Monday, October 29, 2012

Lectionary Notes for 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, Year B

Readings for 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, 11/4/12:
Ruth 1:1-18, Psalm 146, Hebrews 9:11-14, Mark 12:28-34
Ruth 1:1-18:
  • Ruth tends to be a favorite book of the Bible for people. Why do you think that is? I suppose it has a bit of romance, a love story, of which there are actually few in the scriptures. But the real love story here is not between Ruth and Boaz, but Ruth and Naomi. Ruth goes beyond what law and duty demands for her mother-in-law. She isn't just following rules, but following a heart that tells her that though her legal ties to Naomi are over, she has a greater obligation to stay with Naomi.
  • Verses 16 and 17 have become a favorite text of mine that some couples choose for their wedding, which is interesting given that the text is a conversation between a mother and daughter in law. But this is about Ruth committing to have her path in life be the path that Naomi takes. It is an intentional decision. It doesn't just happen to them, Ruth makes it happen by her choices.
Psalm 146:
  • "Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help." What/who do you put your trust in? How does how you live show who you trust? Does the way you live communicate your trust in God?
  • "When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish." This reminds me of the slogan I've seen - "He who dies with the most toys still dies."
  • :6-:9 - These verses mirror Isaiah 61 in the tasks of justice that God has a reputation for: care for the oppressed, food for the hungry, freedom for captives, sight for the blind, presence for the stranger, assistance to widows and orphans. Repeatedly we hear that this is what God is about. What is your reputation of care? How are you helping bring God's tasks of justice to reality?
Hebrews 9:11-14
  • We continue with the author's high priest Jesus imagery. This is the answer usually given for why Christians no longer follow the laws of the Old Testament, those in particular that have to do with sacrifice. Jesus, in place of all these animal sacrifices, gives his own blood as "eternal redemption." The author reasons, if animal sacrifice gave enough temporary purity, how much more redemption can Jesus' sacrifice get us? The ultimate amount more...
  • "purify our conscience" - Is your conscience pure? I'd say despite Christ's actions, mine is still not always pure. But more specifically, what does it mean to "purify our conscience from dead works?" Everything we are still holding guilt over, I guess.
Mark 12:28-34:
  • "seeing that he answered him well" - A rare glimpse of a scribe asking a question not to trap Jesus, but out of genuine curiosity.
  • Faithful Jews would know that love of God was the greatest commandment. Jesus clearly links loving God to love of neighbor, trying them together, making them support, relate to each other.
  • The scribe agrees with Jesus and says this is more important than temple law and ritual. I wonder how other hearers responded to this.
  • "You are not far from the kingdom of God." Imagine Jesus telling you such a thing! I believe this may be the only place in the gospels where he says something like this to someone, other than perhaps more general beatitudes about seeing the kingdom.

Sermon for October 28th, 2012, "Enough: When Dreams Become Nightmares," 1 Timothy 6

Sermon 10/28/2012
1 Timothy 6:6-10
(The “Enough” Sermon Series is based on Adam Hamilton’s book Enough:  Discovering Joy Through Simplicity and Generosity. I use Hamilton’s suggested structure and major themes,  adapted for use at Liverpool First UMC.)

Enough: When Dreams Become Nightmares
In a quiet Mexican fishing village, an American who was on vacation saw a local fisherman unloading his catch. He decided to approach him. The American asked the fisherman, “why are you finishing your day so early?” The Mexican replied “Oh Senor, I have caught enough to feed my family and a little extra to sell for today. It is now time to go for lunch with my family and have a siesta. In the afternoon, I can play with my kids. In the evening, I will go to the cantina, drink a little tequila and play the guitar.” The business professor was horrified at the fisherman’s lack of motivation to succeed. He answered, “If you stay out at sea until late afternoon, you will easily catch twice as much fish. You can sell the extra, save up the money and in six months, maybe nine, you will be able to buy a bigger and better boat, and hire some crew.”
He continued, “In another year or two, you will have the capital to buy a second fishing boat and hire another crew. If you follow this business plan, in six or seven years, you will be the proud owner of a large fishing fleet.” “Just imagine that! Then you can move your head office to Mexico city, or even to L.A. After only three or four years in LA, you float your company on the stock market giving yourself, as CEO, a generous salary package with substantial share options. In a few more years  - “ listen to this!“ you initiate a company share buy-back scheme, which will make you a multi-millionaire! Guaranteed!”
The American got very excited at the prospect himself. He said, “I definitely know these things. I’m a well-known professor at a US Business School.”
The Mexican fisherman listened intently at what the animated American had to say. When the professor had finished, the Mexican asked him, “But, Senor Professor, what can a person do after getting millions of dollars?” Now, the American professor hadn’t thought that far. He was taken aback by the question. So he quickly figured out an answer “Amigo! With all that dough, you can retire. Yeah! Retire for life! You can buy a little villa with a picturesque fishing village like this one, and purchase a small boat for going fishing in the morning, You can have lunch with your wife every day, and a siesta in the afternoon, with nothing to worry you. In the afternoon, you can spend quality time with your kids, and after dinner in the evening, play guitar with your friends in the cantina, drinking tequila. Yeah, with all the money, my friend, you can retire and take it easy.”
Puzzled with the American’s suggestion, the Mexican fisherman replied, “but, Senor Professor, I do that already!” (1)
Even if we don’t mean to, most of us have a hard time not getting caught up in what we might call the American Dream, this concept that we work hard, pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, and eventually we will become successful, and have good things, maybe even be well-off. Comfortable. Not rich – I’ve met people of so many different economic backgrounds, and yet no matter what they earn, I’ve rarely met a person that will admit to being rich – but well-off. And we want our children to be more successful than we have been. To have a little bit more. Pastor Aaron has said the same thing in a slightly different way, but I’ve read somewhere that most people say they would be happy if they had just 20% more income than they do now. The trouble, of course, is that people say that no matter what income they are at. It is always 20% more.
A little more. It seems so safe, so innocuous, wanting a little more. But if the American Dream is to always have a little more, when are we satisfied? When are we content? When do we have enough? I preached my first sermon when I was a teenager, at my childhood church in Rome, NY, under, as I’ve told you, the guidance of my then-pastor Bruce Webster. The text was the parable of the Rich Fool. Jesus tells it in response to a man who wants Jesus to settle an inheritance dispute between him and his brother. He tells about a rich man who had so much grain stored up in his barns that he was running out of room. What should he do? Well, he tore down his barns and built bigger ones, and told himself he could be ready to eat, drink, and be merry. Only, God says to this man: “You fool, your life is required of you tonight. And all these things you’ve prepared – whose will they be?” Jesus says, “One’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” All these things you’ve prepared – whose will they be? These words have stayed with me throughout my ministry. When I started my first pastoral appointment, after struggling as a broke seminarian, and for the first time was employed full-time, I felt rich beyond imagining. I could not fathom how I would ever need more money than I earned there. And yet, my salary has grown as I've added years of experience and changed appointments, and somehow, I seem to find ways to use it up. To feel, even, that I need it. Just a little more. I watched myself change from a person who moved into my first parsonage with stuff I could mostly load up in cars and a small U-haul, to a person who actually had to get rid of some furniture when I moved to Liverpool because I just had too much stuff to fit nicely into my new house. Am I living the American Dream, or am I just building bigger barns?
Rev. Adam Hamilton, who is pastor of a large United Methodist Church in Kansas City, Church of the Resurrection, wrote a series called Enough that is the basis of the sermon series Pastor Aaron and I will share with you in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving and our Ingathering in late November. Rev. Hamilton writes that in actuality, the American Dream has become a nightmare, both because people can’t live up to the expectations of the American Dream, and the process of getting there, or even managing to “achieve” the dream doesn’t actually bring people the happiness they’ve been seeking.
Hamilton says the nightmare is the result of two illnesses we have: Affluenza and credit-itis. Affluenza is our “constant need for more and bigger and better stuff – as well as the effect that this need has on us.” Consider this: In 1973, the average new home size was 1660 square feet. In 2011, it was over 2400 square feet. And there is estimated to be above 2.3 billion square feet of self-storage space in the US. Credit-itis, says Hamilton, “is an illness that is brought on by the opportunity to buy now and pay later, and it feeds on our desire for instant gratification. Our economy today is built on the concept of credit-itis.” Today, for Americans who carry credit card debt, the average amount of that debt is in excess of $15,000 per person. But credit-itis isn’t just about credit cards. The length of car loans, student loans, and home mortgage loans are continuing to increase, and the savings of the average American is continuing to decrease.
But the problem is deeper than bank accounts and credit card balances. The problem is a spiritual problem. We have lost sight of our identity. We’re created in God’s image, and we’re meant to desire God, to put God first, above all else. Instead, we find ourselves desiring stuff. Pastor Aaron talked about commercials last Sunday, and suddenly feeling like he needed what he saw advertised. I went to pick up groceries at Wegman’s this week, and lost count of the number of things that caught my eye and caused me to say, “Maybe I should get that.” I didn’t, usually, make the purchase. But the desire, the want, was there. We’re supposed to find our security in God, but instead we find it in the accumulation of wealth. We’re called to be generous, but we find ourselves worrying about, obsessed with having enough for ourselves. All of this works to separate us from God, and that separation is sin, because we are led to make other things more important in our lives than God. And that is idolatry, and that is the sin that is mentioned most often throughout the scripture, beginning to end. What gets in between us and God? All the stuff we put there. As we read in 1 Timothy, “if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. 9But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.”
So what do we do? How do we move beyond the dream-become-nightmare that we’ve been living with? We start with a change of heart. All through the gospels, Jesus calls people to repent. We don’t use the word repent very much these days, and if we hear it, outside of church, we might most likely picture someone with a cardboard sign yelling on a street corner about the end of the world coming. But repent is just a more formal word that simply means a change of mind. Or, to get at it better, a change of heart. Adam Hamilton suggests that each day we start with the prayer, “Lord, help me to be the person you want me to be today. Take away the desires that shouldn’t be there, and help me be single-minded in my focus and my pursuit of you.” Clear, simple, and powerful.
And, we allow Jesus to be at work within us. Jesus calls us to prepare for the kingdom of God, which is here, waiting for us to embrace, when we daily seek to do God’s will in the world. We are called to simplicity, faithfulness, and generosity, and with Christ at work in us, we can make a real impact with our time, talents, and resources. When we set ourselves free from chasing after the American Dream, we find that we can live God’s dream for us, as we live and act in mission.
God invites us to have a change of heart, to allow Christ to work within us, and to remember that we are people in need of God who offers us simple gifts, that we might live in joy and generosity. (2)
As we close, I invited you to put your hands in your lap, with your palms facing up, and I invite you to repeat this prayer after me, line by line: 
Change my heart, O God. 
Clean me out inside. 
Make me new. 
Heal my desires. 
Help me to hold my possessions loosely. 
Help me to love you. 
Teach me simplicity.
Teach me generosity and help me have joy.
I offer my life to you. In Jesus’ name. Amen. 

 (1, 2) Rev. Jan Wiley,

Monday, October 22, 2012

Lectionary Notes for Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost, Year B

Readings for 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, 10/28/12:
Job 42:1-6, 10-17, Psalm 34:1-8 (19-22), Hebrews 7:23-28, Mark 10:46-52

Job 42:1-6, 10-17:
  • Here is our conclusion to our four week look at Job. Job, having heard directly from God, seems extremely humbled and compliant. "I didn't mean what I said God!" I wonder if we'd feel similarly if God directly answered some of our whining/complaining!
  • "I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you." Just a great sentence, both for content and literary style. We hear about God often. But seeing God, experiencing God - a better treat. Job rightly appreciates it.
  • v. 10 - "And the Lord restored the fortunes of Job . . . and the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before." I think this is an unfortunate ending to the book. Wouldn't it have been more powerful if Job hadn't gotten back all that he had before? What's the ultimate lesson here?

Psalm 34:1-8, (19-22):
  • "[God's] praise shall continually be in my mouth" - how often, really, do you praise God? How much a part of your daily life is giving thanks?
  • "Magnify the Lord" Think about what that really means - to magnify is to increase something, or make it bigger, more see-able. We, by our living, our actions, are supposed to make God more see-able to the world.
  • "Taste and see that the Lord is good." Our connection with God involves all the senses. Taste too. How do you taste God's goodness?
  • :19 - This verse and others relate well to Job's experience.
Hebrews 7:23-28:
  • The author is setting up the contrast between the priesthood set up in regular folks and the priesthood of Jesus. Jesus, he argues, always can succeed in saving those who come to God through him because he is always living to make intercession, unlike mortal men who, through death (and other causes), were not always present to make intercession.  A practical concern, no?
  • Also: Jesus doesn't have to first sacrifice to repent of his own sins, and then those of the people. He can get right to dealing with our sins. This argument stirs up an intriguing question. How did Jesus participate in rituals of repentance during his life? We have no reason to believe, for instance, that he didn't join in the Day of Atonement or other rituals. But of course, we don't know his inner dialogue with God on these occasions.

Mark 10:46-52:
  • "Have mercy on me!" cries Bartimaeus, to Jesus. Asking for mercy, begging for it or for anything, is hard. Have you ever had to beg from someone? Cry for their mercy?
  • Many order Bartimaeus to keep silent. Not much has changed. We don't want to hear begging voices today much either. They make us uncomfortable, but usually not uncomfortable enough to act on our discomfort!
  • "Take heart." I love this verse. "Take heart" - Jesus is about to act in your life where no one else would stop to even care. Take heart indeed!
  • "Your faith has made you well." Do you have confidence that Jesus could say these words to you?

Monday, October 15, 2012

Lectionary Notes for Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost, Year B

Readings for 21st Sunday after Pentecost, 10/21/12:
Job 38:1-7 (34-41), Psalm 104:1-9, 24, 35c, Hebrews 5:1-10, Mark 10:35-45

Job 38:1-7, (34-41):
  • Would we be prepared for God to answer us in such a direct way like this? God telling us, "Get ready, I'm about to tell you how it is?" I don't think I would be!
  • Still, God's answer, while vivid and beautiful in its poetic way, isn't one that would satisfy me if I were asking the questions Job had been asking. God's answer is basically "I'm God, and you aren't. How can you question me?" But my own experience of God finds God more sympathetic to my questioning - even if not providing any more answers. For me, not having answers is very frustrating. But I'm trying always to accept that God is beyond my understanding. Can you have faith without all the answers? I guess that's why it is faith!
  • Biblical sarcasm - this part I enjoy. God is pretty sarcastic in his answer with Job. I'm glad to know my preferred style of humor is one God enjoys too!

Psalm 104:1-9, 24, 35c:
  • "Bless the Lord, O my soul." We normally ask God to bless us and others. What does it mean for us, instead, to bless God, to be a blessing to God?
  • This psalm almost reads like a reverse of the Job passage, doesn't it? Instead of God prompting Job to remember that God has done, here the psalmist remembers on his own what God has done, in the same sort of vivid imagery.
  • All the clothing/fabric imagery in this psalm is interesting - God is enveloping, wrapping around us and the world, surrounding, covering, protecting.
  • The imagery in 6-9 talks about water - water "fleeing" as if water is the enemy. Flood and safety from another flood.
Hebrews 5:1-10:
  • Verses 1-4 actually describe, to an extent, what we mean by ordained ministry. A good resource for hopeful ordinands!
  • Check out Genesis 14:17-20 and Psalm 110:4 for context about Melchizedek. 
  • I don't usually think of Jesus as a "high priest." What priestly functions do you see Jesus filling? How is Jesus priest? The author gives his answer in verses 7-10.
  • :8 - I also don't think of Jesus as one who had to "learn" obedience, but as one who simply was obedient. But maybe there is more power in thinking of Jesus learning to obey God through his faithfulness to God's plan for him. What do you think?

Mark 10:35-45:
  • James and John are apparently unfazed by their previous (and recent) conversation with Jesus and the other disciples about who is greatest, where Jesus reminded them about the first being last and taking up the cross and all that . . .
  • James and John say that they are able to walk the same path as Jesus, in their quest for greatness. Jesus takes them at their word, and they probably wish they hadn't agreed quite so quickly!
  • The other ten are mad at James and John - why? For asking a silly question of Jesus? For pledging to follow him in a way they hadn't? Because they want the places of greatness for themselves?
  • Jesus talks (again!) about a different world-order, a different system of greatness and power. How many times must he tell them this opposites first-last master-servant stuff before they get it? How many times must he tell us? 

Lectionary Notes for Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B

Oops - I've been late with my posts a lot lately - sorry! I will try to get back on task!

Readings for 19th Sunday after Pentecost, 10/14/12:
Job 23:1-9, 16-17, Psalm 22:1-15, Hebrews 4:12-16, Mark 10:17-31

Job 23:1-9, 16-17:
  • "Oh that I knew where I might find him, that I might even come to his dwelling." Where do you look for God? Where do you seek out God and how, when you want to give God a piece of your mind? 
  • "Would he contend with me in the greatness of his power? No; but he would give heed to me." I am always surprised by how many people feel like they can't be honest with God and bring their real emotions to God. I remember the manual for chaplaincy at the hospital in my first appointment, which encouraged clergy, "don't try to defend God. She can defend herself." I remembered being dazzled by feminine God imagery in a small town, and totally on board with the advice. God is God. God can take our anger and questioning. I suspect it is even part of our healthy relationship with God. Job felt comfortable in this. 
  • Compare vs. 8-9 with Psalm 139. 
  • We've been told Job is righteous, but that he is so sure of his righteousness amazes me. Are you righteous? Are you sure of it?
Psalm 22:1-15:
  • "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" These words, which open the Psalm, are found on Jesus' lips on the cross. Some say he was reciting the Psalm, to comfort others. People don't like to think about Jesus feeling forsaken by God. But I think it is ok to believe Jesus felt alone in that moment - because despite his feelings, he had faith enough to follow through with what he believed was God's call for him.
  • Surely, we've all felt forsaken by God sometimes. Alone. Finding "no rest" as the Psalmist describes. The scene the Psalmist describes is one of fear and desperation to feel God's presence. Have you experienced this? When? How? Did you find God present there?

Hebrews 4:12-16:
  • "The word of God is living and active" - and yet sometimes we try to make it stand still in time and space, not allowing it to speak to us in new ways, not allowing it to make us be living and active as well!
  •  "sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart" - That's some powerful imagery. The Word of God is often used as a sharp sword, but usually, unfortunately, as a weapon that hurts and causes pain. Here, the author describes a sword that pierces us in a different way - a sword that - gets to the point, so to speak - and sees and judges our hearts. What does the Word of God have to say about your heart?
  • The high priest imagery in Hebrews doesn't speak to me really. What do you make of it?
  • What does speak to me: "not . . . unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but . . . in every respect tested as we are, yet without sin." Some theologians in church history emphasized the "immutability of God" - that God is not changeable. But, that doesn't sound very compassionate either. The author here describes a Christ who is moved by our sufferings, walking with us, and living as an example to us.

Mark 10:17-31:
  • "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" I think this is the question many ask at the beginning of their faith journey: "What do I have to do to get into heaven?" basically. We're very result-driven, humans. We want to know what to do to get the result we want.
  • "you lack one thing;" What thing does Jesus mean? We know the following words connect, but what exactly would he say the man is lacking? Treasure in heaven?
  • "Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor" - Why do we take Jesus' words so literally in other places, but not here? I'm afraid the answer is: we'd rather not.
  • camel/eye/needle imagery - hyperbole, or straight-talk? Chris Haslam's comments and clippings on this text have transformed my understanding of the whole passage. 
  • The disciples think with Jesus' standards, things sound hopeless. But Jesus reminds us - again - of grace: "for mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible."
  • Peter sounds a little resentful, like Jesus is preaching to the choir, or maybe he just needs some words of encouragement. Either way, Jesus promises that what has been given up to follow him hasn't gone unnoticed.
  • Folk singer Hugh Blumenfeld has a great song connected to this text called "Camel Filters." A couple verses: 
There's a man who thinks that he's a king
'Cause he writes his name in gold
He's got towers and plazas named for him
We won't miss him when he's cold
He's got boats and trains and cars and planes
Wants a space shuttle with a phone
He can go anywhere anytime he likes
Except I believe he'll have a tough time
Getting through the eye of the needle...

Now maybe Jesus was the son of God
And maybe the prophet of the people 
Maybe he was just a working man
Who would not be bought by the devil
But what he said he said quite clear
No need for the good priest here
Even the butt of your cigarette
Will not clear the eye of the needle

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Sermon for World Communion Sunday, "Room at the Table: The Table Is Set," 1 Corinthians 11:17-26

Sermon 10/7/12
1 Corinthians 11:17-26, (1 Corinthians 12:12-27)

Room at the Table: The Table Is Set
            Since the beginning of September, we’ve been exploring this theme of Room at the Table. We’ve heard about the feeding of the 5000, and manna from heaven, the parable of the great banquet, and about Peter’s vision of food declared clean by God. And through our music and liturgy and visuals and anthems we’ve been hearing about God’s table. I’ve had some of you mention that you felt like we should be celebrating Holy Communion – that’s what everything has been pointing to. And I hope that you feel that way, that today, you find yourself ready, longing to celebrate this Holy Meal, like everything has been pointing us in this direction.
If you had a chance to read my article in our newsletter this month, you read some of my personal reflections about Holy Communion, like about how my grandmother’s homemade bread was the communion bread at my childhood church, and how I could never separate the smell of her bread baking from the act of receiving the sacrament. But I left out one of my less compelling communion reflections from my teenage years. I used to get really excited for Communion Sundays when I was a teenager . . . because it usually meant that my pastor would preach either a very brief or no sermon at all! Oh yes, I would flip open the bulletin, scan the outline of worship, and be filled with delight when I saw that there was no sermon because of communion, or when the bulletin read “Communion Meditation.” I knew that Meditation was a code-word for a short sermon!
I knew that some faith traditions practiced weekly communion, though, and I couldn’t imagine that. I was sure that doing something every week like that would take away the meaning, the special quality of celebrating communion. Years later, though, when I was in seminary, I experienced living in the midst of a community of faith 24/7 in a way that I hadn’t before. And we had chapel services offered three times a week, with the biggest service, the best-attended, being the weekly celebration of Holy Communion. And I found that I loved it. I found that it was moving in a way I didn’t expect. It was a bond that tied us together as a community. It was a sacrament that drew me closer to God. It was a ritual that made the words that were preached just before make more sense. Over my years of ministry, I have found that celebrating the sacraments – baptism and communion – is one of the greatest blessings of ministry. There is nothing that compares with the blessing of baptizing someone, and there is such intimacy in saying, “this is the body of Christ broken for you. This is the cup of Christ, poured out for you.”  
Last week, we looked at Peter and some of his spiritual journey as the early church was developing. Today, we turn our attention to the teachings of Paul, and the instruction he was giving to one of the new faith communities – the church at Corinth – a community mostly made up of Gentiles who had become followers of Jesus. New Christians in the early church – they had to work everything out. Everything was new. Everything was a learning process of living out the faith of Jesus Christ. How would they be community together? What of their old ways of living had to be left behind, and what would they keep? Paul, the planter of so many of these communities, writes in detail to address concerns he has, teachings he feels each place needs, conflicts that already arise in the young churches. That’s the content of most of Paul’s letters in the New Testament.
            In our text from 1 Corinthians, Paul writes in particular about the celebration of Holy Communion. Churches – just a fancy word for the gathered faith community – met in the homes of church members. For practical reasons, they met in the homes of the richest members, because they had the largest houses and the most resources, and could provide the best setting for getting together. The church at Corinth met at the home of a rich man named Gaius. We can glean some knowledge from verses of scripture about worship and communion practices. They probably met weekly, on Sundays. They did many of the things that we do still – they prayed, both spontaneously and with ritual prayers. They sang. They read scripture. They shared testimony – their own experiences of God at work in their lives. They celebrated the sacrament. And all of this happened over the course of a meal. Worship was a feast – a full meal shared together. The bread, the Body of Christ, was broken early on. The cup was given after the supper. But the meal, the feast, and the sacrament intricately tied to it, were the primary, central acts of worship.
            Paul is writing to address concerns he has about disturbing practices that have come up in worship and especially in sharing the sacrament. In Paul’s day, like ours, people came from many different economic backgrounds. But proper roles for people according to their classes were more structured. We still have plenty of class differences. But in Paul’s day, when people of all different backgrounds came together to feast and worship – things got complicated. In an early Christian household of a wealthy person, like at the home of Gaius, the host of the Corinthian church, a home would have an open air center atrium, and a room called the Triclinium – a dining room with three-sided couches, and an open side for servants to bring in food. There were places for about a dozen people to sit – to recline actually. Imagine meals taking place while everyone stretched out on lounge chairs. But worship feasts would bring in many more than a dozen people. So everyone who couldn’t sit at one of the dozen seats had to be served their food in the atrium. Guess who got the dozen seats on the couch?
Of course Gaius, the wealthy host, and his wealthy friends. Not only that, but Paul indicates that he’s discovered that those seated in the Triclinium were either arriving before the working poor or slaves who were members of the church, to start their meal early, or actually eating in front of them, first, while the others looked on. And further, food of different quality and quantity was served to the wealthy church members. So Paul says that some members are getting drunk on good wine, while others are going home from a worship feast hungry. Can you imagine, at worship, if we sat according to economic status, and served better communion bread to those of a higher status. Outrageous, right? What a horrible distortion of the beautiful meal left to us by Jesus! But we can’t blame the people of the Corinthian church too much. They were only replicating in their brand new faith community exactly what happened in the rest of the social lives. In the other clubs, organizations, and associations they were a part of, this pattern was exactly how things functioned. You might all be part of the same group, but the societal divisions were still firmly in place.
Paul writes to remind the community what it means to be the one Body of Christ. He is passionate about this. He can’t say enough about how important understanding what it means to be the Body of Christ is. He says that if the Corinthians continue practicing the Lord’s Supper as they have been – well, it isn’t actually the Lord’s Supper at all. You can’t call the practices they’ve engaged in the Lords’ Supper. Paul says, repeatedly in his writings, that when we are in Christ, we are new creations. They are baptism words – in Christ, there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, but we are all one in Christ Jesus. Paul means this with a sincerity, with an urgency that I find it hard to even convey to you. In Christ, we are new creations, and we are part of One Body. People were used enough to participating in religious ceremonies that had symbolic meanings. But Paul – he understood that the power of belonging to Christ was real change in your life and in the world. Real change. Real transformation. For Paul, that meant that your identity, so entrenched in societal standards – your gender, your ethnicity, your status – it was nothing, nothing anymore, because of Christ.
Paul wanted the community at Corinth to know that being a Jesus follower meant real, actual, concrete changes in the way you would live in the world and treat other people. If you come to the table together, if you feast together, if you share in the One Body of Christ together, you better expect some real changes in how you live. And so when Paul writes in the very next chapter, chapter 12, about us all being different parts of the body, hear the import placed by Paul’s repeated emphasis: we are one body, one body, one body in Christ Jesus. He doesn’t say it lightly. He doesn’t say it to sound pretty of poetic. He means it. We are part of each other if we are part of Jesus. And we can’t be part of Jesus if we won’t be part of one another, part of every other person in the body of Christ.
We still struggle to get Paul’s message. But on this World Communion Sunday, I want us to think about what it would mean if every time we celebrated the sacrament, we remembered that if we want to be part of Jesus, we’re part of each other too. Not symbolically. Not to be forgotten as soon as we leave this building, or even just this time of worship. Not to be forgotten when we’re stuck in traffic, or in classes, or at work, or at the store, or confronted with racism or poverty or bullying or divisions, not to be forgotten when we want to put up walls between ourselves and those who are Other. Because of Christ, because we are One Body, there is no one who is Other. There’s only all of us. What if we remembered?
Friends, beloved of God, the table is set. There’s so much room here. Come, come to the table.  Amen. 

Saturday, October 06, 2012

Lectionary Notes for Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B

Readings for 19th Sunday after Pentecost, 10/7/12:
Job 1:1, 2:1-10, Psalm 26, Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12, Mark 10:2-16

Job 1:1, 2:1-10:
  • Satan, in the book of Job, isn't a creature of hell, but part of the heavenly council, actually "the devil's advocate" in a way. How does this differ from our typical conception of Satan?
  • "He will curse you to your face." Satan is trying to figure out what will push Job to curse God. What would make you curse God? How mad have you ever gotten at God?
  • "In all this Job did not sin with his lips." Of course, we're only on chapter two. But, still, sometimes people can handle a remarkable amount of pain and still remain hopeful. Can you? How do you think people do this?
Psalm 26:
  • "I have trusted in the Lord without wavering . . . test my heart and mind." Are you bold enough in your faith to ask God to test your heart in mind? Ties in well with our Job passage.
  • "I walk in my integrity; redeem me, and be gracious to me." Are you willing to ask for and receive God's grace? In today's world, what does it mean to have integrity? Do you have integrity?
Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12:
  • Hebrews talks of Jesus as the reflection of God's glory. I think we are also reflections of God's glory, if we let ourselves be, let God makes us into these reflections. This is what it means to be created in God's image, isn't it?
  • "exact imprint of God's very being" - This makes fingerprints come to mind, or plaster casts of babies' feet.
  • We are brothers and sisters with Christ, children of the same Parent. How intimate is that? With that intimacy comes responsibility - we are part of God's family.

Mark 10:2-16:
  • "Some Pharisees came, and to test [Jesus] they asked" The Pharisees just don't get it. What kind of answer do you think they expected Jesus to give? What answer would they have given to their own question?
  • These teachings from Jesus are hard for modern-day congregations to hear, because so many have experience the pain of divorce themselves, or in their families. I think that, when preaching on these texts, it is important to be clear that Jesus is not saying that people belong in abusive, harmful relationships at all costs. I think Jesus' point is that the Pharisees, as ever, are interested only in the laws and details, not in the heart of God's plan for people. I think that would be a better focus.
  • What does it mean to welcome a child? This is the third week in a row that the gospel lesson mentions children and welcoming them to really understand the kingdom. The repeated emphasis tells us Jesus thinks this is REALLY important.

Sermon for September 30th, 2012, "Room at the Table: Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?" Acts 11:1-18

Sermon 9/30/12
Acts 11:1-18

Room at the Table: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?

            My older brother Jim is six years older than me, and when I was little, I idolized him, and wanted to be around him constantly. I wanted to dress like him, play with the toys he played with, and do what he did. But naturally, a 12 year old boy does not always want his 6 year old sister following him around everywhere, and sometimes there would be a bit of conflict between me and Jim. Sometimes, I might do something, like follow Jim around when I was instructed to leave him alone for a while, that would result in Jim taking the dreaded action: he would tell on me. “I’m telling!” Powerful words between siblings, aren’t they? Apparently, I started trying my own version of a preemptive strike, by running to my parents and saying, “Jim is gonna tell on me!” I guess I figured Jim would get in trouble if I could somehow tell on him first. But I couldn’t foresee the logical conclusion of my action, which would be for my parents to ask, “And why is Jim going to tell on you?” “Um…”
            My nephew Sam is an only child, so maybe you would think he would be exempt from this whole “telling on” phenomenon. No such luck. I remember when Sam was maybe three at the most, and my mom was babysitting him, somehow, she broke one of the blinds on the front window. Sam asked her, “What do you think Mom’s gonna say to you when she gets home?” And no sooner had my sister-in-law Jen arrived at home than Sam ratted out my mom: “Grandma broke the blinds!” When Sam started pre-K last fall, he started telling on his classmates rather a lot. His teachers cleverly instructed Sam that when he felt like he needed to tell on a classmate, he had to go speak to the giant toy frog in their classroom, and tell on his peers to the frog. That way, his teachers didn’t have to hear Sam’s complaints anymore. Jim and Jen tell me Sam spent a lot of time talking to that frog.
            Of course, you can get a pretty bad reputation for telling on people all the time. Tattle-tale is a name my brothers and I would call each other, in an effort to not get in trouble, hoping the bad name would make the tattler think twice before turning us in to our parents. We’d like to think that we’ve all grown up since our days of telling on one another, but I suspect we all find ourselves engaging in the time-honored tradition of tattle-taleing now and then. Sometimes I joke with friends and family that if everyone would just do what I told them to, their lives would be so much better. I like to tease with these words, wishing they would follow my good advice for them. But I also realize there is some truth to my words, in that they express a feeling I think many of us have at one time or another. We can look at other people’s lives and it is so clear to us what they should be doing that they aren’t, or what they shouldn’t be doing that they are. It is so easy to know what would be best for someone else, isn’t it? Hold that thought for a bit.
            Today, we turn to the Acts of the Apostles, a book of the Bible that recounts the actions of the disciples and other followers of Jesus when Jesus returned to God’s home after the resurrection. For those of you in Pastor Aaron’s Bible Study on Acts, you get a little sneak peak today of Chapter 11. As I’ve mentioned before, Jesus and his disciples were often at odds with the religious leaders of the day over appropriate rules about who to eat with, but in the early church, the apostles were actually at odds with each other over rules about sharing meals. Our text for today is part of this ongoing conflict.
The whole passage is sort of a flashback, and you can read about the events Peter describes here in the previous chapter, chapter 10. Peter, apparently, has eaten with some Gentiles – and the food the Gentiles ate was forbidden to Peter by Jewish law, laws that had very detailed dietary restrictions, laws that centered on purity and impurity, cleanliness and uncleanliness. So some of the circumcised believers, the ones who are following Jewish purity codes, want to know why Peter has eaten with these people. And so Peter must explain himself, “step by step,” we read, and that is where he flashes back to describe what has caused this strange behavior in him. He’s had a vision, he says. A large sheet, maybe like a giant tablecloth, was lowered from heaven by its corners. On the cloth were various kinds of animals, representing animals that Peter would not be allowed to eat according to Jewish laws, kosher laws. Surprising to him, he hears God’s voice telling him to get up and eat these forbidden foods. Peter refuses, insisting he would not eat anything unclean. But God responds, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” This sequence Peter saw repeated in his vision a total of three times, which tells us and Peter’s audience that there was no mistake – he heard God in the vision correctly.
Right after this happens, three men appear who are Gentiles, and Peter feels the Spirit telling him “not to make a distinction” between himself and these men. So he goes with them and fellowships with them, eats with them. In his heart, Peter finally understands his vision. He tells the questioning apostles, “I remembered the word of God . . . ‘John baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave them the same gift that God gave us when we believed in . . . Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” And the apostles get it too, finally, after hearing Peter’s story: They praise God and say, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life!”
What, you might be asking, is it that they all seem to understand now from Peter’s strange vision? Well, as we encounter in this text and other texts in Acts and the epistles of Paul, Peter and the rest of the ‘original’ disciples and Paul and Barnabbas and the apostles working with them approached their ministry very differently. Paul, certainly a devout Jew, spent most of his ministry reaching out to those who were not Jewish – reaching out to the Gentiles. Paul had a complete conversion on the road to Damascus, and he was ready and willing to let go of all the old things in his life – so he felt free to tell others becoming Christians that they didn’t need to adopt all the commandments of Jewish life – they were new creations in Christ. But Peter and company didn’t see things Paul’s way: Peter and the rest of the Twelve focused their outreach and evangelism primarily on those who were already Jews, viewing God’s message in Jesus as directed only or at least mostly for the chosen people of Israel. He thought that those who were not Jews who wanted to follow Christ should at least convert first to the Jewish faith, and then become Christians. The two sides spent a lot of time disagreeing over this topic, and ultimately agreed that each would focus on their own special area of ministry. But here, here is Peter’s own conversion experience. Peter has already converted his life to be a follower of Jesus Christ – here he has a conversion of a different nature, when his mind is opened and he sees the radically inclusive and all-reaching nature of God’s love and grace in Jesus Christ. In his vision, he’s told essentially that only God decides what is clean and unclean, and that what God has made clean, we humans have no right to reject.
            Last week, we talked about the kingdom of God being God’s party, and we reminded ourselves that it is God, not us, who creates the guest list. I think this scripture passage in Acts builds on those themes. Somewhere, Peter crossed the line from trying to be faithful to the laws of Judaism that had guided is whole life, to actually withholding the good news about Jesus – the very news that had changed his whole life – withholding that from others so that he didn’t have to break rules about who to eat with. And suddenly, Peter is acting in the same way as the Pharisees Jesus was always criticizing. Peter was deciding who should and shouldn’t get to hear the good news, and deciding that only people who agreed to follow the rules he followed would be able to hear about Jesus. How quickly Peter messed up one of the main things Jesus taught and lived – God’s love is for everyone – and how quickly he started behaving in ways that added qualifiers to who got to hear the good news.
            And how quickly do we do the same thing as Peter! We started today by talking about telling on each other, being tattle-tales. Sometimes I think that our favorite person to tattle-tale to is God. If we are truly honest with ourselves, how much time do we spend tattling to God in our minds and hearts about what others are doing? What rules of ours we think they are breaking or ignoring altogether? Now we can dress up our tattling to God in fancy packages. We can pretend we are only looking out for one another, making sure someone isn’t going “astray.” But just like my parents almost always knew what was happening with us kids without the aid of any tattling on our parts, so our God certainly knows the hearts of each precious person made in God’s very image. When Jesus gave the Great Commission, sending his disciples out in mission and ministry, he didn’t say, “Go out and make sure everyone is behaving in the right way.” No, Jesus sent us out to share good news – God is with us always, and loves us always, so come, and follow.
            The rest, friends, just isn’t our responsibility. It just isn’t. Whether someone believes exactly the same thing as you do, or has the right understanding of a passage, or is acting in the right way: God does not ask us to monitor one another. We can help each other. We can work together to grow in faith, when we mutually try to live as disciples, certainly. But we can free ourselves of worrying about being the judge of right and wrong. God’s got it covered. It’s a task we can cross right off our list. Because when we, faulty as we are, try to decide what’s best for others, we end up building dividing walls, creating strife and hostility, and worse, like Peter almost did, holding back on sharing the good news of God because we never let ourselves build enough of a relationship with someone to do so.
Peter had a vision, one that God made sure Peter got, showing it to him again and again, that Peter was trying to be so right that he was actually getting in God’s way. And the last thing we want to do is become an obstacle between someone and God. Peter summed it up with a perfect line: “Who was I, that I could hinder God?” Who are we, to get in the way of God’s work, God’s mission, God’s love, God’s party? We’re God’s children. We’re beloved. And God is breaking down walls and boundaries left and right in our world, so that we will sit down together, all of us, at God’s table.
Your homework this week? Easy, and hard. Don’t hinder God. Serve God. Listen to God. Love like God loves. And praise God – for God has offered to all of us the way that leads to life. Amen.