Saturday, May 23, 2015

Lectionary Notes for Trinity Sunday, Year B

Readings for Trinity Sunday, 5/31/15:
Isaiah 6:1-8, Psalm 29, Romans 8:12-17, John 3:1-17

Isaiah 6:1-8:
  • Seraphs certainly are strange creatures!
  • Note that even though Isaiah says he "sees the Lord", it is the other things that are described in detail, not what God is like in God's self.
  • Isaiah expresses a deep sense of unworthiness, "Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips." He doesn't feel worthy to be seeing God.
  • The imagery of the seraph taking the hot coal to Isaiah's lips is very powerful. We read nothing of pain for Isaiah, but it make sense that this cleansing and purifying would have burned him, been painful. That resonates with how we experience being made pure. It takes work and pain. I think of the image of Eustace Scrubb in The Voyage of the Dawntreader in the Chronicles of Narnia, when he is turned into a dragon. His skin must be painfully torn off by Aslan before he is made clean.
  • "Whom shall I send?" "Here am I; send me." Isaiah has felt unworthy, but he still has the courage (and good sense) to respond to God's call. Can we do the same? Even when we feel unworthy, can we trust that God knows better than we do??
Psalm 29:
  • "The Voice of the Lord" - I guess I've never noticed this psalm before, which speaks primarily of God's voice.
  • It is also visualizing God creating or in relation to a strong and powerful thunderstorm, which may be based on a psalm to the Caananite god, Baal (see Chris Haslam's comments on this) God over the waters, God's glory thundering, breaking the cedars, flashes forth flames of fire, "the voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness."
  • What imagery would you use to describe/envision God's voice in your life? I like the process theology metaphor of God's lure, God slowly luring me with God's voice until slowly, step by step, I followed.
  • This psalm also appears in the lectionary every year on Baptism of the Lord Sunday - would reading it in the context of that calendar day change your understanding?
Romans 8:12-17:
  • "spirit of adoption" - As I said last week, I'm always torn by Paul's language of adoption. On the one hand, I'm hesitant to think that we're not born into God's family, God's children. I shudder to think that God only adopts some as children, and not others, which is an unfortunate and often drawn conclusion of such theology. But on the other hand, there is a special-ness about God going the 'extra mile', as it were, to make us God's own. Out of God's deep desire to have us as children. I guess I just want to make sure God has no limits or special qualifications for who is adopted!
  • But, here, maybe I can read Paul's words in a new way. He's not talking adoption vs. natural children. He's talking adoption vs. slavery. Our relationship to God is as children instead of slaves. In this light, his adoption language is more meaningful to me. We're brought right into the family, not kept in God's home for service but out of God's heart as slaves.
John 3:1-17
  • This passage includes perhaps the most famous and most memorized Bible verse in all the world. When I was little, I had one of those little New Testament Bibles that had John 3:16 in the front in about 20 different languages. Many consider "for God so loved the world" the verse to know if you're going to know any.
  • However, I find the rest of this passage much more meaningful. We throw around the phrase "born again" a lot in the Christian community, sometimes as a state to be desired, sometimes with a roll of the eyes for the implication the word has come to have. But what is Jesus really saying here when he says we must be born again, born of water and the Spirit? Actually, I think we are all constantly being born-again. We're always renewing and remaking ourselves as we grow. The question is not whether we are born-again, but how we are born-again. Are we born again through water and Spirit, as Jesus says we must be, or something else?
  • If you didn't do a renewal of baptismal vows on Baptism of the Lord Sunday, this is another good day to do this as a congregation. I've always found it very meaningful.
  • :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.
  • I admire Nicodemus, even if he didn't get exactly what Jesus was talking about. He was willing to ask questions that would set him at odds, no doubt, with some of the other religious leaders. He had to take risks, and taking risks means having some faith. How are you or can you be like Nicodemus? 

Lectionary Notes for Pentecost Sunday

Readings for Pentecost Sunday, 5/24/15:
Acts 2:2-21, Psalm 104:24-34, 35b, Romans 8:22-27, John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15

Acts 2:1-21
  • I have to admit - speaking in tongues is something that I don't connect to, don't understand, and frankly, usually don't take seriously. My only witnessing of speaking in tongues has left me more than a little skeptical. But I can't deny its frequent presence in the scriptures - so where does that leave me? Last year, a girl of approximately 9 year of age read this passage in church on Pentecost, and she whipped through Phrygia and Pamphylia like they were her hometowns. It was amazing. If I think about her reading this passage so flawlessly, I think I can get my head a little bit around the idea of speaking in tongues. When an unlikely vessel communicates an even more unlikely message, with unlikely abilities?
  • Pentecost. In some ways, these scene is one of the most exciting in the Bible. This is the moment of truth - Jesus is dead, risen, and ascended. The disciples have been taught, prodded, encouraged, but most of all, entrusted with the good news. Will they carry it on? Will they stand up in the face of opposition and accusations? Yes! The start of the church.
  • Everyone who calls on God's name will be saved!
  • Notice that Peter quotes how God's spirit is poured out on all flesh: songs, daughter, young, old, slave free. Seriously, where do we get the idea that God only speaks through some people, who we deem acceptable?
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
  • manifold: many and varied
  • Leviathan: same name as Jonah's whale is given - a big sea 'monster'/creature, or just generally a big thing of its kind: the 'Leviathan' of the redwoods would be the biggest of the trees. (check out Dictionary.com)
  • The dependence of creation on the Creator. While I don't like to think of God hiding God's face from me, the psalmist makes the point that we are dependent on God.
  • "I will sing to the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praise to my God while I have being." Amen!
Romans 8:22-27:
  • "whole creation has been groaning in labor pains" - I like this image - the whole creation is expecting - in expectation of what God is working in us.
  • "wait for adoption" - I'm always torn by Paul's language of adoption. On the one hand, I'm hesitant to think that we're not born into God's family, God's children. I shudder to think that God only adopts some as children, and not others, which is an unfortunate and often drawn conclusion of such theology. But on the other hand, there is a special-ness about God going the 'extra mile', as it were, to make us God's own. Out of God's deep desire to have us as children. I guess I just want to make sure God has no limits or special qualifications for who is adopted! But I can also picture the hope of a child waiting to be adopted.
  • Hope - "we wait for it with patience." Ah, some are better at this then others, no?
  • "for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words." Yes, exactly. Thank God for the spirit interceding. God hears us, even if we can't speak it.
John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15:
  • "from the beginning" - those he speaks to know the whole story, or apparently all of it Jesus them to know to fulfill their roles.
  • :7 "It is to your advantage" - I doubt the disciples saw it this way. Who wants a weird-sounding Advocate instead of Jesus who they know and love?
  • "I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now." Bear, from the Greek bastazo^, meaning, to lift up, to bear in mind, to consider. Perhaps this statement from Jesus still applies to us today - Jesus is always wanting to fill us in, share more, but we are never able to bear it, it seems.
  • "When the Spirit of truth comes, [it] will guide you into all the truth." What a unique way of phrasing this - "all the truth" (emphasis added). What is all the truth?
  • The Spirit is not speaking things the Spirit comes up with, the Spirit is not originating direction on its own - the Spirit is like a messenger, conveying what is heard, and what is to come. The Spirit is the Vessel for God's communication with us, at least in this interpretation from John. Interesting words for Trinity Sunday . . .

Sermon, "Dreaming: Another Joseph," Matthew 1:18-25

Sermon 5/17/15
Matthew 1:18-25

Dreaming: Another Joseph


            It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas! Ok, maybe not. But today, we’re having a little bit of Christmas in May. We’ve been talking about dreams and dreamers in the Bible, and it just seemed wrong to skip over Joseph and his dreams about the birth of the Christ-child, even if it seems a little out of season. I have to admit, when we’re in the midst of the season of Advent, I get annoyed when we’re in the lectionary year that focuses mostly on the gospel of Matthew, because Matthew, unlike Luke, focuses on Joseph in the birth narrative, instead of Mary. The way I figure it, women are featured so rarely in the Bible, compared with men, and after all, Mary is the one who carries and gives birth to Jesus – you’d think it would be obvious that she should be center stage. But no, Matthew’s gospel manages to somehow make even the birth of Jesus about Joseph, not Mary.
            Still, for today, talking about Jesus’ birth from Joseph’s point of view makes sense for us, because, for whatever reason, the scriptures recount that Mary learned of God’s plan through a visit from God’s messenger, an angel, with Mary apparently fully awake. But Joseph, although he’s visited by a messenger of God, is dreaming, asleep when all this takes place. And since we’re talking about the stuff of dreams, today, we’re sticking with Joseph. Besides, I find his perspective interesting for our conversations about dreams. Because Joseph’s dreams are about someone else. His dreams are more about what God is doing in someone else’s life than in his own. And we need to think about what that means.
            Our text tells us that Joseph and Mary were engaged, but not yet living together, when Mary was discovered to be pregnant – “with child from the Holy Spirit” we read. We’re not sure how Mary shares this news with Joseph, or even if she spoke to him of it directly, and we don’t know if he knows about this “Holy Spirit” piece or not. But presumably, the presence of the Holy Spirit doesn’t make him think there isn’t someone else involved, because Joseph moves to “dismiss” Mary – to divorce her, a formal separation that would be needed in this society even though they weren’t yet married. He does this, we read, because he’s a “righteous man,” a just man, who doesn’t want to expose her to public disgrace, and instead chooses a private, quiet reaction. He could have brought her up on charges, had her tried for adultery, but Joseph seems to want to protect her from that possible end. When he’s planned to do this, he has a dream. A messenger from God tells him “do not be afraid” to take Mary as your wife, because her child is from the Holy Spirit, and her son, who will be named Jesus, will save people from their sins, and fulfill the words of the prophet, saying a child will come who will be God with us.
            Joseph as a dreamer in the scriptures stands out to me in a few ways. First of all, we have to presume that this unfolding of events was not the dream that Joseph had for his life. As he imagined wedding Mary and starting a family with her, I imagine he did not anticipate this chain of events. In some ways, his personal dreams are dashed twice – first when he thinks he must divorce Mary, and then when the messenger tells him that Mary’s son will be from God, not Joseph. However Joseph handles things, this can’t be what he imagined. Not only is it probable that Joseph’s personal dreams are suddenly, at best, vastly altered by the angel’s news, but Joseph also becomes a sort of secondary character in his own life story. His dream is replaced, and he’s not a central focus in what happens instead. In the scriptures, we hardly hear a word of Joseph after the birth narrative. Occasionally, Jesus is referred to as the carpenter’s son. But we don’t see him towards the end of the gospels. Only Mary. Still, the messenger tells Joseph “do not be afraid” to take Mary as a wife. Do not be afraid. These words appears hundreds of times in the scriptures. Do not be afraid. What, exactly, would Joseph have been afraid of? I wonder, what exactly would Joseph be risking to listen to the angel and follow God’s new dream for his life? 
            For the past couple of months, I’ve been taking part in a program where you can complete research surveys online from different universities. Psychology students doing their research coursework use participants to carryout out their studies, test their hypotheses. Some of the surveys are unique and interesting, but some of them are repetitive, and I feel like I’ve done the same survey a million times No doubt, these surveys are from lower class levels, where students are just learning research methods, conducting on their own experiments that already have proven results. One of the surveys I get repeatedly is a variation on a similar scenario, that all boils down to the same question: how much of a risk-taker are you? Most recently, the scenario was: I’m a vineyard grower. If bad weather destroys my vineyard, I lose $30,000. A big storm is predicted to come my way, but usually the storms only hit my region 30% of the time a storm is predicted. Insurance costs $9000. Last year, my vineyard was hit, but I didn’t lose my crops. I’m cash-strapped. Do I buy the insurance, or not?
            These surveys make me think about what it means to be a risk-taker. I’ve never considered myself a thrill-seeker. You’re never going to catch me bungee-jumping. I don’t like roller coasters or rides that generally spin you around fast or flip you upside down. I’m not likely to do something that has a strong possible result of physical injury. And so in my head, in my narrative of my self-identity, I’ve always thought: I’m not a big risk-taker. But this past year, I’ve started to change my thinking. I’ve been blessed to have a sabbatical year that turned out differently than I expected it to in some good ways, a year that has brought some clarity and some possibilities for my ministry before me. But when I started out, I was taking a big risk. I had no real plan of how I was going to survive the year financially, and no clear picture of what might be coming next for me. The research grant that I’ve been working on with you and other churches wasn’t even yet on my radar when I requested this sabbatical year. I just knew God was calling me to be doing something different than I had been. I just knew that keeping on the same pattern I was in was not serving God in the way I thought I was meant to be. I don’t think I realized until I was well into that I had taken a big risk in order to try to be faithful to God’s dreams for me. I don’t mean to sounds like I’m telling you how great I am, how bold I am. It’s more that I realized that when I believe the risk is really worth it, really means something, maybe it is worth taking, even if you aren’t usually a thrill-seeker. When it comes to following God, maybe we can all be risk-takers, because when we really give our lives to God, that step of faith is really a step firmly grounded in God’s dreams.
            I asked us to think about what Joseph was risking by following God’s dreams. I think Joseph risked being made a fool of, first of all. As a man in his society, he wouldn’t get in trouble for wedding Mary even if she carried someone else’s child, but he would certainly be considered a fool. He might have endured humiliation and ridicule. Perhaps people whispering about him. And more than that, he’d risk always being in a sort of secondary place in Jesus’ life, while raising him as his child. In the only scene we have of Jesus as young boy in the Bible, Jesus says to his parents, “Didn’t you know I would be in my father’s house?” He’s referring to God, not to Joseph, of course. Joseph would have to know that he was and wasn’t Jesus’ father, and live always with that tension. Still, the phrasing of the messenger’s words: “Don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife” – these words suggest that Joseph wanted to take the risk, and needed just those words of encouragement to follow through. Joseph trusted in God’s dream, no matter how foolish he might look, no matter how diminished his own role might be. I think of the apostle Paul, who frequently referred to himself as a fool – a fool for the sake of Christ. Following God might involve doing things that other people find astonishing – foolish even – when we choose to be last instead of first, humbled rather than exalted, when we choose poverty over riches, and serving rather than being served. Would you be a fool, for Christ? A risk-taker, to follow God?
            Do not be afraid! What would it look like if we weren’t afraid to follow God? If we weren’t afraid to appear foolish to others? If we didn’t mind playing second fiddle to the grand melody that God is writing? Are you a risk-taker? What would it look like, if Apple Valley were a congregation full of risk-takers? Of fools for Christ? For Joseph, it meant a different life than he ever could have imagined. But it also meant having a front-row seat to God becoming flesh and living among us, with us. Worth the risk. Whatever God asks of us, no matter how foolish God’s plans might seem at first glance, don’t be afraid. It’ll be worth it. God promises. Amen.     


Monday, May 11, 2015

Lectionary Notes for Ascension Sunday, Year B

Readings for Ascension Sunday, 5/17/15: 
Acts 1:1-11, Psalm 47, Ephesians 1:15-23, Luke 24:44-53

Acts 1:1-11:
  • Luke's account to Theophilus, Part II. The ascension is such an interesting part of what happens to Jesus, in that, for most, it is something we care about least. Where does it fit in our Christian faith? Is Jesus' ascension important?
  • For me, the importance of the ascension is that we are now left without Jesus physically present - that means we have to do it now - we have to do the work that he has been teaching and teaching about. No excuses, no right-there Jesus to do it for us. Just the Holy Spirit to be our Advocate. Jesus' ascension means that Jesus really is asking us to get to work.
  • Ah, those men in white robes again. They're almost like stage directions in a script - they let you know what's going on that is not, apparently, obvious in any other way. I think if I ran across them they would raise more questions for me than they would answer!
  • Luke says that Jesus gives instructions, and shares "many convincing proofs", and is with them for 40 days speaking about the kingdom. It's little verses like these that drive me crazy. Where is all this stuff Jesus said and did? Why didn't Luke record it? Why do we only get to have such little snippets of somebody that we adore so much? Gr!!
Psalm 47:
  • An audience-participation psalm: "Clap your hands!" Lots of musical settings for these words, and no wonder - they make you want to sing and clap!
  • Of course, there in verse 3, is God with subdued people under 'our' feet. Gives the whole psalm the tone of a war-victory psalm of praise.
  • "He chose our heritage for us." I like this verse. God chooses our heritage for us - God chooses our history, our people, our story. I'm all for free will, but I manage to balance that, tricky though it sometimes feels, with a clear sense that God has a hand in or at least an eye on all that goes on in my life. Even better to think of it woven into the tapestry of as weighty a word as "heritage."
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.
Luke 24:44-53:
  • Luke's part 1 account of the ascension. Compare and contrast to his testimony in Acts. I think here, the account is more backward reflective - calling up Moses, the fulfillments of the Old Testament prophecies, talking about what has happened up to this point, whereas Acts is setting the stage for what has yet to happen.
  • "And they were continually in the temple blessing God." Indeed - I think we just can't imagine what these first weeks and months for the disciples must have been life. The emotional roller-coaster they must have been on. But to finally just be driven to give thanks - their friend and teacher was still going to be in charge of their lives.
  • Looking back on Luke, moving ahead into Acts. We must take what Jesus has lived, and then live it ourselves. I guess that would be my 'theme' for the day.

Lectionary Notes for Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year B

Readings for 6th Sunday of Easter, 5/10/15:
Acts 10:44-48, Psalm 98, 1 John 5:1-6, John 15:9-17

Acts 10:44-48:
  • "even on the Gentiles" - this is the key phrase here. This is a second-Pentecost experience of sorts, and the focus is on the receiving of the spirit by those who are outside the Jewish faith. This had been a stumbling block for Peter - he had been mostly in mission to the Jews. God is always expanding our sense of who belongs, and who is our neighbor, and who is our brother and sister.
  • "Can anyone withhold?" How often do we try to withhold others from receiving what God would give to them? We like to decide who gets grace and mercy and love and acceptance, and even membership into our communities of faith. We take dangerous steps in so doing, taking God's role instead of our own. Can we withhold what the Holy Spirit would give?
Psalm 98:
  • Oof - watch out - there's "[God's] holy arm!" I just don't get this image - it's like "macho man" warrior-God imagery. Doesn't do much for me.
  • "Let the floods clap their hands; let the hills sing together for joy." Great imagery. How would you create this image?
  • This is a psalm of joy and thankfulness for God's action in someone's life, in the life of a whole people. How do you celebrate as an individual? As a community? Do we celebrate as nations? A world? How do we express our joy in God? Through worship? Action?
1 John 5:1-6:
  • "loves the parent loves the child." That's interesting logic from John - Love God, love Christ. Love God, love humans - we're God's children too, right?
  • loving God = obeying God's commandments. That's the connection John makes. So, what does the way you choose to obey God's commandments say about how you love God? Looking at it from this direction, I'm afraid sometimes it would look like I don't love God nearly as much as I claim!
  • "[God's] commandments are not burdensome." We don't act like this, do we. We act as though we are martyrs when we adhere to God's commands.
John 15:9-17:
  • Again, as last week, 'abide' is from the Greek meno^, which means literally "to stay at home, to stay where one is, to not stir." It has the sense of "lasting" or "remaining." We are 'at home' in God's love, not wanting to stir from that place. And God is at home in us, if we let God.
  • "to lay down one's life for one's friend." What a gift indeed. Perhaps someday we'll find ourselves in a literal situation of needing to lay down our life. But if not, in what metaphoric ways are we called to lay down our lives for our friends?
  • Jesus calls the disciples friends - what an honor!
  • "love one another" - in this intimate scene, Jesus so wants his disciples to love one another. In your community of faith, do you, the disciples of Jesus, love one another, as friends? True friends?

Sermon, "Dreaming: Daniel," Daniel 2:1-47

Sermon 5/10/15
Daniel 2:1-46

Dreaming: Daniel

            Today we turn our attention to a book of the Bible we don’t often hear much about in worship: the book of Daniel, one of the books of prophecy in the Bible. Daniel is a book of the Bible that only appears once in the whole three year cycle of lectionary scripture readings, the suggested readings for the Christian church year. Even still, it is just one of four texts suggested for a particular Sunday, and I realize that in the 17 years I’ve been preaching, I have never preached a sermon on the book of Daniel before! Of course, there a couple stories from Daniel you might be familiar with: Daniel in the Lion’s Den, and Meshach, Shadrach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace, which are usually great Sunday School stories. But the book of Daniel is much more than that – more complex and complicated, certainly.
            The Book of Daniel is both a book categorized as prophecy, and a book categorized as apocalyptic literature. Today when we hear the word prophecy, we don’t always know what to do with it, really. We’re most likely to think of a prophet as a fortune-teller of sorts. Someone who predicts the future. But that’s confusing psychics and prophets. Prophets were truth-tellers. Prophets were truth-tellers, particularly when no one else wanted to say how things really were. You know what I mean – we do it all the time. Everyone knows what’s really going on, but no one wants to speak unwelcome truths out loud. A prophet is the child who tells the emperor he has no clothes. A prophet would tell it like it was, say how bad things really were, talk about where the path they were on would lead if things didn’t change. But a prophet didn’t necessarily want what he or she speculated to come true. Instead, a prophet wanted people to stop and repent before things had gone too far. In its simplest version, you might think of prophecy like this: a parent tells a child that if they don’t get their grades up, they will flunk out of college, live at home for all of their days, and never get a real job. The parent isn’t predicting the future, even though this might be exactly what will happen. Instead, they’re truth-telling. If you don’t change, this is the probable future consequences of your current actions. In this ways, the book of Daniel is a book of prophecy, and we’ll talk more about that.
            Daniel is also apocalyptic literature. And this is even more confusing and harder to understand than prophecy is. An apocalypse in Greek literally means an “unveiling” or an “uncovering,” the revealing of a mystery. Several sections of the writings of the prophets are considered apocalyptic, like in Ezekiel, where the prophet has a fantastical vision of a wheel in the middle of wheel, and other crazy images. One entire book of the New Testament is considered apocalyptic literature – the book of Revelation. Messengers of God, angels, reveal many things to John of Patmos, and they’re recorded by John in Revelation. But apocalyptic also has the contemporary meaning of being about the “end of the world.” That’s because apocalyptic can mean a “decisive and terrible event,” “unrestrained,” and “disaster.” In many cases, the visions of the prophets don’t sound comforting. They sound scary. Like the end of the world must be coming about if something so cataclysmic were to take place. And so, for as long as the apocalyptic, mystery-revealing writings of the prophets have been around, people have been trying to figure out what this means for us, and specifically, when does it mean our world is going to end. And pretty much every generation looks around at the world and thinks: things are crazy. So this must be it. The end is near.
            The temptation to do this is great, despite Jesus reminding us that even he didn’t know the day and time of the end of days, so to stop worrying about it. That’s why it is helpful to remind ourselves that Daniel and other prophets are truth-tellers, and ones for whom God has chosen to uncover some mysteries. That’s simple enough, and powerful enough. It would be hard to read their writings without seeing in our own world some of the very things they were talking about. But that’s a good thing, reminding us that God’s word is timeless. But the Book of Daniel was written not about future events thousands of years beyond its writing, but about the events and happenings unfolding right then. So what does this story of Daniel and King Nebuchadnezzar so long ago tell us about our lives right now? We figure that out by understanding what the story was about back then.
            This text takes place when Israel had been conquered by a foreign power – the Kingdom of Babylon. Many Israelites were exiled and living in foreign territory, including a man named Daniel. Nebuchadnezzar had ordered that a group of young men drawn from the elite of Israel who were “without physical defect and handsome, versed in every branch of wisdom, endowed with knowledge and insight, and competent to serve in the king’s palace” be brought to his palace to be taught the literature and language of his people. They were to serve as counselors, wise men, ready to serve the king. Daniel was one of these men. Eventually, the King has terrible nightmares, so he summons the magicians and sorcerers and enchanters of his people to interpret his dream for him. Only, to test their wisdom and ability, he won’t tell them what he dreamed! No, they have to tell him what his dream was, and then tell them what it was about. Of course, they tell him no one could possibly do this. He threatens to have them executed, torn limb from limb, all of the wise men – including the Israelites he had set aside to be trained. When Daniel finds out about this chain of events, he prays to God – which our morning prayer today drew from – and then goes before Nebuchadnezzar. He tells him that no mortal can tell what he dreamed and interpret it. But, God can reveal this knowledge to someone – God, the revealer of mysteries.
            Daniel proceeds to tell him his dream: You saw great statue, with a gold head, and then a section of silver, and then bronze, and then iron, and the feet of iron and clay. And a great stone, not made of human hands, came and destroyed the statue, and became a great mountain that filled the whole earth. And Daniel says that the statue represents Nebuchadnezzar’s reign and the rulers and kingdoms that will come after him, and the stone represents the kingdom of God, more powerful and more enduring than any human kingdom, which lasts eternally. Nebuchadnezzar worships Daniel, and says to him, “Truly, your God is God of gods and Lord of kings and a revealer of mysteries, for you have been able to reveal this mystery!” This pattern continues in various forms throughout Daniel. Daniel interprets the king’s dreams – mostly in ways the show that the king is fallible, and on the wrong path, and following the wrong gods. Daniel even tells the king that he will lose his mind for years and behave like a wild animal. And indeed, the king does just that. But rather than punishing Daniel, the king honors him, and eventually, he comes to worship this God, revealer of mysteries, whom Daniel follows so faithfully.
            We’ve been talking about dreams these past few weeks. And for me, the important part of this text is not so much trying to figure out which kings and which kingdoms the king was dreaming about. The important thing for us to look at here is what happens when there’s a difference between our dreams and God’s dreams, between our plans and God’s plans. Nebuchadnezzar had a vision of leading and ruling forever and being a mighty conquering power. God had other plans.
            Have you ever had a moment to stop in your tracks and realize your plans and God’s plans weren’t the same? I had always planned on pastoring a church for 5 years, and then going to get my PhD at Drew in New Jersey where I went to seminary. But as I got closer to that time, things kept seeming to not fit and not fit. The professor helping me with my application kept telling me that what I wanted to do was more like a Doctor of Ministry project than a PhD project, and giving me ways to fix that. But the topics she was suggesting weren’t interesting to me. It took me a while, but eventually, I realized I had been trying to convince God to make my plan into God’s plan. God had other ideas. Years later, when I found the Doctor of Ministry program I had never been interested in before, it just clicked, and I knew I had finally gotten in sync with God’s plans.
            I think of my childhood church. Like many churches, they were trying to attract young people into their congregation. They hoped to see more young adults and young families with the children. Sometimes pastors joke about young families being the “holy grail” for churches. If we could just get young families, everything would be ok! So my childhood church started a coffeehouse style worship service. It had cool skits and cool music and a cool setting. And no one came. Well, a few people came. But not young families. Who started coming was actually a group of middle-aged men and women with mental illness and mental health struggles. And the church had to decide: would it go with their own dreams, or God’s dreams? It turned out, there wasn’t really a need right then for a coffeehouse service. That wasn’t really the need of the community, what would best serve the people around the church. What was needed was someone to love and cherish and accept people who had had some serious struggles in their lives. Fortunately, the church was able to choose to follow God’s dreams, instead of their own plan. Most of the folks that got connected to that group nearly twenty years ago now are still connected to the church, and it changed the church for the better.
            Sometimes God’s plans for our lives can seem like mysteries, and we’re looking for a Daniel to reveal them to us. But sometimes we have a Daniel in our lives already, a truth-teller, and we’re just not listening. Sometimes we need lots of hints, lots of truth-telling, before we get the picture. Often, God’s dreams and our dreams are right in line with each other. Sometimes, our dreams aren’t bad, but they’re not best – and that’s what God hopes for us – abundant life. I encourage you to spend some time in the weeks ahead thinking about your dreams for yourself and for our congregation. Sometimes we plan and plan and plan and ask God to bless our plans. We can go about it that way – but it is the hard way. It is easier, and more rewarding, to seek after God’s plans – with the blessings already built right in. Listen to the people around you. Where does God need your gifts at work in the world? How are we listening to our community, those around us at Apple Valley? What do we need? How would God reach them? How could God use us? Nebuchadnezzar, who was not an Israelite, not a follower of the God of Daniel, still was able to listen to this truth-teller who could tell him his dreams – even when the dreams spelled bad news for his own vision of his future greatness. If he can do it, surely we, already seeking to follow God, have a head start. It can be hard – to let some dreams go, to watch some dreams change into something unrecognizable, to embrace new dreams. But what God intends to reveal in us and through us will be worth the journey. Thanks be to God. Amen.   

           


Sermon, "Dreaming: The Wisdom of Solomon," 1 Kings 3:1-15

Sermon 5/3/15
1 Kings 3:1-15

Dreaming: The Wisdom of Solomon


            Many of us have probably heard scenarios or seen film clips or Disney movies or been asked some variation of a question like this: You find a magic lamp and a genie appears telling you you have three wishes. What do you wish for? Of course, I’ve always thought your first wish should be to ask for unlimited wishes! But sometimes in these stories we discover a bit of a morality tale – the wisher asks for something selfish, or foolish, or doesn’t realize that wishing always comes with a price, like in the short story “The Monkey’s Paw,” where the wish for 200 pounds is granted through the death of the wisher’s son, or the story where the man wishes for sausages, and then wishes the sausages attached to his wife’s nose, since she made fun of his wish, and then finally has to use his third wish to remove the sausages. But all of these stories share the basic question: if you could wish for anything what would you ask for?
            We stumble on a Biblical version of that question in our reading for today, as we look at another dream in the Old Testament, this time skipping ahead to 1 Kings. The books of 1 and 2 Kings recount a period in Israel’s history after the time of the judges when Israel becomes a monarchy. God had wanted the people to rely on only God as their king, but the people kept clamoring to be like other nations. So God let them have a king. Only, the first round didn’t go so well. Saul was the first king, and though he started out well, eventually the power seemed to go to his head, and Samuel, the prophet, next anointed David to be the king. David is remembered as the favorite of all the kings of Israel; the standard to which all other kings would be held; the “good old days” of Israel.
            It is not David’s oldest child who succeeds him, but instead Solomon, child of David and Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hitite. Remember, David had Uriah killed in battle so that he wouldn’t find out that David had had an affair with Bathsheba, who then became pregnant. That child died, but after a period of mourning and repentance, David and Bathsheba had more children together, including Solomon. When David is near death, Bathsheba and the prophet Nathan urge David to select Solomon as the new king.
            During his reign, David had wanted to build a temple, a “home” for God. But God told David this task would not be his, but his son’s. Now, after a tumultuous transition of power, Solomon is king. We’re told that Solomon loves God and follows God just as his father David tried to do. He makes offerings to God at the high places. In the context of this passage, this means literally the highest places in the area – these places were considered holy, where you could literally be closer to God. So Solomon regularly worshipped God at the high places. At one such place, Gibeon, after making an offering to God, God appears to Solomon in a dream. God says to Solomon, “ask what I should give you.” And Solomon replies: you were always with my father David, who was just and upright and faithful. And now I’m king, but I’m inexperienced, and I don’t know much about governing this great people of yours. So give me understanding to discern between good and bad so I can lead your people.” God is pleased with Solomon’s request, and not only says Solomon will receive wisdom, but also riches and long-life as well. And then we read, “Then Solomon awoke; it had been a dream.” But Solomon offers more acts of worship to God, and treats all of his servants to a feast. Just after our text today, we see Solomon’s wisdom in action, as he deals justly and with a discerning mind to the conflicts his people bring to him. 
            What do you think of this exchange between God and Solomon? If we just told God what we wanted, would God say yes? Some people, I think, view God as a sort of genie in a magic lamp, who whimsically approves or denies wishes depending on God’s mood, sort of like a temperamental Magic 8 Ball. Have you seen the Jim Carrey movie Bruce Almighty? Although it is a comedy, I think there are some interesting theological points in the movie. In one scene, Bruce, who gets to take on all God’s power and responsibilities for a brief time – is answering all the email prayer requests that come to God. Bruce thinks it will be so easy. But he soon gets frustrated trying to keep up with the millions of requests individually, so he just replies “yes” to all the requests. You’d think that would be great, right? Everyone’s requests to God answered with a “yes, sure, whatever you want!” But in the film, when everyone gets a “yes,” the results bring total chaos. For example, everyone who prays to win the lottery does – but since so many people win, everyone gets only $1 or so, and everyone is upset, not happy. The point is: God responding to our needs is maybe more complicated than we humans can understand.
            Still, here’s the question I think is more important: Do we believe that God wants to know our heart’s desire? Does God want to know what we want? Does God want to know what our dreams are? When I think about our hopes and dreams and how God answers our prayers, I think the image of God as our parent is so very powerful. Parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, by blood or by gift of the heart: do you want to know what the children in your life want? Do you want to know their heart’s desire? Do you want to know what they dream about doing and being and becoming? Of course, right? But despite that unconditional love, you, in your wisdom, won’t always grant every request. In fact, because of your love, you won’t say “yes” to every request. But when you hear the deep longings, the true expression of the heart’s desire of the child in your life – wouldn’t you seek to do everything you could to help that dream come true? Wouldn’t your child’s dream fill you with joy?
            I believe that God wants to know everything about us. Sure, God knows us already. But God loves best, I think, when we open ourselves up to God, when we let our hopes and joys and dreams and fears and doubts be known of our own accord. And when God knows that what we’re dreaming will bring us life, and will bring love and light to others, I believe that God responds to us like God responds to Solomon – fulfilling in us what we’ve imagined and beyond. 
            And so then the question is left up to us: Do we know what we really want? If God came to us like God did to Solomon and said, “Ask for what you want,” what would you ask for? Maybe your first impulse is to ask for a million dollars, or that new car that you always wanted. But is that your heart’s desire, truly? In our book study text, Dare to Dream, Michael Slaughter tells us our God-purpose in life is something that honors God, blesses other people, and brings us joy – all three of those things. Honors God. Blesses others. Brings you joy. What might do that in your life? I promise, God wants to know how you might answer that question. God wants to help you answer it if you can’t. And I believe that God wants to say “yes” to that dream for you. And then astonish you by how much beyond even that dream God will draw out of your life.
            God is saying to you: “Ask what I should give you.” How will you answer? I think God would love to know. Amen.   



Monday, April 27, 2015

Lectionary Notes for Fifth Sunday in Easter, Year B

Readings for 5th Sunday of Easter, 5/3/15:
Acts 8:26-40, Psalm 22:25-31, 1 John 4:7-21, John 15:1-8

Acts 8:26-40:
  • Rarely mentioned in the gospels, here disciple Philip gets a whole scene, as he explains a text from Isaiah (sheep to the slaughter) to a eunuch. Philip interprets the passage as speaking about Christ, and the scene ends with the eunuch's baptism, and Philip continuing preaching the good news.
  • Philip leads here a mini-Bible study. Do you feel comfortable helping others understand scriptures? Who best helped you understand what you were reading in the Bible? How did they teach you?
  • "how can I, unless someone guides me?" The eunuch has no problem letting someone help him. I have a harder time asking for help, submitting to teaching. I like to think I can do it on my own. When/how can you be open to someone guiding you in your spiritual life?
Psalm 22:25-31:
  • We saw this Psalm in its entirety on Good Friday, and in part with mostly this same selection earlier in Lent. Today, our focus is 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.
  • Dominion belongs to God - not to us. God has (vs. 28) God may have given us a limited sense of dominion over creation - a dominion we've much abused, but really, this power belongs to God and not to us. Nevertheless, the world is quite filled with people and leaders who want to claim dominion.
  • "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.
  • "deliverance to a people yet unborn" - God's promises are not just for us, but for those yet to come. We can help or hinder God's salvation getting to those yet to come.
1 John 4:7-21:
  • A common wedding text, one that I personally prefer to 1 Corinthians 13. Our love, our basis and example for loving one another is God's love for us. How does God love you? How do you love others? In the same way? Is your love of others like God's love for you?
  • "abide" - this word shows up in the epistle and in the gospel lesson for today. It is from the Greek meno^, which means literally "to stay at home, to stay where one is, to not stir." It has the sense of "lasting" or "remaining." On a day when we also celebrate in the UMC "The Festival of the Christian Home," this is a perfect image. We are 'at home' in God's love, not wanting to stir from that place. And God is at home in us, if we let God.
  • "that we may have boldness" - boldness because we are at home, trusting and resting in God's love. This knowledge gives us confidence, boldness to act.
  • "liars" - John has this strong word for those who claim to love God but hate their neighbors. Illogical, John says, eloquently.
  • "perfect love casts out fear." Nice. Perfect love.
John 15:1-8:
  • I love this text, and always think of the sermon Bishop Janice Riggle Huie gave on this text at General Conference in 2000. I highly recommend reading it ("Hanging on for Dear Life." She said, in warning, that branches don't cut off other branches. Excellent.
  • Again, abide - at home in God. (see notes above on meaning of 'abide.')
  • Pruning and cutting down are different processes. We all need to be pruned. But in fear of being cut out altogether I think we resist God's pruning of us. But pruning produces even better fruit. How have you let God, or refused/resisted God's pruning of you?

Monday, April 20, 2015

Lectionary Notes for Fourth Sunday after Easter, Year B

Readings for 4th Sunday of Easter, 4/26/15:
Acts 4:5-12, Psalm 23, 1 John 3:16-24, John 10:11-18

Acts 4:5-12:
  • Notice the content of Peter's preaching, and really, most of the preaching in Acts. Instead of preaching about the things Jesus talked about, the apostles preach instead about Jesus' identity. But they seem to share very little about his parables, etc.
  • "there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven . . . " How quickly the apostles make the gospel and exclusive message instead of an inclusive one, as Jesus did. How easy it is to change the whole tone of Jesus' work into something different!
  • Still, Peter speaks up and speaks boldly in some very difficult situations. When have you been so bold?
Psalm 23:
  • Ah, perhaps the one passage of scripture that most (English speaking) people, regardless of their usual preference of translation, prefer to hear in the poetry of the King James version, myself included. Just a part of our identity as people of faith.
  • "I shall not want." Hmm. I think we skip right over this little phrase. We like to hear about our overflowing cup. Less interesting to us, less believable, is that we could be without want. How do we get there?
  • Have you ever tried writing this as a reverse Psalm? Verse by verse, reverse the meaning of the phrases. Not necessarily point for point, but in the sense of it. Instead of "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want," try, "I have no one to lead me, and my need is boundless." I've been led in this process, and led my Bible Study in it. At first you might ask, "Why do it this way?" But, especially when in a group, reading back all the hopeless examples of our life without God, we see the power of this psalm more clearly.
  • Like all well-known texts, there is a danger of it communicating nothing fresh to us. This psalm is often used at funerals - many people know it by heart. Many find it comforting and strengthening. What else can it be? Challenging? Guiding us?
1 John 3:16-24:
  • An excellent passage, and one that challenges us. "How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods an sees a brother and sister in need and yet refuses help?" Indeed. How? The author's words call us to repentance and accountability.
  • "Let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action." I think of the Extreme song, "More Than Words." I doubt the singers were speaking about the gospel message, but we can apply it nonetheless. Words are powerful, but no matter how eloquent they aren't a substitute for acting in love.
  • "God is greater than our hearts." Amen!
  • Believe, and love - in action. Seems simple enough. And yet...
John 10:11-18:
  • John 10 is one of my favorite chapters in the Bible, and I love the image of the Good Shepherd. We've cleaned this image up a lot in artwork today, in church images, but shepherding wasn't clean and easy work, resulting in a Jesus with fresh-looking robes and flowing, combed hair.
  • "I know my own sheep and my sheep know me." Jesus argues that only the shepherd is truly invested in the well-being of the sheep. Everyone else is motivated by obligation, by reward from earnings, etc. In whom are you truly invested? Who is invested in you?
  • We all have power. Jesus took the powerful path of giving up power. Have you ever given up power? How?

Lectionary Notes for Third Sunday of Easter, Year B

Readings for 3rd Sunday of Easter, 4/19/15:
Acts 3:12-19, Psalm 4, 1 John 3:1-7, Luke 24:36b-48

Acts 3:12-19:
  • Anger - sometimes Peter sounds so accusatory to me, especially in his early preaching, as if still so fresh from losing Jesus as a daily physical presence in their midst, he's looking for someone to blame. He does make concession in verses 17-19.
  • Peter's words are also interesting considering his own role in Jesus' trial and death. Do you think he's speaking to himself as much as to the crowd?
  • This scene takes place just after Peter heals a crippled beggar. Healing was central to Jesus' ministry. How do Peter and Jesus differ in their style of healing?
Psalm 4:
  • "how long" - the human cry against injustice, the human plea for God to intervene.
  • A theme of this psalm: God hears us. Sometimes we doubt this - wonder if God is listening. The psalmist, with his own doubts, is still sure in his heart that God hears and listens. Are you?
1 John 3:1-7:
  • We are God's children. The author sticks with this theme throughout. More than creator and created, more than master and servant. We are parent and child, a relationship that communicates God's overflowing, unconditional love toward us.
  • Verses 2 and 3 are traditionally used as part of funeral liturgies. What we will be has not yet been revealed. So much potential that is inside of us. What is the best you can imagine yourself being? What is God revealing you to be?
  • "no one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him." What do you think the author means by this? Obviously, Christians continue to sin. Do we not abide in God? Sin can but distance between us and God, I think, but does it keep us from seeing or knowing God? I think God can bridge even such gaps between us, and seeks to do so.
Luke 24:36b-48:
  • Luke presents instead of just a doubting Thomas, a whole group of disciples who are frightened and terrified, which seems a likely scenario to me. What would it take to convince you that someone had risen from the dead?
  • Jesus eating fish is a symbolic proof that he is alive and real - not just a spiritual appearance - eating symbolizes his human body appearance for Luke - that's why it is emphasized that Jesus was hungry and ate in their presence.
  • "Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures." - I love this verse, and have a jealousy about it - what did Jesus say to them? I've always been a questioning, looking for answers sort of believer. Not a doubter, but a seeker. I'd like a Q and A session with Jesus like this.

Sermon "Dreaming: Jacob," Genesis 28:10-22

Sermon 4/19/15
Genesis 28:10-22

Dreaming: Jacob


            How does God communicate with you? How do you most often hear God’s voice? How can you tell the difference between God’s voice, and your own voice in your mind? One of the questions I’m asked regularly as a pastor is “why doesn’t God speak to us today like God spoke to people in the Bible?” After all, in the scriptures, we read about God speaking out from a burning bush, or God walking through the garden where Adam and Eve lived, or speaking from an overshadowing cloud – all these very dramatic ways of getting someone’s attention. And yet, I’ve encountered very few people who have said that they have heard God’s voice in this way. I don’t know, of course, why God chooses to speak to us in the ways God does, but here’s what I think: What if someone today told you that they heard a voice come to them from, say, a tree, and that they were going to listen to what the voice told them to do? Well, we’d probably suggest that person seek counseling. Immediately. I think as our knowledge and understanding of the world around us has changed, our understanding of what is believable has changed too. It would be hard for us to believe for ourselves and for anyone else that God would speak in these crazy ways. I think God, then, speaks to us in ways that we are able to hear. And for most of us, that means that God might speak to us in some deep, yet insistent, internal ways. I’m not saying God won’t call out to you in some surprising way. But I’m saying: I don’t try to email Janet Norris when I know she doesn’t use email! I’ll give her a call, or meet with her face to face, in a way I know she can receive. I think our Creator is certainly capable of doing the same!
            Still though, I think we can learn from and explore being open to hearing from God in some of the ways we witness God at work in the scriptures. Throughout the scriptures, one unique way God communicates with people is through dreams. Sometimes we see people dreaming of God’s future plans for them. Other times, the Bible tells about people who were not Israelites dreaming, and seeking interpretation of those dreams from one who was a servant of God, and then was able to use that opportunity to teach them about the God of Israel. Our Christmas story is shaped by dreams, with Joseph learning about God’s purposes through dreams, while Mary hears mostly from God’s messengers, angels. On the day of Pentecost, at the end of May, we’ll hear that God’s vision for the church is that, through the Holy Spirit, young and old, men and women, “see visions,” and “dream dreams.” Dreams are important in the Bible: a method through which God communicates.
            Is that still true for us? Do our dreams mean anything? Most of the time I hardly remember mine. When I do: well, some of you saw on facebook recently that I had a dream about swimming in a river with Patrick Stewart. I don’t think God was trying to tell me anything there. Once I had a strange dream with trains and climbing into windows and coins on the ground, and for fun, I looked up what each part of the dream meant according to a “dream interpretation” guide – and every part of my dream supposedly meant I was thinking about money and wealth. I think most of the time, our dreams are the result of all the things we’re thinking about in the background during the day. Our minds are amazingly complex things, and they never stop, and I think our dreams are a way we process everything we are experiencing and considering. But can they be more? One dream I will never forget happened in the last year or two. My grandfather, Millard Mudge, who was so dear to me, died when I was 19. But sometimes it seems like just an instant since he’s died. He was very ill and frail for the last couple years of his life, after always being a robust, jovial, smiling man. And I dreamed that he was alive, happy, so healthy, with me again. And he gave me a big hug. And I said to him “I have missed you so much.” I woke up with tears in my eyes when I realized I had been dreaming. But I’m convinced it was more than just a dream. Maybe it wasn’t a vision, exactly, a confirmation of my grandfather’s eternal well-being. But I do believe it was a very precious gift from God of one more hug from Grandpa. I think maybe, just maybe, in the vulnerability of our sleep, sometimes God can speak to us in ways we’re not ready for in our waking hours, when our skeptical, logical minds won’t let us experience things that seem too good to be true.
            Too good to be true. As we’re thinking about dreams and dreaming, I want us to consider the other way we think about dreams. Not only do we talk about dreams that represent our wandering thoughts during sleep. We also use the word dream to describe our hopes and visions for the future. Young people might talk about what they dream about being when they grow up. Parents and grandparents might talk about their hopes and dreams for their children and grandchildren – all the blessings they wish their loved ones would experience. We think of the hopeful dreams for the future articulated by visionaries and prophets through the ages, like Isaiah’s peaceable kingdom where the lamb and lion lie down together, or where Martin Luther King Jr. imaged a world where racism and inequality wouldn’t mar the lives of black children. And I wonder, when we talk about dreams like this, our daydreams, our visions, our hopes – are we so used to thinking of our crazy dreams in sleep that mean nothing much, that we can’t put any stock in our hopeful waking dreams ever becoming reality? Are dreams and reality irreconcilable? Do we put any stock in our dreams ever coming true? Or are dreams coming true just the stuff of fairy tales?
            Over the next several weeks, we’ll be exploring what it means to dream with God. In worship, we’ll be looking at several dreams and dreamers in the Bible, and see how God used their dreams to communicate something important. And in our book study, we’ll be looking pretty seriously at what God is dreaming about for us, for each of us, and for Apple Valley. If you haven’t committed already, I really encourage you to consider signing up for one of our sections of the study – Monday afternoons or Wednesday evenings starting next week. We want all of your voices, all of your dreams, to be a part of the conversation in the weeks ahead.
Today we heard from one dreamer – Jacob. We talked about Jacob back in January, when we studied people who received new names from God in the Bible. Remember, Jacob is a schemer, a swindler. He takes his twin brother Esau’s blessing. And when we meet him in our text today, he’s been on the run, avoiding meeting up with Esau again. In his travels, he has a vision of a great ladder, reaching to heaven, with God’s messengers going up and down between heaven and earth. And he hears the voice of God, drawing him into the promise that was made first to Abraham, the covenant. God promises to be with Jacob, and his offspring, saying that they will be like the dust of the earth. And God says to him, “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” And when Jacob wakes, he says, “Surely God is in this place – and I did not realize it! How awesome is this place!” He decides that if God will be with him, he’ll claim God as his God, as his fore-parents had. He marks the place by pouring oil on the stone where Jacob laid his head in sleep. But despite this dream that Jacob has, it isn’t yet that the deepest changes begin in his life. It’s just a first step. A baby step, even: an acknowledgment of God’s presence. But it is enough, of course, on which God builds something wonderful for Jacob, for Israel, for us.

That’s where I want us to start today. Maybe some of you are already dreamers. But I think many of us, myself included, spend so much time trying to deal with reality that we forget to dream. We forget that God promises again and again that anything is possible. And so when we try to dream with God, we dream such small, tiny things, when God wants to give us such an abundance, such a future, such love, beyond our imagining. We need to practice a bit, and remember how to dream, and to dream big, to dream with God. So we’re going to do just that – practice. I’m going to ask you to try a little bit of journaling this week. On a scrap paper, or in a diary or a plain notebook or on a keyboard or on some app on your phone – however works for you. I want you to try to pay attention and remember, as much as possible, what you dream about this week – dreams that come to you in sleep – and the things you find yourself daydreaming about. Whether they’re crazy, or unrealistic, or illogical, or seemingly impossible, I just want you to write it down. For now, that’s all. Just keep track. And perhaps we, like Jacob, can just take one small step this week: remind ourselves that God is always present, always here, in our sleeping and in our waking. It’s a good place to start. God can build on it. God can dream on it. Amen. 

Sermon, "After Easter," based on the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus

Sermon 4/12/15
Multiple Texts

After Easter


            Last Sunday, during our sunrise service, I talked about how easy it can be sometimes, or at least has been in my own life, to “miss” Easter. After all the build-up, all the special Holy Week services, somehow Easter can seem less intense. Part of it is because we focus first on something that is empty: Jesus is not in the tomb. And that’s a bit harder things to get our heads around. And sometimes we can be like Peter and the other disciple who ran to see the empty tomb, only to quickly go back to our place of fear and darkness without understanding. It is Mary Magdalene, who stays at the tomb, weeping, grieving, who is still present to have the very first encounter with the resurrected Jesus.
            But if we have a chance of sort of missing Easter on Easter Sunday, we really have a chance of missing Easter on the Sunday after, this, the second Sunday of Easter. In fact, it has a non-technical name: it’s typically known as “low Sunday,” because after the hype and fanfare and sometimes increased attendance and participation and Holy Week and Easter, the Sunday after is pretty quiet, pretty empty, a kind of emotional letdown. Jesus’ resurrection – that was so last week, right? Actually, though, the Great Season of Easter is 50 days long. It goes all the way from Easter Sunday up until Pentecost Sunday, when we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit, which we will celebrate at the end of June. These 50 days include the 40 days between Resurrection Day and the Ascension, the day Jesus returned to God and no longer was physically present on earth. Sometimes we forget, that for over a month, the scriptures record the resurrected Jesus as continuing to appear to and interact with and share teachings with the disciples and other close followers of Jesus. Normally, throughout this season of Easter, these post-resurrection appearances of Jesus in the Bible would be spread throughout our Sunday services.
But this year, we’re rolling it all up into one, today. Throughout the service, we’ve heard nearly every scripture that refers to this “post-resurrection” time. Next Sunday, we’ll begin spending time looking at dreams in the Bible, and talking about our dreams, and God’s dreams for our lives and for Apple Valley. We’re going to get serious about thinking about where God is leading us as individuals and a congregation. We’re going to see how big we can dream with God, right up through Pentecost, when I hope we will celebrate some of our dreams that will lead us forward. But today, before we begin that process, I want us to think about resurrection and new life. What does Jesus do and tell us in this time between resurrection and ascension? Yes, Christ is risen, Christ is risen indeed! But so what? What does it mean? What does Jesus hope it means for us? I think as we look at all these post-resurrection appearances, we get some clues.
First, I think we see in these passages the same temptation we experience with Easter. In the second part of John 20, which continues directly after the Easter morning story we read last Sunday, we find that Jesus appears to the disciples where they are all locked in a room, hiding in fear. This is after Peter and the other disciple have seen the empty tomb, and after Mary Magdalene has presumably found them and shared with the them the good news that Jesus has been resurrected and is alive and that death has not been victorious. And the disciples respond by: Hiding. Trembling. Doing nothing. Essentially sticking their heads in the sand. Jesus is alive – resurrection has happened – but it seems to make no difference! Not, at least, until Jesus comes to them and encourages them and breathes on them and speaks words of peace to them. I worry that sometimes we’re the same way. Has resurrection made any impact on us? If we have this good news, but don’t share it, don’t let our lives be changed because of it, if being Easter people who serve a God who conquers even the power of death makes no real impact on our lives, causes nothing about our lives to change: what’s the point? It’s so easy to go back to life as usual. Easter was so last week. But new life isn’t just a momentary event. It’s a new beginning, and like those seeds we talked about last week, we have to cultivate life, continue to nourish it. It doesn’t go from seed to fruit-bearing plant in a moment. There’s growing to be done. How is new life, resurrection, taking place in you?
Another theme in these post-resurrection stories is that we see Jesus encountering whatever stumbling blocks there are to moving forward for the disciples and followers and effectively removing them from their path. There’s Cleopas and the other disciple, walking to Emmaus, who seem confused about what has been happening, and don’t recognize Jesus, but Jesus walks with them, explains things, reveals himself to them, breaks bread with them. There’s of course Thomas, forever stuck with the label of one moment of doubt out of his whole lifetime. I feel sorry for him – what one mistake, one misjudgment would you like made into a nickname that sticks with you forever? All Thomas wants is to see Jesus for himself, to touch Jesus and verify that this outlandish story is true. Jesus says that we’re blessed when we can believe without seeing, but he doesn’t withhold proof from Thomas. Instead, he guides his hands to touch the wounds of the crucifixion. He gives Thomas exactly what he needs to believe and act on what he’s experienced. And then, of course, there’s Peter. Peter, Jesus’ closest, most devoted disciple: his last moments before the crucifixion were full of shame as Peter denied and abandoned even knowing Jesus, just as Jesus said he would. He’s a failure. He must be nervous, anxious about what Jesus will have to say to him. But what Jesus gives Peter is a gift: three times the opportunity for Peter to state his love and commitment to Jesus, three times a command from Jesus to go forth and carry on the work that Jesus began. Three strong responses to cancel out the pain of three denials. As we move on from here and begin to dream with God, we will find a lot of stumbling blocks – excuses that we’ve built up of why we can’t do something and why God can’t really be asking us to do that and why we aren’t qualified or ready or the right person or it isn’t the right time. To me, these resurrection stories show us Jesus removing every excuse we’ve got. There’s nothing God can’t work around. With God’s help, it’s time to put away our excuses, and clear the path forward.
            And then, I’m struck by how these post-resurrection scenes end. In John, Jesus is giving Peter the commands: Feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep, follow me. In Matthew, Jesus gives the disciples authority and tells them to go, make disciples – fellow students of Jesus – teach them about Jesus, baptize, share the news about Jesus everywhere! In Acts, when we read about Jesus returning to God’s eternal home, and the apostles are left staring up into the sky, the messengers of God say to them, “Why are you standing here staring at the sky?” The implication is clear: “Don’t just stand there! Get on with it! Go!” The final words, final teachings of the resurrected Christ on earth are all grounded in action words. The disciples have work to do. They should get going. They aren’t meant just to bask in the joy of resurrection, treasure a pleasant feeling of happiness. They’re meant to go, to share the good news, to teach others all they’ve learned and experienced, to help others get on God’s path, to feed and tend a hungry, waiting flock. They’ve been given authority. They’ve been equipped. The barriers removed from their path. After Easter, after resurrection, everything begins!
            What about for us, friends? What does “after Easter” look like for us? If we are tempted to go back to business as usual, then, well, I’m not even sure why we’re here! If we’ve got excuses – fear not! – Jesus has a “nice try” way of removing excuses large and small, showering us with love and grace along the way. Christ is alive, and new life is ours! So let’s go, and do something with the new life we’ve been given. Let’s go, and live out God’s dreams for us. Let’s go, knowing the Christ is with us, in us always, even to the end of the age. Amen.  


Sunday, April 05, 2015

Lectionary Notes for Second Sunday of Easter, Year B

Readings for 2nd Sunday of Easter, 4/12/15: 
Acts 4:32-35, Psalm 133, 1 John 1:1-2:2, John 20:19-31

Acts 4:32-35:
  • "one heart and soul" - Such a great vision of how we can wish for things to be in the Christian community, in the world. What are the obstacles that keep this from happening?
  • a little bit communist, no? I think the theory is great - it is the greed that gets in the way, and our overwhelming need for individualism. What and how much and with whom are you willing to share?
  • The benefit of such a plan is obvious here: "there was not a needy person among them." Isn't that a vision worth working toward?
Psalm 133:
  • Short and sweet?! Check out Chris Haslam's notes on this Psalm. The image of Aaron's beard dripping with oil signifies total consecration to God.
  • Haslam also notes the connection between this Psalm and our Genesis text in that verse 1 here declares, "how very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity."
1 John 1:1-2:2:
  • :1 - The author talks about a faith that involves all the senses - a complete immersion. How do all of your senses experience God's love and grace?
  • light/darkness imagery can be helpful ways for us to visualize (no pun intended) how Christ impacts our lives. But also be careful when using such imagery. In the past, such imagery has been used by some with racist intentions. Make sure you are clear about what message you are communicating and what message this text communicates.
  • :9 - "confess our sins" - so simple, and yet so hard! Admitting we are wrong is hard. Admitting we need forgiveness is harder.
John 20:19-31:
  • Ah, doubting Thomas. Most of us are less excited than I am to think of ourselves as being like Judas, but doubting Thomas we can relate to all too well. Who wouldn't want to see for himself, when everyone else had the benefit of seeing the risen Christ up close and personal?
  • "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe." Maybe today it is harder for us to take things on faith because we are so good at finding tangible - or at least scientific - proof for so many things. We can prove so much with our God-given minds - why not prove God? Prove Jesus? What do you believe without proof? Can you prove someone's love for you or yours for them? We try, but in the end, we just must trust.
  • John is obviously concerned with verifying the physical nature of Jesus' resurrection by having Thomas touch and feel Jesus, see the wounds. To me, as I mention in the Acts passage, I think the life of Jesus gets ignored in our obsession with his death and resurrection. Obviously, his death and resurrection are important to us - but would they be important if he had taught nothing in his life? If he had not been in such radical ministry for three years? So, John wants us to know Jesus' resurrection is the real deal. That's fine by me - but the statements about belief are more powerful in this passage, I think. More challenging.
  • Notice that Jesus doesn't exactly criticize Thomas for doubts - we add on the sense of blame over the centuries. Why is that?  

Sermon for Easter Sunday, "Buried Seeds," John 20:1-18

Sermon 4/5/2015
John 20:1-18

Easter: Buried Seeds


            This year I’ve been very carefully cultivating some seedlings so that if it every finally gets warm enough, I can transfer my little plants outside and have a garden that is ready to grow and produce good fruit. I’ve started seedlings many times before, but unlike my grandfather, who was such a natural with gardening, I’ve never seemed to have much of a green thumb. In elementary school, when the teacher would have us “plant” a bean in a Dixie cup with a wet paper towel, I was always that one kid with the dud seed that just didn’t do anything. As an adult, I’ve had a little bit better luck, but it seems that too often I start things too late, or animals eat all my promising plants, or I do something wrong in the transition from inside to outside. This year, though, I feel pretty good about my start: my plants are coming along nicely.
            I’ve always hated the process of thinning plants – pulling out perfectly acceptable plants to make room for the strongest to grow. But I’ve done it this year, and the result is some really strong, stable tomato, pepper, and eggplants that will be ready to go in the ground in a few weeks. This year, though, a few days after putting some of my seedlings into bigger pots, I went to move my bag of potting soil from one room to another, and I noticed that inside the bag of soil, I must have dropped one of the tiny tomato seedlings that I had thinned out to make room for other plants. And inside the bag of soil, it was growing, stretching toward what little sunlight it could find from deep down in the bag, to the nearest window that let in a bit of light. Well, since it was so enduring, so persistent, so determined to grow, of course, I had to take it out and give it its own little pot and let it grow. Now, I can’t tell which one it was anymore – it looks just as strong as all the rest of the plants.
            Seeds, plants, things that are meant to grow – they’re persistent. They can learn to grow in some of the most inhospitable locations. I love seeing images of plants that have broken through pavement, or scale buildings, or grow in places where it seems like they couldn’t possibly thrive. Yet thrive they do. Once planted, seeds want to grow. I’ve been trying ever since I bought my house three years ago to redirect the energy of some plants in the yard. But despite pulling things out or covering things with weed mat and wood chips and other plants, they have a way of creeping around the barriers I put in their path.
            I had all this in mind when I encountered a modern-day proverb this past week. “They tried to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds.” The saying became popular in Mexico this past fall following the abduction and murder of 40+ young men from rural communities who were training to be teachers and who participated in a protest to fight for better opportunities. It is believed that they were abducted by the police and handed over to a crime gang who murdered the young men. In the wake of this horrific act, people were stirred to action to seek justice, this saying became sort of a rallying cry. It’s actually adapted from the words of a 1950s Greek poet, who wrote, “what didn’t you do to bury me / but you forgot that I was a seed.” (1) “They tried to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds.” Life persists, pervades, won’t be stamped out, will grow where planted, where buried, will defeat ardent attempts to stop it. “They tried to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds.” The community around these murdered young men were insisting that just because these young men were gone didn’t mean their cause would be silenced. Just the opposite. Many more voices were lifted up. I’m reminded of the words of Theodore Parker, the 19th century transcendentalist minister and abolitionist, whose words were made famous by Abraham Lincoln and then Martin Luther King, Jr., “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” “They tried to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds.” Persistence. Pervasiveness. Perseverance. Injustice, defeat, and death are not the final words, because life and love will find a path, a place, a way to grow.
            I find that this theme is everywhere in the scripture, and most especially in the teachings of Jesus. The value of persistence. The pervasive nature of the good news about God’s kingdom being right here, right now. The unrelenting, unstoppable nature of God’s love, God’s forgiveness, God’s seeking us, God’s desire to build a relationship with us. The unstoppable force of love. In the parables of Jesus, we see again and again that persistence is rewarded, and that God is persistent in seeking us. God seeks us like a lost coin, a lost sheep, a lost child, stopping at nothing to find us. God wants us to seek after God like a person who won’t stop knocking on a door until it is answered, like a mother who will never stop seeking justice for her son. God’s love is relentless, impacting everything it touches like a little yeast can make a whole batch of bread rise, like a mustard seed can turn into a bush a million times the size of the seed from which it grew. It’s like Jesus says to the authorities on the day we call Palm Sunday when the crowds are praising him, “if the people kept silent, then the stones would cry out.” It is unstoppable, the work of God, the dream of God, the hope of God, the love of God.
            Over my years in ministry I have presided over so many graveside services, and words that once felt strange to my tongue in the funeral liturgy have become some of my favorite. We say, based on the words of the apostle Paul to the Corinthians, “Then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’ ‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’ But thanks be to God who gives us the victory through Jesus Christ.” I’m not sure I always understood those words, and I’m not certain that in the midst of grieving, people always catch the impact of them, the punch of them, the taunt of them. But Paul is laughing at death. Because he knows that death has no real enduring power over life. Death thinks it has buried us. Ended us. But it forgot that we are seeds. I’ve learned this as I think about the loved ones I have lost to death, but who are still so alive to me, to my family. Death was not able to cancel out the power of their lives. Of their love, or ours, or God’s. Even death has no power to stop the work of God, the love of God, our life in and through and because of and with God.
            With all this in mind, we finally come to John’s gospel and the Easter story we know. Jesus had been crucified, put to death. Everything suggested that it was all over. The disciples had basically abandoned him, and were locked in a room, scared and hiding. The authorities had won. Finally, the scheming of the religious leaders had worked, and Jesus was dead. No more Jesus, stirring up the crowds. No more Jesus, suggesting our lives might need changing, turning upside down. No more Jesus, suggesting that those in places of power might need to be humbled, that in God’s world, first was last, and those who wanted to follow most closely needed to serve and love most completely. Still, a few women, those who had stayed even through the crucifixion, were careful to attend to him even in death. And so Mary, on the first day of the week, went to the tomb early that morning. But when she arrived, she found that the stone entrance had been rolled away. She immediately goes and gets Peter and another, unnamed disciple. The two of them race to the tomb, go inside, and see that Jesus is gone, only his linen tomb cloth remaining. But they say nothing, understanding nothing, and go home. Mary stays, though, weeping. She sees two messengers of God, who ask why she is crying. She explains that she doesn’t know where Jesus has gone. And then she turns and sees Jesus himself. Somehow, through her grief and tears, she doesn’t recognize him, not until he says her name. And then, in joy, she says to him, “Teacher,” at last realizing the truth: Jesus is alive, risen, resurrected. He sends her to tell the disciples, and so she goes, and announces the joyous news, “I have seen the Lord.”
            And I hear Jesus saying, “What didn’t you do to bury me, but you forgot that I was a seed.” Of course, the crucifixion wasn’t the end. That’s what Jesus had been teaching us all along. God will not be stopped. God’s will isn’t thwarted. God’s vision for us isn’t mistaken and wrong. God finds a way, despite the strongest efforts of death to stop life. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? It is nothing, and Christ and life are everything. Persistent. Pervasive. Persevering. Injustice, defeat, and death are not the final words, because life and love will find a path, a place, a way to grow. Instead we just leave buried our doubts and fears. We leave buried our prejudices and hostilities. We leave buried our insistence on our own way, our grudges, our anger. But what God draws forth from us is new life. Resurrected life. Real life. And nothing will stand in God’s way.
            Friends, on this Easter morning, don’t be fooled where it seems that death has won and hope has been buried. Christ is alive, and we are God’s seeds, and nothing will keep God’s dream, God’s hope, God’s love, from taking root, and bearing fruit. Thanks be to God! Amen. 




(1) http://jhfearless.com/2014/11/they-tried-to-bury-us-they-didnt-know-we-were-seeds/