Wednesday, October 29, 2014

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

Promised Land: Are You with Us?

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

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

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

Promised Land: Commandments

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

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

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

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

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

Exodus 33:12-23:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

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

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

Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20:
  • People have spent a lot of energy defending these commandments. Are they worth defending? While I don't feel they need to be posted in our courtrooms, for example, I think they are still pretty important for us.
  • The ones I am most drawn to are the first commandments. God is God and our only God. We might not worship other deities, but sometimes we're in danger of worshipping our possessions, our work, our culture, or our country. We may not make golden calf idols, but we idolize plenty of things, don't we?
  • "Remember the Sabbath." This is so hard for me. We're recently started a twice-weekly prayer chapel at our church - 30 minutes to be still and be with God. I find even that hard. My mind is always racing over my to-do list. How do you keep Sabbath?
  • Coveting - that's another commandment that I think is so important. We always want what we don't have, no matter how much we do have. How do we live a life of gratitude?
Psalm 19:
  • "The heavens are telling the glory of God." These famous words from the Psalm are often set to music...
  • This imagery of the sun "like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy", this personification of the sun draws to my mind Greek/Roman mythology, and no doubt made contemporaries of the psalmist think of similar images of sun-gods in other religions. The difference? Here the sun is put into place by God, not a god in itself.
  • God is more than gold, sweeter than honey. A simple message - but reminds us of things we put too often before God in our lives.
  • "Let the words of my mouth and the meditations..." This verse is often used by pastors before they begin preaching. I like it, but if there's a way to use a Bible verse too much to the point of over doing, this one makes it on my personal list!
Philippians 3:4b-14:
  • One of my least favorite things about Paul is that I feel he is always boasting about himself while pretending to be humble. But here, he actually is making good, thoughtful points about his identity and his identity in Christ. A faithful Jew all his life, Paul says his faith identity would give him reason to boast except that now, in Christ, these things are "regard[ed] as loss]." Why? These things simply aren't important in Christ: in Christ there is no Greek or Jew.
  • "Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead." The them here is of a clean slate. It isn't easy to forget the past. Indeed, it is not always wise either. But what Paul urges here is to forget the identity that was without Christ, so that we can focus on 'the prize' of living fully in Christ in the present/future.
  • "I press on." We can't underestimate the importance of simply pressing on, I think, even when we struggle. We just press on, try again, reach toward the goal.
Matthew 21:33-46:
  • Jesus tells stories about his identity. The landowner/tenants story is interesting  - it almost reads like "God should have expected Jesus to be killed" - which isn't helpful.
  • Looking for more help, I check Chris Haslam's comments. Now it makes more sense. Jesus is saying: God will find tenants who will produce. Do we want to be tenants? What will we produce for the landowner? If we produce nothing, why would that landowner want us to stay as tenants?
  • The Pharisees get that Jesus is talking about them, but remain immobilized. Do you ever feel that way? The scriptures you know are calling you to accountability, and yet you still do not act. Jesus is calling us to action!

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

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

Out of Egypt: Water from the Rock

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

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Lectionary Notes for Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A (Proper 21, Ordinary 26)

Readings for 15th Sunday after Pentecost, 9/28/14:
Exodus 17:1-7, Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16, Philippians 2:1-13, Matthew 21:23-32

Exodus 17:1-7:
  • "wilderness of Sin" - great image.
  • Human nature is so perfectly exhibited by the Israelites, isn't it? We tend to find things to gripe about no matter what is going on in our lives. "They are almost ready to stone me," Moses admits. Perhaps pastors sometimes feel that way when trying to lead congregations out of the wilderness and into the vision which God has laid before the people. How can we get over our griping, count our blessings, and forge ahead?
  • The name, Massah and Meribah, is summed up as indicating the question of the people, "Is the Lord among us or not?" Hopefully, that should be a rhetorical question: the answer is yes. And if God is among the people, then the people should respond, live, with faith.
Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16:
  • "I will open my mouth in a parable" - I hadn't realized that the word 'parable' appeared in the Old Testament. But it reminds us that in Jesus' day, the people would have related to Jesus' style, more, perhaps, than we are able to relate today.
  • "We will not hide them from our children; we will tell to the coming generation" - I like these verses that convey a sense of the necessity to tell the story of a people, to make sure the history is known through time and generations. We have a tendency to forget whole chunks of our history, don't we, until we are repeating it!
  • Verses 12-16 refer to the Israelites being led through the Red Sea, into the wilderness, and receiving water to drink from the rock, which ties in with our Old Testament reading.
Philippians 2:1-13:
  • "if then there is any (fill in the blank) in Christ . . . be of the same mind, having the same love." Paul says that whatever in Christ there is, we should be like-minded. A good strategy!
  • "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 in the wilderness - 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...
  • "work out your own salvation" - this ends up being a very Wesleyan sentiment - obviously, Paul does not mean that we save ourselves, but he means to remind us that we are active participants in the justifying and sanctifying grace that should mark our lives as people of faith.
Matthew 21:23-32:
  • "by what authority" - the priests and elders want to know why Jesus thinks he "has the right" to teach as he's teaching. Who is he? Who's 'backing' him?
  • I love this, this trick Jesus sets them up for. Jesus himself knows the answer to his own question, doesn't he? But he traps them in a way that makes it impossible to answer. I think Jesus was having a good time here.
  • Jesus says - it is more important what you do than what your lips claim you believe. Did you hear that?
  • "change your minds" from the Greek metemele^the^te, which means "to repent" - this is not the typical word used for repentance/"change of minds" in the New Testament. It is usuallymetanoeo^, but the gist of the meaning is the same. But typically, NRSV translates the meaning as "repent" as opposed to this more literal rendering (preferred to me) of "change your minds."

Monday, September 15, 2014

Lectionary Notes for Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A (Proper 20, Ordinary 25)

Readings for 15th Sunday after Pentecost, 9/21/14:
Exodus 16:2-15, Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45, Philippians 1:21-30, Matthew 20:1-16

Exodus 16:2-15:
  • "rain bread from heaven for you" I'm mindful of the famine in Africa. If we can't take care of each other by feeding our neighbors, perhaps God could rain down some more manna. Sadly, we seem to need that help.
  • the people must learn to depend on God day by day, trusting for each moment in God's guidance. They aren't great at it, but they learn that God can be trusted, their faith put in God. Could you live in such a day-to-day way? We like to have our plans all laid out.
Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45:
  • Here we go - this Psalm showing up for the 4th time this summer. Of course, parts of this Psalm have been following along with our Exodus story. But still...
  • Verses 1-5 are right on target for me: Remember to praise God all the time, because God has done some pretty amazing things for you. It is amazing how easily we forget God's role in all that we claim as our own goodness.
  • I do like verses 39-45: the people ask, God responds. God tries to meet every need.
  • 45b makes a nice end, while skipping many verses: "praise God!"
Philippians 1:21-30:
  • the dilemma - living in the world or retreating to a spiritual place where we are 'safe' - this isn't exactly Paul's dilemma - he's talking more literal life and death. but we can related to his dilemma maybe, by thinking of the "in the world" or "of the world" tug of war.
  • "live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ" - yes. The hard thing about sharing the gospel is when the sharers aren't living the things they're sharing! We try, we are imperfect. But we need to try!
Matthew 20:1-16:
  • this is one of the hardest parables for us, I think. It goes against everything about our values - American work ethic and all. You work hard, you get rewarded proportionally. The idea that someone else could do less than us and get the same pay is totally frustrating, isn't it?
  • Fair. This isn't fair, is it? Fairness is something we prize, but not mentioned as something Jesus exactly values!  
  • This is the side of grace we don't like to hear about, I think. We struggle with whether or not we can accept grace for ourselves, but when it comes to who else gets God's grace, and how they get it, it becomes a lot trickier, and we wish there were more rules about it...

Sermon for Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A, "Out of Egypt: Surrounded, " Exodus 14:19-31

Sermon 9/14/14
Exodus 14:19-31

Out of Egypt: Surrounded

            Last week, we learned about the first Passover, as God instructed the Israelites how to prepare to leave Egypt, and not only that, instructed them in how to prepare to remember, every year, how God had rescued them. Today, in our text, we skip ahead a little bit, and find the Israelites preparing to cross the Red Sea, with the Egyptians chasing after them. The threat of being caught is imminent, and the Israelites are in a panic. As I mentioned last week, God knew the Israelites would need to be reminded of why they were leaving Egypt, and indeed, already, just before our text begins, they are complaining bitterly to Moses. They say, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, ‘Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.” But Moses responds, “Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you shall never see again. The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.”
            And then, they cross the Red Sea, Moses’s arms outstretched in a gesture of parting the waters, a path made clear for the people. It seems to take them all night to cross – this isn’t just a group of twenty or thirty fleeing Egypt, but a whole nation of people. But when the Egyptians pursue, Moses stretches out his arms again and the waters come crashing back together, and the Egyptian army is tossed into the sea. The Israelites are saved. Now, this text brings up many questions. How could Moses perform such a miracle? Did he really part the waters? Can we find some scientific phenomenon to explain what happened? And what about all those Egyptians? Was it fair for them to all be killed? Weren’t some of them just doing their job – part of an army? I’m a great fan of asking a lot of questions of the biblical texts we read. Seriously. There’s no question you can put to the Bible, no question you can ask God that is crossing some kind of line. God is strong enough to hear your questions. But sometimes, if what we’re doing is seeking understanding, it’s helpful if we know what are the best questions to ask, and which questions are distractions to figuring out how the text is important to us as people of faith.
Some people have speculated when talking about the crossing of the Red Sea that the Israelites happened to cross the Red Sea at a spot where, if the winds were right, dry ground would be exposed for a time, because the waters were shallow. You can see from the map that most think the Israelites crossed the sea in this narrow section up here. These folks speculate that miraculously favorable winds allowed the Israelites to pass by, and that the winds changed when the Egyptians followed them, causing the waters to rush back together and drown the Egyptians. In this way, a sort of quasi-scientific explanation for the crossing of the Red Sea is offered. Others, however, read this text and simply see a miracle. Moses raised his arms, and with the power of God, literally moved the water into columns so that dry land was created. Which point of view is right? Or is there another explanation? To this issue, I would respond that it doesn’t matter, because it isn’t the point of the text. It’s an interesting conversation. But figuring out an “answer,” if we ever could, to that question, isn’t really going to help us learn anything useful about this passage. It might sound strange to say, but actually, I don’t believe it matters how the Israelites made it safely across the Red Sea. It only matters that they did, and it matters why they were able to make it across. However it happened, they crossed the Red Sea because of God’s intervention, because of God’s presence with them. That’s the important part.
            That other nagging question – what about all those Egyptians? Did God just kill a whole army of people? Those are the kinds of questions that follow us throughout the Old Testament, as I mentioned last week. And they’re important to ask, especially because we have a habit, even today, of claiming that God is on “our side” and not “their side” whenever we face a conflict – personally, in our communities, in our denomination, across the globe. Whose side is God on? In our Bible Study, we’ve been trying to remind ourselves to ask about points of view. Whose point of view is being shared in the biblical text? Even in a book meant to record history, the author has a point of view. If you read an account of the Revolutionary War written by an American, and then one written by a British person, I bet they’d sound quite different, even though they described the same event. The text we read today is written from the perspective of an Israelite, someone who saw God at work in their successful escape from Egypt. How does that point of view shape the story? We can’t know, of course, but we can wonder. I can tell you though, that throughout the scriptures, across the works of so many different authors of the books we read, when it comes to whose side God is on, there is a great deal of agreement. God always seems to be on the side of the most vulnerable. God is on the side of the poor, the oppressed, the persecuted, the abandoned, the pushed-to-the-sides. This is their story. We don’t stop asking hard questions. But if we want to know what this text means, we can’t forget to ask and focus on questions like these:  Can God save the Israelites? Will God keep God’s promises to them? Is God strong enough to protect them from the threat of the Pharaoh and the Egyptians? I think answering these questions in a resounding affirmative – yes, yes, yes! – is why the author shares this story in just this way. Yes, God will save the Israelites. Yes, God will keep the promises made to them. Yes, God is strong enough, even to conquer those who had made them slaves. Let’s look at the text more closely.
I was struck reading our passage by all the directional language in the text – the mentioning of where exactly things were. The author here takes great pains to paint us a picture of this dramatic event. Listen: “The angel of God who was going before the Israelite army moved and went behind them.” “The pillar of cloud moved from in front of them and took its place behind them. It came between the army of Egypt and the army of Israel” “The Israelites when into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.” And again, “But the Israelites walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.” The picture created for us is one of the Israelites being surrounded, before and behind, left and right. But instead of being surrounded by the Egyptians, as one might have expected given that men, women, and children, young and old are being pursued by an army equipped with chariots and able-bodied soldiers, what surrounds the Israelites is God’s presence – present in pillar of cloud and fire, present in an angel of God guiding them, presence in the absence of water in their path, that instead has formed into safe walls on their sides.
As I was trying to picture this – a path being cleared, and yet protectively surrounded on all sides, I thought of seeing the President of the United States or some other important world leader. When someone that important walks through a room, a path is completely cleared for them. Yet, at the same time, they are entirely protected, and so, whether you can spot them all or not, the president would be completely surrounded by secret service agents. The president’s path is completely cleared and the president is completely surrounded by people ready to give their lives to keep him safe. It’s in this way that God leads the Israelites through the Red Sea – both clearing a path for them, and surrounding them on all sides. What do we learn from that?  
A few weeks ago we talked about stumbling blocks – traps laid by an enemy to ensnare us, things that prevent us from following God. As I read this text, and think about God saving the Israelites, and God clearing this path through the sea, I think we learn that there is nothing, no obstacle, no stumbling block, no snare that can prevent God from rescuing those who need it. God creates a path to us in order to get to us. And God creates paths for us, clears the way so that we can leave behind those things to which we’ve been slaves. Last week I encouraged you to think about what it was you needed to leave behind in Egypt. This week, I encourage you to look for the ways God creates paths for you to leave. Sometimes we overlook the opportunities, the openings that God creates for us. Like the Israelites, we’re convinced for some reason that it was better back in that place of slavery. Don’t miss the path that God is clearing for you. Clearing to get to you. Clearing so  you can leave Egypt behind.
And then, don’t forget that God surrounds you. If you think of that image of secret service agents again, think of how these men and women are willing to give their lives, willing to literally throw themselves in harm’s way to protect the president. Surely, they do this out of duty, and love of country, among other things. But most of the time, what might motivate an everyday person like you or me to do such a thing? Of course, only love! Remember when we talked about our desire to keep our children safe from all harm? Why do we seek their safety? Love, of course! We act to surround and protect when what we are protecting is important beyond all measure. The president gets an entourage because he’s the most important person, by many measures, in our society. We protect our loved ones because they are the most important things in our lives.
So what does this story of the Red Sea tell us about God and God’s people? Well – these people – these people who have been slaves, oppressed, mistreated – these people are important beyond measure to God. And why? We can find no explanation for their importance other than that God loves them. And so I read this text as God proving God’s self, God’s promises, God’s good intention, God’s love and faithfulness, proving it all to the people. What a strange thing – that God would want to prove God’s self to us! And yet, that’s what I find in this passage. The people doubt God’s intentions, suspect God means them harm, or at least, can’t really bring them to safety after all. And God shows them, proves to them, by clearing a path, and surrounding them on every side. This is nothing less than a demonstration of total commitment, love, and faithfulness, that God gives to us.
And so if the living God, who created us and everything that is, will clear a path for us, and surround us on the journey, what can prevent us from leaving Egypt behind? Not a thing. Not a thing. I want to leave you with the word of a section of the prayer of Saint Patrick, as you meditate on this gift from God: God who clears your way, God who surrounds you on every side, God who loves you beyond measure.   
Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.
I bind unto myself the Name,
The strong Name of the Trinity,
By invocation of the same,
The Three in One and One in Three.
By Whom all nature hath creation,
Eternal Father, Spirit, Word:
Praise to the Lord of my salvation,
Salvation is of Christ the Lord.


Monday, September 08, 2014

Lectionary Notes for Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A (Proper 19, Ordinary 24)

Readings for 14th Sunday after Pentecost, 9/14/14:
Exodus 14:19-31, Exodus 15:1b-11, 20-21, Romans 14:1-12, Matthew 18:21-35

Exodus 14:19-31:
  • OK, I'll admit, I feel for all the Egyptians here who were just doing there job. At the camp I've attended growing up and as an adult, one of the favorite songs is "Pharaoh, Pharaoh," which includes the line "and all of Pharaoh's army did the dead-man float."  I just can't get into the spirit of it...
  • Also, I'm afraid this passage also now brings to mind images of Jim Carrey in Bruce Almighty, parting his bowl of tomato soup.
  • Well, I guess what that says is that this "parting of the Red Sea" is perhaps the 'classic' example we think of when we're talking about God's power. God's ability to protect God's people in God's plan at all costs? Hm. Still can't warm up to it!
Exodus 15:1b-11, 20-21:
  • This passage takes the typical place of the Psalm in the lectionary, as here we get the brother-sister act of Moses and Miriam giving thanks for successfully escaping the Egyptians.
  • "at the blast of your nostrils" - ew. I don't mind some anthropomorphic descriptions of God, but God's nostril blast?
  • I understand Moses' and Miriam's relief at their safety. But I can't cheer with them at these delighted images of God killing their enemies.
  • "the prophet Miriam" - take note of strong if under-written women in the Bible. A woman. A prophet.
Romans 14:1-12:
  • "Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions." Great advice for churchy types, no? Sometimes I think we like arguing with each other in the church and in politics more than we care about what we are arguing about.
  • Before you get excited and think this is a passage about vegetarianism being for the weak (vegetarians rock), put it in context. Paul is talking about the then-current practice of Romans who would eat meat that had been sacrificed in worship of the gods. Some Christians took part in eating the meat afterwards, but others thought it was wrong to eat meat used in other religious rites.
  • Paul says somewhat "to each their own" but that whatever our own way is, our purpose, and our reasoning, ought still to be in giving praise to God. And Paul reminds us that we've got enough to worry about thinking about our own decisions without worrying about our neighbors' choices.
  • "Whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's." Comforting words - no matter what happens, we belong to God. Check out hymn 356 in The United Methodist Hymnal to match this text.
Matthew 18:21-35:
  • This text is so important on the 10th anniversary of 9/11. 
  • How often must we forgive? How much do we hope God forgives us? Jesus urges us to see the questions in similar ways. Forgiveness is a great gift, and those who receive it hopefully show more gratitude than the slave in Jesus' parable.
  • Forgiveness is personal. When have you been forgiven? Have you received forgiveness without asking for it? When have you forgiven? When have you given it without being asked? When have you withheld forgiveness and why? How does it feel to give forgiveness? Receive it? Withhold it?
  • Do you think, as Jesus suggests, that God will not forgive us if we do not forgive others?
  • Like Peter, do you ever wonder "what's the least I can get away with doing?" He seems to want to know - how much do I have to love? Is this enough? Jesus' answer is predictable and always the same: "More." 

Sermon for Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A, "Out of Egypt: First Annual Exodus," Exodus 12:1-14

Sermon 9/7/14
Exodus 12:1-8

Out of Egypt: First Annual Exodus

I went to seminary at Drew Theological School in Madison, New Jersey. Drew is a University, so aside from the theological school, there was also a graduate school and an undergraduate school. My first year on campus, I saw signs for an undergraduate event called “The First Annual Picnic.” I didn’t think much of it, until I heard people talking about how much they always looked forward to “The First Annual Picnic.” What? Turns out, the event was always called The First Annual Picnic, even though it had been happening for many years. I don’t know if it started out that way – if they intended from the start to create a new event, or what. I've certainly known that to happen in church events – you try something one year with an unspoken understanding that if it goes well, you will do it again, year after year.
I couldn’t help but think of The First Annual Picnic as I read this week’s scripture text. Today, after spending the summer in the gospel of Matthew, we’re shifting gears and heading into the Old Testament. In particular, we’ll spend the next few weeks journeying with the Israelites as Moses leads them out of Egypt, an event known as the Exodus. It’s a word that means literally: the road out, and that’s why the second book of the Bible is so named – it’s the story of the journey of the Israelites as they literally and figuratively leave the life they knew as slaves in Egypt and head, eventually, for the Promised Land.
You may be familiar with the story of the Exodus – although you might have more images stuck in your mind from the Charlton Heston movie then from reading the actual text. The Israelites are slaves in Egypt. They ended up in this circumstance because Joseph, son of Jacob, son of Isaac, son of Abraham – Joseph made a deal with the Pharaoh to feed his family, his elevenbrothers who would be the starting points of the tribes of Israel – when Israel suffered a great famine. But eventually a Pharaoh arose in Egypt who didn’t remember Joseph, and the Israelites became poorly treated slaves, rather than friends rescued from starvation. The Pharaoh treats the people harshly, eventually ordering death of Israelite male newborns, lest the Israelites increase in number and power and overthrow their captors. God calls Moses to speak to Pharaoh and persuade Pharaoh to free the Israelites. Pharaoh, of course, will not agree to do any such thing, even after a series of plagues. Finally, God tells Moses there will be a plague killing the firstborn of all the Egyptian households. But God will spare the Israelite families, passing over their homes. Then, the Israelites will flee to safety across the Red Sea.
It is this Passover – the passing over of the home of the Israelites, this plague of the first-born sons – that our text for today describes. God tells Moses how each household should prepare for this first Passover, describing the meal they should prepare, a meal meant to be prepared and eaten with haste, with bags packed and shoes on and staff in hand, and ready to go. But blood on the doorposts and lintel from the lamb eaten for dinner will be the sign for God to Passover that home, keeping the firstborn safe. And then the passage concludes with “This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.” In other words, right from the start, before the first Passover takes place, God lets the people know that this will be an annual event. It’s the First Annual – and God already knows this action, this event, will be so important to the identity of the Israelites that they must remember it every year.  
            Indeed, the Passover is a significant event for the Israelites. It’s significant in Jesus’s life, and he makes it significant to us when, long after this first Passover, Jesus uses a celebration of Passover, an anniversary Passover just like God promises there will be, to share what we know now as the Last Supper – the first celebration of what has become Holy Communion for us. But as significant as it is, I’m also mindful of what a hard story this is too. Regardless of the hardness of Pharaoh’s heart, and the enslavement of the Israelites, a story where firstborn children are killed – Israelite or Egyptian – and where God is guiding the action – is hard to reconcile with the God of love we talk about so often. I wish we could spend more time on that now. This is something we’ll be talking about in our Wednesday night Bible Study in the weeks ahead. But for now, for today, let me try to point you to what I think are the key parts of our text. Why is God so sure already that the people will need to celebrate Passover again and again? Why will they need to remind themselves of this day, the day they left Egypt and slavery? Was there a chance they could ever forget such a significant event?
            As we think about this text and our own lives, I think there are two key points here. First, we have to know why we’re leaving Egypt, and second, once we leave, we have to remember why we left. That might sound pretty simple. And it is – simple to say. But the story of Exodus that we’ll follow this month will remind us that it is apparently quite difficult to do. The Israelites left Egypt because they had become slaves. They left because their living conditions were worsening. They were facing abuse and oppression and loss of life. I hope that our own situations are not so dire. But in these weeks that we think about what it means for God to call us out of Egypt, I do want us to seriously examine our lives and ask ourselves what we need to leave behind. What are the situations in our lives that are not life-giving? What about our lives is in conflict with what God hopes and dreams for us? What in your life is preventing you from responding with your whole heart to God’s call? These are the reasons God calls us from Egypt. Whatever keeps us from experiencing God’s abundance, and whatever keeps us from offering our whole selves to God – these are the reasons why we risk a journey into the unknown. That’s point one. Know why we’re leaving Egypt. What we’re leaving. Do you remember point two?
            Point two is: remember point one! Remember what we’re leaving and why we’re leaving. This is why God institutes a First Annual Remembrance of the Passover and Exodus before it has even happened the first time. God, who created us and loves us also knows how prone to forgetting even the most important things we are. The farther we journey from what Egypt means to us, the harder it will be to remember how much Egypt kept us from experiencing the life God wants for us. That’s what happens with the Israelites, as we’ll see in the next weeks. Think about it. This week is the thirteenth anniversary of the horrific tragedy of 9/11. How could we forget? And yet, I work with our conference youth, and my oldest youth, those who are seniors this year, were four or five years old when 9/11 happened. They don’t remember! And my youth who are just starting middle school – they weren’t born yet on 9/11. So this huge event that shapes our national identity still in significant ways – people who are now becoming legal adults – they already don’t remember. The farther we journey from Egypt, the less we remember why it was important to leave the things that were keeping us from drawing closer to God.
            And so, before the Israelites even leave Egypt, God sets them up with a plan to remember. Remember always that they were once slaves in Egypt, oppressed and abused, and that God led them to freedom. Remember that they had the courage, once, to follow, and to leave behind what was awful, but still known and so, in a way, comfortable. God starts them out with a way to remember. Of course, this shouldn’t surprise us. God is trying to help us in our discipleship all the time with ways to remember. With a rainbow in the sky. With the waters of baptism and renewal. With the bread and cup we will share today, remembering Jesus calling us to remember!
            God is calling us, even now, to leave Egypt, to leave our crutches, our addictions, our struggles, our excuses, our grudges, our settling for less than the Promised Land. I want you to think hard, in the weeks ahead, about what it is that you need to leave behind in Egypt. And even as you recognize what’s keeping you from offering your whole heart to God, plan to remember. Today we gather at the table: the table of forgiveness, the table of invitation, the table of reconciliation, the table of hope and life, the table of remembrance. We remember the whole story of God and God’s people. We remember the Passover. We remember Jesus transforming this meal into an offering of his life poured out for us. We listen for God’s call. We prepare for a new journey. We acknowledge what God is asking us to leave behind. Christ invites us to leave it there. And when we gather at the table again, we’ll remember. Amen.