Monday, October 24, 2011

Lectionary Notes for Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost


Readings for 20th Sunday after Pentecost, 10/30/11:
Joshua 3:7-17, Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37, 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13, Matthew 23:1-12

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

Non-Lectionary Sermon - Stewardship Focus: Inspiration: The Steward and the Ship


Sermon 10/16/11
Genesis 6-7, selected verses

Inspiration: The Steward and the Ship


            Today we switch gears from our focus on God-values, to focusing on stewardship, and how God calls us to car for all that we have been given. Or, I guess we could say, we begin to focus in depth on stewardship as one more God-values. This Sunday is Inspiration Sunday – next week is Gratitude Sunday, and finally, on the 30th, we will celebrate Consecration Sunday, as we offer our pledges to God for the year ahead. And this year our theme for our stewardship focus is The Steward and the Ship, (get it? Steward/Ship) which will focus on the story of Noah's ark. But we will come back to Noah in a few moments.
As I said, today is Inspiration Sunday. Do you know what inspiration means? If you break down the word, it literally means to breathe in. Of course that root, spir- - is what gives us the word Spirit. Inspiration, then, is what breathes life into us. And as people of faith, it is the Holy Spirit, literally God's Holy Breathe, that is meant to breathe life into us. But hopefully many things work together to inspire us. When I was in junior high, I used to keep a list, actually, of people I found particularly inspiring. I called it my hero list. It wasn’t very easy to get on – it was reserved for people who really touched my life – who did something in a way, lived life in a way that really made me want to emulate their good qualities. No celebrities – all people I had met personally. They included a student who was two years older who had a confident ʺI know just who I amʺ way about her, my 8th grade science teacher and my 9th grade English teacher, a speaker from one of those life-lesson school assemblies, and a couple others. Who inspires you? Who breathes life into you, makes you want to do or be something more?
            Sometimes I feel inspired by what I see unfolding here at First United. I feel particularly inspired when I see people taking initiative, or acting out of their comfort zones, or making a little go a long way, remembering our abundance instead of feeling limited. Let me give you a few examples. I won't name names, although I am sure you can figure out who I mean in some of these cases. This year, while planning our carnival, someone had the inspired idea to make a phone call that enabled us to have our carnival fliers go home with children in the ESM school district. The result was that we had a ton of children at our event. Another carnival inspiration: one of our young people, new to the church, asked if she could run a jewelry and craft table at the carnival. I will be honest – I wasn’t sure how popular it would be. But I am no fool – I don’t turn down people with ideas who want to do things. It was a huge hit – the table was frequently swarmed all through the day. Many of you visit our shut-in members, but I am particularly inspired when, for example, I hear that one person and her family have gone above and beyond to help out someone during a difficult health crisis. I was told, ʺshe and her family are angels, they are just angels.ʺ I am inspired when you go beyond in your care of one another. I've been inspired by someone who has a vision for our physical space, this beautiful building, and who keeps coming up with creative ideas to make it warmer and more welcoming, including a completely transformed nursery. I am inspired by a man who is not a big fan of public speaking but got up here to tell you about his personal Giving Beyond challenge and how he hoped to inspire you, in turn, to give. I am inspired by a young person who stayed home from his family's weekend away because he wanted to do some volunteer work at the Rescue Mission instead. I am inspired by one of you who invited speakers to come talk to us about Haiti, that led to a successful and rewarding Dress Our People ministry. I am inspired by the man who almost every visitor to our worship services names as the person who greeted and welcomed them when they stepped in the door. There are some people working hard, and with the help of the Holy Spirit, to breathe life into us, into this place. Who inspires you? Who do you inspire?
             Inspiration, breathing in the Holy Spirit, having new life in us, and breathing new life into what is dear to us here – let me not give the impression that these are some magical, unrepeatable acts that we can’t all do. I believe we can all be inspirational. And we do it like this: we pray for help – that is what Jesus talked about the Holy Spirit being – our Advocate, our helper, who fills us up with God's Holy Breath. And then we act as good stewards of our resources. We take the tools God has given us, and the power of the Holy Spirit, and we act. And I firmly believe that when we do that – use the tools God gives us and rely on God's Spirit-directed guidance – we will be inspiring and inspired.
            So what are the tools we have? We could talk about it in any number of ways, but we are all stewards of at least these things: our time, our talents, and our treasure. Today we read about Noah and his ark. Noah might not be who pops to mind when you think about stewardship. But actually, Noah, for a tumultuous period, is made by God steward of everything! We have talked before about what stewards were in biblical times.  Stewards were managers of the property of wealthy men. The steward was usually a slave or a former slave, but they had a great deal of power, too. They were responsible for all the affairs of the master’s household. They oversaw all the finances, and had authority over all the other household slaves, and sometimes even over the children of the master. The Greek name for them is oikonomos, and that’s where we get our English word economy.
            Noah becomes the steward of all creation, and he uses his time, his talent, and his treasure to carry out what God calls him to do. Think about it. Imagine how long it would take to build an ark. Even today, with our technology and skilled workers, it takes a long time to build a large sea vessel. Noah must give an enormous amount of time to the task. And no doubt he is giving enormous financial resources to build the ship. Although we read about God describing just how the ark should be, we don’t read that God gifted Noah with any special fund to make it happen. And of course, Noah must have had the talent – the ability to construct an ark. Time, talent, treasure, as a steward of what is God's – namely, all creation.
            Noah's tools are our tools – time, talents, treasure. And maybe God isn’t calling us to build an ark. But we are called to be stewards of everything that God has put into our hands. If all that we have is from God, then we have to be stewards of all that we have, and take good care of what is God.
            So how do we do it? How are we stewards of time, talent, and treasure? I have more homework assignments for you. Three. But you can pick and choose – do one, two, or all three. But humor me, and try one this week, ok?
            You are a steward of your time. Time is such a precious commodity isn’t it? One of the biggest struggles churches face is helping people commit to the time that mission and ministry takes. We are so very busy, and we have so many demands on our time. What time do we give to God? How much of your day do you spend with God? How do you spend your time? Are you even aware of where your time is going? I think many of us would be surprised, if we mapped it all out. So that is your first assignment – I want you to keep a record this week of how you spend your time, in ½ hour or hour increments. You can make up your own chart, or you can use one I have for you. But I want you to write down everything you do this week. Don’t change your normal behavior. Do what you normally do. And then take a look – where is your time going? Are you spending it how you thought? Does it match up with your priorities?
            You are a steward of your talents. And yes, you have talents – gifts from God. Things that you can uniquely contribute. We talked about it a bit before summer and we will be coming back to all those little slips of paper I had you turn in with what you like and what you are good at. The apostle Paul talks a lot about spiritual gifts. If you read his words carefully, you will discover that Paul was most interested in gifts that could be used for building up the community of faith. What are your talents, and how can you use them to build up the Body of Christ? What Paul thinks is inspiring is when we use our gifts – whatever they are – and we find ways to serve others, serve God's kingdom with them. So assignment number too: I have here for you spiritual gift inventories. A way of figuring out how you are gifted, and how you can share those gifts. Take the inventory, and see what you find out about yourself. Are you using your gifts?
            You are a steward of your treasure. What do you spend? Why? On what? What do you save? What do you give? I want you to do the same thing for your treasure assignment as for your time assignment – keep track of every cent for one week. What did you make? What did you spend? What did you spend it on? Did you spend it how you intended? Does your spending match your priorities? I make myself a budget for every pay period. It is always filled with great intentions. But somehow, what I spend and what I meant to spend never quite match up by the end of two weeks. So I can tell you this is an assignment I will be doing. Start asking questions. Are you using your treasure how you want to be? In my own stewardship journey, I can tell you that I had a challenge giving what I meant to give to God – until I finally just had it directly withheld from my paycheck. When I left it up to me, somehow I never had enough. But when I put my tithe first, somehow I still managed to make ends meet. I just needed to give up a little bit of the control. Are you using your treasure how you want to be?
            Time, talent, treasure. These are tools. Tools that can help us inspire and be inspired. How are you using these tools? How will you inspire, be inspired?  In these coming weeks, I hope you will be spending some time in prayer, thinking hard, doing some homework, seeking inspiration – the Holy Spirit bringing us to life. We have everything we need. Noah built and ark. What we build together for God in this place? Amen.
             

Non-lectionary Sermon - Stewardship Focus: Gratitude: The Steward and the Ship


Sermon 10/23/11
Genesis 8:6-22

Gratitude: The Steward and the Ship


            This Sunday is Gratitude Sunday in our Stewardship focus. And we will continue with Noah and his story to look at exactly what gratitude means. So today we pick up with Noah where we left off last week. He and his family had built and boarded the ark and taken with them sets of seven of some animals, pairs of others. The floods came, and it rained for forty days and nights. Maybe that in itself doesn’t seem so bad until we realize from the passage that Jerry read today that they actually had to stay on the ark for ten month while the flood waters abated from the earth. Noah keeps sending out a dove to check for dry ground until it finally returns with an olive branch, a symbol of peace. And finally, he and his family and these animals can leave the ark.
            The first thing Noah does when he gets off the ark is build an altar and make sacrifices – gifts of animals – to God. Noah makes an offering. And the scent, we read, is pleasing to God, and God promises never to destroy creation again. I think this is a pretty profound action on Noah's part. Maybe we think nothing of it – Noah just survived with his family a natural disaster of epic proportions – of course he is thankful! But he also just lost everything he knew about his life and world. His home, his city, any family outside of those listed in the scripture – his immediate family. His neighbors. Whatever livelihood he had before ark-builder. A way of life that made sense to him. If you had lost all of that, could you still have gratitude be your first response, even if you walked away with the gift of life?
            Cultivating a life of gratitude is developing the practice of looking at what we have and seeing the abundance and giving thanks. It isn’t always easy, for sure. But what do we see when we look at what we have? Our situations? What we experience? A couple of weeks ago we talked about joy – deep joy – as being more than something that just made you happy or entertained – but that deep God-given contentment that rests in your soul – joy. I think gratitude is similar. I have a pet peeve that is a peeve against myself. I have picked up what I consider the annoying habit of responding Yup when someone says thank you. Thank you. Yup. It doesn’t quite work, does it? But I think it might reflect that culturally we don’t let our thankfulness go very deep. Is giving thanks just something that we go through the motions of? Is it too inconvenient to give thanks, and are we not really even thankful? I love the beauty of many languages, but I have to say English has it all over French or Spanish where the standard reply to Thank You is – It was nothing. In English, we are supposed to say You’re welcome. Short for you are well come here. In other words – it is a good thing, a pleasing thing, that you are here. Such a genuine response, isn’t it? Thank you. You are welcome. Gratitude – a thankful heart.
            Are you a grateful person? And again, like with joy, gratitude doesn’t mean closing your eyes to the serious and real painful situations you experience. But when you look at the whole of your life – are you thankful? Deeply? What do you see when you look at your life? Is the glass half full or half empty? Or can you see that God has filled it to overflowing? And how do you show your gratitude? 
            Here is what I think is the crux of it: We have gratitude only if we see what we have as a gift. If I go out and buy myself a pizza – I am not going to be grateful to you for it no matter how nice and thoughtful you are – because you didn’t get me the pizza – I did! But if you buy me a slice – not even a whole pie – just a slice – well, then I am grateful to you – because you gave me the gift. I am grateful for the gifts I receive. The question, when we come to faith and stewardship, then, is this: What do we see as a gift from God? Of course, we talk about everything being a gift from God. God gives us life, is our creator, sustainer, redeemer, giver of all good things. Everything is from God. But I wonder how much we really believe that? Or live into what we believe? 
            Everything is a gift. Last week, I gave you three homework assignments – a spiritual gifts survey, a time study, and study of how you spend your money. And I asked you not to change your habits to get the answers you wanted, but to honestly assess where you were. How did it go? Any surprises? Any eyes opened? Or just what you expected? Were you happy with what you saw? Talents, and time, and treasure.
            I think we are most easily grateful for the talents – the spiritual gifts – we've been given. But in this case, we have to be convinced that we have them. Over the years, in all my congregations, I am always amazed at how unwilling people are to believe or see that they are gifted. Friends, admitting you are gifted isn’t saying that you are all that. It isn’t bragging. Saying you are gifted is quite simply saying that someone – in this case God – has given you a gift. And denying it – well, that is basically saying that God hasn’t given you anything! Not discovering and using your gifts is like refusing to open a present from God. Kind of rude, isn’t it?! And it when it comes to showing gratitude for your talents, the best way to say thank you is simple – use them. Use your gifts. If you aren’t sure how to use them, we can talk. I am sure I can find some ways to put your gifts to use. But you are gifted.
            What about time? What did you learn about using your time this week? Are you thankful for your time? I suspect that a record of how we use our time would reflect that we aren’t always appreciative of it. We often say that we wish we had more of it. We don’t have enough of it. But sometimes I wonder if God doesn’t think our requests for more time are like asking for second helpings of food when we haven’t yet finished what is already on our plate. Are we asking for more time without even really using what we have? Oh, of course, it ticks by. It moves on with or without us. But what are we doing with it? Growing up, one of the worst things to say to my mom, but especially to my grandmother was: I'm bored. My grandmother was a depression-era baby and she just had no use for boredom. Saying you were bored was the ultimate form of ingratitude. And it would surely get you assigned a task or chore you would really rather not do. Rest is good – God rested, and asks us to rest, to have holy rest even! But wasting time is a whole different issue. We want more time? Are we really using what we have in a way that warrants such a bold request? Time is a gift. And unlike our talents, we always use it up completely. But how do we show we are grateful for it? Sometimes the way we use time is like taking our best linens and using them to wipe the floor. Using our best stationary as scrap paper. Wasting something precious. You have time. Show me time well spent, and you show gratitude for God's gift.
            Our money is a gift. Here I think we struggle a bit more to agree. Because we get a little confused. Didn’t we work hard for our money? Didn’t we earn it? And if we earned it, isn’t it ours to spend as we please? Isn't it our right to do so?  Sure, we put in work. We are laborers in God's vineyard. But friends, the vineyard always still belongs to God, and we may be the best stewards in the world, but we are always still stewards. If we earn money, I guarantee that we had to use several gifts from God in order to make what we have. If you find yourself thinking a bit too much about how hard you’ve worked, try to trace the source of what you have. For example: Did you get a good scholarship to college? How did that happen? Did you do well in school? You needed some intelligence for that. Where did that intelligence come from? Is it not from God? How do you earn your living? What gifts do you use that convince someone else to give you a paycheck? For example – I have learned to be extremely grateful for the gift of music I have. Carrying a tune, for the most part, isn’t something you can learn. Most people can either carry a tune, or they can’t. And while you can refine your voice with training, without something to refine to start out with, you can’t do much. Singing is a gift God gave me, and it has been more useful to me in my ministry than I ever anticipated. It helps me in my life work – and so what a build up to support myself from my ministry – it all belongs to God, and is shared by God with me. I try to use it well, but I know who it all belongs to.
            Are you grateful? We can only be grateful if we can look at all we see and see it all as gift. Our talents, our time, our treasure, our lives, our world, the love we share – all gift. And to show our thanks, we do what we are always trying to do – be more like Jesus. Follow his example. Do what God does. Give, give, give. To God. To your loved ones. To God's house. To strangers. To enemies and friends alike. Give, and give thanks. Thanks be to God for all our gifts. Amen.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Lectionary Notes for 19th Sunday after Pentecost, Year A


Readings for 19th Sunday after Pentecost, 10/23/11:
Deuteronomy 34:1-12, Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17, 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8, Matthew 22:34-46

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


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

Lectionary Notes for 18th Sunday after Pentecost, Year A

Readings for 18th Sunday after Pentecost, 10/16/11:
Exodus 33:12-23, Psalm 99, 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10, Matthew 22:15-22


Exodus 33:12-23:

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

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

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


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

Sermon for Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost - God Values: Joy


Sermon 10/9/11
Philippians 4:1-9

God Values: Joy


            This week we conclude our series on God Values – we took a pause last week for World Communion, so I hope you can remember what we talked about – forgiveness, fairness, or maybe unfairness, and authority. When I planned this series, I had a number of different ideas about today's theme. At one point, I planned to focus on the gospel lesson and the feast images in the scriptures. Then, I decided I wanted us to give some attention to Philippians – we have been hearing, but not focusing on these passages. This passage has been one of my favorites since childhood, especially this verse: Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
            I guess, as a young person it caught my attention because of the word excellent. I grew up when the movie Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure was popular – and excellent was used frequently in a slang style to denote something pretty awesome. It isn’t a very common word in the Bible – sometimes a person is described as being excellent. When Paul talks in 1 Corinthians 13 about love, he calls it the more excellent way. And in this verse – well, Paul is telling us we are supposed to think about excellent things. That appealed greatly to my young mind. And today I meant to talk about the God-value of excellence. But all week, I kept coming back to a different verse in this passage:
            Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I will say, Rejoice. Such a simple verse. I knew it as camp song, a round we sang. But I never gave it much serious thought. Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I will say Rejoice. Excellent occurs a few times in the scripture – but joy and rejoice – these words occur several hundred times throughout the Old and New Testaments. In the New Testament, think of some significant ways. When the angels announce Jesus' birth, Gabriel says, I bring you good news of great joy. Jesus says to the disciples after teaching them: I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. His parables and teachings about the kingdom of God frequently mention joy. Certainly the resurrection story is marked with the word joy. Joy, joy, and more joy.
            Are you a joyful person? Is there joy in your life? Is there joy in the life of this church? Is it joy that marks your relationship with God? Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! For my mom, deep joy comes when all her children are together. She loves it when all four of us are at home, especially, but mostly when we are together and enjoying each other's company. Sometimes we will all be at home together for some reason or another, and my mother may be falling asleep on the couch late at night. But she is unwilling to actually go to bed. She will be half asleep, but with a smile on her face – she just likes to be around us when we are together and happy. It brings her joy.
            Children are experts at joy, aren’t they? They don’t need much to be joyful, in that relaxed, worry-free way that only children seem capable of. Last night we took my nephew Sam to Cackleberry Castle in Camden, the pumpkin farm we always visited when I was little. These days it is a bit smaller than it was when I was little, but it didn’t matter to Sam. He ran around looking at the display of spooky decorations and beautiful pumpkins and was having the best time, with a sparkle in his eye, and that practically out-of-breath voice he uses when he just can’t tell you fast enough about the great time he is having. Joy.
Or maybe we need a more contemporary image than Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure: This week I just finished rereading the Harry Potter series, books I enjoy enough to turn back to when I am between other new reads. I've been think a lot about dementors and patronuses. In case you aren’t familiar, dementors are these dark, hooded creatures that suck souls out of people, a fate worse than death. "Dementors are among the foulest creatures that walk this earth. They infest the darkest, filthiest places, they glory in decay and despair, they drain peace, hope, and happiness out of the air around them... Get too near a Dementor and every good feeling, every happy memory will be sucked out of you. If it can, the Dementor will feed on you long enough to reduce you to something like itself...soulless and evil. You will be left with nothing but the worst experiences of your life."
To fight off a dementor, wizards have to produce a white, glowing figure called a patronus, which takes an animal form and chases away a dementor. Professor Lupin describes it like this: "A Patronus is a kind of positive force, and for the wizard who can conjure one, it works something like a shield, with the Dementor feeding on it, rather than him. In order for it to work, you need to think of a memory. Not just any memory, a very happy memory, a very powerful memory… Allow it to fill you up... lose yourself in it... then speak the incantation "Expecto Patronum." Harry himself says: "Make it a powerful memory, the happiest you can remember. Allow it to fill you up… Just remember, your Patronus can only protect you as long as you stay focused… Think of the happiest thing you can." At first, he tries thinking of winning a Quittich match – that a wizard sporting event. But that isn’t the deep joy that the spell requires. Our experiences that are so powerful that they can drive away the things that chip away at our very souls – that is joy.
            When I talk about joy, I don’t mean some sappy feeling that masks what we are really experiencing. Even this week, I know we have lost some of our own church family; we have some who have lost someone dear to them. We have some who are critically ill and struggling. But joy doesn’t mean plastering a smile on your face when your heart is full of grief. In fact, I would suggest that we are capable of grief because we are capable of the joy our relationships bring us. Are you joyful? What in your life brings you joy?
            You know that my sense of humor is pretty sarcastic. I love a good snappy retort. My whole family functions with this kind of humor. I ran into a bit of trouble my freshman year of college, because two of my suitemates were from China. Humor is very cultural and it doesn’t translate very well. Sarcasm, I found, especially doesn’t translate well, and my roommates often thought I was just being mean. We actually had to sit down and talk about where I was coming from and what they were hearing from me. I tried to curb my sarcasm with my roommates, and they also learned more about my sense of humor, and eventually, things worked out pretty well. But we were on some shaky ground for a while. Really though, I must confess I like my sarcastic sense of humor. And it seems to be my gut reaction, with my sarcastic response sometimes out of my mouth before I can stop myself.
The problem with my sarcastic outlook, though, is that sometimes it can serve as a wall between me and something I might more fully experience if I didn’t have my gut reaction of sarcasm. I’ve occasionally found myself unable to enjoy an experience that others might find moving, because I just can’t take it seriously – a performance, or a movie, or a story. Pastors sometimes have this trouble when we participate in worship instead of leading it. We spend so much time analyzing the worship services and how the pastor preached and what we would have done differently, that we kind of miss the worship itself, rejoicing in God, which is the whole point, isn’t it? I have a clergy colleague who, without fail, puts aside everything else and seems to be fully present whenever he is in worship – I admit I sometimes envy the joy and peace that seems to fill him when he opens his heart to God. What keeps you, prevents you, holds you back, lets you to hesitate from filling up with joy?
What brings you joy? How is it that you rejoice in God? What brings you joy in this place, this congregation, right now, today, in this moment, among these people? I think I know a lot about what our struggles are – what people want to change, what frustrates us, challenges us. But I am less sure what brings us joy, deep joy, the joy that Jesus seeks to bring us to make us whole, complete. Next week we shift gears and we begin to focus on stewardship and giving to God. I invite you to start as I invited the children to start. I want you to make a list – make it as long as you can. I want you to carry a slip of paper with you this week, or keep a note on your cell phone, or a document on your laptop. And I want you to list the moments that you find joy this week. What brings you joy? If you find this assignment to be a challenge, if you find it hard to create a list of joyful moments, maybe you will need to ask some tough questions – why does so much of what we do fail to bring us joy? What are we filling up our lives with? 
And then as we begin thinking about giving next week, I will ask you to first offer up your moments of joy to God, who is the source of all good gifts. You don’t want the children to show you up, do you? Rejoice in the Lord always. Again, I will say rejoice. Amen. 

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Lectionary Notes for Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A

Readings for 17th Sunday after Pentecost, 10/09/11:
Exodus 32:1-14, Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23, Philippians 4:1-9, Matthew 22:1-14


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


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


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