Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Sermon for Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, "How Great Thou Art"

Sermon 8/22/10
Jeremiah 1:4-10

How Great Thou Art

How Great Thou Art, at least in the form we know it today, has a somewhat of a complicated history. The original hymn, written as a poem, was penned in 1885 by Carl Boberg, and included nine verses. Boberg was a Swedish man who served as a lay minister, sailor, and member of the Swedish Parilament. He was the editor of Christian newspaper called “Witness of the Truth,” and published more than 60 poems and hymns. (1)
The inspiration for the poem, which Boberg called, “O Great God,” came when Boberg was walking home from church and listening to the church bells. Boberg’s poem was based loosely on Psalm 8, and he said of his inspiration to write:  "It was that time of year when everything seemed to be in its richest coloring; the birds were singing in trees and everywhere. It was very warm; a thunderstorm appeared on the horizon and soon thunder and lightning. We had to hurry to shelter. But the storm was soon over and the clear sky appeared. When I came home I opened my window toward the sea. There evidently had been a funeral and the bells were playing the tune of 'When eternity's clock calling my saved soul to its Sabbath rest.' That evening, I wrote the song, [O Great God.]
But that’s not the end of the story – the hymn took shape and was modified and changed through the years, and translated into many different languages. British Methodist missionary Stuart Wesley Keene Hine first heard this hymn as a Russian translation of the German version of the song that was originally written in Swedish! He heard the song while he was doing mission work in the Ukraine in 1931. Upon hearing it, he was inspired to write an English paraphrase of the hymn, which we know as How Great Thou Art. Hine started using the hymn in his services, and added two new verses that inspired him, which today make our third and fourth verses.
And when I think that God, His Son not sparing,
Sent Him to die, I scarce can take it in;
That on the Cross, my burden gladly bearing,
He bled and died to take away my sin.
According to Michael Ireland, “it was typical of the Hines to inquire as to the existence of any Christians in the villages [he] visited. In one case, they found out that the only Christians that their host knew about were a man named Dmitri and his wife Lyudmila. Dmitri's wife knew how to read -- evidently a fairly rare thing at that time and in that place. She taught herself how to read because a Russian soldier had left a Bible behind several years earlier, and she started slowly learning by reading that Bible. When the Hines arrived in the village and approached Dmitri's house, they heard a strange and wonderful sound: Dmitri's wife was reading from the gospel of John about the crucifixion of Christ to a houseful of guests, and those visitors were in the very act of repenting. So the Hines heard people calling out to God, saying how unbelievable it was that Christ would die for their own sins, and praising Him for His love and mercy. [Hines] just couldn't barge in and disrupt this obvious work of the Holy Spirit, so [he] stayed outside and listened. Stuart wrote down the phrases he heard, and they became the third verse that we know today.
“The fourth verse was another innovation of Stuart Hine, which was added after World War II. His concern for the exiled Polish community in England, who were anxious to return home, provided part of the inspiration for Hine's final verse. Hines visited a camp in Sussex, England, in 1948 where displaced Russians were being held, but where only two were professing Christians. The testimony of one of these refugees and his anticipation of the second coming of Christ inspired Hine to write the fourth stanza of his English version of the hymn.”
Again, according to Ireland: “One man to whom they were ministering told them an amazing story: he had been separated from his wife at the very end of the war, and had not seen her since. At the time they were separated, his wife was a Christian, but he was not, but he had since been converted. His deep desire was to find his wife so they could at last share their faith together. But he told the Hines that he did not think he would ever see his wife on earth again. Instead he was longing for the day when they would meet in heaven, and could share in the Life Eternal there. These words again inspired Hine, and they became the basis for his fourth and final verse to 'How Great Thou Art': "When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation to take me home, what joy shall fill my heart. Then we shall bow in humble adoration and there proclaim, My God How Great Thou Art!"
Eventually, Hine’s paraphrase of Boberg’s original work, along with the verses added by Hines, because the popular version of How Great Thou Art that we know today, a hymn tied for eighth place on our congregation’s favorite hymn list. With a hymn with a story like this, it almost makes the whole sermon in itself, doesn’t it? Ah, but as a preacher, I feel obliged to give you a little more to the message. Let’s look at our scripture text.
Our passage from the first chapter of Jeremiah describes the prophet’s calling, in his own words: He hears God’s voice, saying that God knew him before he was even formed in the womb, that before he was born, he was consecrated, in other words, set apart, to be a prophet. Jeremiah responds reluctantly, with hesitation: “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” But, as we often find in the scriptures, God is not impressed with Jeremiah’s excuses. “Don’t say it,” God says, “for you shall go and you shall speak what I command.” Pretty straightforward. But God adds, “Don’t be afraid – for I am with you to deliver you.” And then Jeremiah describes God touching his mouth and saying, “Now I have put my words in your mouth.” God’s plan for Jeremiah – to be appointed over the nations, to pluck up and pull down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant. With that kind of job description, no wonder Jeremiah is nervous about the work ahead of him! But indeed, the Book of Jeremiah is the story of Jeremiah responding to God’s call and going where God sends him.
I think Jeremiah’s story, like many of the stories of call and response in the Bible, is s story about someone learning to believe in what God can do. I think even though we talk about believing in God’s power, God’s greatness, God’s ability, God being able to do anything, we often act as though we believe this only until it comes up to our own lives. God is great, but is God really great enough to use even us? God is great, but can God really use me to do all the things that God is about? What do we really believe that God can do, and what do we really believe is within God’s power? Jeremiah is skeptical at first. What can God do with only a boy? But God says God shall and God does.
Our hymn today is written from the perspective of some people who have learned how great God is. First Carl Boberg, and then Stuart Hines – both were overwhelmed by the greatness of the acts of God. Boberg looked around in nature, looked at the beauty of creation, and was amazed at how great God was, how great was the gift of this earth. His dependence on God’s goodness shaped his whole life. Stuart Hines was overwhelmed by the greatness of God made manifest in the gift that we have in Jesus – and Hines, as a missionary, regularly saw God’s goodness at work in the amazing stories he was hearing from people he met, who inspired his hymn-writing.
How great is God? Is God great enough to create our world and all that is in it? We believe that. Is God great enough to come to us as God-with-us, God close enough to touch, God in human form as Jesus? We believe that. Is God great enough to take your life, shape your life, use your life – to change the world? Jeremiah believed it. Noah did. Moses believed it. Sarah and Abraham did too. Ruth and Naomi, Peter and Paul, Mary and Mary, and Martha – they believed it. Do you? How great is God? Amen.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Lectionary Notes for Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 17, Ordinary 22, Year C)

Readings for 14th Sunday after Pentecost, 8/29/10:
Jeremiah 2:4-13, Psalm 81:1, 10-16, Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16, Luke 14:1, 7-14

Jeremiah 2:4-13:
  • In this passage, it reads as though God is quite simply baffled at the response of God's people? Why do they react by rejecting God after all God has done for them?
  • "My people have changed their glory for something that does not profit." I like this "changed their glory" phrase. Our society is filled with things that might fall into this category, things we have chosen over the glory that comes from God.
  • Two evils are outlined: 1) The people have forsaken God, who is the fountain of living water. 2) They have tried to make do themselves, and tried to make their own cisterns, which are unable anyway to hold water, the source of which they have already rejected. These people are in trouble all around!
  • "Cracked cisterns that can hold no water." I like this imagery, especially read along with other 'vessel'-like/container imagery in scriptures, like the "earthen vessels" of the New Testament, and God as Potter imagery in the Old Testament.
Psalm 81:1, 10-16:
  • This reminds me of a parent chiding a temper-tantrum throwing child by saying, "the one you hurt most by acting this way is yourself." Not only do we hurt God by our behavior, we also hurt ourselves by our choices!
  • Note the food=satisfaction imagery in this psalm. "honey from the rock," "finest of the wheat," and my favorite, "open your mouth wide and I will fill it." It is God who satisfies, and God alone.
Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
  • A sort-of closing arguments last list of things to remember to try to do, which manages to cover some basics: love one another. Practice hospitality. Watch out for the love of money.
  • "some have entertained angels without knowing it." While I'm not fond of the angel-loving that seems popular today, this idea of unknowingly entertaining angels is appealing and a good way to keep us on our toes. But I prefer the Matthew 25:31-46 idea of entertaining Christ unknowingly instead...
  • "Be content with what you have." Simple. And yet, if we could just follow these words, we'd be doing so well! Be content with what you have. Are you, truly? 
  • "Christ is the same..." Yes. And not yes, right? Always constant, but always the same? Unchanging? Rather, unfaltering, unwavering, but dynamic and living, therefore changing?
Luke 14:1, 7-14:
  • Etiquette lessons from Jesus - that's one way to read this passage. Where to sit, who to invite, how to be a good guest and a good host. Obviously some deeper layers here, but to the "closely observing" Pharisees, they can't really get all in a bind over Jesus talking about where to sit at meals. But still...
  • ...Jesus manages even in these basics to turn everything upside down by going against the traditions and customs even of simple things like meals and guests. I think his teachings here are shrewd and sneaky. Here Jesus is really talking about first and last, servant and served, earthly priorities and godly priorities. But you'll have to work to keep up with him enough to get him into trouble!
  • Repayment - everything has to balance out, be made equal. But it can be done on many scales and levels. How do you want most to be repaid for your actions?

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Sermon for Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, "The Old Rugged Cross"

Sermon 8/15/10
Luke 12:49-56
The Old Rugged Cross

            You can see crosses everywhere these days – the symbols of the Christian faith. You can find cross tattoos or cross jewelry – I certainly have necklaces with a cross. Churches are adorned with crosses, some simple, but some quite ornate. Crosses on bumper stickers and billboards, crosses made out of every imaginable material. There’s a certain poignancy, irony, that the cross is portrayed in so many ways when it was actually an instrument of execution. That was the primary purpose of the cross, of course – it was used to put people to death, including Jesus, the Christ. But our understanding of resurrection, our understanding of Jesus’ victory over that very death with life leads us to see the cross transformed – not a symbol of execution, but a symbol of forgiveness, salvation, and re-creation. Still, sometimes I wonder if our frequent use of the symbol of the cross leads us to forget the impact of its meaning. Do we lose sight of the cross by our very frequent use of it? This fear, fear of losing sight of the meaning of the cross, was actually what motivated George Bennard to write The Old Rugged Cross in 1913.
According to the Christian History Institute, George Bennard was struggling with personal problems that were causing him a great deal of trouble and anguish. In his suffering, his mind returned again and again to Christ's anguish on the cross. This, he thought, was the heart of the gospel! The cross he pictured was not ornate, or pretty, or gold or silver. It was "a rough, splintery thing, stained with gore." "I saw the Christ of the Cross as if I were seeing John 3:16 leave the printed page, take form and act out the meaning of redemption," he said.
Bennard wanted to put this theme, these thoughts, to music. The History Institute writes that, "In a room in Albion, Michigan, Bennard sat down and wrote a tune. But the only words that would come to him were "I'll cherish the old rugged cross." He struggled for weeks to set words to the melody he had written.
As a Methodist evangelist, Bennard was scheduled to preach a series of messages in New York. He found himself focusing on the cross. The theme of the cross grew increasingly more urgent to him. Back in Albion, Michigan, he sat down and tried again to put together the words. This time the lines came. He later shared, "I sat down and immediately was able to rewrite the stanzas of the song without so much as one word failing to fall into place. I called in my wife, took out my guitar, and sang the completed song to her. She was thrilled!"
On June 7, 1913, according to his own account, George Bennard introduced the new hymn in a revival meeting he was conducting in Pokagon, Michigan. "The Old Rugged Cross," soon became one of the top ten most popular hymns of the twentieth century." (1) In our congregation, this hymn tied for first place on our top ten list.
            My images, memories of this hymn don’t seem to connect with the challenging gospel lesson we have today, the troublesome words from Jesus that we have to deal with eventually. This hymn was one of my grandfather’s favorites. Normally I naturally love anything he loved, but I just never could love this hymn. I can picture singing it, the little choir singing it at the country church in Westernville where I grew up – each stanza slower than the one before, warbling voices singing a sweet golden-oldie hymn, for it was certainly a golden-oldie to me even when I was little. How can such a sweet little hymn have anything to do with the angry-sounding Jesus we confront in today’s lesson from Luke?  
“Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” Nothing sweet in this passage, is there? This doesn’t sound like our Jesus, does it? Jesus doesn’t come to bring peace, but division? Turning households against each other? Is that why Jesus, who we call the Prince of Peace, came to earth? To pit us against one another? We’ve been studying hymns all summer long, and in a couple weeks, we’ll be talking about Let There Be Peace on Earth. How can we talk about that, when Jesus insists on making these troubling statements? “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”
Our temptation whenever we read words like this from Jesus is to try to find a way to soften their blow, mute their impact so it doesn’t seem as bad as it sounds. But in this case, I think that’s exactly what Jesus is warning against. Do you think I come to make things easy, Jesus asks? Nope – I come to make them more and more challenging. That’s my paraphrase at least. Listen to the verse just before today’s passage: Jesus says, “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.” In other words – we’ve received a lot – God’s blessings, God’s love, God’s unfailing grace, limitless second chances. But God expects a lot from us, too. And foremost, what God expects, what Jesus expects, is that if we choose to follow Jesus, we actually follow Jesus. It’s both that simple of a request and that hard of a request. Because following Jesus means choosing one path and not the other, and we’re very much a people who want to have our cake and eat it too. We want to take the path of Jesus, but we also want to make our own choices, choose our own way, and go our own direction when it suits us. Jesus says that he comes and shows a way to follow that we must either choose or not choose.
One of my blogging friends, Shane Raynor, recently wrote a column responding to an article he’d read about why teens don’t attend church that appeared in USAToday. The article, reporting on some study results, implied that teens don’t attend church because they are too busy, have too many other things to do. But Shane offered up some different ideas, including this one: “Unchurched teens see no significant difference between church kids and everyone else.” That’s a reason they don’t attend church, he said. He continues, “This issue is bigger than you think. I’ve run into it over and over again. Put yourself in a teenager’s shoes– if one of the reasons they might go to church is to become a better person, what does it say to them when the church kids cuss [do the same things] as all the other kids? Suppose you were thinking about joining a diet program where the participants never lost any weight? Or a gym where no one ever showed any physical progress? Or a karate school where no one ever got a black belt? You’d see it as a waste of time. A lot of kids see church as a waste of time for the exact same reason. Most teenagers aren’t expecting church people to be perfect, but they do want some kind of assurance that church is going to make a difference in their lives or they figure, why bother? (2)
That’s exactly what Jesus wants to know, too. If you want to follow me, but have following me not impact your life in any way, why bother? If you want to follow me, but not follow me, why bother? Jesus brings division because Jesus asks us to make choices, decisions, ones that really effect how we live. What difference has following Jesus made in your life? Choosing to follow Jesus Christ should not have as little or even less impact on our lives as choosing what outfit to wear or what restaurant to pick for dinner. Being a Jesus-follower ought to have some tangible, real result, real impact on us and those around us. What is the point of following Jesus if no one can tell, if nothing about me or the way I live changes as a result, what’s the point? Not peace, but division.
Poet Marianne Williamson writes, "When you ask God into your life, you think God is going to come into your psychic house, look around, and see that you just need a new floor or better furniture, and that everything needs just a little cleaning - and so you go along for the first six months thinking how nice life is now that God is there. Then you look out the window one day and you see that there's a wrecking ball outside. It turns out that God actually thinks your whole foundation is shot and you're going to have to start over from scratch." (2) Being a Christ-follower, we declare that we are ready to open our lives up to God, to be examined thoroughly by God's probing eyes, to rid our lives of sin, and wrong-doing, injustice, and failure to love God and neighbor. We make a decision. Make a choice. Choose this path against all other paths.
It is in this way that our hymn for today, the Old Rugged Cross, ties perfectly to our gospel lesson, and brings the message home to us in a beloved song. George Bennard didn't want a pretty cross, a soft and delicate cross, because he didn't want to lose sight of what the cross signified. Jesus told us that to follow him, we must take up the cross, the cross which symbolizes the difficult, life-sacrificing journey that Jesus ultimately had to make to be faithful to God's call. The Old Rugged Cross is a reminder to us that the faith we claim is more than a tradition into which we are born, more than a gathering of friends once a week. The life we choose is one that sets us apart if we are faithful to Jesus' teachings.
But in the choosing, as Bennard penned in his tune, our life as in Christ is rewarding beyond our imagination, as we experience the love and grace of God that knows no boundaries, and learn how to share this love that gives life with others. So we cherish this old rugged cross - the symbol of peace, the symbol of division, the symbol of glory, the symbol of humility, the symbol of the life we choose in Jesus Christ. Amen.

(2) Shane Raynor, “5 Reasons Teens Are Avoiding Church,”
(3) Williamson, Marianne, as quoted in Pulpit Resources, William Willimon, for August 15th, 2004, pg 30.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

My first DMin Project: Looking for your insights!

The first class session for my Doctor of Ministry is over, but my first project is still underway! My project is focusing on the practice of the Eucharistic meal in Paul's churches, and our celebration of the meal, particularly as a symbol of unity of the body of Christ. My hope is, with a group from my church, to plan a meal with celebration of Holy Communion for World Communion Sunday this October. We'll need to write a liturgy and order of worship. I'm particularly drawn to this excerpt from one of our textbooks. 

"The unity symbolized by the Lord's Supper, I have suggested, can be seen as a reminder or re-presentation of the liminal transcendence of societal oppositions that was declared in baptism. Now it is commonly asserted that this baptismal unity and egalitarianism is 'merely sacramental,' that is, as a purely symbolic leveling it signifies an ideal state, perhaps a future eschatological state, but has no effect upon actual social roles . . . For Paul, it was a matter of intense concern that at least one of the typical instances of reunification declared in the 'baptismal reunification formula' should have concrete social consequences. That there was now no distinction between Jew and gentile was for him . . . the most dramatic expression of the justification enacted by God through Christ Jesus . . . it was not merely a purely spiritual unity in the ritual meal that was at stake, but also the social unity of the church." (pg., 161, emphasis added.) - The First Urban Christians, Wayne A. Meeks

My questions for you all: 
Do you see Holy Communion as having concrete social consequences for us today? For Paul the elimination of distinction between Jew and gentile was ultimate. What social consequences would be ultimate for us today in the celebration of communion? Within our homogeneous-in-so-many-ways congregations, is it possible for Holy Communion to have concrete social consequences, or would this only be possible if we totally changed the way we celebrate the sacramental meal? 

I'd love your thoughts, comments, and questions. 

Monday, August 09, 2010

Sermon for Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, "Here I Am, Lord"

Sermon 8/8/10
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16

Here I Am, Lord

            Today we’re talking about a hymn that tied for fourth place in our Top Ten list, “Here I am, Lord.” Like we talked about with On Eagle’s Wings, Here I Am, Lord is also a song that is a product of a time of musical renewal after Vatican II in the Roman Catholic Church, when changes made allowed the Mass to be celebrated in the language of the people, and music to be more reflective of contemporary styles. The author is Dan Schutte, who wrote these words in the 1980s. Schutte was a founding member of the St. Louis Jesuits, a group of Catholic Jesuit musicians who focused on comteporary music for worship. Dan himself shares on his website what let him to write “Here I Am, Lord.”
            He says: When I was a young Jesuit, studying theology in Berkeley, California, a friend came to me one day asked me for a favor. "Dan, I know this is late notice, but I’m planning the diaconate ordination ceremony and need a piece of music set to the text of Isaiah chapter 6." He saw the look of shock on my face knowing I was well aware that the ceremony was only three days away. I told him that I was sick with an awful case of the flu and didn’t know if I could compose anything suitable in that short time. He encouraged me and I told him that at the very least I would try to complete something in time for the ordination.
I had always loved the particular Scripture passage (Isaiah 6) where God calls Isaiah to be his servant and messenger to the people and Isaiah responds with both hesitation and doubt, but also with a humble willingness to surrender to God. If it was going to work, it would have to be God's power and grace making it happen. Much like Isaiah I was not very sure that I could meet the request my friend had made, but I was willing to try.
I remember sitting at my desk with a blank music score in front of me and asking God to be my strength. As I sat there praying for help, I remembered also the call of Samuel, where God came calling in the middle of the night and asked Samuel to do something beyond what he thought he was capable of. I worked for two days on the piece and I remember being exhausted. I was making last minute changes to the score as I walked it over to my friend who lived several blocks away. I remember being very unsure of myself, but hoping that it would be what he had wanted for the ordination. And it was ok. It was more than ok. From the very beginning, people loved the piece and clearly identified with the dialogue between God and us that is the core of the song. In the years following, so many have spoken to me or written how they had their own experience of God "calling in the night" and being given the courage to respond.
For me, the story of “Here I Am, Lord” tells of the God who overshadows us, giving power to our stumbling words and the simple works of our hands, and making them into something that can be a grace for people. The power God gives is far beyond what we could have planned or created.
            Our epistle lesson for today from Hebrews is a chapter full of people who responded to God’s calling in the night with a bold, “Here I Am, Lord” – send me! In elemnatary school, at one of those end-of-the-year Children’s Sunday programs, my class was responsible for each student picking out and reading a favorite Bible passage. This passage from Hebrews was one of my favorites and one that I chose to read. Something appealed to me about the poetry of this passage – the repeated rhythms of “by faith, by faith, by faith,” and all the Bible stories I knew seemingly wrapped into one. In today’s selection we get a cut. We start out with perhaps the most famous verse about faith in the whole Bible. The author’s definintion: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the convication of things not seen.” Then the author continues, describing the faith of the ancestors – here we read of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Jacob, but the author also writes of Abel, Noah, Enoch, David, Gideon, Samson, and others. It is a litany of faith, of those who responded to God’s call by faith.
            What do we do by faith? And how do we hear and respond to God’s call faithfully? I think that we do things by faith every single day. Beyond trusting that it is the wind that we can’t see that makes the breeze, I think it takes an amazing amount of faith just to live in this world. Sometimes I think about driving a car, and the amount of faith it takes to trust that the hundreds, maybe thousands of cars we pass will all stay in the right lane. We have to have faith in all those drivers. We usually don’t even give it much thought, and yet we’re putting our faith in other human beings who we’ve never even met. I think we perform similar acts of faith every day, in the everyday things of our lives.
            And yet, when it comes to having faith in God, we’re challenged. We’re overwhelmed. We’re full of doubts. We feel like we’re not up to what God asks of us. We’re not sure God really calls us, and we’re definitely not sure how to respond to that call. If we can have faith in each other, most of the time anyway, why is having faith in God so hard? Why is believing that God calls us so hard? I’m starting to think that part of the problem is that we make faith, God’s call, answering God’s call, such a special, unique thing in our minds. It’s kind of the same problem we have with prayer. Remember, when we talked about prayer earlier this summer, we talked about how prayer is just that – talking. It’s just that we’re talking to God. But we give prayer that special name and add all this pressure to be perfect and eloquent, and we’re suddenly a mess about talking to God. I think maybe it is the same way with faith, and answering God’s call. We have faith in things all the time. And we’re looking for direction, meaning, all the time. And then God enters, putting faith in us, seeking faith in return, and trying to give us direction, and we’re suddenly a mess.
            So why is having faith in God so hard? I think maybe we equate 'having faith in God' with the belief that God will make sure everything goes smoothly in our lives. If we only have faith, we will prosper. If we only have faith, we will be protected from harm, from evil, from disaster, from pain and loss. We set ourselves up to believe that our faith in God is actually faith in God as a sort-of guardian angel or something. But we limit ourselves and our faith, and we certainly limit God with that view of faith. For better or worse, faith in God does not guarantee us some shield of protection - at least not the kind that prevents bad things from happening in our lives. I've seen many people come to struggle and have doubts in faith because of a death of a loved one, because of loss or hardships suffered, seeing these events as a sign that God is not really there, or God does not really care, signs that faith in God is not warranted. If we’re trying to have faith in God as guardian angel, our faith will disappoint us!
But our whole biblical witness calls out to us that this is not what faith is, or what faith has been through the ages. Jesus tries to warn us throughout his teaching that our faith in God will likely cause us suffering, persecution, and bad intentions from those around us - our faith in God is no promise of a contented life, at least by society's standards. Indeed, if you read over today's passage from Hebrews, and read the rest of the chapter that we didn’t read this morning, you'll see a litany of people who had faith in God but who did not exactly have the most peaceful lives as a result. Abel is mentioned as a man of faith, and Abel was murdered by his own brother because of his faith and his brother's lack of faith. Moses had faith to lead the people from Egypt, yet never made it to the Promised Land that God described. And the author mentions the countless others who, in faith, were tortured, flogged, imprisoned, or killed throughout Christian history. On top of that, we read: “All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them.” This is what your faith may bring you!
But before we get discouraged and figure that maybe we don’t want faith, we must turn back to the question. What is our faith all about? Our faith is in God – not God's magical powers to bless us – but in God and God's never-ending unfailing love for us. It is our faith in God, our knowledge that God loves us that gives us strength even when we have made mistakes, have sinned, have caused pain and hurt to our neighbors. It is our faith that supports us even when our lives are filled with loss or stress or worry or hardships. Our faith is in our God, that God is always with us and loving us, no matter what. It’s pretty hard to find that love anywhere else. It is faith like this that allows us to take the life-changing risks like those that the people of faith recorded in Hebrews took. They risked home, family, status, all their possession, security, shelter, even their very lives to follow God's call because in their faith they knew that God loved them and God would go with them.
Answering God’s call is actually pretty simple. We need direction. God offers one. God says, “Here I am. Where are you?” And we respond: “Here we are, God.” We follow, answer, not because we are guaranteed success in every detail, but because our faith prompts us to share the love of God that we have with others. Our hymn today is about faith and where faith will lead us. If we insist that our faith in God guarantee our protection, guarantee things go a certain way for us, our faith probably won't take us very far. But if we realize our faith in God provides us with what we really need: the knowledge of God's loving presence – then there's no limit to where God will take us.
Here I am, Lord. Is it we, Lord? I have heard you calling in the night. I will go, Lord, if you lead me. I will hold your people in my heart. Amen.


Thursday, August 05, 2010

Modules 11 & 12: Class Notes

Here's my last set of notes from my first DMin class - I really loved it! Now I just have to complete my project! I'm working on a project on Unity/Body of Christ and the Sacrament of Holy Communion. I'll keep you posted ;) 
Question from student –

1 Cor. 6: Malakoi – the weak ones – sexually, the penetrated one. One who submits his (usually male) body to penetration by a stronger partner for money, advancement, etc.
Arsenokoitai – male/those who sleep – those who sleep with men

Romans 1: Worshipping humans, birds, animals, reptiles. God hands them over to their desires.
Worshipped creature rather than creator.

References to Leviticus 18 holiness code.

Krister Stendahl “Good exegesis begins with the distinction between what the text meant and what the text still might mean.” If you skip over first, you can’t determine second.

What did this mean to Paul’s first readers?
Homoeroticism in the Biblical World – Martti Nissinen (best book on topic)

Same sex relationships that Paul knew were consistently between a more powerful, wealthier, older male and a younger, weak, attractive, slave boy. Petronius’s Satiricon, Suetonius, Life of Nero: pederasty. Paul never experienced, no evidence he knew of adult, consensual, same-sex, committed, long-term relationships.

Not just homosexual relationships were different – heterosexual were too. Changes, over time, culturally.

Paul’s condemnation today would apply to pederasty, not adult, mature, same-sex relationships. Mistake to apply them to same-sex relationships today. Anachronistic.

Welborn’s own “Sin in First Century Rome” article. Read this passage in context of Nero’s Rome, Nero’s practices of pederasty.

Dale B. Martin, Sex and the Single Savior  


Module 11: Life: Partnership/Hospitality


Believe this is three letters, redacted, but all written by Paul.

Note of thanks for a gift Philippians sent to Paul.
J. Paul Sampley, Pauline Partnership in Christ: Paul has a relationship with this church that he doesn’t have with any other churches.

Koinonia – not fellowship/community, but a legal term that would be better translated as partnership – Latin – societas

Philippians 4:10 – revived is literally anethalete – “bloomed up again out of the darkness” – implies when there was a time when their concern was dormant, not evident. ἠκαιρεῖσθε – from Kairos – “right season”

4:11 Autarkes – self-sufficiency – top of list of virtues – totally confidence in self/gait

(Vincent Harding)

:14 Ple^n – cancel that – “you did well becoming partners with me in affliction.” (Paul’s in prison.)

Food not provided for you in prison. Hygiene is nil. Need someone on the outside.
Craig Wansink, Chained in Christ

Although Acts says Paul is a Roman citizen, but Paul himself never mentions this, beaten with rods, not something to do with a citizen.

:15 No church partnered with me
:18 apecho^ - “paid in full”

Taubenschlag, Law in the Greco-Roman Papyri  

Paul is acknowledging gift delivered by Epaphroditus, and also his services (his person on the outside) – this is sort of a receipt

Chapter 2 (last letter) :25 Epaphroditus

Mutual obligation, mutual benefits, consensual partnership

Paul’s partnership model has possibilities for today – this is the third way between patronage and tent-making, neither of which have worked for Paul.

Paul also has this relationship, partnership, with Stephanos, Phoebe, Philemon

4:15 Eis logon – not translated! – Paul preaching? Economic mutualism practiced.
Justin Meggitt, Paul, Poverty, and the Bible


Romans 12:13 Is Paul just talking about the “welcome wagon?” We equate hospitality with courtesy, friendliness.

We’re missing something.
Abraham Malherbe, Social Aspects, “The Inhospitality of Diotrephes” 3 John v. 10
John Koenig

12:13 – Economic radicalism, “chase after with hospitality”

Xenos – Stranger, alien, but also guest – the process by which an ‘other’ is transformed into a guest, brother/sister ultimately. Chase after person to do this.

13:8 Unplug from the patronage system. The one who loves “ton heteron” – the other person (Leviticus 19:18)

Jacob Taubes, The Political Theology of Paul

Whole law can be fulfilled by loving the neighbor

Claudius expels Jews from Rome because of “tumult” they caused because of Christ. Most Jews just move out of city limits. (49 AD) Most just move back in after Claudius dies. Living in docks.

Paul is writing to a divided church in city of Rome. On West, slaves, poor, Jews, in tenements. On other side of river, 2 house churches, wealthy, villas, Gentiles.

This is context where Paul lays down rules for hospitality.

1) Welcome without conditions (Romans 14:1 – Welcome weak in faith/convictions, but not to dispute over opinions with them.)

2) No despising, no judging! (Romans 14:3-4, 13)

3) No basis for judging in culture/law (14:14)

4) So, criterion is welfare of brother or sister – don’t grieve them! “The criterion is not your damn Book of Order . . . or your church’s statement on this or that. The only criterion is the welfare of your brother or sister.” (14:15, 14:23)

5) Strong must bear the weak. (15:1 – “bear up”)

6) Let each please the neighbor for up-building/edification (15:2)

7) Christ bore the insults. (15:3)

Conclusion: Welcome one another as Christ welcomed you. (Receive one another.) (15:7)


Module 12: Ritual

How did Paul use ritual (certain patterns of liturgical behavior) to create the one body?

Ritual as a form of communication. Ritual as kind of language. Interpreting ritual is like discovering grammar/syntax of community. Ritual communicates fundamental values. But doesn’t just express, it also shapes and creates in communities.

Mary Douglas. Ritual forms not only as transmitters of culture but as creators of social reality. (Like when we know something, but can’t articulate it at first, and have ‘a-ha!’ moment through ritual.)

Baptism, Eucharist are major. But others.
Exhortation as ritual. (Parakaleo^) 1 Thess. 5:27 Read letter to all community. Col. 4:16-17, similar.

Singing. Order of Worship – 1 Cor. 14:26: A hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Colossians 3:16

Hodayot – Mary Douglas

Philippians 2:6-11 – “The Christ Hymn”

Colossians 1:15-20, 1 Timothy 3:16, Ephesians 1:3-14 (Student of Paul)

Ephesians 5:19 Singing to the Lord and each other – community oriented function

Preference for worship things that are “for building up” – hymns over tongues.

Nils Dahl, “Preaching Patterns in Paul”
* Revelation Pattern – “You know now something that has been hidden”
* Soteriological Contrast Pattern – “You once were, but now you are something different/no longer are”
* Conformity Pattern – “Just as Jesus _________, so should you _________”
* Teleological Pattern – “So that . . . 2 Cor. 8:9”
* Simple Appeal – “I appeal to you by the name of Jesus: ________”

1 Cor. 14:13-15 Combination of planned/spontaneous
Doxologies, acclamations, etc.

Nowhere in letters do we get a straightforward description of baptism. Used it as a metaphor. When Paul construes baptism as a symbolic burial to be raised to new life in Christ – def. immersion.

Hippolytus (2nd century) gives account of baptism. He says three-fold immersion. Naked. Artistic representations though show pouring, with people standing.
Didache, 1st century Syria, water scarce, speaks of pouring water three times.
Intensely local, depended on where you were.

“no longer Jew/Greek” as baptism liturgy.

Baptism as cleansing/washing.

Difference between Jewish baptism (mikvah) and Christian baptism – Jewish baptism, you were unclean again. Christian baptism is a permanent transition. Marked a permanent threshold between the messianic community and the rest of the world.

Baptism creates a new community: dying and rising (Romans 6) The new person who lives in no longer ego^, but Christ who lives in me.

We’ve already discussed. 

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Sermon for Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, "Bigger Barns"

Sermon 8/1/10

Bigger Barns

As some of you know, I’ll soon be moving to a new home – I’ve been renting an apartment in Fayetteville, and I’ve been given the opportunity to rent the parsonage of a church in Syracuse that isn’t being used by their pastor instead. Getting ready to move again has made me think about all my moves since I left seminary. My biggest move was going from Oneida to New Jersey. I actually used movers and a moving company for that move. They came to my parsonage in Oneida and they walked around the many rooms of the parsonage with some handheld devices, clicking away entries based on what I have: 5 armchairs. Click. 3 televisions. Click. 4 couches. Click. 7 bookshelves. Click. 12 little end tables. Click. Most movers estimate based on pounds – how many pounds of stuff do you have to be moved? Well, at that time, I had over 7000 pounds of things to take with me to New Jersey, a number that I found a little embarrassing, frankly. I’m one person. OK – I will give my excuses – I do have a lot of Todd’s stuff, and occasionally Todd, that I have to transport from location to location – that has to be one or two thousand pounds right there. And I had a piano – that’s probably four or five hundred pounds – I looked it up online at the time, just to make myself fee better. But somewhere between four and five thousand pounds of stuff was all mine. I don’t think of myself as someone who has a lot of stuff. But when it’s time to pack all the stuff, weigh all the stuff, move all the stuff, I’m suddenly aware of exactly how much I have. Do I need 7000 pounds of things with me to make a home? To have an acceptable amount of things to fill up a house? To live my life? How much in that 7000 pounds of stuff is really important to me in any way? I pared down when I moved into this apartment in Fayetteville, but now that I’m heading back into a big house, will I need to start adding pounds to my possessions?
            Our gospel lesson enters as an answer to these questions, a stark, direct answer. Our gospel lesson from Luke is one of my very favorites. It is the first passage I ever preached on, twelve years ago tomorrow. I have preached more times on this text than any other – this is my fifth time preaching this text! And because of that special place in my history, I know the text well, and the words of the passage are always close to my heart and mind. “One’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions . . . These things you have prepared, whose will they be?”
            Someone in the crowd calls out to Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” This like would have been the younger brother calling out – the older brother would by law get a larger share of the inheritance, and by law be responsible for handling the assets and giving the younger brother his share. (1) The younger brother, then, was looking for help getting his due. But Jesus doesn’t want to be judge and arbitrator, he says, and instead tells them a parable, beginning with a warning: “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Jesus tells about a man who was wealthy, whose land was producing abundantly. He had no place to store his crops, they were so plentiful. What should he do? He says to himself, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But that very night God speaks to the man, requiring of him his life. “This very night you life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” Jesus concludes, “So it is with those who stores up treasures for themselves, but are not rich toward God.” How did the younger brother respond to this parable? We don’t know. Perhaps he heard Jesus saying that his older brother shouldn’t try to take more than his fair share. Perhaps he heard Jesus telling him not to worry about how much he was getting – that how much he had wouldn’t really matter in the end anyway. But a more important question is what we hear in Jesus’ words.
            What does your life consist of? Jesus says something we know – our life doesn’t consist of our things. Human life is made up of something else than that. We are not our stuff. But what does our life consist of then? What are we made up of? And how do we know? What evidence do we have that our life consists of more than what we have? What in our behaviors, our actions, and our attitudes can we point to that says we know our life is more than our stuff?
            The problem with Jesus’ parables – or should I say, the problem with our understanding of Jesus’ parables is this: from our 21st century perspective, having a whole collection of Jesus’ parables, and knowing enough about Jesus to know what he taught, what he valued, what his basic messages were, we know enough to pick out who are the “bad guys” and the “good guys” in the parables. We know in the parable of the Good Samaritan that the good guy is, well, the Good Samaritan. We know in the parables about Pharisees and tax collectors that the Pharisee is the bad guy and the tax collector is the surprise good guy. And we know in this parable that the man building the big barns is the bad guy. After all, God calls him a fool! The rich man is the bad guy! We shouldn’t act like him. We shouldn’t build bigger barns. And then, happy with our clear understanding of the parable, we can go on our way.
            But Jesus’ parables aren’t as simple as good guy and bad guy. The Pharisee is never really just a bad guy, but someone standing in the need of God’s grace. The tax collector is never a saint, but someone who has found out a truth about God and life and decided to live it. We always seem to fail to see ourselves in the parables because we’re never ready to admit we’re as bad as the bad guys, and never able to see ourselves acting as good as the good guys. And if we can’t really see ourselves in the parables, then we can’t really hear what Jesus is saying.
            Is the rich man a bad guy? Let’s see exactly what he’s done. The possessions he’s accumulating are not exactly luxury items. We don’t read that he’s bought a summer home or a second camel or hired his own musicians to entertain. He’s rich, that’s true. And he has a lot of grain – that’s food. He has so much grain that he stores it, and gets bigger barns even to store it in. And finally, he feels relieved to have so much grain. Finally, he can relax, eat, drink, be merry, enjoy his life after working hard to get to this place. He has a little security for himself. He has security for his family, because, of course, they will inherit what is his when his life is demanded of him. He knows that he won’t go hungry now, even if a famine strikes. The Bible talks about times when famine wiped out whole families, whole nations. Living of the land was risky. This man was prepared. He had plans. Is that so bad? Are we much different?
            I have a pension plan myself, of course. The pension plan for United Methodist Clergy is a good one – I may not get rich now, but I have the security of a good pension plan when I retire. In fact, the denomination is working very hard to make sure that clergy outside of the US have the same strong pension plan. We want to know we have a secure future, that we’ll be able to feed ourselves, clothe ourselves, house ourselves, and provide for our family, far into the future. Most of you probably have retirement plans, or are already enjoying the benefits of retirement savings or social security, things you worked hard to put in place. Isn’t this all the rich man is doing? I think about the financial status of this congregation. Our financial team tries very hard to keep us on track and aware of the deficit we have to cover. We’d like to be thinking about our future. Wouldn’t it be nice if we had had a bit of grain saved up, so to speak? So that an unexpected event wouldn’t send us reeling? I know how that feels, I understand why we want to be ready for anything. Secure. Can’t you see yourself in this rich man, with his barns of grain? Can’t you understand him?
            And yet, God calls this man a fool. Jesus warns us against all kinds of greed, and says our life consists of more than our many possessions. And he says that if we are not rich toward God, but instead focused on storing up treasures for ourselves, we’re in trouble. Where’s the line, then? How much grain can we save up for ourselves without being in trouble with God? Are medium sized barns ok, just not extra large?
Of what does your life consist? What’s your life all about? We know that our life doesn’t consist of stuff, of money, of possessions, of assets, of retirement funds, of pension plans, or even of the lack of all those things. But it would be hard to tell that we know this by any hint of our culture, our society, our work ethic, our financial priorities, our goals, or what we think it will take for us to finally be able to “eat, drink, and be merry.” As a rule – and sure there are exceptions – but as a rule, we’re just not happy with what we have. I’ve read that most people believe they would be happy if they had just 20% more than they have now. But the catch is this: that’s true at every level – no matter how much you have, you’re always convinced just a little more would make you happy. And so it is never enough. There’s always something on our wish list. Maybe a tangible thing like a newer car or a better laptop, both things I’ve acquired in the last six months. Maybe something less concrete like better health insurance or more vacation days. But there’s always something we think we need, or want, and we’re convinced that if we could just get to that thing, just get to that point, just get to that status, just get to that place of being settled and secure, we’d be set. We could eat, drink, and be merry. And maybe then we could be disciples. Then we’d be in a good starting place to follow God. During my first year of ministry, when I went from being a seminarian surviving on a $4000 a semester work-study job, to a full-time pastor with a full time salary, making so much more money then I’d ever made in my life, I was sure I’d be set. I felt so very rich. What else could I want? Four years and 7000 pounds of stuff later, I still have a wish list.
            What do our lives consist of? What will we offer to God? There’s nothing in my house that God wants except my soul. And the shape my soul is in will probably have an awful lot to do with what it is my life really consists of. How is your soul? What does your life consist of? What do you still want to check off your wish list before you’ll finally be in the right state of mind to think about discipleship, to think about answering God’s call? The things you’ve been working so hard to prepare, to store up, to save up – whose will they be? Take care! God’s abundance is so much richer than the treasures you have here, and your life is so much more precious than you think, and God wants that life – your life – right now. What does your life consist of? What kind of soul will you give to God?