Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Intentionality By Stephanie Cramer

Intentionality

This week’s UMC lectionary readings include Luke 16:19-31. It’s a well-referenced parable, especially when one’s intention is to speak ill about those who are greedy. But, that’s not exactly how I see this passage. The selfishness of the extremely wealthy is not what I think is the true focus of this teaching. I could be way off in my interpretation (and it certainly wouldn’t be the first time), but I want to make sure you understand that I do not think this passage is teaching us that being poor is somehow better or godlier than being rich. I believe this passage is speaking of our intentionality, where we put our focus - our thoughts and our efforts.

What do we know for certain about the two people in this story? The Rich Man was…well…rich, wealthy, dressed in purple – a sign of royalty, one who didn’t just eat every day, he feasted every day. (In ancient times that usually meant an hours-long or days-long drawn-out affair with more food than could actually be consumed by all the people in attendance.) We know the Rich Man was a Jew from the references to Moses and the Prophets. We know he died and went to a very uncomfortable place (some translations call it Hades, others do not name the place) and we know he was tormented, maybe physically, but certainly emotionally.

Lazarus? We know that he was not rich, in fact he was more than poor- he was destitute, wishing for even just the scraps from the Rich Man’s table. He too was most likely a Jew, living in the same place as the Rich Man, though he could have been an alien; alien refers to anyone from another nation, not originally an Israelite who moves into the area and agrees to adapt to the Jewish way of life. Contrast alien with a foreigner. A foreigner was from another area too, not an Israelite, but who was only temporarily there and did not adapt to the Jewish way of life.  Remember the laws of Moses specifically instruct the Israelites to take care of the children, the widows, and the aliens. Sometimes the terms alien and foreigner are used interchangeably, but the laws of Moses are specifically much more accommodating to aliens than visiting foreigners. Back to Lazarus, we know he was covered in sores – which in ancient times some thought to mean that God had cursed that person. And we know that when Lazarus died he went to be with Abraham, carried by angels. Though again be careful. Going to be with Abraham in ancient times was not the same as our post-Jesus view of heaven. It could be the same, but the text is not that specific.

Now, what can we infer about the two? Well, we can assume that the Rich Man enjoyed life, probably to the fullest as the passage says, “you received good things during your life”. We can infer that the Rich Man didn’t share much, if anything, with Lazarus from the scraps of food reference. And we can assume that the Rich Man was somehow intentionally acting against God’s will…after all richness alone does not put one in eternal suffering. Let’s be very careful not to lump every rich person into the same category as this particular person, for God doesn’t will us to be poor or any specific socio-economic status. But God does will us to share what we are blessed with and provide for those who cannot provide for themselves. So you come to your own inferences as to what the Rich Man could have done, or not done, in order to deserve his placement in torment, but do not assume that he is there only because he was rich. That would be a misinterpretation of Scripture and disrespectful to those who work hard to earn what they can.

What can we infer about Lazarus? Not much as there really isn’t much written about his actions. Should we assume he was cursed by God considering the sores? Probably not since he ends up neighbors with Abraham. Can we assume that he was destitute because of some unfortunate event? Maybe. But maybe he was destitute because of his own accord. We just don’t know. He could have been poor from his own actions. Should we assume that Lazarus was a nice guy? We have no way of really knowing. So what can we say?  All we can really infer about Lazarus is that he made God happy. He followed God’s will in some way whenever it was possible. And the opposite can be inferred about the Rich Man. He did not respect God’s will. So Lazarus is pulled closely to Abraham (and God) upon his death and the Rich Man is cast further away.

How do we apply this to our lives today? This text is not saying that it is a sin to be rich or that it is a blessing to be poor. And we know from Scripture that we cannot judge others, rich or poor. So we can’t judge and we can’t know for certain. Ouch! Perhaps the only thing we can pull from this passage is: that which pulls our attention away from God does permanent damage. And I would not go so far as to judge and say which specific actions will land you where after death, because again we don’t know for certain what each person did that placed one with Abraham and the other far away. What we can take learn from this is intentionality. Meaning: we all know deep inside our hearts what God wants from us – to love and respect each other, always, fully. To take care of each other and all of creation. To give our attention and devotion to our Father. How we do that is uniquely specific to each person. Unique to our lives and our abilities. In fact, humans seem to be born with the Golden Rule already written on their hearts. Experts and studies have concluded that people around the globe all agree on the Golden Rule, regardless of culture, age or religion. It’s when we ignore these divine nudges of love and respect that we slowly drift further and further away from God. Actually, we don’t ever drift away from God, for as we read in Acts 17:28, “God isn’t far away from any of us. In God we live, move, and exist”. If this is an accurate description of our existence as humans, then perhaps the Rich Man was distracted from God while Lazarus was focused on God. Could it be that simple?

Intentionality. It’s that simple. And it’s that complex. We need to be intentional in our everyday actions and interactions with others. We need to be intentional about what we teach and pass on to our younger generations.  We need to be intentional about how we use the resources God has given us. We need to be intentional about our spiritual growth. We need to be intentional about our fellowship at church and even more so in our fellowship outside of church. And we need to be intentional with our relationship with our heavenly Father. The more we do intentionally the closer we grow toward becoming Christ-like. The more Christ-like we are the more focused we are on God. And the more focused we are on God the easier life becomes, all of life. Rich or poor.  

With love and respect for all who suffer,

Stephanie Cramer

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

A Blog Post from Stephanie Cramer

Change

          Have you ever pondered on all the parables in Scripture at once? Not an easy task, but if you can manage it you’ll notice a very clear pattern begin to emerge. Among the many parables some of my favorites include: The Parable of the Sower, the Parable of the Good Samaritan, the Parable of the Great Dinner, the Parable of the Lost Sheep, and my all-time favorite: The Parable of the Prodigal Son. The word parable can be defined as a simple story used to illustrate a moral or spiritual teaching. The moral teachings are simple enough to detect in many of these parables. Yet, the literary form of parable is actually much deeper than just a teaching, that’s only the surface understanding of its function. When you look deeper into the actual focus that Jesus illustrates throughout the parables and the audience of the time, you begin to understand that Jesus is doing much more than just realigning their moral compasses. In many cases he is turning their worldview completely upside down and inside out. Through the use of parables, Jesus was enacting a drastic change in perspective, in understanding of God’s will. In the parables, what we expect to be the outcome never is and the most difficult impression usually turns out to be the correct one. Change in worldview (or why we believe what we believe) is at the heart of the parables. I’ll try to demonstrate with two popular examples.

          The Parable of the Good Samaritan is the rock star of parables among Christians and non-Christians alike. Why? Isn’t it funny that we name hospitals after this parable? Isn’t it curious that we have a legal precedent named after this parable? There’s even campgrounds named Good Sam Campgrounds throughout Iowa in honor of this parable.  Have you ever stopped to ponder on just how significant this parable really is? Upon hearing this story, a 1st Century Jew would have been horrifically offended at its conclusion. Why? Because the Samaritans were from Samaria. Enough said? Well, to put it mildly the Jews believed the Samaritans were corrupted half-breed former Jews who were offensive to God. So when Jesus depicted a Samaritan as the hero of this parable the audience’s worldview was the real target for change. The priest and the Levite in the parable walked past the half dead man because of the laws of Moses which forbid one to touch a dead body, this would render the person unclean and unfit to approach the tabernacle of God, unfit to perform their priestly duties. They continued on the road so as to uphold the laws of God, in order to respect God. The Samaritan broke the same laws in order to uphold a better law – the law of love. The Samaritan actually turns out to be the better God-respecting person than the Jewish leaders. Jesus’ worldview lesson here: Do not count yourself as better than others simply because you follow laws. The heart is greater than any law Moses ever wrote or ever could write. Truly blasphemous words at the time!

          The Parable of the Great Dinner is another powerful worldview change agent. In this parable God is represented by the master of the house and the banquet represents the Kingdom of Heaven. The Master has thrown a welcoming party for all of his honored guests - the Jews. The 1st Century Jews believed that only Jews would or even could enter the Kingdom of Heaven; after all they, the Jews, were God’s chosen people. In the Jewish worldview there was no reason for God to care about anyone outside the Jewish flock. But when Jesus tells of the lowest of society, the unclean, being invited to the amazing welcome banquet and holding the honor that was thought to be reserved for the Jews only, now Jesus was going even further than the Good Samaritan. Jesus was inviting all the non-Jews into the Kingdom of Heaven, the place specifically promised to the decedents of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Jesus’ worldview alteration here: Don’t trust you know God’s idea of who is deserving and who is not, that is God’s alone to decide. God’s heart and His will are greater than any perceived justification no matter what the books of Moses say about the chosen people. Truly blasphemous words, no wonder they wanted to kill Jesus!

The phrase I often hear in almost every location I’ve lived is, “We’ve always done it this way and it works just fine”. And while that is fine, sometimes you need to make room for progress, for a change in practice, for an appreciation of diversity, for a completely different worldview. This isn’t promoting change for the sake of change, rather this is along the same lines as the parables: sometimes you can’t see a better way if no one comes along and challenges your worldview. Sometimes we can learn great things from unexpected places; I’ve learned this over and over in the many diverse places that I’ve lived. Each new place taught me another way to look at the same challenging issues and I am stronger because of my ability to embrace change when needed rather than continuing the same ways just for the sake of habit. Change can certainly be difficult to embrace. Imagine how bold the disciples of Jesus (many more than just 12 and all of them Jews) really were to follow his change. Jesus challenged almost every worldview the Jews had and although it is easy for us, 20 centuries removed, to see the truth in what Jesus said and did, the reality is that the early disciples allowed their worldviews to be changed without this precious 20/20 hindsight. They were simply open to change, open to grow, and open to be bold. Jesus shows us that change isn’t something to be afraid of, change can be inspiring, life-changing, and even divine.

With this in mind I invite you to come to the 11am contemporary service this Sunday and see what change can look like in the United Methodist Church. Contemporary doesn’t mean less holy. Contemporary doesn’t mean less theologically sound. Contemporary means relevant to today and is most evident in the choices of songs and worship style. Contemporary worship embraces joy and praise of God as it touches and holds on to the heart of the congregation.  A good contemporary worship service should grab your heart (where God is most found) and not let go even after you’ve left the church. Contemporary worship just gives us, as the one Body of Christ, another way to celebrate and praise our relationship with the Holy Trinity and with each other. I hope to see you there, but I understand completely if contemporary is not your style.

With full love and respect for all who struggle,
Stephanie Cramer

A Mid-Week Update from Pastor Jeff Blackman

Grace and peace to you from God and our Lord Jesus Christ.
This weekend’s Gospel reading has a certain oddness as it seems to suggest a certain kind of dishonest behavior.  The reading in its entirety is Luke 16:1-13.  The odd part begins at verse 8 and continues into verse 9.  Much has been written in an attempt to interpret this passage to make it line up with Jesus’ other teachings.  It tends to defy such a lining up.
The last part of the passage, verses 10-13, seem to be disconnected to the story of the “dishonest manager” because it seems to suggest the exact opposite idea—one is to be faithful with worldly wealth, not dishonest.  These verses, taken apart from the previous nine verses, are familiar to us and, indeed, make sense.  These verses say, in effect, faithfulness to God, loyalty to God means that all other loyalties must be subservient to God.  The last part of verse 13 says “You cannot serve God and wealth.”  The key idea here is that “serving” or “slavery” requires one master; more than that and we get conflicted.  Most of us experience this as true.  If all of our attention, devotion, and/or energy is directed one way, we feel that we can focus easily and accomplish what is needed.  The more foci, the greater the conflict.  A simple example might help.  If we have one boss, we listen only to him/her, we do what they say in the way he/she directs us.  Assuming our boss is internally consistent to some extent, it is relatively easy to do as directed.  Now, say that you have seven bosses and they all have different needs, goals, and methods.  Yet, you are to serve each of them equally and effectively.  If you have ever been in such a circumstance of working to lease more than one person at a time, you can get a sense of what Jesus is saying.
Jesus is teaching us that the needs of God and, by extension, the values of God’s kingdom, can accept no rivals.  So we are taught to serve God (make God’s wishes first and foremost in our lives) and to use what we have to accomplish that service.  The intimation from Jesus is that if you get your priorities right (i.e. God first), you will love God and be loyal to God’s call in a way that will be conflict free.  In that way we are freed to be who God intended us to be.  Clearly this is easier said than done.  So we practice faith in God in all things.  We pray for such strength regularly and frequently.  We remember from earlier in St. Luke (chapter 12) to strive first for the Kingdom of God and the things that we need will be there for us as well (Luke  12:31).  Happy striving!

                                                                                            Pastor Jeff Blackman

Monday, September 5, 2016

A Mid-Week Updaete from Pastor Carol Myers

Dear Friends,

We are having a prayer vigil at our church September 10 and 11. You are invited to sign-up for a half hour slot to pray.

So why a prayer vigil, you may ask. Let me tell you.

Prayer is foundational in the church. A prayer-full church is oriented to God and God’s vision for the church and world. A prayer-full church is vital and alive. Out of prayer comes transformation of the world, beginning with each of us.

Certainly you don’t have to sign up for a prayer vigil to pray. However, a prayer vigil is a time period of concentrated, consistent, committed prayer by our community of faith. If there is power in our prayer as individuals – and I believe that there is – then consider the power in the prayers of an entire church! In addition, the other churches in Iowa Falls have been invited to engage in a prayer vigil at the same time in their own churches. Consider the power of prayer that blankets an entire community and beyond!

So what can you expect?

You can expect to find a time of being alone with God in the sanctuary. (There will be other people in the church at all times to maintain safe sanctuary.) Candles will be lit. Guidelines for prayer will be available. A hymnal and Bible will be within reach.

You might decide to sit in silence for awhile, letting your eyes adjust and your heart begin to open. You might focus on your breathing, with an awareness that to be fully present is to have an attitude of prayer. When you are ready, you may choose to pick up a hymnal and sing a few songs or pray a few lyrics out loud, for song is prayer. Or if you want to use the prayer book of the Bible, you may choose to open the Bible to the Psalms and pray a number of them out loud. Pay attention to the rawness and honesty of the words there. Our faith tradition is that we don’t have to clean up out act to come before God. We come before God as we are, with all that we are.

You may decide to write in your journal. Whether writing a specific prayer or writing about your life, journaling is a form of prayer as you lift your thoughts to God.

If you still have prayer beads from a sermon series several summers ago, you might decide to use them to organize your prayers. You may choose to either pray out loud or silently for those needs and fears that are on your heart: family, friends, school, work, church. You may decide to lift up our state and nation and world in your prayers. You might decide to pray for specific issues: poverty, hunger, violence, immigration, the election. The possibilities are limitless.

And there in the sanctuary, in the silent space, you may choose to spend the last five or ten minutes of your time just listening for that still, small voice of God within you. Who are the people God brings to mind? What are the nudges you notice? What is God asking you to do in response to your prayer? If you have your journal with you, you might want to jot them down to follow up on later.

I have found participation in prayer vigils to be deeply meaningful. Give it a try. God has already shown up. Will you?

On the prayerful journey with you,

Carol

Monday, August 29, 2016

A Mid-Week Update from Pastor Carol Myers

Dear Friends,

Boy, did we have fun Sunday! Eleven young people were confirmed surrounded by a church filled with people. Talk about the great cloud of witnesses! If you haven’t seen the many pictures on Facebook, check them out. It was a rocking good time!

There are many reasons and many people who made that worship service so special. Neveah, in her first public solo, hit the ball out of the park. Jim’s music was, as always, inspirational. The worship leaders and the balcony magicians shared their gifts beautifully. Our youth and children always bring joy to our hearts. I love seeing families coming together in shared support for the confirmands.

But I think that one of the main reasons that it felt like such a filled-to-overflowing day is that the sanctuary was full. Each of us carries within us a spark of the divine. When all those sparks come together in worship, we have a Holy Spirit fire! Conversely, when people are gone for whatever reason, the worship service is just a little bit dimmer and a little less lively. Your presence makes a difference.

I don’t say that to instill guilt. We all need to be gone from time to time, including pastors. (Said the woman who will be gone next weekend to her son’s wedding…) If you are not in worship because you are sick or out of town, heal, come home, and then come back as quickly as possible. We need you. We need your piece of the Spirit!

The summer with all its activities is drawing to an end. Life is getting back to a more structured rhythm. Wednesday community meals start up September 7. The 11:00 Sunday service will start again September 11. Sunday school for children will begin September 18. I invite you to commit yourself to getting back to worship on a regular basis.

And if you are looking for a way to jump start your spiritual life, sign up in the Garden Room for the prayer vigil September 10 and 11. You will have time alone with God in the sanctuary to reconnect and renew that relationship. There will be guidelines for prayer available. That would be a great time to prayerfully consider where you are in your journey of faith and what next step God is asking you to take. What better time and what better place could there be to recommit yourself to God?

Because your presence makes a difference and we need you as much as you need us.

On the journey with you,

Carol

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

A Mid-Week Update from Pastor Carol Myers

Dear Friends,

 Last Sunday afternoon, I witnessed the ordination of Rev. Melissa Sternhagen at Iowa Falls First United Church of Christ. It was a joyful celebration. One of the highlights of my career was the gift of being part of the laying on of hands for Melissa as she was ordained. What a joy to share the journey of faith with brothers and sisters in Christ in all the surprising directions that journey takes! Truly, as the liturgy that Melissa wrote proclaimed, we are the one Body of Christ!

 The preacher of the day was Rev. Carol Shanks from Eden Theological Seminary. Carol preached from Luke 14: 1, 7-14, the lectionary text for next Sunday. In it, we learn from Jesus what hospitality and humility look like for those of us who wish to follow his Way. The story is set in the home of one of the leaders of the Pharisees. Carol gave us a picture of what Jesus might have said if he were teaching in the 21st century about hospitality and humility. To paraphrase Carol: Go to the home of someone you don’t know; someone who has a sign in their front yard for the candidate that you would never support. Ring the doorbell and when they answer, invite them to come to church with you. Welcome them warmly, sit with them, introduce them to your friends. After church, invite them to your home for Sunday dinner. Give them the best seat at the head of the table and the biggest servings. Include them in the table conversation. After dinner, offer them your favorite recliner for a nap. This, Carol said, is the kind of hospitality and humility that Jesus was talking about. 

I should note that as Carol spoke, the congregation (including me) alternated between laughing and groaning. This business of being a disciple of Jesus Christ isn’t easy. It pushes us out of our comfort zones. It propels us toward people we consider different and even repulsive. Yet when we practice humility and hospitality, relationships are mended. The excluded are included. Divisions end. Humility and hospitality are evidence of God’s kingdom vision, God’s peace, God’s shalom, making our unity in Christ possible. 

Jeff and I talked later that in the laying on of hands for Melissa’s ordination, there was, for us, a sense of Elijah passing the mantle to Elisha. This is the vision and work that Melissa is ordained to. It is the vision and the work that we are all ordained to in the waters of our baptism. We are water-washed and Spirit-born, the only possible way that we can fully embrace Jesus’ Way.

 So who will you invite to church this week?

 On the challenging but exhilarating journey with you,

Carol



A Mid-Week Update from Pastor Carol Myers

Dear Friends,

 Last Sunday afternoon, I witnessed the ordination of Rev. Melissa Sternhagen at Iowa Falls First United Church of Christ. It was a joyful celebration. One of the highlights of my career was the gift of being part of the laying on of hands for Melissa as she was ordained. What a joy to share the journey of faith with brothers and sisters in Christ in all the surprising directions that journey takes! Truly, as the liturgy that Melissa wrote proclaimed, we are the one Body of Christ!

 The preacher of the day was Rev. Carol Shanks from Eden Theological Seminary. Carol preached from Luke 14: 1, 7-14, the lectionary text for next Sunday. In it, we learn from Jesus what hospitality and humility look like for those of us who wish to follow his Way. The story is set in the home of one of the leaders of the Pharisees. Carol gave us a picture of what Jesus might have said if he were teaching in the 21st century about hospitality and humility. To paraphrase Carol: Go to the home of someone you don’t know; someone who has a sign in their front yard for the candidate that you would never support. Ring the doorbell and when they answer, invite them to come to church with you. Welcome them warmly, sit with them, introduce them to your friends. After church, invite them to your home for Sunday dinner. Give them the best seat at the head of the table and the biggest servings. Include them in the table conversation. After dinner, offer them your favorite recliner for a nap. This, Carol said, is the kind of hospitality and humility that Jesus was talking about. 

I should note that as Carol spoke, the congregation (including me) alternated between laughing and groaning. This business of being a disciple of Jesus Christ isn’t easy. It pushes us out of our comfort zones. It propels us toward people we consider different and even repulsive. Yet when we practice humility and hospitality, relationships are mended. The excluded are included. Divisions end. Humility and hospitality are evidence of God’s kingdom vision, God’s peace, God’s shalom, making our unity in Christ possible. 

Jeff and I talked later that in the laying on of hands for Melissa’s ordination, there was, for us, a sense of Elijah passing the mantle to Elisha. This is the vision and work that Melissa is ordained to. It is the vision and the work that we are all ordained to in the waters of our baptism. We are water-washed and Spirit-born, the only possible way that we can fully embrace Jesus’ Way.

 So who will you invite to church this week?

 On the challenging but exhilarating journey with you,

Carol