From the Well - 8/17/2017

Romans 11:1-2, 29-32 (NRSV)
1 I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. 2 God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. Do you not know what the scripture says of Elijah, how he pleads with God against Israel? 29 for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. 30 Just as you were once disobedient to God but have now received mercy because of their disobedience, 31 so they have now been disobedient in order that, by the mercy shown to you, they too may now receive mercy. 32 For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.

There once was a rice farmer who saved an entire village from destruction. From his hilltop farm he felt the quake and saw the distant ocean swiftly withdraw from the old shoreline, like some prodigious animal crouching back for a leap. He knew that the leap would be a tidal wave.

In the valley below, he saw his neighbors working low fields that would soon be flooded. "They must run quickly to his hilltop or they will all die," he said to himself. His rice barns were dry as tender. So with a torch he set fire to this barns and soon the fired gong started ringing. His neighbors saw the smoke and rushed to help. Then from their safe perch they saw the tidal wave wash over the fields they had just left. In a flash they knew not only who had saved them but what their salvation had cost their benefactor. They later erected a monument to his memory bearing the motto, "He gave us all he had, and gave gladly." God's mercy is like that of the rice farmer.

Our God is a giving and merciful God. Paul says that "God's gifts are irrevocable." God is mercy and that never changes. Knowing your need for mercy opens you up to receive mercy. Knowing your need opens you up to the love of God because God is mercy and must be experienced as such. If your goal in life is to take care of everything yourself, to be independent and self-reliant then you will never know God. Remember that mercy is not so much something God has as it is something that God is.[1] Think about it.

Matthew

[1]Thanks to Richard Rohr in Richard Rohr's Daily Devotions, Friday, July 22, 2016 & Wednesday, April 19, 2017.


FROM THE BISHOP

OF THE WESTERN NORTH CAROLINA CONFERENCE

OF THE UNITED METHODIST CHURCH

August 14, 2017

On Saturday, August 12, 2017, Heather Heyer was killed by James Fields after he drove a car into a crowd of people protesting a gathering of white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia.  Our national leaders and church leaders quickly denounced the intent of a rally which undermined our community health, increased fear, and sought to divide us on racial issues.  Virginia State Troopers, Berkeley Bates and Jay Cullen, who had committed their lives to protect and serve, also died in a helicopter crash at the event.  As a result, the Virginia State Governor declared a state of emergency.

As clergy and lay leaders of our United Methodist Church we are preparing to meet with our congregations this coming Sunday in the urgency of the moment.  Yes, we will worship, grieve, and pray for God's Presence at this moment.  As moral leaders we are placed once more in a position where we must denounce the spirit of hostility and violence that is expressed too commonly as a response to our differences and fears.  We must make clear how important it is to dismantle racism.  Hopefully, this will be a time where our congregations begin to reflect on the importance of having people of faith acknowledge the place where the church intersects with the critical needs of our communities.  What is our moral grounding?  When does the church speak to the issues of our time?  Where does our Christian voice intersect with community?  We cannot allow silence and the lost opportunity to speak at this critical time to be interpreted as indifference on our part. 

Our first response is to pray, and prayer for God's divine presence is essential.  We must also act!  We are driven not only by the urgency of the moment, but also as people who see the importance of the sacrament of the moment.  As church leaders we can gather people together and begin to teach tolerance.  We can speak up within our churches and communities to denounce hatred.  We must work for a truly integrated society.  We can offer healthy choices to replace the gatherings and rallies of hatred by offering alternative places of meeting to celebrate our uniqueness, diversity, and acceptance of others.  In addition, like Jesus speaking to the Woman at the well or the Roman ruler, we form relationships of hope with people who come from different backgrounds and cultures.  This is our true heritage.  This is our true nature, saved from sin and transformed into the image of Christ.  "For Christ is our peace...and has broken the dividing wall of hostility" Ephesians 2:14. 

Paul L. Leeland

From the Well - 8/10/2017

Romans 10:5-15 (NRSV) 
5 Moses writes concerning the righteousness that comes from the law, that "the person who does these things will live by them." 6 But the righteousness that comes from faith says, "Do not say in your heart, 'Who will ascend into heaven?'" (that is, to bring Christ down) 7 "or 'Who will descend into the abyss?'" (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). 8 But what does it say? "The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart" (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); 9 because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. 11 The scripture says, "No one who believes in him will be put to shame." 12 For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. 13 For, "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved." 14 But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? 15 And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, "How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!"

Every year thousands of tourists travel to Austria and the Alps. Some of the tourists climb Kapuzinerberg overlooking Salzburg. The inspirational part of the hike is the opportunity to see and pray at the different chapels or Stations of the Cross along the way.

The story is told that one tourist made the climb and finally came to the outdoor crucifix. After gazing upon Jesus hanging in agony on the cross, the tourist noticed a trail leading into the woods. After following the trail and working through the thick undergrowth, the tourist eventually came upon a shrine of the empty tomb. It seemed neglected and seldom visited. Almost everyone, it seems, went to the cross but failed to make the journey to the empty tomb.

I have no way of knowing whether the story is true or not but it does bring up an important point, too many followers of Christ follow Him to the cross but never make the journey to the empty tomb. Jesus was more than a good man who lived a couple of thousand years ago, who told great stories, helped people in need, and then died on a cross. The Apostle Paul reminds us to ". . . believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead" (Romans 10:9) Believing in our heart is part of our faith journey.

Leonard Sweet in his book, I am a Follower, reminded me this week that too often we get enamored with the Bible and its stories about Jesus without allowing the scriptures to penetrate our hearts and bring us to Jesus' feet. Sweet writes:

We will always fail to find the way if we just read the Bible without letting it read us. But we discover ourselves walking in the way when we let the Word of God seep into our bones and saturate our way of living. Our way becomes one with the Way.

The Bible teaches us to walk in the Spirit-which means by faith, not by sight; by internal purity, not external obedience.

And yes, there are some rules, but even these appear more as relationships: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength" (Mark 12:30). And the majority of what we often interpret as rules are really cultural laws, not biblical spirituality.

The point being that it is not our job to chastise the world for its lack of faith or not following the rules. The world cannot be manipulated or scolded into coming to its senses. It is our task as people of faith to be faithful, to live as though we belong to God who will never let the world go or abandon us. God is faithful. May we be faithful. Think about it.

Matthew

From the Well - 8/3/2017

Romans 9:1-5 (The Message) 
1 At the same time, you need to know that I carry with me at all times a huge sorrow. 2 It's an enormous pain deep within me, and I'm never free of it. I'm not exaggerating-Christ and the Holy Spirit are my witnesses. It's the Israelites... 3 If there were any way I could be cursed by the Messiah so they could be blessed by him, I'd do it in a minute. They're my family. 4 I grew up with them. They had everything going for them-family, glory, covenants, revelation, worship, promises, 5 to say nothing of being the race that produced the Messiah, the Christ, who is God over everything, always. Oh, yes!

In Mark Twain's, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck finds himself in a difficult situation. During his adventures on the Mississippi river, Huck hides and protects a runaway slave. Not only is Jim a renegade slave, he is the property of Miss Watson, a woman who befriends Huck. At one point in the story, Huck and Jim's luck runs out and Jim is thrown in prison and held for reward.

When Huck learns of Jim's capture, he feels guilty. He's hiding a runaway slave and deceiving Miss Watson. He is convinced that a place is being prepared for him in hell. He finally resolves to write Miss Watson and tell her where Jim is. When he finishes the letter, he feels free of his guilt. He's done the right thing and in doing so avoids the torments of hell. Then he begins to think about Jim, his friend, the man he is about to send back into slavery:

. . . I see Jim before me all the time . . . But somehow I couldn't seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kinds. I'd see him standing my watch on top of his'n, 'stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog; and when I come to him again in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and such-like times; and would always call be honey, and pet me, and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was; and at last I struck the time I saved him by telling he men we had smallpox and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Him ever had in the world, and the only one he's got now; and then I happened to look around and see that paper.[1]

At this point, Huck feels trapped. Should he return Jim the runaway slave, his friend? As he thinks about it, he says, "All right, then, I'll go to hell." He tears up the letter to Miss Watson. 

Tom Boyd, former professor of Religion and Ethics at the University of Oklahoma says, "Huck is in high company. St. Paul, writing to the Romans, has a similar struggle over the redemption of his own people."[2] Paul in pain and anguish says,

It's an enormous pain deep within me, and I'm never free of it. I'm not exaggerating-Christ and the Holy Spirit are my witness. It's the Israelites . . . If there were any way I could be cursed by the Messiah so they could be blessed by him, I'd do it in a minute. They're my family."[3]

Paul, like Huck, is willing to go to hell for all the right reasons. Paul is not angry, he's upset and sad. Out of his heartbreak he wants to do anything he can to bring all of God's people to the love of Christ. What are we willing to do to bring others into the loving Body of Christ? Think about it!

Matthew

[1]Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (A Glassbook Classic), 216-217.

[2]Tom W. Boyd, "Going to Hell for the Right Reason," Pulpit Digest, March-April 1991, 32.

[3]Romans 9:2-3, Eugene Peterson's, The Message.

From the Well - 7/27/2017

Romans 8:26-39 (NRSV) 
26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. 27 And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. 28 We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified. 31 What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? 32 He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? 33 Who will bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. 35 Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36 As it is written, "For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered." 37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

The Franciscan, Richard Rohr says,

God is to be found in all things, even and most especially in the painful, tragic, and sinful things-exactly where we do not want to look for God. The crucifixion of the God-Man is at the same moment the worst and the best thing in human history. It validates the central notion of paradox at the heart of Christianity.

Paul says, “If God is for us, who is against us?” It’s hard sometimes to see God in the ups and downs of life but God is there. It’s true, sometimes our faith falters as it contemplates the challenges of life. As Leonard Sweet says, sometimes we are,

Doubting in the face of death . . .

Weak-kneed in the face of illness . . .

Wimpy in the face of danger . . .

Worthless in the face of adversity . . .

Frozen in the face of Confrontation . . .

Apathetic in the face of challenges . . .

Despairing in the face of the Serpent . . .

Acquiescent in the face of greed . . .

Oblivious in the face of pollution . . .

Heartless in the face of hunger . . .

Self-absorbed in the face of homelessness . . .

Whining in the face of hardship . . .

Knowing that God is with us and for us in all circumstances causes us to proclaim,

In the face of death . . . there is resurrection

In the face of illness . . . there is eternal healing

In the face of danger . . . there is the right arm of God

In the face of adversity . . . there is “blessed assurance”

In the face of confrontation . . . there is confidence

In the face of the serpent . . . there is the gift of the cross

In the face of greed . . . there is the abundant life

In the face of pollution . . . there is God’s redemption of all      creation

In the face of hunger . . . there is a legacy of loaves and          fishes

In the face of homelessness . . . there is compassion

In the face of hardship . . . there is the promise of goodness

Think about it.

Matthew

From the Well - 7/13/2017

Romans 8:1-11 (NRSV) 
1 There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2 For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. 3 For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. 5 For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. 6 To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. 7 For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God's law-indeed it cannot, 8 and those who are in the flesh cannot please God. 9 But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10 But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11 If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.

The poet, peacemaker, minister and Celtic Spirituality scholar J. Philip Newell writes:

"Eriugena, the ninth-century Irish teacher, says that if goodness were extracted from the universe, all things would cease to exist. For goodness is not simply a feature of life; it is the very essence of life, Goodness gives rise to being, just as evil leads to nonbeing or to a destruction and denial of life's sacredness."

The Apostle Paul believed that we have a choice. We can live as forgiven and redeemed people (Life in the Spirit) or we can live out of our sin. There is goodness in all of us but sometimes we set the good aside so that we can please our ego, need for power, greediness, emotional desires, and bodily wants. 

Paul's main point was that we cannot do good on our own. We need God's help. I'm reminded of a story told by Ted Engstrom in his book, The Pursuit of Excellence. Babe Ruth who hit 714 home runs didn't end his baseball career all that well. In one of his last major-league games between the Braves and Reds, Ruth fumbled the ball and threw badly. In one inning alone, his errors were responsible for most of the runs scored by the opposing team.

As Babe walked off the field, the fans yelled and booed. Suddenly, a young boy jumped over the railing onto the field. With tears streaming down his face, he threw his arms around the legs of his hero.

"Ruth didn't hesitate for a second," wrote Engstrom. He picked the boy up and hugged him. He then set him down on his feet, patting him on the head. The angry, rude noise from the stands suddenly came to an abrupt halt. There was no more booing. A hush fell over the entire park.

In those brief moments, the fans saw goodness. They saw it in Babe Ruth who, in spite of his dismal performance that day, could still care about a young boy. They saw it in a boy who cared about the feelings of his hero.

Will you choose goodness or something else as you walk through the days of your life? Think about it.

Matthew