You Are The Light of The World (Matthew 5:14-16)

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You are the light of the world. That is a beautiful compliment. It’s the kind of thing you might expect to read when you open a get-well card. If someone had bought a card for me with that printed inside, I would have felt happy, moved emotionally, and encouraged.

Now imagine someone told you those words, face to face. That changes the entire dynamic. It’s one thing to read a sentiment; it’s another thing to hear the terms for the thought (or idea) to go from a dimensional idea to a three-dimensional reality. In short, it’s nice to hear a compliment, for someone to make a little gesture of thanks, or say a few words of appreciation. A person going the extra mile and showing that bit of grace is sometimes all it takes to change the course of your day. Who knows, if your day changes, your life might as well.

It’s extra nice when Jesus pays you a compliment. Sure, it would be great to go to the mailbox and get a thank you note from Jesus but imagine Jesus telling you in person, “You are the light of the world.” What if that someone giving you a face-to-face compliment is Jesus? What would that do to your day? How would that alter the rest of your life?

Given the state of the world and how dark things feel at the moment, being told you’re the light of anything by anyone is good to hear. These people, like us, aren’t used to getting compliments or encouragement. We feel lucky if no one rear-ends us on the way to Food Lion, or we don’t get into shouting matches with our family and friends over dumb little arguments. Compliments seem out of date and quaint, reserved for birthdays and other holidays, not something we’d do regularly or daily. We take each other and our families for granted, usually operating on the assumption that the people we live with and love know we love them and appreciate them; why do we need to tell them? Jesus is asking us to reconsider that mindset. People need to hear good things, especially when the world feels like it’s going to hell in a handbasket.

I’m sure this took Jesus’ audience by surprise. “I didn’t know I was a light!” I can hear them saying to Jesus. “I’m the light of the world!” Can you imagine hearing that affirmation for the first time? These crowds gathered on the hillside for the sermon of the mount didn’t come from a culture where they encountered a great deal of positive news about themselves or others. They lived in dark times; as occupied people, most couldn’t read the inspiring words of prophets like Isaiah, and if they could, they didn’t think they applied to them. Here Jesus says, you are the light, as an individual, are something good, light!

What does light do? What am I called to do as light? Light makes the world a safer, brighter, happier, warmer place. That’s what light does. You are called to do and be those things. Light changes everything. Nothing can hide from the light. Light makes the intangible tangible, the unsafe safe, the cold warm, the sad happy. It is there, everywhere, and all around. Light cannot be contained.

That’s you! You are more than you ever knew or thought you could be. You are the light. Part of being the light is giving your light away. Light is always available for sharing with people in darkness. Once you have the light, you are always available to share it without losing any of the original light that makes you, you!

You’d be surprised (well, maybe not) how many people are living in darkness. We forget how many people need, want, and are seeking the light of Christ, the light of the world, and to know that they also are the light of the world.

Light is much like empathy. The world needs it to survive. The church needs it. We can’t function without it. If you’ve ever lived in a world without electricity, you know that your entire rhythm of life is more challenging and brutal. Our world has a light deficit as much as an empathy shortage. We’ve grown comfortable living with this shortage, rationing of light, joy, and empathy in a world of darkness. We don’t have to live this way. You are the light of the world. Darkness is not the default setting for our lives and relationships. Light and all it brings, compassion and empathy are part and parcel of our souls whether we realize it or not. Jesus identifies this within us. Are we going to take the compliment from Jesus, pass it on to someone who needs to hear it, and share the blessing Jesus has given us with someone else?

–Richard Bryant

There Has To Be A Better Way To Pray

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This winter has been hard on my congregation. So many people are sick with COVID, respiratory viruses, and other diseases that it’s becoming difficult to keep up with everyone. When I combine my congregational concerns with my father’s recent lymphoma diagnosis, I start dropping the balls I’m supposed to juggle daily. I went so far as to create a spreadsheet of prayer concerns (versus a list). It didn’t help. Once I got them down on paper, isolated in illnesses, homebound and hospitalized, church members, family, and friends, adults and children, life-threatening and chronic conditions, humans and pets, Ukraine, and America, I was even more overwhelmed. Where do I start? At the top? With the sickest? With my dad? The sheer human misery before me is too difficult to describe. I’m at the point I don’t know what to say to God about these concerns because I don’t know what to say. I am literally out of words.

I gather with a small group of church members to pray through our concerns and celebrations each Thursday at 10 am. After a few moments of Lection Divina, we read through each name and concern on our church’s prayer list. There are nearly 100 names. I wonder why we are reminding an omniscient and omnipotent God of realities of this God is already fully aware of. The exercise feels pointless. If God requires the constant repetition of my father’s name and the fact that he has Leukemia to bring him daily healing and comfort, are we praying to a God? Or are we just talking to ourselves? Is prayer, in the means we’ve constructed it, little more than a supernatural protection racket? We keep giving God our best words in the hope of blessings and eternal security, so bad things don’t happen to us. There must be a better way to pray.

Is there a means of prayer that does more than make us feel better by acknowledging our helplessness in the face of illness and tragedy? Are there prayers where we partner with God to help those who pray create and become the answers to their prayers? It’s gotten to where I don’t look forward to asking for prayer concerns and celebrations in our worship services. These are the most soul-crushing minutes of our worship hour. I do not want to deny anyone the opportunity to share their concerns. Yet once we share our pain, the joy leaves our sanctuary like air from a punctured tire. Persons with blessings feel too ashamed to speak up because they feel their prayers aren’t worth mentioning considering the “serious” concerns previously shared. That’s wrong as well. We must rethink how we pray, for whose benefit we pray, and if we’re praying to be heard by God or each other.

The most honest and genuine prayer I’ve been able to offer recently is this: “Look!” “Help” hasn’t gotten me anywhere. I’ve settled on the model of the minor prophets. If I’m asking God anything, I’m asking God to do what I know God is already doing: see the mess we’re in and, if possible, relieve some of this interminable suffering. I’ll be glad to do anything. I am burned out. I can’t keep repeating names and recounting suffering. Something has to give. Point me toward one person who needs something tangible. That’s a doable place to start. We can answer prayers together.

–Richard Bryant

I’m Giving Up on Wearing Clerical Robes

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I have decided to give up on robes, vestments, and the like. This isn’t because I’ve been thrust into an ultra-contemporary setting that doesn’t do liturgical-style worship where these are out of place. This is entirely my decision. I don’t feel comfortable wearing them any longer. I have a closet full of cassocks, robes, albs, beautiful stoles, and even a chasuble or two. As a Methodist, I have a well-stocked religious wardrobe that I wore during the four years I served in the British Isles. I lived among Anglicans and dressed similarly. Back home, I wore a cassock, stole, and collar tabs on most Sundays. I’ve always considered myself a High-Church kind of guy. However, my attitude toward vestments (and worship in general) began to change during the pandemic.

I wondered, is this what Jesus intended? If Jesus were to walk into my congregation (wherever I happen to be serving at the time) and see me standing up front in a fancy black cassock or white alb, a stole over my shoulders, and maybe a pectoral cross around my neck, what would he say? Given what I know of Jesus, I started to think he might say, “Dude, what are you wearing? This is not at all what I intended.” Of course, I worked hard to earn the right to wear a robe and stole on Sunday morning, wear a clerical collar, and dress like a Roman Catholic priest, but that doesn’t make much sense to me anymore.

I could hear Jesus saying, “I was hanging out with my friends in my simple robes, sandals, and such, teaching, eating, and learning about the kingdom of God. Where did you get the idea that I wanted you to dress like a late 18th Puritan cleric once a week? Be honest, did you make this up or did a friend tell you this was cool?”

I know where the idea came from; I took church history, theology, and liturgy. After serving for two years in Russia, I know the vestments unique to Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and my own tradition. I also understand that my beliefs have evolved. The “uniform” no longer makes sense to me. If Jesus walked into our churches, so much of what we say and do would look foreign, out of whack, and contrary to his vision of the kingdom of God. I’m reasonably sure Jesus never intended me to dress like a wannabe Dumbledore once a week. If you think about it, it’s a little weird.

I’m not sure the people we need to reach in 2023 will come back to churches led by women and men who dress like they stepped out of the Middle Ages. We just survived the medieval style plague; why dress the part too? Instead of wasting valuable catechetical time on why we dress the way we do or expecting people to simply accept our historical eccentricities, we could be talking about loving our neighbors as ourselves.

I’m all for removing any surplus weirdness from our church services. Don’t get me wrong; I will not dress like a slob or preach with my shirt untucked. My shoes will be shined, my shirt pressed, my pants ironed, and my blazer will be dry cleaned. But, we can still be relatable and present the gospel without looking like a disheveled character on a 90’s sitcom. 

Whatever clothes we’re issued in the afterlife, I sure hope it’s not the white robes described in the Book of Revelation. If I’m going to be there for eternity, I want to be comfortable. So count me out on the forever robe. I’m asking God for a hoodie, sweatpants, and crocs.

Besides, Sheriff Andy Taylor never wore a gun (or a necktie), yet everyone knew who he was. He was just Andy. From here on out, I’m just Richard, and I’m going to let my reputation speak for me.

–Richard Bryant

Would We Let Three Foreign Monks Into Church Today? (Matthew 2:1-12)

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Would we let wise men (or women) inside our church or churches today? I’ve been considering this question over the past few days. Matthew’s gospel is the only account we have of these mysterious visitors from the east, often assumed to be Zoroastrian astrologers, who arrived in Nazareth sometime after the birth of Jesus. Christians don’t know that there were three kings, magi, dudes on camels, or whatever we want to call them. A “Subcommittee for the Determination of the Number of Wise Men” was formed at the United Methodist General Conference held in Nicaea in 372 CE. They duly reported back to the next General Conference (held in Damascus) in 376 CE that three gifts indicated one gift per person. As such, paragraph MMDLII of the 380 CE Book of Discipline would suggest that for all time and any subsequent United Methodist Christmas pageants and Epiphany sermons, three wise men, was the accurate, appropriate, and orthodox number. Twelve people may have shown up in Nazareth, eight men and four women carrying three gifts purchased under an agreed ten-dollar limit, but because the text said three, our Book of Discipline and we United Methodists settled on three men from out of town, representing ill-defined and mystical eastern religious practices, who wanted to show some respect to a wholly Wesleyan baby Jesus.

That’s how we got here. My question is this: would we do it today? Imagine we’re in church, doing our thing, singing “We Three Kings” and “Joy to The Word” sometime over the next few weeks. Things are rocking and rolling along. It’s a spirit-filled New Year’s Day service. The pastor preached about turning the page and making a new start with God or some other generic New Year’s Day nonsense. No sooner than the congregation has rattled off number 880 in the United Methodist Hymnal, the Nicene Creed, by heart, and you’re ready to start your community prayer concerns and celebrations, everybody notices some strangers have walked in the door.

It’s cold outside, just below freezing, and these three guys are wearing neither coats nor shoes. They are bald and clad in maroon, saffron, and orange robes. You hear some Captain Obvious observe using their outside voice, “I think they’re from out of town.” The gentle whiff of incense follows them as they process down the church’s center aisle.  What do you do? Does the usher who works the door, the one with the concealed carry permit, draw his gun? Does the mom in the back row pull out her phone and dial 911? Who are these strange men, and what do they want? Do they want anything? Are they a threat? Yes, brother and sisters, what would we United Methodists do if into our neat and tidy Epiphany services, as we sang “We Three Kings,” Tibetan Buddhist monks, Theravada Buddhist monks from Myanmar, or Jain monks from India walked into our services unannounced and asked to pay reverence to our God, the Christ child, the anointed one of Nazareth, born in Bethlehem?

How are we at letting others with different faith traditions and have no intention or desire to convert to Christianity, but respect our faith enough to be respectful to us and our God,  share our joy? Do we have the common decency to say, “thank you?” Or, will we find ourselves wanting to say, “Can I tell you about my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ?” Here’s the thing: they wouldn’t be there if they didn’t know about Jesus. They’ve traveled a long way to show Jesus homage. We could learn a thing or two from the Wise Persons and the different traditions they represent in our day and time. If other people are willing to go out of their way to show Christianity respect, we need to be more respectful of others and their faith traditions. The visitors from the east offered gifts (both tangible and spiritual), went home, and lived the rest of their lives according to their beliefs. Awareness and appreciation for someone else’s faith does not diminish our own. As Ted Lasso says, “be curious, not judgmental.” If we learn anything from Matthew’s story of the wise men, remember that. Allow the strangely dressed foreigners from other traditions to respect Christ, then show them the same respect. Invite them in. We’ll all be better for it.

–Richard Bryant

A Creed for Advent

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The living God dwells among us!

The word of God made incarnate through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is what we now proclaim:

We believe in God who has never stopped creating.

We believe that we are forever being made new by God

We believe in the promise of the covenant; to be a blessing to our neighbors, families, and friends.

We believe in Jesus Christ, who though he was God, became human, and in his humility died the death of all humankind.

We believe in the Holy Spirit. The spirit is the presence of God is in our midst; creating community and centering our lives.

We believe in the Holy Trinity, the living, loving relationship between God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We believe the Trinity is an example of how we should relate to one another in love.

We believe God will one day redeem humanity in ways beyond our understanding and until this time, we are with God and God is with us in the places we are called to serve.

We believe that God is not through with us yet!

O Come, O Come Emmanuel.

–Richard Bryant

Tangible Things Jesus Does (Luke 13:10-17)

We don’t have to invent or infer Jesus’ actions.  There’s no need to guess or ask, “What would Jesus do?”  We know.  Read the gospels.  The New Testament offers specific examples of Jesus’ behavior, beliefs, and deeds.  For example, there is little mystery as to Jesus’ attitudes toward the poor, elderly, or the sick.  If one wants to follow Jesus, read and contextualize his words for our day and time.

In this week’s gospel passage we see several different areas that are regularly emphasized in Jesus’ life and ministry.

  1.  Jesus teaches in the synagogue.  Contextually, this means he’s in the church or a worship experience.  Jesus goes to synagogue, participates, leads, and is active in worship.  Presence is important.  Sharing in Psalms, scripture, and community matter.  Jesus is modeling best practice.  He doesn’t find God on the Sea of Galilee. He goes to a worship space.  We can learn something from Jesus.  He’s our role model.
  2. The woman he heals is also in the common worship space.  We’re not told (as we are in other instances) that she’s there to be healed.  She’s simply present (despite her pain and infirmity) in the worshiping community.   It’s important to draw near to God.  The healing is an outgrowth of the worship.
  3. All time is holy.  Jesus is attacked for healing the woman on the sabbath.  Humanity’s concept of linear time is opposed to the divine idea of circular time (kairos vs. chronos time).  We forget that God works in the moment.  All time is Gods.  Jesus reminds the synagogue staff: human need (i.e. people in pain) outweighs any rules we think we are trying to enforce on God’s behalf.

Richard Lowell Bryant