Sunday, February 24, 2013

Lectionary Notes for Third Sunday in Lent, Year C


Readings for Third Sunday in Lent, 2/24/13:
Isaiah 55:1-9, Psalm 63:1-8, 1 Corinthians 10:1-13, Luke 13:1-9

Isaiah 55:1-9:
  • This is one of my very favorite passages. "Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters...why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?" Check out John 6 for strong correlations with this passage. Why indeed to we choose again and again for our lives things which we know will not cure the hurts and desires and pains that we have? God must scratch the head over us all the time. We choose so poorly for ourselves!
  • "And nations that you do not know shall run to you, because of the Lord your God." I really like this image! Too often, as Americans, we find that our claim of faith has just the opposite effect on people. Nations run from us because of the way we claim our God, God blessing America at the expense of all others. What would it mean for nations to run to us because of our faith?
Psalm 63:1-8:
  • This psalm sounds like it could be a Shakespeare love sonnet! "My soul thirsts for you, my flesh faints for you." Reminds me a bit of Jars of Clay - remember way back when they first came out and had the big hit and no one knew they were a Christian group singing about God? Well, they have a song, "Love Song for a Savior", that I love. But do we love God? Love Jesus? How do we have faith so deep and exciting that it can't be told apart from the over-the-top way we claim to love other humans? I'm not sure I've managed that myself yet!
1 Corinthians 10:1-13
  • "God is faithful, and [God] will not let you be tested beyond your strength." These are appropriate words for the season of Lent when many are struggling to stay faithful to what they have given up for the 40 day season. I've often heard these words, however, used to 'comfort' someone who is suffering some great trial. I'm not sure how 'comforting' they actually are in that situation, however!
  • "Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them..." After Paul describes the spiritual experiences of the Israelites, he ends by saying that they still were evildoers in many circumstances. I think that's a good reminder for us: God knows our hearts. God knows the difference between show and reality, words, and faith.
Luke 13:1-9:
  • Huh? Sometimes the parables make us go, "Ohhh" with recognition. Sometimes they make us go, "Huh?" with puzzlement like the disciples. At first read, this parable is one of the latter, not the former! We read about this fig tree that is not bearing fruit, and the owner wants to have it cut down. But the gardener bargains to save it for one more year - he will put manure on it and see if he can get it to grow. The owner accepts the deal, and says they can wait one more year to see if it can bear fruit. Unfortunately, there is no helpful section recorded here where the disciples act confused as usual and ask for an explanation from Jesus, so we can't cheat and pretend we knew what Jesus meant all along...
  • So, what does he mean? I think that it is a passage about God's amazing grace, for one thing: even when we deserve to get cut down, someone, Jesus?, is still negotiating for our undeserved salvation. Thank God!
  • In the first part, Jesus warns against feeling that the suffering and death of certain groups of people is a particular sign of God's judgment. (Did Pat Robertson and co. ever read this passage?) Judgment comes to those who die prematurely and those who live long lives. So repent!

Sermon for Second Sunday in Lent, "New Arrangements: What Wondrous Love Is This?" Luke 13:31-35, John 3:1-17


Sermon 2/24/13
John 3:1-17, Luke 13:31-35

New Arrangements: What Wondrous Love Is This?


            What wondrous love is this? Oh my soul, oh my soul! What wondrous love is this, oh my soul! What wondrous love is this that caused the Lord of life to lay aside the crown for my soul, for my soul? To lay aside the crown for my soul! What Wondrous Love Is This is probably my favorite Lenten hymn, simply one of my favorite hymns overall. I find the plaintive melody deeply moving, as tune and text combine to fill us with what the title suggests – a sense of wonder at God’s love for us, expressed in the gift of Jesus Christ. This hymn has both an unknown and a rich and interesting history at the same time. The author of the text is unknown. We know that it was first heard in the Appalachian Mountain region in the late 1700s, early 1800s, and was written down by William Walker, editor of The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion.
            Southern Harmony is a famous collection of hymns, folksongs, mostly from rural Appalachia, with tunes written in a singing notation called shape notes. Southern Harmony contains a number of hymns we still sing today. It seems to contain, for example, the first pairing of the words of Amazing Grace with the tune we know, which is called New Britain. Unlike the notes that you see in our hymnal today, shape note songs used different shapes for each note to tell people what note to sing. These hymns and tunes were taught with lined out singing, a kind of call and response where a leader would give the next line and a sense of the tune before everyone sang. Today, there are still festivals to celebrate the very unique sound of shape note singing, and in some areas in Appalachia, shape note singing is still common. What Wondrous Love Is This was arranged by James Christopher, and William Walker recorded the known text. Listen to this snippet of the hymn in the traditional shape note style. (1) (Listen.) As you can see, the hymn that we sing today is already a new arrangement of the original form we’ve just heard!
            But let’s talk about the text. What wondrous love is this, oh my soul! The hymn is both a question and an exclamation. What is this love, that would cause the Christ to choose us, over a throne, a crown? What is this love, that would cause God to come to us in the flesh? There’s a verse that doesn’t appear in our hymnals today, that exclaims, “When I was sinking down beneath, Christ laid aside the crown for my soul.” Have you ever been surprised to find yourself loved by someone? My mom has a friend that she’s known for years, someone who might seem, by appearances, a little rough around the edges. He’s been through a lot, had a lot of pain, addiction, struggle in his life. But he’s been a wonderful friend to my mom. Every so often, he would do something particularly nice for my mom or our family – buy us dinner, or send mom a thoughtful email, something like that. And every time, my mom would comment on how surprised she was by her friend’s kindness. Every time, it caught her off guard. I actually teased her about it, wondering how she could be surprised again and again. I suspect, though, that when we’ve been let down in the past, when we’ve experienced love that’s failed, that’s not stood up against tests, when we’ve hurt and been hurt, love, real love, unconditional love, love that seems beyond what we feel we deserve – it can catch us off guard. Fill us with hope, joy, and wonder.   
            When was it that you were last filled with a sense of wonder? As many of you know, this past week I had my college roommate and her family in town visiting me. Sue and Jeremy have a three year old boy, and he finds pretty much everything fascinating. When he first arrived at my house, he ran from room to room, touching everything, opening everything. Oh, he wasn’t destructive or getting into trouble. No, he just wanted to see inside every single closet, and he wanted to open every drawer in the house, and we looked at every board game I own, and he explored every nook and cranny of the house. Not destructive, but curious. Fascinated. Full of wonderment. When I was searching for sermon images, the most common picture for “wonderment” was the face of a child. Indeed, children have it all over adults when it comes to the ability to be filled with wonder.
Nicodemus, star of our gospel lesson today, is someone who doesn’t understand the wisdom of a child, and our scene brings us a scholar of the law who is completely confused by Jesus talking about being born again. His seasoned soul can’t grasp, right away, something that requires wonder and imagination. Nicodemus is a Pharisee, a leader among the Pharisees. The Pharisees were the scholars and interpreters of the law with whom Jesus was most often in conflict, because the Pharisees, Jesus argued, tried to put too many rules and regulations on the people for being “good Jews,” while managing to miss the heart and soul of it – that is, relationship with God. Nicodemus is sort of stepping out of the pack by coming to see Jesus – he’s taking a risk because he has some questions that he really wants Jesus to answer. But he’s also protecting himself and his position– he comes to see Jesus at night, when he can meet with Jesus without drawing attention to himself.
            Nicodemus acknowledges Jesus’ legitimacy – “no one can do these signs apart from the presence of God,” he says. But Jesus pushes him: “Truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Remember, the kingdom of God being here and now – that’s the core of Jesus’ message. Jesus turns the focus away from himself and his power, and to Nicodemus – and whether or not Nicodemus wants to be part of the kingdom of God. Jesus is always an outside-the-box thinker, but Nicodemus can’t understand what Jesus is getting at – “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” He’s full of wonder – but more the confused-variety than the awed-variety. Can you enter the womb again and be born? But Jesus explains that he means that we have to be Spirit-born as well as born in flesh, and he wonders how one who is a teacher of Israel can’t get it.
            Then Jesus says, “and just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” This is a strange verse if you don’t know the context. Jesus is talking about something we can find in the book of Numbers, chapter 21, this story of the bronze serpent. The Israelites, still wandering in the desert, were complaining to God and Moses about food and water, when poisonous snakes were sent among the people. The snakes would bite the people, and the people would die. The people understood these snakes to be a punishment on them from God. So they came to Moses and confessed their sinfulness, and asked Moses for help. Moses prayed for the people, and heard God’s voice, telling him to create a serpent out of bronze that would be fixed to a pole. The passage concludes, “whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.”
            Jesus says “and just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” The serpent, raised up for the Israelites, gave them earthly life. Jesus, raised up – resurrected – gives life too – real life, eternal life. Then, finally the verse that we know so well, and its companion, that I find as compelling as verse 16 – “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Jesus is the life-giver – that is his purpose – to give life, not to condemn and judge, but to save, and make whole, to help people see, be part of the kingdom of God. And the why of his purpose, why he’s here is love. Because God so loved the world.
            What we don’t know is how Nicodemus responds, at least immediately, to what he hears from Jesus. Clearly Jesus’ words have overwhelmed him. It is a lot to take in. What we do see in the gospels is Nicodemus appearing later – first when the Pharisees are urging action against Jesus, and Nicodemus reminds them that the law doesn’t condemn people without giving them a trial first. And then, after Jesus’ crucifixion, Nicodemus assists Joseph of Arimathea with Jesus’ burial. Nicodemus doesn’t immediately drop his nets, so to speak, to follow Jesus. But it seems like something might be sinking in by degrees, as he reflects on what Jesus said to him.
            In some ways I related to Nicodemus more than others who encounter Jesus in the gospels. When Jesus calls Simon Peter, for example, Peter just drops his nets and follows. I find it hard to imagine that kind of complete, life-changing response, so immediate and total. No time to think or plan or process. It is so hard to imagine being like that, when it seems a struggle to make just the simplest of lasting changes in my life. But Nicodemus – a skeptic maybe, confused, believing and not yet acting on what he’s beginning to believe, finding it too wonderful to be true – I find I can relate to Nicodemus. The people who already have nothing, like fishermen and tax collectors, prostitutes and poor folk, who already have been told they count for nothing – embracing Jesus makes sense, when hope is all you have left. But for those who have something to lose, some power to give up, some control to hand over to God in order to enter this kingdom as peers, co-workers with the “least of these” – well, the choice is a challenge: called to the status quo or called to God and new life that requires being born, spiritually, all over again. Is it too wonderful to be possible?
            Our hymn today is an ode of wonder at God’s love for us, a song of wonder, and awe, that God would love us so much that Jesus would opt to become one of us, and not just become one of us, but then be belittled by us, crucified by us, choosing to be humbled instead of crowned. And still, God loves us. Can we, with amazement, sing these words? Are we surprised again by Jesus’ loving act, for us? Or do we think we know the story so well that we expect it? Or do we know it so well that we’re surprised, again, to find out how true it is?
            What wondrous love is this, oh, my soul! Amen.



Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Lectionary Notes for Second Sunday in Lent, Year A


Readings for 2nd Sunday in Lent, 3/4/07:
Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18, Psalm 27, Philippians 3:17-4:1, Luke 13:31-35

Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18:
  • "Do not be afraid, Abram." How many times does the phrase "do not be afraid" occur in the Bible? I'm sure someone has counted, but whatever the number, it is obviously a huge theme. God is always telling us not to be afraid. Why is that? What does God suspect,know, that we are so afraid of anyway? Are we afraid of God? Afraid of being alone? Afraid of finding out that our lives don't have meaning, or that they do? Whatever it is, God promises to be there in it with us, and to calm our child-like fears.
  • In this passage, God promises Abram that it will not be a slave, but a child of Abram's own that will carry on Abram's line, one of his descendants which will be as numerous as the stars, and that they will live in the land that God is promising them. What do we make of this passage? I think about what it means to "carry on the family name", what we understand and feel about childbearing and barrenness today, etc. What does it mean to place so much importance on carrying on of a family line? I'm sure its one of the few ways we humans can convince ourselves that we will at least in that measure have some sense of immortality - someone with our own blood will live on. But where are the stories in the Bible where the family is never blessed with the child? Where there is no Isaac, or Samuel, or John the Baptist that lifts the parents out of despair?
Psalm 27:
  • "Whom shall I fear?" Here it is again, the fear theme, only now asked as a specific: 'who'. The Psalm suggests that we fear no one when God is our light, a theme echoed elsewhere in the scriptures, such as in the NT where we are encouraged to fear only those who can slay the spirit, but not the body.
  • What about, though, the 'fear of the Lord'. It's not something we stress much anymore, but to be a God-fearing person used to be a stronger theme. In fact, non-Jewish believers, Gentiles, were called 'God-fearers.' Do we fear God anymore, or have we gotten too cozy? It's great to feel close to God, but have we lost our reverence in the process, the believe that God is actually above and beyond us in many respects?
  • Hmm... this sounds like a psalm that literally a soldier would pray during war time: for safety, protection, to be in God's house, to be hidden from enemies...
Philippians 3:17-4:1:
  • Paul speaks about our human physical bodies and our spiritual, transformed bodies, with our 'citizenship in heaven.' This thought that we don't have to take what's holding us down in this life can be very comforting.
  • However, we have to be careful, not to enter into a pointless heaven/hell, spirit/body dichotomy that makes us seek to live with one step already in heaven. We're part of God's good creation, which includes this world and all its craziness. We just have to seek to 'transform' it with God's grace.

Luke 13:31-35:
  • "Go and tell that fox for me" - I just love it when Jesus gets sassy - you can almost see the expression on his face as he says this. It's good to know Jesus can have a good time, a sense of humor, in the midst of all his profundity. Seriously.
  • "How often I have desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!" What a verse! What emotion! Yay for feminine imagery, of course, since it is so rare - we must 'gather it in' where we can find it. But beyond: hear Jesus' extreme sorrow that he can't make us get it. Jesus wants to protect and save, but the truth can't be compromised just to make us feel better. I'm reminded of the movie Ghost, at the end, when the bad-guy (can't remember the character's name) doesn't realize that he's going to be taken by the demons yet. Sam (Patrick Swayze) just looks at him with such pity, despite how much his former friend has done to hurt him. I think that's how Jesus would be looking here. We just don't get it.

Sermon for First Sunday in Lent, "New Arrangements: Old Rugged Cross," Philippians 2:1-8


Sermon 2/17/13
Philippians 2:1-8

New Arrangements: The Old Rugged Cross


            This Lent, our worship theme is New Arrangements. Pastor Aaron and I chose some traditional Lenten hymns, and we will sing one each week during Lent, but we’ll also hear an alternate arrangement of the hymn. Sometimes we’ll hear special piano music, sometimes a special anthem or a soloist, sometimes a recording, but always a variation of some kind on the traditional hymn. In this Lenten journey, as we prepare ourselves to travel to the cross with Jesus, we find ourselves in a season of contemplation and reflection. I was trying to find just the right image to accompany the theme to use on our church facebook page and in our powerpoint presentations during worship, and I was asking for suggestions. One of my pastor friends suggested using a blueprint image, with furniture that could be rearranged in a room. I really like her concept.
Lent is a time when we try to open up our lives for God’s rearranging. Are we open to God coming into our lives and rearranging everything? It doesn’t always mean that God needs to throw out the furniture or knock down the walls or demolish the house altogether – although we need to be honest with ourselves and with God when we do need that. Will we let God rearrange our lives? We might have good contents to offer, but the way God pictures our lives is so much different, so much more than we’ve settled for. Marianne Williamson, one of my favorite poets, writes, "When you ask God into your life, you think God is going to come into your psychic house, look around, and see that you just need a new floor or better furniture, and that everything needs just a little cleaning - and so you go along for the first six months thinking how nice life is now that God is there. Then you look out the window one day and you see that there's a wrecking ball outside. It turns out that God actually thinks your whole foundation is shot and you're going to have to start over from scratch." (2) Being a Christ-follower, we declare that we are ready to open our lives up to God, to be examined thoroughly by God's probing eyes, to rid our lives of sin, wrong-doing, injustice, and failure to love God and neighbor. When people decide to “give up” or “take up” something for Lent, I see it as a way of making some room in our lives, changing things around, so that God can create some new arrangements in us. What are you doing that signals to God that God is invited in, not just to redecorate, or freshen up the paint in your life, but to make some major renovations?
            Today, we’re starting our New Arrangements theme by focusing on the Old Rugged Cross. You can see crosses everywhere these days. You can find cross tattoos or cross jewelry. The cross you’ll see me wear most often is one that is more ornate than my typical style, but it was a gift my grandfather gave to my grandmother when they started dating, and was worn by my grandmother, mother, and aunts when they got married, so it is particularly special to me. Churches are adorned with crosses, some simple, but some quite ornate. Crosses on bumper stickers and billboards, crosses made out of every imaginable material. There’s a certain poignancy, irony, that the cross is portrayed in so many ways when it was actually an instrument of execution. It’s an irony that we’ll explore again when on Palm Sunday this year we find crosses fashioned out of palm leaves. The primary purpose of the cross, of course was as something used to put people to death, including Jesus, the Christ. But our understanding of resurrection, our understanding of Jesus’ victory over that very death with life leads us to see the cross transformed – not a symbol of execution, but a symbol of forgiveness, salvation, and re-creation. Still, sometimes I wonder if our frequent use of the symbol of the cross leads us to forget the impact of its meaning. Do we lose sight of the cross by our very frequent use of it? This fear, fear of losing sight of the meaning of the cross, was actually what motivated George Bennard to write The Old Rugged Cross in 1913.
According to the Christian History Institute, George Bennard was struggling with personal problems that were causing him a great deal of trouble and anguish. In his suffering, his mind returned again and again to Christ's anguish on the cross. This, he thought, was the heart of the gospel! The cross he pictured was not ornate, or pretty, or gold or silver. It was "a rough, splintery thing, stained with gore." "I saw the Christ of the Cross as if I were seeing John 3:16 leave the printed page, take form and act out the meaning of redemption," he said. “The more I contemplated these truths the more convinced I became that the cross was far more than just a religious symbol but rather the very heart of the gospel.” Bennard wanted to put this theme, these thoughts, to music. The History Institute writes that, "In a room in Albion, Michigan, Bennard sat down and wrote a tune. But the only words that would come to him were "I'll cherish the old rugged cross." He struggled for weeks to set words to the melody he had written.
As a Methodist evangelist, Bennard was scheduled to preach a series of messages in New York. He found himself focusing on the cross. The theme of the cross grew increasingly more urgent to him. Back in Albion, Michigan, he sat down and tried again to put together the words. This time the lines came. He later shared, "I sat down and immediately was able to rewrite the stanzas of the song without so much as one word failing to fall into place. I called in my wife, took out my guitar, and sang the completed song to her. She was thrilled!" On June 7, 1913, according to his own account, George Bennard introduced the new hymn in a revival meeting he was conducting in Pokagon, Michigan. "The Old Rugged Cross," soon became one of the top ten most popular hymns of the twentieth century." (1)
I keep coming back to Bennard’s words about wanting his hymn to give the sense of the gospel coming off the page, taking form, and acting out redemption. Our scripture today is from Paul’s letter to church at Philippi, and Paul is encouraging the Philippians to be of the same mind as Christ. That’s a lofty goal, isn’t it? But Paul clearly expects these Jesus-followers to do just that – try, in every way possible, to be like Jesus. “Make my joy complete,” he writes, “be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” He goes on to talk about what he means by the mind of Christ: Jesus, though he could call himself equal with God, though he was in the form of God, instead, Jesus surrendered any power, any advantage he had, emptied himself, took the form of a slave, became one of us, lived a life of deep humility, and obeyed God’s direction even when that direction led to Jesus’ death on a cross. This is what Paul wants us to model. When God asks to rearrange our lives, we’re not being asked to do anything that God did not already do in Christ.
George Bennard didn't want a pretty cross, a soft and delicate cross, because he didn't want to lose sight of what the cross signified. Jesus told us that to follow him, we must take up the cross, the cross which symbolizes the difficult, life-sacrificing journey that Jesus ultimately had to make to be faithful to God's call. The Old Rugged Cross is a reminder to us that the faith we claim is more than a tradition into which we are born, more than a gathering of friends once a week. The life we choose is one that sets us apart if we are faithful to Jesus' teachings, one that invites God in, to take our lives, and make them new creations, new arrangements. And as Bennard penned in his tune, we cherish this old rugged cross - the symbol of peace, the symbol of obedience and challenge, the symbol of glory, the symbol of humility, the symbol of the life we choose in Jesus Christ. Amen.

(1) Williamson, Marianne, as quoted in Pulpit Resources, William Willimon, for August 15th, 2004, pg 30.
(2) Christian History Institute, http://www.gospelcom.net/chi/DAILYF/2002/06/daily-06-07-2002.shtml

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Not Buying It: My Lenten Discipline

I don't always "give up" or "take up" something at Lent. I've read blogs from a lot of folks that will tell you about their deep theological reasons for not engaging in such a Lenten discipline, but I can't claim anything so thoughtful as my reason. I just haven't. Procrastination, lack of discipline, disinterest - those reasons are more likely!

This year, though, I've been thinking about trying something out for a few months. A blog I read, called Fake-it Frugal, has done a 31-days-of-nothing - buying nothing - for the last couple of years. As I mentioned in my sermon a couple of weeks ago, I just haven't been able to get this out of my head this year. I just keep thinking about it. And so I've decided, after a little back and forth about when and how, to try this as my Lenten discipline this year. For the season of Lent, I plan not to buy anything except gas and necessary groceries. I've stocked up my pantry, so I can cook at home (something, if you know me well, you know I do not actually particularly enjoy doing!) I've let friends and family know of my plans, and I told my congregation about it - as insurance that I will actually follow through and do it now!

A few people have asked me about my reasons for undertaking this task. I've been concerned about how I've been spending my money. I've been blessed to be appointed, this past July, to a larger church, with a larger salary. I don't know what I have to show that's of any real value for my extra income. Sure, I bought a house. But my mortgage payments aren't a lot higher than my rent was in my last setting. I eat out way too much. It's not only unhealthy for me personally, but it doesn't fit with what I believe about sustainability and the environment either. How we spend our money says a lot about our ethics, what we believe, and what we really prioritize regardless of what we've claimed to believe. I want my spending to better reflect the life of a Jesus-follower, a description I claim for myself. Yes, I'll save money this month. But I'm not planning to just go on a shopping spree after Easter. I have some things I've wanted to do to help others, to use my money as a blessing. I am hoping I can unplug myself from the relentless message of our culture that tells us, "I shop, therefore I am."

It's about 5 o'clock on my first day in. Already, I've longed for my Diet Coke fountain soda that I usually buy on my way to work. At the cafe where I hang out for my weekly open hours, I put a donation in the jar instead of buying some of the yummy desserts. I deleted my daily emails from Groupon and Living Social. I'm amazed, already, at how many times we're encouraged to spend, to buy, to consume in a single day.

My focus verses for my Lenten journey come from Isaiah 55:
"Ho, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price. 
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which does not satisfy?"

I will appreciate your prayers and encouragement in the coming weeks! 


Lectionary Notes for First Sunday in Lent, Year C


Readings for 1st Sunday in Lent, 2/25/07:
Deuteronomy 26:1-11, Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16, Romans 10:8b-13, Luke 4:1-13

Deuteronomy 26:1-11:
  • In this passage, the Israelites are reminded to keep sight on where they've come from, even as they now enter into this promised land that they've been longing for for such a time. They might want to forget their troubled past, their years of wandering, and their time of slavery, but God commands them not to forget, but to remember, to remember clearly, to remember with ritual, to remember with thanks, to remember in celebration.
  • Telling of History, Telling of the Story. Such important elements to our Christian life. What if we only got the part of the story where the Israelites were already in the promised land? Or just the Resurrection, without the teachings and Crucifixion before hand?
  • What is in your past that you want to forget, now that you're in a better place? What benefits are there to remembering, even celebrating where you have come from?
Psalm 91:1-2,9-16:
  • "For he will command his angels concerning you" - This psalm is the one referenced by the devil in the Luke text of Jesus' temptation.
  • Compare how this verse is used in the Psalm verses how the devil uses it in interacting with Jesus. The same? Different?
  • Emphasis on "knowing the name" of God, similar to Romans reading. What does it mean to know God's name? Who knows God's name? Both followers and detractors? "I will protect those who know my name." Then are we all included in that, or does know imply a deeper connection than a literal interpretation?
Romans 10:8b-13:
  • "Confess with your lips", "believe in your heart" "you will be saved." This is an interesting passage, certainly one that supports the doctrine of sola fide, the idea that we are saved by faith alone (without works required.) It makes it sounds so simplistic - all we need to do to be 'saved' (read in Greek as: safety/health/safe) is say that Jesus is Lord. Simple, right? "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved." Is there depth in that faith? Indeed, this belief seems to be frequently uttered in more conservative denominations/non-denominational churches - a great emphasis on declaring Jesus as Lord and Savior.
  • HOWEVER, the rest of Paul's writings lead me to believe that Paul would not have advocated some 'magic words' we can say that bring us God's salvation. Paul knew better than that, and if that's all we hear in this passage, we've missed some important verses at the end. "For there is NO DISTINCTION BETWEEN JEW AND GREEK; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him." I think actually Paul is insisting here that believers don't need to be part of the Jewish faith or complete Jewish rituals to be part of the plan of salvation - they just need to connect with Christ, find belief in Christ. This passage speaks of the open and inclusive nature of salvation. Indeed, GOOD NEWS!
Luke 4:1-13:
  • Jesus is tempted by the devil. It's easy to get caught up in an argument about who the devil is, if the devil exists, if the devil is a being, etc. But i think if we get stuck in that argument, we miss the actual point of the story. Point is, Jesus went through a time of testing and tempting and trial before he began his ministry. Point is, Jesus could have chosen many paths of action that would have left him better off, but instead he chose God's path. Point is, Jesus, a human, faced the same tough decisions we face, and remained faithful - so, so can we.
  • Jesus is tempted in three ways: in the first, he resisted using his powers to meet his own needs. In the second, he resists using his power to be a dynamic leader of the type that seeks fame and glory. In the third, he resists putting God to the test, demanding of God to meet his needs.
  • I can't help thinking the tests the various characters face in The Lord of the Rings from the One Ring in the J.R.R. Tolkien works. They have to resist a twisted temptation that they could do good through the evil power, that they could wield the evil for good purposes, etc.
  • It's interesting - the devil tempts Christ in the end by using the scripture from Psalms. He takes the words of the Holy Book and twists them into a wrong meaning. It's not just bad theology when we do the same things with "proof-texting" and other abuses of God's Holy Word - it's actually evil when we use the word in this way!

Sermon for 2/10/13, "Beyond Membership: Fruitful," Matthew 25:31-45


Sermon 2/10/13
Matthew 25:31-45
Beyond Membership: Fruitful


I’m terrible with proverbs. I never remember them correctly. I once asked my mother, with complete sincerity, why people said, “close, but no potato.” It made no sense to me. Of course, she explained that the saying is actually, “close, but no cigar,” and its origins. So I try to double-check on proverbs before I use them. As I've been preparing this sermon, I've been thinking about the proverb, “The proof is in the pudding.” I know what it means, but I haven’t always known why it meant that, what the origin of the proverb was. It means: You’ll know the truth of it by the end results. The proverb we use today is actually a shortened version of the original, which makes more sense. It’s actually "the proof of the pudding is in the eating." In other words, you can tell how good pudding is by eating it, by testing the end product. Making it correctly, preparing it just so – that’s important, sure. But in the end, it basically matters if the pudding tastes good or not. The proof is in the pudding.
 Today is the last Sunday in our series called “Beyond Membership,” and we’ve talked about finding and being found by God – something we can call God’s prevenient grace, God who is calling to us before we are even aware of it, loving us already. We’ve talked about God’s call to us to take up the cross and follow, and making that decision to let go of the other things we’ve been chasing after in order to follow God – that’s called justifying grace, when our lives get set right, in line with God’s hopes for us.  But we have the whole rest of our lives to practice being disciples. Disciples are students, and students are always learning, always seeking to understand the teacher. Even when we’ve committed to carrying the cross, we still face struggles and challenges, and we still grow, as our relationship with God deepens, as we learn better to love one another. This is what is called sanctifying grace, whole-life grace. Another way to think of it is: we’re seeking to be fruitful disciples.
It’s been a long time since I’ve taken a math class. I was always pretty good at math, but I definitely don’t remember the formulas and theorems I once knew by rote. But I remember that I would sometimes get frustrated because on tests, you were usually required to show your work. It didn’t matter if you could get the right answer or not. You had to show how you came up with the answer. I found this frustrating, because sometimes I knew the answer. I could figure it out in my head, but it took a lot longer to show my work, and the way I did it in my head didn’t always make as much sense, or follow the right rules. Teachers want to know that you understand concepts, and showing your work is as important to them, many times, as the correct final answer.
As I read the scriptures, I find that Jesus seems a lot less worried about what we say we believe, saying it in just the right way, being able to articulate particular theological beliefs, and instead he’s a lot more focused on what we do, how we live and love, how we treat one another, what we do with our lives. In more than one place in the scriptures, we find Jesus calling us to bear good fruit with our lives. If you witness people enjoying the delicious pudding, you’ll have no doubt that the pudding was very good. If you look at a good piece of fruit, you can tell something about the quality of the source of the fruit, the tree or plant it came from. And if you see discipleship in faithful action, you can get a look right into the good heart of the disciple. We’re called to be fruitful.
What does that mean, exactly, being fruitful? What do fruitful lives of disciples look like? Today we read the parable of the sheep and the goats. This parable is the last parable recorded in the gospel of Matthew, and it is the last thing Jesus teaches about before the passion – before the Passover, last supper, trial, and crucifixion. When the Son of Man comes, Jesus says, using a phrase to describe himself, the nations will be gathered before him, and the people will be separated like a shepherd would separate sheep and goats in a flock. The sheep, put at the Son of Man’s right hand, will hear words of blessing, and be invited into the kingdom. “For I was hungry, and you gave me food, I was thirsty and your gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” The righteous or ‘just’ ones are confused – “Lord, when was it that we saw you,” they wonder? They don’t remember ever encountering Jesus. But Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” This scene repeats in opposites with those who are like the goats. Jesus calls them accursed, unable to enter the kingdom, because they saw Jesus in need and did not respond. Likewise, the goats ask, “Lord, when was it that we saw you . . . and did not take care of you?” Jesus responds in kind, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”
In this passage, the crux, the key, seems to be in that everyone expects that they would have had a chance to show their good or bad behavior to Jesus directly. They don’t ever remember meeting Jesus. But you get a sense that all of them, sheep and goats alike, would have tried to do kind things for Jesus if they’d met him face to face. We mess up a lot of the time, but we could at least treat Jesus himself kindly, right? But the sheep and the goats don’t realize that they’ve been seeing Jesus all along – in the people they meet, in the people they serve, or the people they’ve looked over. That Christ is within us, lives in each person, is key for us understanding this parable.
Whether a person is counted as a sheep or a goat in this passage hinges on how they treat others. But Jesus gets at something more than that. Being a sheep or goat hinges not simply on how you treat others who happen across your path, but on how important it is to you to make sure your path crosses with others who need you to treat them well! This parable tells us that discipleship is something we need to be intentional about. It is much more than being nice and polite and well-behaved. Jesus focuses on us purposely, intentionally coming into the lives of those who need us, the “least of these,” who Jesus calls members of his family.
Pastor Aaron will tell you that one of the keys in church revitalization is knowing that a system always produces what it is designed to produce. An apple tree is designed to produce apples. What kind of fruit is your life designed to produce? Are you waiting for things to happen to you, waiting for Jesus to show up in your life, all the while missing the opportunity to serve Christ who is already in our midst? I told my pastor-uncle I was preaching on good fruit today, and he responded, “I have noticed that the fruit is always way out on a limb. Not much fruit at the trunk of the tree.” Is our plan of discipleship to hope that some fruit will fall into our laps? Or might we go out on a limb? If our lives aren’t bearing the good fruit we want to offer to God, we need to examine our lives, look at the source, and make some changes.
This week, the journey of Lent will begin with Ash Wednesday. If you’ve been found by God, if you’ve made the commitment to carry the cross, to follow Jesus, let this Lent be a season for you of asking: What kind of fruit is my life producing? What does the fruit of your life say about the source? What does the product say about the input? Jesus wants us to show our work, as a beautiful witness of our discovering God dwelling right in our midst, right in the others we encounter, right in the least of these. Are you bearing good fruit? Let the proof be in the pudding. Amen. 

Monday, February 04, 2013

Lectionary Notes for Transfiguration Sunday, Year C


Readings for Transfiguration Sunday, 2/10/13:
Exodus 34:29-35, Psalm 99, 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2, Luke 9:28-36

Exodus 34:29-35:
  • Moses has been on the mountain receiving the ten commandments. His face is shining because of talking with God. I picture someone who is glowing with being newly in love, or the glow of a woman who is pregnant, or the glow of a parent proud of her or his child.
  • "Mountaintop experiences" - a phrase we often use to describe those experiences where we feel super-close to God, and super confident that we can live a holy Christian life and do God's will for us. We describe it as 'mountaintop' because we always know we can't stay up there - we always come walking, running, stumbling, trudging, or crashing back to earth again.
  • What's your mountaintop experience(s)? For me, one was always attending our conference camp, Camp Aldersgate. I tried to prolong the experience by signing up for more than one week of camp in the summer, or eventually by becoming a member of staff. But being a staff member was never so sweet or powerful as savoring and loving and remembering and being inspired by the one week of camp and then returning back home again. Somehow trying to be greedy and keep camp all summer took away some of its magic.
  • Diminishing Returns - Ms. Byrne, my senior year of high-school economics teacher, used the example of eating too much ice-cream. The first cone is great, and you want another. The second is good too - you're almost full. By the end of the third though, you're getting diminishing returns. The cone is good, but you are starting to feel sick. You ate too much, and now the joy of the first cone has decreased because you're stuffed. Can God-experiences have diminishing returns? Why would it be bad to be on the mountaintop with God all the time?
  • Chris Haslam writes that Moses' face being "radiant" meant that God's glory was reflected in Moses' face. I really like that description. If we are made in God's image, then we can reflect God in our whole being.

Psalm 99:
  • "lover of justice, you have established equity" - this is definitely my favorite phrase in this Psalm. God loves justice. And we don't need to wonder what is meant by justice in this case. This is not God-lover-of-justice who loves to punish and condemn. The justice that God loves is the justice that brings equity. That's equal-ness. Fairness for everyone. God tells us what justice means. Let's not try to define it on our own when God already does it for us.
  • "you were a forgiving God to them, but an avenger of their wrong-doings." An interesting verse. God who is both forgiving and avenging. According to dictionary.com, avenge means "to inflict a punishment or penalty in return for" Can God forgive us and punish us? I'm not sure. I always hesitate to think of or speak of God in terms of punishing us, because I think our theologically can get really out of hand when we go there - we like to point out how God is punishing others who are not like us, or we worry that everything that happens to us that we don't like is due to God's punishment. But does God punish? What do you think?
  • "Worship at [God's] holy mountain. For the Lord our God is holy". For the Israelites, the mountain was a holy place to meet God. For us, our sanctuaries are sometimes holy - what other places are those you consider holy places?

2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2:
  • Oohhh- Paul takes on Moses!!! "We act with great boldness, not like Moses, who put a veil over his face." (Emphasis added.)
  • Chris Haslam writes that Paul interprets Moses' "veil" as his effort to hide from the people how temporary the old covenant was to be. I can't imagine Moses describing it that way! :)
  • Paul tells us that in Christ, the veil is set aside between us and God. Christ brings us right up to God, face to face.
  • Paul uses reflection/mirror imagery. We are being transformed more and more into God's image, reflecting God's glory in us, since we, "with unveiled faces" can see and experience God's glory.
  • Paul plays with the veiled/unveiled imagery - in Chapter 4:2, Paul talks about renouncing the things that "one hides" - we uncover the truth, uncover our sinful selves, and move on in Christ's forgiveness when we remove, with Christ, the veil that keeps us from God.

Luke 9:28-36:
  • "The appearance of his face changed." Obviously, this passage ties neatly with our Exodus reading. How are we changed after experiencing the presence of God? I think it is significant that it is the face in both passages that is described as changing. The face is the window, perhaps, into our soul - the place on our selves where one can read what is really going on.
  • Peter wants to prolong this joyful, awesome experience. Who can blame him? Things change so quickly in our world, and we face so many struggles, that we really want to hang on when things are clicking into place. I felt this way during my last semester of seminary. I wasn't ready for the experience to be over. Yet, I knew after seminary I would finally be appointed to a church, something I had been waiting for for a long time. Likewise, Peter and Jesus and company couldn't get to the joy of Easter if they wouldn't leave this Holy Retreat. What if Jesus decided to stay up on the mountain?
  • "They entered the cloud." The cloud overshadowing them seems to bring them back to their senses, as Moses and Elijah go their way and Jesus is alone again. The image of being in the midst of a cloud is intriguing. If you've ever flown through clouds on a plane, you know somewhat how it is like - a strange, foggy, unclear, sometimes very bright, sometimes very dark, place that's sort of nothing in its something, something in its nothing.

Sermon, "Beyond Membership: Follow," Mark 8:27-37


Sermon 2/3/13
Mark 8:27-37

Beyond Membership: Follow


            I have this bad habit, and some of you might share this too. It’s one I’ve had since childhood, that often drove my mother crazy, as she would look on, exasperated, trying to convince me to do it a different way. If I have eight bags of groceries to carry into the house, rather than taking two trips with four bags on each trip, I will do anything I can to arrange the bags just so and carry them all at once. “Why don’t you just put something down and go back?” my mom would ask, which of course, would be very sensible. And my experience over the years tells me that carrying eight bags at once is usually not any faster than carrying four bags at a time in two trips. Carrying eight bags usually means you go a lot slower, you end up in pain, having cut off the circulation in your arms, where you’ve tried to carry the extra bags, and sometimes, you end up dropping or tearing bags, and having to go back anyway.  
            Maybe it is a family trait, because we have a favorite family story about my brother Todd that we all like to share. When Todd was maybe four years old, we were having our traditional Easter morning egg hunt with the family. Todd was pretty anxious to get more eggs than anybody else. So, rather than taking the few seconds to rush back to the living room and drop off a couple eggs at a time, he was kind of holding the eggs under his arms, so he could keep his hands free for the search. Well, as it turns out, a couple of the eggs were not quite hard-boiled all the way through, and Todd ended up with egg yolk running down his arms, crying, saying with repentance in his voice, “I was selfish!” Naturally, we repeat that story as often as possible.
            One more story that leads us even closer into our text. I came across a blog post from a woman who, every January, does 31 days of nothing – buying nothing, that is. Of course, she buys gas and groceries. But she tries to cut back on the miles she drives, to cut back on buying “optional” groceries – sticking to the basics, and to buy nothing that falls into other categories. No going to the movies, no eating out, no buying clothes. Could you do it? I’ve been reading this particular blog for a couple years, and I’ve seen her challenge before, and always admired the challenge, but nothing more. This year, I just can’t seem to get the idea out of my head. In fact, I am planning to make this my Lenten discipline this year. I’ve been a little unhappy with my own spending habits lately, and I feel like God is calling me to seriously examine what I’m buying, what I’m spending, and why. But I’ve found that as I’ve been making my plans, I keep coming up with mental excuses for why I can’t complete this challenge. Or “exceptions” to my rule. For example, I normally eat out with some pastor friends on Fridays. And in my head, I kept trying to argue that these meals should be an “exception” to my rule. As if I can’t just tell them what I’m trying to do, and have them support my efforts. I finally told them of my plans, and they promised we could eat meals at our homes together for a month, no problem. I also figure by telling you about my plans in a sermon, I will now actually have to follow through and do it!
            Our human behavior is to try to add more and add more into our lives, without ever being willing to set something down to make room for the more we desire. And eventually, we find that it is simply not sustainable. I read somewhere that in order to sustain the average American lifestyle, we would need 5.3 earths. It just doesn’t work. You can’t add more and more and more without making room, without giving something else up, without there being a cost. And when we try to force more, we end up losing control of what the cost will be. So instead of picking our favorite Easter eggs, whichever ones we tucked under our arms will be the ones we lose, with yolks running down our sleeves. We have a saying: the best things in life are free. What we mean by this, of course, is that the things we truly value, like love, friendships, and family, are things that money can’t buy. But these things still have non-monetary costs. They require time, and commitment, faithfulness, caring. Maybe we’re more willing to spend in that way, but they cost.
            Our text today asks us to consider what the cost of discipleship might be, and whether we are willing to pay it. What do we need to put down, in order to take up following Jesus? At the beginning of our text, we find Jesus asking 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. And who, asks Jesus, 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 didn’t understand the cost associated with it. 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? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?” If we want to be disciples of Jesus, he calls us to deny ourselves, take up the cross, and follow.
            We’ve been talking about what it means to move Beyond Membership. Last week Pastor Aaron talked about finding God, and the blessing that God is always finding us. But what do we do when we’re found? Membership is a good thing, but it isn’t usually something that’s very costly. Of course, depending on what you are a member of, your fee may be steep or a bargain. But membership usually focuses on the benefits that you, the member, receive, rather than on things that are expected of you, the member. For example, I have a Regal Club Card for the local movie theatres. The cost to me was nothing – I just had to sign up. I probably am paying through mailing lists I didn’t mean to be on, and by allowing what movies I see to be tracked for marketing purposes. But I expect the focus to be on what I get: discounts on concessions and occasional movie tickets. I wouldn’t pay for this benefit. I pretty much want it to be free, and I want the benefits from my membership.  
            We’re members of a congregation, a denomination, of the Body of Christ. But sometimes I think our language of “member” gets us confused, and we start thinking of Christianity as sort of an add-on, a member benefit we signed up for. We want to pretty much live and act and behave in the same way we would if we weren’t followers of Jesus. We might add on: a Bible study here, Sunday School there, serving on a commission. But essentially, our lives don’t necessarily look very different from the lives of those who haven’t claimed the title disciple. Do we want them to? Do we want our lives to look different? “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
            The Bible is full of stories of people whose lives look radically different before and after encountering God. Their lives don’t change by addition, by just adding a little extra God-stuff on to their existing daily patterns. Their lives change so drastically that they have to change their name, or leave the country, or they end up in prison, or they’re chased of town, or they come face to face with a lion, or they leave their nets by the sea and ditch the only career they’ve ever had, or they end up on a sea voyage . . . or they give up their very lives. Those touched by God in the scriptures don’t lead the same lives anymore. They’re completely transformed. That sounds so frightening, doesn’t it? Overwhelming? Costly?
            Jesus says that disciple means examining our lives and seeing what we must put down, let go of, leave behind, so that we have room in our hands, in our hearts, in our lives, to take up the life-quest of being imitators of Jesus. Costly, yes. But Jesus suggests that the alternative is costly in more troubling ways: not following Jesus might give us the whole material world, but we have to give up our souls to get it. Following Jesus requires us to hand over our lives to God’s direction, but our lives are saved in the process. Real life, from discipleship that is worth the price.
            What’s in those bags that you’re trying to carry eight at a time? What’s in those Easter eggs that you’re trying to stuff under your arms? Put them down, so you can put on Christ. Your whole life will change. And it will be the best thing that’s ever happened to you.
            Amen.