Wednesday, December 17, 2008
It appears that the posters to this site (like me) are experiencing worship services full of cantatas and children's pageants, and therefore have little sermon preparation to do--and not much to post here. Therefore, I present to you some early thoughts for Sunday, December 28 ... the first Sunday after Christmas. What follows is the first draft of my sermon. The end isn't quite finished yet, and my goal is to preach this sermon in just ten minutes (the reason why will become clear as you read). So, this is still a work-in-progress.
It seems like the decorations have been up forever. They started appearing well over two months ago, at shopping malls and amusement parks. Then, some people in your neighborhood put up their decorations (not you of course), and it wasn't even Thanksgiving yet. And all of a sudden, you found yourself humming Christmas tunes.
By the day after Thanksgiving, you couldn't help it anymore. It was time for Christmas. You made your shopping list, you opened your own box (or, boxes) of decorations, you began untangling the lights. Christmas was still a month away--but it's so hard to wait, isn't it?
Then came the first Sunday of Advent. Advent is a season of preparation, anticipation, and waiting, but when it arrived, it seemed as if Christmas was already here. It sure seemed strange to be told to wait, watch, and prepare, when we'd already seen Santa Claus make his arrival at Herald Square, and greet children at our local mall. Clergy told their congregations that it was the season for singing Advent hymns, not Christmas carols, but few would listen to such nonsense... they wanted their Christmas now.
It's just so hard to wait. It's so hard to wait for Christmas.
Simeon and Anna had been waiting a very long time to see the birth of the messiah. When baby Jesus was about six weeks old, his parents--Mary and Joseph--brought him to the temple in Jerusalem, to dedicate him to the Lord. They were met there by Simeon and Anna, who, it seems, had been waiting nearly their whole lives for this moment. Anna in particular had been waiting--worshiping, fasting, and praying--for many, many years, waiting day and night. Waiting to see Jesus. Waiting to see Emmanuel, God-with-us, the Messiah.
How did they do it? How did they wait for so long? We can't even wait for Christmas. Heck, most of us can't even wait for the red light to turn green. We tap our fingers on the steering wheel, we fidget with the radio, we do whatever we can to make those unbearably long seconds until the light changes green pass by more quickly.
When Jesus began his ministry, some thirty years later, he knew that he had important work to do. He knew that God was calling him to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the dawning of a new age, a new kingdom. With a "to-do" list like that, I'm sure he felt the urge to get started right away. But he didn't.
Instead, he went into the wilderness for forty days. And during those forty days, he was tempted to begin his ministry prematurely, to end his time of fasting early by transforming a stone into a loaf of bread. But he resisted this, and other temptations as well, and waited for the forty days to finish.
At other times throughout his ministry, Jesus waited. He waited on God in prayer. He prayed on a mountain, he prayed in the garden, he prayed at night; and much of that time in prayer, I believe, was time spent waiting. It was time spent listening for God.
Simeon and Anna, I believe, were unique individuals. Certainly God does not expect every follower of God to spend their whole lives waiting. However, a little bit of waiting would do most of us a whole lot of good.
One of the first things I did when I arrived here at Bixby Knolls Christian Church last spring was to ask you to spend ten minutes a day in prayer. It sounds like such a simple, easy request, and yet I know that it is not. I know, because I don't always succeed in taking ten minutes to pray, and I'm the pastor who made the suggestion!
In asking you to pray for ten minutes, I did not expect you to fill all those minutes with words. I did not expect you to start the timer at "Dear God," and then keep talking until, ten minutes later, you arrived at "Amen." I don't think that's how Jesus spent most of his time in prayer, and I don't think that's how we should be spending most of our time in prayer.
Some of the best prayer is sitting in silence with God, although I have to warn you: sitting in silence feels an awful lot like waiting.
If you find that you're too restless to sit, then go for a walk. Jesus went up a mountain, but you can just go around the block. Or do some activity that doesn't require too much concentration, to keep your hands busy as you pray. Some adults I know knit; some youth I know make friendship bracelets.
I often find that, for me, sermon-writing is a form of prayer. For that reason, I often write out my sermons the old-fashioned way, with a pencil and paper. I do eventually type them into the computer, but my typing speed is 80 words per minute, and it's just too hard to pray when you're flying along at 80 words per minute.
If you can find ten minutes a day to spend with God, to wait on God, then your life will be blessed. Of that, I have no doubt. And if a lot of us are able to spend ten minutes a day in prayer, then our church will be blessed.
It really does take some time to prepare ourselves to see the presence of God. Such things cannot be rushed. It takes time to see Jesus in our midst, to recognize the presence of Christ. Many rush through the Christmas season without ever seeing Jesus.
He's not just in the manger.
Luke 1: 26-38
These episodes set the tone for all of Luke's gospel. He's not arguing for women's liberation, of course, but rather is setting the stage for the way the gospel of Jesus will turn the current state of the world on it's head. In a partriarchal culture, God will change the world through two humble women. Later in Luke's gospel we will see this same role reversal happen as the good news is delivered first, not to the powerful, but to some lowly shepherds. Luke is the gospel writer who will tell us of women disciples, and will have a special place in his drama for the plight of the least of these, the outcast, the poor, and the outsider.
The mere fact that he centers the start of his story of Mary in Nazareth in Galilee is a reminder that this "king" will not be born to celebrity, but will come from humble origins: a small, backwoods village. Galilee was known as a place where Jews and Gentiles coexisted peacefully. Luke is reminding us early on that Jesus' mission will not be just to his own kind, but to all people -- the Jew, the Gentile, male, female, rich, poor, clean, unclean.
What are the implications here for critiquing the focus in so much of Christianity on "personal salvation?" The angel tells Mary that Jesus' kingdom "will have no end." How do we loosen our grasp on the Christ child long enough to realize that he has come for all humankind? That the peace, joy, hope, and love he brings isn't just for those who claim him by name, but for all God's children? That he comes to us not just individually, but communally, as people of faith?
I'm reminded of the story, told in so many cultures and faiths, of the way God's light became hidden inside all of us. In some versions of the story, it is sin that causes the light to fragment, with tiny pieces finding their way inside each human soul. In other versions of the story, God (the trickster) purposely hides the light so that we will go in search of it. The great challenge of life, then, is to discover that light of God within each person. Luke's Jesus nudges us in this direction, even from the start of the gospel, declaring that God works through the most unexpected people. That God's light will become enfleshed through the life of the peasant girl Mary. Perhaps the challenge of this story is to realize that, just as God's light is within all others, God's light is within us, too. And as Mary enfleshes that light in the birth of Jesus, we too are called to enflesh that light in the way we live and serve.
Monday, November 24, 2008
[Based on Isaiah 64:1-9]
As we make preparation for the coming of the Christ child, we remember that for ages the church has prayed: “Come, Lord Jesus. Come!” It is a prayer for the Ascension in reverse. It is a prayer that the transcendence of God might make itself known in the immanence of God. It is a prayer for the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise in John 14: “If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again . . .!” It is the Advent prayer of Christians during their life-long pilgrimage through the recurring cycle of the Church Year.
Such a petition – for the epiphany of deity – is not unique to Christianity. It was also the plea of ancient Judaism centuries before it became the mantra of the Church. However, in those days it took a slightly different form. In our Old Testament lectionary text for this week we encounter such a petition – replete with mixed motives.
In Isaiah 64 the plea carries with it contradictory reasons for desiring the advent of the divine. At first, the demander’s invitation is wrathful (verses 1-2).
To paraphrase: I wish you would tear away the holy hindrances that keep your Presence from us, and make yourself known – right here, right, now, right in our midst! Come like a fire that disintegrates everything in its pathway. Come like a fire that makes water bubble and boil and become a vanishing vapor. Do this in a manner that makes your adversaries tremble and the nations quake. COME AND GET THEM!
[There is an allusion in verse three to God’s Exodus epiphany on the quaking mountain – the cataclysmic, multi-sensory scene of the Ten Commandments being delivered to Moses.]
But by the end of the lectionary passage, the invitation becomes a merciful plea . . . a remarkable reversal in the demeanor of the demander.
To paraphrase: But despite everything, you are the First Fashioner who has formed us from the dust of the earth. It was by the handiwork of your fingers that we were shaped in accordance with your will. So please don’t be too upset with us, O Divine Creator. And we plead with you not to hold our transgressions against us, all the way into eternity. We humbly beseech you to remember that we are the beloved, the work of your hands. COME AND SAVE US!
In summary, Isaiah’s plea starts out with wanting God to burst into the present as The Vengeful One, but he ends up wanting God to come as The Merciful One who has ceased keeping track of our wrongs, and tempered any long-held hostilities toward us.
In between these two differing reasons for desiring the coming of God, there is a complaint that God has been absent from the scene for far too long (verse 4). This complaint then turns to blame.
To paraphrase: “After all, our sin is due to your being upset with us; and you know that we wouldn’t have gone astray if you hadn’t hid yourself from us” (verse 5b). It actually feels like you’ve concealed your presence from us and in so doing just handed us over to our own propensities for wickedness” (verse 7b). IT”S ALL YOUR FAULT, GOD!
At first they wanted God to appear in their midst and reign down wrath on those who were undeserving of God’s grace. But in retrospect, it occurs to them (and via them, to us) that “all of us are the undeserving.”
So in this Advent season what is the motivation for our seeking the fresh appearance of Christ? – to make sure all those other folk and situations get punished by an A.W.O.L., even-the-score kind of God? – or is it make sure that WE (all of us) get made over afresh, and graced by this God of presence, goodness and benevolence?
It is the latter which is the underscored sentiment again and again and again in Psalm 80:3, 7, and 19. “Restore us, O LORD God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.”
It is the sentiment of Paul in his letter to the Corinthians in chapter 1, verse 8-9. “He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.”
But never ever imagine that you can figure out or pre-determine the time and place of this intervention. All you can do is: “Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. Keep Awake!” (Mark 13:33, 37). Prayerfulness, perceptiveness and unpretentiousness – those are the personal disciplines of preparation we are to nurture throughout this Advent season 2008.
Finding ourselves on the waning side of the Thanksgiving celebration and on the eve of the liturgical season of Advent, we read the Ephesians text with the twin themes of “gratitude” and “anticipation” washing over us. We, like the writer of Ephesians, “do not cease to give thanks” for each expression of the church, and we often include the church in our prayers of thanksgiving in our Lord’s Day assemblies. Likewise, we anticipate afresh on this first Sunday of Advent the unity God wills in Christ Jesus - “to put all things under his feet and [make] him the head over all things for the church."
Some have called Ephesians a devotional meditation on the reconciliation God is making possible by uniting all things in Christ. That certainly should resonate with us as we recall the new identity statement of the Disciples of Christ – “a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world.” Advent becomes a fresh opportunity for the exploration of the role that our faith plays in de-fraging the frays and foibles of our frantic affairs.
This prayer-text is a petition offered in anticipation of the kind of “wisdom” that takes notice of such unity. And it is offered in expectation of the kind of “revelation” that is attentive to the possibilities for such unity.
All of this is dependent upon a heightened capability to be aware . . . aware of what is, and aware of what more can be! The Ephesians phrase suggests that the prerequisite for this is to have “the eyes of your heart enlightened.” What a fascinating, imaginative and poetic way of stating the author’s summons to awareness. It would be like our saying: You must have the ears of your mind attuned. Or, you must have the taste buds of your spirit stimulated. Or, you must have the touch of your intuition sensitized. All our senses are marshaled in the service of discernment.
The directive to have the “eyes of our hearts enlightened” is a summons to deeper insightfulness. And it is an insightfulness that finds prophetic and messianic specificity in the Ezekiel text (34:11-24) where God is portrayed as “paying attention” – with all senses alert – to the scattered, the strayed, the injured, and the weak (verse 16). God’s remedy is the establishment of a new shepherd – David – the ancestor of the Messiah/Shepherd whose Advent we await in this season of the Church Year.
Christ Jesus is the long awaited Messiah/Shepherd whose teaching about righteousness and judgment finds its expression in the other lectionary text of Matthew 25:31-46. Having the “eyes of our hearts enlightened” we are summoned to attentiveness and life-giving ministries of care among the hungry, the thirsting, the stranger, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned. For as we offer mercy to any one of the least of these, we make a pleasing offering to the Messiah/Shepherd – the perfect Christmas gift, if you will.
In worship last week many sang the hymn “We Gather Together To Ask The Lord’s Blessing” (No. 276 in Chalice Hymnal). As I thought of this lectionary text from Ephesians I was stuck by these lyrics in the hymn - - - “The powers that oppress us now cease to distress us, O God be present with us, and make your will known!” That certainly must be the prayer of a fragmented world in need of the wholeness that only unity in the message and ministry of Christ can offer. May the eyes of our hearts be so enlightened. And may our Advent confidence be in the re-birth of Christ’s reign afresh – “not only in this age, but also in the age to come” (verse 21)! It is, indeed, “the hope to which he has called you” (verse 18)!
Wednesday, November 19, 2008
“Lord, when did we see you like that?” When you did it to the least of my brothers and sisters you did it also unto me. And the sheep are stunned. But we weren’t trying to be religious or anything. We didn’t know. Maybe that is why there are called sheep here. They didn’t know. Aw, I just had a little left over time so I helped make the Trinity meal. Yeah, I called on some folks who were sick, but the truth is, I didn’t have the slightest idea what to say. I didn’t know I helped feed hungry people, I just dropped a few bucks into the offering plate.
God says, “Surprise. That’s the way that it works. In the end you are judged by whether or not your faith drives you to do some good for the least and the lost.”
The goats on the other hand, are equally surprised and monumentally disappointed. These are the people who thought they were going to heaven, but find out at the last minute that they are going to be on the outside looking in. They are rejected because they didn’t care for the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters. They did not respond to human suffering, so God’s judgment is harsh. And they don’t like it. “Lord when did we see you? We were waiting for you to come back? I even put a bumper sticker on my car, “In case of Rapture, this car will be unoccupied.” I read the Left Behind books, and I believed the right things, I kept my nose clean and didn’t do many really bad things.”
But the Lord says, “You don’t you get it. I said I’d return and you used that as a reason to feel smug and superior to others with that arrogant bumper sticker. Hoping to see the cars and planes crash when their drivers and pilots were snatched into heaven at the rapture, that’s just sick. Well, do I have news for you. I came back already and you missed it.”
But the goats had not been able to hear what the Lord told the sheep. “When did you come back? We didn’t see you!”
“Whenever you passed by human need, you passed ME by.”
Can’t you just hear their response? No fair. We were looking in the clouds. You never said you would be so sneaky about it. Give us a do-over!
Jesus tells them being part of this is much more than what you believe in your head. It’s what you do with your life. It is more than trying not to repeatedly break the Big Ten Commandments. It is about how you align yourself in the world. Do you align yourself with the lost and suffering, does your faith make you roll up your sleeves and get busy, or do you align yourself with those who would just make up excuses why you shouldn’t help people. Because that is easy to do.
Sometimes we can look at folks and say, they got themselves into their problems through their own bad choices. My helping just helps people abuse the system, and doesn’t teach them personal responsibility. And sometimes, there is some truth to that, but it isn’t true for everybody who is hurting and it doesn’t give us a pass on trying to reach out and do some good. Jesus seems to be saying in this passage that if you worship God and somehow are indifferent to the plight of those around you, then you are not worshiping the Bible’s God, you are worshiping a false idol, a cheap knock-off that isn’t going to do you any good at the final judgment.
It’s hard. And we don’t always get it right. This passage has been at the heart of my faith from the day I first heard it and I’ve been trying to get it right ever since. When I went to seminary from
So, I take this guy to a convenience store and he asks if he can get a hot dog, an orange juice and some chips. As we approached the counter to pay for it, I was feeling like a sheep. I could just hear the words of the Lord ringing in my ears, “Well done, good sheep, enter into the joy of the good shepherd.” But the words that I really heard came from the clerk who started yelling at me for helping. “This bum gets a sucker in here every day. You just spent more money on giving him a handout than I make in two hours working this job. Idiot.”
I walked sheepishly out of the building. And I was discovering that it is hard to do the right thing. But this passage remains. It is tough, and we won’t always get it right, but we have to keep responding, we have to keep trying and not get discouraged.
With the downturn in the economy, word is out on the streets that this church is the place of last resort that people can come to to get some help. There are a lot of needy people out there, with all kinds of needs, not just financial. And sometimes it just wears me down. Some people have legitimate needs, others are running scams, and I can’t always tell the difference. And I’m trying to get stuff done, I trying to do my job and someone comes in and interrupts everything. I used to find myself getting a bit angry, but then I found a way to calm myself down. When I see their faces and I feel my blood pressure rising, I just say to my self, “Jesus Christ, is it you again?”
I already know the answer.
I already know the answer.
David J. Clark
David J. Clark
Ankeny Christian Church
Ankeny Christian Church
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
It's incredibly easy to do the wrong thing with this week's gospel text, to fall into that trap of reading through the assumptions of 21st century Americans who survive within a system of capitalism. So when Jesus tells this parable about those who invested being rewarded and the one who didn't invest being punished, it's all to easy for us to say, "Yes, it only makes sense."
But therein lies the problem. Jesus' parables didn't necessarily make sense in the way we think of making sense. There was always a twist. There was always something that made his audience stop and think, "Wait a minute! Did he say what I think he said?"
And so we might find that Jesus' original audience were not 21st Century American capitalists. They were not indeed. And principles of investment were not the same then. In that day and time, investing with the bankers was the unsafe thing to do, the risky thing to do, perhaps the wrong thing to do for someone who valued their master's holdings.
Jesus is talking about doing the wrong things for the right reasons. He's talking about taking risks, doing what might be socially looked down upon, doing what is unsafe for the sake of the Kingdom of God.
Wednesday, November 5, 2008
The Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids
25‘Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids* took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom.* 2Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6But at midnight there was a shout, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” 7Then all those bridesmaids* got up and trimmed their lamps. 8The foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” 9But the wise replied, “No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.” 10And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. 11Later the other bridesmaids* came also, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.” 12But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” 13Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.*
I have to begin my reflections on this Sunday’s text by telling you a recent story about how unwise I was this last weekend and how much I do not like a text telling me I have to be always on guard and wise!
It was Saturday, mid morning, and I had pulled up the old carpeting and had begun to lay down the new, easily installed carpet squares in its place. With minimal cuts I knew I would finish this project early and spend the rest of the day laying in my hammock listening to the last of the birds sing on that unusually warm November Saturday. However, in one quick and foolish move I managed to allow my brain to forget all the rules I have been taught since birth about using carpet knives. A simple rectangular cut around the air duct is all I had to do. On any other given day I would have applied my lipstick around the edge of the duct, laid my carpet tile down, pressed hard and removed it with a perfect impression of where to cut the tile in a safe but accurate manner. However, instead I took the short cut, I did not prepare wisely and I just began cutting in a way that placed the cutting edge both in an upward stroke and headed straight for my left hand if something were to go wrong. YES I KNOW NOT TO DO THAT! But I did anyway! 16 stitches, a near loss of conciseness on the way to the doctors office, a $600 doctor bill, and 2 hours of my day later I was not in a mood to read the lectionary and particularly not in the mood to read a text that seemed judgmental, exclusive and full of advice about how we should prepare and make wise decisions.
Yet, to be fair to the text and the community that it was being spoken to this text may well have seemed like a pep talk rather than judgment or unwanted advice. It may well have felt like the talk that is given by parents to their children just before they go off to camp, or to college or some adventurous camping trip. A word to the wise to be careful, to remember what you have learned or to think before you act. Words that every parent hopes that their children will listen to and take stock in and yet know deep down that even the best of children make mistakes. So you tell them again, again and again in more and more dramatic ways with the hope that maybe then they will remember. Stay alert and remember what you have been taught. Be strong and be ready for whatever comes your way because it will.
I still don’t like this text because it seems in part to speak in an exclusive way that seems contrary to other stories of Jesus who is always welcoming of the edges but the context and purpose might be different here. It does occur in Matthew in a series of advice and pep talk kind of stories. The next story is about the “talents” which could be a parent advice story as well. I will leave it up to you all to figure our where to go from here… hope this gets you thinking about this text and please be careful and don’t be foolish and unwise this close after an election!
Tuesday, October 28, 2008
“Oh, thank God—he’s so good! His love never runs out. All of you set free by God, tell the world! Tell how he freed you from oppression, then rounded you up from all over the place, from the four winds, from the seven seas. Some of you wandered for years in the desert, looking but not finding a good place to live, Half-starved and parched with thirst, staggering and stumbling, on the brink of exhaustion. Then, in your desperate condition, you called out to God. He got you out in the nick of time; He put your feet on a wonderful road that took you straight to a good place to live.”
I almost never preach out of the Psalms. No doubt that is for many reasons. The reason standing at the front of that line is that King David drives me nuts because we are way too much alike. It seems to me that he is both manic-depressive (I hear we call it Bipolar now-a-days.) and just a bit ADD. We are kindred spirits. If he weren’t Jewish he would have made a great Irishman.
In this Psalm he manages to do his bipolar thing well. He begins by talking how much and how often God blesses us, frees us and rescues us. But the end of the psalm David is eloquently telling us how God can turn steams into deserts and fruitful land into salt flats. He is not complaining, just mentioning that God can bless and God can blast. And that is true. I get a kick out of North Americans. We go for years and pretty much ignore God. And then something goes wrong and suddenly it is okay to pray in public, “God Bless America” banners pop up in every conceivable place, it becomes common to question, “Where is God in all of this.” We are pretty good at practicing panic button religion.
King David of Psalms fame didn’t think twice about calling on God when he found himself in a bind. When times were tough, he had no problem hanging out the “God Bless Israel” banner. But he also learned to walk with God in the good times, too. He could shout out for help and he could shout out some praise and thanks. The reason that the Psalms resonate with most of us is that they speak for us when things are good and they speak for us when life pretty much sucks. And, if you are paying any attention at all, you have noticed that life can do both.
Perhaps you have heard the word that the stock market has crashed. People have panicked. The world economy is at risk. Banks are afraid to lend money to each other or anyone else. The sky is falling and the latest numbers on my retirement fund say I will be working until I am at least 75. Giving is down at the church and my job is in jeopardy. I have been practicing in case I have to change professions. “Hi. Welcome to Wal-Mart.” Quick, I think I will pray. Quick, I think I’ll put a sign in my yard, “God Bless America.” I am scared and God needs to show up. Perhaps it is a good time to read a Psalm or two.
A perfunctory reading of the New Testament makes it clear that God has a plan to set us free from the sickness of greed and consumerism. And many believers have practiced the plan. But many of us are more inclined to ignore God when it comes to the “realities” of life. But when those realities prove to be less than reliable, we turn back to God and beg for help. We begin to beg God to bless America in general and this American in particular. And God can. The question becomes, will He?
Max Lucado wrote and shared with his congregation a great prayer concerning our present financial crisis. I share it with you because it sounds, to me, like a prayer King David might pray.
“You have our attention, Lord. We’re listening.
Our friends are losing their house
A co-worker lost her job
Family members have lost their retirement
It seems that everyone is losing their footing.
This scares us. This bailout with billions; these rumblings of depression;
These headlines: ominous, thunderous-
“Going Broke!” “Going Down!” “Going Under!” “What’s Next?”
All this Dow dipping and finger pointing and market freezing and credit squeezing. People are asking, what’s next?
So, Father, we come to you and ask; “What is next?”
And Heavenly father, we admit: You were right.
You told us this would happen.
You shot straight on the issue of loving money and worshipping stuff.
Greed will break your heart, you warned.
Money will love you and leave you.
Don’t put your hope in riches that are so uncertain.
You were right. Money is a fickle lover and we feel like we just got dumped.
We were wrong to spend money we didn’t have,
Wrong to forget the poor, wrong to forget you,
Wrong to think we ever earned a dime.
You are the one who owns it all and gives it all.
And now, Lord, we acknowledge you are the giver, the maker, the creator, the sustainer.
And only you can get us out of this mess.
We are wondering if you will. We know you can.
We know you can because you always have.
You led slaves out of slavery, you built temples out of ruins, and you turned stormy waves into a glassy pond and water into sweet wine.
This seems impossible for us. But what is impossible for us is always possible for you.
Lord we have heard enough council from the financial experts.
We come to you in behalf of our country.
We ask for your help.
This disorder awaits your order.
So do we.
As we look at this Psalm this week, perhaps we should remember that God is good and following His way is the best way. Remember that God is with us in the good times and the bad. And that knowledge can make the good times great and the bad times tolerable.
Monday, October 27, 2008
Tuesday, October 14, 2008
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
I had originally thought I would write on the Matthew scripture but after reading and re-reading this one, I decided I liked it. This week, Paul is writing to the church of the Thessalonians, giving thanks for them and always remembering them for their great work.
After coming away from the Regional Assembly on Saturday, this is what I think we, as Disciples, should be doing. We should be connecting with our fellow churches, lifting them up in prayer and praising them for what they are doing in God’s name. Matthew 18:20 states, “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them”. Good things, even great things are happening in our local congregations, and we should be sharing those with each other.
In taking this one step further, we sometimes get so busy within our own lives; we may even forget to lift up the members of our own congregations. The gifts and talents that walk into that building on a regular or irregular basis are astounding. In verse four Paul writes, “For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you”. What an awesome opportunity, but also a frightening responsibility at times. If God has chosen us, then we must be the example. We must love our neighbor as ourselves. We must reach out to those in need. We must imitate Jesus.
Just some thoughts as I prepare to write lesson plans for children’s worship.
Tuesday, October 7, 2008
Paul's letter to the Philippians is very warm and affectionate, yet there are issues even in this church that must be addressed. Throughout the letter Paul has been urging the Philippian Christians to be united, "of one mind," "having the same mind." But rather than specifically addressing whatever dispute is going on there (in this week's reading we find out that it may be some kind of argument between two women who are leaders in the church) Paul turns the church's focus to something (Someone) else.
In chapter 2 of Philippians Paul expands his call to be "of one mind" by describing the one mind the Philippian Christians are to have: the mind of Chirst. He quotes what may well be an early hymn, speaking of how Christ Jesus, who had the right to great honor and divinity, left all that behind for the sake of obedience to God's will, even though that led to death on a cross. Whatever the problem may have been in the Philippian church, Paul reminds the brothers and sisters that there is something much more important.
In 4:4-9 Paul offers still another alternative: joy instead of anxiety, gentleness as witness, prayer that brings about peace. He urges the Philippian Christians to follow his example ("be imitators of me, as I am of Christ," as he says in another letter) and his teaching, which--because he is a follower and imitator of Christ--leads to a deep peace that comes from God.
Fred Craddock says the main problem in Philippi may well have been a petty one--but he also says that one of the biggest problems in many Christian churches is pettiness. A colleague of mine in the United Church of Canada asserted once that "anxiety is counterproductive to ministry." I wonder if that could be because anxiety often leads to pettiness, which might be another reason for Paul to urge against anxiety. Had Paul come in and declared which of the two women in the dispute at Philippi he thought was in the right, he might well have given in to the pettiness that was present htere. Instead, he reminded the church that their reason for begin together was much, much more important.
I think this text could be well served by a story sermon: flesh out what the dispute might have been between the two women, perhaps even bringing it into a modern church setting (Euodia the board chair in a disagreement with Syntyche the CWF president, perhaps?), and considering how a church functioning as the body of Christ--where we are all members of one another--might work to bring about unity.
Wednesday, October 1, 2008
In this parable of Jesus, the one with the wicked tennants, a landowner planted a vinyard and, after moving away, hired workers to care for it in his absense. Those workers killed the landowners servants and his son in hopes of taking the inheritance.
Jesus uses this parable to explain the relationship the religious leaders had with the Hebrew people. God, (the landowner) planted a vineyard (Israel) and appointed tennants (religious leaders) to oversee it. They ignored the servants (prophets) and the son (Jesus).
So Jesus told them that the landowner would replace the tennants with new tennants (gentiles), suggesting once again that the kingdom of God is open to all.
Stuck in the middle of this parable is Jesus quoting a Psalm, mentioning that some stones that are rejected will become cap stones, the most important stone in the building. He might be claiming this about himself, since he was rejected by many of his hometown. He also could be making a statement about the outcast individuals in his society; another "the first will be last" kind of statement. Jesus is also claiming that the gentiles would play a significant role in the growth of his movement.
But i wonder about that line, v. 44, "The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” Is he suggesting that some people will try to understand and know him but fail? Is he saying anyone standing against him will be destroyed? The latter part, "it (the stone, ie. Jesus) will crush anyone on whom it falls" might be a political statement, meant to warn the religious leaders, and encourage his followers.
So Jesus calls out the religious leaders on their shabby practices, and in a way, threatens that their power would be taken away and they would be replaced.
I wonder what Jesus would have to say to those in positions of power today? How might Jesus react to the mishandlings of finances by those involved with the global economy today? What might be a good parable to address the issues of injustice and poverty today?
Sunday, September 21, 2008
I don't know that I've ever preached on this text before. As it so happens, because I'm doing a special series right now based on my congregation's mission statement, I won't be preaching on it this year. However, some time ago I said "yes" when asked if I would prepare some comments for this week, and I've learned that it's important to honor one's commitments....
Two sons were told by their father that there was work to be done. One refuses to work, but later changes his mind. The other says "OK, I'll do it," but then does not go.
In looking through various online commentaries and sermons, I find that many preachers ignore the original context. The son who says he'll go but then changes his mind represents the religious leaders of Jesus' day. They said they'd follow, but their actions have not backed up their words.
I think I've skipped preaching on this for two reasons: one, I didn't want to risk making it sound as if Jesus' harsh words toward the religious leaders should be directed at all Jews. It would take some work to explain this in a way that adequately portrays the context as well as being appropriate to the gospel. And second, the basic idea of the parable--that words are meaningless if they're inconsistent with one's actions--seems so simple, like something a parent tells a young child, that it would be insulting to preach this to a congregation.
And yet, people do often say one thing and then do another. "Who will help out at the church workday?" Fifteen hands go up, but when the work day arrives, only three are present. What happened to the other twelve? They said they'd be there. Where are they?
Words are important. Or at least, they should be. And yes, it is a lesson that parents teach their children. I tell my own sons to do something. I tell them repeatedly. "OK, Dad!" But it doesn't get done. They call each other names, and when upset, will even yell, "I hate you!" Do they mean it? Not really. Yet they need to realize that words have power. In this case, the power to hurt.
But it's not just children who need that message. I admit, I was tempted to send in a note saying, "I'm taking a brief break from the lectionary and so am unable to post on the blog this week." Wouldn't that have been ironic?
"Yes, I'll go do the work." "Yes, Jesus, I'll follow you." Those are powerful words. But they become meaningless if they are inconsistent with one's actions.
More on this theme can be found in a previous post by Dan Mayes here.
Wednesday, September 17, 2008
Here we go again with one of Jesus' wacky parables. It never fails that when I preach this text someone comes up to me afterwards and insists that I just don't seem to see the inherent unfairness in paying everyone the same wage for different amounts of work! My reply: Of course it's unfair. Nobody ever claimed the Kingdom of God was fair. And lucky for us that it isn't. It isn't fair. But it is full of grace and compassion and a love that doesn't keep a record of wrongs and rights.
Wednesday, September 10, 2008
When I was in college I was part of the Baptist college fellowship. Every so often, we had communion.
I really dreaded communion.
The pastor would talk about being careful that there was not anything that could get in the way of communion such as a broken relationship with someone in the group. There was a quiet place where people could go to hash things out. What I remember from that whole experience is that I was always worried that there was something- something, unknowing to me that would damn me. Communion became a time of fear to me, wondering if I was pure enough to receive the bread and wine.
Looking back, I understand the pastor's intent: that the community take communion seriously and be a community where there was no dissention, but unity. But the result was that people didn't feel worthy to come to God's table.
In today's text, Jesus tells the tale of a servant that owes his king a huge amount of money. He pleads for another chance and the king forgives him of the debt. He then sees another servant who owes him a few bucks. He doesn't show his fellow servant the same mercy- instead he has the servant thrown into jail. Word of this gets to king who ends up throwing the wicked servant into prison after all because he could not forgive his fellow servant.
The servant forgot what it meant to live in grace, and he isn't that only one.
At times we think that God's act of forgiveness which is expressed in the life, death and ressurection of Christ, come to us in drips and drops, only to us and no one else. But the reality is that God's grace is a deluge of love that has fallen on all of creation.
My Baptist group of twenty years ago was partially correct: I wasn't worthy to come to Table. I'm still not. No one is. It is only what God did in Christ, that any of us are able to come to the Table. We can come to the Holy Feast only because we are forgiven by God. We are swimming in the sea of grace.
But it is hard to see that ocean of grace sometimes. I write these words at 11:30pm on September 10, 2008. Tomorrow is the seventh anniversary of the terrorist attacks of 2001. When we think of events like 9/11 or the Holocaust, we wonder, how can one forgive? How can we ignore such sins?
Seeing the world as one filled with God's grace doesn't mean that everything will be roses. But we do know that while evil might seem to be winning in the world, it will not in the end. Evil in the end will be drowned in the tsunami of grace.
With that knowledge, we can go on loving and forgiving. Thanks be to God!
Friday, September 5, 2008
Matthew 18: 15-20
But, these words from Matthew take on a different light when we consider what comes before and after in the gospel. Prior to this passage, Matthew shares Jesus' parable of the Shepherd who is willing to leave behind his whole flock in order to find one lost sheep. And after this passage, we have the famous exhortation about forgiving another person seventy times seven. What, then, to make of this passage on conflict in the church in between these radical passages of giving all to save one who is lost and offering abundant forgiveness that doesn't keep a record of wrongs?
Perhaps when Matthew's Jesus is saying that we are to treat an errant brother or sister like a tax collector, we are to remember how Jesus treats such persons elsewhere in Matthew's gospel: with love and radical welcome. In this context, Matthew has taken a piece of conventional wisdom from his culture ("correct the wrong-doer or throw them out") and placed it in the context of Jesus' radical teachings, forcing us to see this so-called conventional wisdom in light of the unconventionality of the Empire of God.
Monday, August 25, 2008
By Dr. Richard Guentert
Having moved beyond the “mirages” of the wilderness to Horeb’s “mountain-top ecstasy,” Moses finds himself in one of life’s recurring quandaries . . . What do you do when you are literally “between a rock (Mt. Horeb) and a hard place (the wilderness)?” How do you handle life when it means functioning somewhere between ample stress and ambiguous outcomes?
In the “burning bush” encounter he begins to hear sounds emanating from, of all places, a shrub. (Now, many of us have been to Disney World and heard “It’s A Small World - music” emanating from plants, trees and landscaping everywhere. But in this pre-scientific, pre-technological world context, sounds from a bush are unheard of, and totally awesome.)
The Divine Visitation plus The Voice presents Moses with a curiosity, an invitation, a directive, a tribal genealogy and a bad case of stress. The Curiosity: Moses says, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up?” The Invitation: God called to him out of the bush, “Moses! Moses!” The Directive: “Come no closer. Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place you are standing is holy ground.” The Tribal Genealogy: “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” The Bad Case of Stress: “Moses hid his face for he was afraid to look at God.”
What gets revealed is a compassionate God who has observed the Hebrew people’s misery and heard their cry – a divine being who is capable of intimately knowing their suffering, acting for their deliverance, and promising them “a good and broad land, flowing with milk and honey.” The puzzling part is that their promised paradise is presently somebody else’s property – it belongs to “the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites.” That means the Hebrews can only get out from under being a conquered/enslaved people, by conquering/enslaving another people. God has offered an awkward solution to their one problem by presenting them with another. And isn’t that often the way it is with spiritual journeying . . . you keep finding yourself struggling with alternative conundrums – all along the way – between ample stress and ambiguous outcomes.
God’s plan is to send Moses to confront Pharaoh, and deliver the message, “Let My People Go!” But Moses retorts, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt.” In other words, Moses underestimates his capability; he underestimates his authority; he underestimates his qualifications; he underestimates his mandate. And this is likely where you and I most identify with this ancient patriarch of the faith – in our proneness to underplay our role in the promising possibility God has in mind for us.
So, do you suppose this is one more example of our sinfulness – our promptings to underestimate – both ourselves and others? And if so, might we just as well confess that this characteristic of “underestimating” is actually a sin? I wonder! And the sneaky thing about it is the subtle way we carry it off as the exercise of “humility” – when in fact it is a shrinking away from the responsibility God places upon us to act with courage and audacity in the face of wrong, evil and injustice.
It is the sin of underestimating ourselves and others that prompts us to say, “I can’t!” “I’m not competent, capable or experienced enough!” “I don’t have the resources to carry it off!” But to underestimate is to discount God’s confidence in us and in humanity. To underestimate is to discount Christ’s abiding presence. To underestimate is to discount the Holy Spirit’s empowering charisms & charisma.
Those who underestimate betray a lack of confidence in the accumulated resources and giftedness of the community of faith around them. And it culminates in a failure of faith, a failure of hope, and ultimately in a failure of nerve. It results in low-balling our expectations, in down-sizing our dreams, in shrinking our ambitions, in trimming back our enterprises, and in “settling” for second-best.
The text concludes with God disclosing the empowering name: “I am who I am!” – the real power of which is to be noted in the footnote to the NRSV translation. The Hebrew text is just as accurately translated, “I will be what I will be!”
Master chess-players have already figured out their opponent’s options four to six plays ahead into the game. So we should not be surprised that the God of the Hebrews has the capability to “become” in any way necessary, as the creature and the Creator move in partnership into their new future together. A God who can say “I will be what I will be!” is a transformable God for a transformable people – even though the future from the human standpoint is filled with ambiguous outcomes. And the Promise that can counter all our proneness to “underestimate” is that the One who was with the Hebrew people through all their wonderings and their wanderings is the God who is with us, as well.
Further resources for exploring this unholy habit of “underestimating:”
The Psalm 105: 1-6, 23-26, 45c text is full of arguments countering any propensity to underestimate – especially the power of remembering how God was with them in their previous history.
The Romans 12 text offers an “attitude adjustment” for us when we are tempted to underestimate. See verses 11 and 12. “Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in the Spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.” These are the spiritual resources that counter any temptation to disparage our capabilities in the face of God’s call.
The Matthew 16:21-28 text gives us a powerful illustration around this theme of underestimating. In verse 21 Jesus outlines both the suffering of his passion and the resurrection promise. But in the midst of Jesus’ candidness and confidence comes Peter’s cold water. He underestimates the depth of Jesus’ commitment and conviction. He underestimates Jesus’ rationale and resolve. So in verse 23 Jesus indicates that this “underestimating” is not only detrimental, it is satanic! It is a stumbling block. And it is wrong-minded!
The doubting and fearful Disciples, gathered later on in the Upper Room after Jesus’ crucifixion and burial, had the audacity to underestimate the power of God to bring life in the face of death, and hope in the midst of despair.
When one continually underestimates themselves, they end up going through life with an accumulation of regrets – and blaming life for it – kind of like the fellow described in the following lyrics from a C&W ballad.
I could’ve played in the majors,
but I had some bad luck
Well that’s not exactly it,
the truth is I sucked.
So I drank me some whiskey,
and I smoked cigarettes
’Cause it takes out the sting
of those former regrets.
I’m sad and I’m tired,
I’m angry and numb
I’m three-quarters prisoner
and I’m two-quarters dumb
I’m half of the man that I wanted to be
I wish life would stop kickin’
the [crap] out of me.
(Lyrics from a country western song by Thom Schuyler called “3/4 Me”)
The Olympic Village was a community of people who refused to disbelieve or doubt the possibility of breaking records. Not one of them got there by underestimating their capabilities, or the resources that surrounded them in their family, coach, community and peers.
“Never underestimate the power of dreams and the influence of the human spirit. We are all the same in this notion: The potential for greatness lives within each of us.” Wilma Rudolf (the first American woman runner to win three gold medals at a single Olympics, 1940-1994.)
A strong counter to the practice of underestimating what God can do in and through us is found in the text to the hymn, That Cause Can Neither Be lost Nor Stayed. It is a is a powerful antidote to the negativity of disparaging and minimizing our contributions. The text can be found on page 604 of Chalice Hymnal
From the culture of history, art, music and theatre comes the musical production called Les Misérable, about underdogs who believe so much in the virtue of a cause that the size of the foe is inconsequential . . . resulting in a complete refusal to underestimate the power of a liberating idea.
“People underestimate their capacity for change. There is never a right time to do a difficult thing. A leader’s job is to help people have a vision of their potential.” John Porter
“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.” Leo Buscaglia, U.S. author & lecturer (1925 - 1998)
The Labor Day weekend is a significant moment to encourage folk not to underestimate the weight, worth and magnitude of their labors. What they do for a living makes better the world around them. It is important. And to underestimate that importance is to undervalue their vocation
Taking on great efforts like combating racism, starting new churches, and undertaking flood recovery projects requires indomitable spirits. None of these are tackled by folks intent on underestimating themselves, others, the church, or God.
Thursday, August 14, 2008
Our text begins with the startling news that there arose a king who did not know Joseph. He didn’t bother to learn his history. What’s up with that? Didn’t he ask? Didn’t anyone think it was important to tell him his history? When leaders don’t know history, disaster follows. If he knew about Joseph, he would have learned that the only reason that he had a country to govern was because of the Israelite, Joseph, who saved the whole nation from famine. No Joseph and his Israelite God -- no Egypt, no kingship, no one would be around to call him Pharaoh, he’d be called dust.
If he had known about Joseph, he would have known about Joseph’s God, who works through human beings to save life, to bring blessing. He would have known that God takes the evil that people do in this world and always brings something good out of it. Because Pharaoh did not know, he made bad decisions that brought a heap of trouble on his head. The lesson from the beginning of the text is pretty clear. Don’t be a know-not. Know. Know your spiritual history. Know this God who works through human beings to save life and bring blessings upon people. Know the story. Know that you are a child of God meant for better than what sometimes you act like.
Pharaoh looks around and notices there are a lot of Hebrews. “By golly, it won’t be long before there are more of them than there are of us. Then what? They might take us over, with their language, their culture. That wouldn’t be good. I better use all the power of my government to stop them.” So, he decided to oppress the people instead of finding ways to build on common interests within the country.
Pharaoh turned the Hebrews into slaves, making their work hard and bitter. They built storehouses for the superabundance of Egypt -- as if to rub their noses in it. “We are powerful and great and rich, and you get beaten and have to build the places to store our extra riches.” But they cried out, stripped of everything human, to the God of Joseph. “God remember us. Have you forgotten us? Where are you? Come, save us. Do something.” Although Pharaoh forgot about God, God did not forget about his people. God does not forget. God remembers God's people especially in their time of trouble. God heard their cries. And Yahweh did what God always does when there is trouble. God worked through human beings to make a difference. And as God always does, God worked through those people everyone would consider the most unlikely to make a difference.
He sent midwives. Midwives were thought to be somehow cursed, not blessed by God. They couldn’t have children so God must not favor them. That was the thinking. So God chose midwives maybe to show that isn’t true.
Pharaoh decided it was time for a little population control. Back then they didn’t have fancy maternity wards and OB/GYNs. But they did have midwives. Pharaoh ordered midwives to kill any male children at birth.
Pharaoh was fearful about what might happen to him and his country so he acted with malice and terror and violence. The midwives, the text says, feared God. Fear of God doesn’t mean that if you do something wrong, you think God is going to zap you. Fearing God in the Bible means reverence, awe, respect, and worship. Their fear leads them to love life, to save it, to even put their own lives on the line. Pharaoh’s fear is self-centered; the midwives fear is self-giving.
The midwives defy Pharaoh. Obviously, they would have been killed if Pharaoh knew. It is the first recorded act of civil disobedience. They followed a higher law. They wouldn’t give in to what was expected of them. These women are our spiritual ancestors. Don’t be a not know on this. The Bible will have nothing of us being patsies in this world.
We are to stand up and defy the powers because we are not inwardly motivated, but outwardly motivated.
Defy those who try to pressure us into silence when they are corrupt.
Defy that which is hateful and wrong.
Lovingly defy those who would try to squeeze you into their mold.
The midwives refuse to kill the babies. They make up some funny story about Hebrew women being tougher than others so that they already deliver their babies before they can arrive on the scene. “Sorry boss.” And so, these two women saved a generation. They saved the big brother of Moses, Aaron. Aaron turned out to be Moses’ spokesperson and was key in leading the people out of Egypt. No midwives, no Exodus, no ten commandments, no basis of western civilization, no Judaism, no Christianity. They saved it all.
God blessed them and produced life in their barren wombs. This is one of the great themes of faith in the Old Testament. God produces life and vitality in places thought barren and dry. God a barren place in your life? Remember your spiritual heritage, don’t be a know not.
The names of these women are mentioned. Puah and Shiphara. They are named but the particular great Pharaoh is not named. I like that. The great king is not named but the ordinary women heroines are named. In the Bible’s logic, these two women are more important than all of the Pharaohs remembered in the valley of towering pyramids put together.
Puah and Shiphara. Their names are strange in Hebrew, translated into English the names mean: Beauty and Splendor. Whenever women are named in the Old Testament it means something. Here in this story we are told that Beauty and Splendor saved a whole generation. Why do you think this story about Beauty and Splendor defying authority and saving a generation are told about in the Bible? Do you think it is just a history lesson? By no means. It is about us. People who will stand up to what is wrong, and put themselves on the line for others have souls filled with beauty and splendor.
Alexander Solyzenietzen who survived some of the ugliest things that have ever happened to human beings in the Russian Gulag said that “Beauty will save the earth.” He was not talking about anorexic, airbrushed, digitally and siliconically enhanced super-models on the covers of magazines. He was talking about simple acts of self-giving in a fearful world.
Beauty is the compassion of making sure others feel welcome. Splendor is the kid who decides not to pick on the new kid just because everyone else is. Beauty is the person who calls you to account. Splendor is the person who devotes his life not just to making as much money as you can, but to make as much meaning as you can.
Hear the words that Nelson Mandela quoted in his inauguration speech to a people who had been put down and oppressed and depressed for generations.
"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, “Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous” Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others."
You are meant to shine. So often we let powers smaller than a king keep us down. We are afraid of what others might think if we put our wildest hopes and dreams and noblest ideals into action. They might think we are nuts. They might laugh. They might ridicule us. We might fail. We might succeed and be lonely anyway. But remember no matter what, you are the child of God. You are meant to shine, to be beautiful and live with splendor.
In this old world, God keeps on working through ordinary folks like the midwives and you and me to bring life, to bring beauty, to bring splendor in a world that forgets about God. There is a new generation that needs to learn who they are. Our children need to know they are part of this story. We need to learn it so we can teach it to them. We are midwives of hope. Hope to a new generation. So that our children won’t be know nots. So that they will know that God does not forget.
Like Moses being plucked from his basket in the river, God has plucked us from the waters of baptism, not only the assurance that our own life has been spared - but to fill us with God’s spirit and to make us living reminders of a God that does not forget. God does not forget the oppressed. God does not forget the forsaken. God does not forget the lost. God does not forget the broken. God does not forget the sin-sick. God has raised us up to keep God in the face of every person that would dare to forget. Know it, remember who you are and rejoice.
Tuesday, August 12, 2008
These stories don't seem to fit well together, but they just may. Matthew's audience of early Christians are dealing with some complicated issues, about whether or not they have to follow the old Jewish food laws, and about whether Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians can eat together. These made for some complex tensions. Perhaps Matthew placed these stories together to respond to these tensions. (For more on this see: Preaching Through the Christian Year, Year A, pp 407-408).
It's easier to say what we believe than to practice what we believe. So for the early Christians it might have been easy to say that "God is the God of all" or "in Christ there is no Jew nor Greek" but putting these abstract thoughts into practice would have been much harder to do. Perhaps these stories are there to remind them that Jesus was more concerned about what comes out of the heart than about what rules you follow and that the first messianic proclamation actually came from a gentile woman. Reminders of things like these were almost certainly needed to help resolve issues of Church governance in the first century. They're also needed today.
When the earliest Stone-Campbell churches were formed, African-American worshippers had to enter the church by climbing a ladder from the outside. Then they were relegated to the balconies. Saying that Christ welcomes all to the table was perhaps harder for those early Disciples to say than to practice.
What are our challenges today? We say we are an inclusive church but we still wrestle with issues of exclusivity. We say we believe in the radically inclusive love of God but our congregations still have a nasty little habit of excluding people because of race, sexual orientation, or social status. Perhaps these stories of Jesus will be helpful for us to hear. Remember, to say something is very different than to actually believe it, and to believe it is very different than actually living by it.
Wednesday, August 6, 2008
Im not sure how much of this is me and how much of this is the Text and how much is just me at the end of a long camping season. 26 camps, a plane flight that just would not work out to ICYF in California, 8 storms that interupted power twice, blew over 3 large trees, destroyed all 3 of my well pumps at the same time (meaning no water for camp) and so much more -- This was my summer. Infact the water emergency was the reason for the lateness of this entry...
Now I cannot let you all think that it was a bad summer because it was great summer. But in good midwestern (perhaps just being a minister) fashion when campers, counselors or other guest would ask how it is going in the middle of one of those chaotic moments, my response was, "Things are OK." While my mind was internally racing to find a way to fix the next problem so that what people experienced at camp would seem spiritually enriching and NOT chaotic. And most of the time, with the help of the summer interns, and the rest of the staff I mangage to do that, but on occassion late in the summer I sometimes slip and tell people what happens behind the scenes and not always nicely... That is when I know I need a vacation...
In last weeks Gospel text Jesus has just heard about John the Baptist death ( The person who baptized him) and he attempts to get away but the people follow and he heals them and feeds them. And if thats not enough to cause frustration his Disciples dont seem to understand at all. Now this week's text he finally does get away but only after sending his Disciples to the otherside of the sea while he takes care of dismissing the the crowds. Then after he does get away for a while to pray and be alone he notices that the Disciples are in trouble again and he heads out to help them.
In a moment of partial hope that things are getting better and the Disciples are getting it, even if just a little, Peter actually walks on the water... well at least for a while. Then Jesus has to come and pick him again. Jesus says, "You of little faith, why did you doubt?" I can almost hear the frustrating tone to this message.
What is the message here... hmmm Maybe we all need a vacation now then to keep focused? As in the next couple of chapters Jesus is said to be trying to get away to rest . . . However, maybe there are times to challenge people to rise to the ocassion and walk on water. Maybe instead of not telling people all the things or just doing it yourself, there might be a time to challenge people to step up and take their faith seriously... Not in a frustrating, I need a vacation kind of way, but in a "I believe in you as leaders/followers who can change the world" kind of way!
I choose to believe the latter... Rise! Just the same I will go on vacation next week!
Monday, August 4, 2008
August 10: Bill Spangler-Dunning
August 17: Dan Mayes
August 24: Dave Clark
August 31: Richard Guentert
September 7: John Claussen
September 14: Dennis Sanders
September 21: Brian Kirk
September 28: Danny Bradfield
October 5: Andy Beck
October 12: Sharla Hulsey
October 19: Bert Burns
October 26: Suzie Moore
November 2: Josh Leu
November 9: Bill Spangler-Dunning
November 16: Dan Mayes
November 23: Dave Clark
November 30: Richard Guentert
December 7: John Claussen
December 14: Dennis Sanders
December 21: Brian Kirk
December 28: Danny Bradfield
January 4: Andy Beck
January 11: Sharla Hulsey
January 18: Bert Burns
January 25: Suzie Moore
February 1: Josh Leu
February 8: Bill Spangler-Dunning
February 15: Dan Mayes
February 22: Dave Clark
March 1: Richard Guentert
March 8: John Claussen
March 15: Dennis Sanders
March 22: Brian Kirk
March 29: Danny Bradfield
April 5: Andy Beck
April 12: Sharla Hulsey
April 19: Bert Burns
April 26: Suzie Moore
May3: Josh Leu
May 10: Bill Spangler-Dunning
May 17: Dan Mayes
May 24: Dave Clark
May 31: Richard Guentert
June 7: John Claussen
June 14: Dennis Sanders
June 21: Brian Kirk
June 28: Danny Bradfield
July 5: Andy Beck
July 12: Sharla Hulsey
July 19: Bert Burns
July 26: Suzie Moore
August 2: Josh Leu
Tuesday, July 15, 2008
Several of my church ladies are quilters, and they go to quilting retreats at the Twin Lakes Christian Center just east of here. Just after they came back one time, we were working on Psalm 139 in our Monday afternoon Bible study group. As she read it, one of these quilters who was in the class got to laughing. They have kids’ church camps at Twin Lakes, and evidently they have some interesting ways of helping the kids memorize Bible verses.
Bev said when they were over there for this retreat, she noticed Bible verses stuck all over the place, in various spots where the kids would be sure to see and read them. On the back of the restroom stall door they had posted the first two verses of this psalm:
O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
Now, intellectually I know that God is always present with us—but it is a little embarrassing to think that God is there when I sit down on that particular seat (although, so the story goes, it was on such a seat that Martin Luther received the great revelation of God’s grace that sparked the Protestant Reformation).
Several years back Bette Midler sang a song called “From a Distance.” Most of the words are quite nice, dreaming that the world could realize the peace and harmony that appears to be ours when we see the world “from a distance.” But I’m not sure about the theology of the chorus: “God is watching us from a distance.” Is that true?
I don’t think our psalmist would agree. The author of Psalm 139 seems to believe that there is no place we can go to be away from God’s presence. God does not watch “from a distance,” but is there with us wherever we may go.
But some people have not been comforted by this. Jonah tried to flee from God’s presence, and found out the hard way that it couldn’t be done. And have you read the poem “The Hound of Heaven”? (Google it.) The narrator is fleeing, evidently in terror, from God. But eventually, at the end of the long poem, God catches up with him—and then God’s touch, so feared by the narrator, turns out to be a loving caress.
Wednesday, July 9, 2008
Prior to moving to Iowa I spent 6 years of my life in Oklahoma serving congregations there. I had grown up in Kansas, close to Wichita. When we moved to Oklahoma we found a house to live in and initially thought very little about the smooth slab foundation. That is, until the first summer arrived, and the tornados along with it. In fact, while I was serving one Oklahoma congregation the building was completely wiped out by a tornado. Tornado times made me leery of the house I lived in because it provided no protection at all from the violent storms. You could hide in an interior room, but that was really not much protection.
I began asking around shortly after the beginning of that first summer season and found out that very few houses in Oklahoma have basements at all. Most that do were built prior to the depression. Builders there don't build basements because of the clay and sandstone in the soil. It cause leakage and foundation problems. It's even been know to cause basements to cave it.
So I like it up here in Iowa, where the rich, fertile soil grows the sweetest corn...and where the homes have basements.
In this week's Gospel lesson Jesus offers the parable of the sower. And unlike many of his other parables he offers an interpretation. In his interpretation we can notice a major difference in the allegorized interpretation offered here from how it is offered in Mark. Mark provides a little bit of a conundrum where the sower is sowing the word (v 14) and then later the sower is sowing the hearers (v 16). Matthew, however, does not focus so much on which is which, seeing the combination of seed and soil as a complete component, a recipe in which both ingredients are necessary. So the situation of each combination is likened to a different type of hearer and their response to the word.
The question this parable poses for all of us is thus: Which one am I? Am I like the situation where the seed is sown on the path, the rocky ground, among thorns, or in the good soil? When preached the call to self-examination should be obvious.
There is also direction that this questioning and self-examination leads to. There is a harvest at the end of the season. Jesus uses some pretty incredible figures, too. A hundred-fold harvest is virtually unheard of in Palestine at the time. It's such a harvest that it would easily make up for the seed lost in the other types of soil. The emphasis here is not so much on us and our response, it is instead on God's miraculous action. This is a passage about eschatological hope.
If we're focused simply on the bottom line of the harvest we have a problem.
On the one hand, it matters how we hear and respond.
On the other hand, it doesn't matter so much because God will still reap a bountiful harvest.
But maybe what Jesus is suggesting is that we leave the bottom line to God. We hope for and trust in God to bring about the fruit of the seed. It will happen. But what is in question is whether or not we choose to be a part of it. In this way, our response to the word determines our future.
I'd love to hear your thoughts and interpretations of this parable or any of the other lectionary readings for this week.
Tuesday, June 24, 2008
I'm very new to blogging. And I rarely keep a journal or diary, so this entry may very well be a disjointed, rambling struggle as I attempt to gain calrity on a weird portion of text. I say weird because the idea of human sacrifice is so bizzarre to me. I think my understanding of human sacrifice is depicted best by the sacrifice scenes in Indiana Jones & the Temple of Doom.
I'm not sure I've ever been comfortable with this text. Abraham, being asked to sacrifice his son Isaac, is so completely obedient! As well as making a unilatteral decision. Why doesn't Abe sit down with Sarah and say "here's the deal, we've been blessed with this son in our old age, and now we have to give him back."
So why does God ask this of Abraham? What is the point? I think a simple answer is that God was testing Abraham's faith. Maybe God wanted to see just how far Abraham could be pushed. Maybe Abraham needed to be pushed to this point to be made aware of his own devotion to God.
Another thought deals with human (especially child) sacrifice in general. It's well known that child sacrifice was a common practice among pre-Hebrew peoples, and was still happening in the area during Abraham's time. Maybe God, who from our earliest understandings has been about transformation, is using Abraham and Isaac to illustrate a change in behavior. No longer was sacrifice of this nature desired, which previewed what later prophets would utter, God no longer wants burnt sacrifice, but devotion and faith.
So does Abrahams obedience leads to understanding God's provision? Does our following of the way of Christ lead us to understanding how we can be providers for others?
Like a typical teenage boy, I ignored everything good that my parents did for me and focused on the things that were "bad" for me, like cleaning my room and helping with household chores. I always thought they had it out for me. (maybe that's how Isaac was feeling when he was being tied up!)
Now as a father of a 15 month old, I see so much of my parents in the way i try to provide for my child. Maybe i understand their provision for me better now that i am a parent too. Maybe as followers of Jesus we understand God's provision better when we provide for others, and they in turn understand God's loving provision when they are providers: "Anyone who accepts what you do, accepts me, the One who sent you. Anyone who accepts what I do accepts my Father, who sent me. Accepting a messenger of God is as good as being God's messenger. Accepting someone's help is as good as giving someone help." Matt. 10:40 -The Message
Sunday, June 15, 2008
lectionary text for 6/22: Genesis 21:8-21
Less than two months ago, I began a new ministry. The congregation I now pastor is in many ways a typical Disciples congregation. It has wonderful people, and a nice mix of ages, although members would like the number of people to grow, especially among the younger age groups.
Thus far, a big part of my job has been getting to know the people of this congregation. In doing so, I am also becoming familiar with that all-too-familiar component in our churches: the struggles for power. Nearly every congregation has had power struggles among its members. Usually, the members learn to deal with—or at least live with—these struggles. However, sometimes they can be damaging.
The conflict between Sarah and Hagar (Genesis 21: 8-21) bears many of the characteristics of a power struggle. Sarah has observed her son, Isaac, playing with Ishmael, the son of Hagar, and has become jealous. Isaac and Ishmael are both sons of Abraham. The question is, which one will be the heir, the one to carry on the line of Abraham, the one to receive the rights and blessings of the first-born son?
Muslims today trace their heritage to Abraham through Ishmael, and insist that he is the heir. He was the oldest, and even though he was born to Hagar, ancient Mesopotamian law would have considered him to be Sarah’s son.
Jews and Christians, on the other hand, trace their heritage to Abraham through Isaac. They insist that Isaac is the rightful heir, the one whose birth fulfilled the promise God made to Abraham and Sarah that they would have a child of their own.
In many ways, the power struggle that developed between Sarah and Hagar continues in the power struggles that exist between Jews, Christians, and Muslims. They are struggles that threaten the peace and even existence of the planet. And how does God feel about this? According to Genesis, the quarrel between Sarah & Hagar was “very distressing” to Abraham, and it seems to me that our current struggles and quarrels must certainly be “very distressing” to God.
Quarrels and power struggles are always distressing, not only to those directly involved, but to everyone in the family/community. Parents fight, and their children suffer. Nations wage war, and innocents die. Church members quarrel, and even those not directly involved feel the effects.
In our church (and in many others), there is a part of the worship service called the “Passing of the Peace.” One member recently disclosed to me that he didn’t like “all that hugging” in the middle of worship, that such greetings and signs of affection should take place “outside the sanctuary,” either before worship in the narthex or afterward during our time of fellowship.
His comments made me think that perhaps the theological reason for including a “Passing of the Peace” is lost on many worshipers. Reconciliation has always been an important part of the Christian message. To paraphrase: “When you come to the place of worship, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave the place of worship and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come to worship” (Matthew 5:24). The “Passing of the Peace” is a gesture of the type of reconciliation Jesus describes. It suggests that, sometimes, the “brother or sister” with whom reconciliation is needed is there in the sanctuary. As a part of the worship service, it is most especially needed when there are power struggles in the church—and when isn’t there a power struggle of some sort going on?—as a reminder that whatever struggles and differences exist among us, they aren’t enough to divide us. We’re united in Christ.
The “Passing of the Peace” also serves as a model to be practiced with those outside the sanctuary walls with whom we need reconciliation.
The conflicts of the children are distressing to the parent. As the father of two boys, I know this. Abraham, also the father of two boys, knew this as well. And God, the parent of all the earth’s children, knows this, too. How much joy, then, can we bring to God by being reconciled with our brothers and sisters!