Monday, January 27, 2014

Lectionary Notes for Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A

Readings for Fourth Sunday After the Epiphany, 2/2/14:
Micah 6:1-8, Psalm 15, 1 Corinthians 1:18-31, Matthew 5:1-12

Micah 6:1-8:
  • This is a passage that I think makes a lot of people's favorite scripture list. And with good reason. Good stuff here. I'm stuck on the word "require" in verse 8. I don't know Hebrew - I only got around to Greek in school. But require - that's a strong word. We're not recommended to do these things. We're required. What else are you required to do? How do you treat these requirements, as opposed to those God sets out for us?
  • another good word in this passage - "the controversy of the Lord" - what a label! Who would want to be called God's controversy?
  • another passage (like Psalm 51, among others) where the author recognizes that it is not the acts of sacrifice and ritual themselves God desires, but the devoted hearts that bring such things to God. God wants us.
  • do justice, love kindness, walk humbly. What would happen if everything we did as a church was based on, or could be tied to one of these three things? Probably, anything that doesn't fall into one of those commands is something we should examine more carefully!
Psalm 15:
  • Who may dwell with God? Those who are blameless. Eek! If that is the extent of the list, we're in trouble. But the psalmist gives us quite a list to which to aspire: do what is right. speak the truth. do not slander. do not do evil. do not reproach. do not lend at interest. do not take a bribe.
  • On the other hand, as much as we think it is quite a list, why is it so hard to measure up to those requirements? Is it so hard to love? We so desire to be loved. Why is it so hard to love others?
1 Corinthians 1:18-31:
  • "For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing..." This verse is repeated from last week's reading. I don't know what to make of this verse, because I too often see it used as a "Jesus is the only way, see?" tool. But let's revamp it. An instrument of weakness is made into an instrument of power. That is what God does to things. Gives them a whole new life, and a whole new meaning.
  •  That theme carries into the whole passage - God doesn't just change meanings of things around, but meanings of people. We're flipped inside out by this 'foolishness' of Jesus Christ.
Matthew 5:1-12:
  • Wow - the Beatitudes and Micah 6:8 in one Sunday? I’m always conflicted when there are multiple really great passages on the same Sunday. Which to preach on?
  • Another conflict: Do you prefer Matthew or Luke’s recording of the Beatitudes? In Luke 6, Jesus gives the “blessings and woes” which are very tangible. Blessed are you who hunger for you will be filled. The implication is of physical hunger. Matthew gives a spiritual spin to everything from Jesus’ lips: blessed are the poor in spirit, those hungry for righteousness. Some people prefer Luke’s straightforward attention through Jesus’ words to tangible needs. Personally, I’m glad they are recorded in two different ways. We need both!
  • In a way, Matthew almost gives us here another set of spiritual gifts: Mercy. Peacemaker. Spirit.
  • Most of these make sense to me: the one who is making peace is God's child. The meek inherit, those seeking righteousness are filled. But what about the poor-in-spirit part? What do you think is meant by being poor in spirit? Is this someone who is dejected/depressed? Someone who has lost their way, turned from God, rejected God? What's going on with your soul that you would classify as being "poor in spirit?" 

Sermon, "Seven Habits of Highly Effective Disciples: Prayer," Nehemiah 1:4-11

Sermon 1/26/14
Nehemiah 1:4-11

7 Habits of Highly Effective Disciples: Prayer

            Today we’re continuing in our series on the 7 Habits of Highly Effective Disciples, and this week, we’re focusing in on prayer. Last, we talked about purpose, and I gave you a homework assignment: to think about your life’s purpose, and to actually think about, perhaps even write out, perhaps even share with me your draft purpose statement: My purpose is ____. I very much appreciate that several of you took me quite seriously, and I really enjoyed hearing from you this week, hearing about your hard work and thoughtfulness, reflecting on God’s purpose for you in this world. Don’t worry if you didn’t get to it yet – you still have time, and I’d still love to hear your thoughts.
            We talked about how our purpose in life is like our thesis statement in a paper, and the prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness that we covenant to in our baptismal and membership vows are like the supporting paragraphs of our essay, the ways we show our thesis – our purpose – is true. This week I met with my Doctor of Ministry advisor, and I told her I’d used this metaphor in my sermon, being inspired by the writing I’ve been doing for my project, and she was quite delighted! So this week, we take a look at the first supporting paragraph – prayer. “As members of the body of Christ and in this congregation of The United Methodist Church, we will faithfully participate in the ministries of the church by our prayers.” That’s one of the vows we make in this congregation. So our question today is, “How are we participating in the ministries of this church by our prayers?” And more specifically, how is our practice of the ministry of prayer in our own life supporting our purpose – for our own walk with God and as part of the congregation?
We’re blessed to have several prayer-focused ministries here at Liverpool First. We have a prayer team, a prayer chain ministry, a prayer room, a prayer quilt ministry. I have seen these ministries and the ministry of prayer at work in our midst, as faithful servants send out prayer requests via email, as leaders and committee members make sure to open and close each meeting, each choir rehearsal in fact, with prayer, as I deliver a quilt that I watched loving, prayerful hands sew together, as we as parishioners have prayed with Aaron, Laurel and I before worship, as our lay servants have written and shared beautiful prayers, as Brian did today, during our worship time together. All of these are ways in which we can participate in the ministry of the church by our prayers, just as we participate through our personal and corporate prayer, both as a part of worship, and as part of our spiritual walk with Christ. We often say to someone who has shared something challenging or painful that they’re experiencing: “I’ll keep you in my prayers.” I hope we mean it, or that we start meaning it. I hope they’re more than words we say because we don’t know what else to say. And I hope we know that as meaningful as all of our prayers are to God, I hope we realize how praying purposefully, praying for God’s purpose in our lives, our congregation, our world, to be fully realized, that we might help in God’s purposes being fully realized – I hope we realize how powerful are our purposeful prayers to God.      
            That brings us to our scripture reading for today. Our Old Testament Lesson comes from the book of Nehemiah, a book of the Bible you might not be very familiar with. Nehemiah was written in the late 5th century BC, and is a unique book among books of the Old Testament because it is primarily told in the first person point of view. We hear directly from Nehemiah. The events he describe take place after the Israelites had been exiled to Babylon, conquered by the Babylonians, and after the Israelites had finally been allowed to return to Jerusalem. But all is not well, “back to normal,” and Nehemiah returns to oversee the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem.
Nehemiah, is the cup-bearer to King Artaxerxes in Susa, the capitol of Persia. Cup-bearers were positions of high status. Because of the constant fear of plots to harm the ruling king, a person had to be considered highly trustworthy to hold the position of cup-bearer. The cup-bearer had to guard against poison or tampering with the drinks served to the king, sometimes even required to taste-test for the king. But this role also brought the cup-bearer a degree of closeness and confidence with the king. Cup-bearers had influence with the king.
Nehemiah, cup-bearer to Artaxerxes, learns that the wall of Jerusalem had been destroyed. As our text opens, we find him praying to God after receiving the news. He prays that God will give him strength and success as he asks Artaxerxes to let him return to Jerusalem to oversee the rebuilding of the walls. After our text for today, the king agree, and Nehemiah is appointed governor of Judah. He rebuilds the walls, he wards of enemies, and he rebuilds the community to conform again with the law of Moses, making many reforms, including reforms to combat oppression of the poor, like cancelling past debts and mortgages. He meets with a lot of opposition, especially from the Jewish nobles, but he eventually prevails.
But our focus today is specifically on Nehemiah’s prayer. Before any of the events unfold, right in the first chapter of Nehemiah, we read his prayer, his starting point, before he begins to carry out what he believes is God’s purpose for him. Nehemiah’s prayer is beautiful and flowing, but we shouldn’t be put off by the beauty of his words. The heart of the prayer is always what matters to God, just as a child’s “I’m sorry” or “I love you” is as powerful to a parent as an adult child’s more eloquent communication. Essentially, what Nehemiah says is this: “God, you are always faithful. I’ve screwed up, my family and my people have screwed up, and we see the consequences, the separation we’ve experienced from you because we’ve failed to follow you. But we’re gonna try again.  You’re always faithful. So please be with us and help me communicate my plan to my king.” Nehemiah has a sense of what he thinks God is asking him to do. He asks God for strength to get it done, for God to help him convince the king who will have to allow Nehemiah’s journey. He admits that without God, he screws up. And he remembers God’s faithfulness, God’s promises, and places his trust in that faithfulness, those promises.
            Are you praying for God’s purpose to be fulfilled in your life? In the life of this community of faith? I think we have two fears when it comes to prayer. The first, more obvious fear is that God won’t hear us, won’t listen, won’t answer – that our prayer won’t “work.” Won’t accomplish what we want it to. That’s certainly something for us to talk about. But today I want us to think about what I think is probably the more surprising of our fears. I think we’re secretly afraid that our prayers will work sometimes, exactly as we say we want them to. Do you remember back when Pastor Aaron challenged us to pray for 30 days for our enemy, that God would bless them? My heart, I admit, was filled with a bit of dread. Because I knew that if I prayed for God to bless my enemy, God would! I wasn’t sure I really wanted what I was praying for. Wasn’t sure I was ready to let go of grudges and hard feelings.
            When it comes to our life’s purpose, our congregation’s purpose, what if we pray for God to guide us and transform us and lead us and make us into faithful, devoted disciples – and God listens!? We have to prepare ourselves for God to give us exactly what we pray for. And sometimes, friends, I think we pray for things that we don’t really want to happen. We pray for God to guide – but we don’t really want to be led anywhere other than right we are. We pray for strength to follow Jesus, but we’re not really that excited to go down the path he’s going down. We pray for God to transform us, but we secretly hope that our transformed selves are pretty much like our current selves.
            We get pretty worked up about prayer sometimes. We worry that we’re not doing it right, that our words aren’t the right ones, somehow, to convince God to do what we ask. But I think we just need to keep one phrase in mind when we pray: Say what you mean, mean what you say. Nehemiah offered his heart to God in prayer, and in the next chapter of Nehemiah he approaches Artexerxes, successfully pleads his case to the king, and then spends the next decades of his life carrying out the purpose he lifted to God in prayer. What’s your purpose? Do you want God to help you figure it out? Then carry it out? Live it out? Do you mean it? Be sure, because your prayers are powerful.

“O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of your servant, and to the prayer of your servants who delight in revering your name. Give success to your servants today, and grant us mercy. Amen.” 

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Lectionary Notes for Third Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A

Readings for 3rd Sunday After Epiphany, 1/26:14:
Isaiah 9:1-4, Psalm 27:1, 4-9, 1 Corinthians 1:10-18, Matthew 4:12-23

Isaiah 9:1-4:
  • "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness - on them light has shined." Great Epiphany language, and ties in with language of Christmas as well - this text just appeared in part on Christmas Eve. 
  • "the yoke . . . you have broken." Can you think/imagine that feeling when you are working with all your energy and then finally get to rest - like taking a break after a long run, or going to bed after a long, long day? This is the kind of image that pops to my mind here - the ultimate release/respite that God will give.
Psalm 27:1, 4-9:
  • "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.
  • shelter/conceal/cover/tent - this psalmist desires protection and safety. Like when a little child hides her face in her parents shoulder or legs.
  • "seek [God's] face", "you face, Lord, I seek", "do not hide your face." Maybe today we don't think as much about God's face - we imagine God in a less personified way - at least I do. But seeing God - not God in a bush or God in a messenger - this was a big thing that few experienced in the scriptures. Indeed, probably few of us can say we have seen God's face, right? But it implies a desire for intimacy with God - close relationship - face to face.
1 Corinthians 1:10-18:
  • This is a good text to come in the midst of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
  • We can certainly take Paul's chastisement of the Corinthians to heart, can't we? Today, the Christian church is perhaps more about levels than ever. I'm a United Methodist. I'm liberal. I'm conservative. I'm Catholic. I'm evangelical. I'm progressive. I'm ordained. I'm laity. Our identifications are very important to us, and I don't mean to minimize them - I'm a fervent UM through and through! But let's not let our unity get squashed under our other identifications.
  • "to proclaim the gospel, not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power." Hm - we don't think of our eloquent words as diminishing, do we? But sometimes our words get in the way of the heart of the gospel Jesus lived and taught.
Matthew 4:12-23:
  • ah, more of Matthew worrying about things being fulfilled :) He seems to take great comfort in being able to 'prove' how everything came true in Jesus. I guess we need proof too sometimes, our comfort proofs. Note, the passage Matthew quotes is the lectionary selection from Isaiah for this day.
  • Jesus takes up John's message of repentance. Don't forget, the Greek means, literally, "to have a change of mind." A whole attitude adjustment.
  • "immediately" - I love this word in the New Testament. I don't do things immediately, usually. Our society does not do things immediately, even little things. So imagine just packing up, picking up, and following a strange weird man - immediately.
  • Jesus went preaching and teaching and healing. Active work. Gospel-spreading work. Action words. Doing. We need to do as well. To act.

Sermon, "Seven Habits of Highly Effective Disciples: Purpose," Philippians 3:12-16

Sermon 1/19/14
Philippians 3:12-16

Seven Habits of Highly Effective Disciples: Purpose

            Today we are starting a new sermon series called: Seven Habits of Highly Effective Disciples. Last week we celebrated a renewal of our baptismal covenant, as we were reminded of God’s promises to us in our baptism, and we also reaffirmed our vows – vows perhaps someone else took for us once, on our behalf, before we could even remember, or vows we took for ourselves – maybe when you were a teen or maybe as an adult when you reached some significant point of decision in your faith journey. As we reaffirmed our baptismal covenant, we said these words: As members of the body of Christ and in this congregation of The United Methodist Church, we will faithfully participate in the ministries of the church by our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness, that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ.
            For the next several weeks, we’re going to examine each one of those commitments, Prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness. But today we begin with a broader question, with the main question in fact: purpose. Then, after we look at each of the commitments individually, we’ll ask ourselves what it means for us, for our congregation, because of our purpose, and because of all those things we’ve considered, and so we’ll talk about commitment, and ask ourselves what commitments we’re ready to make.
            As many of you know I spent this past week working on my Doctor of Ministry research, writing my first chapter in my project. The first chapter is just the Introduction and Rationale. It doesn’t sound very exciting, but it sets the tone for the work. In the chapter, explain why I chose my research focus and what I think I will learn from my research both personally and professionally, discuss any biases I bring to the project and define any major terms I plan on using. My research is primarily related to the concepts of charity and justice, for example, so I had to define what I mean by those terms. I also had to define what I mean by mission. Do I mean mission like a mission statement? Like missionaries who work to announce the good news? Like a mission trip where people help build a house? Like our mission committee where we talk about what service projects we want to do? So I explained that in my paper, mission would refer to purpose. When I talk about mission in my project, I’m talking about the purpose of our lives and the purpose of the church. You’ve heard us talk about the denomination’s mission statement, our purpose statement: to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. And back in October, I shared with you my understanding of that mission: Our mission is to keep announcing the same good news Jesus announced: of God’s kingdom, as we also keep working to change our lives so that our values are God’s values. The mission of the church is working to invite others to come alongside us as together, following Jesus, we reorder our lives so that what’s most important to God is also most important to us.
But the most important part of Chapter 1 is that I have to state my research question and my thesis. What question am I asking, and what is the answer I’m going to try to prove in my paper? Any of you have written a paper will remember being taught that you must have a thesis statement that you can prove. And you have to state your thesis right up front, as soon as possible: what’s your purpose for writing the paper? What’s it all about? In my draft project proposal, my advisor said my proposal read too much like a sermon – occupational hazard – and that I needed to get to my thesis sooner. Right away. As I write each chapter in the weeks ahead, everything I write must point back to my thesis. The instructions for the paper are clear – I must constantly loop back to my thesis, and my chapters have to support that my thesis is on target. Everything else I write, no matter how long, how many words, is just a kind of evidence for what I say on the very first page. Like a mission statement, my paper must have a purpose, a thesis, and everything else hinges on that.
             Today we read a text from Philippians, a letter written by the apostle Paul to Christians living in what was a wealthy city in the northern part of Greece, written while he was imprisoned under house arrest in Rome or Ephesus. In our passage for today, Paul has just explained that he’s seeking to know Christ and the power of his resurrection by sharing in Christ’s suffering and become like Christ in death. Paul reasons that you can’t claim the resurrection of Christ unless you’re also willing to take up the cross with Christ. That’s the goal Paul is talking about when our text begins: he is pressing on toward this goal, and he seeks it because he wants to know Christ, even as Christ knows him. “But this one thing I do,” he says, “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the call of God in Christ Jesus.”
Listen, I’ll admit to you that sometimes the apostle Paul drives me a little crazy. He tends to be a little arrogant, a little boastful. In fact, earlier in this very chapter, Paul says something like: “I’m not gonna boast about my spiritual pedigree, although if anyone had the right to boast, it would certainly be me with the great background I have – but I’m totally not boasting about it.” That’s the Beth paraphrase right there. Paul gets a little full of himself sometimes, and I find myself rolling my eyes. But Paul, I can’t argue, from the moment he becomes a follower of Jesus, from that moment on Paul is incredibly clear about his life’s purpose, and he was clear about how what he thought was God’s purpose in the world. And then, he was clear about what that meant for how he needed to respond, to act, in light of his purpose. And then, he did it. He carried out his purpose with intense devotion and drive and commitment even when it meant imprisonment and eventual death. He was passionate about making sure as many people as possible knew about Jesus and he worked fervently to remove the barriers that others were trying to put up that would keep people from committing to a life of discipleship. Paul had a thesis statement for his life, and he spent the rest of it supporting that thesis. He knew his purpose, and he lived his live on purpose. I admire that a great deal. I aspire to be so clear and directed.     
            I wonder if we are as clear as Paul. Do we think we understand God’s purpose? Do we know our life’s purpose? What is your purpose in life? And then, if we know our purpose, how are we responding, living our lives, in light of that, and in light of God’s purpose for us? Sometimes we talk about doing things “on purpose” or “on accident.” My mother likes to talk about meeting with her life insurance agent when she was still working as a nurse. The agent talked to her about an “accidental death” policy. She joked, “Well, if I die, it sure won’t be on purpose!” He didn’t seem to think it was very funny! When we do something on purpose, we claim responsibility for it. If we say we did something “on accident,” often we’re trying to let folks know that we aren’t responsible for whatever happened. Sometimes, though, I worry that we live our whole lives in sort of an “on accident” mode, never being intentional enough to claim responsibility for how are lives are turning out. We say we have a direction or purpose or set of beliefs that guide our lives, but we don’t state our thesis very boldly, or our life’s supporting paragraphs never seem to loop back to that these statement, or worse, our supporting paragraphs disprove our thesis, showing that whatever we claimed as our purpose was just empty words. We wander through life a bit accidentally, hoping that we’ll also accidentally end up following Jesus. It doesn’t sound like a very good plan, does it? That model wouldn’t make for a very successful research paper, I’m sure, and it doesn’t really sound like Paul, who says, “But this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the call of God in Christ Jesus.
            What is your goal? What is your purpose? And how can you expect to reach the prize without aiming your life purposefully in that direction? I have homework for you this week – and that’s to think about what your purpose statement is. What’s your mission statement? What’s the reason your life matters? I know – that’s a pretty big assignment, the meaning of life and all, and I don’t expect your final answer. Just think of it like a first draft, that you’ll get to revise and revise. The purpose of Elizabeth Quick is to – what? I encourage you to write down what you come up with and carry it with you through the course of this sermon focus of ours. It will be your thesis statement, of sorts, and like with any good essay, we’ll make sure that the supporting paragraphs of prayer and presence and gifts and service and witness that we write together over the next weeks support our purpose. But we have to start with our thesis. What’s your purpose? Your mission statement? If you’re feeling bold, I’d like you to share it with us – the rest of the congregation. Make a copy on a notecard or send it to me via email or facebook – get it to us somehow. You don’t have to put your name on the copy you share if you don’t want to. But I’d really love it if you’d share it with us. Here’s my working thesis: I’m Elizabeth Quick and my purpose is to help announce, in word and in deed, the good news: God’s reign is here, and God is turning things upside down, so make God’s values your values, and follow in the way of Jesus. That’s my purpose. In the weeks ahead, I want to get very specific about whether the supporting paragraphs of my life really hold up my thesis. Can I prove that my thesis true by the way I’m living life? Can you?
            “But this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the call of God in Christ Jesus.” Amen.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Lectionary Notes for Second Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A

Readings for 2nd Sunday after Epiphany, 1/19/14:
Isaiah 49:1-7, Psalm 40:1-11, 1 Corinthians 1:1-9, John 1:29-42

Isaiah 49:1-7:
  • "The Lord called me before I was born, while I was in my mother's womb [God] named me." Such conviction in Isaiah's words! Do you have this conviction about your own identity and calling? I think I'm there most of the time. I'm not perfect, but I know I'm called - that has been one thing I've been able to trust in my life. You are called. Named. Believe it!
  • "[God] made my mouth like a sharp sword." Isaiah also identifies here some of his skills. He's not boastful, just direct, and not ashamed of what he can do. Why are we so embarrassed to claim our gifts? If we believe they are gifts from God, we should not hesitate to name our talents.
  • See, though, even as Isaiah knows that he is called, trusts in his role for God, God asks of him more, gives him more to do. That's the trouble with God! :) We have to be prepared for a life of service. We don't get to sign off once we've completed some individual aspect of what God has planned for us.
Psalm 40:1-11:
  • "He put a new song in my mouth." Another good phrase near the beginning of a new year. What new song do you want God to give to you? What bog do you need to be rescued from right now?
  • "Sacrifice and offering you do not desire, but you have given me an open ear. Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required." Verse like these, similar to sentiments expressed, for example, in Psalm 51, show that even the people who still followed laws of ritual/animal sacrifice could see that it was not the offerings themselves that God wanted - but the hearts of the worshippers that were important to God. We all have our rituals and religious customs that are meaningful for our worship - but let us never let them get in the way of what is really under it: our relationship with God.
1 Corinthians 1:1-9:
  • "called to be saints" - believe it! That's you and me, called to be saints. Of course, Paul was talking about the Corinthians, but we can take it for ourselves too. We probably all have a short list of folks we think of as "saints" or at least "saintly". What makes you think of them that way? How can you be more like them?
  • "you have been enriched in him" - I like this phrasing. Enriched by knowing Jesus.
  • These are the opening words to the Corinthians - you can see how much Paul is trying to build them up, affirm their faith, get them to stay committed. I think we all need someone who can and will do that for us. And we can do that for someone else too - build them up.
John 1:29-42:
  • This first section of our reading is John's sort of 'introduction' of Jesus - almost like his endorsement speech.
  • "Here is the Lamb of God." Notice how different this description John gives of Jesus is from his other gospel descriptions of Jesus as one wielding the ax. Did John come to change his mind about Jesus' character? Or is this just a different gospel writer's viewpoint?
  • "And I myself have seen and testified that he is the Son of God." Such a direct statement, when there are so many times that Jesus and others are very cryptic and round about in naming Jesus' identity as God's Son.
  • "The two disciples heard [John] says this, and they followed Jesus." That's it. That's all it took for Andrew to claim, "we have found the Messiah." That's all it took for them to drop everything and follow Jesus. I am so amazed by this, so moved by this. If we believe Jesus to be who and what we say that he is, preach that he is, why is it so hard for us to commit and follow? Who else would because of a few words? It seems to me that we'd be more likely these days to stalk a celebrity than follow Christ around town. 

Sermon for Baptism of the Lord Sunday, "Come to the Waters," Matthew 3:13-16

Sermon 1/12/14
Matthew 3:13-16

Come to the Waters

“You can surely say in a certain way each and every day’s a new beginning. Starting out to see possibilities; you can hold the keys to happy endings. It’s all in how you look at it to get what you see! Cause day’s a new beginning if you want it to be.”
When I was in elementary school my older brother gave me a cassette with some Christian songs on it, including this one. “Every day’s a new beginning.” It also had a version of “All Things Bright and Beautiful” on it, with a woman singing in a very operatic vibrato-full style, (example?) which, believe it or not despite that description, made it one of my favorite hymns as a child. I can’t tell you what the name of the cassette or group was though. Some years ago on my blog I posted the snippet of lyrics I could remember of “Every day’s a new beginning,” after finding zero results on google for them. Someone from Australia replied with the complete lyrics, but still no information on where to get the song or who sang it. A mystery! But as a child, I already knew to fall in love with this awesome concept: “Every day is a new beginning.” I already knew that getting to start over each day was a precious gift.
Indeed, the scripture is full of similar promises from God. The psalmists repeatedly talk about God putting a “new song” in their hearts, or they pray for a “new spirit.” The prophet Isaiah proclaims for God, “See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare” and “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” Both Old and New Testament readings talk about a “new heaven and new earth” that God prepares for the faithful. Ezekiel speaks repeatedly of “new hearts” God gives us. The apostle Paul writes, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” When Jesus shares the Last Supper with his disciples, he says, “‘This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” He teaches, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” New, new, new.
I wonder, though, if the new God promises us and the new we seek after are the same things. Because really, our culture, our media, our stories, our world all seem to seek after “new” as well. We’re constantly being told that we need all things new. That, in fact, we need new selves. Out with the old, in with the new. I recently watched a clip online that mentions that young people are exposed to an average 7.5 hours of media a day in some form or another. And of the thousands of images they see each day, so many of them are edited, photoshopped, manipulated in order to present an image of perfection, of new and improved, that is so unattainable, but that we’re buying into, literally. All things new: a new car. A new house. A new haircut. A new face. A new personality. A new life. A new you. This doesn’t sound very much like God’s promise of being new creations in Christ, does it?  
            The trouble is, I think, is that we’ve skewed the message of the good news. We got confused. Instead of longing for Christ to make us new, we’ve started longing instead to simply be someone other than who we are. We don’t want to be made new, to be renewed. We long to trade ourselves in for a better version. And in our hearts, we wonder if that isn’t God wants from us too.
            Pastor Emily Scott writes that we long for “A different us: . . . Us version 2.0 . . . This new us springs energetically out of bed and goes to the gym three times a week, or suddenly has no desire for cigarettes, or alcohol, or other vices, or magically keeps the house tidy and organized. This new us is shiny and new, and feels recently purchased, like a new car, with a fresh, new us smell and sheen, a smile that is whiter and skin with a healthy glow. This new us is even more photogenic than the old, as evidenced by the new [2.0] us that appears on facebook, always smiling riotously and having just a little bit more fun than everyone else.” But, she writes, “This is the lie: That you can start fresh. That you can drop off the old, unwanted, weatherworn bits of yourself at the Salvation Army and pick up something fresher and more appealing. Something less complicated and easier to live with. Here is the truth. Here is the Good News. God came to dwell among us. God came to pitch a tent, and [God] pitches it deep down in the muck. In the deepest, most forgotten corners of our hearts, the bits that we would rather set out with the trash. It is those parts of us where God loves us the most: wants most to dwell with us. God lives in the unwanted, weatherworn places, a light that shines even in the places we experience as dark or despairing.” (1)
At LIFE this week, our youth program, we watched a skit called “God’s chisel.” I’ll be posting a link on the church facebook page to the video later so you can watch it too. In the video, the narrator Tommy says he wants to be God’s masterpiece, like the Bible says, and so he tells God to bring out the chisel and work on him as God sees fit. He’s surprised, though, when God does just that. And then he’s – alarmed and embarrassed. It becomes clear that he thinks that if God sees what he really is, when God gets too close, when God chisels stuff away, God will be unhappy and disappointed with the Tommy that remains.
            God says to Tommy, “You are God’s Masterpiece. I want you to do something. I want you to look out there and I want you to say "Tommy is God’s original masterpiece.”
            Tommy does this half-heartedly, but God interrupts, “No, not the way you see yourself or the way you fear others see you, but how I see you…the way I created you.”
            Tommy says more boldly, “Tommy is God’s original masterpiece.”
“Yes, you are.” God agrees.
And then Tommy tells us, “And so are you. God doesn’t make junk. You are an original masterpiece.”
            Today is Baptism of the Lord Sunday. It is the Sunday when we remember Jesus’ baptism by John, and when we reflect on the meaning of our own baptisms, or anticipate the day we will be baptized. Today we hear of Jesus’ baptism from the gospel of Matthew. John has been baptizing people, a symbol of their repentance, an action he calls them to do to prepare because “the kingdom of heaven has come near.” John says to the crowds, though, that another is coming, more powerful than he, who will not baptize with water for repentance but with Holy Spirit and fire. That very one, Jesus, comes to the Jordan, seeking baptism from John. John is confused – why would Jesus want to be baptized by him? Shouldn’t it be the other way around? But Jesus tells John this is the right action for the right time. So Jesus is baptized, and as he comes out of the water, Matthew tells us that the heavens are opened and God’s spirit descends on him like a dove, and a voice is heard saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” After this, Jesus will head to the wilderness and encounter temptation before beginning his ministry of preaching, teaching, and healing.   
            Jesus doesn’t come to the waters to be made into someone else, to be made into the Messiah by John’s touch and the magic of water. No, he comes to be reminded of who he is: “My Son, the Beloved, with whom God is well pleased.” He comes because he is about to embark on a new part of his life’s work, and he needs to be grounded in his identity to have the courage to journey to the cross. He comes to the waters not as a sign of a new covenant that rejects the old, but of a new covenant that fulfills what God has already promised, a covenant never broken by God.
            In the United Methodist Church, we don’t celebrate rebaptism. Because we don’t need new yous! God loves you, God’s masterpiece, God’s beloved. And God doesn’t need to be re-convinced to love us. But sometimes we need to be reminded. Sometimes we need to remember. We remember, not the literal event, perhaps, of our baptism, but we remember that we belong to God. We remember that indeed, God is making all things new – in you – who God already created just as God intended to. Remember, and be thankful. Amen.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Lectionary Notes for Baptism of the Lord, Year A

Readings for Baptism of the Lord, 1/12/14:
Isaiah 42:1-9, Psalm 29, Acts 10:34-43, Matthew 3:13-17

Isaiah 42:1-9:
  • "I have put my spirit upon him, he will bring forth justice to the nations" - Reminds me of another Isaiah (61) passage, "The spirit of the Lord is upon me..." both are marking the identity of Jesus, the task to which Jesus is called - at least that is how we interpret them, and to an extent, how Jesus interprets them himself - this is the roll he seeks to play, to fill, to be.
  • "a bruised reed he will not break" - Remember Jesus asking about John the Baptist (Mt. 11) - "what did you come out to see - a reed shaken by the wind?"
  • "I have taken you by the hand and kept you" - This is no God who sits back and watches from a distance. This is up-close-and-personal God. We are God's, and God wants us to make no mistake of that fact. We disobey, turn away, etc. But we are God's.
  • "to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners" - again, compare to Luke 4/Isaiah 61
  • "new things I now declare" - a good verse for a beginning of a new year
Psalm 29:
  • "The Voice of the Lord" - I guess I've never noticed this psalm before, which speaks primarily of God's voice.
  • It is also visualizing God creating or in relation to a strong and powerful thunderstorm, which may be based on a psalm to the Caananite god, Baal (see Chris Haslam's comments on this) God over the waters, God's glory thundering, breaking the cedars, flashes forth flames of fire, "the voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness." What can we do with these images? I led a Bible-study, Companions in Christin a previous church. One lesson is on using our imagination to read the scriptures. Certainly this psalmist used imagination to create this imagery, to make God's voice come alive.
  • What imagery would you use to describe/envision God's voice in your life? I like the process theology metaphor of God's lure, God slowly luring me with God's voice until slowly, step by step, I followed.
Acts 10:34-43:
  • Peter is speaking to Cornelius and his friends and relatives in Caesarea. Cornelius had been visited by a messenger from God telling him to invite Peter to his home and here him speak.
  • "God shows no partiality". Do we get that? Believe it? Preach it? Live and practice it?
  • "preaching peace by Jesus Christ" Ah, the gospel message is a message of peace. Too much of our Christian history works to counter that claim. We struggle on!
  • A mini-sermon, all the facts needed to share the good news packed into one little blurb - this is Peter's quick pitch, at the opportunity he's been given.
Matthew 3:13-17:
  • "John would have prevented him" - when do we play John's role - for whom do we play John's role? Facilitating someone else in their journey to ministry is extremely important - 'proper' as Jesus says, and necessary. If we decline our role, we're preventing another from fulfilling theirs as well.
  • This is the event that marks the beginning of Jesus' 'official' ministry, and is significantly recorded in all four gospels. We might all wish for the heavens to part and for a dove to descend and for God to declare in front of all that we are pleasing and beloved in God's sight, but it doesn't usually work quite that way for us. How does it work for us? How can we know God loves us? What are the markers and milestones in our lives and ministries? How can we play John to someone, preparing them, providing a space for them to begin their calling?
  • Matthew's baptism account is fairly short - don't forget to compare notes with the other gospels

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

My 2013 Reading List

Books I Read in 2013 
My brother always used to post his reading list every year. Once upon a time, I actually wrote individual reviews of books I read. But this year, a list with mini-reviews will have to do. There may be spoilers. Sorry. 

1. Shapard, David M. (Jane Austen), The Annotated Pride and Prejudice. 
I loved this. I'm a huge Pride and Prejudice fan. (Todd is going to be in P&P at Purdue this spring, playing Mr. Bennett. I read every bit of the annotated information, and found it fascinating, and nerd that I am, managed to incorporate some of the stuff I learned about life in England into my John Wesley class! 

2. Kingsolver, Barbara, Flight Behavior
Kingsolver is one of the best contemporary writers. I could read about any subject she chose to write about and find it fascinating. This book was beautiful, and she is one of my favorites.  

3. Foster, Richard, A Celebration of Discipline. Used this for small group study at church. Walks through 12 spiritual disciplines. It was a challenging/powerful study and book, although I don't see eye to eye with Foster on some things. 

4. Yrigoyen, Charles, John Wesley: Holiness of Heart and Life. Book study at church. 

5-12. Wilder, Laura Ingalls, Little House in the Big Woods, Little House on the Prairie, On the Banks of Plum Creek, Farmer Boy, By the Shores of Silver Lake, The Long Winter, These Happy Golden Years, The First Four Years.  I read parts of parts of these books as a child, but skipped some entirely (like Farmer Boy - I had no interest in reading about Almanzo - and The First Four Yeras - I also had no interest in married life for Laura.) I really enjoyed reading them as an adult. 

13. Wilder, Laura Ingalls, A Little House Traveler: Writings from Laura Ingalls Wilder's Journeys Across America. 
I tend to get very into something when I'm interested in it, so after reading the Little House series, I read a little bit about Laura Ingalls Wilder. I never knew that her daughter, Rose, helped her write the series - significantly in all likelihood. Rose has the soft edges in her writing style that Laura really doesn't, at least in this collection of journals and letters. 

14. Chobsky, Stephen, The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Lent to me by my brother Tim. Tim loves this book. I thought it was just ok. Sorry Tim! 

15/16. Lutz, Lisa, Trail of the Spellmans and The Last Word.  
My cousin Karen got me hooked on this series. Fun, fast reads. I'm still in denial about Henry though. 

17. Kaling, Mindy, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? 
I never watched The Office, but I love The Mindy Project, and Kaling's book is really very funny. 

18. Garcia, Kami and Margaret Stohl, Beautiful Creatures
I enjoy reading whatever the popular young adult series of the moment is. But Beautiful Creatures - not good. I will not be reading the rest of this series. 

19. Safran Foer, Jonathan, Eating Animals
I'd previously read Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, so I knew Safran Foer was a good writer, and like Barbara Kingsolver, he has a narrative style for non-fiction that makes a bunch of information read like a novel. This book was excellent. I knew it would be. I told myself that I would make the switch from vegetarian to vegan when I finished reading it (even though Safran Foer really focuses on eating animals, not on using stuff they produce - it's all connected. But the result, of course, was that I read a little slower. But I did it - made the switch to vegan. Almost 3 months now!

20. Picoult, Jodi, The Storyteller
My mom lent this to me. I've read or listened to other Picoult books. Her stories are sometimes just too intense for me. I dread the awfulness that always unfolds in her stories. I'm not sure quite how to describe it. I don't dislike them, or think they're bad, I just don't want to go through the emotional journey of her books. This one was certainly emotional, but in a different way, and I really enjoyed it. Also, it made me want to be a baker. 

21. Willis, Laura Lappins, Finding God in a Bag of Groceries.
My friend Heather lent me this book. Wow, I really just did not enjoy this. (Sorry Heather!) I thought the author trivialized the difference in tasks and responsibilities of clergy and laity in concerning ways. I don't think pastors are better or work harder or are more special than lay folks. But in order to feel good about not pursuing ministry, I felt like the author spoke about ordained ministry in really flippant ways, suggesting pastoral ministry added nothing but empty rituals that people don't find meaningful. I'm sure this wasn't her intent, but that's how it read to me.

22. Hamilton, Adam, The Way: Walking in the Footsteps of Jesus
I used this for a small group study at church, and I really enjoyed it. Hamilton's books generally have a similar structure and style, but they're very accessible for congregational use, and they are a kind of study where you get out more if you put in more, but will feel 'surface' if you only want 'surface'. This is one of my favorites of his books. 

23-32: These books I read for my DMin courses this year. I won't link/write-up each one, just my favorite couple:
Barndt, Joseph R. Becoming an Anti‐Racist Church: Journeying Toward Wholeness. 
Branson, Mark Lau, and Juan Martinez. Churches, Cultures, and Leadership: A Practical Theology of Congregations and Ethnicities. 
Brueggemann, Walter. Mandate to Difference: An Invitation to the Contemporary Church. My favorite Brueggemann book to date. Love it. Go back to it frequently to remind myself of what I think the mission of Jesus is, the mission of church is, the mission of Beth is. 
Hicks, Douglas A. With God on All Sides: Leadership in a Devout and Diverse America. 
Kwok, Pui‐lan. Postcolonial Imagination and Feminist Theology. 
Roxburgh, Alan, Fred Romanuk, and Eddie Gibbs. The Missional Leader: Equipping Your Church to Reach a Changing World. 
Heifitz, Ronald A., The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World. This book is excellent...and exhausting. I read it and think: maybe this is exactly what churches need. And: I am not this kind of leader and I'm not sure I want to be. Read as part of coursework for the same DMin, where a different class had us read the Brueggemann book above, I have a hard time reconciling the messages. 
Rendle, Gilbert. Journey in the Wilderness: New Life for Mainline Churches. 
Woods, C. Jeff. On the Move: Adding Strength, Speed, and Balance to your Congregation. Woolever, Cynthia and Bruce, Deborah. Field Guide to US Congregations.

Notable audiobooks: (I listen to audiobooks all the time, almost exclusively while I'm driving, and I drive a lot. I usually listen to much lighter stuff than I read. Quick-paced action books and political thrillers work best for me to keep my interest on long trips, but there are a few standouts among the mostly-similar stuff I've listened to: 
Binchy, Maeve, A Week in Winter. I've loved her sweet stories, her wonderful character studies, her intertwining of lives, and I'm so sad I won't have anything new of hers to listen to anymore!

Other: I reread several books every year, my favorite fiction, books for comfort. This usually includes any of Louisa May Alcott books, books I want to reread before movies (or a new book in the series) come out (this year: Hunger Games series, Sookie Stackhouse series.) I'm also reading a beautiful fanction story from the Hunger Games world, a work in progress, called When the Moon Fell in Love with the Sun, based on East of the Sun, West of the Moon. It is beautiful. I don't read a lot of fanfiction, but happened upon this, and really deserves a mention.

In progress: Divergent by Veronica Roth, Proof of Heaven, by Eben Alexander, lent to me by a parishioner who asked me to read it, and When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor...and Yourself, by Steve Corbett, for my DMin project. But I guess I'll review those on my 2014 list!