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. 


Saturday, March 28, 2015

Lectionary Notes for Good Friday, Year B

Readings for Good Friday, 4/3/15:
Isaiah 52:13-53:12, Psalm 22, Hebrews 10:16-25, John 18:1-19:42

Isaiah 52:13-53:12:
  • Here Isaiah describes the suffering servant, and no surprise, we easily see Jesus reflected in this image. Isaiah seems to focus on the theme of how this servant will be what no one is looking for, but what everyone will give attention to when revealed.
  • "by a perversion of justice he was taken away." This sentence particularly strikes - if we apply this to Jesus, we read that it is an act of injustice that takes Jesus away to death. Do we remember to think of it that way? We get so caught up in his sacrifice, in God's plan laid out, that I think we forget that what happened to Jesus, even if it worked for our good, was wrong!
  • "It was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain." Eek! I hope not. I'm not sure that this is ever God's will, exactly, or that way that God would hope and desire for things to turn out. I think God works through human deeds of pain and hurt, but I hope God doesn't will them on us. 
Psalm 22:
  • "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" These words, which open the Psalm, are found on Jesus' lips on the cross. Some say he was reciting the Psalm, to comfort others. People don't like to think about Jesus feeling forsaken by God. But I think it is ok to believe Jesus felt alone in that moment - because despite his feelings, he had faith enough to follow through with what he believed was God's call for him.
  • Surely, we've all felt forsaken by God sometimes. Alone. Finding "no rest" as the Psalmist describes. The scene the Psalmist describes is one of fear and desperation to feel God's presence. Have you experienced this? When? How? Did you find God present there?
Hebrews 10:16-25:
  • These first two verses are more or less quoted from Jeremiah 31:33-34. Notice, though, that the author of Hebrews has the laws in our hearts but also written on our minds. I like the imagery.
  • "let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds" - Another good verse. We often provoke people around us, but usually when we do so, it is not in a good way! Here, we're encouraged to provoke each other in a positive way, a way that inspires serving God. Good advice!
John 18:1-19:42:
  • from John we get part of the Passion from Palm/Passion Sunday, only from John's perspective instead of Matthew. Double check for what is different in each text. As with that text from Matthew, I find this one hard to comment on - it's such a story, it is so big, literally and theologically.
  • This text has several pieces, or vignettes. Judas betraying Jesus to the authorities. Peter denying Jesus. Jesus on trial before Pilate. Jesus beaten. Jesus crucified. And an "epilogue" of sorts. Any part could be an area of specific focus, though 'time' wise, Good Friday's focus is the crucifixion.
  • To me, what jumps out as full of possibilities is Pilate's question: "what is truth?" John does not record Jesus giving an answer. How do you think he would have answered? What is your answer?

Lectionary Notes for Maundy Thursday, Year B

Readings for Maundy Thursday, 4/2/15:
Exodus 12:1-4 (5-10), 11-14, Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19, 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, John 13:1-17, 31b-35

Exodus 12:1-4 (5-10), 11-14
  • God describes to Moses and Aaron the Passover, which is the festival that centers Jesus' meal with his disciples as we celebrate Maundy Thursday.
  • "this is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly" Ready to go. Ready to move. Prepared. Imagine if this was always the way we were, in terms of readiness to respond to God's call.
  • The Passover is a hard one to stomach (no pun intended.) It is hard to imagine a plague of killing firstborns all through the land, isn't it? But it is a festival, a "remembrance" that becomes so crucial in the identity of Judaism, and even in the events that shape Christ's last days. Death, blood, lamb, sacrifice. The ways the symbolism of the Old Testament events and New Testament events overlap and tie in here is important.
Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19:
  • "I love the Lord, because he had heard my voice." I wish I knew Hebrew - I'm curious about the "because" word here. Do we love people "because" of something? Or does our love, even for God, go deeper and beyond a "because."
  • "I will pay my vows to the Lord" This phrase is repeated in this Psalm. It seems the Psalmist feels he must pay God back for hearing his voice, his supplications. Does God need to be paid back? Want to be paid back? I don't think God wants to feel "owed" as much as loved.
  • "loosed my bonds" - what has you bound up?
1 Corinthians 11:23-26:
  • Remember that Corinthians is written before the gospels are written, so Paul's account here is actually an earlier account of the "Last Supper" than we find in the gospels.
  • "as often as you drink it" - I think Jesus had in mind even more than our communion ritual, though I find that meaningful. "As often as you drink it" says to me that we are to remember and be guided by Christ as frequently as our daily task of eating: all the time.
John 13:1-17, 31b-35:
  • "having loved his own who were in the world, he love them to the end." I like this editorial sentence of John's. He seems to emphasize the close bond shared by Jesus and his disciples. How painful these last days must have been for him, knowing that even his closest friends would not seem him through his ordeal.
  • "the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas" Poor Judas. I've mentioned before my Jesus Christ Superstar inspired love of Judas. I always wish I could get inside his head. What would make you betray Jesus?
  • "you also ought to wash one another's feet." Serving one another. I've tried, in a small group, to do a foot-washing before. I find people pretty resistant: either embarrassed to have someone touching their feet, or worried about hygiene, clean towels, clean water, etc. Guess we're not willing to get Jesus' point anymore.
  • "by this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." If this is true, how many of us can be identified as disciples by our actions? Not as many as should be...

Lectionary Notes for Palm/Passion Sunday, Year B

Readings for Palm/Passion Sunday, 3/29/15:
Mark 11:1-11 (Palms), Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29 (Palms), Isaiah 50:4-9a (Passion), Psalm 31:9-16 (Passion), Philippians 2:5-11 (Passion), Mark 14:1-15:47 (Passion)

Mark 11:1-11
  • This is a passage that aches to be visually depicted in our congregations. That's why, I think, we wave the palms, or have processions on Palm Sunday. We need to see it, experience it, and be part of it. In our church, the choir and the children process in the opening hymn, waving branches. Do you have some visual marking of this text?
  • "Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there . . . " Not necessarily Jesus prophesying, as some have interpreted. Just Jesus telling them of the plans he has made ahead of time. We never seem satisfied with things just happening in the realm of the natural - we always seem to want to add a supernatural element to scripture, as if it is not powerful enough otherwise.
  • Make sure to compare Mark's text with Matthew's and Luke's account of events. What do you notice that is different? What's the same? Significance?
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29:
  • Gate/entry imagery - This is good Palm Sunday imagery - entering in to give thanks to God.
  • "The stone that the builders reject has become the chief cornerstone." Such a powerful verse, used to describe Christ by the prophets. But good for us too: when others reject us, God accepts us. In God, we can become the cornerstone, not a rejected scrap. Hope!
  • "This is the Lord's doing." Giving credit where credit is due. We're not so good at that many times.
  • "This is the day that the Lord has made." This is such a popular opening to worship. Why do we like this verse so much? I think it does a good job of truly reminding us of the fact that each day is God's precious gift to us.

Isaiah 50:4-9a:
  • "The tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word." Sustaining the weary with a word. That's a gift; that's power. Who can accomplish this feat? Isaiah, apparently! :) But seriously - perhaps this is the gift we're called to live into as preachers. With God's Word, we can sustain the weary.
  • "I gave my back . . . and my cheeks . . . I did not hide the face." Let us not think that there is nothing of Jesus' 'turn the other cheek' teaching in the Old Testament, that the OT only speaks of 'an eye for an eye' - this passage show us its just not so!
  • "I have set my face like flint." Nice image.
Psalm 31:9-16:
  • "My eye wastes away from grief, my soul and body also. For my life is spent with sorrow, and my years with sighing." This verse jumped out to me personally one year when our congregation had lost 5 dear parishioners all close together in time. The congregation as a whole seemed to be 'wasting away from grief' in body and soul. I think grief often comes in groups like that, so much all it once that it seems difficult to bear. I have to notice, though, that this psalmist is speaking about very individual grief that comes not from loss of others, but from a seeming rejection by others. This reads almost like a school kid who is being picked on by everyone. I don't mean to make it less important because it is such a personal pleading. God knows we all have personal pleading. But an observation...
  • This psalm comes in all three years of the Passion Sunday readings. How come?
  • "I have become like a broken vessel." Nice imagery, given all the biblical language about potter/clay/jars/vessels. Last year I attended the Northeastern Jurisdictional UMW quadrennial meeting in Baltimore, where the theme was 'vessels for mission.' We talked about empty vessels and full vessels. Refilled vessels and pouring out our vessels. And cracked vessels. What shape is your vessel in right now?
  • "My times are in your hand." Giving God our times. That simply, that completely.

Philippians 2:5-11:
  • "Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus."
  • "did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited" I find this such a unique statement. Imagine if Christ had used his equality to exploit? What would that look like? Perhaps this is what the devil was tempting Christ to do - to exploit his equality.
  • "emptied himself" Emptying ourselves.
  • "every knee should bend . . . every tongue should confess." Hm. This is one of those passages often used by people who are seeking to convert non-Christians and those of other faith traditions as proof or encouragement about the task at hand. Frankly, it makes me a bit uncomfortable. If the idea is that people will ultimately be moved to worship Jesus even against their will, I'm not sure I'd want to see that display...

Mark 14:1-15:47:
  • I guess you have to ask: why this huge, all encompassing text, when much of this material will be included later in Holy Week? The answer, on the practical side, is that the sad fact is many in our congregations won't be back again until Easter Sunday - won't be at Maundy Thursday or Good Friday. They need to know how we get from Palm Sunday to Easter Morning. But on a deeper level, for me at least, nothing beats the contrast of starting a sermon with the joy of the Palms and ending with the reality of the cross.
  • This text as a whole is almost too huge to comment on, hence my note at the top of this page on my practice of just reading/hearing the text. It is the story. How can we elaborate? I guess I'm not going to try!

Sermon, "Forgiveness and Reconciliation: Seventy-Seven," Matthew 18:21-35

Sermon 3/22/15
Matthew 18:21-35

Forgiveness and Reconciliation: Seventy-Seven

            I’ve mentioned to you before that I’m part of a clergy Bible Study group, where I meet weekly with some of my colleagues for study and reflection. Right now, we’re reading a book together called Questions God Asks Us by Trevor Hudson. In the book, each week, we examine together a question God asks of someone in the scriptures. This week, we talked about the question God asks of Cain, just after he has murdered his brother Abel. God asks, “Where is your brother?” We talked about how this question implies that we have responsibility for one another – not just our friends and loved ones, but our society as a whole, and in particular, those who are our enemies.
            As we were discussing this, a few in the group shared that they don’t really feel that they have anyone that they’d call an enemy. Now, this is great for them, but I found myself a little skeptical. Here’s the challenge I raised: Jesus talks all the time about how we’re supposed to treat our enemies. He tells us we’re supposed to pray for them, forgive them, love them. And I think it would be pretty easy for us to read the scripture and say, “Oh, I don’t have to worry about that part, because I don’t have any enemies!” And so we can check Jesus’ teachings off our list as “does not apply” because “me – I don’t have any enemies! Sure, people maybe I don’t get along with from time to time. People I’d rather not see, or talk to, or interact with, or be around … but not enemies, right?”
            I shared with them about a challenge my co-pastor at Liverpool UMC gave to the congregation while we were serving there together. He asked people to pray every day for 30 days for the person who was their enemy. For a person who they didn’t like very much. For the person that they were in conflict with, avoiding, disliking, whatever. You know – the name that pops right into your head as soon as the subject is brought up. Pastor Aaron told us to pray for that person every day – simply for God to bless them. Nothing more, nothing less. And indeed, I shared that my immediate reaction was a bit like Job’s reaction I talked to you about last week – “No, I don’t want to do that!” Because I had a feeling – a knowing – that if I prayed for my enemies every single day that God would change not them perhaps, but me. And I was perfectly content holding onto my anger and resentment. How we forgive enemies, how we love them – maybe it changes them – but that’s not the part we’re responsible for. We will be changed by loving and forgiving as Jesus teaches.
            So, do you have enemies? Before you say no, let me ask you some follow up questions. Are there some people that when they talk, you’re prone to roll your eyes a bit behind their back? Is there someone whose behavior you pay particular attention to, even though you aren’t really friends? You always know what this person is up to – what they’re doing or what they’re failing to do that you do or don’t like? A person you’re likely to talk about to others? That person whose face popped into your head as soon as we started talking about this?
            On the other side of questions from the ones God asks us in the scriptures are the questions people ask of Jesus in the gospels. I’ve noticed two main categories of questions people ask Jesus. The first one is easy: people ask Jesus something like, “Huh? What do you mean? I don’t get it. Can you explain that?” People ask this question to Jesus a lot. But it’s the second category I want to focus on today. The second question people ask Jesus goes something like this: What’s required? How much is enough? What do I have to do to still be ok, “in,” doing “enough” to please God? They show up as questions like this: Which commandment is most important? What must I do to inherit eternal life? Is it right to pay taxes? Who is my neighbor? What reasons are ok for a man to give to divorce his wife? Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath? Why don’t you and your disciples follow the rules? How often do I have to forgive – is this enough? And Jesus’ answers to these questions comes to us in parables about the kingdom, about what the kingdom of God, the kingdom of heaven is like.
            Our text for today is a perfect example of one of these exchanges. The topic is forgiveness. And the question is how much/how often/what is required. Peter wants to know how much he’d need to forgive someone else in the community of faith who sinned against him. And Jesus answers with a parable about the kingdom of heaven.
Before our text for today, the disciples have asked Jesus some questions, and he has responded, teaching about not being stumbling blocks for one another, talking about it being better to enter God's kingdom without a foot or hand rather than to stumble and stray because of it. He speaks about conflict in the community, recommending a course of action if someone has sinned against you. And then, perhaps in response to this teaching, Peter asks Jesus: ╩║Lord, if another member of the faith community sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?╩║ Now, the way Peter asks his question gives you an idea that he thinks he is being pretty broad in his suggested response. As many as seven times? Peter asks and lets Jesus know he thinks seven times is a lot. See, Peter is learning, even though he stumbles. He is learning from Jesus and has learned that Jesus is pretty extravagant sometimes – not when it comes to having things and possessions and money. But extravagant about his relationships with others. Jesus is pretty extravagant with his compassion, justice, and mercy. Always going farther than anyone else was prepared to go. Peter, I suspect, thinks he will impress Jesus, by saying he suspects you might need to forgive someone up to seven times if they sin against you! Seven times!
             Jesus replies, “Nice try, Peter. Try seventy seven times. Seventy seven.” Not because Jesus actually wants us to count up to 77 in the number of times we forgive. But because Jesus wants us to stop counting. Because we’re asking the wrong question. Jesus tells a parable, about the kingdom of heaven, saying, “It’s like this. A king wanted to settle his debts. He called forward a slave who owed him 10,000 talents. The slave could not pay, so the king prepared to sell the slave, his family, and his possessions to make the payment. But the slave begged for mercy and patience, promising to pay. The king had mercy and cancelled the entire debt and released the slave, beyond what the slave asked for. But later, the same slave encounters a peer who owes him a small sum of money, a hundred denarii. He violently demands payment, and when his peer can’t pay, and begs for mercy, the slave denies him mercy, and has him thrown in prison. When the king finds out about it, he calls the slave before him. ‘How could you not show mercy to your fellow slave, as I showed you mercy?’ Finally, the king hands the slave over and requires payment for the debt.” Jesus concludes, saying that this is how it will be with us if we do not forgive one another.
            As you know, I’ve had a small group from the church working with me on my research project. We’ve spent a lot of time talking about outreach, charity, and justice. In a Bible Study session, we talked about justice and righteousness – they’re almost use synonymously in the Bible, and I understand their meaning when I think about how we justify text in written documents – papers, newspapers, magazines, books. You can make the margins all line up evenly – that’s justified text – or you can let the lines end in a jagged sort of way, all out of line – that’s unjustified. Personally, I always like both of my margins justified. When we talk about justice and righteousness, we’re talking about getting things set right, set in a right line with God’s vision for us. Justice is when God’s will is fully carried out here on earth, when everything we do, and all of our relationships, are in a straight line, lined up with God’s hopes for us.
We talked in our study about how charity is optional – we can choose to give or not give to others as we will. But justice is what God requires. Yes, we can fail to achieve it, fail to participate in it, but justice – that wholeness and right relationship – is God’s aim and intention for our world. Justice is a requirement of God’s world when it is set right. But God doesn’t stop there. Throughout the writings of the prophets and the teachings of Jesus, it’s clear that we’re meant to love justice, just as God loves justice. It’s required for God’s vision of wholeness, but God’s true hope is for us to love and seek after justice and wholeness because we want to realize that same vision of the world that God wants. Real justice isn’t when we seek out the minimum we can do and still get by. It is when, instead, full of love for God and one another, we seek after justice as a way to have the world, and our hearts, set right in line with God.
God keeps asking us about our relationships with one another, and we keep responding to God with questions about what the least is that we can do and still “get by.” How many times must we forgive? Who is our neighbor? What’s required? We’re already asking the wrong questions! As soon as we wonder first about the requirement before or even instead of seeking out the love and grace that motivates forgiveness, that motivates our relationships, that motivates our following Jesus, we’re asking the wrong question, and we’ll never find the answer that satisfies. But, how can I show love to my enemy? How might forgiveness changes lives and set us free? How is God’s grace transforming me? What miracles will forgiveness work in the world? What is the kingdom of God like? What would it be like to experience the kingdom of heaven, God’s wholeness, God’s right relationships, on earth? Those are the questions that will keep our lives in an endlessly unfolding conversation with Jesus, as we experience the kingdom that is already at hand. Amen.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Lectionary Notes for Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year B

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Lectionary Notes for Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year B

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

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

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

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

Forgiveness: Sibling Rivalry

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