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.

    Monday, February 09, 2015

    Lectionary Notes for Transfiguration Sunday, Year B

    Readings for Transfiguration Sunday, 2/15/15:
    2 Kings 2:1-12, Psalm 50:1-6, 2 Corinthians 4:3-6, Mark 9:2-9 

    2 Kings 2:1-12:

  • Aside from the tongue-twisting of an Elisha/Elijah-packed reading, I like this selection - it is a transitioning of leadership - one who is leaving literally passing on the mantle to one who is stepping up afterward. In part, this was the theme of Rev. Safiya Fosua of the General Board of Discipleship as she preached at our ordination service at Annual Conference some years ago. She talked about how we need to step up in support when we have those in our midst who are called, even though they need to own their own calls as well. Who can you support who is being called? Especially look out for young people who are hearing God's voice, who may not have many avenues of affirmation coming their way.
  • "Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit." When asked what he wants from Elijah, this is how Elisha responds. Sometimes we're afraid to ask for what we really want and need and could put to use. Elisha just goes straight for what will make him a leader as Elijah was. "You have asked a hard thing," Elijah says. Hard, but wise, and possible indeed! What would you ask for if you didn't put restrictions on your asking? If so equipped, what could you do for God?
  • "I will not leave you." - Compare this to Ruth's sentiments to Naomi and Ruth 1. What people would you be willing to follow anywhere?

  • Psalm 50:1-6
  • "from the rising of the sun to its setting" - God calls us all the time - the image is an all-encompassing one. There is no part of our day/life where God is not calling to us.
  • "Our God comes and does not keep silence." That's comforting - God speaks. God speaks for God's people. Even when we don't want to hear God's words!
  • Read the rest of this psalm - it focuses on sacrifice, and what sacrifices God truly wants from us. A lot of "blood", gore, and enemies, but some good themes.

  • 2 Corinthians 4:3-6:
  • "veiled" - I'm not sure why verses 1 and 2 are left out of this passage - reading them helps Paul's argument make sense. Paul is talking about the truth and openness of the gospel and of his ministry in sharing the gospel. If the gospel appears still veiled, Paul argues, it is not because of the gospel itself, but because of unbelief or "the god of this world"
  • "god of this world" What do you think Paul means by this? What are the gods of our world that we try to substitute in place of the Real Thing?
  • "we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ" So simple. And yet, a real problem. So often, we let ourselves get in the way of the message of the gospel. We forget our place as messengers and think we are the message.

  • Mark 9:2-9
  • Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up the mountain where the three disciples witness Jesus' 'transfiguration' - Moses and Elijah appear and Jesus is changed, dazzling and dressed in white. Transfiguration Sunday is generally under celebrated and under-appreciated, I think, but there are lots of ways we can relate to this story.
  • "tell no one" Why do you think Jesus wanted to keep the transfiguration hush-hush for all but these three? Perhaps he knew it wouldn't make as much sense to them until later? What do you think? What would cause you to keep a really awesome experience of God quiet? When and why would you tell or would you not tell what you saw? Maybe Jesus wanted people to believe in him/follow him not because of fantastical events like this, but because of a desire for a deeper relationship with God based on a real, personal experience. But look for this "messianic secret" as a repeating theme in Mark.
  • "he did not know what to say, for they were terrified" The disciples' response to what they see is fear, causing Peter to say anything. Has an experience of God and who God is ever caused a response of fear in you? We often fear what our relationship with God might require of us. Seeing God and God's glory face to face in such an undeniable way would leave us with an undeniable responsibility to act, wouldn't it?
  • Sermon, "A New Name: Simon Peter," Matthew 16:13-26

    Sermon 2/8/15
    Matthew 16:13-26

    A New Name: Simon Peter

                Today we’re taking a look at Simon Peter, one of the twelve disciples, one who was called a different name by Jesus himself. We pick up in the gospel of Matthew, just after Jesus has been warning the disciples against the corrupt teaching of the Sadducees and Pharisees, two groups of religious leader who were always questioning Jesus, his methods, and his authority. Now, as they enter Caesarea Philippi, Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” He seems to want a sense of what his reputation is, how people understand the ministry he’s been doing. They tell him that some are calling him John the Baptist, and some Elijah, others Jeremiah, or another of the prophets. And then Jesus is more direct: “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answers, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus responds, clearly pleased – Peter has it right. Jesus says, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah!” He continues, “I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock, I will build my church.” Jesus says even his own death won’t stop the community of faith that will form, that Peter and the other disciples will organize and order.
                But from this moment of recognition, Jesus begins to speak to the disciples about the suffering he will undergo, about his death and resurrection. They don’t understand him. Peter draws Jesus aside and rebukes him: “God forbid it! This must never happen to you.” And Jesus responds saying, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me.” Finally, Jesus tells the disciples: If they really want to be followers – if anyone does – they must deny themselves, take up the cross, and follow. Jesus concludes, “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
                I hope this passage sounds a little bit familiar to you. We read this very passage together over two Sundays back in August, shortly after Pastor Penny and I started our journey with you. We talked about what it meant for Jesus to be called Messiah – one of his many names – what impact that had on our lives. But today our focus is a bit different. This time, we’re paying particular attention to Peter and what Jesus says to him.
                Peter is called both Simon and Peter fairly interchangeably throughout the gospels. Some gospels use one more than other. John almost always refers to him as Simon Peter. Mark is the only gospel that doesn’t mention Jesus naming Simon Peter. And Matthew is the only gospel that gives us the story. In this passage that we read, Jesus calls Simon Peter. What’s the significance? Biblical scholars have debated this, because the name Peter is different in both Aramaic and Greek. Last week we talked about how Saul started going by Paul, since Saul was Aramaic and Paul was Greek, and Paul was interested in sharing the message of Jesus with those who were Gentiles. Peter, too, is a Greek name, a Greek word, which means “a stone.” The Aramaic word for stone is Cephas, and some of the gospels use this word for Peter. (As an interesting aside, Paul always calls Peter Cephas, as if to emphasize that Peter doesn’t understand the mission of the church like Paul does. Yes, Peter and Paul did not get along. Anyway:) So if we think of this exchange between Peter and Jesus as in Aramaic, Jesus says, “You shall be Cephas, and on this cephas I will build my church.” You are the rock, the stone, and on this rock/stone I will build my church. It works fine, but the text we have, and the name Peter seems to go by is the Greek: Petros. As I said, this word means stone. Not rock, but stone. And then when Jesus says, “on this rock I will build my church,” the word is petra. Rock. Not stone, but rock. Particularly like a shelf of rocks. The kind large rocks that make up a landscape, that you can walk on, build on. A small change in the Greek word – Petros to Petra – makes the difference between a stone and rock. Jesus is saying that Simon called Peter is a stone – but the future Jesus sees in Peter is a rock, a solid foundation on which a movement will be built into what we know as the church.
                Of course, just later in this very passage, Jesus calls Peter by another name altogether: Satan! That word means adversary and opponent. Peter is opposing what Jesus must do, his mission, his purpose, because Peter is scared and confused. But despite the fact that Peter still screws things up, still has some of his worst moments later on – after all, his denying even knowing Jesus is yet to come – still, what Jesus names Simon for is his potential, his promise, his possibility. He names him for what Peter can become if he follows Jesus, if he takes up the cross, if he denies himself and chooses the path of Christ. Peter, the Rock.
    What is our potential? Promise? Possibility? What does God see in us? One of my favorite images is a picture I’ve seen now and again of a kitten gazing into a mirror, only to see a lion looking back. Sometimes I’ve seen this as part of an article on self-confidence. When we feel good about ourselves, we look in the mirror and see all that potential. But I think it is more like what happens when we remember that we’re made in God’s image. When we gaze into God’s heart, and God reflects back to us what happens when we ground our lives and our purpose and our dreams in the very heart of God. Then, then, with confidence in God, rather than ourselves, the kitten becomes a lion. And so when I think about the word play of Peter and stones and rocks that are strong enough to be the foundation of a whole movement of Jesus-followers, I realize what it means: A stone is a stone. But a stone plus Jesus equals a rock solid enough, strong enough, to be a foundation. Peter is Peter. But Peter plus Jesus equals one who, though still struggling, inspires crowds to follow Jesus too. We might look in the mirror and see our limits. But when we look into God’s heart, anything and everything is possible. We are a little church, just little Apple Valley. But when we reflect God’s heart to the world, we’re a place with a big mission and big purpose and big reach and big potential Small seeds that with Jesus produce abundant fruit.
                I’ve been participating in a clergy study group for the last couple of years, and together, we read books and discuss how they impact our lives and the lives of our congregations. Right now we’re reading Dare to Dream by Mike Slaughter, the pastor of a large United Methodist Church in Ohio. I’ve found this book more compelling than I expected, and you shouldn’t be surprised to see it offered as a study here in the near future. Throughout the book, Slaughter encourages readers to figure out what their God-purpose is, what their God-centered dreams are for life. He writes, “If [our] purpose is from God, it will always honor God, bless other people, and bring you joy. If it doesn’t meet those three criteria, then it isn’t a God-purpose, no matter how successful you are in accomplishing it.” And then he encourages us to reflect on three questions to figure out our God-purpose: “Where do you see the greatest need around you in your neighborhood, your community, or your world? How can you meet that need? What gifts do you bring to further that mission?”
                Soon, our Lenten journey will begin, and we’ll focus on the practices of forgiveness and reconciliation. But when Easter comes, and we greet the promise of resurrection and new life again, I’m going to try to help us think very seriously about these questions. What are the needs we see? How can we meet them? What gifts do we bring? How are we honoring God? How are we blessing others? What brings us joy? I want us to start to look into the heart of God and see the promise, the possibility, the potential that God sees in us. You plus God equals what? Apple Valley plus following Jesus equals what? We’re like Peter. And so even when we glimpse the image God shows us, we’ll still get things wrong. But maybe we’ll start believing that we’re a people, a congregation that can dream God-dreams, with purpose, with the possibility to transform our lives, our community, and our world. God sees that potential in us. Do you? Blessed are you, stones. Because on this rock, God is building, and building, and building.

    Monday, February 02, 2015

    Lectionary Notes for 5th Sunday after Epiphany, Year B (Ordinary 5)

    Readings for 5th Sunday after the Epiphany, 2/8:15:
    Isaiah 40:21-31, Psalm 147:1-11, 20c, 1 Corinthians 9:16-23, Mark 1:29-39

    Isaiah 40:21-31:
    • "have you not known? have you not heard? has it not been told you from the beginning? have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?" - Isaiah seems to be saying, "Don't you get it yet?" How many times do we need to hear about God's love and grace before we finally believe it?
    • "like grasshoppers" When I was in junior high, I used to have a "map" of the universe with a little arrow pointing to earth, which said, "you are here." It reminded me of how very very small we are in the scheme of things. I found it quite overwhelming - took it down eventually. But we can remember - we are so small - and yet - God knows us by name.
    • "calling them all by name" - I'm always nervous, as a pastor, that I will forget names of people I'm supposed to remember. Names are important, and express a sense of relationship. Godknows your name - all of our names.
    • "[God] does not grow faint or weary" - In such a busy exhausting world, such knowledge is very comforting.
    • "[God's] understanding is unsearchable" - I suddenly have images of trying to "google" God's mind. :)
    Psalm 147:1-11, 20c:
    • "how good it is to sing praises to our God" - Do you find worship a joyful experience? Or are you going through the motions? How can you find the goodness of worship?
    • "he heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds" - These images are of a God who cares for those who are weak - those who feel useless, without strength.
    • "the Lord takes pleasure in those who fear him" - I've mentioned many time my dilemma about "fearing God" language in the scriptures. Do you fear God? We're instructed over and over again in the scriptures not to be afraid. What does it mean, then, to fear God? I interpret it to mean we're to have an awe of God that is an awe we give only to God. Should/do we fear God anymore, or have we gotten too cozy? It's great to feel close to God, but have we lost our reverence in the process, the believe that God is actually above and beyond us in many respects? Where is a good line between fear/love/respect? 
    1 Corinthians 9:16-23:
    • "obligation" - "woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel" - Paul feels he can do nothing but proclaim the gospel. Do you feel that way?
    • "the gospel free of charge" - nice!
    • "to the _______ I became ______" - Paul tries to meet people where they are at, to become one of them, so he can share the good news with them. It is a good strategy - the same God uses with us, right? God becomes one of us, to share love with us.
    • "I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some." - What a burden! Paul is dedicated, but it sounds exhausting. He wants "to save" as many as he can. But can we be all things to all people? How can we draw lines? On the other hand, what are you so passionate about you'd to whatever it takes to make sure others know about it?
    Mark 1:29-39:
    • "and she began to serve them." Poor women - healed only to immediately return to work of serving the men! But I think this is meant to illustrate her complete healing - she is physically able to get right back to work.
    • "and the whole city was gathered around the door." Claustrophobic, anyone? Even for Jesus, the pressure of so many must have been huge.
    • "because [the demons] knew him." How is it that the most evil know Jesus? Perhaps because we all know who are biggest enemies are?
    • "out to a deserted place" - take note of the many times Jesus seeks rest and renewal with God. Do we give ourselves as much of a break?
    • "[they] hunted for him." - from the Greek katadio^ko^, meaning literally "follow hard upon, pursue closely" - that word - hunted - really struck me.
    • "everyone is searching for you." Indeed.
    • "that is what I came out to do." - proclaim the good news that the time is fulfilled and God's kingdom has and is arriving. 

    Sermon, "A New Name: Saul --> Paul," Acts 9:1-22

    Sermon 2/1/15
    Acts 9:1-22

    A New Name: Saul --> Paul

    Have you ever known someone who started going by a different name? They were always called one thing, but they started going by another name? Or maybe you have changed what you are called, over time. Sometimes this is something that just seems to happen, and other times it’s a deliberate choice. Some of you met one of my three brothers, Tim, on Christmas Eve. Tim is Timothy Jon, and so most of his childhood, we called him Tj. But at some point, he started going by Tim instead. It was a hard change to get used to, after referring to him as Tj for so long. Over the years, Tim has become comfortable switching back and forth – Tim or Tj – especially for family. But if he introduces himself, I’m betting he’ll tell you he’s “Tim.”
    Or, there’s my older brother Jim. He’s married to Jennifer, and when they got married, Jim decided to take Jennifer’s last name. Jim is Jim Thompson, not Jim Quick. There were a few reasons for this choice. For one, Jennifer’s family is very small – she doesn’t have a lot of aunt and uncles and cousins and siblings. So continuing to be a Thompson meant something to Jennifer. On the other hand, it was important to Jim to shed a name that tied him to my father, with whom Jim was not close, and to embrace the chance to demonstrate that changing names should be a choice, not an expectation based on your gender. My brother Todd and I have our own name stories too. I went through a “Liz” phase, in fact. But you get the idea.
    Today, in our series on New Names, we turn our focus to Saul. Our passage opens telling us that Saul has been “breathing threats and murder” against the followers of the way of Jesus. He seeks out more authority from the high priests, seeking the ability to have the followers of the way arrested and brought to trial for punishment, if he meets any on his journey to Damascus. Instead, his journey turns out very differently than planned. As he’s travelling, a light flashes around him, he falls to the ground, and he hears a voice: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” “Who are you?” Paul wonders. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” the voice responds. Saul follows Jesus’ instructions to head to the city to wait for someone to tell him what to do. He’s been temporarily blinded by his encounter with Jesus.
    Once in Damascus, Saul meets a man named Ananias. Jesus appeared to Ananias to send him to help Saul. But Ananias is skeptical. We read, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.” But Jesus responds, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles.” And we read, “So Ananias went.” He trusted Jesus’ voice! Ananias lays hands on Saul, telling him that Jesus sent Ananias so that Saul could regain his sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit. Saul’s sight is immediately restored, and he gets up and is baptized. Over the next days, he spends time with the very disciples he was intent on persecuting, and begins preaching: “Jesus is the Son of God.”
    There are a couple of unique things about our text this week. First, this is the only name change in our series that isn’t a change given by God. We don’t read about Paul’s change in name in our text today – the passage refers to him only as Saul. And we don’t read about God telling him to go by Paul because God never says that. And in fact, this name change is unique because there’s never a time where the scriptures tell us clearly when and why the name change happens. Some chapters after the text we read today, Saul’s conversion story, Luke, the author of Acts, is describing some of the works of the apostles, and he says, “Saul, also known as Paul,” and from then on, Paul is always called Paul. The only time we hear the name Saul again is when Paul is telling the story of his conversion to a follower of Jesus. Paul seems to be a name that Saul chooses to start using after his conversion. Why would he do this?
    Well, Saul and Paul are really the same name, just in different languages. Saul is Hebrew, and Paul is Greek. Hebrew or Aramaic would have been the language spoken by Jesus and the twelve and those in Galilee and the surrounding areas. But Greek was the language of the Roman Empire and the larger community. Paul intentionally sheds his local Jewish name, and goes for the language of the non-Jewish community. Why would he do this? Well, Paul, once considered among the most righteous and correct and proper of the Pharisees, adherent to the law – Paul finds that the ministry God has called him to is ministry with Gentiles, those who were not Jewish. Paul's life work is travelling around to Gentile communities and sharing the gospel with them. And so he is known to them by a name that would have meaning to them. Paul, not Saul.
    Paul, who was known to be one to uphold the law in every minute detail, has been bowled over by the freedom of the grace offered to him through his encounter with Jesus. And he wants everyone – everyone ­– to be able to experience what he’s experienced. And so he goes by the name that will put those he meets – the Gentiles he spends his life in ministry to – most at ease. See, most of Jesus’ disciples didn’t see, at first, that the mission and message of Jesus was meant for those who were not Jewish. Or at least, they believed that those who wanted to follow Jesus should become Jews, follow the commandments, become part of the covenant, Jews who happened to be disciples of Jesus. This isn’t surprising, really. Jesus talked about fulfilling, not abolishing the law that ordered Jewish life. But Paul just has a different vision for how that takes place. So when he goes out to preach and teach and form churches among Gentiles, he goes as Paul, the Greek, not Saul, the Hebrew. In fact, Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians, says this: “I have become all things to all people, so that I might by any means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.” All things to all people. So if Saul needs to become Paul for the sake of the gospel, Saul becomes Paul.
    As I read this story, I’m compelled by the journeys of both Paul and Ananias. Not many of us have conversion experiences that are like Paul’s. Some of us do, and that’s a wonderful blessing. But for many of us, if we’ve grown up in the church, the moment our faith became our own and we decide to be Christ-followers is really a series of events and smaller moments, experiences and learning taking place over time. But whether the changes in our relationship with God are more like going from a caterpillar to a butterfly, or more like growing from a seedling into a great pine tree, life with God surely changes us – if we let it, if we continually seek after following Jesus. Is your faith life the same as when you were 5? Or 13? Or 22?
    Can we change? Today is February 1st. Did you make any resolutions one month ago? Have you had resolutions you’ve kept? Sometimes, seeking change in our lives seems like a lost cause, as we get stuck in our same, destructive patterns. And so when we set out to change our lives or change the world it seems hopeless before we even begin. Can we change? The scriptures all full of this promise: God is making all things new. In Christ, we are new creations. But you’ll notice something: the change comes from God. After all, Saul didn’t exactly seek out change in his life. God just changed him. But rather than despairing that I haven’t experienced a conversion as dramatic as Paul’s, it gives me hope. Think of this: if Paul, who didn’t ask to be or desire to become a follower of Jesus, and did the opposite in fact, persecuting followers of the way – if this Paul, in fact, could be changed by God into one who would be thrown in jail and put to death for proclaiming the good news? How much simpler might it be for God to transform those of us who already say we desire to be transformed! Especially if we really mean it. Especially if we actively pray for God to transform our lives. Especially if we participate actively in handing over to God our lives in order to be changed!
    Then, of course, there’s Ananias. I wonder: Can we let other people change? It isn’t as easy as it sounds. I’m bowled over by Ananias. Ananias, a Jesus-follower, know that Saul has been overseeing the brutal death sentences of Jesus-followers, and now suddenly he claims to be one himself? Not only that, he’s going to be a leader, spreading the message to Gentiles? And Ananias has to help him? Tend to him? It’s a miracle Ananias didn’t just laugh. But instead, he went and did exactly what was commanded. I can’t imagine that incredible forgiveness and reconciliation that must have had to take place in the heart of Ananias to let all of this happen. Only his trust in God’s plans and his deep understanding of the free gift of grace must have made him able to do that. Can we let people change? During the season of Lent, which is fast approaching, we’ll be talking in depth about forgiveness and reconciliation. But for now, I want us to consider how often people in our lives are trying to change, trying to go a new direction, God’s direction, but we are unable to offer forgiveness, to believe that God offers grace and new life, even to our enemies. I don’t mean that in blind forgiveness, we should put ourselves in harmful, abusive situations. But I wonder, can we let people change? Do we want them to? Is it ok if Tj grows up and becomes Tim? Is it ok if that one person we knew as a bossy know-it-all grew into a strong leader? Can we allow for the addict to become a counselor? The bully to become a teacher? The lost to become found? One of the reasons why I love and stick with something as time-consuming and ad-laden as facebook is because it has allowed me to see people change. I’m “facebook friends” with people I absolutely did not like in high school. And at first I resented a friend request, thinking, don’t they remember how awful they were to me in seventh grade? But then I realized that I got to experience the transformation of lives, in a small way, through the power of facebook!
    This week I asked you all to research name or word meanings and to choose a name that captured where you hope to go in your relationship with God, where God is leading you. Did any of you do that? Saul became Paul because God changed him, and Paul wanted to celebrate! And he wanted to celebrate by drawing others into the story. He wanted to invite them to experience this God who makes us new creations. And he’d do anything, even be known by a different name, to help accomplish his mission. Maybe it isn’t as easy for all of us to see how God is changing us, growing us, shaping us. Sometimes we need help from others, or study, or reflection, or prayer, to see how God is at work in us. Sometimes it means we need to be more active in asking God to transform us, opening our spirits to God at work. But God does offer new life to you. And when you know that, claim that, trust that, stake your life on that: we celebrate and share the good news, like Saul, who was Paul, for the sake of the gospel.
    Who will you be?

    Monday, January 26, 2015

    Lectionary Notes for 4th Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B (Ordinary 4)

    Readings for 4th Sunday after the Epiphany, 2/1/15:
    Deuteronomy 18:15-20, Psalm 111, 1 Corinthians 8:1-13, Mark 1:21-28

    Deuteronomy 18:15-20:

  • Moses declares to the people that God will raise up a prophet after his death - ostensibly he speaks of his successor, Joshua. He does this because the people feel that God speaking to them more directly, as at Horeb when God spoke out of the fire, is too frightening, too much to handle. Can you imagine thinking that God speaking directly too you is too much to handle? It might be intimidating, but most of us seem to wish God would speak to us more directly. (Maybe we'd change our minds after experiencing it!)
  • So this new prophet, like Moses, will act as a go-between between the people and God. Has anyone ever served in this role for you? A pastor/priest can fill in this role, but if you are a clergy person, do you ever wish someone would stand between you and God? What experiences have you had?
  • There is a condition, though, to the arrangement: The people must actually heed the words of the prophet. They can't make this arrangement and then decide they don't like the prophet - as they often threatened to do with Moses. When is it right to question authority, leadership? When is it not right?

  • Psalm 111
  • The psalmist is praising God for faithfulness, for being a provider and covenant-keeper, for following through and being with the people. This psalm is all about praising and thanking God for all God has done.
  • "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom." Do you fear God? We're instructed over and over again in the scriptures not to be afraid. What does it mean, then, to fear God or to be God-fearing? I interpret it to mean we're to have an awe of God that is an awe we give only to God. Should/do we fear God anymore, or have we gotten too cozy? It's great to feel close to God, but have we lost our reverence in the process, the believe that God is actually above and beyond us in many respects? Where is a good line between fear/love/respect? 

  • 1 Corinthians 8:1-13:
  • This is a great passage from Paul, regarding a common obstacle in the communities of the early church: the debate over whether or not Christians should eat meat that had been sacrificed in pagan temples to pagan gods.
  • Paul says, "Look - knowledge is all good and well. But what you need with God is love. If you love God, God knows you, and that's what's most important." He says, eloquently, "knowledge puffs up, but love builds up." Knowledge, like everything, is a gift from God. We can oppress others by withholding knowledge from them (women and people of color, for instance, have been denied education) but we can also give knowledge too much power when we treat it as the most important thing.
  • Paul argues that "smarty-pants" Christians might know that eating sacrificed pagan meat is no big deal. He doesn't disagree with the reasoning - if the gods the meat was meant for aren't real, who cares about eating the meat? But Paul says there is a much higher concern: Christians who don't "get it" can be led astray by those who do - so what's the point of weakening the faith of another just to indulge in some meat?
  • Paul concludes - why insist on doing something that will only cause another's faith to wobble, if that thing is not necessary. Personally, I think of drinking in this way. I don't think consuming alcohol is morally wrong. But it is a stumbling block for many. So, I choose to abstain, for the good of the whole. 

  • Mark 1:21-28
  • "as one having authority, not like the scribes" - Chris Haslam writes in his comments that the scribes would be knowledgeable, quoting scripture, but not have their own authority. Jesus, on the other hand, draws on scriptures, sure, but speaks for himself - his authority is from within.
  • Haslam also says that healers/magicians of the day would have done rituals/magic to cleanse the man of the demon. Since Jesus can do this with only spoken words, the people see that indeed he does have a different kind of authority.
  • Because of this deed, Jesus' "fame" begins to spread. Do you think this is what Jesus most wanted people to know about him? His casting out demons? Or would he have rather been famous for his teaching and message of love and grace for the least? I think Jesus was savvy - he got people talking and drew them so he could teach and touch them.
  • Sermon, "A New Name: Jacob --> Israel," Genesis 32:3-32

    Sermon 1/25/15
    Genesis 32:3-32

    A New Name: Jacob --> Israel

    Last week we talked about Abram and Sarai and the promise that God made to them to bless them and be their God and make their descendants more numerous than the stars. They had to wait a long time to see their promise begin to unfold with the birth of their son Isaac. And of course, to demonstrate waiting for God’s promises, I somehow promised 10,000 cookies to our children by the time they turn 16! And I’ll figure out how to make it work, because I’m convinced that God’s promises are dependable, and my children’s sermon won’t demonstrate much if I can’t even come through on some cookies as evidence of God’s faithfulness! In the meantime though, we see God’s promise continue to unfold as today we learn about some of Abraham’s descendants. Today, we’re talking about Jacob and Esau, twin grandchildren of Abraham and Sarah, sons of Isaac and Rebekah.
    The story of Jacob and Esau spans several chapters in Genesis. I encourage you to read it, because we can’t look at in the full detail that I’d love to go into in one sermon. But here’s the Reader’s Digest version: When Jacob and Esau are born, Rebekah gets a message from God that the older child will end up serving the younger. Any older siblings out there? How many of you would be excited about these words, and serving your baby sibling? Probably not many! Of course, in biblical times, male sibling birth order was even more significant. The firstborn son received a double portion of a family inheritance, and generally is considered the head of the family upon the father’s death. They are the leader. They have the authority. And they get more land and property and assets than anyone else. It’s the birthright of the firstborn. As the story is told, we get the idea that Esau, a twin, but still the firstborn of the two twins, doesn’t cherish his birthright as he should. We also learn that while Isaac is closest to Esau, Rebekah prefers Jacob. Eventually, Rebekah helps Jacob trick a frail and increasingly poor-of-sight Isaac into bestowing the firstborn blessing onto a disguised Jacob, rather than Esau.
    Esau, naturally, is beyond mad at Jacob over his lost blessing. Once Isaac dies, he plans to kill Jacob as soon as the mourning period is over. So Rebekah sends Jacob away, hoping that Esau’s anger wanes so that she doesn’t lose either of her sons. Jacob heads out of town. In his travels, he has a vision of a great ladder, reaching to heaven, with God’s messengers going up and down between heaven and earth. And he hears the voice of God, drawing him into the promise, the covenant, first spoken to Abraham. God promises to be with him, and his offspring, saying that they will be like the dust of the earth. And God says to him, “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” And when Jacob wakes, he says, “Surely God is in this place – and I did not realize it! How awesome is this place!” He decides that if God will be with him, he’ll claim God as his God, as his fore-parents had.   
    After this, Jacob spends many years in the house of his uncle Laban. Jacob, ever the trickster, figures out a way to care for his uncle’s flocks while setting aside the best of the flock for himself. But Laban, in turn, tricks Jacob into marrying both of his daughters in exchange for years of service in Laban’s house, instead of marrying just the younger daughter preferred by Jacob. Eventually, Jacob leaves Laban’s household, and is ready, finally, after decades have passed, to meet with Esau again. At the start of our reading for today, we find Jacob sending messengers to Esau indicating that he wants to come home. The messengers come back with distressing news: Esau is on his way to meet you – along with 400 men as his companions. The tone suggests that they aren’t coming as a friendly welcoming party. So Jacob does what he does best, and comes up with plan to make things go in his favor. He divides his family and property into two groups, so that if Esau destroys one group, the other might escape. And then, while Jacob lags behind, he sends ahead of him gift after gift to present to Esau, along with promises that Jacob is coming right behind. Jacob also does something else: he prays to God, saying, “You’ve made me this promise about my offspring being like the uncountable grains of sand. I’m not really worthy of your love and faithfulness, or of the blessings that I’ve accumulated. And I’m afraid. But you did mention that you would be with me.
    And then Jacob spends the night at this place, sending even his wives and maids and children ahead of him across the stream, so that he is the last left. And suddenly, a man appears, and wrestles with Jacob all through the night. Neither seems to prevail, and the man injures Jacob’s hip. But when daybreak approaches, the man asks to be let go. And Jacob says, “I won’t let you go unless you bless me.” The man asks for Jacob’s name, and when he gives it, the man replies, “You aren’t Jacob anymore. You’re Israel, because you have striven with God and with humans and have prevailed.” Israel means “May God prevail.” Jacob asks for the man’s name – but doesn’t get it. We read between the lines and see that this man was God’s messenger, an angel. Indeed, Jacob says, “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” After our text closes, Jacob continues on his way, and meets Esau, who weeps with joy when he’s reunited with brother.
    What do we make of this text? In many ways, I find it frustrating. For those of us who have generally been “rule followers,” not getting in trouble very often, doing good, it’s really hard to see someone like Jacob, playing tricks at every turn, get rewarded. He seems a bit like an arrogant jerk, doesn’t he? And he gets to trick Esau, trick Laban, escape death, demand a blessing from God, and come out on top! It’s so not fair! Here’s the thing about this God we follow, though. God isn’t fair. We’ll be learning more about that in our research group in the weeks ahead. God shows favoritism, in fact, much of the time – to the poor, the outcast, those on the fringes, those everyone else has rejected. God isn’t fair. Instead, God is full of grace.
    I think we would say that we know what grace is. Goodness knows I talk about it enough, and talk about what it is, and our hymns are about grace, and our liturgies and our prayers and our sacraments – all about grace. In our baptismal liturgies we talk about grace being God’s gift “offered to us without price.” Grace is God's gift of love to us, it is free, without price, God's unconditional – that is without conditions!  – love, which is poured out on everyone. That is grace. I hope that sounds familiar! We believe in grace as a concept, a theory. But in practice? I am not convinced we really believe in grace. We are really trying, still, to earn grace, to make sure we are doing what is good enough to be loved by God. We imagine that life is about working hard enough to get God’s blessings. Still, we know from our own human experience that love is inexplicable – who can explain why we love who we love? Can it be that God truly offers love to all of us? Do we believe in grace?
    Well, when we’re upset at the blessings God gives to Jacob, the trickster, the deceiver, the con-man, it suggests that we still think that God’s gift of grace should be given to deserving candidates, not just anyone. Our gut-reaction to Jacob’s story reveals what we really believe: that we see grace as a reward for good behavior and not an outright gift. But grace is a gift, not a prize. Repeat that with me: Grace is a gift, not a prize. Grace is not a prize that we get, but sometimes it seems that the only reason we are following God is because of the reward! But there’s a big difference between reward and gift. Grace is a gift, not a reward. God doesn’t mean for us to be good so that grace is the payment, the prize that we receive at the end. Instead, because of grace, because we have received and can trust in, can count on God’s grace and unconditional love – even though we, no matter how much better than Jacob we think we are, fail to love one another and to love God as we’ve been commanded to do – because of grace we are freed up to follow God with all our hearts. We aren’t supposed to work hard enough so that God will love us. Instead, we’re supposed to be inspired by our trust in God’s love and grace to follow God – so that others will know and experience God’s grace too.
    Here’s what I think happens at Peniel: Finally, Jacob realizes that God is inexplicably with him, even though he doesn’t deserve it. He realizes that God doesn’t play fair. God instead plays Giver-of-unwarranted-grace, which is God’s favorite game. And so Jacob prays his most honest prayer: I don’t deserve it, but please be with me anyway. And God and Jacob wrestle, and finally, Jacob – Israel – decides that God will be the leader from now on instead of Jacob. Pastor Edward F. Markquart writes, “God could … if [God] wanted to, with all [God’s] power … pin us down so very quickly. God could pin us within the blink of an eye, slam us to the floor and stomp on us. If God wanted to, God could pin us down and make us believe and obey. But that isn’t the way God wrestles. God wrestles in such a way that we slowly surrender our lives . . . We put our hands in [God’s] hands, and God begins to lead us on a path of righteousness, of right relationships. That is the way that God wrestles with us. God does not bash our hands down with . . . mighty power and pin us. Rather, God allows us to put our hands in [God’s] and we begin a walk together. That is the way God wrestles with us. We all go through that fundamental transition in life. The issue is this; whether or not I will continue to be a self-centered, cheating, cunning, manipulative person or whether I will finally let God rule. Who will rule in my life? Jacob or God?” (1)
    God has offered grace to Jacob over and over again. And after a good wrestling match, Jacob, who knows he doesn’t deserve it, says thank you and accepts the gift. Look, Jacob isn’t perfect from here on out. None of us are, even when we finally receive the gift God keeps trying to give us, really receive it. But Jacob, from this point on, seems to stop trying to demand his blessings in life. He doesn’t trick or deceive or try to pull one over on people anymore. And he especially doesn’t try to pull one over on God.
    What is your struggle with God? What are you wrestling over? Control of your life? Obedience to God rather than an addiction, or consumerism, or appearances, or what the world thinks is valuable? A direction God wants you to go, but you don’t want to? Here’s the thing about wrestling with God. If we feel like we’ve got the upper hand and demand a blessing – God will give it – love and grace, ours for the receiving! And if we feel like we’ve finally submitted to God, and God gets God’s way – well, God’s way is to give us love and grace, without price, ours for the receiving! And at the end of the struggle, hand in hand, maybe we can journey with God who leads us into life. Amen.


    Monday, January 19, 2015

    Lectionary Notes for Third Sunday after Epiphany, Year B (Ordinary 3)

    Readings for 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany, 1/25/15:
    Jonah 3:1-5, 10, Psalm 62:5-12, 1 Corinthians 7:29-31, Mark 1:14-20

    Jonah 3:1-5, 10:

  • This is the only week Jonah appears in the lectionary, so consider reading other sections, or expanding your focus, so that people get the full story.
  • The interesting thing about this story, not included in today's text, is that Jonah wasn't happy that God was sparing the people. In fact, Jonah knew that God was likely to be merciful and spare the people, and this is what most upsets Jonah. Are you ever upset at the liberal way God shares grace with others? Why do you think this is? Sometimes I think we act as if God's grace will run out for us if God gives too much to others!
  • How would you feel as a resident of Nineveh? Are you open to others telling you that you are not following God? Generally, we don't like people telling us what to do, or telling us what we're doing wrong. But the residents of Ninevah get their acts together, and repent. And God shows mercy. (I think God can show us mercy, obviously, even when we are undeserving. But wouldn't it be nice to do our part for once?)

  • Psalm 
  • "For God alone my soul waits in silence" - silence is such a rare thing these days. As I type, there is the whirr of my laptop, and my TV in the background. This is typical. Silence is rare. Will you find silent time for God?
  • "My hope is from [God.]" What's your hope? Where is it from?
  • The psalmist urges us to put our trust in God - rank in the world is "but a breath" or "a delusion" - only God has real power.

  • 1 Corinthians 7:29-31:
  • Paul clearly is anticipating a swift return of Jesus Christ to earth. But even though things didn't happen the way Paul was expecting, I think his words are still meaningful.
  • We're to live, in a sense, in the moment. I don't think this means to be irresponsible, or to not make plans, or to not take care of others, of obligations. But to live with an understanding that we have a different main purpose - to live as God calls us - and so to not let what is not important tie us down.

  • Mark 1:14-20
  • What's the good news? Sometimes, I think we believe the good news is that "Jesus Christ died for our sins." But according to Mark, Jesus himself was a proclaimer of the good news, and it was this: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe . . . "
  • "Follow me and I will make you fish for people." Are you fishing for people? What do you think Jesus meant by this? Evangelism? How? What kind?
  • Important: Don't forget that before you fish for other people, you should first be following Jesus. Any other way we try it is following only our own agenda.
  • Immediately! This is one of my favorite words in scriptures. We like things to happen in our lives in a convenient and fast way when it is for our own benefit - but how often do we respond to God immediately?
  • Sermon, "A New Name: Abram & Sarai," Genesis 17:1-8, 15-22

    Sermon 1/18/15
    Genesis 17:1-8, 15-22

    A New Name: Abram and Sarai

                What are you waiting for? What events, or situations, or circumstances, right now, are you waiting for to take place? A child or grandchild to be born? A birthday? A retirement? A vacation? And how often, like a child on a road trip, have you wondered, “Are we there yet?” As I child, I attended one of our church camps, Camp Aldersgate, every summer. And I couldn’t wait for my week of camp to come. I’d start packing way in advance. And then finally, we’d head for Aldersgate. The trip seemed to take forever. But when the trees changed into tall skinny pines, I knew we were close, at last. I was shocked, when I got older, to realize Aldersgate was only about an hour from home. Not even. How could that be? But from a child’s point of view, an hour drive may as well be a whole day spent stuck in the car. Perspective is everything.
                Today, we continue our series looking at the New Names given in the scriptures, we encounter two people who set out on what seems to them to be the longest of journeys. We meet Abram and Sarai back at the end of Genesis Chapter 11, when they’re listed in a genealogy after the Tower of Babel incident. If you don’t know about the Tower of Babel, check out Chapter 11. Anyway, we know from this that Sarai was considered barren. In ancient times, anytime a couple could not have children, the woman was considered barren, because the intricacies of fertility weren’t understood. It wasn’t known that sometimes men were the ones who could not father a child. However, in Sarai’s case, it seems that she, indeed, is the one struggling with fertility. At the start of Chapter 12, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” And the next verse starts out, “And so, Abram went.” Before this scene, we know absolutely nothing about Abram. We have no idea why God would call him for such a task, such a journey, or why God would make him such a promise. All we know is: God calls, God promises, and Abram goes. The text tells us that Abram is 75 when he sets out on this journey.
                Throughout the next chapters of Genesis, we see Abram and Sarai travel to Canaan, the land which God promised them, and travel from here to there, living in different places, occasionally getting into scuffles with local leaders. They’d started out in what is now Southern Turkey, and make their way through modern-day Syria and Lebanon to Israel, and then spend time in Egypt and other nearby regions. And occasionally, throughout this time, God reiterates the promise to Abram: I will bless you, and make you a great nation. God says to Abram, “Don’t be afraid, I am your shield, and your reward will be very great.” But Abram is perhaps a bit skeptical. The years are passing. Abram says to God, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless … and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” But God says to Abram, “Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them. So shall your descendants be.” And Abram believes, and is called righteous.
                And more years pass. Sarai is frustrated. She finally decides that since God has prevented her from having children, she’ll offer Hagar, her slave, to Abram to bear children for him. Abram and Hagar have a son together, named Ishmael. Abram is now 86 years old. Unsurprisingly, Sarai, seeing Hagar and Hagar’s child with Sarai’s husband, begins to feel regret over the events she set in motion. She treats Hagar badly, but God promises Hagar that her son, too, is part of the promise. He, too, will be blessed.
                And more years pass. And finally, when Abram is 99 years old, and Sarai is 90, God again reiterates the promises to Abram. He gives them new names. Abram, which means Exalted Father, a hard name to bear for one who had no children, will be called Abraham, Father of Many. And Sarai, whose name meant Princess, will be Sarah, Princess of Many. And this time, God offers a timeline: by next year, they’ll have a son. And newly-named Abraham falls on his face laughing. He indicates that God must mean it is through Ishmael that all these blessings will come into fullness. But God says again – yes, Ishmael will be blessed. But the promises I’ve made to you hold true. And Sarah will bear a child. Later, Sarah herself will hear the news from God, and she, too, will laugh. But sure enough, she bears a son. And they name him Isaac, which means “Laughter.”
                What a story! What a journey! From the time that God promises Abram that he will become the father of many nations, to the time Sarah gives birth to their son Isaac, 25 years have passed. 25 years! God repeatedly renews the promise, reaffirms that the promise is still going to be fulfilled, but I’m sure none of us are surprised, or unsympathetic that Abram and Sarai seem so often to doubt that the promise is true. This promise of God is a long journey of unfolding. And in fact, it is not truly played out, this blessing, until several generations later, Moses leads the Israelites into the promised land. It is a blessing that unfolds over years, over decades, slowly, piece by piece.
                We talked a lot in November about God’s blessings in our lives. It is one thing to count the blessing you see around you in your life. But it is another thing entirely to nurture the promise of blessing that hasn’t yet been delivered. What blessings have you sought from God? What promises to you feel yet unfulfilled in your life? Have you found it easy to wait?  
    In my first religion class in college, I learned what is still one of my favorite theological concepts: Kairos. There are two common words for time in the scripture: Chronos and Kairos. Chronos is the Greek word for our regular, ordinary, everyday time. Our human time. The seconds, the minutes, the hours, the days moving just as they do. But kairos – kairos is time in a different way. Kairos is God’s time – specifically, “God’s right time for action.” Usually the word “chronos” is used in Greek texts to talk about time. But in the gospels, for example, this “kairos” – God’s right time for action – is used more often than chronos – regular time. And that makes sense, because the scriptures are full of stories about God’s right time for things to happen. Kairos. God’s right time for action. I have no idea why Abram and Sarai needed to wait 25 years for God’s promise to come to fruition. But I believe that at the right time, God acts. Certainly God reminded them again and again that the fulfillment was on the way. And when the time was just right – for God’s plans – Isaac was born. Kairos.
    Have you ever tried to pry open the petals of a flower bud? It can be so tempting, when you see a flower that you’ve wanted to bloom, to just “help it along.” But your doing so is most likely simply to damage or destroy the flower altogether. I think Abram and Sarai tried to open some flower buds more than once in this story. Damage was done, especially, for example, to Hagar. They thought that they could find a way to sort of “help” God bless them, help God fulfill promises made. How tempted we are to do this sometimes! We try to offer God good ways to bless us. We try to set it all up, make our plans, and then ask God to add the blessing, make the promise fit to what we’ve put together. We are blessed, because even when we try to force God’s hand, God can work through the mess we make in the process. But waiting for the promises, the blessings, to unfold in our lives in God’s right time, in the unexpected ways that are better than our best plans – it’s the most beautiful bouquet of blessings you can imagine.
    I asked you to think of the nicknames by which you’ve been known, and how you got them. One of my nicknames I got in elementary school – it was Bisquik! My basketball coach gave me that name. He was known for giving every player a nickname. And I was so anxious to get my name! He once called me “Pearl” when I made a good series of foul shots, but that nickname eventually stuck on a teammate instead of me, and I was distressed. What would my nickname be? When would I get a nickname? I would even ask him about it, but he insisted I had to wait until something struck him. I had to wait for the right moment. Maybe “Bisquik” isn’t exactly flashy, but when my nickname was finally given, it was worth it for my one-of-a-kind name.
    When God names us, when God claims us, makes us new, fulfills promises in us, we find that our own small plans and visions pale in comparison. Instead of Abram, Exalted Father, God gives us Abraham, Father of Many, as countless as the stars. I can’t tell you why God’s plans sometimes unfold so much more slowly than we’d like. Only God knows that. I can only remind you of what most of you know. That looking back over our lives, our way has never turned out better than God’s way. Indeed, things have a marvelous way of bringing us to just the spot where we belong. I can tell you that serving at Apple Valley was never part of my plan. How could it be? I didn’t even know you were here! And yet, in what can only be God’s right time at work, here we are!
    God took Abram and Sarai’s laughter and drew from it their child, Laughter brought to life in the child Isaac. A promise fulfilled. The promises are being fulfilled in your life too. And in mine. And in this place. What shape will they take? Surely, only God knows. But that is so much more than enough. Amen.