Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Lectionary Notes for Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 13, Ordinary 18, Year C)

Readings for 11th Sunday After Pentecost, 8/4/13: 
Hosea 11:1-11, Psalm 107:1-9, 43, Colossians 3:1-11, Luke 12:13-21
also: Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23, Psalm 49:1-12

Hosea 11:1-11:
  • This is in some ways a very pretty passage, filled with metaphors of God's love for Israel as a parent for a child. Unfortunately, it seems only after strong impulses to destroy the naughty children that God's compassion finally wins out!
  • Israel has been a wayward child: "The more I called them, the more they went from me." Do we react to God's call this way? Insisting on going the opposite direction as soon as we realize what God wants from us? I know my nephew, Sam, is more likely to get in some last bits of "naughtiness" as soon as he realizes his parents want him to do something else. Are we like that? 
  • "How can I hand you over, O Israel? . . . My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender." This inner dialogue of God's, while in some ways frustrating in its too-far humanization of God in my mind, makes the effect of our actions on God come alive. Imagine how frustrated a parent is with a child who refuses to listen, refuses protection, refuses to behave. How much the parent just wants to get through to the child, but how much, too, the parent can never let go of the love for the child that comes first.
Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14, 2:18-23
  • Ecclesiastes is a thought-provoking little book, and this passage is a good illustration of why. In the end, I can't read this selection and come up in agreement with the Teacher - I always convince myself that through God's grace we overcome the hopelessness expressed here. But there is such profound thought in the Teacher's words - a challenge to us.
  • Vanity, vanities. "I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind." What gives our life meaning, really? What makes it more than "chasing after wind?" I suspect there are probably only very few things that truly give us meaning in life. God is our meaning-maker.
  • The words of the Teacher seem filled with depression. In the end, that's why I have to turn back to the gospel - indeed, the man building the barns in Luke seemed to miss the vanity of his actions. But the gospel lesson suggests that a life lived in a different way, with different priorities, will yield a less fruitless result.
Psalm 107:1-9, 43:
  • Theme of the psalm: God's love is steadfast.
  • Steadfast, according to dictionary.com is "Firmly fixed or established; fast fixed; firm. 2. Not fickle or wavering; constant; firm; resolute; unswerving; steady. God's love for us is constant and unwavering. Take comfort!
  • God satisfies us, satisfies our needs, hunger and thirst in the physical sense, but spiritual needs as well.
Psalm 49:1-12:
  • Keeping theme with the gospel lesson, this Psalm focuses on riches/wealth, etc.
  • Warning: don't turst in your wealth, in the abundance of your riches. "No ransom avails for one's life." So well put! Nothing can be exchanged that equals the value of a life in God's eyes. In the end, the wealthy perish too, "and leave their wealth to others."
Colossians 3:1-11:
  • Paul talks about "the things that are above" - earthly things, as opposed to heavenly thing. Earthly things are the vices like evil, greed, etc., heavenly things are those in us now that we are in Christ.
  • How does Paul's differentiation of heavenly and earthly things fit in with Christ's teachings about the kingdom of God being at hand, present, here among us on earth? Did God, who created all that is, pronounce even this earthly creation as good? I understand what Paul is getting at - the things that occupy our lives ought to change as a result of our knowing Christ. But I don't see Christ-like things and earthly-things as in direct opposition of one another....
  • "but Christ is all and in all." With that I can agree. But it is not just as simple a statement as it seems, easy to skip over. Read: Christ is all. That's a pretty big claim with big consequences for how we understand ourselves!
Luke 12:13-21:
  • This is the text of the first sermon I ever preached, so it holds a special place in my heart! This year will mark the 12th anniversary of my first ever sermon, and I'll be preaching on this text for the 5th time. This is one of my favorite passages, too. I think because it was the first, it has really crept into my heart and settled there. 
  • "One's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions." Such a simple statement. Such a powerful statement. Look around your home. Do you believe that your life is more than what you see piled up around you? I remember as I was shopping to fill my huge first parsonage with things so it wouldn't look quite so empty that these words from Luke were echoing loudly in my ears. "These things that you have, whose will they be?" DVDs, CDs, computers, phones, trinkets with no purpose. What does my life, your life, consist of? In my own home there are two computers, two TVs, two DVRs, countless DVDs, books, CDs, trinkets galore, and on, and on. I don't think I live extravagantly. Yet, it seems like I'm always buying just one more storage bin for the *stuff* I accumulate...
  • "Rich toward God." What does that mean? How are we rich toward God? I think Jesus is talking about a lot more than giving money to our places of worship. That isn't exactly something he talks about a lot, honestly. Money, yes. Giving to worship centers, not so much. So how are we rich toward God? What does that mean to you? 
  • "Relax, eat, drink, be merry." Isn't that kind of the American dream? The human dream? To be so well off we don't have to worry about our needs ever? How counter-cultural is the message of Jesus? We're always trying to make his message fit with our culture's messages and world views. But Jesus is going a different direction, friends. 

My First Sermon - Luke 12:13-21, "All That You Have is Your Soul"

This week is the 15th anniversary of the first time I ever preached. The lectionary texts are up this week. Here it is, my first ever sermon (back when I tried to combine all the lectionary texts into one sermon. What was I thinking?!)

Sermon  8/2/98

All that you have is your soul
            This year at school, I was fortunate enough to become involved with an exciting and fulfilling group on campus, the United Methodist Student Movement.  We met once a week to plan, fellowship, work, or worship.  One particular evening we were joined by the university chaplain, and he led us in a worship service to help us center and focus for the exams and papers that were coming in the week ahead.  With the lights out and candles lit, we sat in a circle on the floor, and the chaplain shared with us an early Methodist tradition.  John Wesley, in the first years of the Methodist Movement, developed many instructions and disciplines for spiritual growth among his followers. One of these practices was to open each meeting of the gathered Christians with the following question: is it well with your soul? In other words, how are you doing - are things right in your heart?  This inquiry would set the tone for the rest of the meeting.  After relating this to us, the chaplain asked each of us that same question - ‘Is it well with your soul?’  For the next two hours students shared tears, smiles, laughter, and quiet reflections in answering the question for themselves. As each of us thought of our gains, and losses of the past weeks, it became clear that those had nothing to do with the question at all. What mattered, what determined our personal answer to the question was the shape that our relationship with God was in right then.  Nothing else had so great an impact on the state of our souls. One student could have aced all his midterms; another might have been accepted at the grad school of her choice - these accomplishments couldn’t do a thing for their soul when push came to shove.  Likewise, the student who was having roommate problems, or the one who couldn’t make ends meet financially - these hard times had little to do with the students’ standing with God.  This morning I ask us to struggle with this question too - how is it with our soul?  Where do we stand? Does God have claim on our possessions - our time, our talents, our accomplishments, our resources? Does God have claim on our very soul? In this morning’s reading from Ecclesiastes, we get a taste of the frustration felt by one who realizes the vanity of working for the gain of possessions.  The man, identified as a preacher, poses this soul-searching question: ‘What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun?’  Quite a difficult question to answer. This preacher was led to despair because he felt that all his hard work was for nothing.  He knew that he couldn’t take his success with him beyond his days on earth, and he despaired in the thought of some one else enjoying the fruits of his labor. Seeing no solution to these problems, only futile human actions, this man was left hopeless. We, however, do not have to settle for hopelessness.  As Christians, we are raised up with Christ in a new life.  We are a people of hope. God requires of us only one thing - our soul.  Amidst all of our other possessions and priorities that we have in our lives, it would seem that giving our soul is a small sacrifice in the scheme of things. After all, what is a soul in comparison with leisure time?  With paychecks?  With popularity? With success? With power?
Jesus alludes to a deeper meaning for us.  Consider his words: ‘for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of one’s possessions’.  Jesus does, however, promise us abundance of a different kind. In the gospel of John we hear his message: ‘I have come that they might have life, and have it abundantly.’  If our life is not abundant with possessions, exactly what is Jesus offering? How about an abundance of soul? Loving our enemy, serving our neighbor, opening our heart to God; these tasks are more easily done with the gift of an abundant soul.  Our soul can handle more that we can possibly imagine. The man in the parable was content with his store of possessions and felt secure and easy about his future.  His prosperity, he thought, made good food for his soul.  God, on the other hand, thought the man quite foolish. God knew that all the man’s labors for his own gain couldn’t be taken with him - only his soul did God require, and the man found that his soul was not so merry as he had intended.  Jesus concludes this story with a poignant statement: ‘So is the one who lays up treasure for one’s self, and is not rich toward God.’  Perhaps we do not often think of how we can be rich toward God. After all, what could we give to God, who is the Creator of everything that we know? Again and again Jesus gives us the answer. We can give God what should be our greatest treasure - ourselves, our souls.  How could we be more rich toward God than by returning all that God has blessed us with possessing? All that we have to give is our soul - a treasure which God earnestly awaits receiving. Unfortunately, it seems that we are more intent on laying up treasures for ourselves, hoping in vain that our pursuits will fill our souls.  The folly of this, Jesus tells us, is that we begin to lose the distinction between what we have gained and who we have become. When we equate what we have with who we are, our souls become lost in the jumble.  In a workshop that I attended a few years ago, I was given a worksheet on setting priorities that were in line with God’s will. The worksheet listed the average amount of time that a person aged 70 will have spent on each activity. The figures are a little unsettling. The average 70 year old has spent 20 years sleeping, 16 years, working, 7 years playing, 6 years eating, 5 years dressing, 3 years waiting for someone, and 1 year on the telephone.  This accounts for 57 years out of 70 passed.  It certainly makes one think.  Of the thirteen years remaining, how much time is spent on one’s relationship with God? One year? Two? How much time is spent on preparing one’s soul through prayer, study, worship, and service? Three years? Is this enough?  The man in the parable found that he had spent a little too much time preparing for his own pleasure and not quite enough time preparing his soul.  Jesus warns us not to make the same mistake. ‘Take heed’ he says, and his words echo in our hearts today.  Recently, I came across a song, written by musician Tracy Chapman, and I would like to share some of the lyrics with you this morning. The song is entitled ‘All that you have is your soul’, and the words go like this: ‘oh, my momma told me that she said she learned the hard way. She wants to spare the children. Don’t ever give or sell your soul away cause all that you have is your soul.  Don’t be tempted by the shiny apple. Don’t you eat of the bitter fruit. Hunger only for a taste of justice. Hunger only for a world of truth cause all that you have is your soul. Well I had dreams, I had high hopes, but what I high price I paid.  Why was I such a young fool? Thought I’d make it straight, thought I’d make something that could be mine forever. Found out the hard way that you can’t possess another cause all that you have is your soul.  Well I thought that I could find a way to beat the system, make a deal, and have no debts to pay. Take it all, take it all and run away, leaving myself first class and first rate. Here I am I’m waiting for a better day. A second chance, a little luck to come my way. A hope to dream, hope that I can sleep again, and wake up with a clean conscience and clean hands cause all that you have is your soul. So don’t be tempted by the shiny apple. Don’t you eat of the bitter fruit. Hunger only for a taste of justice. Hunger only for a world of truth cause all that you have is your soul.’ The woman portrayed in this song thought that she could somehow earn happiness and peace of mind.  She sought only to bring herself comfort.  She learned the hard way that her soul was all she truly possessed - and that justice and truth were the rewards of a clean conscience and clean hands. Do we all have to learn this reality the hard way? What price are we willing to pay? Christ came to plead with us to mend our ways before it is too late. It was too late for the man wanting larger barns. It was too late for the woman who wanted to be first class and first rate. It is not too late for us.  All that we have is our souls, and as Christians, we are instructed to nourish these souls, to fill them with truth and justice. Our reading from Colossians is filled with imagery that speaks of keeping our souls focused on the pure and good.  We are encouraged to reject those earthly things which stand between ourselves and God.  ‘If then, you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above’. All that you have is your soul. ‘Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth’. All that you have is your soul. ‘When Christ who is your life appears, then you will also appear with him in glory’. All that you have is your soul. ‘Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry’. All that you have is your soul. ‘On account of these the wrath of God is coming’. All that you have is your soul.  ‘In these you once walked, when you lived in them, but now, put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and foul talk from your mouth’. All that you have is your soul.  Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old nature with its practices and have put on the new nature, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator’. All that you have is your soul. ‘Christ is all and in all’. Is it well with your soul? It is all that we have. Fortunately, it is all that is required of us. Are you ready to give your soul to God?

Please pray with me: Awesome God, we know that we can never truly experience contentment outside of your will and your love.  Help us to be prepared to give you our all - our very souls  - that we might know real happiness in the safety of your loving arms. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Lectionary Notes for Tenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 12, Ordinary 17, Year C)

Readings for 10th Sunday after Pentecost, 7/28/13:
Hosea 1:2-10, Psalm 85, Colossians 2:6-15, (16-20), Luke 11:1-13

Hosea 1:2-10:
  • God tells Hosea to take a whore for a wife, to symbolize that Israel has become like a whore, forsaking God. Its very difficult for me to not get caught up in the extremely offensive/patriarchal nature of this whole text, in order to hear the message behind. A wife - a woman - a piece of property - one forced to sell her body - the lowest of lows to Hosea's audience. This is what Israel becomes without God. A breaker of covenants, as a woman would break a marriage covenant with a man.
  • God says: there will be no more pity, no forgiveness, no saving. None of that. You won't be my people, and I am not your God. This is huge - Israel's relationship with God is based on Israel being God's - God's people.
  • Yet. The importance of that word! In verse 10, we read, "Yet . . . in the place where it was said to them, 'you are not my people,' it shall be said to them, 'Children of the living God.'" God still is compelled to keep God's part of the covenant. Unable to break the bonds with us, even when we break our covenant in the most painful ways, by our unfaithfulness. God is always faithful.

Psalm 85:
  • Another psalm that won't make it on my favorite list! :( This psalm saddens me more than angers me, like those do that call on God to smite enemies. This one saddens me because of the view of God the psalmist has, a view that many seem to have still.
  • The psalm goes like this: God, you've been angry before. But we've seen you forgive and forget. You're so angry again now, we can't stand it! Can't you forgive us one more time, please, please, please? The psalmist is almost pleading. God is depicted as moody and bad-tempered, needing to be persuaded to forgive, calmed down with compliments. Yuck!
  • Some good imagery to end with at least in v. 10: Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other." Great images. Love and faithfulness bound together. More intriguingly, to me, righteousness and peace bound together. If only!

Colossians 2:6-15, (16-19):
  • "See that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit" - hmm. I think Paul is equating philosophy with empty deceit here! I had to double check the words in Greek just to make sure that was literally what he said - and it was. What does he mean by philosophy? He expands a bit to say that he shuns that which is human-centered in thought over what is Christ-centered. That makes sense. But if philosophy is the love of wisdom, hopefully Paul had some place for that. 
  • "These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ." This reminds me of The Chronicles of Narnia, Book 7:The Last Battle - When Lucy and company finally make it to 'heaven', they realize that they find everything they knew there - Narnia, London - all these worlds - only the real thing this time, not the 'shadow' imitations that they used to think were the real things.
  • "worship of angels." I don't get people's fascination with angels. The more a pop-culture craze they become, the less interested in angels I am, and the less likely I am to every refer to 'angels' instead of 'messengers of God' in my preaching. Here's a little supportive warning from Paul! :)

Luke 11:1-13:
  • Fun with Greek: Where the NRSV reads "daily bread", the Greek word is epousion, which means literally, "sufficient for the day." Give us bread that is enough for our needs. Not excessive demands. Not more than we can eat for just the day. Not more than our share. Sufficient.
  • Where the NRSV reads "persistence", the Greek word is anaideia, which means literally, "shamelessness" or "effrontery" or "impudence." I can't find a way to make it mean "persistence" except by trying to 'nicen up' what Jesus was saying!
  • Where the NRSV reads "evil", the Greek is pone^roi, or wicked, but one translation my lexicon gave that made me laugh: 'good-for-nothings'! I think that hits on the heart of the text :)
  • The Lord's Prayer - I have such an internal dilemma with saying a prayer by rote that is so mindless to recite that we barely bother to think of it. Is it still meaningful? But, when I visited a 102 year old congregant and nursing-home resident who was not doing well, when I prayed with her, though she had said virtually nothing else during my visit, she faithfully recited that prayer with me, tears in her eyes. Hm.
  • Similarly, I'm now serving a united congregation - United Methodist and Presbyterian USA. I've grown up saying "trespasses" and this congregation says "debts/debtors" - I've gotten to kind of enjoy this, because the difference from what I've grown up with makes me pay more attention to what I'm saying each week! 
  • Jesus' message: Knock, ask, seek, be shameless, do anything - but whatever you do, go to God with what you need. What would it be like if we were simply shameless with God in our prayers? 
  • How do we reconcile this passage with our experiences of asking, searching, knocking, and not feeling like God has answered? That's a question you have to consider to preach this text. There's lots of ways, good and not-so-good, to answer. What's yours? 

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Lectionary Notes for Ninth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 11, Ordinary 16, Year C)

Readings for 9th Sunday after Pentecost, 7/21/13:
Amos 8:1-12, Psalm 52, Colossians 1:15-28, Luke 10:38-42

Amos 8:1-12:
  • Please read Chris Haslam's explanation of this passage for details that I, frankly, can't give you. But my own thoughts:
  • "a basket of summer fruit" - imagery rises of harvest, life, creation, end of season, gathering up
  • Note the death/destruction/wailing/bodies imagery in this passage
  • Amos describes those who follow the law up to and only to the letter. "When will Sabbath be over so we can get on with our lives?" they ask. Their concern is for self and self only. "selling the sweepings of wheat" - instead of leaving them for the poor. An early picture of capitalism at work?!
  • "Shall not the land tremble on this account?" Indeed - even the earth - the creation, revolts at our behavior. Trembles in agony!
  • Famine - not of bread and water, but of God's word! "They shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the Lord, but they shall not find it." How devastating. Sometimes we feel this way - void of the word of God. Is there a famine in our land?

Psalm 52:
  • This Psalm seems to be directed more at a type of person than at God, setting it apart a bit. It's like a psalm of curses and threats - I don't find it very uplifting! "My God will get you!"
  • "You love all words that devour." At least, here, is an interesting criticism of the enemy. You love words that devour. Vivid phrase. Words that eat us up. Do you love words that devour? I suspect sometimes we all do. 
  • "But I am like a green olive tree." I, with God in my life, am the very opposite of you, who has rejected God.

Colossians 1:15-28:
  • "invisible God." I think the question of whether we "see" God or not is an interesting one to grapple with in light of the way God figures into our scriptural accounts, particularly the unique ways God is always showing up in the Old Testament. How do we see or not see God? Food for thought.
  • Paul is basically working to show Christ as co-creator - the divinity of Christ.
  • "through [Christ] God was pleased to reconcile all things." This brings up for me, and many, issues of atonement and the necessity of Christ's death for our salvation. Couldn't God reconcile us without Christ's death? Is our reconciliation the purpose of Christ's death? That's an essay (or dissertation, or collection of books) unto itself. But the question made me think of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, by C. S. Lewis. In the first book, a child-turned-traitor, Edmund, is threatened with death, the punishment for his treachery. The evil white witch demands a death as payment for wrong. Instead, Aslan, the Christ-figure of the series, lays down his life, and comes back to life again. But it is interesting that it is the evil witch who requires death as payment for sin here, not Aslan's never-seen father across the sea...

Luke 10:38-42:
  • I like reading this passage against today's text from Amos. There, the people, having rejected God, will seek the word, but not find it. Here, Martha and Mary are both seeking Christ's presence in different ways - but it is Mary who seems able to rest right in Christ's presence.
  • Poor Martha - is Martha always in the wrong, trapped forever as a caricature in our scriptures, like "doubting Thomas", and "Judas, who later betrayed him,"? I.e., we criticize people by saying, "(S)he's a real Martha."
  • Mary chose "the better" part. Not that Martha's part was so bad in itself. A time and a place for Martha's tasks to be done. But in the presence of the living Christ, what should we do?

Sermon, "Sermon on the Mount: Blessed," Matthew 5:1-12

Sermon 7/14/13
Matthew 5:1-12

Sermon on the Mount: Blessed

            If you’ve ever received an email from me, or a letter, or seen my default signature on my newsletter articles, you’ll notice I usually sign things, “Blessings, Beth.” I can’t remember exactly when I started doing that. I don’t think I gave it any great thought at the time, other than wanting a way to sign things that I could use consistently, that seemed to work for all people in all situations, no matter who I was talking to, and blessings seemed to fit. My grandmother used it almost as a nickname for me. “Beth, you are a blessing” was something she said to me often, something special to me. What I mean by it is, “I hope you find your day, your life, to be full of blessings.” But what are blessings? What do we mean when we bless someone, or we ask God to bless someone?
            I’ve been thinking a lot about the word blessings this week, and the practice of blessing one another. We have lots of them, actually, practices of blessing. We say “God bless you,” or at least “Bless you,” when someone sneezes. This specific practice actually developed during the Middle Ages, when fear of the Bubonic Plague was rampant. Sneezing might be a first sign of the plague, and so when you asked God’s blessings on someone who sneezed, it was really a way of saying, “Gosh, I really hope you aren’t sick, and please stay away from me.” When we say a prayer before a meal we usually call it saying “grace” or saying “the blessing,” as we ask God to bless our food and our mealtime and the people eating said food. Even though we are asking God to bless things, we also consider the speaker of the prayer to be “doing the blessing.” God blesses, but we bless by invoking God’s blessing. We do lots of blessing in our worship life together. Usually we call the words that conclude our worship service the benediction – literally “the good word,” but sometimes this is also called a “blessing,” and often marriage ceremonies or funeral liturgies or baptismal services are concluded with words that are meant to be a blessing. When Pastor Aaron and I consecrate communion elements, this practice is sometimes referred to as “blessing” the elements, and when we pray over the baptismal waters someone is about to receive, the prayer is the “blessing over the water.”
            Of course, if we can give blessings, offer blessings, we can also withhold them. Sometimes we talk about blessings in this way – something we give almost as a permission, sometimes a permission we are reluctant to give. Sometimes when a person wants to get married, that person will ask for the parents’ blessing to make the proposal. Parents may willingly give or be reluctant to give their blessing, their permission. I can’t help but think of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, and his reluctant blessing of the marriages of his daughters.
            The scriptures are full of blessings, and some of them were formulaic, expected blessings, and many times people pointed to wealth and success and material stability as signs of God’s favor and blessing. The firstborn son in a family would receive special blessings and inheritance just for being that – firstborn. We might not think that is a practice we continue today, but I think we can compare it to handing down a particular heirloom piece of jewelry or something similar. In some families, there is only one ring that can be handed down, and it might go to the firstborn. Or we might name someone after a parent – Johnny Jr., for example – and that name is typically something handed to the firstborn. The most famous Bible story about blessings and birth order is the story of twins Jacob and Esau. Esau is the elder twin – every minute counts – but his younger brother Jacob, with the help of his mother Rebekah, tricks his father Isaac into giving him the firstborn blessing. You get the sense that there is only enough blessing for one, or only one really “good” blessing – and Jacob uses it up. Maybe blessings aren’t as simple as they seem.     
            We’re beginning a new sermon series today that will take us through the summer, based on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon on the Mount is a series of teachings that appear in the gospel of Matthew, chapters 5-7. It’s the longest chunk of uninterrupted teaching from Jesus in the gospels. Pastor Aaron and I will hit most of the major sections this summer, but we won’t be able to cover every verse, so I really encourage you, as we start out, to spend a little time reading these three chapters. Jesus has been interacting with the crowds, healing and teaching, when he withdraws up the mountain with his disciples. When he begins teaching, it seems he is alone with them, but by the end of these three chapters, it seems he is with crowds of people again. I suspect, as usual, people were simply following after Jesus whenever they could figure out where he was, and so what starts out as teaching to his disciples expands quickly into teaching the crowds.
            So Jesus heads up the mountain, takes a seat, and starts teaching. And the first thing out of his mouth are these blessings. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed are the pure in heart. Blessed are the peacemakers. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. Blessed are those who are reviled and persecuted. Jesus goes on to say a whole lot more, some hard teachings, challenging. Some new ways of thinking about things. But he starts with blessings. And that word, blessings, is the same word that can be translated as “happy” – “happy are those who are poor in spirit,” or even a sense of “congratulations.” “Congratulations to you who are poor in spirit.” In some ways, I think this passage seems almost too simple. It’s pretty, poetic language, these blessings. Who wouldn’t want to receive a blessing, and from Jesus? But slowly the questions come. Why does Jesus bless these particular groups? For example, why are people blessed when they are mourning? We’ve probably all experienced grief, and it doesn’t often feel like a blessing, does it? And does this passage mean that we are supposed to try to be like the groups listed, in order to get the blessings? Are we supposed to strive to be meek and pure in heart and all that? Is this a list of goals for characteristics we should have?
            The Christ we follow is a lover of reversals, of flipping the picture we see upside down, of moving and acting in unexpected ways. When Jesus describes this strange group of people – the meek, the poor in spirit, the mourning, the persecuted, and calls them blessed, Jesus isn’t saying, by any means, that these are the best things you can be. Instead, Jesus is speaking into a culture, a world, that had, has trouble in seeing happiness outside of health, wealth, and prosperity. People long believed, and some still do, that troubled times, bad situations, suffering and loss were signs of God’s punishment for sinful behavior. But Jesus makes it clear – even in the midst of those things – not because of those situations, but in the midst of them – God is blessings us.
Most importantly, I think that Jesus reminds us repeatedly in this passage of something he knows we can’t quite believe: God wants to and will and is blessing us. In a couple of weeks, I’ll be attending school for my final Doctor of Ministry class before I begin the project phase of my program. One of the books I had to read for this next class was about congregational trends, basically reporting on the results of a survey of beliefs, practices, and attitudes of worshippers in the US. One question asked about how worshippers view “God’s nature.” Survey participants could choose between four responses: I view God as 1) an authoritarian God who is angry and involved in worldly affairs 2) a benevolent God who is involved in the world but not angry 3) a critical God who is angry but not involved in worldly affairs or 4) a distant God who is not angry and not involved in worldly affairs. (1) I was glad to see that most respondents chose one of the two options where God is “involved” in the world, rather than distant, but I was surprised that over half of respondents chose that they viewed God as “authoritarian and angry,” compared to just under a quarter who viewed God as benevolent. What would you choose? How do you see God? Reflecting on this passage, Rev. David Lose writes, “Maybe it's more that we have a hard time believing God wants to bless us in the first place. It may be that our picture of God is distorted, that we can only imagine God as a stern, demanding law-giver, and so it seems out of character for God to bless without requirement. This isn't the primary picture of God in the Bible, but it may be the one that we were taught and have a hard time letting go.” (2) Maybe we look at our lives and find it hard to believe that God wants to bless what we’ve done with the life we’ve been given. But Jesus describes a God who is blessing us left and right. God blesses you, wants to continue heaping blessings you, always.
I think we look at the beatitudes and start to read them as a to-do list, items we can check off so that we can claim God’s blessings. But we are reading something in the text that isn’t there. I think we read them like this sometimes: “If you are meek, then God will let you inherit the earth because of your meekness.” “If you hunger and thirst for righteousness, then God will fill you up, because of your hungering and thirsting for righteousness.” But instead, the beatitudes read as a state of already-existing blessings. You are blessed already. Blessed are you. God is blessing you. I think, sometimes, rather than a checklist to complete before God will bless us, God blesses us into living like the blessed people we are. Rev. Lose shares another story, writing, “When I was in graduate school, one of my teachers . . . would regularly address me as "Dr. Lose." Eventually it made me uncomfortable enough that I said to him, "But Dr. LaRue, I haven't earned my doctorate yet. I don't think you should call me that." "Dr. Lose," he patiently responded, "in the African-American church we are not content to call you what you are, but instead call you what we believe you will be!" God blesses us by showing us and claiming us for what God knows we yet can be. That’s what we celebrate in baptisms: we pray blessings on children for all that we know God intends them to be, and we celebrate because we know with God it can be.
As God blesses us so freely, let’s not hold back, and pray blessings on others only on special occasions, at baptisms and weddings and other liturgical events. Jesus blesses us. Let us bless others. What if you imagined a blessing on everyone you met this week. What if, when you looked into the eyes of your children, or your friends, or your neighbors, or your enemies, or those whose eyes you don’t normally even meet – what if you looked at them this week, and imagined an outpouring of God’s blessings into their lives. Friends, may God’s many blessings be made manifest in your life, and may you be a blessing to everyone you meet. Amen.

(1) Woolever, Cynthia, Field Guide to US Congregations.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Lectionary Notes for Eighth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 10, Ordinary 15, Year C)

Readings for 8th Sunday after Pentecost, 7/14/13:
Amos 7:7-17, Psalm 82, Colossians 1:1-14, Luke 10:25-37

Amos 7:7-17:
  • Ah, the image of the plumb line, the leveling-object used in construction and building, to tell is something is straight, right, level. God declares the playing field will be made level. How will this happen? God says Israel, God's people, will never be passed by again. But God seems to indicate that this will happen by destruction/desolation/being laid to waste. Is God going to start from scratch?
  • The worst punishment for Amaziah? His wife will be made a prostitute. Why is this bad? His property - his possession - will be given to other men to have and possess. What could be worse than that!? Sigh. 
  • "I am no prophet . . . but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees." Labels - it's funny how we react to them. We call Amos a prophet whether he likes it or not, because we can recognize that in him which is the prophetic gift of truth-telling. What labels do you resist? Many resist "pastor" or "called one." I know it took me a long time to become accustomed to being called, "Pastor Beth" after just being "regular Beth" for so long!
  • Wondering what a "sycamore-tree dresser" is? Me too. Writes Chris Haslam here: "Amos was both a breeder of cattle and/or sheep ("herdsman", v. 14; "flock", v. 15) and a fruit farmer ("dresser of sycamore trees"). Born in Tekoa, in the hill country in northern Judah (sheep country), he likely also owned land in the Jordan valley, where sycamores flourished. (Palestinian sycamores bear fruit, much like figs, which has to be dressed (punctured) to make it edible.) God has called him to leave behind his prosperity, to warn the north about impending doom, a result of their waywardness."
  • "Amos had conspired against you . . . the land is not able to bear all his words." Substitute God/Christ here, and it sounds perfect too! God conspires against us sometimes, for our own good, and we are not able to bear God's words, or Christ's teachings.

Psalm 82:
  • This psalm has imagery of a council of gods, of which God (of Israel) is part. It is this (our) God who says, "forget about blessing the already blessed, blessing the wicked, blessing the greedy. Instead, bless the last and least!" Isn't that still the whole theme of our gospel, or Christ's message and teachings?
  • These gods will never even survive, says the psalmist - they will perish in their ignorance. To God alone belong the nations.
  • What do you think of this 'council of gods' imagery? Perhaps sometimes we see ourselves as part of this council, only to have God remind us otherwise and convict us of our idolatry? What do you think?

Colossians 1:1-14:
  • "We have heard of your faith . . . and of the love that you have . . . " Who can say that of you, your faith, and your love? Imagine knowing that your reputation preceded you, and that this was a good thing to be praised and admired!
  • Our hope is the good news! And the good news must bear fruit.
  • "We have not ceased praying for you" - a comfort. Even as a person of faith, I'm amazed by the reports and studies that show how prayer actually, measurably, makes a difference. Too bad, I guess, we leave it usually as a last resort. I'm not good, I admit, at a faithful prayer life.
  • Ending with verses of blessing.

Luke 10:25-37:
  • Dr. Amy-Jill Levine  lectured, in part, on The Good Samaritan text at the Festival of Homiletics in Nashville a few years ago, and her comments really changed my thinking about this text. I only wish I had typed verbatim what she said in my notes! She starts with clarifying that the priest and Levite didn't pass by the man because they didn't want to break purity laws. In fact, she said, they were breaking the law by passing by. 
  • AJ Levine: The priest and Levite think: “If I stop and help, what happens to me?” Samaritan thinks, “If I don’t stop, what happens to them?” Quoting from MLK's "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speech.
  • AJ Levine: Priests, Levites, Israelites. That's how Israelites would have expected this story to go. Just like everyone thinks, “Larry, Curly, Moe.” But Jesus says, “Priest, Levite, Samaritan.” Like, “Larry, Curly, Osama Bin Laden.” The Samaritans are not like "oppressed people," as we often preach them to be in this parable. Instead, they are like Islam, Iraqis.
  • How would your understanding of this story change, or your preaching change, if you substituted Samaritan with "a member of Al Qaeda?" But a member of Al Qaeda while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity...
  • Intriguing: The lawyer adds "all your mind" to his quoting of scripture, along with the Old Testament words of heart, soul, and strength. I find that so interesting - something in his lawyer mind, perhaps, urges him to view loving God as an activity of the mind as well. I certainly often relate to God easiest in this way - better with my head than my heart!
  • In the parable, the word esplagchnisthe^, moved to compassion/pity, literally means, feeling in the bowels, as in turned-over gut-wrenching. This is the word frequently used in the gospels to describe Jesus' compassion on the crowds. It's one of my favorite Greek words!
  • The Samaritan gives to the robbed and beaten man: his actions, his money, his time, and freedom to rearrange his plans. That's a lot to give, and the Samaritan does it without complaint, hesitation, or second-thought. That is what is means to love your neighbor.