Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Lectionary Notes for Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 16, Ordinary 21, Year C)

Readings for 14th Sunday after Pentecost, 8/25/13:


Jeremiah 1:4-10, Psalm 71:1-6, Hebrews 12:18-20, Luke 13:10-17

Jeremiah 1:4-10:
  • I still always think of a song-version of this text I sang at area all-state choir in 1995 or so in high school. Wish I could remember the composer, I'd pass it along as a great number for choirs!
  • Jeremiah says, "but I'm only a child." We can fill in the blank for our typical human response to God: "but I'm only a _______" What's your excuse?
  • Why, believing God to have the powers we typically attribute to God, do we still doubt when God calls us and has plans for us? If God is as great as we say God is, don't we believe God is smart enough to know which humans are equipped and suited for which of God's plans? Apparently not!
  • Note: God's words. Our mouths. Not our words, our mouths. God's words.
  • There is both pulling down/destroying and building and planting. We like to think about the latter - but what does God need to do in our lives in terms of pulling down? 
Psalm 71:1-6:
  • This psalm ties in with Jeremiah in referencing personhood and relationship with God even from the mother's womb.
  • This psalm is pretty straight forward. A plea to God who is refuge and rock in a time of need. For once, even the rest of the Psalm, verses 7-24, are not too over the top with calls for God to smite enemies and stop throwing temper tantrums.
  • Notice in these verses and those not included the psalmist's emphasis on the life-long faith possess. From womb, through youth, to old age, our psalmist has been faithful to God.
Hebrews 12:18-29:
  • Do we see God, or not? How do we see God? Do we see God face to face? This God of ours, says Hebrews, we cannot touch, but instead is "a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that not another word be spoken to them." Pretty awesome description.
  • Perhaps God is always incarnate - word made flesh - for us. Or at least incarnate - word made fire, word made Spirit, word made dove, word made angel with whom to wrestle, word made whisper. Perhaps it is only by seeing God through Other that we see God at all?
  • Angels, heaven, judgment. I don't connect easily with this sort of imagery, personally. I don't like the 'supernatural' feel. Does it communicate to you? 
  • "For indeed our God is a consuming fire." What does it mean to be consumed by God? 
Luke 13:10-17:
  • Some interesting notes about the Greek here. (Please, if you are a actual Greek scholar, bear with me and forgive me - my skills are not perfect :)!) First, the word in the NRSV in serve 11 that is translated as 'crippled', astheneias, means more vaguely "diseased" than specifically "crippled." It is the description that follows that leads to a translation of her disease as 'crippled.'
  • Hypocrites is from the Greek hupokritai, which can mean dissembler, interpreter, actor, one who answers, or pretender.
  • A teaching about the Sabbath, but more about value. What has value? The ox? The woman? Following the law? Doing what is right? Once again, Jesus points out that the law has been followed to the point of missing the purpose. How are the synagogue leader's complaints protecting the least and the last?

Sermon, "Sermon on the Mount: Eye Test," Matthew 7:1-5

Sermon 8/18/31
Matthew 7:1-5

Sermon on the Mount: Eye Test


            Last week, as some of you know, I went with a group of folks down to Owego to help repair a home that was flooded in 2011 with Hurricane Irene floodwaters. Before we got to Owego, the site coordinator asked me to send him some information about what kind of skills the folks I was bringing down had. Would we be bringing a plumber? An electrician? Our team was eager, willing to work and help and learn. But for the most part, I had to tell the supervisor that our skills were: none. We weren’t really skilled labor. Cheap labor, yes. But skilled – maybe not. Somehow, our lack of skills resulted in us being assigned the task of hanging sheetrock. The house we worked on was very old, and there weren’t many right angles or level places in the house, and it made it even harder to do a job we hadn’t even ever done in ideal circumstances. Because the studs behind the sheetrock weren’t evenly spaced, or necessarily straight and square, we had to draw arrows on the floor and ceiling and make notes and measurements to remind ourselves where we could place screws when we were attaching the sheetrock. So with my arrows in place I would try to screw a line of screws in the sheetrock from top to bottom of the piece. But somehow, towards the bottom, I would always start missing the stud altogether, drilling the sheetrock into nothing, making holes that would have to be covered up with extra spackle. I would swear that I was drilling in a straight line up and down. But if I backed up a few paces, or asked someone standing farther back from the wall to help me, I realized that I was not drilling in a straight line at all. Not even close. My screws would veer off, inch by inch, into a crooked, curving line. My perspective, too close, looking down, at a wrong angle, made it so what I thought I was seeing wasn’t accurate at all.
We’re continuing to work through the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ long section of teaching in the gospel of Matthew, and today, Jesus wants us to be aware of our human frailty of screwed perspectives. Do not judge, he says, for with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor's eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, “Let me take the speck out of your eye”, while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.
I’ve shared with you before a rule of thumb for reading scriptures, as has Pastor Aaron: If you find yourself reading a passage and thinking about the people other than yourself who “really should read this passage,” you’re headed down the wrong path. When Jesus is talking, he is talking to you. To me. To us. The person he’s talking to here is the person who is hearing his words. That person you know who is so judgmental who really oughta think about this passage? Yeah, that’s you. That’s me. Now that we’ve cleared that up…
            Have you ever been in a situation where you didn’t really know how to do something well, while you’re in a group of people? And you find yourself trying to watch out of the corner of your eye to see how the other person is doing something? I find myself doing that at the gym when I want to use a piece of equipment I’ve never used before. I’ll never just ask an employee to help me use the equipment. I’ll wait and watch until someone else uses it, and then try to copy what they did. Everyone compares things. It is how we assess the world around us, figure out our place, what to do, how to group things in our mind, how to notice differences and similarities and be able to process the overwhelming amount of information we take in every day. We are taught, in fact, to compare things. It is part of how we learn. How many times in school did you have to write an essay where the instructions were: Compare and contrast this thing with that thing. How are apples and oranges alike, and how are they different? Compare and contrast doesn’t necessarily ask you to rank things, determine which is better than the other, but it does teach us that we can better describe things when we talk about how they are alike and different.
            We get into trouble when we start adding value to the similarities and differences we see. Something is good because it is like me. Something is bad because it is different than me. One thing is faster and one thing is slower and faster is better. One person looks like this and one looks like that and looking a certain way is better. All the people who look like this are good, and everyone who looks like that is bad. Suddenly compare and contrast becomes compare and judge.
            Throughout the sermon on the mount Jesus repeatedly says things like “Do this in secret, so that God, who sees you, will reward you, rather than doing this in a public, showy way, so that you get the rewards of being lauded by your peers. Jesus doesn’t tell us to do this because we’re actually supposed to hide the fact that we talk to God like something we’re ashamed of doing – it isn’t a secret to be kept in that sense. Rather, I think Jesus emphasizes this over and over because Jesus knows about our human propensity to be unable to do anything, even talk to God, without looking to our right and our left to see what others are doing.
             The apostle Paul tried to teach some early Christians – and us – about the ridiculous behavior of judging others in his first letter to the Corinthians. Remember when he talks about how we’re members of the body of Christ – one body of Christ, made up of many parts. It doesn’t even make sense, Paul argued, for one part of the body to feel better than, more useful or important than other parts of the body. All the parts work together, all the parts are needed, and none of the parts can do the job of the other. The eye can have 20/20 vision, but it will still never be able to smell, no matter what a bad job the nose is doing. Paul tries to help us with our perspective, helps us see each other more clearly.
            Along the same lines, one of my favorite verses in the Bible comes from 1 Samuel, when God calls on the prophet Samuel to anoint a new King, after King Saul stops following God. Samuel goes to the house of Jesse and looks over all his sons in turn, finally choosing David, the youngest, who Jesse initially didn’t even bother bringing out as a choice, so sure was he that David would not be picked. God had told Samuel: “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature . . . for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” Jesus is trying to get us to see like God sees, to look at each other’s hearts. To do that, we’ve got to get a new perspective. We start by looking in the mirror, and clearing out all those obstructions that often we’ve put there ourselves that keep us from seeing God, ourselves, and each other, clearly.
            Some of you have already received and some of you will be receiving phone calls from members of our Lay Leadership Committee in the next couple of months. It’s that time of year, when we work to people our teams and task forces and councils with people in our congregation who have gifts of leadership or skills in particular areas. Please, still answer your phone even though I’ve warned you in advance! Well, it isn’t just that time of year for Liverpool First – my mom’s church is in the midst of the same process, and she recently receive a call asking her to serve as a member of the Session, the Presbyterian version of our Administrative Council. When she was telling me about this, she kept saying, “They must not know me very well, or they wouldn’t ask me to be on Session. I wouldn’t be very good at that.” I tried to explain to her that she was wrong – in fact, it is my mother who doesn’t know herself well, who doesn’t see herself clearly enough to know what an asset she’d be to the church’s leadership team. Sometimes we don’t see ourselves very well, do we? We don’t see ourselves well, and with our own skewed pictures of ourselves, we have a harder time seeing each other clearly, looking into each other’s eyes, seeing each other face to face, because our vision is already distorted. We’re not seeing what God sees.
            We joke in our family about the rose-colored glasses my mom uses when looking at her grandson, my nephew, Sam. We all adore Sam, of course. But when Sam was getting in a little bit of trouble at school, his parents were concerned and talked to Sam about behaving better, about being respectful, about listening to adults. My mom, however, said something like: Well, no wonder he was feeling a little cranky at school. He was awfully tired, he had such a busy weekend. He wasn’t feeling like himself. And he’s so smart, sometimes it is just hard for him when he gets bored at school. Somewhere in my Mom’s head, she knows that Sam can misbehave, and she wants him to be a good boy. But her love for him, her complete adoration of him is so overwhelming and unconditional – she looks at him and sees everything wonderful there is about him. It’s not that she’s seeing things that don’t exist – he is wonderful! But she thinks he’s so wonderful, she loves him so completely, there’s nothing he could ever do that could make her believe he’s anything less than a precious gift in her life.
            Don’t you know, don’t you know that that is how God sees us? You and me and that person who drives you crazy and that person you envy and that you might even call an enemy that Pastor Aaron challenged you to pray for – God adores us beyond reason. There’s just no reason to compare yourself to others, to measure yourself against them, to find them wanting, to find yourself insufficient. To try to rank yourself and make sure you’re coming in first or at least not coming in last. God adores you. And there’s nothing that pleases God more than when we adore what God adores – each other. Isn’t that one of the things you love – when one person you love comes to know and love another person you love? When your parents love your best friend? When your children love each other? When you introduce two of your good friends to each other and they become friends too? When your spouse adores your side of the family like you do? God loves for us to love each other. For us to see ourselves and each other in the way that God sees us – that’s what God wants. Because if we saw each other as God sees us, how could we hurt each other? Judge each other? Neglect each other? If we saw ourselves as God saw us, why would we need to make sure we’re measuring up? Why would we feel so insecure that we proved ourselves by pushing others down?

Do not judge. Don’t you realize how blurred your vision has become? It’s time for an eye test, time to clear away the obstructions, time to really see. See ourselves. See one another. Look with God’s eyes, look through God’s rose-colored glasses, glasses that see the best potential in us, offer unlimited second chances and unwavering support. Take a few steps back and make sure you’re seeing clearly. And then you can help others do the same. When you do that, God is pretty sure you’ll like what you see. Amen. 

Monday, August 12, 2013

Lectionary Notes for Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 15, Ordinary 20, Year C)

Readings for 13th Sunday after Pentecost, 8/18/13:
Isaiah 5:1-7, Psalm 80:1-2, 8-19, Hebrews 11:29-12:2, Luke 12:49-56

Isaiah 5:1-7:
  • Better to start right away by reading this text alongside Psalm 80 this week - they go together.
  • God has planted a vineyard, only instead of grapes, got wild grapes. So God plans to tear up the vineyard, destroy it totally, let it be overrun.
  • "God expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!" This is a big "God is disappointed in us" sort of theme. The people were not acting as God hoped/expected.
  • What's so wrong with wild grapes? Chris Haslam says the Hebrew word wild means stinks! That sheds some light :)
  • What kind of vineyard is your life? 
Psalm 80:1-2, 8-19:
  • Compare this to the Isaiah text - impossible to know, of course, but this psalm definitely reads as a response by the people to God's voice in Isaiah 5.
  • This is a call to God for help - God had planted the vine=the people. But now God is destroying or at least neglecting the vine, giving no seeming care that animals are ravaging it, etc.
  • The psalmist wants God to "turn again", "look down from heaven", "see; have regard for this vine."
  • There is not much recognition here of what the people have done to warrant God's supposed neglect - do they feel culpability? The psalmist does at least briefly say "we will never turn back from you." But there is a sense of wondering why God is upset at all...
  • On that note, let me just say again, that I hate passages, Psalms particularly, that paint God as an old man with serious temper-tantrum problems!
Hebrews 11:29-12:2:
  • This is a continuation of last week's text. Actually, I wish they had kept both together, even though it is a long reading. I preached on the first part of the text, and kept wanting to refer to this second reading as well! It just goes together.
  • "Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised." I think this is the central part of this text. I think today people believe largely that their faith in God promises them a certain amount of protection, prosperity, blessings in life, etc. How quickly we forget Christ's clear messages about how much trouble our faith could bring for us! But our faith is in God's love of us - and that is enough.
  • We often, outside of our relationship with God, put our faith in things we don't expect to see unfold in our own lifetime. I think all social change, civil rights movements, require investments from those who know that they may never themselves see the promises. Parenting requires this, doesn't it? You teach and love your child, knowing that it is unlikely that you will get to see their whole lives. You may not see great-grandchildren grow up. Yet you act in faith. We need to adopt the same practice of faithfulness with God!
  • "so great a cloud of witnesses" - I love that phrase. It often comes to mind when I'm near people whose faith really inspires me.
Luke 12:49-56:
  • Do part 1 and part 2 in this text tie together, or are they just slapped together?
  • I am reminded of Bishop Mary Ann Swenson preaching near the last day of General Conference 2000 on the similar "not peace but a sword" text, one of my favorite sermons there. Read her awesome sermon!
  • Not peace, but division. What do we make of this? That Christ does not want peace? No, Christ even gives blessings of peace throughout the gospels. Rather, that Christ doesn't come to make things sweet and nice and comfortable. Christ comes to stir things up, to have us making a stand, even if it means a stand against those closest to us, to have us following God, even if that causes strife in the community for disrupting "the way things are."
  • "interpret the present time." I guess every generation tries to interpret texts like these in their own contexts - that's the beauty of it, this text always seems timely. What about today? What do you read in the signs? Peace, or division?

Sermon, "Sermon on the Mount: What Not to Wear," Matthew 6:24-35

Sermon 8/11/13
Matthew 6:24-35

Sermon on the Mount: What Not to Wear


            My mother will tell you that in some ways, I’ve been a worrier since I was a little girl. When I started kindergarten, I went through a stretch where I kept asking my mother “what if” questions about starting school. What if I couldn’t find my bus? What if I got locked in the bathroom and no one heard me calling for help getting out? What if no one was home when I got off the bus? What if the teacher didn’t show up? What if I wore a dress on a day I was supposed to wear pants for gym? What if I didn’t have my money for milk? These were apparently serious concerns on my 5 year old mind, and my mother did her best to help me relax, to know that I would be safe and that someone would be there who could help me no matter what I encountered. I don’t even remember having all these questions myself, so she must have done a good job in calming my anxieties. Everybody, it seems, worries about something sometime. Are you a worrier? Do you experience stress? How do you cope with it?
            I’ve told you before that I am working hard to be a healthier person. One of the many reasons for this is that I find that the stress and worry I experience in my life shows up in my physical health sometimes. I have a family history of high blood pressure, for example, and I need to be careful to manage the stress in my life in healthy ways, so that my blood pressure is better controlled. When I’m not managing my stress, sometimes I can actually feel my blood pressure rising, or I find myself clenching my jaw while I’m sleeping. I think that one of the reasons people become addicted to things like alcohol or smoking or caffeine is because we use these things as a way to manage our stress, our worries.
            What is it, exactly, that we’re all so worried about? I went through a country music phase when I was in high school that may or may not have been related to my crush on a handsome young man from Texas who listened to nothing but country music. One of my favorite country songs has stayed with me through the years is called, “I’m in a Hurry,” recorded by Alabama. The chorus goes, “I’m in a hurry to get things done. Oh I rush and rush until life’s no fun. All I really gotta do is live and die, but I’m in a hurry and don’t know why.” For me, at least, a big source of stress comes from my endless to-do list. Sometimes, instead of daydreaming, I find my mind running through the endless cycle of what needs to be done next. Sometimes when I wake up in the morning, the first thing I think about is the list of things I have to accomplish in the day. For many people who experience insomnia, thinking about everything that has to be done the next day is a big source of sleeplessness. And neck-and-neck with worries about to-do lists are peoples’ worries about money. How much we have, how much we need or want, and the gap in between those figures. We worry a lot about having enough, it seems: time and money.  
Today, as we continue reading through the Sermon on the Mount, we hit a passage that is probably familiar to you. It’s a passage we characterize as being about “worry,” although there’s certainly a lot packed into this text. In this chapter, Jesus has just talked about giving alms, praying, and fasting, followed up by saying that “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” And then Jesus starts with today’s passage. He says that one cannot serve both God and wealth. This statement is a springboard for Jesus to speak about worry. Don’t worry, Jesus says, about what to eat, or drink, or wear. Life is more than these things. The birds of the air don’t work or worry, and have plenty to eat, and we are more valuable than birds. And the lilies are clothed with great beauty, but they only last a little while. Won’t God take even greater care of us? So why worry? God knows what we need. So strive for the Kingdom of God, not these other things, Jesus concludes. Strive to live righteously, and everything else will come as well.
In some ways I love this passage – it is beautiful, comforting. But I have to share with you my other reaction: Is Jesus serious? How can he be? Most of the time when reading the gospels, I’m struck by the deep wisdom of Jesus. By his perceptiveness, his way of seeing right to the heart of the matter. By the way he makes things so clear. It is one of the many reasons I choose to follow Jesus – his ability to trim away all the meaningless stuff and get to the core in a world that so needs that, when my life so needs that. But then sometimes there’s a passage of Jesus’ teaching that comes along like this one and my reaction is, “Yeah, but Jesus…,” “Jesus, you’re pretty naïve, idealistic, you really don’t understand how stressful my life is.” “Yeah, but easier said than done Jesus. Have you seen my to-do list?” It’s hard to picture Jesus keeping an appointment calendar, Jesus with a to-do list. A quick assessment of this passage tells us that Jesus says we’re not supposed to worry. And perhaps some of you are like me, then, walking away from the passage worried that we worry too much.
            As usual, when we really examine the text, Jesus says something much more compelling than “Don’t worry.” He doesn’t offer easy platitudes – this isn’t “hakuna matata” or “don’t worry, be happy.”  Jesus is tying his words about worry back to his opening comments in this passage today about having more than one master. We can tell this because of how this section about not worrying starts. In our New Revised Standard Version bibles, we just get “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life.” But the original Greek is even more specific. It says, “Because of this I tell you do not worry.” So the whole section reads: “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other; or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth. Because of this I tell you do not worry.” So, in context, what does this passage mean for us, that because of not being able to serve two masters, Jesus tells us not to worry?
            You know when Pastor Aaron talks about those mysterious two people in the whole room who might actually care what the original Greek says? I’ll confess to being one of those two people, one of those nerdy language geeks – I love finding out what the Greek says, and seeing if it helps me understand. When Jesus talks about worry, the word used is merimnate, which means more literally to “be preoccupied with or be absorbed by.” (1) When Jesus speaks of worry, he’s speaking of something that preoccupies us, absorbs our attention, takes our effort and energy and heart’s direction. In fact, in this way, Jesus is equating worry to something that’s very close to idolatry. Idolatry is when we take anything that is other than God, and give it the place of God in our lives. All through the scriptures, idolatry is one of the things that God most deplores about our human behavior. Again and again, we’re putting something else in a more important place than we put God. Worried? Preoccupied? Absorbed? Not only is your stress hard on you, it’s also putting your very soul at risk, because your worry is just another form of making idols. That’s why Jesus talks about worry and serving more than one master. If we don’t want to end up serving a master other than God, we must stop worrying, stop being absorbed by and preoccupied by things that aren’t God. 
Instead of being naïve, Jesus is, of course, being extremely wise. He calls our worry out for what it is – a way of distancing ourselves from God and God’s plan for our lives. We’ve been studying John Wesley in a book study this summer. We’ve learned about his Explanatory Notes on the whole bible. On this passage, Wesley writes: “Does not every [one] see, that [one] cannot comfortably serve both [God and wealth]? That to trim between God and the world is the sure way to be disappointed in both, and to have no rest either in one or the other? How uncomfortable a condition must he be in, who, having the fear but not the love of God, -- who, serving [God], but not with all his heart, -- has only the toils and not the joys of religion? He has religion enough to make him miserable, but not enough to make him happy: His religion will not let him enjoy the world, and the world will not let him enjoy God. So that, by halting between both, he loses both; and has no peace either in God or the world.” Wesley knew that by trying to strive for what’s important in worldly terms at the same time we strive spiritually would only make us miserable in the world and miserable in our relationship with God. We worry because we’re striving for the wrong things, or striving, at the least, in the wrong order.
So what do we do? How do we change? How do we give up this striving, our obsessive anxiety, our stress, our worry, our preoccupation with so much that has nothing to do with God, faith, discipleship, ministry? How can we just “not worry” like Jesus says? He gives us the answer: We still strive, we’re still preoccupied, we’re still consumed – but all that energy is given to striving for the kingdom of God. And we’re able to do that when we recognize that our lives are covered already by God’s love. Our lives are given value already by God who created us, and if this God who created us even gives value to birds and lilies and grass in the field, which is here today and gone tomorrow, how can we doubt the value given to us? We’re precious to God, of such value to God. The value we get elsewhere isn’t real. The things we worry about only define us if we let them define us. But if we choose otherwise, if we strive after God’s kingdom instead, we’ll find our real value as children of God.
Does seeking God’s kingdom free us from worry? Does seeking God’s kingdom clothe us and feed us? Maybe not in the ways we’d expect. But I think striving for God’s kingdom ultimately turns our view from ourselves out to the world God has created. So striving for the kingdom lead us to feed others, to clothe others, to fill others. If the whole world strives after God first, I think we’ll find that Jesus is right – all the rest is added to us as well. We struggle to exist in a world that is full of worry, ever torn, as John Wesley described, between more than one master, never being satisfied by either. But our lives, individually and together can be so much more than we sometimes settle for. Strive first for God, God’s kingdom, God’s justice. If we do that together, God promises that the rest will come to us as a gift to God’s beloved children.
What’s on your mind? What’s preoccupying you? “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet God feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? But strive first for the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” Amen.



Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Lectionary Notes for Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 14, Ordinary 19, Year C)

Readings for 12th Sunday After Pentecost, 8/11/13:
Isaiah 1:1, 10-20, Psalm 50:1-8, 22-23, Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16, Luke 12:32-40

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20:
  • I like this passage. The text makes a lot of sense to me. If you read through Leviticus, the first many chapters are filled with detailed codes for sacrifices to God for the community of faith. In this text from Isaiah, God doesn't say through the prophet that the sacrifices are meaningless or wrong per se, just that they're worthless because they obviously are meaningless to the ones offering them to God - and because of that have become meaningless to God.
  • God says, literally here, "I have had enough!" Enough of your offerings that are not matched by your actions. Enough of your worship when you don't actually do what I say when it matters. Enough ritual and show of faith when you don't live your faith. You can't fool God - your words and rituals don't match your actions and your living.
  • God says, back to the basics. This is what you need to do: Wash yourselves clean. Stop doing evil. Do good instead, by seeking justice, looking out for the oppressed, protecting the orphan. That's it.
  • "The mouth of the Lord has spoken." I like that visual emphasis on 'mouth.' Straight from the source. (Of course, I also think of "the mouth of Sauron" in the extended version of the film Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, but I think Isaiah is going for a different picture :) ) 

Psalm 50:1-8, 22-23:
  • For once I like what they leave out of this selection better than what they leave in. Do check out verses 9-21 - they seem to me to leave out some good verses and to make the first section of text sound abruptly chopped off when these verses are omitted.
  • "Our God comes and does not keep silence." That's comforting - God speaks. God speaks for God's people. Even when we don't want to hear God's words!
  • God as Judge. How do you picture God judging?
  • "Not for your sacrifices do I rebuke you; your burnt offerings are continually before me." Again, like Isaiah's text, the people here seem to be doing a good job of following the law and custom to the letter. But still God is unsatisfied, because they are totally missing the deeper meanings.

Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16:
  • This text from Hebrews is a favorite of many - in elementary school at church we had to pick a favorite passage to read in worship as part of my Sunday School class - this was the text I chose - the account of the faith of that "great cloud of witnesses."
  • "Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." What do you believe in that you have not seen? Why, when we believe in so many unseen things, is it hard to do the same when it comes to faith in God, faith in God's goodness, faith in God's love?
  • Disappointingly, but not unsurprisingly, this faith account details only the faith of the men in these stories, all of which had women in roles in the Old Testament. Too bad! Sarah and Rachel and Leah and Rebekah and Miriam were all part of these stories of faith too - don't forget them!

Luke 12:32-40:
  • Always be prepared - a good summary of this text! But there's more in it than that.
  • Would it be common practice for a master to serve the slaves, even if the master was pleased with their diligence? Yet read verse 37 - the master is serving the slaves. Jesus is twisting roles around here!
  • "For where your treasure is, there you heart will be also." This well-known verse packs a punch if we don't trivialize it into a little proverb. Try reversing the order: Where your heart is, there will your treasure be also." It doesn't work that way correctly, or as well, does it? There's a reason why Jesus says what he does. We start by examining our life and asking, "what is it that we treasure, honestly?" That's where our heart is. So we must be careful what we call 'treasure.' 
  • If it is the Son of Man who comes unexpectedly, like the thief, who plays master and who plays slaves? Interesting...

Sermon, "Sermon on the Mount: God Talk," Matthew 6:5-15

Sermon 8/5/13
Matthew 6:5-15

Sermon on the Mount: God Talk

Of all of the challenges of being faithful Christians – and I think you and I could come up with quite a list – of all of those things, why is prayer – talking to God – so very hard? Even more than that, why is talking to God in front of other people – in other words, praying aloud, so very hard? Of all the spiritual sort of hang-ups we have, the one I seem to encounter most often is this fear or anxiety related to prayer. From the youth I work with, to the most seasoned Christians I encounter. Nothing quite helps me bring a room fully of chatty people to complete and utter silence like asking if someone offer prayer. Ask someone to lead a committee, start a new project, teach a course, go on a mission trip, give their money, and people will do it, if with a little encouragement. But ask someone to pray – especially out loud, in public, without a pre-written prayer? We’ve got some hang-ups.
            Maybe our issues with God talk start because we give our conversations with God this special name: prayer. The word prayer means to entreat, to ask earnestly for something, to obtain something by entreating, asking for it. So, the word we use to describe talking to God has implicit in its meaning that when we talk to God we’re asking for something. We’re not just talking to God to make conversation, but we’re talking to God because there’s something from God that we desire. Maybe we’re uncomfortable with always being on the receiving end of conversations with God – God can give to us, but what can we give to God? Or maybe we just find it intimidating to talk to God because God is – God! God created us, created all that we know, and we usually think of God as all powerful and all knowing. Are we just scared to talk to God? Afraid of God? Afraid of what God will think of us? Say to us? How God will judge us?
Why is talking to God so very hard? My prayer life has certainly changed throughout the years. When I was in elementary school, and I was having a hard time with questions about God, my mother told me that I should pray by telling God about my day. I took her at her word, and did exactly that. “Dear God” – always ‘Dear God’ as if I was writing God a letter – “Dear God, today I got up and had cereal and went to school and at lunch and had recess and came home and did my homework and played outside and . . .” If I made it through this recitation, I would then do my “God blesses” – “God bless my mom and dad and Jim and TJ and Todd, God bless Grandma and Grandpa and Uncle Bill and Aunt Shari and cousin Becky and Ben” – and then if I made it through all of that, I would end with the Lord’s Prayer, because, well, we always say the Lord’s Prayer! Usually, though, I fell asleep somewhere between telling God about my day at school and telling God about my evening. But it was a daily routine that I stuck to faithfully for a long time. 
As I grew older, though, I found it harder to maintain this prayer ritual. I’m not sure why. For one, I guess, I started to expect more of my prayer time – I didn’t just want to tell God what I did with my day. I wanted some answers from God too. I didn’t just want blessings for my family, but I had specific areas of concern for my family members. And I found it harder to concentrate on a quiet prayer time, harder to set aside that time to talk to God. My thoughts before falling asleep tend to be about what I have to do the next day. And my thoughts about God have changed. I wonder more about what prayers do, what God wants to hear from us, how I should talk to God. I try to incorporate talking to God into my whole life – to let it be something I just do as naturally as I breathe in and out. But I also wonder if thinking of prayer in this way makes it easy for me to never really spend time talking to God. Special, set-aside talking to God time.
Why is talking to God so very hard? What terrible thing do we think will happen to us if we say to God the wrong words in the wrong way? We act as though prayer is really some magic spell, some secret combination of words that we have to get right, or else God won’t listen and certainly won’t answer. Is that what we really think? Why is talking to God so hard?
We’re continuing looking at the Sermon on the Mount, and today we hear Jesus talking about prayer. He says, when you pray, don’t be like hypocrites, who love to stand and pray in public places to make sure everyone hears and sees them. If being seen and heard by everyone and having everyone be impressed with your prayer is your reason for praying, that’s all you are going to get out of it. But if you want to talk to God, find a quiet, private place, and talk to God. And God will see and hear you. Jesus says, when you are praying, don’t “heap up empty phrases” and think that God is going to hear you because your prayer is fancier or you used big and special words. Don’t be like that – God already knows what you need before you even ask.
Pray like this, Jesus says:  Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one. That’s it. Jesus closes by saying that when we forgive others, God forgives us, and then he moves on to the next topic. So Jesus tells us not to worry about saying fancy words or showing off for others when we pray. We’re to hallow God’s name – to make it holy. We’re to remember, in prayer, in life, that God’s kingdom is near, here, in our midst. We can and should ask God for what we need. But just what we need – the bread for the day, not piles to store up. We can ask and trust in God’s forgiveness, and we are to forgive all those indebted to us. And we can pray for safety, for peace – whatever it means to us to not be put into times of trial. That’s it.
Jesus makes it all sound so simple, doesn’t he? Why, then, do we get so stressed out by prayer? I think the reason we have so much trouble knowing what to pray for and how to pray, even when Jesus speaks so clearly about it, comes down to what we believe about God. What do we believe God is like? What is God’s nature? All of our hang-ups and insecurities about praying suggest that even if we say out loud things like “We believe God loves us unconditionally” and “we believe God shares grace with us freely,” in actuality, we believe God’s love is conditional. We act like we believe God has mood swings, that we have to catch God at a good time if we want something from God, or like God needs to be flattered by us in order to give in to our requests. We act like we must bargain with God, make promises to God in order for God to give a little to us in return. We act very much like God’s answers to our prayers are just like the Magic-8 Ball, as likely to be yes as no, as like to say ‘try again later’ as ‘outlook good.’
And we feel that way because, I think, the problem with this passage, as poetic and beautiful as it is, as inspiring and wise as Jesus’ words are, is that we know better, don’t we? How many times have we asked for something, pleaded with God, and simply not had God answer our prayers? Or at least, not answer them in a way that seems very helpful to us. For every story we hear of someone having a seeming miracle in their life – unexpected recovery from cancer or disease, a windfall of much needed money – for every story like that, we know of someone who wasn’t healed, who did lose their loved one, or their home, or their job; we know of some prayers that seem unanswered. And so, to reconcile what God seems to promise with what seems to actually happen, we usually end up doing one of two things: 1) We blame the person whose prayers aren’t answered, making judgments about their lives and why they might not have deserved to have their prayers answered – in the scriptures, we see that this was a pretty common view, and we’re not always too different today. Or, 2) We blame God, for not answering prayers, and end up faltering or failing in our faith altogether. Of course, since we don’t really want either of those options, what do we do?
I’ve noticed that sometimes we turn of our God-given brains when it comes to matters of faith. Now, faith isn’t always logical, and we can’t always solve faith questions like math problems. But God gives us some tools in our minds that sometimes we seem to refuse to use when it comes to matters of faith. For example, if we can read, and understand what we read, we have tools of interpreting what we read to use. Think of all those “reading comprehension” exercises you have to do in school. You read a passage, and then you have to answer questions about what you just read. Probably most of you learned to do that quite well. But then, as Christians, we get to the Bible, and we for some reason turn off all those tools we’ve learned, and act like we have no way of figuring out and understanding what we’re reading. I wonder if we do the same thing when we’re trying to figure out prayer.
            One of the things I love about scripture is how many images of God we find to help us connect with God. God is as ambiguous as I am who I am, and God is a Rock. God is a Creator. God is a healer. So many ways to connect. But when it comes to prayer, it is easiest for me to understand when I think of God as a parent. We’re not all parents, but we all know either from being parents or having parents or functioning that way in someone’s life or having people dear to us in our lives who are parents to know a good bit about the relationship between parents and children. Knowing about parent child relationships is a tool we have to help us know about talking to God. If your 16 year-old wanted a brand new car for their birthday, would you give it to them? Why, or why not? What if you had two 16 year-olds, but only one car to give? Which one would you give it to? Why? No matter how much you love your children, are you able to prevent them from experiencing bad things, hard things, painful things in their lives? No matter how much you love them, will you give them everything they ask for, no matter what? Do you wish they would be open and honest with you? Do they need to butter you up and say things just right for you to want to love them? Would you want your child to tell you all about their day even if you already knew about it from another source? Wouldn’t you want to hear it in their own words? Maybe, just maybe, we know a lot more about how we might start talking to God than we think. There’s a lot we don’t know, certainly, because we’re the children, not the parent in this relationship. But we know enough, I hope, to have some good conversation with God.
Pray then in this way:
Our Father in heaven,
   hallowed be your name.
   Your kingdom come.
   Your will be done,
     on earth as it is in heaven.
   Give us this day our daily bread.
   And forgive us our debts,
     as we also have forgiven our debtors.
   And do not bring us to the time of trial,

     but rescue us from the evil one. Amen.