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The United Methodist Church And Paul’s Case For Bipartisan Baptism

Children's sermon
For January 26, 2020:
Note: This installment is still being edited and assembled. For purposes of immediacy we are posting this for your use now with the understanding that any errors or omissions will be corrected between now and Tuesday afternoon.

Dean FeldmeyerThe United Methodist Church And Paul’s Case For Bipartisan Baptism
by Dean Feldmeyer
1 Corinthians 1:10-18

Give them credit, the Corinthian Christians were loyal to their mentors, the ones who brought them to Christ. Some were loyal to Peter; some were loyal to Apollos; some were loyal to Paul. We can imagine that there were probably other names, too, but Paul, for the sake of brevity, kept it to three.

In his first letter, Paul points out in fairly robust terms that these loyalties, however sweet and sincere, are tearing the church apart and they must be abandoned in favor of loyalty to Jesus Christ, upon which all can, supposedly, agree.

Now skip ahead a couple thousand years:

Poor Kayla Kenney. The Kentucky teenager wasn’t try to be loyal to anyone or anything. She was just wearing a shirt with a rainbow on it and posing with her birthday cake which was decorated with rainbow colors. Hey, the girl likes rainbows.

Not so for her school. When Kayla’s pictures were posted on Facebook, someone brought them to the attention of the administrators of the Whitefield Academy, a private Christian school, who immediately expelled her via email. Wearing rainbows, they explained, “demonstrates a posture of morality and cultural acceptance contrary to that of Whitefield Academy’s beliefs.” So there.

We can only surmise that the “cultural acceptance” they were talking about had to do with issues surrounding homosexuality and homophobia. LGBTQ folks often display images of rainbows as symbols of the inclusivity that they are working for in the culture. So, according to her school’s administrators, Kayla was making a political statement and taking a political stand whether she wanted to or not.  

One might legitimately wonder what brother Paul would say about allowing our fear of the other to drive us to tossing a fourteen-year-old girl out of a Christian school because she likes the wrong colors in her cakes and clothes.

In The Scripture
1 Corinthians 1:10-18

The First Christian Church of Corinth was a mess.

At my churches, when we couldn’t agree what color to paint the nursery or what kind of dishwasher to put in the new kitchen or whether or not the choir should wear robes, we thought we were in crisis.

Deciding what time to hold the new, informal, contemporary worship service required eleven meetings, two position papers, three surveys, and at least 24 speeches. As one member said, “Everything that can be said about this subject has been said, but it hasn’t been said by everyone who wants to say it.”

All serious stuff, admittedly, but come on. It wasn’t that serious.

Now, compare it to what Paul was dealing with in that Corinthian church. We don’t have the letter that he received about Corinth while he was in Ephesus but it must have been long. Here is my top ten list of the issues he was asked to adjudicate:
  1. Self-serving preachers. (2:1-5)
  2. A member is sleeping with his step mother. (5:1-13)
  3. Christians enjoy judging the man and his step mother. (5:1-13)
  4. Church members suing each other in civil court. (6:1-11)
  5. Problem marriages and problem celibacy. (7:1-16)
  6. Arrogance arising out of worldly knowledge. (8:1-13)
  7. People accusing Paul of making money by preaching the gospel. (9:1-27)
  8. Wealthy church members refusing to share with those who are poor. (11:17-22)
  9. Refusal to work cooperatively. (12:1-12)
  10. Lack of order. (14)
And that’s just the top ten. The list goes on and on. But there is another problem even more important than these. It is so important that he speaks of it on the first page of his letter almost immediately after his greeting, starting on the tenth verse of the first chapter:

I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our LORD Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe's household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, "I follow Paul"; another, "I follow Apollos"; another, "I follow Cephas"; still another, "I follow Christ."(1:10-12)

The number one problem in the Corinthian church is disunity, division, and estrangement caused by misplaced loyalties. They are admirably loyal to their mentors but they have allowed that loyalty to distract them from what should be their number one loyalty — their loyalty to Jesus Christ and his gospel.           

Misplaced loyalty, Paul says, is loyalty to something or someone other than and less than God’s good news as it comes to us in Jesus Christ, just as misplaced faith is faith in something or someone other than that same good news.

In The News
The church which we now know as the United Methodist Church was created by two big mergers that took place in the 20th century.

The first merger was in 1939. The Methodist Episcopal Church, the Methodist Episcopal Church South, and the Methodist Protestant Church merged to form the Methodist Church.

The second merger was in 1968, when the Evangelical United Brethren and the Methodist Church merged to form the United Methodist Church.

While we United Methodists like to brag about the size of our denomination, the largest or second largest protestant denomination in the world, depending on who and how you count, most of us realize and readily accept that, in many cases, our unity is one that exists only in our name.

There are still folks who haven’t bought fully into either of the mergers for all kinds of reasons — most of which have to do with old loyalties more with form than with substance.

In fact, those old denominational loyalties were finally beginning to fade when a new divisive issue surfaced, one that some say was there all along, at least since the merger of 1968.

And no, the issue is not homosexuality. Not really. Homosexuality is what people who study such things refer to as the “presenting issue.” It’s the issue people talk about, the issue the news media latches onto. It’s the issue that visibly demonstrates another, deeper issue that is harder to identify, discuss, and even debate.

And that issue is how we interpret the Bible. The presenting issue is how we interpret the words of scripture when those words have to do with the issue of human sexuality. The underlying and, I submit, the real issue, the complex, difficult, tough issue that is chock full of subtleties and shades and nuances, is what criteria we use to interpret scripture, any scripture, any time.

And let’s be honest; we all interpret scripture. There’s no such thing as a biblical literalist, someone who takes every word, every phrase of the Bible literally. Even the most rabid, self-proclaimed literalist has to, at some time, deal with the laws that require adulterers (Lev. 20:10), disobedient children (Deut. 21: 18-21) and homosexuals (Lev. 20:13) to be executed.

And, if we sincerely believe that every law and commandment of the Bible is to be obeyed without question or prevarication, when are we going to stop breaking the fourth commandment and start worshiping on the Sabbath day as it commands.

These, too, are issues of biblical interpretation but they are routinely ignored or forgotten because we have spent all of our time, energy, and creativity debating what we’re going to do about LGBTQ people in our churches.

But make no mistake, while we are talking about “human sexuality,” the real issue, the one that will stay with us long after the sexuality debate has become ancient history, will be the issue of biblical interpretation. And that is the issue that will be taken up at the next General Conference, the world wide gathering of representatives from United Methodist conferences and judicatories from around the world, this May.

It was taken up, disguised as a debate about homosexuality, at a special edition of the General Conference in February of 2019. That special General Conference was called and held with the goal of deciding, once and for all, what would be the stance of the church on the issue of homosexuality and it failed miserably. By a close vote the conference decided to continue excluding LGBTQ peple from ordination and marriage in the United Methodist Church. In fact, the rules were hardened, the offenses were more clearly delineated, and the punishments for disobedience were made, supposedly inarguable and obligatory.

What followed was just short of all out revolution. The debate became more heated, the arguments more strident, the resistance more solidified and active, the church and its mission more distracted and ineffective.

Now, just eleven months after the failure of that special General Conference, we stand on the eve of yet another General Conference.

At this point, about a dozen proposals have been put forward concerning what might be our next step in this long and loathsome journey, and there will probably be more, all aimed at ending the debate and division that has plagued the so-called United Methodist Church for nearly fifty years. One proposal, which has gained much attention, has been called “The Protocol of Reconciliation & Grace Through Separation.”

This proposal was forged by a sixteen-member ad-hoc group called together by African Bishop John Yambasu. The group was comprised of progressives, centrists, and conservatives, including eight bishops and members of several caucuses and organizations from within the church. Working with world renowned attorney and negotiator, Kenneth R. Feinberg, who served as facilitator, the group put together and have all agreed and signed on to a plan or “protocol” for a division of the United Methodist Church.

According to this proposal, conservatives or “traditionalists” who wish to keep things as they are (a minority in the United States but a majority when added to the African, Asian, and Eastern European church) would leave the denomination and form a different, traditionalist Methodist Church, a move for which they have been preparing and are well organized and equipped and for which they will be paid $25 million. Any church or conference who wishes to leave and become part of this separatist church would have to vote to do so by a 57 percent majority. Those who do not wish to separate from the denomination need to do nothing. Once the division has taken place, the United Methodist Church will begin taking steps to remove what they see as anti-LGBTQ language from the church’s book of rules and order, The Book of Discipline.

Headlines announcing the division of the UMC are premature. Only the General Conference can make such a determination and they don’t meet until May 5-15, 2020.

Besides, anyone who knows the United Methodist Church and is familiar with its machinations is well aware that what goes into the 864-member General Conference rarely comes out as it went in and sometimes doesn’t come out at all.

As United Methodists line up behind their various spokespersons they cry out, “I am traditionalist,” or “I am evangelical,” or “I am conservative,” or “I am progressive,” or “I am centrist.” Lines are being drawn and sides are being taken.

Delegates will enter into the General Conference on May 5 in Minneapolis and emerge on May 15 having tried, once again, to find a way to end the rancor and fighting that are dividing the church in fact, if not in form and name. Will their actions avail? Will Methodists shake hands and go their separate ways or will the battle continue as we continue to confuse worshiping beside each other with worshiping with each other?

In the Pulpit   
In mourning the possible schism in the United Methodist Church someone recently observed that it was the last place where Elizabeth Warren and John Neely Kennedy, one a liberal Democrat and the other a conservative Republican and both United Methodists, could sit down and worship beside each other in the same pew.

There was much recrimination and despair linked to that observation, as though some great and precious thing will be lost if John and Elizabeth start worshiping God at different churches.

But let’s face it, liberals and conservatives have been worshiping beside each other for years in the UMC, pretending that they all agreed on the “important” stuff and ignoring the rest. And that’s the problem: “beside.”

There is a huge difference in worshiping “beside” someone and worshiping “with” someone.

I can worship beside a Muslim Imam but, try as I might, I cannot worship with him. Our understanding of the nature and person of the divine is just too different.

I can respect the sincerity and the passion of a Hindu, but I can only worship beside her, not with her.

And I can love my Roman Catholic neighbors and worship in their church but, when it’s time for the eucharist and body and blood of Christ are denied to me because I am protestant, it becomes eminently clear that I am worshiping beside them, not with them.

And so, perhaps it’s time we stop kidding ourselves and stop worshiping beside and calling it with.

We United Methodists may be able to achieve unity in fellowship. We can eat and talk and laugh and play softball and golf and euchre together in a spirit of peace and love. That’s a marvelous and wonderful thing that I imagine puts a huge smile upon the countenance of the Almighty.  

And that may be the best we can do at this juncture.

We are not going to achieve unity in doctrine, no matter what how badly we want to do so, how hard we study, and how diligently and passionately we pray. We simply don’t agree and we’re not going to agree. We are all dedicated to Jesus Christ and his good news. That’s why we can have fellowship with each other. But beyond fellowship, we see the implications of the gospel differently.

And we are not going to achieve unity in practice. Practice is where the rubber hits the road. Practice takes what we believe and transforms it into action. We simply cannot call ourselves inclusive and welcoming if we deny marriage in God’s church to our members simply because they love the wrong people.

We can worship beside each other, and say that we disagree on doctrine and it isn’t really all that important. But that difference in doctrine is going to be tested. We’re going to have to translate it into practice, into action. When a gay man or woman comes to us and says they feel God’s call to ordained ministry, our doctrine will have to be put into practice one way or another. When a gay couple comes to us and tells us they’re in love and want to get married, we’re going to have to move beyond doctrine and belief and actually do or not do something.

And it’s at that point that we will discover that we’re not really worshiping with each other at all; we’re just worshiping beside each other, going through the motions for the sake of appearances.

And nowhere in the Bible are God’s people called to be that kind of church, if church it really is.

Jesus is Not Running for President, Doing CrossFit or Joining Weight Watchers
by Mary Austin
1 Corinthians 1:10-18

Like the people of Corinth, we have plenty of opportunities to declare our loyalties. Politics, our zip codes, popular culture, religion and our meal plans all beg us, “choose me, choose me!” As Dean Feldmeyer notes in the main article, our religious divisions are a perfect mirror for Paul’s despair at the finding the early church lined up behind different leaders. There are plenty of places where we choose someone to follow, too.

As the New Year gets underway, people are choosing new eating plans, arguing the merits of Whole30 vs. Keto, raw foods vs. meat substitutes, Noom vs. Weight Watchers. Like religious evangelists, people argue the merits of no carbs, whole grains, yak butter, or eating more plants. A dear friend is eating a pound of raw vegetables each day, while other friends are gluten free and dairy free. Going out to dinner is so much more complex than it used to be!

In the realm of politics, Senator Elizabeth Warren and Senator Bernie Sanders, both among the front runners in the fight for the Democratic nomination for President, recently got into a squabble about whether a woman could be elected President in the United States right now. Each remembers a private conversation in 2018 differently, as perhaps the people of the Corinthian churches remember Paul’s words differently, when he’s not in their presence. The people of the church are choosing sides, claiming to belong to Cephas or Apollos or Paul. In the same way, the two Presidential candidates, who are close on many policy positions, are trying to separate themselves from each other for the electorate. Sanders agrees that “sexism remains a major obstacle for female candidates on the campaign trail but added that other factors such as age could also be a disadvantage for candidates.” The exchange prompted people to line up behind their candidate, explaining and defining their loyalties. Like those who belong to Apollos or Cephas, in Paul’s letter to the churches in Corinth, voters are pledging their loyalties to their candidates ahead of the Democratic primaries.   

Loyalty also has a downside, as groups pretending to be the President's people are raising money from supporters and then not spending it on the 2020 election. “As President Donald Trump raises money for his reelection campaign, he’s competing for cash with a growing mass of pro-Trump PACs, dark money groups and off-brand Facebook advertisers neither affiliated with nor endorsed by Trump’s campaign. And they have pulled in over $46 million so far. The groups mimic Trump’s brand in the way they look and feel. They borrow the president’s Twitter avatar on Facebook pages, use clips of Trump’s voice in robocalls asking for “an emergency contribution to the campaign” and, in some cases, have been affiliated with former Trump aides, such as onetime deputy campaign manager David Bossie. But most are spending little money to help the president win in 2020.”

The Iowa caucuses will  soon prompt Iowans to choose a favorite candidate. They will have to declare whose people they are…at least, until the race tightens again. Some voters have had to choose a new favorite several times, as previous candidates leave the race. When a candidate exits the race, the most devoted supporters are at a loss.  Superfans, called “stans,” go to extraordinary lengths to support their person.  “Candidates' superfans, or stans, have become ubiquitous on Twitter — a new daily part of doing business in politics. People build fandoms around everything from sets of policies to how many languages a candidate can work into a press gaggle. And once the stans settle in, they’re defending their candidate from any slight, especially criticism from other candidates’ fans. Each day might bring a battle between different factions, or send a deluge of intense criticism toward a single person in politics or media. And unlike pop culture, where the musicians don't stop their campaigns, when candidates like O’Rourke or Kamala Harris end their candidacies, the fandom comes to a sudden halt. The dynamic can turn especially toxic — with stans, the media, and all kinds of users picking through the reasons for the failed bid, and the candidate’s most dedicated supporters can be on the receiving end of taunting and recruitment from opposing candidates’ stans.”

Just like our Christian faith, any loyalty can look like foolishness for those on the outside looking in.   At the church coffee hour, I find myself edging away from the low carb zealots, inching toward the cookie table. Their loyalty is commendable, but it isn’t for me.

Paul’s letter calls us to a more expansive view. We can choose our loyalties in politics, eating plans and exercise, and we don’t need to convince each other. We don’t need to tear each other down over any of these loyalties because we already have a deeper link to one another. Our shared roots go deeper, as we’re joined in the spirit of the One in whom we are all baptized. Paul reminds us of the truth that every church should know: unity doesn’t require uniformity.

Still, we forget. We get attached to our own views. We think they’re not just different from other people’s opinions, but superior. We hold onto our ideas, and start to imagine that being right is a measure of our worth. A winning candidate, eating plan, exercise, financial strategy or sports team must say something good about us, right?

Paul sets us free from all of that, calling us back to our shared foundation in Jesus. Paul is clear about the big picture, and he invites the church people of Corinth into that clarity. “For Christ did not send me to baptize,” he says, “but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power. For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” Baptism is a way into God’s presence, and into the community of faith, but it’s not an end in itself.  The same is true for all of our earthly allegiances. Each one is a means to an end – toward a healthier life, a path toward faith, or a better society, as we see it. There’s only one end, despite our different roads and choices. At the end of each path, there is always Jesus, where our truest and deepest loyalties belong.


Tom WilladsenFrom team member Tom Willadsen:

Psalm 27:1, 4-9; 1 Corinthians 1:10-18
Questions…What’s wrong with questions?
This week’s paslm begins with two rhetorical questions: “whom shall I fear?” (1:1b) and “of whom shall I be afraid?” (1:1d). They recall the ancient tale of the village going to their beloved rabbi and asking, “Teacher, why do you always answer questions with questions?” After pondering for a moment the sage replies, “So, what’s wrong with questions?”

Paul also asks a series of rhetorical question as he begins to address the differences he has heard about among the Corinthians: “Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (1:13, NRSV)

The book of Jonah is the only book in the Bible that ends with a question. As the Lord explains to Jonah why the Lord chose to be merciful to Nineveh, the book ends with these words: “Should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hands from their left, and also many animals?” (4:11, NRSV) Yes, the last word in the book is “animals.”

Two generations ago the Smothers Brothers had a funny routine in which one of them asks a rhetorical question, which the other answers. A discussion of rhetorical questions follows, no answer is expected until they finally conclude and understand. A little later in the act, one of them blurts out “1865.” He explains it’s a rhetorical answer, an answer that no question has preceded. This is a much more rarely used method of communication, but if you’re looking for good, standard rhetorical answers “Library of Congress” and “Gale Sayers” are usually winners.

* * *

Psalm 27:1, 4-9; Isaiah 9:1-4
Light motif
The Isaiah passage was a reading for Christmas Eve. It is appropriate for the celebration of the birth of Christ, and also for the turning away from the darkest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. Light is beginning to shine, to strengthen, and all people can journey more safely on roads and paths that are well lit.

Today’s psalm equates the light with salvation and security. It’s interesting, however, to shine a little light on the security the psalmist celebrates in this morning’s reading. There’s a very good chance that s/he is dwelling in the house of the Lord, having sought refuge there. Verse 5 begins, “For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble; he will conceal me under the cover of his tent….”

While Isaiah promises “a great light” elsewhere much more modest lights are sufficient for guidance. Psalm 119:105 reads, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” The lamp of God’s word gives enough light to show where to take the next, faithful step.

* * *

Light and dark contrast — another perspective
To sighted people there’s a clear, obvious difference between light and darkness. When there is sufficient light one can navigate without bumping into things, one can avoid obstacles in the path or road one is travelling. This distinction is lost one those who have never had the sense of vision. It can be very helpful to add other images and metaphors in addition to the contrast between light and darkness. Blind people experience the difference between warmth and cold; they can feel the temperature difference when the sun is blocked by a cloud. Occasionally substituting “warmth” for “light” and “cold” for “darkness” will enable them to experience this more fully. It also appeals to the sense of touch for all people, a sense that is often overlooked in Christian worship.

* * *

Matthew 4:12-23
More than the other evangelists, Matthew points out when something Jesus has said, or done, or a place he has visited, fulfills scripture we find in what we now call The Old Testament. He’s up to it again in today’s reading, recalling the passage from Isaiah that is also one of today’s readings.

Jesus returned to his home region at the start of today’s reading. He’d been down in Judea after undergoing John’s baptism and being tempted in the wilderness by the devil. It’s a pretty good distance from Judea to Galilee, about 80 miles as the crow flies between Jerusalem and Capernaum. Again, the particular geographic places, Luke points out, were ways scripture was fulfilled. It’s often helpful to pull out a map to see the distances and the regions that are mentioned in the Bible. The people who will be in worship have been hearing the names of these places their whole lives, but usually without any sense of how far apart they are. People travelled a long way in Biblical times, and it was not easy to travel. The NRSV says, Jesus “withdrew” to Galilee. That sounds like he just went across the street. It may have taken him a week to “withdraw” from Jerusalem to Capernaum!

* * *

1 Corinthians 1:10-18
Last week’s reading from 1 Corinthians was really just the “shrubbery” at the start of the letter, not the “meat.” Shrubbery was a term we used in seminary to describe the words that worship leaders say that do not appear in the bulletin. Paul’s opening of his letter to the Corinthians follows the standard format for a letter in that time and culture. He uses a similar structure in his others letters — except in the one to the Galatians when he’s so worked up he hardly uses any shrubbery. The divisions he’s gotten word of among the Corinthians are not as dramatic as those of the Galatians, thus his response is more measured.

Still, Paul is a little steamed at the Corinthians. It appears that they’re bickering and playing petty games of one-upmanship. (I just googled that term; yes, there’s a hyphen and only one “s.”)

While we have all seen petty divisions emerge in our churches over things like the nature of the Trinity and how exactly Christ is present in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper…Wait! Who am I kidding? Our most passionate arguments are how finely to grate the potatoes for the Shrove Tuesday pancakes and what color the new carpet should be in the pastor’s office. Paul points out to the Corinthians how high the stakes are in their squabbles. Tracing one’s faith to someone other than Christ, or arrogantly claiming that my identity “in Christ” is superior somehow to yours, is tearing the fabric of the community. But there’s a more dramatic metaphor to employ at this point: dismemberment.

If we are all part of the Body of Christ, then when one of us leaves it it is as though a part has been amputated from the body. Think about that as you lead communion and quote Christ saying, “Do this in remembrance of me.” When we, the parts of the Body of Christ, assemble together we are “re-membering” Christ, putting the Body of Christ back together. Here. Now. We are a visible body, parts of the global Body of Christ. To break away from the integrity of the body has dire consequences. If, like branches, we cannot grow unless rooted in the true vine, what do we become if we break off from the Body of Christ?

That one is not a rhetorical question.

* * * * * *

Ron LoveFrom team member Ron Love:

Matthew 4:17
From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

Out of prison, televangelist Jim Bakker once again has his own Christian talk show. He once presided over the PTL Club, but it went bankrupt as a result of Bakker’s using it as his personal showcase to gain personal wealth. Bakker and his PTL associates sold $1,000 “lifetime memberships,” entitling buyers to an annual three-night stay at a luxury hotel at Heritage USA. According to the prosecution at Bakker’s fraud trial, tens of thousands of memberships were sold but only one 500-room hotel was ever finished. Bakker sold “exclusive partnerships” which exceeded capacity, raising more than twice the money needed to build the hotel. Much of the money paid Heritage USA's operating expenses, and Bakker kept $3.4 million. As a result of this Bakker was found guilty of 24 counts of fraud and conspiracy. He was sentenced to four years in a federal penitentiary. PTL means “Praise the Lord,” but the common joke became that PTL meant “Pass the Loot.”

After prison, Bakker went back on television. Bakker has shown no remorse, and in fact has continued in his arrogant ways. Bakker on his show in January 2020 declared that President Trump is the litmus test for salvation. Bakker said, “You know what? Trump is a test whether you’re even saved. Only saved people can love Trump.”

* * *

Isaiah 9:1 But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish
Isaiah 9:2 The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light
Matthew 4:16 the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light

Dietrich Bonhoeffer is a name that is familiar to many Christians. Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor who opposed Hitler. He taught others to be pastors in a clandestine church that they called the Confessing Church. When it became apparent to Bonhoeffer that the only way to stop the evil that Hitler perpetrated upon ethnic groups, he agreed to be a part of the plot to assassinate Hitler and form a new German government. The Bunker plot failed, and Hitler only suffered a partial loss of hearing. All those who were a part of the conspiracy were arrested, and Hitler himself ordered that they all be executed.

After being transferred from several prisons and concentration camps, Bonhoeffer was taken to the extermination camp at Flossenburg. On April 9, 1945, one month before Germany surrendered, he was hanged with six other resisters.

A decade later, a camp doctor who witnessed Bonhoeffer's hanging described the scene: “The prisoners … were taken from their cells, and the verdicts of court martial read out to them. Through the half-open door in one room of the huts, I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer, before taking off his prison garb, kneeling on the floor praying fervently to his God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a prayer and then climbed the steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued in a few seconds. In the almost 50 years that I have worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s last words reflected that he knew he was a child of God. Bonhoeffer said, “This is the end — for me the beginning of life.”

* * *

Isaiah 9:1 But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish
Isaiah 9:2 The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light
Matthew 4:16 the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light

O Come, All Ye Faithful is a translation of a Latin hymn Adeste Fidelis. The original hymn, written in Latin, was composed by monks in the thirteenth century. The first two words Adeste Fidelis, mean “come you faithful ones.” The manuscript was left undiscovered until John Francis Wade located it in 1745. He then translated the hymn from Latin into English, as well as adding a few verses.

O Come, All Ye Faithful draws us into the Christmas story of the shepherds, as recorded in Luke’s Gospel. In this beloved passage angels appear to shepherds, glorifying God because of the birth of the Savior, the Messiah, who lies in a manger in Bethlehem. After the angels leave, the shepherds decide to go to Bethlehem in order to find the Christ child. As the hymn recounts the event of that starry night, the shepherds may have said to each other, “Come, let's go to Bethlehem. Let's come and behold the King of Angels.” But, now, our beloved Christmas hymn invites all of God's faithful to come, including you and me.

O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant!
O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem;
Come and behold him
Born the King of Angels:
O come, let us adore Him, (3×)
Christ the Lord.

* * *

Matthew 4:17
From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
Megachurch pastor Joel Osteen, with his spinning globe in lieu of a cross at this Lakewood Church in Houston, makes no apology for his personal financial gain from his 52,000 weekly attendees and his 700,000 email recipients, who believe that Osteen obnoxious wealth can be theirs by obedience to the fraudulent scriptural mandates of the “Prosperity Gospel.” Osteen, defending his wealth acquired form a sports arena transformed into a colosseum sanctuary, with the luxury of theater seats, defended his repugnant wealth with this remark, “I think people in my congregation would say, ‘Wow! God has blessed Joel and Victoria!’ I think the people I'm talking to would say that if God did it for me, He can do it for them.”

Joel Osteen, who by his own admission is theologically uneducated, confesses that his only theological education came from editing his father’s sermons for television. He will never acquiesce to the teaching of Dr. Andrew Purves, a professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and a proponent of the theology of compassion, who once wrote, “There is a power for ministry in those who are themselves wounded, who have received the comfort of God, and who now minister to others in the strength of healing.”

Osteen’s comment reflects the theological illiteracy of populist preachers, who promote the prosperity of personal wealth over sacrificial discipleship. Along with Osteen, these preachers would presently include: Joyce Meyer, Creflo Dollar, Kenneth Copeland, Bruce Wilkinson, Paula White, Benny Hinn, and T. D. Jakes. Previous preachers of financial wealth presented a distorted gospel message, a message used for their own personal financial gain, would present the familiar names of Rex Hubbard, Oral Roberts, Norman Vincent Peale and Robert Schuller.

It is a distorted gospel message — one that Osteen preaches to his worldwide congregation to come and share in his financial wealth — rather than, let me come and share in your pain and suffering. It is the perverted message that right thinking, or positive thinking, will bring you blessings from heaven a hundredfold instead of presenting the message that right thinking is soul thinking that motivates a Christian “to suffer with.”

* * *

1 Corinthians 1:10-18
In the Bible some numbers are sacred, and their meaning never changes throughout the scriptures. The study of these sacred numbers is called Biblical Numerology. The number 153 comes from number one, which means God; number five which means grace; and number 3 which represents the Trinity or the Godhead. The number 153 means the abundance of God’s grace, the abundance of God’s spiritual blessings. It is a spiritual abundance so large that no Christian will be in want. That is what it means in baptism when we become a child of God and an heir to God, in which we receive the overflowing blessing of God's grace. In thankfulness, we joyfully dedicate ourselves to follow God’s teachings and engage ourselves in God’s service.

* * * * * *

Chris KeatingFrom team member Chris Keating

Isaiah 9:1-4
No gloom for those in anguish

The current movie, “Just Mercy,” offers a timely illustration of the lifting of the oppression and bearing the burdensome yoke of injustice. In the movie, which is a screen adaptation of civil  rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson’s memoir, Jamie Fox plays death row inmate Walter McMillian. McMillian was wrongly convicted in 1987 of the murder of an 18-year old girl. As Stevenson, played by Michael B. Jordan, explores the circumstances surrounding McMillian’s case, it quickly becomes apparent the man known as “Johnny D” to his family and friends not only was innocent—but was actually attending a barbecue some 11 miles away from the murder scene.

Stevenson’s book offers a compelling look at the injustice perpetuated on African Americans throughout the United States, revealing lies told by witnesses, unexamined evidence, and a coerced confession. McMillian’s case led Stevenson to continue his work on behalf of wrongly convicted inmates, and the founding of the Equal Justice Initiative. In the book, Stevenson reminds us that “each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”  The light of mercy, he continues, is a powerful tool. “The power of just mercy is that it belongs to the undeserving. It’s when mercy is least expected that it’s most potent—strong enough to break the cycle of victimization and victimhood, retribution and suffering. It has the power to heal the psychic harm and injuries that lead to aggression and violence, abuse of power, mass incarceration.”

* * *

Isaiah 9:1-4
Waiting and hoping
Writer Sam Greszes details how the confluence of family and wildly difficult video games proved to be a source of calm in a time of crisis.  In a Washington Post Op-Ed, Greszes details the anxiety-producing moments following his mother’s stroke last fall, and how stumbling upon a tight-knit online community of Super Mario Brothers gamers while sitting in an ICU waiting room brought him comfort.  His experience is akin to Isaiah’s description of the burdens being lifted from the oppressed.  

The games, he notes, are incredibly difficult and require patience to master. Watching the online feed of these skilled gamers compete became an “oddly soothing” experience. Vicariously watching one of the gamers’ achieve success offered him a road map through his own mental challenges. He admits it seems trivial – as does the comparison between video game conquests and the oppression experienced by Israel. Still, as Greszes describes the experience, an analogy appears:

Recovering from a stroke and beating a particularly hard Mario level are wildly different things. But as somebody who struggles with anxiety, the hardest thing for me in this whole process has been the fact that I’m not a patient person. Stroke recovery is an arduous, months-long process that is frustrating even at the best of times.

But watching these streams helped remind me that slow, frustrating, nonlinear progress is still progress. Watching (the gamer)  beat a level that seemed impossible at first was cathartic.

My anxiety spikes when I feel like I don’t have enough control of the situation around me. Over the past month, I’ve had to face the fact that sometimes, terrible things happen to rip that control away. The only thing to do sometimes is simply to wait and hope.

* * *

Isaiah 9:1-4
Increasing joy
Thanks to the efforts of churches, thousands of St.  Louis, MO area residents have been freed from the burden of major medical debt.  With help from the Deaconess Foundation United Church of Christ (UCC) congregations nearly $13 million in medical debt for pennies on the dollar and immediately paid off the debts of more than 11,000 families. The average overdue debt was around $1,100.

            “Please note that we only addressed those who are living at or below poverty — people who should not have to worry about the cost of health care anyway,” said the Rev. Traci Blackmon, pastor of Christ the King United Church of Christ and Associate General Minister of Justice and Local Ministries for the UCC.

* * *

Matthew 4:12-23
Holy Geography, Batman!
Pay attention to what otherwise might be called the “fly over” details in Matthew’s account of the calling of the disciples. In chapter 4:12-23, it may be tempting to gloss over the geographical hints Matthew leaves. But these clues are critical to the overall narrative of the gospel.  Jesus withdraws to Galilee, setting up housekeeping in Capernaum. Matthew pointedly observes that this is “in the territory of Zebulun and Naptali,” or the “Galilee of the Gentiles.”  In addition to the connection to Isaiah 9, the detail is important because, notes Warren Carter, Jesus is consciously affiliating with the “small and insignificant places and people who, nevertheless, are central for God’s purposes.” (See Warren Carter, “Matthew and the Margins,” p. 114)

* * *

Matthew 4:12-23
Time to get packing
Jesus’ call to Simon and Andrew is a reminder of the disruptive call of God that calls us to new and unexpected journeys. In calling them away from the family businesses, Jesus enlists them on the first-ever mission trip.  As mission trips have grown in popularity, several nuanced criticisms have emerged as well. The considerable cost of these trips have been questioned, along with the idea that perhaps privileged Americans are unwittingly using poor and disadvantaged persons for their own spiritual growth. One author suggests that a change in name might bring us closer to the intentions Jesus’ had in calling the disciples.

What if, instead, we called them “vision trips” or “learning trips”? A simple renaming might change the whole way we plan, prepare for, and experience such trips. Imagine someone asking for financial support for a “vision trip.” Instead of saying, “Please give money so that I can take the gospel to a dark place / build a house for the homeless / run a summer camp program for kids in Haiti / assist in a temporary medical clinic in Tegucigalpa,” a short-termer might say, “If you would like to invest in me, would you help me travel to a different culture so that I can expand my view of who God is and how (God) works … in a foreign land?”

* * *

Matthew 4:12-23
Booking excursions

The call Jesus extends is open-ended, and not especially well defined. It’s the exact opposite of how millions plan their “bucket list trips.” Big 7 Travel compiled a list of the top 50 destinations most frequently mentioned as bucket list trips.  Their research showed most people have only  11 ultimate destinations they wish to see before dying.  Number one on the list is Bali, Indonesia, with New Orleans coming in second. Antarctica came in number 20,  a bit ahead of Los Angeles (22). In time, it is possible global warming may just make the two places similar in other ways as well.

* * * * * *

George ReedWORSHIP
by George Reed

Call to Worship:
Leader: God is our light and our salvation.
People: There is none whom we shall fear!
Leader: God is the stronghold of our life.
People: There is none of whom we shall be afraid!
Leader: We seek only to live in the house of God all our life.
People: We seek only to behold the beauty of God.


Leader: We gather this day to worship our Creator God.
People: Praise and glory to the One who is our Creator.  
Leader: God embraces us and calls us the beloved.
People: We are loved, each and every one.   
Leader: We rejoice as God’s children and as God’s family.
People: We are united as sisters and brothers together.

Hymns and Songs:
Lift High the Cross
UMH: 159
H82: 473
PH: 371
AAHH: 242
NCH: 198
CH: 108
LBW: 377
ELA: 660
W&P: 287
Renew: 297

When Morning Gilds the Skies
UMH: 185
H82: 427
PH: 487
AAHH: 186
NCH: 86
CH: 100
LBW: 545/546
ELA: 853
W&P: 111
AMEC: 29

All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name
UMH: 154/155
H82: 450/451
PH: 142/143
AAHH: 292/293/294
NNBH: 3/5
NCH: 304
CH: 91/92
LBW: 328/329
ELA: 634
W&P: 100/106
AMEC: 4/5/6
Renew: 45

The Church’s One Foundation
UMH: 545/546
H82: 525
PH: 442
AAHH: 337
NNBH: 297
NCH: 386
CH: 272
LBW: 369
ELA: 654
W&P: 544
AMEC: 519

In Christ There Is No East or West
UMH: 548
H82: 529
PH: 439/440
AAHH: 398/399
NNBH: 299
NCH: 394/395
CH: 687
LBW: 259
ELA: 650
W&P: 600/603
AMEC: 557

O Jesus, I Have Promised
UMH: 396
H82: 655
PH: 388/389
NCH: 493
CH: 612
LBW: 503
ELA: 810
W&P: 458
AMEC: 280

Jesus Calls Us
UMH: 398
H82: 549/550
NNBH: 183
NCH: 171/172
CH: 337
LBW: 494
ELA: 696
W&P: 345
AMEC: 238

Help Us Accept Each Other
UMH: 560
PH: 358
NCH: 388
CH: 487
W&P: 596
AMEC: 558

Christ Is Made the Sure Foundation
UMH: 559
H82: 518
PH: 416/417
NCH: 400
CH: 275
LBW: 367
ELA: 645
AMEC: 518

Blest Be the Tie That Binds
UMH: 557
PH: 438
AAHH: 341
NNBH: 298
NCH: 393
CH: 433
LBW: 370
ELA: 656
W&P: 393
AMEC: 522

He Is Exalted (Ele é exaltado)
CCB: 30
Renew: 238

His Name Is Wonderful (Maravilloso es)
CCB: 32
Renew: 30

Music Resources Key:
UMH: United Methodist Hymnal
H82: The Hymnal 1982
PH: Presbyterian Hymnal
AAHH: African American Heritage Hymnal
NNBH: The New National Baptist Hymnal
NCH: The New Century Hymnal
CH: Chalice Hymnal
LBW: Lutheran Book of Worship
ELA: Evangelical Lutheran Worship
W&P: Worship & Praise
AMEC: African Methodist Episcopal Church Hymnal
STLT: Singing the Living Tradition
CCB: Cokesbury Chorus Book
Renew: Renew! Songs & Hymns for Blended Worship

Prayer for the Day/Collect
O God who is unity in the midst of diversity:
Grant us the grace to come together as your children
united in your love and our care for one another;
through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.


We praise you, O God, because you are the unity that embraces diversity. You are One in Three. Help us to embrace our unity as your children in the midst of the diversity of our outward lives. Amen.

Prayer of Confession
Leader: Let us confess to God and before one another our sins and especially the ways in which we try to divide ourselves into separate groups.

People: We confess to you, O God, and before one another that we have sinned. We are all your creatures and your children. You have made us and called us by name and yet we constantly seek to find divisions among us. We seek to find excuses to claim that we are superior to others when we are all your beloved. Forgive our ignorance and heal our divisions that we may truly love you by loving all our sisters and brothers. Amen.

Leader: God is love and love is always unity. Receive God’s grace and be made whole as you make your relationships whole through God’s love.

Prayers of the People
Praise and glory be to you, O God, the creator of the universe and all who dwell in it. You are the One who embraces the all.

(The following paragraph may be used if a separate prayer of confession has not been used.)

We confess to you, O God, and before one another that we have sinned. We are all your creatures and your children. You have made us and called us by name and yet we constantly seek to find divisions among us. We seek to find excuses to claim that we are superior to others when we are all your beloved. Forgive our ignorance and heal our divisions that we may truly love you by loving all our sisters and brothers.

We give you thanks for all the blessings we have received from your love. We thank you for creating us as your own children. We thank you for those who have reached out to us and drawn us to you. We thank you for this congregation which embraces you and us.

(Other thanksgivings may be offered.)

We pray for one another in our need. We pray for those who have been excluded and rejected by others. We pray for those who are doing the good work of reconciliation.

(Other intercessions may be offered.)

All these things we ask in the Name of our Savior Jesus Christ who taught us to pray together saying:

Our Father....Amen.

(Or if the Our Father is not used at this point in the service.)

All this we ask in the Name of the Blessed and Holy Trinity. Amen.

Children’s Sermon Starter
Talk about belong. We belong to families. We belong to our communities. We belong to our congregation. We belong to our Sunday School class and our class at school. We might belong to teams or clubs. This is a good thing. It is good to feel like we belong. But sometimes people feel like they don’t belong. They feel left out. God is the one who reaches out and embraces all of us in love so that we all belong. God is the one who calls us beloved children so we all belong to each other. We are family; the family of God.

Bethany PeerbolteCHILDREN'S SERMON
We Are Better Working Together
by Bethany Peerbolte
1 Corinthians 1:10-18

Paul is addressing a division that is taking root in the church of Corinth. Some people like Paul’s teachings more and others think Apollo’s teachings should take precedent. The arguing and complaining is causing the church to forget they all have one goal, to share the beauty of the gospel with the world. 

For this message you will need the book “The Day the Crayons Quit” by Drew Daywalt. If you have video capability you can use this video of the book being read aloud. The book is a treasure trove of children’s sermons and could be used anytime God’s people argue (which is pretty much every week). The book is made up of letters written by the different crayon colors to their boy, Duncan. Each crayon writes about a complaint they have about how he colors. Red is mad it gets used so much, purple is mad Duncan can’t color inside the lines, and Beige is upset it keeps getting passed up for brown. There are a number of letters that allow you to choose as many as you want to fill the time you have. If you one read three or four it does not affect the story too drastically.

Say something like:

The story we are looking at in the Bible today is about a church who is arguing about which teacher is more right about Jesus. Some people like the way Paul teaches and some like the way Apollo teaches. They argue and argue, but they cannot decide which teacher is better. Paul writes to the people who are arguing and points out all they are doing is hurting one another. They need to listen to one another so they can work together. 

I have a book here that has a similar situation going on. Let me read you some of this story. (Read the opening and a few of the letters from the crayons to the kids.) (If you are using the video pause it after the peach crayons note.) 

Duncan has a real problem! He can’t color any pictures because his crayons are all mad at him. He could force them to get along and do their job but Duncan really likes his crayons and that seems mean. Let’s see what Duncan does (begin reading one page after the peach crayon’s note). 

Wow! Duncan decided to listen to each complaint and to change how he colors to help each color feel more comfortable. When he does this is gets an A+ in creativity. The drawing ended up better when everyone was heard, and they worked together. 

We work best when we listen to each other, too. Arguing is not bad, but we need to spend time listening when we’re in an argument, too. When everyone’s complaints are heard we can adjust and make a better plan. Paul and Apollo were great teachers. They were good at different things, but together they helped people know more about Jesus.

There are probably ways we can listen better to others this week. Let’s think for a bit about who we might need to listen to more. Lets imagine ourselves stopping and listening to them this week. (Take a moment to imagine.) 

I think we can all be better listeners this week. And I hope our crayons don’t quit on us.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

The Immediate Word, January 26, 2020 issue.

Copyright 2020 by CSS Publishing Company, Inc., Lima, Ohio.

All rights reserved. Subscribers to The Immediate Word service may print and use this material as it was intended in sermons and in worship and classroom settings only. No additional permission is required from the publisher for such use by subscribers only. Inquiries should be addressed to or to Permissions, CSS Publishing Company, Inc., 5450 N. Dixie Highway, Lima, Ohio 45807.
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Invitation to Confession:

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