Reflections Upon the Sunday School Lessons Uniform Sunday School Lessons Teacher: Esther Kletsch
August 12, 2018
Theme: Giving Justly Scripture: 2 Corinthians 8,9
Paul encourages the church in Corinth to "excel in the grace of giving." Paul was particularly interested in raising a collection for the poor in Jerusalem. The Apostle employs various arguments and rhetorical devices to persuade this Christian community to be involved in this purpose.
Paul argues that Corinth ought to respond generously to this cause in order to live up to their own high standards of what it means to be a Christian. Paul then adds that the Christian communities in Macedonia, every though they were suffering issues of persecution of their own, had responded generously to the call to aid the poor in Jerusalem.
There are three Christian communities that are highlighted in this passage: The churches in Macedonia, the church in Corinth and the church in Jerusalem. Each of these churches had their own struggles and issues. The church in Jerusalem had its poor. Perhaps they were poor because their walk of faith had compromised their social and economic standing. The communities in Macedonia struggled with persecution. The church in Corinth was torn by differences of culture and tradition.
Paul reminds Christians that we are all in this together, despite our differences. We help each other out. We look out beyond our own needs and respond in kindness to others. Paul is the Apostle of Christian unity, not only within a particular church, but among all churches.
The church today needs to heed the call of Jesus, in his prayer in the gospel of John: 11 Andnow I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. (John 17---NRCV) Pastor Joel
August 5, 2018
Theme: God's Justice Scripture: Romans 2:1-16
Onward Through the Fog
The opening two chapters of Paul's letter to the Romans is a fascinating witness to the Apostle's belief in natural law and natural theology. Independent and apart from divine revelation, there is enough order in the natural world to establish belief in God. Before we pick up a Bible, we can look at the world around and see that there must be a creator. Not only that, but we can look at this order and establish from it natural law and ethics. So, whether we are a believer or not, we are held to accountable to a standard of right and wrong.
Whether you are a believer or not, there is still right and wrong. Paul goes on to observe that all of us fall short of meeting that standard. I guess we can come close and get most of it right, if we try real hard. But all of us will fall short. We can avoid most of the sins that are listed in the first chapter, but none of us can avoid slipping up somewhere. Paul wants us to be very careful in ever judging someone else when none of us are without sin. I think he is right. I think the overall point here is that none of us can eliminate sin on our own. All of us stand in need of God's grace. The idea that someone could really bear down and be good always and without exception, or be without sin, is not a possibility for Paul. That later point Paul will make clear in the next chapter: 3:23...for all have sinned and fall short of theglory of God. Paul will make the point that Christ is God's grace made flesh.
I wanted to pursue a different point after reading the fist two chapters of Romans. That is to celebrate Paul's affirmation of natural theology and natural law. I believe God has written God's truth in the natural order and that can be a basis for standards of conduct and behavior. There is truth to be found and known in this world.
We live in a day and time when everything is so up for grabs in terms of truth. What is right and what is wrong is so much reduced to perspective or opinion. Everyone has their own notions these days. I like that Paul in Romans establishes a truth that is beyond debate and is accessible to all people. I think there are basic truths that all people can agree on. We can therefore talk to each other, learn from each other, knowing that the the truth is something that can be discovered out there somewhere. Paul thinks so anyway. Pastor Joel
Theme: The Parable of the Great Dinner Scripture: Luke 14:15-24 God Plays it out to the End.
The passage before us in this study is Luke 14 where a certain host prepares a great banquet. What we know of this person may be inferred. He is affluent because he has the means to provide the dinner for many and he has servants to help him prepare for the guests. he is determined to have many people present and enjoy their company.
He orders his servants to invite his friends and let them know the dinner is starting. Unfortunately, none of these friends are able to come, They are all tied up with other responsibilities. They say they can't make it. Undeterred and with growing anger, he orders his servants to bring in those not previously considered for this invitation. This group includes people typically living closer to the margins of society and including the poor and variously disabled. Apparently they are pleased to be invited. But even with all of these present, the host remains unsatisfied. The host wants a full house and more people are needed. So the host again turns to his servants and tells them to go further out along the roads and see who they can find, and compel them to come.
The parable ends with a warning: Not one of those who were invited will get a taste of my banquet.
I have just two thoughts about this parable. My first thought is: This must have been a really fun dinner. Those who got to go, including the poor, got a really nice dinner. Also, many of these people who attended perhaps had lived their lives being excluded in various ways. But with this invitation, they were wondrously included. I bet there was joy, laughter and glad celebration at this party. I bet it was the best party ever. To get to go to a party like this would have been the last thing they might have hoped for and when they got to go, you know it was an amazing surprise. I think that is what God's grace is like. It is the glorious surprise of God's love and acceptance given to us.
My second thought is this: God, like the party's host, will do whatever it takes to gather people together for this joyous celebration. For Jesus, "whatever it takes" was a cross. That is how far God was willing to go to make sure everyone got the message of that great love and this gracious invitation. Pastor Joel
July 22, 2018
Theme: How Many Will be Saved--The Narrow Door Scripture: Luke 13:22-30
Jesus was traveling through a village when someone asked this question: was simply, "Lord, will only a few get saved?" Jesus responds with the admonishment, "Strive to enter through the narrow door." But wait, there is more. Jesus goes on to state that not only must a person enter a narrow door but must do so within a given period of time. This person must enter before the owner locks the door. Finally, waiting too long to enter the narrow door will risk terrible torment.
This class discussed an interpretation of this passage in which many found value. We decided part of entering the narrow gate means making your own decision about faith, rather than relying on inherited faith. The faith of a child must grow into the self-realizing faith of adulthood.
Another discussion of this class covered the inappropriateness of anyone assuming they know whether another person is saved or not. We decided it is best to put our speculations about the faith of others into God's hands, where it belongs. God knows the heart of others, we don't.
Finally, there was a discussion of the bottom line for the readers of this passage. That is: "Will I be saved? My suspicion is that the person who asked the original question did so in general terms only to disguise the real concern, which was: Will I be saved?
I believe those who accept Jesus as Lord and Savior and promise to follow him through study, prayer and service, are saved.
Here is the problem. Sometimes we wonder: Am I really saved? Through my own experience I have noticed that frequently the most serious, earnest and devout Christians are particularly those who are prone to wondering if they are truly saved. God does not necessarily lead Christians into ever greater certainties. Sometimes God leads us into darkness, or questions, or even doubt. It is in the darkness of our most honest questions and doubts that we learn who God is beyond our understanding. It is in the darkness that we learn how to trust God even more, even when all our questions are far from answered.
Mother Teresa herself had terrible spiritual crisis doubts. She wrote the following to one of her spiritual mentors: Jesus has a very special love for you. (But) as for me--the silence and emptiness is so great--that I look and do not see, --listen and do not hear. (MOTHER TERESA TO THE REV. MICHAEL VAN DER PEET, SEPTEMBER 1979)
What we can hold onto involves our answers to the following questions: Do I know who Jesus was? Do I know how he loved others? Do I know how he forgave others? Do I know how dearly he loves me? If a person is ever in the darkness that faith sometimes involves, park that faith right here, right in your answers to these questions. Many people may wonder if they are truly saved. But don't park your faith in the unsteadiness of your understanding or your feelings, or your thought, or your answered questions. Park your faith in Jesus and who he was. Nearly everyone has doubts even if they don't admit it.
And then rejoice in these words of St Paul in Romans 8:
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 conquerers through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, no 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. (NRSV) Pastor Joel
July 15, 2018
Theme: The Widow and the Unjust Judge Scripture: Luke 18:1-8
A Defiant Faith
The scripture is from the 18th chapter of the Gospel of Luke. It is a parable Jesus uses to describe the power of defiant faith. The story is short and sweet. An unjust judge closes his heart against the honest pleas of a powerless widow. He couldn't care less about her or her issues. Except for the fact that this window is not about to give up. She keeps after him, voicing her request for justice again and again until this judge grants her plea, not out of justice or mercy, but out of aggravation.
Jesus explains the meaning of the story in this way: We do not appeal to a heartless judge but rather to a compassionate God. We therefore should be encouraged to pray with confidence. The last line of the scripture for this lesson asks, "When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?"
For me this parable is about praying with confidence, but it is more even than that. It is about living a defiant faith that stands up to evil or heatless human cruelty. It is about standing up to the powers of this world that cause harm, even if we are at a disadvantage. There is spiritual leverage in persistent prayer and honest effort. Maybe the battles we engage in and the good we fight for may not be achieved in our lifetime. Yet we know that, up above, we have a compassionate God and not a heartless judge.
Defiant faith is spiritual leverage. I can't think of a better example of defiant faith put into practice than St. Francis of Assisi born Giovanni di Peitro de Bernardone, informally known named as Francesco (1181/1182 - 3 October 1226). He did not let the ways of the world suck him in. He lived his faith regardless of whatever forces of opposition rose up again him.
This defiant man has taught us a defiant prayer that will be remembered as long as there are human beings on this planet:
Lord made me an instrument of your peace Where there is hatred let me sow love Where there is injury, pardon Where there is doubt, faith Where there is despair, hope Where there is darkness, light And where there is sadness, joy
O divine master grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console to be understood as to understand To be loved as to love For is is in giving that we receive It is in pardoning that we are pardoned And it's in dying that we are born to eternal life Amen
July 8, 2018
Theme: Jesus Criticizes Unjust Leaders Scripture: Matthew 23:1-4, 23-26
On Hypocrisy The scripture lesson is taken from this chapter in Matthew that contains seven woes which Jesus declares against the religious leaders of the time, specifically the Pharisees and Scribes. The theme of those woes involves the sin of hypocrisy.
The church has gotten a lot of criticism over the years, often deserved, for the sin of not practicing what we preach. What is said in church falls flat against the reality of our actual behavior. Needless to say, this sad truth becomes a reason many give for turning away from the church.
The seriousness of the sin is the reason why Jesus so passionately confronts these leaders, earlier in this same gospel he declares: (Matthew 7:3-5) Why do you see the speck in your neighbor's eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, "Let me take the speck out of your eye", while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor's eye.
St. Augustine follows the thought in these words: While to complain against sin is the duty of good and benevolent persons, there is in fact a class of troublesome pretenders much to be guarded against who even while motivated to complain against all manner of other's faults, merely from hatred and spite, which to present themselves as counsellors.
The French playwright Jean-Baptiste Moliere (stage name) in 1664 presented the controversial comedy, Tartuffe. Tartuffe plays the part of a pious man, who preaches morality to the point where "anything we take pleasure in / Suddenly becomes a mortal sin". But he indulges his baser desires when he believes no one is looking. Tartuffe's actions do not back up his words. Tartuffe mentions that "there'll be no sins for which we must atone / 'Cause evil exists only when it's known."
Finally , among the famous literary treatments of hypocrisy, there is the unforgettable portrait of the eternal punishment of the hypocrites in Dante's Inferno (Canto 23)
Dante journeys ever downward into the realms of punishment until he arrive at the 6th circle. There he sees what once were religious leaders. They are walking slowly around in a circle; wearing bright, glittering and beautiful robes. However, these robes are made of lead. This is how the poet sees and evaluates hypocrisy:
A painted people there below we found, Who went about with footsteps very slow, Weeping and in their semblance tired and vanquished, They had on mantles with the hoods low down O everlastingly fatiguing mantle!
The poet here diagnoses the sad plight of hypocrisy. Eventually it just wears you down under the effort and weight of maintaining a pretense and loving a lie. Pastor Joel
July 1, 2018
Theme: Parable of Unforgiving Servant Scripture: Matthew 18:21-35
The passaged studied this week in our Sunday School was taken from the 18th Chapter of Matthew and involves a teaching of Jesus regarding both our need to receive forgiveness and our need to forgive others. Turns out that both are strongly connected and cannot be separated.
Peter gets it going by asking this question of Jesus: "How many times shall I forgive another person? Up to Seven?"
Jesus answers , " Not even close. Why not try 77 times? ( In other translations the answer is 70 times 7)
Then Jesus tells a story. A servant falls under a terrible debt of of 10 thousand bags of gold. His master has the power to place him and his family under bondage until the debt is paid. (Of course it cannot). The man pleads that he will do anything to pay it back. The master at this point has pity and forgives the debt.
What happens next is surprising. Or maybe not. The man, freed from terrible debt and a catastrophic penalty, turns around and sees a person who owes him a laughably small about of money. He immediately grabs this poor guy by the throat and demands immediate payment. His victim begs for mercy but is given none. Before too long the unforgiving man's original master hears how the man he has just forgiven had denied forgiveness to another. The master cancels his intention to forgive the signal debt and throws the guy in prison, but not before torturing him.
So, should we gather from this that we, who have been so generously forgiven so much from a loving God, stand under an obligation to forgive others. God's forgiveness of us and our forgiveness of others are a part of a whole. Can't have one with out the other.
But there is something else here. There is another human and divine impulse that is the key to forgiveness. That is empathy. Empathy is when we put ourselves in the place of another and try to understand what they are going through, who thy are and what they are feeling. The master originally had empathy when he considered the plight of the one who owed him so much money. The man forgiven such a considerable sum lacked even a drop of empathy when he grabbed by the throat the guy who owned him money.
Empathy is the key. It is what we have in our hearts and minds when we forgive. Without empathy, this is a very cruel and hostile world. Without empathy we are forever separated from each other, the gulf dividing us widens and we learn to treat others as objects of our needs, issues and agenda.
Instead of trying to understand others, we argue with them, dismiss them, use them, attack them or ignore them. This is not the way of mercy, healing or of Christ.
The theologian Martin Buber wrote the spiritual classic, Land Thou in 1923 and it was translated into english in 1937 before war broke out in Europe.
The book instructs us of the wonder of encountering human beings. When we encounter someone, we are open to who they are in this moment. We disregard the past and what happened and what we thought and knew. We put aside the labels we give to others so we never really have to see them for what they truly are. Human interaction is a moment of spiritual power. It is sacred. That is now God relates to us. God is prepared to set aside the past. God can see us through our labels. God sees where we are and who we are now. Human and divine empathy is one of the qualities of this sacred interaction. Pastor Joel
June 24, 2018
Theme: Reaping God's Justice Scripture: Luke 16:19-31 Pastor: Joel Whiteside
The passage for this Sunday involves the familiar parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. The relationship between rich and poor is always a matter of discussion and concern for any age, particularly out in our country today. The rich man lives in luxury every day. All the while there is a dying man at his gate. The rich man fails to notice the desperation of a human being suffering right there at his doorstep. Perhaps the rich man sees another man in absolute need and simply does not care to respond. However soon both men die. Their eternal fate is a reversal of their earthly life. Now the rich man is desperate and the poor man comforted. The rich man sends up a desperate plea to Father Abraham. The rich man is refused by Abraham on two levels. First the rich man is denied water to cool his mouth. Second, in a later plea, the rich man is denied the ability to warn his relatives about what he has learned, tragically too late to do him any good. So, the question occurs to me: In regards to God's mercy and justice, is there ever a point of no return? Can we get ourselves so messed up that there is no way back? Can we harden our heart so long to God's mercy that eventually we have drifted beyond even divine hope? Some people just don't get it and they won't get it. You wonder what could ever break through their resistance. These thoughts genuinely trouble me. Is there a "too late" for God's mercy? I want to believe that God can rescue us up until the last moment. But what if the last moment comes and goes? What then? There is a "too late" in our human relationships. Sometimes human relationships get so bad that there is no way back. Our actions have consequences and there are only a finite amount of opportunities to make it good again. Sometimes, when our loved ones need a word from us of love or appreciation we fail to speak it, knowing we should. But we do not know how many chances we will get to put it right. We are thankful God is a God of second chances. God is infinite in patience. But let us not presume that we have forever to do what we need to do in our lives. Today is a good day to help the poor, lift up a friend, pray the needed prayer or anything else our heart is telling us to do. Each sunrise is a new chance to get it right. Let's not wait too long.