Monday, September 30, 2013

Lectionary Notes for Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 22, Ordinary 27, Year C)

Readings for 20th Sunday after Pentecost, 10/6/13:
Lamentations 1:1-6, Psalm 137, 2 Timothy 1:1-14, Luke 17:5-10

Lamentations 1:1-6:
  • Lamentations are written in a time of exile, chaos, unrest, confusion, etc., for the people of Judah and Jerusalem and communities in that region, as Babylon takes over and takes people away from their homes. These laments are written in this context.
  • The imagery is sad and bittersweet. "How lonely sits the city that once was full of people!" A ghost-town. Have you ever lived an a community that has been through some horrible devastation? Think of some towns in Mississippi and Louisiana post-Katrina, or even towns that have had major industries shut down. My childhood town of Westernville, NY could match this description in some ways, just out of decline over the years, rather than any event, but it is still sad to drive through town and see the empty streets and crumbling houses. 
  • The city is feminine, of course, a princess that is now a pauper - alone and abandoned.
  • Note, the Psalm for today also deals with exile. Exile - being away from home, themes for the day.
Psalm 137:
  • This psalm, written in past tense, recalls the time of exile in Babylon. Remembering a hard time that has been endured.
  • I love this particular psalm - the text provides lyrics for one of my favorite songs from the musical Godspell, "On the Willows."
  • "How could we sing the Lord's song in a foreign land?" The loss of identity in being separated from the land that is considered holy, God's land. 
  • "Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!" Ah, words we try to pretend are not in the Bible. Have you ever read The Last of the Mohicans? In the book - not the movie - is a scene where one group of attackers actually does this to a woman's baby. Even in fiction, it is not a pretty picture.
2 Timothy 1:1-14:
  • I love the relationship between pseudo-Paul and Timothy that pervades this epistle and this passage. I really sense the feeling of mentor-mentee relationship, and the genuine love and caring felt by the elder toward the younger.
  • Even these works that are generally agreed to be pseudonymous capture Paul's tendency to be overly (ingenuinely) modest?: "and for this reason I suffer as I do"...
  • Yay for Lois and Eunice, women of faith, faith that is passed to Timothy, faith of women that is valued as strong and important!
  • "rekindle the gift of God that is within you" - I like this imagery. Does pseudo-Paul reference a crisis time in Timothy's faith? A time when his faith was burnt out?
Luke 17:5-10:
  • "Increase our faith!" Jesus' response: It doesn't take much faith to do amazing things. You've got faith. What you don't have is the desire, apparently, to use it. Use what you have before you worry about getting more!!!
  • I find it difficult, even contextually, to deal with slavery in the Bible, in parables, from Jesus' lips. I know he is working within a system, a society. But I don't want us to gloss over the reality of what's here. We're talking about humans owned by other humans. Don't forget that just because we're using slavery for a religious lesson.
  • Slaves aren't praised for doing what is expected of them, and neither should we be praised for doing what God expects of us. Hard words for those of us (that is, most of us) who don't like to do things without recognition. Jesus tells us - just do what we're supposed to do. It's our responsibility. That's it.

Sermon, "Reconnect: I Have Come So That..." John 10:1-18

Sermon 9/29/13
John 10:1-18

Reconnect: I Have Come So That…

            As most of you know, in my journey to be healthier, I’ve been attending Weight Watchers for a little over a year. I tried the online membership in the past, but I’ve found that unless I have to go and weigh in in front of a real live person, and unless I stay for the 30 minute meeting each week, I just don’t do as well. I find it easier to stray off course. The meetings – well, they aren’t always deep and profound. Sometimes members spend a lot of time talking about how many calories are in different alcoholic beverages, or we spend a meeting focused on meat-based recipes that this vegetarian doesn’t find particularly helpful. But I enjoy the sense of community, and occasionally, people share stories and comments that really stick with me. One week, a woman talked about joining Weight Watchers, years previously, with one of her friends. They both lost weight – but in very small amounts at a time. .2lbs one week. .4lbs another week. It was very slow. And so she, the speaker, quit – she decided to try some other weight loss programs instead, where she could lose weight faster. Her results were mixed – she’d lose, but gain everything back. But her friend, who stayed at Weight Watchers, continued to lose, slowly, but consistently, and eventually, she lost all the weight she wanted, while the speaker was still struggling, back to Weight Watchers, and determined to stick with it this time, noting that her friend lost slowly, but doing it the right way, and had more success than her own erratic up and down progress. That’s the thing about weight loss. Unless you have some other medical issue that complicates things for you, the way to lose weight is pretty basic: take in fewer calories than you burn each day, and you’ll lose weight. It certainly isn’t easy to do, but shortcuts, paths to weight loss that seem easier usually end up making your journey to health much longer in actual practice.
            Really, though, I didn’t come here to share weight loss advice with you all – so let me tell you another story. One of the family vacations that will forever live in infamy is a time when we were taking several short trips to various locations around New York State. We’d gone to visit my grandparents in Kingston, NY, and from there, we were headed to Old Forge to spend the night so we could spend the next day at Enchanted Forest. My father was driving, and he decided to take a short cut. You already know where this is going, don’t you? He was sure that he could cut down our travel time by taking this gravel road that would bring us right to Old Forge. Of course, after hours of travel, we ended up in the completely wrong place at a dead end, with no options but to turn around and go back the way we came. It took so much longer than planned that instead of going to Old Forge, we just went home, and drove there the next day. What seemed like a shortcut ended up being an extra long, extra wrong way to go.
            One more story. I’ve told you that theologian C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia are some of my very favorite books. In the sixth book in the series, The Magician’s Nephew, you learn about the creation of the land of Narnia by Aslan, the lion, the Christ-figure in the books. He sends a little boy named Diggory on a mission to retrieve a fruit from a special tree in a gated garden. But an evil witch is also in the new land of Narnia. When Diggory arrives at the garden, he sees the witch climbing over the walls of the garden to steal and eat fruit. Only, the gate to the garden isn’t locked – Diggory can walk right in. And he sees a sign at the garden that reads,      
“Come in by the gold gates or not at all,
Take of my fruit for others or forebear,
For those who steal or those who climb my wall
Shall find their heart’s desire and find despair.”
Diggory can take fruit because he came in through the gate, and the fruit is not for himself, but to bring back to Aslan. The witch doesn’t drop dead or become physically ill, or anything like that. But her greed and longing for power corrupts her life until she destroys it entirely. If she had just gone in through the gate…
            I don’t know if you remember, but this passage from John 10 contains the text that I preached on in my first Sunday here at Liverpool First. I told you that my favorite verse in the whole Bible is this: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I have come that you might have life, and have it abundantly.” It comes as part of John’s gospel, where Jesus shares two of several “I am” statements: I am the good shepherd, and I am the gate for the sheep. Jesus talks about those who try to enter the sheepfold by climbing in – thieves. He talks about sheep recognizing the voice of the shepherd, the voice of the gatekeeper. When Jesus calls himself the good shepherd, he says that a good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep, unlike the hired hand who would run and save his own life in a dangerous situation, rather than protect the sheep. He says he has other sheep too – other sheep in other flocks who will eventually become one fold. And again, he closes by emphasizing that he chooses to give his life. “I lay down my life in order to take it up again,” he says. “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.”
            “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” “I lay down my life in order to take it up again.” Jesus models with his own life how we claim this abundance he talks about. We, by our own choosing, under our own power, lay down our life. Maybe we don’t have to sacrifice our physical life. But we lay it down so that we can carry a cross. We lay it down so that we are free to serve others. We lay it down before God, as an act of obedience. God never forces our obedience. Jesus never forces us to follow. But if we want to follow Jesus, if we mean to obey God, if we want this abundant life, we have to stop trying to climb over the walls into the sheepfold of God’s blessings, when the gate is already open for us. We have to stop grabbing as much fruit as we can for ourselves. We have to stop taking shortcuts that are really just dead end roads. We have to stop trying every crazy magic diet trick and wondering why we are both stuffed full and completely unsatisfied, and further away from where we want to be all the time. Lay down your life to take it up again. But what we take back up will be this abundance that strangely comes from giving it all away, pouring out our lives to be filled by God.
            Pastor Aaron told me recently that he’d had a few folks who wanted to chat with him about his September newsletter article. Now, about a month ago in worship I asked you all if you’d read my newsletter column, and a few folks raised their hands, but then even more of you came to me after worship to say that yes, you’d read the column – it just took a little reminder from me in my sermon to remember what the column had been about. Well, I believe you. I believe you because when Pastor Aaron mentioned his column, which I had read, I had to pull it back out again to remind myself of the content. Pastor Aaron talked about the difference between the religion of Christianity and knowing about God and the life of discipleship that comes from having an active relationship with Jesus. If the difference is unclear, think about your favorite actress or sports figure. If you’re a big fan, you might know a million facts about the person – what movies they’ve been in or every award and trophy they’ve received. But sadly, that still doesn’t make you friends with your favorite celeb. There’s a difference between being a fan and being a friend.
            We’ve spent this month talking about our purpose. Why are we here? Why are we doing this thing called church, in this place, in this time, in this way? Our purpose is about making a space in our lives, and inviting others to do the same, where relationships can be built – with God, with the Way of Jesus, with one another. Not fans, but friends, followers of Jesus. How do we foster that work of relationship building at Liverpool First? Jesus didn’t say that he came so that…we could get into heaven when we died. So that we could have it easy. So that we could be safe. So that we’d have all the answers. So that we could tell others what to do and how to live. Jesus said he came so that we might have life that is abundant. Life that is really life. And so when our choir sings, they sing not so that they can dazzle us with their musical expertise, although having that is nice – but so that they can glorify God and help us do the same. And when our Sunday School children go to classes they go not to memorize facts and Bible verses – although those are good tools to have – but so that they can come to know Jesus as their friend who they can trust and love and serve. And when the Trustees meet they gather not because we need the fanciest facilities with the newest equipment here, although we’ve got a beautiful place to worship and work in God’s name, but because our space here is a way we invite others to connect with God and we want a team of people who are working hard to make sure our space is warm and open and usable and full of life in every corner of the building on as many days of the week as possible. And when our Member Care folks are working hard to update records and directories, they do it not because we want our statistical reports each year to be 100% perfect, although that’d be a nice side result, but because each address and phone number and email represents a relationship that we cherish and want to nurture so that we can reach every person with the message of God’s love.

            “I have come so that you might have abundant life!” Jesus claims. What about you? Why are you here? What’s your purpose? Have you come because you’re a big fan? Or because you and God are in a relationship? Because you plan to follow Jesus? Lay down your life to take it up again. Amen. 

Monday, September 23, 2013

Lectionary Notes for Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 21, Ordinary 26, Year C)

Readings for 19th Sunday after Pentecost, 9/29/13:
Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15, Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16, 1 Timothy 6:6-19, Luke 16:19-31

Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15:
  • I would have a hard time preaching on this text, without it being a part of a series on Jeremiah, personally. Chris Haslam points out that this text records a very detailed account of a business transaction from that period, with the deeds, sealed and opened, and the earthen vessel to store them in. But for preaching, I'm not sure where that leads us.
  • Verse 15 - "Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land." This place has a future!
  • "right of possession and right of redemption" - property - what can property and ownership and land signify? In the Old Testament, land, and possessing it, is integral to the story of God's people. Finding a home - literally and figuratively, home is an important concept to most people.
Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16:
  • This psalm provides the verses for the popular hymn, "On Eagle's Wings."
  • The themes here are of God's protection, finding refuge in God. Safety from harm, physical and spiritual.
  • By verse 14, we have switched narration - here God is speaking in the first person.
  • God promises to deliver and protect those "who love me" and "who know my name." Does God protect others too? Deliver others? Does God need our love to act with love?
1 Timothy 6:6-19:
  • "for the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil" - Perhaps one of the most famous verses in the Bible, though many do not know it is from the Bible! Note, money itself is not evil, but the love of money is. And we do love money...
  • godliness + contentment = great gain. That's all we need, perhaps.
  • "Fight the good fight of faith."
  • Many words here for those who are rich - to be truly rich, be "rich in good works" and "ready to share" - this brings "the life that really is life." everything else is cheap imitation!
Luke 16:19-31:
  • "this place of torment," verse 28. The Greek word is basanou, literally can translate also as "the touch-stone", "trial", or "test"
  • "who longed to satisfy his hunger", verse 21. The Greek here is epithumon, which means literally, "set his heart/psyche/soul upon", "covet", "desire" as well as "long for"
  • Abraham speaks of the "great chasm" that cannot be crossed between "heaven" and "hell" - isn't this indeed comparable to the great chasm in life between the rich and the poor, that is essentially, seemingly, un-crossable?
  • Lazarus means "help/assistance of God" according to

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Lectionary Notes for Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 20, Ordinary 25, Year C)

Readings for 18th Sunday after Pentecost, 9/22/13:
Jeremiah 8:18-9:1, Psalm 79:1-9, 1 Timothy 2:1-7, Luke 16:1-13

Jeremiah 8:18-9:1:
  • Note the related words: grief, sick, cry, hurt, mourn, dismay - these words are related to physical illness, matching up with the "physician" and "health" imagery in verse 22. The parenthetical insertion in verse 19 reads like a Shakespearean aside from God!
  • Jeremiah speaking on behalf of the people? For whom would you mourn like this, other than yourself? How do you react to the separation of other from God?
  • We have answered Jeremiah's question - we don't sing, "Is there a balm in Gilead?" but "There is a balm in Gilead." Sometimes, we do have faith in God's faithfulness. 
Psalm 79:1-9:
  • Another psalm written in a very specific context, related to some very specific events. Still, I wish God didn't have to be portrayed as so - emotionally childish, throwing tantrums. I know I sound like a broken record on this, but so do the Psalms I'm commenting on sometimes!
  • Don't be mad at us, jealous, angry, God. Be mad at other people! Be mad at "nations that do not know you." A very ethno-centric cry that seems to fit in, sadly, in today's nationalistic culture.
  • Of course, how much sense is there in God's anger being directed at those who have no relationship with God? It makes more sense for God to be angry at those of us who know God and still reject God and act as though we have no relationship. 
1 Timothy 2:1-7:
  • Prayers for our leaders and those in high positions, so that we may lead "a quiet and peaceable life" What a timely thought!
  • Note - God "desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth." That's everyone.
  • One God - ok. One mediator between us and God - Jesus? Here my interfaith sensibilities have me pause - and say that I don't want to declare that through Jesus is the only way we can access God. I don't, however, think that we need human mediators between us and God - we get direct access, which is something I cherish about my faith.
Luke 16:1-13:
  • Ok - Jesus challenges us with some hard teachings. But this parable isn't challenging because we're trying to get out of what Jesus wants us to do, but because it is simply hard to understand! Please do read Chris Haslam's exegesis which makes it oh-so-much-clearer, and is very helpful.
  • Can't serve two masters - not God and money, not God and anything else. What other things have mastery over your life besides God? Family? Time-consumers? Work? Possessions?
  • Faithful with what belongs to another. What do you have stewardship over? Of course, we have stewardship over all that God has given us (which is everything) like the earth, our gifts, our lives, etc. But in more concrete terms - does your job give you care over what is not yours? As a pastor, I can say yes. What about our congregants? Over what do they have care?

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Lectionary Notes for Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 19, Ordinary 24, Year C)

Readings for 17th Sunday after Pentecost, 9/15/13:
Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28, Psalm 14, 1 Timothy 1:12-17, Luke 15:1-10

Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28:
  • "A hot wind" - We don't usually mean it as a compliment when we say that someone is full of hot air - but when God uses it as a self-label, perhaps we'd do well to listen!
  • Judgment - God is not going to cleanse or winnow this time, but judge. The word judgment has so many negative connotations attached. And I admit, I usually prefer to think of God as loving rather than God as judging - but the descriptions are not mutually exclusive! It is good that God judges us. These days, when I think of how much we fail to follow Jesus, how we fail in discipleship, the more convinced I am that we need to be judged. The good news is that God's judgment never comes without God's grace and mercy. Thanks be to God!
  • Even in this passage, in which God has some harsh words spoken through the prophet Jeremiah, God already speaks mercy: "yet I will not make a full end." (emphasis added)
  • "The earth shall mourn." We should mourn the destruction and desolation we have brought upon ourselves. I mourn the way we ignore God. Do you?
Psalm 14:
  • "Fools say in their hearts, 'There is no God.' Chris Haslam, my first stop for quality exegesis, says that this verse doesn't indicate atheism for the fools, but those who doubt that God actually cares about human affairs and behaviors. A lot of fools today, eh?
  • "There is not one who does good, no, not one." This statement is perhaps exaggerated, or, if not, at least extreme, unless only in the sense that we are all sinners. But it reminds me of the quote from Augustine: "If we have understood, than what we have understood is not God." Likewise, we are not good, not even one of us, because God is good. If God is good, we are only a shadow of that...
  • I wonder about the context of this psalm - the psalmist seems to have something very specific in mind - specific folks upon whom the psalmist wants God's 'terror' poured.
1 Timothy 1:12-17
  • "But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief." Interesting wording - that unbelief is equated with ignorance. Just not getting it. And because we don't get it, God still shows mercy. However...I don't think all our unbelief is from ignorance - I think we are stubborn, unconvinced, believing other, etc. Even so, God still shows mercy!
  • "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners." Pretty straightforward, in a way, and yet so complicated theologically. What does "saving" entail? I agree that Jesus saves sinners, but I bet I would describe it a lot differently than some of my colleagues.
Luke 15:1-10:
  • I like how Jesus sets these stories up, saying, "who doesn't respond this way?", as if everyone reacts as in the parable - he sets the correct response as the expected norm even if he is actually advocating unusual behavior. What do I mean? Well, in this passage, Jesus acts like a whole crowd would really gather if a woman found a coin that she had lost. Maybe I'm just ignorant of the times, but I have a hard time believing that that would be the case. But Jesus acts as though it is normal, and urges us to behave likewise. Effective!
  • "he lays [the sheep] on his shoulders and rejoices." Just love this image, as do others, evidenced by this imagery finding its way into so much artwork. It just seems like so much love pours through the shepherd carrying the sheep in this way.

Sermon, "Reconnect: Who Do You Say I Am?" Mark 8:27-37

Sermon 9/8/13
Mark 8:27-37

Reconnect: Who Do You Say I Am?

Confession time: how many of you who are on our mailing list got to read my newsletter column yet? In case you didn’t get to it, let me give you a quick summary. I shared with you about a video I saw at a conference some years ago. People in white shirts and black shirts are tossing a ball while moving around in a circle. You’re supposed to count how many times the people in white catch the ball. You watch intently, and get an answer, right or wrong. But then, the narrator asks, “Did you notice the gorilla?” You watch the clip again, and sure enough, a man in a gorilla suit walks through the middle of the group. At least 50% of viewers, including me, don’t notice the gorilla. It’s called “selective attention,” meaning when we are focused on one thing, we can miss other things, even very obvious things, because our attention is elsewhere. It’s why you might walk by someone you know in the supermarket and not even notice them. It’s why texting and driving is so dangerous. When we’re really focused, we don’t always see what else is going on. That’s why it is really important to make sure what we’re focused on is the right thing, the most essential thing. This month, our worship will be focused on helping us reconnect with our purpose. We need to make sure that of all the important things that happen here, we don’t miss the point – we don’t miss the gorilla walking through the middle of picture!
 Today we start thinking about our purpose with a text from Mark that we looked at back in February. At the beginning of our text, we find Jesus travelling with the disciples, and on the way, he asks them about how people see him. Who are they saying he is? The disciples tell him: some are saying he is John the Baptist, some Elijah, or another of the prophets. But then Jesus is more direct. And who do you say that I am? Peter answers boldly, rightly: You are the Messiah. But then Jesus begins to talk about what that means, his being the Messiah. He tells them about the suffering he’s about to go through, his death, and his ultimate resurrection. Somehow, though, Peter, who just called him Messiah, didn’t understand what that title would mean. He rebukes Jesus, and in turn, Jesus says, “Get behind me, Satan.” Then Jesus turns to the crowds and says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”
            Last week, I spoke to you about what I hear in the words, “I never knew you,” words that Jesus told us in Matthew’s gospel he might say to those pretending to be something they weren’t. “I never knew you.” This week, Jesus seems to be asking, “Do you really know me?” What strikes me in this passage is that it takes place in the eighth chapter of Mark. Mark’s gospel is short, so chapter 8 is actually half way through. By the time we get to today’s passage, Jesus has already called the disciples, cast out several demons, cured the blind, deaf, and sick, raised a girl from the dead, taught many parables, broken laws about fasting and Sabbath, calmed a storm, fed 4000 and 5000, traveled and taught among Gentiles, called out the scribes and elders about loving their traditions more than they love God, grieved over the death of John the Baptist, and sent disciples out to do some preaching, exorcising, and healing themselves. It seems a little late, doesn’t it, to be asking the disciples if they know who he is? If they don’t know who he is, you have to wonder, why on earth are they following him? Why would they go through all that they go through if they didn’t already have an answer worked out to Jesus’ question? “Do you really know who I am?” Would seeing some cool miracles and healings be worth leaving everything normal about their lives behind if they didn’t have a clear picture, or at least a becoming-clearer-each-moment-picture of who Jesus was? I hear, behind Jesus’ question to the disciples, that he wonders if they really know who he is, if they really know why they are following, if they really understand what it is all about. The road ahead is going to be very difficult, Jesus says. He talks about taking up crosses – instruments of execution – and he uses this as an illustration of what life is like when you choose to follow Jesus. It is putting your life on the line. Being willing to risk it all in order to follow. If you want to follow, be ready to carry a cross. Do you really know who I am, Jesus asks us? Do you really know what it means to follow me? Is this your purpose?
            Children are great at asking questions, and most of the time, the core question they ask is: “Why.” Children are curious, they wonder, they imagine, and when they see the stuff that we do without even thinking about it, things that are brand new to them, they want to know why. Why does green mean go and red mean stop? Why is the sky blue? Why does it rain? Why do I have to eat vegetables? Why can’t a lay on the floor during dinner? Why do I have to sleep at night? In fact, children often go through a phase of asking why, why, why, until adults find themselves uttering phrases they swore they would never use: Because! Because I said so! Just because! We know that the answers are complicated sometimes. Or sometimes we know we can’t give a good explanation – like the reason the sky is blue that we learned in science once upon a time but then forgot. And we know that sometimes the answer is not very satisfying: Because somewhere along the way we decided that laying on the floor for dinner would be called “rude,” while other things would be called “polite.”
            One of the unfortunate side effects of becoming an adult is that we often forget to ask why. We’ve stopped being curious, because we’re too busy, or rushed, or tired to wonder why. I think when we stop asking why, it becomes very easy to focus on the wrong things, to focus on the people passing the ball, instead of the gorilla walking by. We start paying attention to the interior decorating instead of the foundation. We start focusing on our plans instead of God’s plans. We start listening only to our own voice instead of God’s words. When we stop asking about our purpose, sometimes, we stop having one.  
            Why are we doing this thing called church? Why are we doing it here, at Liverpool First UMC? Is it because we want to follow Jesus? Why are we following him? One of the books I read for my most recent class suggested that every day, you remind yourself of what your primary purpose or purposes are in life. What’s the major belief that you are trying to live out, the major task you say you are all about? Then, at the end of each day, reflect on this question: What did I do today that helped me carry out our purpose? If your purpose is following Jesus, what did you do today that helped you to follow Jesus more closely? If at the end of each day, you find yourself unable to answer the question, the authors suggest it is time to start living differently, or at least time to admit your purpose isn’t really your purpose.
            I find it interesting that Jesus didn’t wait for each of the disciples to answer his question about who they thought he was. And when Peter demonstrated getting the answer right, but still missing out on true understanding, I’m sure Jesus wasn’t surprised. He didn’t kick the disciples out for getting confused over and over. Instead, he relentlessly tried to call peoples’ attention to the things they were overlooking – the important things. And so Jesus told the Pharisees to stop focusing on the minutia of the law while missing the heart. He told people to stop focusing on the people at the center of social circles, and start looking at the fringes. He told the disciples to stop vying for a place at the front of the line, and start trying to come in last, carrying a cross. Jesus asks us, again and again, to remember who we’re following, why we’re following, and what might happen when we sign up to walk with Christ.
            Why are you here today? Why here and not sleeping in? Why here, and not at the park? For some reason, on this day, at this time, in this place, we’ve all decided to come together, to talk about God, to sing songs about God, to talk about following Jesus. Do we know who we’re following? Do we know why?

Monday, September 02, 2013

Lectionary Notes for Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 18, Ordinary 23, Year C)

Readings for 16th Sunday after Pentecost, 9/8/13:
Jeremiah 18:1-11, Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18, Philemon 1-21, Luke 14:25-33

Jeremiah 18:1-11:
  • Potter imagery - God as the potter, remolding us, remaking our clay pots. This imagery of being remade, the flaws worked out of us can be so powerful and moving. The problem is that this passage actually speaks of God being quite upset with us humans! God wants to "pluck up and break down and destroy" because we've messed up so bad! Can we handle that? Are we willing to be remolded to that degree?
  • What I do like about the image of potter and clay is that the same piece of clay is used - just remade. The clay is the same substance. We are not wiped out completely. Can we read this like we read being made new in Christ, casting of the old and putting on the new?
  • dislike that God seems so moody and temperamental here again, like a child throwing a tantrum - "one moment" wanting to destroy and "at another moment" building up.
  • "I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you." Eek! God shaping evil against us is not good. Jeremiah is warning with full force - get you act together, or you will have a lot to deal with!
Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18:
  • Compare this with the Jeremiah 1:4-10 lectionary passage - the same themes and imagery are in both passages.
  • I would read the whole selection of vs. 1-18 in worship. The middle stuff is too good to leave out. 
  • Not only did God knit us together in our mother's womb, but this whole passage reads like we are in God's womb - hemmed in by God behind and before. Our life is in God's womb - that is a very peaceful and comforting thought.
  • How weighty to us are God's thoughts - great image - the heaviness of the deepness of God's creative mind. 
  • "I am fearfully and wonderfully made." This psalm affirms God and God's power, but also affirms our human worth and goodness - a rare scriptural combination. You are fearfully and wonderfully made. How well do you know that? How many in this society know that and are taught to know that?
Philemon 1-21
  • Poor little Philemon - such a short little book - better pay it some attention on the only Sunday in the cycle it makes it into the lectionary!
  • Philemon has been an interesting book in the past in discussions about slavery - does the Bible justify it or not, and is that even a relevant/accurate way to ask the question? I think Philemon brings up the importance of looking at context of scripture and what the text says given the context. Here Paul is trying to argue for a runaway slave to stay freed - doing a little persuasive writing to the master of Onesimus. In a society with servants and masters, Jesus made use of these dynamics in his own teachings to turn our understanding of these roles and our status desires upside down. What other contexts do the scriptures work within to transform our understandings anyway? Gender? Sexuality? Economics?
Luke 14:25-33:
  • This text is another from Luke that talks about the divisions that come with discipleship even into the closest relationships of family. Jesus is going straight to the point here, hitting us at our weakest points, our closest and dearest relationships (usually, at least!) What is your discipleship worth to you? What price are you willing to pay for the hard life of following Jesus? Count the cost!
  • "All your possessions" - The Greek word for possessions, huparcousin, is interesting in its variety of meanings. 'Possessions' is a very accurate translation, but for fun, it also means: to begin, to make a beginning, to be ready, to be in existence, to be taken for granted, etc.
  • Also, the Greek word translated as disciples, mathe^te^s, literally means a 'learner' or a 'pupil' - that's what Jesus wants us to be - students of his, learning from him as much as possible. What will we give to be his students?

Sermon, "Sermon on the Mount: Hearers and Doers," Matthew 7:21-29

Sermon 9/1/13
Matthew 7:21-29

Sermon on the Mount: Hearers and Doers

            Today we finish up our series on the Sermon on the Mount, as we examine Jesus’ largest chunk of teaching in the gospel of Matthew. Last week Pastor Aaron talked about fruit – good trees and good fruit, how we’re known by our fruit. Today’s passage continues directly on from there. “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom, Jesus says. “Only the one who does will of God.” He continues, “On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’
            Then Jesus tells a parable about two people who build houses. The wise man builds his house on rock, and the foolish man builds his house on the sand. Storms comes, rain and flood and wind beats on both houses. But the house built on rock stands, while the house built on sand falls, and Jesus says, “great was its fall.” Jesus says that the man who builds on sand is like one who hears Jesus’ words and doesn’t act on them, while the man who builds on rock is like one who hears and acts on what Jesus has said. When he finishes, we hear that the crowds who have gathered during these three chapters of teaching are astounded at his teaching, because of the authority with which he teaches.
            In some ways, this passage seems straightforward. Build our lives on a good foundation of rock, rather than the squishy, unreliable sand foundation. That just makes common sense, right? We might even guess that Jesus himself is the rock, that God is meant to be the foundation of our life, the solid ground. But – what does Jesus mean about acting on “these words of his” – does he mean all of his words? Or the words he just spoke? And what about those people who say, “Lord, Lord,” that won’t enter the kingdom of God. What people are those? Jesus describes them as people who prophesy in the name of Jesus, cast out demons in the name of Jesus, do deeds of power in the name of Jesus. How can those people not be fit for the kingdom? Yet, Jesus says to them he will say, “I never knew you. Go away from me, you evildoers.” Suddenly it seems a bit more confusing, as we try to figure out whether we fall into the category of those who have built our houses on rock, or whether it turns out we accidentally laid our foundation in sand after all.
            I’m drawn back to the phrase, “I never knew you,” the words Jesus speaks to those who say, “Lord, Lord.” At first I read them as angry words, words where Jesus denies that he knows these people at all. But then I thought about where else I’ve heard these words. “I never knew you.” You say these words not when you are trying to disown someone, write them off, but when your heart is breaking with loss and pain because you realize someone you thought you knew well is not actually what they were pretending to be after all. “It turns out, I never really knew you.” That’s what you might say in reaction to the pain of betrayal when someone has failed to keep promises, or someone has been pretending to be something, when someone has claimed to love you but acted in ways that are quite contrary. You say, “I never knew you,” because their current hurtful behavior taints all the good memories from the past, doesn’t it? If one spouse finds out the other spouse was unfaithful to the marriage, it taints the way one looks at all the years of marriage that felt happy. If a leader turns out to be corrupt, has been abusing their power or embezzling money – it taints the years of seemingly good leadership they provided. “I never knew you.”
            I think that’s what Jesus means when he says, “I never knew you.” He’s talking to people who have had the right words perhaps, even the right actions in some ways – doing deeds of power, casting out demons – but really they’re false prophets, producing bad fruit. They’re not who they say they are. They’re fakes. They’re not who they were pretending to be to Jesus after all. William Sloan Coffin Jr. once wrote, “I think disguise is the essence of evil,” and Jesus seems to agree. Suddenly, I find myself wondering how I measure up. Am I just one of the people who is saying “Lord, Lord?” What will Jesus say to me? “Beth, I never really knew you.”
            I remember coming across the term “Imposter Syndrome” when I was taking some psychology classes in college. Listen to this description: “Have you ever had something amazing happen, like a promotion or an invitation to be a part of a coveted group, only to have your excitement give way to fearful thoughts almost immediately? Have you ever thought: They made a mistake and actually confused me with someone else much more qualified? Or had the feeling that even if they meant you, it will only be a matter of time before they realize you are a fraud? If you can relate to this scenario, then you have experienced moments of [the] psychological phenomenon known as the Imposter Syndrome, in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments. That is, fearing it has all been a mistake and that someone will wake up soon to the fact that you really know nothing.” (1) In other words, we all feel like fakes sometimes. We feel like people will realize that we really aren’t skilled or smart or capable or likeable or lovable after all. If they knew the real us, they wouldn’t like what they saw.
            But here’s the thing. The jig is up. God already knows you. God already knows who you are. And what God wants is for you to be honest with yourself, and with others, about who that is. We’re not imposters who Jesus will disown when we’re less than perfect. We’re not imposters who are foolishly building on sand when we don’t always act in ways that we’re proud of. We’re imposters when we won’t admit that we’re broken. We’re imposters when we won’t admit that we struggle. We’re imposters when we won’t admit that sometimes we feel like we’re imposters! Because when we act like this, when we build up these false personas, we’re making ourselves, and not even our true selves, but our put-together, best-foot-forward, hope-no-one-looks-too-closely selves, we’re making our imposter selves the foundation of our spiritual houses, and trying to build on that. When we try to hide who we really are from God and each other, we are building our lives on sand. And friends, great will be the fall of our houses.
            I’ve lived in my own home for a little over a year now, and my list of things that I want to fix and improve and repair only seems to get longer, as I add two new things for every task I complete. But I’m happy with my home. I looked at a lot of houses before I bought the one I did. I remember one particular home that was lovely – I really liked it. And it had a lot of work done recently. And the realtor was eager to sell. But, when I walked through the kitchen, over the beautiful new floors, I noticed that occasionally things felt a little squishy under my feet. The outside looked pretty nice. But I had my suspicions about what was really underneath. In my home, I may have some work to do to make things look nicer. But my basement is dry. The foundation is good. I’m on solid ground. A good foundation is so much more important than the most beautiful interior decorating.
            Jesus wants us to hear what he says and act on it, doing the will of God. Sometimes, we’ll screw that up in the worst ways. But better to try and screw up than to pretend that we’ve got it all figured out. God’s not buying that anyway. And when we do that, we’re not building on the solid foundation of Christ whom we follow. We’re putting our own faulty selves down as foundation. When the storms come, and they always do, we’ll never withstand it. 
            Two weeks ago we sang one of my favorite hymns: “My Hope is Built.” The refrain goes, “On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand; All other ground is sinking sand.” Whatever else you’ve been building on – the ground is surely sinking beneath your feet. Where do you stand? Where are you building? ‘Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!’” Amen.