Monday, November 17, 2014

Lectionary Notes for Reign of Christ Sunday, Year A

Readings for Reign of Christ Sunday, 11/23/14:
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24, Psalm 100, Ephesians 1:15-23, Matthew 25:31-46

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24:

  • This is a great passage, and goes so well with the gospel lesson for today. What vivid images of God as our shepherd!
  • God's preference is clear: "I will see the lost . . . I will strengthen the weak," and "the fat and the strong I will destroy." Which kind of sheep are you? 
  • Compare this to Jesus' teachings about who he came to serve. I will feed them with justice." What does it mean to be fed with justice? How do you feed your life with justice? Does working for God's justice in the world fill you up?  

Psalm 100:

  • "It is God that made us, and we are [God's]; we are [God's] people, and the sheep of [God's] pasture." Again, imagery of being sheep in God's fold. We belong to God. We humans have a great need to belong. The best we can belong to is God.
  • "Worship the Lord with gladness." How do you worship? Do you find joy in your worship? Meaning? How do you keep from "going through the motions" of worship?
  • "Give thanks." This is a season of Thanks-giving. How do you give thanks? Giving thanks involves more than words - "giving" is an action word. How do you take action to give thanks? 

Ephesians 1:15-23:

  • I especially like the first part of this passage, verses 15-19. These verses sound like great words of blessing to speak on someone, a person of faith. To pray that God grants wisdom and revelation, enlightenment, riches of Christ's inheritance, knowledge of the immeasurable greatness of God's power. . .
  • Aside from that, this passage seems very typical of a lot of the epistle writing. Here is set up the metaphor: Christ as the head of the church and of the body, the church as the body of Christ, and thus under Christ, who is over all things, filling all things. 

Matthew 25:31-46:

  • What passage in the gospels best describes the standards by which we gain eternal life? This passage tells us that it is our actions, not our words, that determines our eternal being. Do your words and actions match? What do your actions say about what you really believe?
  • Where have you seen Christ in unusual ways? Where have you seen Christ where you have not expected? Do you think others see Christ in you? 
  • For a cute but on-target illustration, check out "Lunch with God." 
  • We often think of poverty and hunger and need far away from us. Where do poverty and hunger and need exist right in your own community? Why is it easier to see need far-away than at home?

Sermon for Reign of Christ/Christ the King Sunday, Year A, "Giving Thanks: Sighted," Matthew 25:31-46

Sermon 11/16/14
Matthew 25:31-46

Giving Thanks: Sighted

Today we continue on in Matthew’s gospel, immediately following the Parable of the Talents we talked about last Sunday, and we arrive at what we call the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. It is another one that is probably familiar to you, and it is Jesus’ last parable, last major segment of teaching in the gospel of Matthew. After this, things rapidly move toward the passion and crucifixion. So in this last parable, Jesus tells about a future time of judgment when the Son of Man will gather all people before him and separate them like you might sort sheep and goats in a flock. “Son of Man” is a term used by Jesus to refer to himself which means kind of like “the human of humans.” So Jesus, Son of Man, king, will sort the people into two groups. To the sheep on his right, he’ll say that they are blessed and can inherit the kingdom that has been prepared for them from the foundation of the world. And they receive this treatment because when “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Only, those marked as sheep don’t ever remember seeing the king at all – surely they would remember something so momentous! But no, the king tells them: “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Then the whole scenario repeats with those on his left who are like the goats, only this time the king says they are accursed for not helping the king when they saw him in need. And again, they don’t recollect ever seeing him, and again, the king says that whenever they saw but did not help one of the “least of these,” they also did not help the king. 
This Parable of the Sheep and the Goats is one that we know fairly well. We even mostly like it, I think, this idea that in everyone we meet, we are encountering Jesus. It sounds like a lovely idea, doesn’t it? The only problem, then, as is often the case with Jesus’ teachings, becomes accounting for the wide gap between our liking of this parable, our general, “Yes, that’s right” affirmation of it, and a quick assessment of the world around us that shows the pervasiveness of those who are sick and poor and hungry and thirsty and without shelter or clothing, or who are in prison or alone, and the ongoing struggle of these persons. If we love this parable, and affirm this idea of “the least of these” being ways we can encounter Jesus, come face to face with Jesus, how come so many are still hungry and thirsty and sick and alone?
            As I read through this familiar parable again, I started to focus in on this phrase, the repeated question in the text: “When did we see you?” Both those identified as sheep and goats ask this question: “When did we see you?” they ask. “When was it that we saw you hungry and did or didn’t give you food, or thirsty and did or didn’t give you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and did or didn’t welcome you, or naked and did or didn’t give you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and did or didn’t visit you?” And to both groups, the king says that they truly encountered the king when they saw and assisted – or didn’t – those he describes as “the least of these, who are members of my family.” But whether the sheep or goats help those they see or not, those who are the least of these, but also the king himself, both sheep and goats see the ones they encounter. Imperative to deciding to act one way or another is seeing the person to begin with.
            This, I think, is the key for us twenty-first century readers. I think we’re exceptionally clever. We like to hear about this “seeing Christ in people” stuff. But man, it is hard to see Jesus in some people, and then, when we realize Jesus really means it about the “least of these,” it’s hard to carry through on all this feeding and visiting and clothing and comforting of people he describes. But, what if we could just not see anyone at all? If we don’t really see people, then we don’t have to decide whether or not we know we’re looking into the face of Jesus, who would be able to spur us to action. Have you ever had the experience of running into someone in a store or at a restaurant who, for whatever reason, you really would rather not talk to? And then it becomes a kind of frantic, anxious game. Is it too late? Did they see you already? If they saw you, did they see you see them, or would it still be convincing for you to pretend you didn’t see them? Suddenly you are staring at your feet, or intently reading the ingredient labels, or forgot something back in the aisle you just came down, or get a “phone call” that you really must take and focus on. Sure, sometimes we really don’t see someone. We’re distracted, concentrating on other things. But how often are we trying not to see?
            When we think about sheep and goats and Jesus’ words to us, I wonder if most of the time we don’t feel like we’ve encountered Christ because we’re putting up a great show of not seeing the people we encounter. Maybe we don’t mean to at first. But I think one way or another, we try not to see people because it will slow us down. Interrupt our rhythm. We don’t have time. We’re busy and behind, and we don’t want to get into all the baggage and all the effort and all the awkwardness and all the uncomfortableness that comes with really seeing people. And so we don’t see. And in our blindness, we miss chances, foolishly, to encounter Christ, face to face.  
            Earlier this year, as part of a campaign called Make Them Visible, the Rescue Mission of New York City did a bit of an experiment for a short documentary. They had the family members of half a dozen people dress up and position themselves as homeless people on the street. And then cameras recorded these half dozen people walking by, passing right by their costumed family members. You can see in the picture on the screen this woman walking down the street – and she passes right by her mother, her sister, and her uncle. That’s her family, right there. But she doesn’t see them. This woman was not alone. Everyone walked right by their own family members. Yes, they were costumed, but their faces weren’t altered. Still, they went unseen. When shown the videos of themselves walking by their family, the individuals were shocked. Upset. Embarrassed. Would you see your family members on the street?

Who do we see? I mean so much more in that question than asking whether or not we walk by people seeking money on the street corners with our heads down, although that’s a good question to ask. One of the many traits of Jesus we can seek to imitate, that we can take as a model, is how he sees everybody. A man climbs a tree – and Jesus sees him. A woman touches his cloak – and Jesus sees her. Children are pushed aside – but Jesus sees them. Jesus sees us. And what’s more – if we’re not where it’s easy to see us, Jesus will seek us, search us, find us, go where we are. To the lepers outside the borders of the town. To the Canaanite woman living in a gentile territory. Jesus will seek you out, find you. 
            What do we see? What would be different if in every setting in life, not just on the streets but including them, we started asking ourselves who in any given situation we weren’t seeing? We just went through an election – what would change if we wondered who we were looking right over when we considered a political issue? How would the dynamics of the church – our church and the church universal change if we asked: who aren’t we seeing? How would our families be different if we asked: who aren’t we seeing in our families? Who’s been invisible or overlooked? How would our schools, our workplaces, our communities be different if we wondered: who am I missing? Who am I not seeing? And then: what might happen if, like Jesus, we made sure we saw, even if it meant we had to seek people out, instead of waiting for them to cross our paths?
            This week your homework has two parts. First, I want you keep track of how you spend your time all week. We think about time a lot – feeling like it’s moving too slowly or too quickly or that we don’t have enough of it. So keep track this week. How are you spending your time? At the end of each day, or as the day unfolds, write how you’re spending your time. Part two: Keep track of who you’re spending your time with. Try to pay attention to who you see – or who you don’t usually see. Who are you with during your week? Who aren’t you with? Do you spend your week with people who are mostly like you? Do you see all kinds of people? Keep track, all week, and if you’re willing, bring it in next week to share, along with your commitment to who you’re going to try to see more clearly in the months ahead.
            One of the things that my mom loves the most is when all of her kids are together and when we’re happy with each other. If all four of us are enjoying spending time together, then my mother is in sort of a state of sublime ecstasy, because the people she loves the most are happy and well, and showing love for each other. That’s what I think God enjoys the most too. When all of us, God’s children, are together, and enjoying each other, and showering love on each other, happy to be in each other’s presence. So when we don’t see each other, when we even try not to see each other, for God, it is like we are walking right by our brothers and sisters without seeing them. We’re walking by family. That’s what I think this parable is really all about. Who are we walking by, and who are we stopping to see? Because if we see, we’ll find the face of Christ reflected there. And it is a sight to behold.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Lectionary Notes for Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost, Year A (Proper 28, Ordinary 33)

Readings for 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, 11/16/14:
Judges 4:1-7, Psalm 123, 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11, Matthew 25:14-30

Judges 4:1-7:
  • "Deborah, a prophetess" I think those words in themselves are pretty powerful. In a set of scriptures that certainly doesn't focus on women, it's great to find and lift out stories of strong women leaders in the Bible, the Old Testament even!
  • Not only is Deborah a prophetess, but she's also a type of military leader here. She may not physically fight in the battles, but she is making decisions about the armies and where they will go.
  • The Israelites cry out because they are oppressed, and God moves to respond, in perhaps unexpected and unusual ways. God responds to our cries for help. We have to look and see who God might use and how God might use them/us to respond to oppression. 
Psalm 123:
  • We look to God like those under another's authority look to their authority (master, mistress.) How do these images translate today? So often, we feel resentful of those in authority over us, don't we? Especially if those in authority are abusive in their power. Who is a positive authority in your life? What kind of authority do they exercise? What kind of authority does God exercise over you?
  • "we have had more than enough of contempt. Our soul has had more than its fill of the scorn . . ." Sounds like a very frustrated psalmist, eh? When do you reach your boiling point? How do you call to God when you've "had enough?"
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11:
  • "When they say, 'there is peace and security," then sudden destruction will come upon them." Hm. We as a society are working awfully hard, at great expenses, for peace and security, aren't we? Our peace comes from Christ, and our security in our faith. Everything else? Maybe just cheap imitations.
  • children of light/children of darkness - just a 'caution' - be careful when using language of light=good and dark=bad. These images are valuable theologically, but can be harmful if they are communicated in ways that can have racial implications.
  • "encourage one another and build up each other" - do we do this? How often do you encourage others in their faith journeys? How do we, in tangible ways, build each other up?

Matthew 25:14-30:
  • What are the talents that you are afraid to use? Most of us have some talents we don't mind using, but others that we hide away. What are yours?
  • "to all those who have, more will be given, but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away." At first, this statement seems like a terrible statement about rich getting richer and poor getting poorer. But that's not at all what Jesus means. Jesus says that God will entrust to us a lot to look over if we use what we've already got. If we pretend God's given us nothing, then God won't entrust to us other things that we'll just ignore. Sort of a "use it or lose it" philosophy.

Sermon for Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost, Year A, "Giving Thanks: Talented," Matthew 25:14-30 (Proper 28, Ordinary 33)

I skipped a little ahead in the lectionary for the purposes of our "Giving Thanks" theme - so here's a sermon for this Sunday upcoming's text. 

Sermon 11/9/14
Matthew 25:14-30

Giving Thanks: Talented

I hope you’ve all been counting your blessings each day, as we focus on our theme of Giving Thanks this month at Apple Valley. I've been enjoying the discipline of looking back over my day and finding the joyful moments. I’ll admit to you that there are days when it isn’t easy, when the blessings come less quickly to mind than others. I know I’m blessed. But some days I feel like I could more quickly make a list of things that went wrong: I lost a treasured necklace. My mom’s car wouldn’t start. That bill was four times as much as my brother was expecting it to be. We all have days like that. As I talked about with the children today, one of the best things we can do when we’re having trouble counting our blessings is to figure out how we can offer a blessing to someone else instead. It puts things back into perspective, and takes us out of the center. We better remember our own blessings when we offer them to others. How can you be a blessing? One of the best ways we offer thanks to God for our blessings is through sharing.
One of my favorite authors and advocates for the poor is Shane Claiborne, a young man who has tried hard to live as he believes Jesus wants him to. On his facebook page this week he offered some reflections on how Christians figure out how much is enough. He shared this story: “I will never forget learning one of my best lessons … from a homeless kid in India. Every week we would throw a party for the street kids … 8-10 years old who were homeless, begging … to survive … One week, one of the kids I had grown close to told me it was his birthday. So I got him an ice cream. He was so excited he stared at it mesmerized. I have no idea how long it had been since he had eaten ice cream. But what he did next was brilliant. He yelled at all the other kids and told them to come over. He lined them up and gave them all a lick. His instinct was: this is so good I can’t keep it for myself. In the end, that’s what this whole idea of generosity is all about. Not guilt. It’s about the joy of sharing. It’s about realizing the good things in life – like ice cream – are too good to keep for ourselves.” (1)
We give thanks to God for our gifts by using our gifts, sharing them, being so excited we’ve received them that we want everyone to have a taste, to take part, to enjoy the blessing we’ve received. At least, that’s what God hopes for us. Sometimes, though, we get ourselves turned around about the gifts God gives to us. Sometimes we outright say “no thank you” to the gifts God seeks to give us. Have you ever refused a gift? In about a month, I will begin baking Christmas cookies. I make a lot of cookies. And every year, I send packages of about a dozen or two cookies to friends from high school, college, seminary, and so on. I’ve been doing this for at least a decade now! One year, after I sent out some emails to get updated addresses for mailing, one of my friends responded saying that she didn’t really want any cookies. They would go to waste. I have to admit – I was crushed! I offered her the gift that represented much more than showing off my baking skills, and she said, “No thank you.” Have you ever refused God’s gifts to you? 
            Sometimes we receive a gift from God but we don’t open it or don’t use it. Perhaps we’ve all experienced receiving a gift we really didn’t want. A shirt that just isn’t your style. A gift card to a restaurant you don’t really like. But maybe we’ve also experienced the painful feeling of realizing you’ve given a gift that was unwanted. A gift you give and never see again! Sometimes these giving mishaps take place because the giver and receiver don’t really know each other so well, don’t have a clear picture of each other. Maybe you’re giving to someone you only know through work or school or in one setting. But God – God knows us inside out. God can’t give us a gift that doesn’t suit us. And God gives out of God’s own self the gift we have in Christ. A gift marked with our own name. This is not a gift to put on a shelf! This is not a gift to return to the store! The gifts God gives are meant to be used, and opened, and shared.
Our gospel lesson today is a parable – the Parable of the Talents. It appears late in Matthew’s gospel, in the midst of several other parables. A man going on a journey calls his slaves to him and divides among them care of his property. One slave receives one talent, one five, and one ten, each, we read, receiving according to ability. The slaves who receive five and ten talents immediately take them, trade with them, and double their money to present to their master when he returns home. But the slave who received just one talent dug a hole and hid the money, and returned it to his master on his return. When the master returned, he praised the faithful servants for their stewardship of his talents, and said, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave. You have been trustworthy in a few things; I will put you in charge of many things.” But when the third slave returned the single talent to his master, explaining that he thought his Master was hard-hearted and harsh, taking what was not rightfully his; the Master rebuked the man, and took the one talent from him and gave it to the one who had already been given ten. And so, Jesus concludes with that strange sentiment: “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what we have will be taken away.”
It’s that concluding sentence that I think is so hard to process at first. I think the parable is about using the gifts God gives us, and being good stewards. But then, that last sentence: “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what we have will be taken away.” I can understand God wanting us to use what we’ve been given – but taking away from those who have nothing? Giving to those who already have so much? Even if we’re talking about more than just money here, isn’t that just a spiritual version of the poor getting poorer and the rich getting richer? Will God take anything from those who already have nothing? Does that make any sense? 
Author Luther Snow reflects on this parable, focusing in on this very troubling verse. He writes, “How can you take away something from nothing? It’s impossible. So maybe ‘those who have nothing’ do have something after all. Maybe the point is not how much we have, but how much we think we have. The [slave] with the one talent had more than nothing, but he acted as though he had nothing. He did nothing with the talent . . . He may have looked at the other two [slaves] and thought, ‘Compared to them, I’ve got nothing’ . . . It is as if the master is saying, ‘You had my valuable gifts in your hand, and you didn’t think they were valuable.’” (1) So maybe we can better understand what Jesus is saying when we think of it in this way: From those who think they’ve been given nothing, what they really do have will be taken away. And from those who feel like they’ve been richly blessed, they’ll be blessed even more. The slave with one talent didn’t have nothing. He had something precious – he just wouldn’t see it.
            We’re practicing counting our blessings this month. And we are indeed surrounded by blessings. But I think sometimes it is easier for us to count the blessings that are outside of us than the blessings that are within us. Here’s what I mean: I can tell you that I was blessed this week to babysit my sweet niece Sigourney. But it’s harder for me to say to you: I’m so thankful to God that I have a loving heart that I can shower on Siggy in return. I’m thankful that in part because of me, I know she’ll know what it is like to be loved and cherished, because I have the capacity to love and cherish her. I think we find it a bit harder to see the gifts we’ve been given by God if we have to admit that we ourselves are gifted. God has put the blessings, the gifts, the talents within us, to be shared from the very core of who we are. Maybe it is hard because we don’t want to be boastful or self-centered. We’ve all met people who are more than ready to tell you how great they are, and that’s usually not an admirable quality! But it is one thing to boast in your own awesomeness, and another thing to give thanks for and treasure and use the gifts God has put in your heart with an intent to humbly and happily serve and bless others. 
I have asked most of my congregations to complete some form of talents inventory like the one you received today. Over the years, in all my congregations, I am always amazed at how unwilling people are to believe or see that they are gifted. I started adding the “three things you like doing” question because most people were unable to admit that there were three things they were good at doing. Friends, admitting you are gifted isn’t about saying that you are all that. It isn’t bragging. Saying you are gifted and talented is quite simply saying that someone – in this case God – has given you a gift, talents. And denying it – well, that is basically saying that God hasn’t given you anything! Not discovering and using your gifts is like refusing to open a present from God. It’s like burying a talent in the ground. Kind of rude, isn’t it?! And it when it comes to showing gratitude for your talents, giving thanks for your blessings, the best way to say thank you is simple – use them. Use your gifts. Use your talents, to serve and love God, and to serve and love one another. As we think about giving thanks this month, I want us to think about how we can better thank God by using our gifts and talents more fully. What gifts has God given you that you’ve left wrapped? Unused?
Before the sermon today, we sang a hymn that we commonly refer to as “Take My Life and Let It Be,” because those are the words that are the first stanza. It breaks in an unfortunate place, though, because the title is actually, of course, “Take My Life and Let It Be Consecrated.” That word, consecrated, as we discussed in Bible Study this week, means “to make something ordinary into something sacred or holy.” That’s what we ask God to do with all manner of ordinary things in our lives. And indeed, God makes our ordinary stuff holy – from bread and cup, to pieces of colored paper and shiny metal circles that we put into offering plates, even to our very lives. That’s what we ask in this hymn: “Here are our lives God. Please, make them holy.” Sometimes though, we act like what we really mean is what the first stanza alone communicates: “Take my life and let it be.” (3) Leave me alone. Let me do what I want. Stay just like I am. Let me bury my blessings in the ground. God wants so much more for us. Please, don’t bury your blessings, your gifts, your talents, all that God has given to you. Don’t live like our generous God has been stingy with you. Instead, offer it to God. Offer it to your neighbors. Offer it to the waiting world around you. And God will consecrate your life, and your cup will run over, and your blessings will be too sweet not to share. Amen.

(2) Snow, Luther, The Power of Asset Mapping

(3) An idea I heard from Bruce Webster first I think!

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Hunger Ministry Resource for Local Churches

Like many churches will at this time of year, Apple Valley United Methodist Church is participating in a food drive to support our local food pantry, the Navarino Community Food Pantry, which we house at the church. Along with a list of items particularly needed by the pantry, I wanted to include some bible verses, United Methodist Social Principles, reflection questions, and action ideas that would help give a little depth to what could otherwise be just comforting charitable giving. Many of you know that my Doctor of Ministry project focused on helping congregations ground their outreach ministry in justice, rather than charity. I put this document together rather quickly, and could have done more/better with it. Nonetheless, it's a start, and if you'd find it useful in your setting, you are welcome to use and adapt it (and add to it!) 

Food Drive Shopping List, Hunger Facts, and Reflection/Action Ideas

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Lectionary Notes for Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost, Year A (Proper 27, Ordinary 32)

Readings for 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 27, Ordinary 32, 11/9/14:
Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25, Psalm 78:1-7, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, Matthew 25:1-13

Joshua  24:1-3a, 14-25
  • This passage is sort of an inauguration scene for leadership in the community.
  • V. 15: "choose this day whom you will serve . . . but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord." Joshua puts it in their hands - serving is a choice. Who will you serve? We can serve lots of people/things/gods these days. What choice have you made? How can others see you choice by your actions?
  • Joshua spends the rest of the passage trying to convince the people not to follow God because of how costly it will be and how demanding it will be. In a great reverse-psychology sort of way, this only gets the people begging, pleading to serve God. Wouldn't that be a great tool of evangelism? Telling people not to be Christians because it is too hard? Jesus, of course, sometimes uses these strategies in the gospels too.
Psalm 78:1-7:
  • "I will open my mouth in a parable" - I hadn't realized that the word 'parable' appeared in the Old Testament. But it reminds us that in Jesus' day, the people would have related to Jesus' style, more, perhaps, than we are able to relate today.
  • "We will not hide them from our children; we will tell to the coming generation" - I like these verses that convey a sense of the necessity to tell the story of a people, to make sure the history is known through time and generations. We have a tendency to forget whole chunks of our history, don't we, until we are repeating it!
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18:
  • I'm not a big fan of this passage. Paul's aim here is to give hope by describing what will happen to the faithful ultimately.
  • To me, this image, though, is too specific and detailed, and I'd rather just be ok with being unsure about what our ultimate end will bring us, other than into God's arms.
  • What is your vision of the end - of your life, of the world? What is your vision of afterlife?

Matthew 25:1-13:
  • Jesus reminds us that we have to make our own decisions about discipleship. It seems to me that the foolish maids were almost in a sense waiting to see how things would play out for the wise maids before they themselves would want to go to the party.
  • Preparation. Jesus wants us to always live like this is it - our last day to live out in discipleship. Our society prizes living like we are immortal, doesn't it? How do you live? How would you have to change your normal patterns if today was your last day to be a disciple?

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Lectionary Notes for Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 26, Ordinary 31)

Readings for 21st Sunday after Pentecost, 11/2/14:
Joshua 3:7-17, Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37, 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13, Matthew 23:1-12

Joshua  3:7-17:
  • A new chapter for the people, and a new leader - God declares that God will be with Joshua as God was with Moses.
  • How well do we handle leadership transitions in the church? So often we focus on the particular person instead of on the ways God is working through people in leadership.
  • Another expression of God's presence being made known through strange things happening with water. How many times does water play a significant role in scripture stories? When/how has water played a role in your faith life? What does it mean for our faith when some in our world are without clean, drinkable water? 
Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37:
  • Theme of the psalm: God's love is steadfast.
  • Steadfast, according to 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!
  • Vs 36 - "And there he lets the hungry live." What a great vision of justice where the poor and least are given their own place and home and cared for.
1 Thessalonians 2:9-13:
  • I ever have trouble with the way Paul describes the work he has done. Good work, for sure, but it would be so nice to hear about it from someone other than Paul!
  • Paul urges them to hear his testimony as God's word, rather than human word. How confident are you that you speak God's word rather than your own? How can you be careful to let God speak through you, rather than try to conform God's words to your own thoughts?
  • Who, in your life, has urged and encouraged you as Paul has tried to do with the Thessalonians?
Matthew 23:1-12:
  • Phylacteries are the boxes that men would tie on to their heads and arms per Old Testament law. The boxes would contain words of scripture, such as, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart . . ."
  • Do you think Jesus really means that we are never to call other humans teach, rabbi, father, or instructors? If he doesn't mean something literal, what is his point?
  • What titles do you go by? What titles do you give to others? When have you felt it important to use titles?
  • "They do not practice what they teach." This is a dangerous game for anyone in a position of authority. Do you practice what you teach? Does the church?
  • What burdens do we as the church place on others? Do we burden others with moral standards that make it seem impossible to them to be "good enough" for God and the church?

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Lectionary Notes for Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A (Proper 25, Ordinary 30)

Readings for 20th Sunday after Pentecost, 10/26/14: 
Deuteronomy 34:1-12, Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17, 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8, Matthew 22:34-46

Deuteronomy 34:1-12:
  • This is where I feel most sorry for Moses, who, though making many mistakes, has more or less followed God on such an adventure, and yet only gets to see the whole promised land from a mountain top, never actually entering it himself. Could you trust God on such a journey, if you knew that you yourself would not reach the desired end, that you would have to entrust that completion to others?
  • I think this is a good lesson for the church - we have to let go of 'ownership' of our journeys - God 'owns' our journey. If we can let go of possession of where we are leading the church, we can get even closer to the promised land than if we demanded we be able to go the whole way ourselves!
  • "Moses was one hundred twenty years old when he died; his sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated." What a great little obituary! We can pray that our spiritual sight remains unimpaired and our vigor fresh all the days of our life.
Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17:
  • "Lord, you have been our dwelling place." We dwell, live, in God. We are home in God, live within God. A comforting image.
  • "from everlasting to everlasting you are God." God is God is God always.
  • "A thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past . . . they are like a dream." Human mortality - we don't like to confront it. But this Psalm reminds us to remember our place, to put things in perspective.
  • "turn back, you mortals." "Turn, O Lord." A conversation going on here, between God and us.
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8:
  • Typical Paul, always drawing attention to his own suffering, in a martyr-sort of way! It is bearable since he was such good points to go along with it, I guess.
  • "not to please mortals, but to please God." As pastors, we are sometimes caught up in trying to please people instead of God, aren't we? We can't always - perhaps can rarely - do both. If we need to do only one, we're called to do what pleases God.
  • "to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves." This is my favorite verse in the passage. Sharing the gospel is a good gift. But it is even better, and more authentic, if we are willing to give ourselves - our passions, who we are - along with it.

Matthew 22:34-46:
  • "love the Lord you God . . . love your neighbor" Sometimes this verse seems like a no-brainer, doesn't it? But it is the simplest most straight-forward things that we are  worst at living out. 
  • "and with all your mind." This phrase actually does not appear in the Old Testament, but I like the addition. We are rational thinkers, and I like to think that our whole mind is meant to love God as well.
  • In the second section, Jesus asks a 'trick question' of sorts, in, apparently, an effort to get the Pharisees to quit badgering him with their own lame trick question. Do you think Jesus was invested in the answer to or theology of the question he asks? I doubt it, but he tries to show the Pharisees perhaps that they are missing the point, asking the wrong questions.
  • So, if you had to ask Jesus questions, what would you want to know?

Sermon for Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A, "Promised Land: Are You With Us?" Exodus 33:12-23

Sermon 10/19/14
Exodus 33:12-23

Promised Land: Are You with Us?

            By the time we reach today’s text in Exodus 33, the Israelites have been through most of the worst and bulk of wandering through the desert, seeking after a new homeland. As we’ve talked about, we’ve seen God meet need after need expressed by the hesitant, scared Israelites. And then they started to transition, to think more about where they were headed to instead of what they were running from, and God started to help them shape an identity as a people, carving out a law that would guide them as they entered a new place and a new way of being together with each other and with God. And finally, they’re on the brink of reaching their destination.
            And so it seems strange to me, after all they’ve been through, that now Moses would be so plaintively asking if God will be with them, go with them, when they enter into the Promised Land. He’s pleading, practically begging, whining, beseeching God to go with them into the Promised Land. Moses is talking with God, and he says to God, “So, you haven’t said who you’re going to send with us into the Promised Land. I mean, you’ve said you know me by name, and I’ve found favor in your sight. If that’s true, show me your ways, so that I can know you better and continue finding favor in your sight. Oh, and also, consider that all these people are yours.”
            God responds, “My presences will go with you, and I will give you rest.” But that’s not convincing enough for Moses apparently. He says, “if you aren’t really going with us, don’t send us out of here to that unknown land. Nobody will believe we’ve found favor in your sight if you won’t even go with us. If we are really your people, you have to be with us.” And God says, “I’ll do just what you’ve asked, because I know you by name, and you’ve found favor with me.”
            So Moses boldly asks to see God’s glory. And God says, I’m still in charge of my own mercy and grace, but yes, “I will make all my goodness pass before you.” The Israelites believed no one could look at the face of God, and so Moses stands on a cleft in the rock, and God covers Moses until God has passed by, when Moses is then able to see God’s back. Actually, the Hebrew here is a bit ambiguous. It’s like: Moses can see the residue glory of the place where God just was. Moses can see: wow, God was just right there.  
So what’s with all the need for affirmations, for proofs, on Moses’ part all of a sudden? Well, last week, a select group of us talked about what was happening down on the ground while Moses was receiving the Ten Commandments that we talked about two weeks ago. While Moses was up there, the people were down on the ground, out-of-sight-out-of-mind convinced that God had abandoned them, begging Moses’ brother Aaron to make a replacement God for them. Aaron complies, and they fashion a golden calf, which the people then worship. When Moses sees it, he smashes the tablets with the commandments, and God is mad. Really, really, mad. So the people are full of guilt and regret. And they wonder, as even Moses does, if they can possibly have the same relationship with God going forward now that they’ve screwed up so badly. Indeed, God tells them to head to the Promised Land – they’re still going to the land of milk and honey. But God says, “I’m sending my angel to guide you, because right now, I’m so mad at you I can’t even look at you.” (That’s a Pastor Beth paraphrase.) That’s why Moses seems so unsure if God will go with them – he is unsure! Have they crossed the line at last? Is God done with them? Have the screwed up too badly? Does God still love them? Are they still God’s people?
I think we have to learn about what unconditional love is. I don’t think we’re born knowing it innately. It’s something so good we have to experience it, glimpse it at least, before we start believing in the possibility. Or maybe we start to believe that others might love us unconditionally when we realize we love them unconditionally. I’m not sure of the order. But I do think it is something we grow into. I think especially of my 7 year old nephew Sam. My mom, Sam’s grandma, loves Sam with the unmitigated love that grandparents have for grandchildren. I saw this cartoon on facebook recently and it captured the essence of unconditional grandparent love. My mother has in particular a problem with not giving Sam absolutely everything, and this cartoon is only a slight exaggeration of times she wants to give Sam “a small gift.” But Sam is a 7 year old boy, and sometimes he’s mischievous. Perhaps even naughty. Occasionally, while at Grandma’s, Sam will get into trouble, and need to cool down in his room. Sometimes she needs to let him know that his behavior is unacceptable, and she doesn’t want to be around him if he’s going to be hurtful, or if he won’t listen, or if he has to be told for the 1000th time that he can’t jump on the couches. Since Grandma is pretty easy on him, Sam can be pretty surprised if she tells him “no” and sets a firm limit. In fact, sometimes, knowing that his Grandma is upset with him will cause Sam to burst into tears. Or he’ll approach her hesitantly, after a timeout, not sure how he’ll be received. As if he’s wondering, “Have I been so bad that you really don’t want me around anymore? Do you still like me?” Indeed, for an elementary school kid, in that tumultuous world were kids are best friends one day and worst enemies the next, it’s easy to believe someone might stop liking you. And so I think part of the way Sam responds is because he has to learn over time about saying sorry and getting forgiveness and the astonishing truth that there is absolutely nothing that he could do – nothing – that would make my mother love him any less. And no wonder it’s hard to take in, because that’s pretty amazing stuff. To be loved no matter how much you’ve screwed up, even when you’ve hurt the very person who loves you so much. I think Sam is slowly learning though, because recently, he said to my Mom, “Grandma, you love me way too much!” Unconditional love is powerful.    
            Thinking about Sam and my mom helps me understand Moses’s chat with God a little better. In the aftermath of the Israelites making idols, worshiping something other than the very God who rescued them from Egypt, promised to prosper them, and guided them carefully through the wilderness, providing for their every need, God is not thrilled with the Israelites. In fact, God says: right now, I’m mad enough that maybe I better not be around you. Let me send a messenger with you to guide you into the Promised Land. Not: I’m going back on the promise I made. Not: I’m leaving you with no help. But: I need a little space. But the people mourn, hearing, “I don’t love you anymore.” And that’s what I think Moses is asking, really: “Do you still love us? And if you still love us, will you please come with us? Because I want to know you even better than I have before.”
            Of course God says yes. Of course God loves them still. Always. Because there is nothing they can do that will separate them from God’s love. Nothing. Even when God doesn’t really want to be around them for a bit, God loves them. In the very next scene, we find that the tablets of the law, broken in the aftermath of the golden calf, are made new. A symbol of healing.
            I think we can say: God loves us unconditionally. But knowing it, deep in our hearts, is a bit harder. Because we, too, live in a tumultuous world where our brokenness makes it hard to believe in unconditional love some days. And we wonder, perhaps, if we even deserve it. Thankfully, love operate in an entirely different system than what we deserve or not. And thankfully, we catch glimpses of unconditional love, even in our faulty, human version of it. Enough to be learning, over time, as we mature in faith, that God loves us even when we’ve made a big mess of things. God loves so much a bystander might observe that God in fact gets a little extravagant in loving us so much. And there’s nothing we can do that will change it. So let’s keep journeying. We’re almost to the Promised Land. And God will go with us. Thanks be to God. Amen.   

Sermon for Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A, "Promised Land: Commandments," Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20

Sermon 10/5/2014
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20

Promised Land: Commandments

            For the next four weeks we’re continuing our journey in the book of Exodus, but we’re shifting our focus a little bit. We’ve been journeying out of Egypt, but now we’re heading to the Promised Land. The different might not sound like much, but I think with study we’ll find that while initially, the Israelites can only think about where they’ve come from, and can only demand sign after sign from God that they haven’t been led into the wilderness simply to die, now God is pushing them, encouraging them to look forward, to the life that will become theirs. They are no longer going to be simply people who are on the run from slavery in Egypt. No, now they are going to be the Israelites who are seeking the Promised Land. A nation unto themselves. And they need a more compelling identity than “formerly slaves in Egypt.” Instead of knowing who they aren’t, they really need to start worrying about who they are now.
            I think this is a transition we all need to make at times in our lives, and sometimes, like the Israelites, we need continual reminders and encouragements that we aren’t in the same place we started anymore. I remember during my first years of ministry, it was hard for me to stop thinking of myself as someone just out of seminary. For a long time when I started in my first parish, I would explain my ignorance about a particular situation by saying, “well, I’m pretty new at this.” But now I’m in my twelfth year of ministry. I’m no longer just out of seminary. In fact, the last time I visited Drew, where I attended school, I realized that perhaps more than 50% of the faculty I studied with at Drew are now retired or moved on to new places. The Drew I attended isn’t there anymore, even if I wanted to go back and make that my context again. I’m sure you’ve had similar experiences in your own lives, and I know this congregation has had that experience. You’ve been through the process of creating a new congregation where once there were four different communities. And no doubt for a while in that transition, you were defined mostly by where you came from. How you did things at Cardiff or Navarino or South Onondaga or Cedarvale. But now, these many years in, even though you still cherish the memories of where you’ve come from, you are Apple Valley United Methodist Church. A new family, forged by your new shared experiences.
            And so now, our scripture texts focus not so much on what is being left behind, but on what kind of future the Israelites want in the land to which they’re headed. So today we find ourselves with a familiar text – the giving of the ten commandments. Sometimes I think familiar bible passages are the trickiest for us, because we assume we already know what the text says. Oh, the ten commandments – I know what those are already. Just don’t ask me to recite them on the spot, right? The first four commandments, as I mentioned with the children, talk about our relationship with God. I am God, no one else, and no other gods are before me. Make no idols of any kind. Don’t wrongfully use my name. And remember the Sabbath and keep it holy, a day of rest. And then the other six commandments are reaching outward, emphasizing how we are to live as neighbors, a community, a people. Honor your parents. Do not murder, or commit adultery, or steal, or lie, or covet what belongs to another. Eventually, the laws that will govern the Israelites are much expanded, but these are the building blocks, caring for the relationship with God and neighbor.
            David Lose writes that biologists would tell you that we’re hard-wired to look out for our own wants and needs over all others, and that this is where the concept of the strongest – and presumably most selfish – surviving comes from. Theologians, he said, would tell you that this is what human sin is: selfishness that puts our needs above the needs of others, but actually limits “human flourishing” and contradicts God’s desire for us to love one another. The law, then, at its most basic level, is something that God gives us to curb us from our tendency to put ourselves first. The law creates boundaries that enable us to flourish as a whole, that “create room in which we can live with each other.”  Lose concludes, “That’s the law, in its first use, functioning as a gift from God to tell us – children and adults alike – “no” so that we can then say “yes” to a richer and more abundant life together.” (1) For the Israelites, the ten commandments are a starting point of the new community that they’re building. A way that they will agree to live together, so that all people in the community have the chance to flourish. Of course, as we’ll see in the weeks ahead, their journey to the promised land is not all smooth sailing. But now they have a framework for their lives together.
            Last week, I met with the Staff Parish Relations Committee to do some of our work in preparation for Charge Conference in November. One of the tasks that we must complete is creating a covenant between the pastors and the congregation. The covenant, especially when you have new pastors leading you, can be pretty simple. But the basic purpose is something like the purpose of the commandments: it’s setting out some priorities and a way of living together as a church that will create the space for God to help us flourish. That’s what we want, right? For this community of faith to flourish. And if we want that, what do we need to decide about how we will live together? What things are most important to us? What are the core values at the center or what we do, and how we treat each other, and how we reach out in love and service? We’re working on that, and I encourage you all to think about that, whether you are part of SPRC or not. What principles do you think should guide our life and work together? Love? Forgiveness? Hope? Joy? What ways of being together will help us create space so that here at Apple Valley, we can, together, seek to follow Jesus?
            Today is World Communion Sunday. It’s a day when Christians from many traditions make the effort to celebrate communion to remind ourselves of our common purpose and identity as members of the body of Christ. The table is a space Christ creates where all are invited. There’s room for everyone. And there’s one bread, one body, so that everyone can take part, and everyone can flourish. As Christ invites us, makes space for us at the table, let us strive to live in a way that we are always making room for others, so that together, we might live into all that God hopes and dreams for us. Amen.

(1) Lose, David. “Law, the First Use.”

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Lectionary Notes for Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A (Proper 24, Ordinary 29)

Readings for 19th Sunday after Pentecost, 10/19/14:
Exodus 33:12-23, Psalm 99, 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10, Matthew 22:15-22

Exodus 33:12-23:

  • "My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest." This is the promise that God makes to Moses. Moses makes God repeat it, because he knows that God's presence means good things for the Israelites. But I wonder if Moses expects a different kind of protection and presence than God has planned? I think Moses sees God's presence as a safety net, instead of a foundation. Do we ever see and treat God's presence that way?
  • "you cannot see my face." Wanting to meet "face to face" usually is something we want so that we can be on equal footing with whoever we meet with. God reminds us that we are not exactly on equal footing with God! But still, that we see God, that Moses can be so close with and to God shows that God has a unique relationship with humanity. We can talk to God! Compared with other characteristics of deities that would have been worshipped in Moses' day, our God, this God of Israel, is a different kind of God . . .
Psalm 99:

  • "lover of justice, you have established equity" - this is definitely my favorite phrase in this Psalm. God loves justice. And we don't need to wonder what is meant by justice in this case. This is not God-lover-of-justice who loves to punish and condemn. The justice that God loves is the justice that brings equity. That's equal-ness. Fairness for everyone. God tells us what justice means. Let's not try to define it on our own when God already does it for us.
  • "you were a forgiving God to them, but an avenger of their wrong-doings." An interesting verse. God who is both forgiving and avenging. According to, avenge means "to inflict a punishment or penalty in return for" Can God forgive us and punish us? I'm not sure. I always hesitate to think of or speak of God in terms of punishing us, because I think our theologically can get really out of hand when we go there - we like to point out how God is punishing others who are not like us, or we worry that everything that happens to us that we don't like is due to God's punishment. But does God punish? What do you think?
  • "Worship at [God's] holy mountain. For the Lord our God is holy". For the Israelites, the mountain was a holy place to meet God. For us, our sanctuaries are sometimes holy - what other places are those you consider holy places?
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10:

  • Words of greeting open this letter from Paul. I've always liked verse 2: "we always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly" - It is nice to know that someone is constantly praying for you, isn't it? Do we remember to pray for one another in our ministry? To lift each other up before God?
  • "and you became imitators of us and of the Lord." If someone was to imitate you, could they also say they were imitating Christ? What would it look like for someone to imitate you?
  • "in every place you faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it." And this, could someone say this of your faith?

Matthew 22:15-22:
  • Context: like last week's reading, don't forget the time - this reading takes place during what we call 'holy week' after Jesus has come 'triumphantly' into Jerusalem. The Pharisees and others are trying trick after trick to entrap Jesus.
  • The Pharisees and Herodians patronize Jesus in their question, but they've at least noticed correctly: Jesus shows no deference and no partiality to people. Clearly, though, this drives them crazy. They want his deference!
  • This reads as a sort of "church and state" question. What do we make of Jesus' response? That religion and state are separate? That our religious life shouldn't influence the political and vise versa? I don't think that's what Jesus means.
  • Instead, he says, "to God the things that are God's." What is God's? Do we not believe that it all belongs to God? What is ours, or the emperor's? 

Lectionary Notes for Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A (Proper 23, Ordinary 28)

Readings for 18th Sunday after Pentecost, 10/12/14:
Exodus 32:1-14, Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23, Philippians 4:1-9, Matthew 22:1-14

Exodus 32:1-14:
  • At first, the story of the golden calf strikes me as ridiculous - who would want to worship or take any such comfort in a cow made out of gold? What can a golden cow do for you?
  • But then I think of the idols we have today: money - certainly a gold cow might symbolize that?! Possessions, even people. We put many things before God. Anything we put before God is an idol. Anything.
  • Does God need to be persuaded? Without Moses 'imploring' God, would God fail to be merciful? I don't think so.
  • "And the Lord changed his mind." Everything I think theologically screams out at this notion of God just having a sort-of temper tantrum/mood swing until Moses "sweet talks" God. What do you think?
Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23:
  • "Happy are those who observe justice, who do righteousness at all times." I like the wording - do righteousness, as opposed to are righteous. Righteousness, grammatically or not, is an action - a doing word, not a being word.
  • This psalm relates to the Exodus reading, and calls for repentance from sin. The psalmist actually recalls much of the story of God, Moses, and the Israelites, so make sure to read the whole Psalm.
  • Again, a sense here that God changed God's mind, being persuaded by Moses. 
Philippians 4:1-9:

  • Euodia and Syntyche - often overlooked examples of women in the Bible who are clearly in leadership roles. Paul comments that these women "have struggled beside [him] in the work of the gospel." This seems pretty clear on their position, co-workers with men in gospel work. Celebrate!
  • V. 5 – “Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.” The Greek might translate also as “reasonableness”, “fairness”, “goodness”. Gentleness is not necessarily a trait we value, is it? Particularly not in both genders. It’s ok for a woman, but we don’t often praise men for gentleness. How can we let our gentleness be known? What does that have to do with our faith? The command from Paul flows into the second phrase, ‘The Lord is near.’ How do they relate?
  • V. 7 – “And the peace of God which passes . . . “ – The ‘passes understanding’ is from the Greek ‘huperech├┤’, which means, “to be above” or “to hold over”, “to prevail.” God’s peace is above everything. That’s comforting.
  • Think on excellent things. I like that advice! Oh yeah, and do all the things you have learned and received and heard and seen in Paul. Sometimes, Paul's modesty kills me.

Matthew 22:1-14:
  • Usually the parables are challenging, but in a way I find compelling. I must admit, this parable is challenging in a more troubling way to me - we must dig deep for understanding! Check out Chris Haslam's always helpful notes for some more comments.
  • Notice the similarities and striking differences between this parable and the parable in Luke 14.
  • In Matthew, it is specifically a king inviting guests to a wedding. They won't come, and what's more, they kill the kings slaves - they are aggressive in their rejection of the king's invitation.
  • So, the king takes whoever he can get as guests - but, a guest who is not properly dressed is bound and ejected into the darkness, where there is weeping and teeth-gnashing. What a consequence!!
  • "Many are called, few are chosen." Is this a good summary? Does God call many of us, only to reject many of us? Is this the gospel writer's take on the parable, instead of Jesus'?
  • How do you respond to invitations you receive? Do you always RSVP? Do you show up unprepared? What can we learn about how we are to respond to God's invitations?

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Lectionary Notes for Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A (Proper 22, Ordinary 27)

Readings for 17th Sunday after Pentecost, 10/5/14:
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20, Psalm 19, Philippians 3:4b-14, Matthew 21:33-46

Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20:
  • People have spent a lot of energy defending these commandments. Are they worth defending? While I don't feel they need to be posted in our courtrooms, for example, 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!
Philippians 3:4b-14:
  • One of my least favorite things about Paul is that I feel he is always boasting about himself while pretending to be humble. But here, he actually is making good, thoughtful points about his identity and his identity in Christ. A faithful Jew all his life, Paul says his faith identity would give him reason to boast except that now, in Christ, these things are "regard[ed] as loss]." Why? These things simply aren't important in Christ: in Christ there is no Greek or Jew.
  • "Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead." The them here is of a clean slate. It isn't easy to forget the past. Indeed, it is not always wise either. But what Paul urges here is to forget the identity that was without Christ, so that we can focus on 'the prize' of living fully in Christ in the present/future.
  • "I press on." We can't underestimate the importance of simply pressing on, I think, even when we struggle. We just press on, try again, reach toward the goal.
Matthew 21:33-46:
  • Jesus tells stories about his identity. The landowner/tenants story is interesting  - it almost reads like "God should have expected Jesus to be killed" - which isn't helpful.
  • Looking for more help, I check Chris Haslam's comments. Now it makes more sense. Jesus is saying: God will find tenants who will produce. Do we want to be tenants? What will we produce for the landowner? If we produce nothing, why would that landowner want us to stay as tenants?
  • The Pharisees get that Jesus is talking about them, but remain immobilized. Do you ever feel that way? The scriptures you know are calling you to accountability, and yet you still do not act. Jesus is calling us to action!

Sermon for Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A, "Out of Egypt: Water from the Rock," Exodus 17:1-7

Sermon 9/28/14
Exodus 17:1-7

Out of Egypt: Water from the Rock

            We’re continuing on journeying with the Israelites this week as they make their way out of Egypt and into the wilderness. The text for today tells us this happens “by stages.” This is both true in the sense that a large group of people can’t really move all at once, but only by stages, and true in a deeper sense. This journey is not just literal but spiritual, and the Israelites certainly are only moving by stages spiritually too. In today’s passage, they’re arguing with Moses. “Give us water to drink.” The language is imperative: do it, and do it now. Moses responds, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” But the Hebrew here is more explicit – it’s legal language. Moses is saying more specifically something like, “why are you bringing me and God to court over this?” We don’t know if Moses’ word choice is because he’d reached his breaking point, tired of the complaining, or because that large group of people he was leading was lodging a more organized, serious complaint. A mob of discontent people could be pretty intimidating. After all, they’re accusing Moses now of bringing the people out into the desert to kill them with thirst, and Moses senses they are so upset they are going to stone him to death. He cries to God for help. So God instructs Moses to go ahead a ways, along with a group of elders, and at the rock of Horeb, where God will be, to strike the rock with his staff. And then water will come from it, and the people will be able to drink. Moses does just this, and everyone has water to drink. But he names the place Massah and Meribah, meaning quarrel and test, because the people posed the question: “Is the Lord among us or not?”
If you’re keeping track, that’s three times now that the Israelites complain to Moses, asking if he and God freed them just so they could die in the wilderness. First, at the crossing of the Red Sea, then, as you heard about last week with Pastor Penny, when the people were hungry, and now, when the people are thirsty. Each time they accuse Moses of leading them from Egypt only to let them die. Each time they seem to ask the question that is explicit in today’s text: “Is the Lord among us or not?” And each time, they have their needs met by God through Moses’s leadership. Each time, then, their fears are eased, their needs met, and God presence with them is affirmed in a way that seems undeniable. And yet, this pattern keeps repeating. “Is the Lord among us or not?” It’s like they can’t be convinced. And I don’t know about you, but I’m amazed at God’s patience. This is God, the creator of us and everything, and when the people whine and complain, God simply meets their needs with nary a chastising word. I’m not sure I could be so patient. Why exactly are the Israelites so unwilling to believe in God’s presence, when they’ve witnessed God at work, saving them in every way, over and over again? What will it take to convince them?
How many of you have ever seen the Drew Barrymore/Adam Sandler movie called 50 First Dates? It’s a cute romantic comedy, and the premise is this: Barrymore was in a car accident and the accident affects her short term memory. She can remember everything in her life up until the accident. But after the accident, she forgets everything once she goes to sleep. In other words, to her, each day is like the day before the accident. Of course, real amnesia doesn’t work quite that way, but we suspend our disbelief for the movie. Her family works hard to create a safe world for her. Rather than spending every day of her life re-teaching her about the accident, they create a world where the accident never happened, knowing they have to do it all over again the next day. Then Sandler’s character comes along and falls in love with Barrymore. She likes him too – each day she meets him. Because every day is like the first time meeting him. She never does get her memory back, but by the end of the movie she and Sandler create a life together where every single day he has to tell her the entire story of her life together. Every day, she has to meet him over again as if for the first time, and eventually meet her children, again, as if for the first time.
            This is what I think the Israelites are acting like. Like they have to start everyday at the very beginning again, and have everything explained to them all over. I’m God. I love you. I’m going to save you. I will be with you. Moses is going to lead you. We aren’t bringing you out here to die. Over and over and over again. It doesn’t seem like there’s a lot of learning retention happening here. I think about school teachers – one of the hardest things for teachers is working on retention. When kids have summer vacation, teachers have to wonder how much of what they’ve learned they’re going to lose over the break. Teachers hope kids will retain everything, but each September, a little bit of the starting work is review of the work from the year before. A reminder of what’s been learned already. However, teachers trust that they’re building on a foundation and years of learning that have come from the years already completed. You don’t have to start English in 12th grade with learning the alphabet and learning to read before you can get to studying Shakespeare. You’re expected to remember what you’ve learned already. And you remember what you’ve learned because you’ve been putting it to use – reading and writing every day. Otherwise, you get something like my efforts to learn how to knit. My half-hearted efforts mean that I’ve taught myself to knit and purl. But I get distracted and busy with other things and I never get good enough to knit well. And then a year passes, and I decide to try knitting again, and I have absolutely no foundation to work with. Even though I’ve learned it before, I have to start all over, right at the very beginning. And so I’ll never really learn to knit. Not the way I’ve been going about it.
            I think God is so patient with the Israelites because their recent experiences mean it’s more like they’re trying to remember after recovering from an accident, like in 50 First Dates, than they are like trying to learn how to knit, but too busy to be bothered remembering, like I’ve been. God is patient, and willing to show them again and again, “Yes, yes, the Lord IS with you, always, always, always,” because they’ve been slaves! They’ve been oppressed! They’ve had their children slaughtered by Egyptians! They’ve been beaten and forced into hard labor! They’ve been living in crisis mode. And so for a while, they have to go back to square one every single time. Every time, they have to start in the same place: God, are you with us? And God will respond, every time, in word and deed, Yes!
            Eventually, though, God will start to expect the Israelites to retain some of what they’re learning. Next week, in fact, when we look at the ten commandments, we’ll see that they include language about not putting God to the test. Because a deep relationship can’t be built on a foundation where one person in the relationship is constantly requiring the other person to prove themselves. Eventually, they Israelites will heal as a people, and God will expect them to learn a new way of being a people and being in relationship with God.
            The question, then, for us is this: Do we treat God like we’re in crisis mode? Or like we’re in a relationship, and like we’ve remembered some of what we’ve learned about God already? Sometimes we do face crises of such magnitude that we need a little bit of going back to basics. Sometimes our world is turned upside down. We’ve faced unspeakable tragedy. We’re shaken to the core. We’ve suffered deeply. And we need some reminders of how much God loves us and how much God is with us. And we’ll get them. God is there, and will remind us of just that. God is with us.
            But sometimes, we’re simply like schoolchildren refusing to do our summer reading. Or we treat our faith like a hobby we’re thinking about taking up, like knitting, but we’re never really willing to put enough in to remember what we learned the last time around. And so we don’t retain anything that we’ve learned from being in relationship with God. We don’t retain enough to let it really change us. We don’t let walking with God become something we can’t unlearn, like how to ride a bike. We want to start at square one again because it’s just easier, and doesn’t require any discipleship, any commitment, and changing our lives so that we’re walking with God. And then when we wonder “Is God with us?” Well, God’s still up to the test, yes. God is with us. But what kind of foundation for a real relationship is that? We don’t expect to start at square one in our human relationships. And God expects more from us too. Is God with us? Yes, we know that. Our whole lives are full of signs of God’s presence with us, God’s love for us. If you think you’re in danger of forgetting, I encourage you to find intentional ways of remembering. Every day, I hope you remind yourself of a way in which God has blessed you beyond measure. And this knowledge, this learning about God and growing in relationship with God, will be the manna in the wilderness and the water from the rock that sustains your spirit when hunger and thirst threaten.   
            Is God with us or not? Of course, God is with us. Remember? Remember. Amen.