Monday, November 26, 2012

Lectionary Notes for First Sunday of Advent, Year C

Readings for First Sunday of Advent, 12/2/12:
Jeremiah 33:14-16, Psalm 25:1-10, 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13, Luke 21:25-36

Jeremiah 33:14-16:
  • "surely" - check out the Advents texts this cycle. The world 'surely' appears almost every week. Maybe that's nothing, but I like it - it's a word of promise, a word of sure fulfillment. Definite.
  • "Fulfill the promise." What promises have you made? Broken? Kept? Which have other made/broken/kept with you? What promise is Jeremiah referencing here? Do you believe God fulfills promises made to you? The world? How?
  • "execute justice" - I like this phrase, because it has such a different meaning than the meaning 'execute' usually has in our system of justice today. Today, when we execute, we mean we take life for life out of revenge. But God means bringing real justice to those who have been oppressed. That's execution in justice that I can support and work for.
  • A name: "The Lord is our righteousness." That is a powerful name. What does your name mean? What would you like God to call you?
Psalm 25:1-10:
  • The psalmist mentions shame several times - his shame, the shame of those obedient to God, shame he hopes is put on others by God. Shame is a powerful emotion, a powerful motivator, a powerful weapon of oppression. Of what are you ashamed in yourself? In others? How do you shame others? Does God shame us?
  • "Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions" - Many people probably echo the psalmists worries - will be judged by all the things we did when we didn't know any better? I think we can trust in God's abundant grace, who calls us into a more mature discipleship. Indeed, verses 8 and 9 talk about God as a teacher, The One who instructs us. How have you learned/grown in your faith over the years? Are you a mature disciple? Or an early student?
  • "Be mindful of your mercy." That's sort of an audacious thing to say to God!
  • "way," "paths," etc. This psalm has good Advent imagery, relating to our journey toward Christ's birth. .
1 Thessalonians 3:9-13:
  • This reading opens with high praise - "how can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you?" Who has brought this kind of joy into your life? Have you thanked them? How? Has someone thanked you for such a thing? I think so often we don't thank each other, praise each other enough, especially for the gifts of service given in the life of the church. And yet, giving thanks for one another is a powerful thing to do, and is sooo appreciated.
  • Vs. 11-13 are great words of blessing - a good benediction perhaps. "May God direct our way to you." "May God make you to abound in love for one another and for all." "May God strengthen your hearts in holiness." Those are blessings I'd like to receive. 
Luke 21:25-36:
  • Advent always begins with surprising "end times" texts that probably catch parishioners off-guard, who are ready to sing Christmas carols. How do we refocus them and us? This text is about time, and expectations and waiting. So is Advent. What we do while we wait is important. Whether or not we live like something exciting is going to happen in our world by God is important.
  • It is easy to look around our world and see evidence of these signs Jesus is talking about, and get pretty worked up about "Armageddon"-type stuff. But is that how Jesus means us to react to this text? He says that when we see such signs, we'll know that "your redemption is drawing near" and that "you know that the kingdom of God is near." Elsewhere, we understand that Jesus means these things are already hear. Now is the time that we are redeemed, and now is the time that the kingdom is at hand. Now and soon, coming and already here. That is the crux, the irony, the strangeness of advent, the kingdom, and the whole gospel.
  • "Be on guard" - I think in the world today we're often told to be on guard - we're to be on guard against terrorists, suspicious activities and packages, etc. Being on guard always in this way can be exhausting. Is this what Jesus means? I don't think so. In fact, he says almost the opposite. We're to be on guard against being weighed down with the "worries of this life" so that Christ's coming doesn't catch us not ready. I think God often tries to enter into our lives and hearts but finds us not ready. This is what Jesus wants us to live ready for.
  • "this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place." Another passage talking about end times, if that's only as far as you are wanting to look. Better to think of it this way: so often in my life I am putting things off - procrastinating - not so much about day to day things, like sermon-writing :), etc., but about big things: I will start giving more ... when I'm out of debt. I will take risks for God .... after I get my PhD. I will speak out about what I really believe .... after I'm ordained elder (Ok, I can check that one off my list now...). But God arrives unexpectedly. I should stop acting like I have something to wait for before I get to work the way God wants me to. The time is NOW.

Sermon for Christ the King/Reign of Christ Year B, John 18:33-37

Sermon 11/25/12
John 18:33-37

In Between: Christ, the King

            How many of you know what Christ the King or Reign of Christ Sunday is? If, by chance, you do know what it is, is it anybody’s favorite Sunday on the church calendar? I didn’t think so! Often, Christ the King Sunday gets a bit neglected, because most years, it falls on Thanksgiving Sunday, which isn’t technically even part of the liturgical calendar, but usually takes precedence for Christians in the United States. If we have to choose between Thanksgiving as a focus in worship and Christ, the King, we usually choose Thanksgiving! I’m not complaining – we don’t do enough of thanks-giving. But I am glad for these occasional years where the calendar falls just so and there is a Sunday left between Thanksgiving and the start of Advent, and Christ the King can stands on its own. It is the last Sunday of the year, in terms of the church calendar, and next Sunday we begin anew, with a new church year on the First Sunday of Advent.
            Actually, Christ the King Sunday is a relatively new addition to the Christian calendar. In 1925, Pope Pius XI announced a new feast day, the Feast of Christ the King. He said that he felt that the rise of atheistic communism and secularism were a direct result of people turning away from Jesus’ sovereignty, and of people denying the authority of Jesus and the Church. He saw it as a move away from Divine Order in favor of human order, which he called disorder. So, this Reign of Christ Sunday is about reclaiming Jesus’ place of authority in our lives. Throughout the scriptures, we hear God called our King, hear Jesus described this way. We have plenty of hymns in our hymnals that use this language for the divine. But what does that mean for us?
I think it is a particularly interesting and challenging question in our American context. After all, as a nation, we rebelled against having a king. No longer wanting to be under the absolute authority of a monarchy, but desiring instead to participate in a democracy, was a primary component of our founding. We fought wars over it, this right not to be ruled by a king. Sure, maybe lately, with the stylish, young, and admirable William and Catherine marrying last year, people are suddenly a little more intrigued by the idea of royalty. But mostly, we seem, as a society, to be more into Disney princesses and their costumes than in submitting to the authority of a king.
            Still, we all have to submit to forms of authority, right? Even if we don’t have a king, governments still exert authority over us. We pay taxes, right? We follow laws, or are punished or fined for our failure to follow. And we have authority figures in many other places too. We have bosses – or bishops! We have teachers and principals. We have parents and grandparents. All these people might be in positions of power over us, at least in some matters, able to tell us what to do. They have power. They have authority. We can push the boundaries of that authority – can and do. We can reject it, but usually not without major consequences.
            So when we talk about Jesus as a King – what does that mean to us? How do we, independent people, private, prizing our individualism and autonomy, let someone be our king? What does that mean, exactly? Let’s take a look at our text:
            Although next week we suddenly find ourselves thinking about the coming Christ child, a tiny baby at the center of everything, today we are inserted in our text right into the trial of Jesus, just before his crucifixion. Jesus has been arrested, and the religious leaders have brought him to see Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect who ruled over occupied Judea. They seek to use his authority to have Jesus executed. Pilate questions them, and asks what crime Jesus has committed, but they’re vague in their answers, saying only that they wouldn’t have brought him if he wasn’t a criminal. So Pilate goes back to speak to Jesus. “Are you the King of the Jews?” he asks. Pilate cuts to the chase. He only really cares if someone is trying to start a revolutionary movement that would usurp his authority, or at least threaten his regime and cause trouble, warfare, in the region he’s responsible for. He and Jesus have an intriguing exchange, where you sense that every question and statement is layered with multiple meanings. “Why do you ask?” Jesus responds. He essentially wants to know if this is Pilate’s own question, or if someone put him up to it. Pilate responds with his own question. “Am I a Jew? Your own people handed you over. What have you done?” Pilate gives off the aura that he can hardly be troubled by this internal strife of this small sect of people over whom he has power.
            Jesus answers, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” In other words, Jesus lets Pilate know that he isn’t out to start a revolution – at least, not a revolution that would result in Pilate losing his power. Not a military coup. In fact, just before this scene, Jesus stopped his disciples from fighting the guards who arrested him. Not a violent political overthrow – that’s not what Jesus’ kingdom is about, not how Jesus gets his power. But Pilate picks up on the way Jesus responds – Jesus has admitted that he does have a kingdom, and Pilate zeros in on that. “So you are a king?” Jesus answers carefully, making sure to say nothing he doesn’t mean, while aware that he and Pilate are talking about two different things, even if they are both talking about kings and kingdoms. “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Jesus is the king of truth. The authority of truth.
            Jesus is trying to convey the idea to Pilate that whatever idea of king Pilate has in his mind, whatever the people are saying about Jesus, they’ve got the wrong picture – the wrong understanding of king altogether. Jesus is something different than what people are saying or thinking about him. Jesus is unwilling, even when it is about to cost him his life, to let Pilate define him, or to let the crowds define him, or let accusers define him. “Are you the king of the Jews,” Pilate asks? “You might say so,” Jesus seems to be saying, “but the kingdom I’m bringing is a completely different one than you’re expecting, and I’m ruling with a different kind of authority.”
            That’s what I think we need to be sure of on this Sunday: What kingdom are we a part of? Who is our king? And, toughest of all: Do we accept this king as the authority of our lives?
What kind of kingdom? All the time Jesus is talking about God’s kingdom – all the parables, all the lessons, they all point to the kingdom of God. We can rightly assume that Jesus is some kind of king. But in everything that Jesus does, in everything he teaches, in the ways he lives, in all these things, Jesus is painting the picture of a kingdom that isn’t one people would recognize. We talked about this last Sunday: Jesus speaks of a kingdom where first is last and last is first, where those who are humbled are exalted, and the exalted are humbled. He talks about an order of society where the poor are the blessed, where the humble see God, where the peacemakers inherit the earth. He talks about a kingdom where typical dividing lines of race and gender and class and place of origin don’t matter as much as how one treats the other. He talks about a kingdom where one is meant to love even enemies. He talks about God as a Ruler of this kingdom who cares for and loves even – especially – the least member of the kingdom. He talks about a God as Ruler who will search for us at all costs, and considers us of extreme value. And for Jesus to be king of this kingdom, he dons a crown of thorns, submits to death on a cross, and asks us to follow, giving up the lives we know in order to claim the abundant lives God promises. When we celebrate the Christ, the King, we’re meant to remind ourselves of just what kind of kingdom we’re signing up to be part of. Jesus tells Pilate “My kingdom is not from this world.” I think our immediate response is to understand Jesus as saying that his kingdom is instead from heaven – it is otherworldly, godly, not earthly. But I think Jesus is saying that his kingdom isn’t part of the world we know – it isn’t part of the typical structure we recognize – it isn’t something that fits nicely into the world we experience. Instead, the kingdom that Jesus brings is one that transforms the world we know.
What kind of king? It is about putting the emphasis in the right place. This Sunday is perhaps not about the fact that Jesus is King, but about the fact that Jesus is King. Do you hear the difference? This Sunday is not about the fact that one characteristic of Jesus is his Kingship, his divine royal status, one characteristic among many others. Instead, this Sunday celebrates the fact that it is Christ who is supposed to be placed as King, or highest authority, in our lives. We spent the last several weeks talking about what is enough in our lives, and especially thinking about our money and our stuff. Sometimes we act as though it is our desire and drive for more that is actually the authority in our lives – when we let the want of more make our decisions. Addictions can become the authority in our lives. Personal success. Other people. Anything we make more important than God, than following Jesus, has become our true King. Who is your king, really?
Toughest of all: Do we accept the authority, the kingship, the reign of Christ in our lives? Is Jesus the ultimate authority in your life? How? In what ways does Jesus have authority over you? Jesus won’t force your obedience. Jesus doesn’t coerce us. Remember, this king is powerful in weakness, strong in humility. But just like with Pilate, Jesus always turns the questions back to us. Is Jesus king? Is Jesus your king? If not, then who or what? Who will you follow?

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Lectionary Notes for Reign of Christ/Christ the King, Year B

Readings for Christ the King/Reign of Christ, 11/25/12:
2 Samuel 23:1-7, Psalm 132:1-12,  Revelation 1:4b-8, John 18:33-37

2 Samuel 23:1-7:
  • "the last words of David." Handily, David's last words are eloquent and of faith. What do you hope your last words will be? We never can be sure which will be our last. My grandfather's last words were "I love you," and my family all carries the comfort of those words wit us.
  • In verse 3, David talks about a just ruler. Do you think he sees himself that way, or do you think he wishes he could have been more like the description he gives?
  • Unfortunately, the last of his last words are about his enemies being consumed "in fire on the spot." I hope I'm not worrying about enemies on my deathbed. But I guess David was worried about the future of the nation he had rules as a whole.
Psalm 132:1-12:
  • This Psalm ties into the Old Testament lesson, a sort of eulogy or prayer for David's soul, perhaps right at the time of his death. What do you think others will say about you at your death? In the immediate context? Years later?
  • "until I find a place for the Lord." It is funny to think about having to find a physical place for God to 'hang out' in. But I can relate to trying to find a place for God in my heart. Where is your place for God?
  • There is a lot of concern in this Psalm over family legacy. What do you want to be passed down and kept in your family for generation after generation?
Revelation 1:4b-8
  • People have a fascination with the End Times. Witness the obsession with the fast approaching 12/21/12 and Mayan calendars. Revelation is a book that confuses, and scares, but in my mind is rarely interpreted in congregations in a way that is helpful. I took a class while at Drew on Revelation with Dr. Stephen Moore. Everything, while still over my head sometimes, made more sense after learning much more about the context in which Revelation was written. Learning that, I could finally let the text speak to me in meaningful ways! Anyway...
  • "I am the Alpha and the Omega" - Unfortunately I have read this text too many times recently, at the funerals of dear church members. But there is comfort in knowing that our beginning and our ending and everything before, after, and in between, is with God, in God, of God.
  • "Look, He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him." Human nature wants to make sure people pay and get what they deserve, right? All while being convinced that we deserve better than they do! Here is Jesus returning, and the biggest concern is that the bad guys get what's coming to them. Where is the joy at being with Christ?
John 18:33-37:
  • Before moving to Advent, we're suddenly jolted to the last days of Jesus' life on Reign of Christ/Christ the King Sunday. The move is a bit jarring, and I think it is mean to be. In Christmas, we always must have some Easter, and vise versa.
  • "Are you the King of the Jews?" Jesus wants to know why Pilate asks this question. What do you think? Pilate evades a direct answer. He implies no knowledge of Jesus prior to this exchange. Do you think Pilate had heard of Jesus already? What would it be like to hear of Jesus first and only from those who hated him, like the chief priests?
  • What does it mean to testify to the truth? Have you ever had to give testimony in court? Can two people describe the scene of an accident differently and still think they are telling the truth? Jesus says we "belong to the truth." What do you think he means?
  • Jesus talks about his kingdom being "not form this world." Some people take that to mean that God's kingdom has no earthly place, but I don't think that's what he means. The kingdom of God is here and now and arriving and at hand. But I think he reminds us that the source - the origin - is with God.

Sermon for Thanksgiving Sunday, "Enough: Defined by Generosity," 1 Timothy 6:17-19

Sermon 11/18/12
1 Timothy 6:17-19

Enough: Defined by Generosity

(The structure/content of this sermon is shaped by the book Enough (Stewardship Guide), by Adam Hamilton, and adapted for use in the context of Liverpool First UMC)

            A couple of weeks ago we celebrated All Saints Sunday, and I asked you to share the names of the saints in your life. I was deeply touched by all the names that you brought forward, by this great cloud of witnesses that you lifted up. How truly blessed we are to be so shaped by the people that God has put into our lives for different seasons. I have two saints in my life that I particularly carry in my heart with me. First is my Grandpa, Millard Mudge. Grandpa died fourteen years ago, which seems impossible, so vivid is his memory in my mind. And you’ll hear about him a lot over time, I suspect. But today I particularly want to share with you a bit about my Great Aunt Clara. She died in January after a struggle with lung cancer that caught us all off guard, because she was just a vibrant, full-of-life kind of person, and it was hard to believe she’d really gotten sick. My Aunt Clara lived a pretty colorful life, and at different times over the years she was either what I (as a child, at least) considered quite wealthy (something I measured as a child by the fact that she had an in-ground pool complete with a cabana for changing), and also quite broke, living in questionable apartments in questionable neighborhoods. But no matter what her situation was, Aunt Clara was always incredibly generous. There was just no way you could leave her house empty handed. She wouldn’t have it. If you came to her home, she had to give you gifts. It was hard to express your like of any of her possessions, because you would be afraid she would just give it to you, from the shirt she was wearing, to the sheets on her bed, or the curtain in her windows. When it seemed like she had everything, and when it seemed like she had nothing, Aunt Clara always had enough to give something to you, and it was clear that giving to you gave her incredible joy. Refusing her gifts would be the quickest way to hurt her feelings. Aunt Clara was defined by her generosity, a trait others could easily see and recognize in her. What a way to be remembered! How about you – what do you hope to be remembered for? What are your defining characteristics?   
Today, as we wrestle with this theme of “Enough” for the last week in our series, we are looking again at 1 Timothy, picking up where we left off on our first week with this theme. The text reminds us that our security does not come from our things, from riches, from accumulating stuff. Instead, our hope rests on God, who fulfills promises even beyond our hopefulness. We’re called to “do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share,” so that we might store up the kind of treasure that is eternal, and take hold, the author says, “of the life that really is life,” rather than the cheap imitations of real life we are too often willing to accept. Are you living the life that really is life? What characteristics define who you are? Are you marked by the good that you do? Are you rich in good works? Are you always ready to share? Are you defined by generosity?  
            God has created us not only with a willingness to give, both back to God and to others, but with a need to give. We’re meant to give, to be generous. When we do give, the joy we experience is transformative. How many of you have had more fun, been more full of anticipation about a gift you planned to give, rather than a gift you were hoping to receive? And yet, we find, every day, that voices in our life tempt us, war within us, leading us to selfishness, greed, holding on tightly to what we have. There’s the voice of fear: we fear what might happen to us, and want to feel secure, and we think that accumulating money and things will make us secure, and so we fail to be generous. But our things, our money – none of that offers us any real security. None of it is guaranteed forever.  
There’s also the voice of self-gratification. Our culture tells us that our lives consist of our stuff and pleasurable experiences, and so we find ourselves thinking, “if I give, there won’t be enough left for me.” I’m reminded of a story I learned first as a camper at Aldersgate as a child – the story of warm fuzzies and cold pricklies. People had bags with warm fuzzies that they could give out – an endless supply of them. And you would never keep a warm fuzzy – you would always give it away – always share it. But eventually, someone convinced them that that they would run out of fuzzies, and so people started hording them, turning their warm fuzzies into cold pricklies. Of course, being a camp story, people eventually realized in this village that you had to give fuzzies away for them to stay warm fuzzies, and that you would never run out of them. But even though it’s a children’s story, I’ve always felt it has a message we need to keep hearing. We let our fears about not having enough for ourselves keep us from giving to God and one another – and then, everyone loses.  
            So how do we defeat these voices? How do we stop letting fear and insecurity overtake our call to be generous? Of course, we ground ourselves in Christ, seek to follow his example, and search the scriptures, which are full of guidance on these very issues. I find it interesting that we hone in on all sorts of controversial issues that the scriptures may address for a handful of verses, but we tend to overlook some of the major topics. Did you know that almost 40% of what Jesus talks about in the gospels is related to money and stuff and how we use it? It must be pretty important, don’t you think? Jesus speaks repeatedly about the way we are called to live, a way that flies in the face of the messages we find most anywhere else. The first will be last. The humble will be exalted and the exalted will be humbled. If you want to save your life, you have to lose it. You lead by being servant of all, not master of all. To be a disciple, you have to take up the cross, the symbol of the ultimate sacrifice, and follow Jesus.
            There’s a theme, isn’t there? In losing ourselves to God, we find life. Because our very lives are gifts – everything belongs to God. Very early in the Bible, we encounter people giving back to God. You’ve heard Pastor Aaron use the phrase “first and best tenth” when he is talking about the offering – that’s a tithe – giving our first and best tenth to God. It’s a practice we find in the Old Testament, when people would offer their first fruits to God – the first and best tenth of their flocks or crops or income. Not the last, and not what’s leftover. As followers of Jesus, living together under the new covenant, we’re not bound by the rule of the law any longer. But tithing is a pretty good guideline for us when we are thinking about giving.
            Do you remember a children’s sermon I gave back in the summer about putting God first, where I showed how rice, representing all the things in our life, could fit in the jar with a big rock, as long as you put the rock in first, and everything else after that? The point was that our lives could be full like we want them, as long as we keep God first, not try to shove God into our lives last. That’s what my own experience with tithing is like. When I first started in ministry, I made a pledge to tithe, but found that every month, I would need to spend more than I expected, and I would end up only giving a very small portion of what I had planned – whatever I had left over. So, instead, I started having my tithe directly withheld from my paycheck. And suddenly, because it came first, I no longer had an issue making my tithe again, giving to God what I meant to give to God. Let me show you this video from Adam Hamilton, and see if it resonates with you. *VIDEO*
            Tithing can be challenging. But it is a good biblical goal for us as we seek to be defined by our generosity. If you aren’t able to tithe right now, God understand where you are at, what you are facing, and perhaps you can take a step in that direction, a step towards deeper generosity. If you are already tithing, ask yourself if God is calling you to grow beyond a tithe, to offer your gifts to other projects in the community and beyond that are important to your faith.
            We are created by God to be generous, and our giving affects not just us, but our giving affects God, too. Adam Hamilton shares this story: Eight or nine years ago, our family took a camping trip to the Grand Tetons. We arrived on my birthday and set up our little pop-up camper. After we were settled, we told each of our daughters that they could have $20 spending money for the three days we would be in and around Jackson Hole. We then went to the gift shop before heading out on a walk around a small lake. We had no sooner walked into the gift shop than Rebecca started looking at ball caps. She found one, tried it on, and said, “Dad, what do you think of this hat?” I said, “Becca, it’s really cool. But all you have is $20, and that hat will take all of your money. Why don’t you wait and make your money last for the next few days.” But she said, “Dad, you told me it was my money and I could get whatever I want. And I really want this hat!” As hard as I tried to talk her out of it, and to convince her that she would have other opportunities to buy a cap in town, she would have no part of waiting. Finally, exasperated, I said, “Okay, Becca – but this is it. You’re not getting any more money the next three days.” I gave her her $20, and she bought the hat.
            We went for a walk around the lake, and then came back to watch the sun set from a park bench. That’s when Becca handed me the hat and said, “Daddy, I bought this for you. I love you. Happy birthday.” I sat on the bench, took her in my arms, and started to cry. That hat is among my most treasured possessions, my most often worn hat to this day because every time I wear it, I think of Becca’s sacrifice for me. All these years later it still touches me to think about how my little girl gave up all her spending money because she wanted to tell her daddy that she loved him.
            That’s how God looks at your offerings. They are not financial transactions or business deals. Your offerings are a way of saying, “God, I’m returning to you a portion of what I have and what I’ve earned to say thank you and I love you. I hope you’ll use this somehow to make a difference in the world.” When we give, we don’t give because God needs what we have. We give out of love, and God who loves us, loves our gifts because of what they tell God about how we feel, because of what they say about our desire to be in relationship with God, because of what they say about how we want to care for the other beloved creations of God in this world.
            We do not give because we think God will give us back what we gave with interest. Our giving to God is not a loan program to God, where we’ll get a good financial return on our investment. That’s an abuse of what it means to give with a generous heart! And frankly, it goes back to that issue of safety and security. God doesn’t guarantee that giving – tithing or beyond even – will mean that you will never lose your job in the future, or have struggles. But when we live lives that are defined by generosity, the “unmistakable blessings of God” of all kinds flow into our lives. When we give generously, our hearts are filled with joy. They grow larger through the very act of giving. And in turn, we are yet more generous! It’s a cycle that keeps us growing in faith and love, a cycle that leads us to taking hold of the life that really is life.
      Let us pray: Oh God, we thank you that you have given us life, that you sustain us by the power of your Holy Spirit and that you gave Jesus the Christ who showed us how we are to live in relationship with you and with our neighbor. We thank you for the abundance that we have in our lives. And we pray that you would help us. Help us, oh Lord, to honor you with our tithes. Help us to care for the poor and those who are in need. Help us to recognize that it is more blessed to give than to receive. We offer ourselves to you. Help us, oh Lord, to do your will. Lead us, we pray. In your holy name. Amen. (prayer adapted from Enough Stewardship Guide)

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Lectionary Notes for Twenty-Five Sunday after Pentecost

Readings for 25th Sunday after Pentecost, 11/18/12:
1 Samuel 1:4-20, 1 Samuel 2:1-10, Hebrews 10:11-14, (15-18), 19-25, Mark 13:1-8

1 Samuel 1:4-20:
  • "because he loved her, though the Lord had closed her womb." In a society that valued the fertility of women so highly, Elkanah's treatment of Hannah is particularly sweet.
  • I'm amazed at Hannah's generosity - she prays for a child, but promises to give that child to God. Could you ask for and receive a gift from God, and then turn and offer that gift back to God in thanks?
  • Eli accuses Hannah of being drunk because of her prayer-behavior. The Bible has some interesting examples of people being touched by God and having others accuse them of drinking! I guess that is the dramatic affect God's action in our lives can have.
  • Eli, being set straight about what Hannah is doing, doesn't dismiss her, but acts as an agent between her and God. Do you ever act like Eli for someone seeking to connect to God?
1 Samuel 2:1-10:
  • This is Hannah's song of thanksgiving for giving birth to Samuel. This reading, poetry, takes the place of a psalm today.
  • Hannah thanks God for being one-of-a-kind.
  • She also recognizes that God's work is in particular on behalf of the poor, the low-down.
  • How do you thank God when God answers your prayers? Do you remember to do so?
Hebrews 10:11-14, (15-18), 19-25
  • More from the author of Hebrews on the "Jesus' sacrifice is once and for all" theme. I think I get the message!
  • The author quotes verses from Jeremiah 31:33-34 - I love the idea of God writing God's law on our hearts and minds - a better place for us to remember it and live it than in books!
  • The author means all these words to give us confidence and faith, because we know that in Christ's sacrifice we are already forgiven.
  • "Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds" - Another good verse. We often provoke people around us, but usually when we do so, it is not in a good way! Here, we're encouraged to provoke each other in a positive way, a way that inspires serving God. Good advice!
Mark 13:1-8:
  • Jesus seems to predict the destruction of temple, and these words in particular are later used against him in his trial, when other concerns against him don't seem to 'stick'.
  • The disciples, like many of us, want to know the "signs of the times," when the end is coming. Jesus says we'll know when imposters, claiming authority and our discipleship abound. He speaks about wars and rumors of wars. He speaks of natural disaster, and famine. With his examples, indeed, all times are full of signs that "things are about to be accomplished." Perhaps that is Jesus' point?
  • Jesus describes this as "the beginning of the birth pangs," which seems to imply the more painful time is yet to come. But such an analogy also implies the joy of a new life that follows the pain of labor.

Monday, November 05, 2012

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

Readings for 24th Sunday after Pentecost, 11/11/12:
Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17, Psalm 127, Hebrews 9:24-28, Mark 12:38-44

Ruth 3:1-5, 4:13-17:
  • The 'love story' between Ruth and Boaz has always been one I've enjoyed, but it is really quite a practical tale: Naomi wants to make sure Ruth's well-being is secure. Do you think it must have been hard for Naomi to find a husband for Ruth in place of her own dead son?
  • "uncover his feet" - This is a euphemism for sexual relationship. However, though Ruth makes herself available to Boaz, per Naomi's instructions, Boaz does not apparently take advantage of her. (Check out the verses in between today's sections of text for the rest of the story.)
  • The women congratulate Naomi as if the child of Ruth and Boaz is her blood kin, and as if Naomi was the father of Ruth or at least the father of the baby. The role reversals are somewhat strange in this story! Technically, Ruth's child is not Naomi's next-of-kin. But the bond Ruth and Naomi share is deeper than blood perhaps.
  • Chris Haslam says that the point of this text is that it is OK for Jews to marry foreigners - God's love is available to all people. 
Psalm 127:
  • "Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain." At a clergy event I attended, one of the speakers talked about the futility of trying to pull vision statements for congregations out of thin air. God sends a vision, he said, and we can embrace it or not, but we can't make up our own. The same with building, growing perhaps. God builds. We can get on board. But God leads. We follow.
  • "eating the bread of anxious toil" - what a great and timely phrase. How often do we engage in this behavior? We are anxious people. Is this God's desire for us?
  • Sons, sons, sons! Hard for me not to get riled up about all this talk about the value of sons over daughters! I have three brothers, all of whom I dearly love. But I so wanted a would have done!
Hebrews 9:24-28:
  • Heaven = the truest sanctuary. Interesting imagery.
  • In Hebrews we find the main argument for Christians not continuing to practice the laws of the Old Testament: Jesus' sacrifice is once and for all. If it were not so, the author argues, we would constantly have to re-sacrifice Jesus.
  • Still, the author argues, we will see Jesus again, but because Jesus will come "to save those who are eagerly waiting for him." What do you think the author means by this? I think people might typically say that those who are eagerly waiting for Jesus are already "saved", whatever is meant by that. What do you think?
Mark 12:38-44:
  • Jesus talks about the scribes as people pretty impressed with their own status. As a clergyperson, I can't ignore that Jesus' descriptions strike pretty close to home of clergy behavior sometimes!
  • "they devour widow's houses" Chris Haslam says "Certain scribes, as legal trustees of a widow’s estate, charged exorbitantly for their services. The fee was usually a part of the estate, but some took the “widows’ houses.”"
  • The widow, though giving just a couple of mites, gives the most of what she has. How much of what you have do you give?
  • Do you think Jesus was encouraging us to emulate the widow's behavior, or do you think he was disgusted with a system that had her giving all that she had just to serve puffed-up religious types? 

Sermon for All Saints Sunday, "Enough: Wisdom and Finance," Luke 15:11-24

Sermon 11/4/12
Luke 15:11-24, Proverbs 21:5 & 20
(Much of the structure for this sermon is suggested in Adam Hamilton's Enough Stewardship Guide, and adapted for use at Liverpool First UMC.

Enough: Wisdom and Finance

            The Parable of the Prodigal Son is one of the most-loved of the parables of Jesus. I’m not sure exactly why that is, except that maybe we all pictures ourselves to be a bit like the prodigal, wandering away from God, making foolish choices, and hoping, and finding that God welcomes us back with joy no matter how foolish we’ve been. Personally, I would admit I am much more like the older brother in the parable than the younger son, and I suspect that is true for a good many of us, especially in the life of the church, but I’ll save all that for another sermon! Today, we’re really only focusing on the first part of the parable, and this younger, prodigal son. Prodigal is one of those words that we use incorrectly so often that most people are starting to understand a different meaning for it than originally intended. We often hear or use prodigal to mean wandering, or lost. A prodigal is one who has wandered away, gone off life’s intended course. But actually, the word prodigal means extravagant and wasteful, one who spends recklessly and without control. The parable’s title refers not to the son leaving home, but to the son squandering his inheritance. With the correct understanding of this key word, our focus on the parable might change. It isn’t primarily, perhaps, a parable about wandering away from God, but a parable about being wasteful with the gifts God gives us. With this reading in mind, perhaps we are all more like the prodigal son after all. What are you doing with the good things that God has put into your hands to have care over, to be stewards of?
            Last week we talked about Affluenza and Credit-itis – which I think we can sum up into wanting more, and wanting it now. And somehow, even we attain close to the degree of financial security we’re looking for, we are still not careful with our money, and actually waste it here and there and everywhere until we’ve lost the bit of security we thought we had. I don’t know about you, but I find that paying with debit cards instead of with cash sometimes makes me shockingly mindless of what I’m spending. Just a quick, easy swipe of the card. I know, I know, you’re supposed to be careful, save all your receipts, budget, balance, and so on. But, frankly, well, let’s just say those kind of details are not my strong suit. Not too long ago, though, my bank unrolled a feature online where I can look at a lovely pie chart that shows me what categories I’m spending my money in. It includes categories like utilities, gasoline, groceries, a new rather large category for me: mortgage payments, and then categories like restaurants, general merchandise, entertainment, and “other.” This month we’re working through Adam Hamilton’s book called Enough, and he suggests that the two primary ways we waste money are on impulse buying and eating out. He’s got me pegged, certainly. If I added up all the money I spent on eating out in a year, well, I shudder to think of the total. Do you find yourself wondering what happened to the money you had? Are you making wise decisions with what you’ve got? What would your pie chart look like? How much are you wasting of what you’ve been given? How much of a prodigal are you?
            Creating new patterns for ourselves when it comes to our money and resources starts with clarifying our purpose, our priorities, and our relationships. Why do we exist? What are we here for? Despite all the messages society shouts at us, we are more than consumers! Our purpose is not to consume and accumulate and spend. We were created by God, who loves us, to care for God’s creation, to love God, and to love one another, to care for those in need, to glorify God, to seek justice, and do mercy. That’s our purpose. And that means that everything that we do, everything that we have, is meant to help us fulfill our purpose. Our money, our gifts, our possessions – all this is meant to be used to help us fulfill our calling – “to serve Christ and the world through the church, missions, and everyday opportunities.” (1)
            What are your goals? Hamilton suggests that if we have a sense of what God is calling us to do, then we need to start planning to respond to that call. What is your purpose? What do you want to do for God? And how are you going to start doing it? If you are really compelled by these questions, Hamilton has some resources for seriously asking and answering these questions for ourselves, and I would love to see where God is leading us. I think we also need to ask these questions to ourselves as a congregation. What is our purpose? What is God calling us to do? And then what’s our plan? Are we using our resources in the best ways we can to serve God’s purpose for us?
            “Barbara Glanz is a motivational speaker who conducts workshops for large companies. One day she was speaking at an event for the employees of a grocery store chain. She talked to them about how they saw their life purpose, suggesting that their work was more than stocking shelves or ringing up customers' food purchases or delivering supplies. She told them that every person they met was an opportunity to bless someone, to live out a higher calling or mission.
The employees were inspired by her words, including one nineteen-year-old grocery bagger named Johnny. Johnny, who has Down syndrome, took her words to heart. He went home and tried to think of ways he could be a blessing to others. Finally, he came up with a plan. Each night he would search the Internet for a positive saying that would encourage people. Then he would print out 300 copies and carefully cut the sayings into individual strips. The next day, he would put one of the sayings in the grocery bag of each of his customers while saying, "I put a saying in your bag. I hope it helps you have a good day. Thanks for coming here."
A month later, the manager noticed that Johnny's line was much longer than the others. Even when he announced that there was no waiting in lines 2 and 3, no one budged. People wanted Johnny to be their bag boy. He touched them and filled them with hope. Johnny got it. He was pursuing a mission that was bigger than his personal satisfaction.” (2)
Can we say the same for ourselves? Are we pursuing a mission that is bigger than our personal satisfaction? Can we articulate our mission? Do we use all that we have been given to support what we’ve said we’d set out do? 
            Today, we are celebrating All Saints Sunday, a day when we remember members of our congregation, as well as the loved ones we carry in our hearts, who have died during the last year. It may seem like a strange combination – All Saints, with a conversation about how we use our resources. But maybe it’s not such a stretch at all. When I think of the saints in my life, I think of people who were remarkably content, regardless of how much they had stored up for themselves. I think of people whose lives were marked by giving of themselves freely for the sake of others. I think of people who were pursuing a mission in life that went beyond their own satisfaction.
            Today, our Chancel Choir sang an anthem, which is also a favorite hymn of mine in our hymnals, “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God.” Listen again to the last verse: “They lived not only in ages past; there are hundreds of thousands still. The world is bright with the joyous saints who love to do Jesus' will. You can meet them in school, on the street, in the store, in church, by the sea, in the house next door; they are saints of God, whether rich or poor, and I mean to be one too.” Saints of God, loving to do Jesus’ will. God helping, let us mean to be Saints too, sure of our purpose, and striving, every day, to live in ways which let us carry out our mission of service in God’s kingdom.
(1)   Hamilton, Enough Stewardship Guide, 73.
(2)   Hamilton, Enough, 48-49.