Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Lectionary Notes for Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year B

Readings for Fifth Sunday in Lent, 3/22/15:
Jeremiah 31:31-34, Psalm 51:1-12, Hebrews 5:5-10, John 12:20-33

Jeremiah 31:31-34
  • "new covenant" - I wonder how many times in the scriptures God tries to renew a covenant with God's people. How many times would you try again with someone who had betrayed, neglected, hurt, or forgotten you?
  • "I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people." This is God wanting a real relationship with people, for God to be the one to whom the people belong. Imagine, if God's law is on our hearts, within us, perhaps we can learn better to live by its spirit and not by its letter. God is trying a different approach in this new covenant - a law of love we carry inside of us.
  • "they shall know me, from the least of them to the greatest" - God is for all - not just for the knowledgeable and educated, who have power to teach others - God is for all.
Psalm 51:1-12:
  • Ah, a favorite psalm. And like Joel, an element of confession. This psalm is one I'm mostly likely to use if I'm feeling the need to come before God in a confessional mode. Do you have a confessional prayer in church every week? We do not, and I think as Protestants, we sometimes get nervous about confession, even corporate. But even if we don't share sins with a priest, confession is a necessary part of our relationship - any healthy relationship, really.
  • Where I disagree with the psalmist, (thought to be David writing after the sin with Bathsheba) is in his claim: "against you, you alone, have I sinned." Rarely do our sins only affect God - that's the worst about them - our sin hurts others. David's sin, for instance, resulted in a man's death, and a child's death, according to scriptures.

Hebrews 5:5-10:
  • Check out Genesis 14:17-20 and Psalm 110:4 for context about Melchizedek. 
  • I don't usually think of Jesus as a "high priest." What priestly functions do you see Jesus filling? How is Jesus priest? The author gives his answer in verses 7-10.
  • :8 - I also don't think of Jesus as one who had to "learn" obedience, but as one who simply was obedient. But maybe there is more power in thinking of Jesus learning to obey God through his faithfulness to God's plan for him. What do you think?

John 12:20-33:
  • :24 - This verse is often used in funeral liturgies/readings. We probably don't think of grain dying when we plant it, but grain becomes something entirely different when it is planted. Are you willing to be planted, to be come something entirely different?
  • :25 - Compare this verse to Mark 8:35 - Is Jesus saying the same thing in each passage?
  • :27 - "Now my soul is troubled." I think the only other place Jesus makes a similar statement is when he is praying in the garden before his arrest. I think it can be a brave thing to share when your soul is troubled.
  • :27-32 - Jesus makes so many "grand speeches" in John's gospel, so different than his style as recorded in the Synoptic gospels. What do you think John is trying to communicate to us about Jesus?

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Lectionary Notes for Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year B

Readings for Fourth Sunday in Lent, 3/15/15:
Numbers 21:4-9, Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22, Ephesians 2:1-10, John 3:14-21

Numbers 21:4-9:
  • I think this is one of the strangest passages in the Bible. Making a serpent of bronze to fend off poisonous snakes seems strangely idol-like to me, but God commands Moses to do this. And the snakes that are biting people were sent by God to begin with! I really don't get it.
  • The people are again complaining to Moses - why did you take us from Egypt? They do this literally countless times. How do you think Moses keeps the faith? Their complaining no doubt wears on him.
  • How do we act like the people? Complaining about what is new and reminiscing for the 'good old days'?
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22:
  • Steadfast, according to dictionary.com is "Firmly fixed or established; fast fixed; firm. 2. Not fickle or wavering; constant; firm; resolute; unswerving; steady. God's love for us is constant and unwavering. Take comfort!
  • Verses 17-18 match up with our text from Numbers today.
  • Do you believe that God causes our illnesses as a punishment from sin? That theology is certainly present in the scriptures, and here in this Psalm. Jesus tried to lead people to a different way of thinking, but even today, many associate sickness with punishment. What do you think?
Ephesians 2:1-10:
  • a typical flesh/spirit argument going on in the first verses. The fleshly desires are bad and sinful. This argument seems so dismissive of the human God-created physical selves and tangible, bodily experiences that we have? Is it really so bad to be 'in the flesh'?
  • God, rich in mercy. Jesus . . . immeasurable riches of his grace. Great phrases. What kind of riches do you want?
  • "by grace you have been saved." - This cannot be said much more clearly. How are we saved? By grace! Not be what we do or don't do - we'd never make it that way. Not even by how strong our faith is. We respond in faith, but we're loved and saved by God's grace.
John 3:14-21:
  • In verse 14, Jesus is referring to the passage we read in Numbers today. The serpent that Moses lifted up prevented the people dying from the poisonous snake bites. Jesus makes a parallel argument about his effect on people.
  • :16 - Try this to look anew at the most famous verse of the Bible - where it says "the world," insert your own name. "For God so loved Beth that God gave his only Son . . .so that Beth who believes in him . . ." Then trie it with the name of the person you like least. God so loved them too!
  • :17 "Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him." This is an important verse, and I think it helps us ground verse :16, instead of using verse :16 as an exclusive litmus test type verse. Not to condemn. To save. I hear to many Christians in the condemning business. Less in the saving business.
  • :20 - what in your life would you not want exposed to light?

Sermon, "Forgiveness: Sibling Rivalry," Luke 15:11-32

Sermon 3/8/15
Luke 15:11-32

Forgiveness: Sibling Rivalry

            We’ve been talking this Lent about forgiveness and reconciliation, and sometimes, when you start thinking about a certain issue or topic, you start to notice every time it is mentioned, every time it comes up in conversation, and suddenly, it feels like everyone is talking about what you’ve been thinking about. I read a couple of interesting articles recently. One of them talked about the issue of shame, and in particular the practice of public shaming that we engage in in our social media-focused culture. The article talked about weighing the benefit we have through social media to draw attention to abuses that otherwise stay covered up, with the way we can destroy a person’s life over one mistake that used to be just something someone could recover from. For example, a young woman recently complained about the new job she was about to start on twitter. Her boss found out, and fired her, also on twitter. But since this all happened on a public forum, it went viral – it was trending, meaning everyone was talking about it on social media. So, some unwise choices were made, but in a normal context, the young woman might have been able to apologize, and the boss might have forgiven her, and everyone could have moved on. Instead, this incident will probably shape this young woman’s life forever. (1)
            Another article outlined a  psychology professor’s forgiveness strategy, which he calls REACH: Recall the incident, Empathize with the person who wronged you, give them the Altruistic gift of forgiveness, Commit yourself to public forgiveness, and then Hold on to that forgiveness. The psychologist found that practicing forgiveness is good for your health. It reduces anxiety, depression, and fatigue. Forgiving people improves sleep, and decreases dependence on medications. (2) Practicing forgiveness is good for you.
Of course, we come to our study of forgiveness and reconciliation from the perspective of Christ-followers. What do we know about forgiveness from the scriptures, from the example of Jesus, from our relationship with God? How do we, in the church, practice forgiveness and reconciliation? Today we turn our attention to a probably familiar parable, usually known as the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Prodigal is a word that we have come to think of as meaning lost, because of this parable. But actually it means extravagant. Someone who is prodigal in their behavior spends lavishly and wastefully. In this parable, we find two sons. The younger asks for his inheritance – basically he asks for what he would get from his father in the event of his father’s death. It was just as rude a thing to ask as it sounds like. But the father assents, and gives the younger son his portion, and the younger son wanders off and lives a prodigal lifestyle – he spends all his money in lavish living. When a famine hits, he realizes he is in trouble. He gets a job, but it isn’t enough, and he finds himself thinking he wishes he was fed as well as the pigs. So he decides to go home, and beg his father’s mercy, offering to be treated like a hired hand.
However, when his father lays eyes on him, he is filled with compassion for his son, a word that means literally that his insides are twisted up with feeling for his son, and he embraces him, kisses him, and orders the best robe, and a ring, and sandals, and a fatted calf to feast on, and a general celebration to be held to welcome this son back home. As he says, “This son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!”
The older son, however, isn’t so excited at the turn of events. When he hears what has taken place, he’s angry and upset with his father, and he refuses to join the party. His father pleads with him to understand, but the son won’t listen. He says he’s been on his best behavior all along, and he’s never gotten this kind of celebration. And yet, the younger son, who squandered everything in selfish living, gets the best of the best. It isn’t fair!
His father answers his complaints saying, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.” We don’t know what happened after this in the parable Jesus tells. What do you think? Did the older brother ease up? Did he join the party? Or did he hold on to his anger? What would you do?
Figuring out why Jesus tells a particular parable can help us understand the meaning we’re meant to glean from it. Jesus shares the Parable of the Prodigal in a series of teachings about lost things that are found – the lost sheep, the lost coin, and then, the lost son, found again. And he begins telling these parables right after we hear that tax collectors and sinners have been coming to Jesus to listen to him, and that the Pharisees and scribes, the religious leaders of the day, were grumbling at Jesus, saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” At the end of the first two parables about what is lost being found, Jesus says something like, “And so also there is this much joy in heaven when one sinful person repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.” I’m not sure there are any among us who need no repentance, but many of us, at least, have an existing, ongoing relationship with God. Certainly the scribes and the Pharisees would have fallen into this category. But why does Jesus eat with the sinners? Because he’s on a quest to find the lost, not the found! And though this phrase isn’t repeated at the end of the parable of the prodigal son, we get the idea. When someone is found by God when they’ve been lost, God is overwhelmed with joy. But, are we? When someone who was lost is found by God, do we rejoice? 
            This parable, the way we know it, the way we label it, puts the focus on the prodigal son, the younger son. But the names of parables aren’t part of the scriptures themselves – they’re just what we’ve named them later on. And I think we got the name wrong here. I think this parable might be more aptly called “The Parable of the Self-Righteous, Unforgiving Brother.” And I can say this because I related so much more to the older brother than to the younger. Maybe some of you really connect with the younger brother, squandering away his blessings, and returning to God after leading a wayward, wandering life, feeling God’s open arms welcome you home. But for many of us who have long been rule-followers, church-goers, trying, if imperfectly, to follow Jesus for as long as we can remember, we’re really more like the older brother than the younger. And so I wonder, how do we react when the younger brother shows up at home, and the father bends over backwards to welcome him? Do we want others to receive forgiveness? From us? From God? Do we want others to be let off the hook? Or does the forgiveness they get lessen what God has given to us? One of my favorite stories in the Bible is the story of Jonah. You might think of him as the guy that ends up swallowed by the whale. But the reason Jonah ended up there is what strikes me. Jonah was told by God to warn the Ninevites to repent. And Jonah heads the other direction. Why? Because he knows if he tells them to repent, they will, and God will be merciful and show them forgiveness. And Jonah doesn’t want them to be forgiven! He thinks God is too easy on them. And when, indeed, God does forgive them, Jonah basically throws himself onto the ground to pout. And this is one of God’s prophets! Truth is, I don’t think we’re so excited when God showers other people with forgiveness. Why is that?
            I think our reluctance – sometimes our unspoken or unacknowledged reluctance – to see the wholehearted, joyful forgiveness that God offers someone is first because we forget, like with many things God offers us, the difference between a gift and a reward. We treat forgiveness like it is something that we must earn. A reward God will give us if we are good enough and deserve God’s forgiveness. And we believe this because this is how we try to forgive others. Only if they deserve it. Only if they have earned it. Only if they make it up, repay us, woo us, appease our anger, do enough to get back into our good grace. Then, then, we forgive. And so we expect God’s forgiveness to be like ours: imperfect and conditional.
            Forgiveness is a gift. A gift. Free. Offered freely. Not because it is earned or deserved. But because it is a gift that the giver chooses to extend! Forgiveness is a gift! When we attach strings to our forgiveness, as reasonable as they might seem, it isn’t really forgiveness. It would be like cancelling a debt but not really cancelling it – still requiring repayment after all. Forgiveness must be a gift. If we think we can earn forgiveness from God, we’re in trouble. And of course, God deeply desires us to learn to forgive others in the way that God forgives us. I think that’s mentioned in one of those prayers we like. Something about forgiving our sins as we forgive the sins of others? If we’d like to receive God’s forgiveness as a gift, we also ought to offer it is as one. I know that’s a challenge that will require extraordinary strength. But thankfully, we know a God who will help us learn to extend it. 
            Because God loves to forgive us. That’s what these parables tell us. God loves to forgive us, and we do our best when we learn to love what God loves. God never seems to have the attitude of “you should be so grateful to me” when extending us forgiveness. Instead, God says “I’m so excited to renew this relationship with you.” God loves to forgive us.
            I think it breaks the father’s heart a little when the older son is so upset about the forgiveness extended to the younger son. Because of course, the father has been showering him with kindness and love and gifts his whole life long. But none of it seems to matter in light of the welcome home party for the younger son. The older son acts as though everything he’s been given up until this moment counts for nothing.
            Are the gifts that God gives to us only valuable in comparison with what God gives to others? Is the grace and love and forgiveness God gives to us only valuable if no one else receives it? I worry that sometimes we treat God’s gifts, and God’s forgiveness like it is a limited-edition item that loses value if too many people get it. But friends, our God is a God of abundance. There’s no scarcity here. Nothing that will run out. And the value of the gifts we receive are in no way diminished when everyone gets a piece. On the contrary. In the way the Kingdom of God works, everything is just right when everyone is welcomed home. The puzzle is complete when the coin is found, and the 100th sheep rejoins the fold, and our younger brother who drives us a little crazy is welcomed home. Nothing makes God so full of joy then to welcome someone back. God loves to forgive, and charges nothing for it. Thanks be to God! Let us go and learn to do likewise. Amen. 

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Lectionary Notes for Third Sunday in Lent, Year B

Readings for Third Sunday in Lent, 3/8/15:
Exodus 20:1-17, Psalm 19, 1 Corinthians 1:18-25, John 2:13-22

Exodus 20:1-17:

  • The Ten Commandments - all the rage in the last couple years with courtroom battles. People have spent a lot of energy defending these commandments. Are they worth defending? Do we follow as well as defend? While I don't feel they need to be posted in our courtrooms, I think they are still pretty important for us.
  • The ones I am most drawn to are the first commandments. God is God and our only God. We might not worship other deities, but sometimes we're in danger of worshipping our possessions, our work, our culture, or our country. We may not make golden calf idols, but we idolize plenty of things, don't we?
  • "Remember the Sabbath." This is so hard for me. We're recently started a twice-weekly prayer chapel at our church - 30 minutes to be still and be with God. I find even that hard. My mind is always racing over my to-do list. How do you keep Sabbath?
  • Coveting - that's another commandment that I think is so important. We always want what we don't have, no matter how much we do have. How do we live a life of gratitude?

  • Psalm 19
  • "The heavens are telling the glory of God." These famous words from the Psalm are often set to music.
  • This imagery of the sun "like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy", this personification of the sun draws to my mind Greek/Roman mythology, and no doubt made contemporaries of the psalmist think of similar images of sun-gods in other religions. The difference? Here the sun is put into place by God, not a god in itself.
  • God is more than gold, sweeter than honey. A simple message - but reminds us of things we put too often before God in our lives.
  • "Let the words of my mouth and the meditations..." This verse is often used by pastors before they begin preaching. I like it, but if there's a way to use a Bible verse too much to the point of over doing, this one makes it on my personal list!

  • 1 Corinthians 1:18-25:
  • "For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing..." I don't know what to make of this verse, because I too often see it used as a "Jesus is the only way, see?" tool. But let's revamp it. An instrument of weakness is made into an instrument of power. That is what God does to things. Gives them a whole new life, and a whole new meaning.
  •  That theme carries into the whole passage - God doesn't just change meanings of things around, but meanings of people. We're flipped inside out by this 'foolishness' of Jesus Christ.
  • Compare this passage with the value of Wisdom we see in Proverbs. I think Paul is discounting being worldly-wise instead of God-wise. Better a fool for God than wise for the world?

  • John 2:13-22
  • "my Father's house a marketplace." Maybe we don't have malls in our churches (maybe!), but how do we take the holy out of our holy places? Churches often play dangerous games with marketing and commercialism. Where do we draw lines?
  • "he drove all of them out" - this is one of few times we see Jesus so confrontational. When in your faith are you moved to be confrontational? What is worth making a scene?
  • In verse 21, John gives his take on Jesus' words in verse 19. What would you think Jesus meant?
  • Friday, February 27, 2015

    Lectionary Notes for Second Sunday in Lent, Year B

    Readings for Second Sunday in Lent, 3/1/15:
    Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16, Psalm 22:23-31, Romans 4:13-25, Mark 8:31-38

    Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16: 
    • This text ties directly with the Romans passage for today - it is the text Paul is speaking about in his argument.
    • God comes to Abram when he is 99. We should be reminded that we are never beyond the point in life where God can and wants to use us and guide us. There is no retirement from discipleship!
    • Often in the Bible, God changes someone's name as a sign of God's promise to them. Do you have nicknames that are meaningful to you because of what they symbolize? If you chose a name for yourself based on God's work with/in you, what would it be?

    Psalm 22:23-31:
    •  We see this Psalm again in its entirety soon - a Good Friday Psalm. Today, our focus on on a specific section, not the "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" section we usually associate with this Psalm. This section is the conclusion of the Psalm - a much more hopeful section.
    • "[God] did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted . . . [God] heard when I cried to him" People tend to shy away from the pain and hardship of others. It is hard to watch others in pain, suffering, because we feel so helpless. But God never turns away from us in the midst of our trouble.
    • "The poor shall eat and be satisfied." What a day to look forward to. But think also metaphorically - how often do we fill ourselves and our lives with things that don't really satisfy us? Whenever we do, we are outside of God's plans and hopes for us.

    Romans 4:13-25:
    •  Our Old Testament lesson ties in with this lesson from Romans - read the Genesis account of Abram to give you more grounding for Paul's theological arguments here.
    • This was a text I studied carefully when I was writing a paper my freshman year of college on sola fide. Ah, how enlightened I was! But the texts I used still bring me straight back to the paper I was working on: are we saved by faith or works? We answer faith with our lips, but sometimes works with our actions and attitudes. We're always trying to earn God's love, and always convinced we (and others) can never live up to it.
    • According to Paul, Abraham's faith is in God's promises. "No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God." Sometimes I think we get confused and try to have faith simply in our own abilities. That's an impossible task. Instead, our faith should focus on God's promises and the fulfillment of those promises in our midst.

    Mark 8:31-38:
    •  I picture Peter plugging his ears, not wanting to hear something like Jesus' words about death and suffering, a reaction a child might have. Peter wants to keep what he sees as 'bad news' away. What aren't you ready to hear God say to you?
    • Jesus tells them to take up their cross before he is crucified. His words, then, mean more than literal crucifixion for his followers. What do you think the disciples thought he meant? What would it mean for you to take up a cross and follow Jesus?
    • To save your life, you must lose it, if you lose your life for Christ, you save it. Certainly there is a degree of literal-ness here. But also, I think of things we say we "lose ourselves" in, like our work, our art, our passions, our music, our spouse, etc. Christ wants us to lose ourselves . . . in him!

    Tuesday, February 17, 2015

    Lectionary Notes for First Sunday in Lent, Year B

    Readings for First Sunday in Lent, 2/22/15: 
    Genesis 9:8-17, Psalm 25:1-10, 1 Peter 3:18-22, Mark 1:9-15

    Genesis 9:8-17:

  • One of God's first covenants established with God's people - never again to destroy the earth and its people as God did in the flood. What other covenants does God make with humans?
  • Have you ever made a personal covenant with God? Have you kept your part of the promise? Has God?
  • The rainbow is a symbol of a promise. Symbols are important reminders of promise - we use rings, for example, as symbols of promises made in marriage. What symbols are important reminders in your own life? 
  • Have you seen many rainbows? When I see them, I am always filled with joy, they are so rare and precious. How do they make you feel? Do you remember God's promise when you see them?

  • Psalm 
  • The psalmist mentions shame several times - his shame, the shame of those obedient to God, shame he hopes is put on others by God. Shame is a powerful emotion, a powerful motivator, a powerful weapon of oppression. Of what are you ashamed in yourself? In others? How do you shame others? Does God shame us?
  • "Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions" - Many people probably echo the psalmists worries - will be judged by all the things we did when we didn't know any better? I think we can trust in God's abundant grace, who calls us into a more mature discipleship. Indeed, verses 8 and 9 talk about God as a teacher, The One who instructs us. How have you learned/grown in your faith over the years? Are you a mature disciple? Or an early student?

  • 1 Peter 3:18-22:
  • Peter clings to a New Testament dualism between flesh and spirit. Sometimes, thinking of these separate spheres is helpful, but sometimes New Testament writers make it seem as though everything flesh - flesh God created - is bad. What do you think? How do we nurture our spirits without negating the temple/bodies in which we live?
  • Note the connection in verse 20 to the Genesis reading for today, and the connection in verse 21 to the gospel lesson about baptism.
  • The author has a unique description of baptism: not a removal of dirtiness, but an appeal to God for a "good conscience." This emphasizes personal responsibility and repentance without emphasizing guilt/unworthiness/original sin. It leaves out God's initiative of grace to us, but I like the way the Peter describe his view.

  • Mark 1:9-15
  • We start with a review of the baptism of Jesus - short and sweet in Mark. Make sure you compare Mark's recording of this scene (remember Mark is the earliest gospel written) with the accounts in the other gospels. In Mark, God speaks directly to Jesus: You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased. Other accounts have God saying This is my Son. I prefer Mark's recording - God speaking directly to God's child.
  • This passage highlights Mark's love of brevity - where the temptation lasts several verses with many details in Luke and Matthew, with a recorded conversation between Jesus and Satan, Mark sees no need for such an account, simply recording that Jesus was tempted for 40 days, driven into the wilderness by the Spirit. What do you make Mark's account? What does his brief style say about what is most important to him about Jesus' temptation?
  • Mark again emphasizes that for Jesus, the good news is: "the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe." Do you see this as good news? Why was it so important for Jesus to tell this?
  • Lectionary Notes for Ash Wednesday

    Readings for Ash Wednesday, 2/18/15:
    Joel 2:1-2, 12-17, Psalm 51:1-17, 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

    Joel 2:1-2, 12-17:
    • "Rend your hearts and not your clothing." This verse ties into Psalm 51's theme: it is our heart, our inside, our soul that God wants us to worry about most - not sacrifices, not outward signs. (theme of the gospel as well) Inside, not outside.
    • "[God] is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing." I like these descriptions, especially in the midst of the Old Testament, which can have a different image of God.
    • "Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast." Joel urges the people to gather together, to plead to God as a community for forgiveness. When do we do that? Gather as a community and ask God to have mercy on us?
    Psalm 51:1-17:
    • Ah, a favorite psalm. And like Joel, an element of confession. This psalm is one I'm mostly likely to use if I'm feeling the need to come before God in a confessional mode. Do you have a confessional prayer in church every week? We do not, and I think as Protestants, we sometimes get nervous about confession, even corporate. But even if we don't share sins with a priest, confession is a necessary part of our relationship - any healthy relationship, really. 
    • Where I disagree with the psalmist, (thought to be David writing after the sin with Bathsheeba) is in his claim: "against you, you alone, have I sinned." Rarely do our sins only affect God - that's the worst about them - our sin hurts others. David's sin, for instance, resulted in a man's death, and a child's death, according to scriptures.
    • "the sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise." Inside, not outside. Rituals are meaningless to God if they are not accompanied by real change in who we are and how we live!
    2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10:
    • "an acceptable time" - The Greek word here is one of my favorites, one I learned during my freshman year of college when I felt like I had just uncovered one of the great mysteries of the world: kairos, or "God's right time for action" as Dr. Emmanuel Twesigye taught. This is as opposed to chronos, regular ol' time.
    •  Paul describes a paradox/contradictory state - impostors yet true, unknown yet know, dying yet alive. Sometimes being a disciple can feel like this: pulled constantly between to states of being you never thought could go together.
    • Paul gives himself quite a list of things that make him and colleagues "servants of God." Stuff like this is always what makes me think Paul has such a boastful side. Oh well, I guess he's entitled a fault...
    Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21:
    • Again the Lenten theme: God wants our insides, not our outsides.
    • Interesting, isn't it, to compare Jesus' words to our current practices of worship - we still like to "sound the trumpet" when we give, we like to pray with fancy words in long winded ways. We like to be rewarded, preferably instantly, for our good and holy behavior.
    • "Where you treasure is, there your heart will be also." Notice that it is not where you heart is, there you will find your treasure. But first look to what you treasure - and that's where your heart, your whole person is. So what do you treasure? Possessions? Then that is what you are: your things.

    Sermon for Transfiguration Sunday, "A New Name: Back to Beloved," Mark 9:2-9

    Sermon 2/15/15
    Mark 9:2-9

    A New Name: Back to Beloved

    Today we’re drawing our “A New Name” series to a close, and as the title of the sermon suggests, we’re looking again at a name that we started our series with: Beloved. Way back at the beginning of this series, I told you through my surrogate preachers Liz and Tim and Bev and Laura, that I’ve been wanting to do this series for a while. We are a body made up of people and resources from South Onondaga and Navarino and Cardiff and Cedarville. But as much as those places shaped us deeply, we’re this new thing: Apple Valley. For the children of this congregation, for those who have come to this congregation in recent years, for those who are and will become a part of this congregation, the only church they know is Apple Valley, this new creation God has formed. We treasure our history, the legacy of the congregations that birthed this one, but we also treasure this new name, this new creation that God is making.
    So we began, on Baptism of the Lord Sunday, by reminding ourselves that God called Jesus Beloved in his baptism, and we are God’s beloved too. Our primary identity, in a world that is constantly trying to tell us who we are and who we should be, is Beloved, God’s children, created in God’s image. When God says these words to Jesus, they are intimate and personal: “You are my Son, the beloved, with you I am well-pleased.” But in our text for today, we hear this same name, beloved, in a different way. Our scene in Mark opens just after the scene we read about in Matthew’s gospel last week. Jesus had been asking the disciples who people were saying he was, and then asked them to answer the question himself. Peter answered the Jesus was the Messiah, but then got off track when he heard Jesus talk about the suffering and death the Messiah was to face. Jesus sets Peter straight, saying followers of Jesus must take up the cross, deny themselves, and put themselves last, not first, in order to serve others.
    Now, six days after this, Jesus takes three who have been so close to him, goes up a mountain with them, and is transfigured – changed, unveiled – before them. It’s hard to describe what this might be like. You’ll see some artists’ rendering of the transfiguration during the sermon today. The best we can say is: they were able to see Jesus’ full glory, and it was a sight to behold. Elijah and Moses appear and speak with Jesus – they represent the prophets and the law – the two pieces of God’s revelation thus far – and Jesus with them seems to represent a fulfillment of things. Peter doesn’t know what to do or say, and the three disciples are simply terrified by what they see. So Peter offers to build three dwellings for Jesus, Elijah, and Moses. He says it is good for them to be there. Peter’s ready to make it possible to stay – just remain there on the mountaintop to stay in this very holy, if also very scary, place. But then a cloud overshadows them, and they hear God’s voice saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” And then the moment is over, and they are alone with Jesus again, and he orders them, as they come down the mountain, not to tell what they experienced until after the resurrection.
                This whole passage is no doubt strange to us. But two things here are important for us to take away: first, the disciples experienced this as an extremely holy moment, where they felt like they were closer to God, and seeing more of God in Jesus, than perhaps they ever had before. Mountaintops in the scriptures are often places where people meet God, and it is from these encounters that we develop the phrase “mountaintop experience” to describe an overwhelmingly awesome experience. This, even if we don’t understand it, is what the disciples have had at the Transfiguration. And second, they want to try to stay there, remain there in that moment, prolong that time on the mountain, rather than returning to life on the ground.
                We can probably relate to both of those pieces of the transfiguration. We’ve had mountaintop experiences in our lives, I hope. Spiritual peaks or highs, moments where things seem to fall into place and we understand or experience God in a way we normally don’t, times where everything seems so good and right and meaningful. It might be at just those moments when we’re most deeply able to know and believe that we are beloved. And we’ve also experienced, I’m betting, wanting to stay in that place – stay on the mountaintop, prolong an experience where we knew the time was limited, where we knew we couldn’t stay forever.
    For me, when I was younger, going to church camp every summer at Camp Aldersgate was my mountaintop place. I’ve told you, I think, how much I loved going there. As soon as Christmas was over, I would begin to wait anxiously for the arrival of the camping brochure, the list of all the camps available at Aldersgate that coming summer. Once the brochure arrived, and camps were selected, waiting until summer and camp week was so hard. I used to start packing ridiculously early - making lists of what to bring, what shirt to wear with what shorts, and tucking things away in the back of my closet, all ready for the week of camp to arrive. And then, in a flash, it would be time to take the trip to Aldersgate. During one short week at camp, it seemed so much could happen. You would meet so many people, experience so many new things, and think about and talk about your faith in a way that rarely happened in other settings, especially as a young person. And then, in another flash, it was all over. The week ended, camp ended, and being in that special place, set apart, was over for another whole year.
    At first coming home from a week of camp, it was so hard to get back into things, into the normal routine, and so hard to think about waiting a whole long year to be able to go to camp again. When I was a little older, I got to work on staff at Camp Aldersgate, and I got to prolong that feeling I got from camp for a whole summer. In fact, I enjoyed that special time, that special place, that special connection with other people and with God so much that for some time I confused God's call to ordained ministry for a call to the camping ministry. When I got home from my summer on staff, I had an extremely hard time adjusting back to high-school life. I didn't want my mountaintop time to end. I wanted it to be camping season all the time. I wanted to hold on to the connection I felt with God at camp, to the connectedness to the world around me.
    Dan Kimball is a pastor who authored a book called They Like Jesus But Not the Church. In the book, Kimball writes about research results that show people outside of the church have a great opinion of Jesus, his life, and his message. They just have a bad opinion – a very bad opinion – of Christians, finding them to be: hypocritical, homophobic, judgmental, and sheltered. Kimball theorizes about why this is – why do people see Christians so negatively? He concludes that without meaning to, Christians are like pretty scenes trapped in a beautiful snow globe – we live in a bubble, and we like it there, and want to stay there. We tend to mostly interact with, live near, and spend time with people who are like us and share our beliefs. Instead of being the church, the body of Christ, we focus on the church as a place, where we might invite people to come. But we’re unlikely to bring church – to bring Christ – to others. And so it is hard to reach others or be reached from inside the bubble. 
    Can you relate to this image at all? I found it helpful and challenging. When we think about the Transfiguration, we can see that Peter’s immediate impulse was to create a bubble – to take this extremely holy experience and trap it, keep it, stay there and dwell in it. And we can hardly blame him. Why would he want such a profound experience to end, even if he couldn’t understand it completely? But at the same time, we have to wonder: what if Jesus had stayed up on the mountain with the disciples? What if Moses couldn’t stop basking in the wonder of the burning bush? What if Mary Magdalene stayed at the tomb with Jesus and never went to share the news? What if the shepherds and the Magi couldn’t tear themselves away from the Christ-child? What if I’d never been able to move on from summer camp? The holy places in our lives, where our place with God is confirmed, where we know we are beloved are so precious. But we’re not called to bottle them up, or put ourselves in a bubble with them – we’re called to take the holy with us as we go, to learn to find the holy in valleys, to embody God’s presence in ourselves as we go back down the mountain. That’s why when we talk about our faith lives, we usually talk not about a static place, but about faith as a journey. We worship a God who is named I AM – a living God, an active God, a God always doing a new thing. Jesus calls us to a path of discipleship using a word of movement – we’re to take up a cross and follow.
    Our closing hymn is a hymn for Transfiguration Sunday called “Swiftly Pass the Clouds of Glory, written by contemporary Lutheran hymnist Amanda Husberg. Hear the words of the first verse: Swiftly pass the clouds of glory, Heaven's voice, the dazzling light; Moses and Elijah vanish; Christ alone commands the height! Peter, James, and John fall silent, Turning from the summit's rise Downward toward the shadowed valley Where their Lord has fixed His eyes. That last phrase, “where their Lord has fixed His eyes,” lets us know that the transfiguration is sort of a turning point in the gospels. After the transfiguration, Jesus “sets his face toward Jerusalem,” even as he continues to preach and teach. He begins journeying toward his crucifixion. He decidedly faces the ultimate consequences of his radical message of love. There’s no turning back. And so after Peter identifying Jesus as the Messiah, after Jesus talking about taking up the cross and following, when they travel up the mountain and see Jesus transfigured, and hear him called beloved, hear God reminding them to listen, really listen to Jesus, it is sort of a defining moment. They’ve seen Jesus in his glory, revealed, dazzling. But the work Jesus is about, the way his face is set, the people he is called to serve with his very life are back down in the valley. That’s where Jesus is headed. This is the point of no return. And the disciples still don’t get it, fully. But they follow. Because where Jesus, Beloved, goes, they follow.
    Remember, the words God once said to Jesus intimately, “You are beloved,” God now says out loud, “This is my beloved.” And so too the intimate experience, the closeness to God that Peter, James, and John experience on the mountain with Jesus is meant to support, not overshadow, the work that they set out to do as they head down the mountain. And so it is with us. We are beloved, and in our holy places and moments when we feel like we’re on the mountaintop, so close to God, the desire to just stay there – us and God – is powerful. But we, dear ones, are not God’s only beloved. Jesus is God’s beloved, and with grace, extends that love to us. And so we extend it to others. We embody the love of God when we find it in others. Our God is of the mountains and the valleys, and all the places in between. And Jesus is setting his face to Jerusalem to pour his life out for others. And if he is God’s beloved, and we are God’s beloved, we are called to do the same. We are God’s beloved – thanks be to God. Trusting that, we set our face, and journey down the mountain, following Jesus. Amen.

    Monday, February 09, 2015

    Lectionary Notes for Transfiguration Sunday, Year B

    Readings for Transfiguration Sunday, 2/15/15:
    2 Kings 2:1-12, Psalm 50:1-6, 2 Corinthians 4:3-6, Mark 9:2-9 

    2 Kings 2:1-12:

  • Aside from the tongue-twisting of an Elisha/Elijah-packed reading, I like this selection - it is a transitioning of leadership - one who is leaving literally passing on the mantle to one who is stepping up afterward. In part, this was the theme of Rev. Safiya Fosua of the General Board of Discipleship as she preached at our ordination service at Annual Conference some years ago. She talked about how we need to step up in support when we have those in our midst who are called, even though they need to own their own calls as well. Who can you support who is being called? Especially look out for young people who are hearing God's voice, who may not have many avenues of affirmation coming their way.
  • "Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit." When asked what he wants from Elijah, this is how Elisha responds. Sometimes we're afraid to ask for what we really want and need and could put to use. Elisha just goes straight for what will make him a leader as Elijah was. "You have asked a hard thing," Elijah says. Hard, but wise, and possible indeed! What would you ask for if you didn't put restrictions on your asking? If so equipped, what could you do for God?
  • "I will not leave you." - Compare this to Ruth's sentiments to Naomi and Ruth 1. What people would you be willing to follow anywhere?

  • Psalm 50:1-6
  • "from the rising of the sun to its setting" - God calls us all the time - the image is an all-encompassing one. There is no part of our day/life where God is not calling to us.
  • "Our God comes and does not keep silence." That's comforting - God speaks. God speaks for God's people. Even when we don't want to hear God's words!
  • Read the rest of this psalm - it focuses on sacrifice, and what sacrifices God truly wants from us. A lot of "blood", gore, and enemies, but some good themes.

  • 2 Corinthians 4:3-6:
  • "veiled" - I'm not sure why verses 1 and 2 are left out of this passage - reading them helps Paul's argument make sense. Paul is talking about the truth and openness of the gospel and of his ministry in sharing the gospel. If the gospel appears still veiled, Paul argues, it is not because of the gospel itself, but because of unbelief or "the god of this world"
  • "god of this world" What do you think Paul means by this? What are the gods of our world that we try to substitute in place of the Real Thing?
  • "we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ" So simple. And yet, a real problem. So often, we let ourselves get in the way of the message of the gospel. We forget our place as messengers and think we are the message.

  • Mark 9:2-9
  • Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up the mountain where the three disciples witness Jesus' 'transfiguration' - Moses and Elijah appear and Jesus is changed, dazzling and dressed in white. Transfiguration Sunday is generally under celebrated and under-appreciated, I think, but there are lots of ways we can relate to this story.
  • "tell no one" Why do you think Jesus wanted to keep the transfiguration hush-hush for all but these three? Perhaps he knew it wouldn't make as much sense to them until later? What do you think? What would cause you to keep a really awesome experience of God quiet? When and why would you tell or would you not tell what you saw? Maybe Jesus wanted people to believe in him/follow him not because of fantastical events like this, but because of a desire for a deeper relationship with God based on a real, personal experience. But look for this "messianic secret" as a repeating theme in Mark.
  • "he did not know what to say, for they were terrified" The disciples' response to what they see is fear, causing Peter to say anything. Has an experience of God and who God is ever caused a response of fear in you? We often fear what our relationship with God might require of us. Seeing God and God's glory face to face in such an undeniable way would leave us with an undeniable responsibility to act, wouldn't it?
  • Sermon, "A New Name: Simon Peter," Matthew 16:13-26

    Sermon 2/8/15
    Matthew 16:13-26

    A New Name: Simon Peter

                Today we’re taking a look at Simon Peter, one of the twelve disciples, one who was called a different name by Jesus himself. We pick up in the gospel of Matthew, just after Jesus has been warning the disciples against the corrupt teaching of the Sadducees and Pharisees, two groups of religious leader who were always questioning Jesus, his methods, and his authority. Now, as they enter Caesarea Philippi, Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” He seems to want a sense of what his reputation is, how people understand the ministry he’s been doing. They tell him that some are calling him John the Baptist, and some Elijah, others Jeremiah, or another of the prophets. And then Jesus is more direct: “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answers, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus responds, clearly pleased – Peter has it right. Jesus says, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah!” He continues, “I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock, I will build my church.” Jesus says even his own death won’t stop the community of faith that will form, that Peter and the other disciples will organize and order.
                But from this moment of recognition, Jesus begins to speak to the disciples about the suffering he will undergo, about his death and resurrection. They don’t understand him. Peter draws Jesus aside and rebukes him: “God forbid it! This must never happen to you.” And Jesus responds saying, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me.” Finally, Jesus tells the disciples: If they really want to be followers – if anyone does – they must deny themselves, take up the cross, and follow. Jesus concludes, “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
                I hope this passage sounds a little bit familiar to you. We read this very passage together over two Sundays back in August, shortly after Pastor Penny and I started our journey with you. We talked about what it meant for Jesus to be called Messiah – one of his many names – what impact that had on our lives. But today our focus is a bit different. This time, we’re paying particular attention to Peter and what Jesus says to him.
                Peter is called both Simon and Peter fairly interchangeably throughout the gospels. Some gospels use one more than other. John almost always refers to him as Simon Peter. Mark is the only gospel that doesn’t mention Jesus naming Simon Peter. And Matthew is the only gospel that gives us the story. In this passage that we read, Jesus calls Simon Peter. What’s the significance? Biblical scholars have debated this, because the name Peter is different in both Aramaic and Greek. Last week we talked about how Saul started going by Paul, since Saul was Aramaic and Paul was Greek, and Paul was interested in sharing the message of Jesus with those who were Gentiles. Peter, too, is a Greek name, a Greek word, which means “a stone.” The Aramaic word for stone is Cephas, and some of the gospels use this word for Peter. (As an interesting aside, Paul always calls Peter Cephas, as if to emphasize that Peter doesn’t understand the mission of the church like Paul does. Yes, Peter and Paul did not get along. Anyway:) So if we think of this exchange between Peter and Jesus as in Aramaic, Jesus says, “You shall be Cephas, and on this cephas I will build my church.” You are the rock, the stone, and on this rock/stone I will build my church. It works fine, but the text we have, and the name Peter seems to go by is the Greek: Petros. As I said, this word means stone. Not rock, but stone. And then when Jesus says, “on this rock I will build my church,” the word is petra. Rock. Not stone, but rock. Particularly like a shelf of rocks. The kind large rocks that make up a landscape, that you can walk on, build on. A small change in the Greek word – Petros to Petra – makes the difference between a stone and rock. Jesus is saying that Simon called Peter is a stone – but the future Jesus sees in Peter is a rock, a solid foundation on which a movement will be built into what we know as the church.
                Of course, just later in this very passage, Jesus calls Peter by another name altogether: Satan! That word means adversary and opponent. Peter is opposing what Jesus must do, his mission, his purpose, because Peter is scared and confused. But despite the fact that Peter still screws things up, still has some of his worst moments later on – after all, his denying even knowing Jesus is yet to come – still, what Jesus names Simon for is his potential, his promise, his possibility. He names him for what Peter can become if he follows Jesus, if he takes up the cross, if he denies himself and chooses the path of Christ. Peter, the Rock.
    What is our potential? Promise? Possibility? What does God see in us? One of my favorite images is a picture I’ve seen now and again of a kitten gazing into a mirror, only to see a lion looking back. Sometimes I’ve seen this as part of an article on self-confidence. When we feel good about ourselves, we look in the mirror and see all that potential. But I think it is more like what happens when we remember that we’re made in God’s image. When we gaze into God’s heart, and God reflects back to us what happens when we ground our lives and our purpose and our dreams in the very heart of God. Then, then, with confidence in God, rather than ourselves, the kitten becomes a lion. And so when I think about the word play of Peter and stones and rocks that are strong enough to be the foundation of a whole movement of Jesus-followers, I realize what it means: A stone is a stone. But a stone plus Jesus equals a rock solid enough, strong enough, to be a foundation. Peter is Peter. But Peter plus Jesus equals one who, though still struggling, inspires crowds to follow Jesus too. We might look in the mirror and see our limits. But when we look into God’s heart, anything and everything is possible. We are a little church, just little Apple Valley. But when we reflect God’s heart to the world, we’re a place with a big mission and big purpose and big reach and big potential Small seeds that with Jesus produce abundant fruit.
                I’ve been participating in a clergy study group for the last couple of years, and together, we read books and discuss how they impact our lives and the lives of our congregations. Right now we’re reading Dare to Dream by Mike Slaughter, the pastor of a large United Methodist Church in Ohio. I’ve found this book more compelling than I expected, and you shouldn’t be surprised to see it offered as a study here in the near future. Throughout the book, Slaughter encourages readers to figure out what their God-purpose is, what their God-centered dreams are for life. He writes, “If [our] purpose is from God, it will always honor God, bless other people, and bring you joy. If it doesn’t meet those three criteria, then it isn’t a God-purpose, no matter how successful you are in accomplishing it.” And then he encourages us to reflect on three questions to figure out our God-purpose: “Where do you see the greatest need around you in your neighborhood, your community, or your world? How can you meet that need? What gifts do you bring to further that mission?”
                Soon, our Lenten journey will begin, and we’ll focus on the practices of forgiveness and reconciliation. But when Easter comes, and we greet the promise of resurrection and new life again, I’m going to try to help us think very seriously about these questions. What are the needs we see? How can we meet them? What gifts do we bring? How are we honoring God? How are we blessing others? What brings us joy? I want us to start to look into the heart of God and see the promise, the possibility, the potential that God sees in us. You plus God equals what? Apple Valley plus following Jesus equals what? We’re like Peter. And so even when we glimpse the image God shows us, we’ll still get things wrong. But maybe we’ll start believing that we’re a people, a congregation that can dream God-dreams, with purpose, with the possibility to transform our lives, our community, and our world. God sees that potential in us. Do you? Blessed are you, stones. Because on this rock, God is building, and building, and building.

    Monday, February 02, 2015

    Lectionary Notes for 5th Sunday after Epiphany, Year B (Ordinary 5)

    Readings for 5th Sunday after the Epiphany, 2/8:15:
    Isaiah 40:21-31, Psalm 147:1-11, 20c, 1 Corinthians 9:16-23, Mark 1:29-39

    Isaiah 40:21-31:
    • "have you not known? have you not heard? has it not been told you from the beginning? have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?" - Isaiah seems to be saying, "Don't you get it yet?" How many times do we need to hear about God's love and grace before we finally believe it?
    • "like grasshoppers" When I was in junior high, I used to have a "map" of the universe with a little arrow pointing to earth, which said, "you are here." It reminded me of how very very small we are in the scheme of things. I found it quite overwhelming - took it down eventually. But we can remember - we are so small - and yet - God knows us by name.
    • "calling them all by name" - I'm always nervous, as a pastor, that I will forget names of people I'm supposed to remember. Names are important, and express a sense of relationship. Godknows your name - all of our names.
    • "[God] does not grow faint or weary" - In such a busy exhausting world, such knowledge is very comforting.
    • "[God's] understanding is unsearchable" - I suddenly have images of trying to "google" God's mind. :)
    Psalm 147:1-11, 20c:
    • "how good it is to sing praises to our God" - Do you find worship a joyful experience? Or are you going through the motions? How can you find the goodness of worship?
    • "he heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds" - These images are of a God who cares for those who are weak - those who feel useless, without strength.
    • "the Lord takes pleasure in those who fear him" - I've mentioned many time my dilemma about "fearing God" language in the scriptures. Do you fear God? We're instructed over and over again in the scriptures not to be afraid. What does it mean, then, to fear God? I interpret it to mean we're to have an awe of God that is an awe we give only to God. Should/do we fear God anymore, or have we gotten too cozy? It's great to feel close to God, but have we lost our reverence in the process, the believe that God is actually above and beyond us in many respects? Where is a good line between fear/love/respect? 
    1 Corinthians 9:16-23:
    • "obligation" - "woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel" - Paul feels he can do nothing but proclaim the gospel. Do you feel that way?
    • "the gospel free of charge" - nice!
    • "to the _______ I became ______" - Paul tries to meet people where they are at, to become one of them, so he can share the good news with them. It is a good strategy - the same God uses with us, right? God becomes one of us, to share love with us.
    • "I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some." - What a burden! Paul is dedicated, but it sounds exhausting. He wants "to save" as many as he can. But can we be all things to all people? How can we draw lines? On the other hand, what are you so passionate about you'd to whatever it takes to make sure others know about it?
    Mark 1:29-39:
    • "and she began to serve them." Poor women - healed only to immediately return to work of serving the men! But I think this is meant to illustrate her complete healing - she is physically able to get right back to work.
    • "and the whole city was gathered around the door." Claustrophobic, anyone? Even for Jesus, the pressure of so many must have been huge.
    • "because [the demons] knew him." How is it that the most evil know Jesus? Perhaps because we all know who are biggest enemies are?
    • "out to a deserted place" - take note of the many times Jesus seeks rest and renewal with God. Do we give ourselves as much of a break?
    • "[they] hunted for him." - from the Greek katadio^ko^, meaning literally "follow hard upon, pursue closely" - that word - hunted - really struck me.
    • "everyone is searching for you." Indeed.
    • "that is what I came out to do." - proclaim the good news that the time is fulfilled and God's kingdom has and is arriving. 

    Sermon, "A New Name: Saul --> Paul," Acts 9:1-22

    Sermon 2/1/15
    Acts 9:1-22

    A New Name: Saul --> Paul

    Have you ever known someone who started going by a different name? They were always called one thing, but they started going by another name? Or maybe you have changed what you are called, over time. Sometimes this is something that just seems to happen, and other times it’s a deliberate choice. Some of you met one of my three brothers, Tim, on Christmas Eve. Tim is Timothy Jon, and so most of his childhood, we called him Tj. But at some point, he started going by Tim instead. It was a hard change to get used to, after referring to him as Tj for so long. Over the years, Tim has become comfortable switching back and forth – Tim or Tj – especially for family. But if he introduces himself, I’m betting he’ll tell you he’s “Tim.”
    Or, there’s my older brother Jim. He’s married to Jennifer, and when they got married, Jim decided to take Jennifer’s last name. Jim is Jim Thompson, not Jim Quick. There were a few reasons for this choice. For one, Jennifer’s family is very small – she doesn’t have a lot of aunt and uncles and cousins and siblings. So continuing to be a Thompson meant something to Jennifer. On the other hand, it was important to Jim to shed a name that tied him to my father, with whom Jim was not close, and to embrace the chance to demonstrate that changing names should be a choice, not an expectation based on your gender. My brother Todd and I have our own name stories too. I went through a “Liz” phase, in fact. But you get the idea.
    Today, in our series on New Names, we turn our focus to Saul. Our passage opens telling us that Saul has been “breathing threats and murder” against the followers of the way of Jesus. He seeks out more authority from the high priests, seeking the ability to have the followers of the way arrested and brought to trial for punishment, if he meets any on his journey to Damascus. Instead, his journey turns out very differently than planned. As he’s travelling, a light flashes around him, he falls to the ground, and he hears a voice: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” “Who are you?” Paul wonders. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” the voice responds. Saul follows Jesus’ instructions to head to the city to wait for someone to tell him what to do. He’s been temporarily blinded by his encounter with Jesus.
    Once in Damascus, Saul meets a man named Ananias. Jesus appeared to Ananias to send him to help Saul. But Ananias is skeptical. We read, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.” But Jesus responds, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles.” And we read, “So Ananias went.” He trusted Jesus’ voice! Ananias lays hands on Saul, telling him that Jesus sent Ananias so that Saul could regain his sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit. Saul’s sight is immediately restored, and he gets up and is baptized. Over the next days, he spends time with the very disciples he was intent on persecuting, and begins preaching: “Jesus is the Son of God.”
    There are a couple of unique things about our text this week. First, this is the only name change in our series that isn’t a change given by God. We don’t read about Paul’s change in name in our text today – the passage refers to him only as Saul. And we don’t read about God telling him to go by Paul because God never says that. And in fact, this name change is unique because there’s never a time where the scriptures tell us clearly when and why the name change happens. Some chapters after the text we read today, Saul’s conversion story, Luke, the author of Acts, is describing some of the works of the apostles, and he says, “Saul, also known as Paul,” and from then on, Paul is always called Paul. The only time we hear the name Saul again is when Paul is telling the story of his conversion to a follower of Jesus. Paul seems to be a name that Saul chooses to start using after his conversion. Why would he do this?
    Well, Saul and Paul are really the same name, just in different languages. Saul is Hebrew, and Paul is Greek. Hebrew or Aramaic would have been the language spoken by Jesus and the twelve and those in Galilee and the surrounding areas. But Greek was the language of the Roman Empire and the larger community. Paul intentionally sheds his local Jewish name, and goes for the language of the non-Jewish community. Why would he do this? Well, Paul, once considered among the most righteous and correct and proper of the Pharisees, adherent to the law – Paul finds that the ministry God has called him to is ministry with Gentiles, those who were not Jewish. Paul's life work is travelling around to Gentile communities and sharing the gospel with them. And so he is known to them by a name that would have meaning to them. Paul, not Saul.
    Paul, who was known to be one to uphold the law in every minute detail, has been bowled over by the freedom of the grace offered to him through his encounter with Jesus. And he wants everyone – everyone ­– to be able to experience what he’s experienced. And so he goes by the name that will put those he meets – the Gentiles he spends his life in ministry to – most at ease. See, most of Jesus’ disciples didn’t see, at first, that the mission and message of Jesus was meant for those who were not Jewish. Or at least, they believed that those who wanted to follow Jesus should become Jews, follow the commandments, become part of the covenant, Jews who happened to be disciples of Jesus. This isn’t surprising, really. Jesus talked about fulfilling, not abolishing the law that ordered Jewish life. But Paul just has a different vision for how that takes place. So when he goes out to preach and teach and form churches among Gentiles, he goes as Paul, the Greek, not Saul, the Hebrew. In fact, Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians, says this: “I have become all things to all people, so that I might by any means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.” All things to all people. So if Saul needs to become Paul for the sake of the gospel, Saul becomes Paul.
    As I read this story, I’m compelled by the journeys of both Paul and Ananias. Not many of us have conversion experiences that are like Paul’s. Some of us do, and that’s a wonderful blessing. But for many of us, if we’ve grown up in the church, the moment our faith became our own and we decide to be Christ-followers is really a series of events and smaller moments, experiences and learning taking place over time. But whether the changes in our relationship with God are more like going from a caterpillar to a butterfly, or more like growing from a seedling into a great pine tree, life with God surely changes us – if we let it, if we continually seek after following Jesus. Is your faith life the same as when you were 5? Or 13? Or 22?
    Can we change? Today is February 1st. Did you make any resolutions one month ago? Have you had resolutions you’ve kept? Sometimes, seeking change in our lives seems like a lost cause, as we get stuck in our same, destructive patterns. And so when we set out to change our lives or change the world it seems hopeless before we even begin. Can we change? The scriptures all full of this promise: God is making all things new. In Christ, we are new creations. But you’ll notice something: the change comes from God. After all, Saul didn’t exactly seek out change in his life. God just changed him. But rather than despairing that I haven’t experienced a conversion as dramatic as Paul’s, it gives me hope. Think of this: if Paul, who didn’t ask to be or desire to become a follower of Jesus, and did the opposite in fact, persecuting followers of the way – if this Paul, in fact, could be changed by God into one who would be thrown in jail and put to death for proclaiming the good news? How much simpler might it be for God to transform those of us who already say we desire to be transformed! Especially if we really mean it. Especially if we actively pray for God to transform our lives. Especially if we participate actively in handing over to God our lives in order to be changed!
    Then, of course, there’s Ananias. I wonder: Can we let other people change? It isn’t as easy as it sounds. I’m bowled over by Ananias. Ananias, a Jesus-follower, know that Saul has been overseeing the brutal death sentences of Jesus-followers, and now suddenly he claims to be one himself? Not only that, he’s going to be a leader, spreading the message to Gentiles? And Ananias has to help him? Tend to him? It’s a miracle Ananias didn’t just laugh. But instead, he went and did exactly what was commanded. I can’t imagine that incredible forgiveness and reconciliation that must have had to take place in the heart of Ananias to let all of this happen. Only his trust in God’s plans and his deep understanding of the free gift of grace must have made him able to do that. Can we let people change? During the season of Lent, which is fast approaching, we’ll be talking in depth about forgiveness and reconciliation. But for now, I want us to consider how often people in our lives are trying to change, trying to go a new direction, God’s direction, but we are unable to offer forgiveness, to believe that God offers grace and new life, even to our enemies. I don’t mean that in blind forgiveness, we should put ourselves in harmful, abusive situations. But I wonder, can we let people change? Do we want them to? Is it ok if Tj grows up and becomes Tim? Is it ok if that one person we knew as a bossy know-it-all grew into a strong leader? Can we allow for the addict to become a counselor? The bully to become a teacher? The lost to become found? One of the reasons why I love and stick with something as time-consuming and ad-laden as facebook is because it has allowed me to see people change. I’m “facebook friends” with people I absolutely did not like in high school. And at first I resented a friend request, thinking, don’t they remember how awful they were to me in seventh grade? But then I realized that I got to experience the transformation of lives, in a small way, through the power of facebook!
    This week I asked you all to research name or word meanings and to choose a name that captured where you hope to go in your relationship with God, where God is leading you. Did any of you do that? Saul became Paul because God changed him, and Paul wanted to celebrate! And he wanted to celebrate by drawing others into the story. He wanted to invite them to experience this God who makes us new creations. And he’d do anything, even be known by a different name, to help accomplish his mission. Maybe it isn’t as easy for all of us to see how God is changing us, growing us, shaping us. Sometimes we need help from others, or study, or reflection, or prayer, to see how God is at work in us. Sometimes it means we need to be more active in asking God to transform us, opening our spirits to God at work. But God does offer new life to you. And when you know that, claim that, trust that, stake your life on that: we celebrate and share the good news, like Saul, who was Paul, for the sake of the gospel.
    Who will you be?

    Monday, January 26, 2015

    Lectionary Notes for 4th Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B (Ordinary 4)

    Readings for 4th Sunday after the Epiphany, 2/1/15:
    Deuteronomy 18:15-20, Psalm 111, 1 Corinthians 8:1-13, Mark 1:21-28

    Deuteronomy 18:15-20:

  • Moses declares to the people that God will raise up a prophet after his death - ostensibly he speaks of his successor, Joshua. He does this because the people feel that God speaking to them more directly, as at Horeb when God spoke out of the fire, is too frightening, too much to handle. Can you imagine thinking that God speaking directly too you is too much to handle? It might be intimidating, but most of us seem to wish God would speak to us more directly. (Maybe we'd change our minds after experiencing it!)
  • So this new prophet, like Moses, will act as a go-between between the people and God. Has anyone ever served in this role for you? A pastor/priest can fill in this role, but if you are a clergy person, do you ever wish someone would stand between you and God? What experiences have you had?
  • There is a condition, though, to the arrangement: The people must actually heed the words of the prophet. They can't make this arrangement and then decide they don't like the prophet - as they often threatened to do with Moses. When is it right to question authority, leadership? When is it not right?

  • Psalm 111
  • The psalmist is praising God for faithfulness, for being a provider and covenant-keeper, for following through and being with the people. This psalm is all about praising and thanking God for all God has done.
  • "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom." Do you fear God? We're instructed over and over again in the scriptures not to be afraid. What does it mean, then, to fear God or to be God-fearing? I interpret it to mean we're to have an awe of God that is an awe we give only to God. Should/do we fear God anymore, or have we gotten too cozy? It's great to feel close to God, but have we lost our reverence in the process, the believe that God is actually above and beyond us in many respects? Where is a good line between fear/love/respect? 

  • 1 Corinthians 8:1-13:
  • This is a great passage from Paul, regarding a common obstacle in the communities of the early church: the debate over whether or not Christians should eat meat that had been sacrificed in pagan temples to pagan gods.
  • Paul says, "Look - knowledge is all good and well. But what you need with God is love. If you love God, God knows you, and that's what's most important." He says, eloquently, "knowledge puffs up, but love builds up." Knowledge, like everything, is a gift from God. We can oppress others by withholding knowledge from them (women and people of color, for instance, have been denied education) but we can also give knowledge too much power when we treat it as the most important thing.
  • Paul argues that "smarty-pants" Christians might know that eating sacrificed pagan meat is no big deal. He doesn't disagree with the reasoning - if the gods the meat was meant for aren't real, who cares about eating the meat? But Paul says there is a much higher concern: Christians who don't "get it" can be led astray by those who do - so what's the point of weakening the faith of another just to indulge in some meat?
  • Paul concludes - why insist on doing something that will only cause another's faith to wobble, if that thing is not necessary. Personally, I think of drinking in this way. I don't think consuming alcohol is morally wrong. But it is a stumbling block for many. So, I choose to abstain, for the good of the whole. 

  • Mark 1:21-28
  • "as one having authority, not like the scribes" - Chris Haslam writes in his comments that the scribes would be knowledgeable, quoting scripture, but not have their own authority. Jesus, on the other hand, draws on scriptures, sure, but speaks for himself - his authority is from within.
  • Haslam also says that healers/magicians of the day would have done rituals/magic to cleanse the man of the demon. Since Jesus can do this with only spoken words, the people see that indeed he does have a different kind of authority.
  • Because of this deed, Jesus' "fame" begins to spread. Do you think this is what Jesus most wanted people to know about him? His casting out demons? Or would he have rather been famous for his teaching and message of love and grace for the least? I think Jesus was savvy - he got people talking and drew them so he could teach and touch them.