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. 

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Lectionary Notes for Third Sunday in Lent, Year B

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

Exodus 20:1-17:

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

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

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

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

    Lectionary Notes for Second Sunday in Lent, Year B

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

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

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

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

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

    Tuesday, February 17, 2015

    Lectionary Notes for First Sunday in Lent, Year B

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

    Genesis 9:8-17:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    A New Name: Back to Beloved

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