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  • Rev. Dale Cohen

“Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence.” (1 Peter 3:15b-16a, NRSV)

I can’t say that I’ve had much interaction with anybody who is an atheist—a person who denies or disbelieves the existence of a supreme being or beings. I’ve known a few people who have declared themselves to me as such a non-believer; however, unless they seem curious about my faith, I take their declaration as a sign that belief in God is not a subject about which they wish to dialogue. I pray for them and then ask God to help me accurately sense any opportunity where they might be open to hearing about my faith. I’ve probably encountered more people that I would refer to as functional agnostics. An agnostic is a person who claims neither faith nor disbelief in God. A functional agnostic is a person who believes in God, but who lives as if God has no claim on them. They are a believer in name only.

I think functional agnostics are more difficult to converse with about the transformation that life in Jesus can bring than are atheists. Nominal believers are anesthetized to the particulars of faith that make life in Jesus so compelling. They’ve been inoculated against developing a deep and abiding faith through a dynamic and interactive relationship with the living God. They were exposed to enough knowledge about Jesus and the Bible that they can speak the language. Still, the transformation of the heart that accompanies a vibrant and flourishing relationship with God is absent. They are stuck in a fixed belief system that stagnates the longer their faith is trapped in the past. Their views about God and the way God interacts with the world are locked in a particular mindset that values certainty over adventure.

Any challenge to the conventional and deeply held convictions of a functional agnostic is experienced as a threat. They avoid the perilous chore of reconciling the claims of a countercultural Jesus with the self-centered claims of a culture in which they are not only most comfortable operating, but have become adept at mastering and maneuvering. It’s as if they are saying, “Give me Jesus, but don’t make me give up my affinity for power, wealth, and control.” And yet there is angst and frustration in the heart of the functional agnostic because the call of Christ comes with a command to “lose one’s life to find it” (Matthew 16:25). We can’t hope in what the world has to offer us while also hoping in Jesus Christ at the same time. Our hope must be fully in Jesus, and that will make all the difference in how we live in this world—a difference that will lead to having an even more significant impact in ushering in the Kingdom of God.

  • Rev. Dale Cohen



“In you, O Lord, I seek refuge; do not let me ever be put to shame; in your righteousness deliver me.” (Psalm 31:1, NRSV)

There's been a lot of news lately about sheltering. Here are some of the conversations:

  • The obvious is the order to "shelter at home" as a way of averting the spread of COVID-19. With the easing of restrictions, it will be interesting to see whether sheltering was a good strategy or not.

  • We're also in Alabama in the spring, where tornadoes are common, and so storm shelters are often a topic of conversation.

  • I serve on the Homeless Care Council of Northwest Alabama, and much of our focus is on developing strategies to move unsheltered people either into a temporary shelter or into a place of their own. Having a place to call home is essential to a persons' sense of well-being.

  • Although tax day isn't until July this year, tax shelters could be part of the sheltering conversation, too, as people finalize their filings for the year.

  • Even animal shelters have been in the news recently with a need to find accommodation for animals that were abused, displaced by tornadoes, or whose owners have fallen ill or died from COVID-19.

The Psalms are filled with references to shelter, too. In Psalm 31, the Psalmist longs for the safety and security of shelter as he cries out to God, seeking refuge—specifically seeking protection from his enemies. Passages like this tend to gloss over the concept of "enemies" without indicating who those enemies might be. Were they soldiers in an opposing army? Were they neighbors with whom the Psalmist had some property dispute that escalated? Were they the families of someone who was accidentally harmed by the Psalmist and who were now seeking retribution? Were they philosophical enemies from whom the Psalmist was seeking metaphorical asylum? Or were they demons from a spirit-world? We can only speculate.

The Psalmist, at least in Psalm 31, is seeking shelter "from" some perceived harm that he thinks is about to occur to him. The idea is that once that threat has passed, he will no longer need shelter. In John 14, Jesus gives another picture of sheltering:


"In my Father's house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also." (John 14:2-3, NRSV)

What Jesus offers is not just temporary shelter from a menacing enemy, but a place in the family home where we can experience the benefits of sharing life with others who become our family. In Jesus' offer, we will be sheltered "by" God, where we continue to live in community, and we're not just temporarily protected "from" some danger. When we are sheltered "by" God, the community in which we find ourselves can also turn our enemies into brothers and sisters, for in the same way God offers us shelter, his invitation is to all those who desire to live with him. You never know who might take him up on his offer!

For me, the church is God's beloved community, to which he calls all of us to participate. It's not a building, as we have learned through the restrictions of the pandemic. It's not just an institution, although it still has the baggage of structure and hierarchy. It's not irrelevant in a 21st Century world, although we need to continually refresh and renew our practices to speak to the current culture. The church is more like a family where we "do life" together. That's the kind of shelter I think I need most. How about you?

  • Rev. Dale Cohen

“Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.” (John 10:6, NRSV)

This week I’m preaching from John 10:1-10, and I’ll be focusing on two metaphors found in the text—gates and shepherds. On the surface, these two metaphors seem somewhat disconnected. The first one is a mechanical system, while the second one is a role or job taken on by a person. But Jesus makes the connection quite well. So it’s puzzling that John, the writer of this gospel, notes in verse six that the disciples did not understand what he meant. When the Bible references someone’


s inability to comprehend, it’s a signal that understanding is essential. The point Jesus was making in John 10 was meant to provide vital insights about who Jesus is as an expression of the heart of God. The disciples would need this knowledge down the road as they carried forth the Good News into the world. If you read on through the rest of chapter 10, John never indicates whether the disciples ever grasped Jesus’ meaning; however, the religious leaders were listening in on his teaching, and, depending on their prejudices, they thought they exactly knew what Jesus was about.



“Again, the Jews were divided because of these words. Many of them were saying, ‘He has a demon and is out of his mind. Why listen to him?’ Others were saying, ‘These are not the words of one who has a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?’” (John 10:19-21, NRSV) Words, whether spoken or written, have always been loaded with multiple meanings. The same words, used by different people, are judged as truthful or untruthful depending on the perspective of the listener. None of us likes to be misunderstood or to be judged by those who misunderstand us. And yet, we must continue to risk speaking our truth despite those who misconstrue or misinterpret our intentions. Words are one of the primary ways we reveal our Selves to the world. Although people often misunderstood Jesus, he continued to show himself to the world by speaking words of love and grace. Why is it so hard for some to hear these words? Why is it so difficult for some to grasp God’s nature as revealed in the person of Jesus Christ? My preaching aims to help people discover that the God of all creation loves them and is pulling for them to find the best life possible. That was the main point Jesus was making in John 10:10:

“I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10b, NRSV) Join us on Facebook Live for worship at 10:45 am this Sunday. I hope to see you there!

ABOUT US

At Florence First United Methodist, our personal and congregational commitment is to be a thriving congregation that honors God through meaningful worship, that develops people of all ages as fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ, and that graciously impacts the community and the world through extravagant generosity and humble service, resulting in better lives for all.

CONTACT FUMC

(256) 764-5072

 

415 North Seminary Street

Florence, AL 35630

 

fumcflo@fumcflorence.org

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