forgiveness, mercy, and love.

 

 

 

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