Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Lectionary Notes for Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A (Proper 21, Ordinary 26)

Readings for 15th Sunday after Pentecost, 9/28/14:
Exodus 17:1-7, Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16, Philippians 2:1-13, Matthew 21:23-32

Exodus 17:1-7:
  • "wilderness of Sin" - great image.
  • Human nature is so perfectly exhibited by the Israelites, isn't it? We tend to find things to gripe about no matter what is going on in our lives. "They are almost ready to stone me," Moses admits. Perhaps pastors sometimes feel that way when trying to lead congregations out of the wilderness and into the vision which God has laid before the people. How can we get over our griping, count our blessings, and forge ahead?
  • The name, Massah and Meribah, is summed up as indicating the question of the people, "Is the Lord among us or not?" Hopefully, that should be a rhetorical question: the answer is yes. And if God is among the people, then the people should respond, live, with faith.
Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16:
  • "I will open my mouth in a parable" - I hadn't realized that the word 'parable' appeared in the Old Testament. But it reminds us that in Jesus' day, the people would have related to Jesus' style, more, perhaps, than we are able to relate today.
  • "We will not hide them from our children; we will tell to the coming generation" - I like these verses that convey a sense of the necessity to tell the story of a people, to make sure the history is known through time and generations. We have a tendency to forget whole chunks of our history, don't we, until we are repeating it!
  • Verses 12-16 refer to the Israelites being led through the Red Sea, into the wilderness, and receiving water to drink from the rock, which ties in with our Old Testament reading.
Philippians 2:1-13:
  • "if then there is any (fill in the blank) in Christ . . . be of the same mind, having the same love." Paul says that whatever in Christ there is, we should be like-minded. A good strategy!
  • "did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited" I find this such a unique statement. Imagine if Christ had used his equality to exploit? What would that look like? Perhaps this is what the devil was tempting Christ to do in the wilderness - to exploit his equality.
  • "emptied himself" Emptying ourselves.
  • "every knee should bend . . . every tongue should confess." Hm. This is one of those passages often used by people who are seeking to convert non-Christians and those of other faith traditions as proof or encouragement about the task at hand. Frankly, it makes me a bit uncomfortable. If the idea is that people will ultimately be moved to worship Jesus even against their will, I'm not sure I'd want to see that display...
  • "work out your own salvation" - this ends up being a very Wesleyan sentiment - obviously, Paul does not mean that we save ourselves, but he means to remind us that we are active participants in the justifying and sanctifying grace that should mark our lives as people of faith.
Matthew 21:23-32:
  • "by what authority" - the priests and elders want to know why Jesus thinks he "has the right" to teach as he's teaching. Who is he? Who's 'backing' him?
  • I love this, this trick Jesus sets them up for. Jesus himself knows the answer to his own question, doesn't he? But he traps them in a way that makes it impossible to answer. I think Jesus was having a good time here.
  • Jesus says - it is more important what you do than what your lips claim you believe. Did you hear that?
  • "change your minds" from the Greek metemele^the^te, which means "to repent" - this is not the typical word used for repentance/"change of minds" in the New Testament. It is usuallymetanoeo^, but the gist of the meaning is the same. But typically, NRSV translates the meaning as "repent" as opposed to this more literal rendering (preferred to me) of "change your minds."

Monday, September 15, 2014

Lectionary Notes for Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A (Proper 20, Ordinary 25)

Readings for 15th Sunday after Pentecost, 9/21/14:
Exodus 16:2-15, Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45, Philippians 1:21-30, Matthew 20:1-16

Exodus 16:2-15:
  • "rain bread from heaven for you" I'm mindful of the famine in Africa. If we can't take care of each other by feeding our neighbors, perhaps God could rain down some more manna. Sadly, we seem to need that help.
  • the people must learn to depend on God day by day, trusting for each moment in God's guidance. They aren't great at it, but they learn that God can be trusted, their faith put in God. Could you live in such a day-to-day way? We like to have our plans all laid out.
Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45:
  • Here we go - this Psalm showing up for the 4th time this summer. Of course, parts of this Psalm have been following along with our Exodus story. But still...
  • Verses 1-5 are right on target for me: Remember to praise God all the time, because God has done some pretty amazing things for you. It is amazing how easily we forget God's role in all that we claim as our own goodness.
  • I do like verses 39-45: the people ask, God responds. God tries to meet every need.
  • 45b makes a nice end, while skipping many verses: "praise God!"
Philippians 1:21-30:
  • the dilemma - living in the world or retreating to a spiritual place where we are 'safe' - this isn't exactly Paul's dilemma - he's talking more literal life and death. but we can related to his dilemma maybe, by thinking of the "in the world" or "of the world" tug of war.
  • "live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ" - yes. The hard thing about sharing the gospel is when the sharers aren't living the things they're sharing! We try, we are imperfect. But we need to try!
Matthew 20:1-16:
  • this is one of the hardest parables for us, I think. It goes against everything about our values - American work ethic and all. You work hard, you get rewarded proportionally. The idea that someone else could do less than us and get the same pay is totally frustrating, isn't it?
  • Fair. This isn't fair, is it? Fairness is something we prize, but not mentioned as something Jesus exactly values!  
  • This is the side of grace we don't like to hear about, I think. We struggle with whether or not we can accept grace for ourselves, but when it comes to who else gets God's grace, and how they get it, it becomes a lot trickier, and we wish there were more rules about it...

Sermon for Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A, "Out of Egypt: Surrounded, " Exodus 14:19-31

Sermon 9/14/14
Exodus 14:19-31

Out of Egypt: Surrounded

            Last week, we learned about the first Passover, as God instructed the Israelites how to prepare to leave Egypt, and not only that, instructed them in how to prepare to remember, every year, how God had rescued them. Today, in our text, we skip ahead a little bit, and find the Israelites preparing to cross the Red Sea, with the Egyptians chasing after them. The threat of being caught is imminent, and the Israelites are in a panic. As I mentioned last week, God knew the Israelites would need to be reminded of why they were leaving Egypt, and indeed, already, just before our text begins, they are complaining bitterly to Moses. They say, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, ‘Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.” But Moses responds, “Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you shall never see again. The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.”
            And then, they cross the Red Sea, Moses’s arms outstretched in a gesture of parting the waters, a path made clear for the people. It seems to take them all night to cross – this isn’t just a group of twenty or thirty fleeing Egypt, but a whole nation of people. But when the Egyptians pursue, Moses stretches out his arms again and the waters come crashing back together, and the Egyptian army is tossed into the sea. The Israelites are saved. Now, this text brings up many questions. How could Moses perform such a miracle? Did he really part the waters? Can we find some scientific phenomenon to explain what happened? And what about all those Egyptians? Was it fair for them to all be killed? Weren’t some of them just doing their job – part of an army? I’m a great fan of asking a lot of questions of the biblical texts we read. Seriously. There’s no question you can put to the Bible, no question you can ask God that is crossing some kind of line. God is strong enough to hear your questions. But sometimes, if what we’re doing is seeking understanding, it’s helpful if we know what are the best questions to ask, and which questions are distractions to figuring out how the text is important to us as people of faith.
Some people have speculated when talking about the crossing of the Red Sea that the Israelites happened to cross the Red Sea at a spot where, if the winds were right, dry ground would be exposed for a time, because the waters were shallow. You can see from the map that most think the Israelites crossed the sea in this narrow section up here. These folks speculate that miraculously favorable winds allowed the Israelites to pass by, and that the winds changed when the Egyptians followed them, causing the waters to rush back together and drown the Egyptians. In this way, a sort of quasi-scientific explanation for the crossing of the Red Sea is offered. Others, however, read this text and simply see a miracle. Moses raised his arms, and with the power of God, literally moved the water into columns so that dry land was created. Which point of view is right? Or is there another explanation? To this issue, I would respond that it doesn’t matter, because it isn’t the point of the text. It’s an interesting conversation. But figuring out an “answer,” if we ever could, to that question, isn’t really going to help us learn anything useful about this passage. It might sound strange to say, but actually, I don’t believe it matters how the Israelites made it safely across the Red Sea. It only matters that they did, and it matters why they were able to make it across. However it happened, they crossed the Red Sea because of God’s intervention, because of God’s presence with them. That’s the important part.
            That other nagging question – what about all those Egyptians? Did God just kill a whole army of people? Those are the kinds of questions that follow us throughout the Old Testament, as I mentioned last week. And they’re important to ask, especially because we have a habit, even today, of claiming that God is on “our side” and not “their side” whenever we face a conflict – personally, in our communities, in our denomination, across the globe. Whose side is God on? In our Bible Study, we’ve been trying to remind ourselves to ask about points of view. Whose point of view is being shared in the biblical text? Even in a book meant to record history, the author has a point of view. If you read an account of the Revolutionary War written by an American, and then one written by a British person, I bet they’d sound quite different, even though they described the same event. The text we read today is written from the perspective of an Israelite, someone who saw God at work in their successful escape from Egypt. How does that point of view shape the story? We can’t know, of course, but we can wonder. I can tell you though, that throughout the scriptures, across the works of so many different authors of the books we read, when it comes to whose side God is on, there is a great deal of agreement. God always seems to be on the side of the most vulnerable. God is on the side of the poor, the oppressed, the persecuted, the abandoned, the pushed-to-the-sides. This is their story. We don’t stop asking hard questions. But if we want to know what this text means, we can’t forget to ask and focus on questions like these:  Can God save the Israelites? Will God keep God’s promises to them? Is God strong enough to protect them from the threat of the Pharaoh and the Egyptians? I think answering these questions in a resounding affirmative – yes, yes, yes! – is why the author shares this story in just this way. Yes, God will save the Israelites. Yes, God will keep the promises made to them. Yes, God is strong enough, even to conquer those who had made them slaves. Let’s look at the text more closely.
I was struck reading our passage by all the directional language in the text – the mentioning of where exactly things were. The author here takes great pains to paint us a picture of this dramatic event. Listen: “The angel of God who was going before the Israelite army moved and went behind them.” “The pillar of cloud moved from in front of them and took its place behind them. It came between the army of Egypt and the army of Israel” “The Israelites when into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.” And again, “But the Israelites walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.” The picture created for us is one of the Israelites being surrounded, before and behind, left and right. But instead of being surrounded by the Egyptians, as one might have expected given that men, women, and children, young and old are being pursued by an army equipped with chariots and able-bodied soldiers, what surrounds the Israelites is God’s presence – present in pillar of cloud and fire, present in an angel of God guiding them, presence in the absence of water in their path, that instead has formed into safe walls on their sides.
As I was trying to picture this – a path being cleared, and yet protectively surrounded on all sides, I thought of seeing the President of the United States or some other important world leader. When someone that important walks through a room, a path is completely cleared for them. Yet, at the same time, they are entirely protected, and so, whether you can spot them all or not, the president would be completely surrounded by secret service agents. The president’s path is completely cleared and the president is completely surrounded by people ready to give their lives to keep him safe. It’s in this way that God leads the Israelites through the Red Sea – both clearing a path for them, and surrounding them on all sides. What do we learn from that?  
A few weeks ago we talked about stumbling blocks – traps laid by an enemy to ensnare us, things that prevent us from following God. As I read this text, and think about God saving the Israelites, and God clearing this path through the sea, I think we learn that there is nothing, no obstacle, no stumbling block, no snare that can prevent God from rescuing those who need it. God creates a path to us in order to get to us. And God creates paths for us, clears the way so that we can leave behind those things to which we’ve been slaves. Last week I encouraged you to think about what it was you needed to leave behind in Egypt. This week, I encourage you to look for the ways God creates paths for you to leave. Sometimes we overlook the opportunities, the openings that God creates for us. Like the Israelites, we’re convinced for some reason that it was better back in that place of slavery. Don’t miss the path that God is clearing for you. Clearing to get to you. Clearing so  you can leave Egypt behind.
And then, don’t forget that God surrounds you. If you think of that image of secret service agents again, think of how these men and women are willing to give their lives, willing to literally throw themselves in harm’s way to protect the president. Surely, they do this out of duty, and love of country, among other things. But most of the time, what might motivate an everyday person like you or me to do such a thing? Of course, only love! Remember when we talked about our desire to keep our children safe from all harm? Why do we seek their safety? Love, of course! We act to surround and protect when what we are protecting is important beyond all measure. The president gets an entourage because he’s the most important person, by many measures, in our society. We protect our loved ones because they are the most important things in our lives.
So what does this story of the Red Sea tell us about God and God’s people? Well – these people – these people who have been slaves, oppressed, mistreated – these people are important beyond measure to God. And why? We can find no explanation for their importance other than that God loves them. And so I read this text as God proving God’s self, God’s promises, God’s good intention, God’s love and faithfulness, proving it all to the people. What a strange thing – that God would want to prove God’s self to us! And yet, that’s what I find in this passage. The people doubt God’s intentions, suspect God means them harm, or at least, can’t really bring them to safety after all. And God shows them, proves to them, by clearing a path, and surrounding them on every side. This is nothing less than a demonstration of total commitment, love, and faithfulness, that God gives to us.
And so if the living God, who created us and everything that is, will clear a path for us, and surround us on the journey, what can prevent us from leaving Egypt behind? Not a thing. Not a thing. I want to leave you with the word of a section of the prayer of Saint Patrick, as you meditate on this gift from God: God who clears your way, God who surrounds you on every side, God who loves you beyond measure.   
Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.
I bind unto myself the Name,
The strong Name of the Trinity,
By invocation of the same,
The Three in One and One in Three.
By Whom all nature hath creation,
Eternal Father, Spirit, Word:
Praise to the Lord of my salvation,
Salvation is of Christ the Lord.


Monday, September 08, 2014

Lectionary Notes for Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A (Proper 19, Ordinary 24)

Readings for 14th Sunday after Pentecost, 9/14/14:
Exodus 14:19-31, Exodus 15:1b-11, 20-21, Romans 14:1-12, Matthew 18:21-35

Exodus 14:19-31:
  • OK, I'll admit, I feel for all the Egyptians here who were just doing there job. At the camp I've attended growing up and as an adult, one of the favorite songs is "Pharaoh, Pharaoh," which includes the line "and all of Pharaoh's army did the dead-man float."  I just can't get into the spirit of it...
  • Also, I'm afraid this passage also now brings to mind images of Jim Carrey in Bruce Almighty, parting his bowl of tomato soup.
  • Well, I guess what that says is that this "parting of the Red Sea" is perhaps the 'classic' example we think of when we're talking about God's power. God's ability to protect God's people in God's plan at all costs? Hm. Still can't warm up to it!
Exodus 15:1b-11, 20-21:
  • This passage takes the typical place of the Psalm in the lectionary, as here we get the brother-sister act of Moses and Miriam giving thanks for successfully escaping the Egyptians.
  • "at the blast of your nostrils" - ew. I don't mind some anthropomorphic descriptions of God, but God's nostril blast?
  • I understand Moses' and Miriam's relief at their safety. But I can't cheer with them at these delighted images of God killing their enemies.
  • "the prophet Miriam" - take note of strong if under-written women in the Bible. A woman. A prophet.
Romans 14:1-12:
  • "Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions." Great advice for churchy types, no? Sometimes I think we like arguing with each other in the church and in politics more than we care about what we are arguing about.
  • Before you get excited and think this is a passage about vegetarianism being for the weak (vegetarians rock), put it in context. Paul is talking about the then-current practice of Romans who would eat meat that had been sacrificed in worship of the gods. Some Christians took part in eating the meat afterwards, but others thought it was wrong to eat meat used in other religious rites.
  • Paul says somewhat "to each their own" but that whatever our own way is, our purpose, and our reasoning, ought still to be in giving praise to God. And Paul reminds us that we've got enough to worry about thinking about our own decisions without worrying about our neighbors' choices.
  • "Whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's." Comforting words - no matter what happens, we belong to God. Check out hymn 356 in The United Methodist Hymnal to match this text.
Matthew 18:21-35:
  • This text is so important on the 10th anniversary of 9/11. 
  • How often must we forgive? How much do we hope God forgives us? Jesus urges us to see the questions in similar ways. Forgiveness is a great gift, and those who receive it hopefully show more gratitude than the slave in Jesus' parable.
  • Forgiveness is personal. When have you been forgiven? Have you received forgiveness without asking for it? When have you forgiven? When have you given it without being asked? When have you withheld forgiveness and why? How does it feel to give forgiveness? Receive it? Withhold it?
  • Do you think, as Jesus suggests, that God will not forgive us if we do not forgive others?
  • Like Peter, do you ever wonder "what's the least I can get away with doing?" He seems to want to know - how much do I have to love? Is this enough? Jesus' answer is predictable and always the same: "More." 

Sermon for Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A, "Out of Egypt: First Annual Exodus," Exodus 12:1-14

Sermon 9/7/14
Exodus 12:1-8

Out of Egypt: First Annual Exodus

I went to seminary at Drew Theological School in Madison, New Jersey. Drew is a University, so aside from the theological school, there was also a graduate school and an undergraduate school. My first year on campus, I saw signs for an undergraduate event called “The First Annual Picnic.” I didn’t think much of it, until I heard people talking about how much they always looked forward to “The First Annual Picnic.” What? Turns out, the event was always called The First Annual Picnic, even though it had been happening for many years. I don’t know if it started out that way – if they intended from the start to create a new event, or what. I've certainly known that to happen in church events – you try something one year with an unspoken understanding that if it goes well, you will do it again, year after year.
I couldn’t help but think of The First Annual Picnic as I read this week’s scripture text. Today, after spending the summer in the gospel of Matthew, we’re shifting gears and heading into the Old Testament. In particular, we’ll spend the next few weeks journeying with the Israelites as Moses leads them out of Egypt, an event known as the Exodus. It’s a word that means literally: the road out, and that’s why the second book of the Bible is so named – it’s the story of the journey of the Israelites as they literally and figuratively leave the life they knew as slaves in Egypt and head, eventually, for the Promised Land.
You may be familiar with the story of the Exodus – although you might have more images stuck in your mind from the Charlton Heston movie then from reading the actual text. The Israelites are slaves in Egypt. They ended up in this circumstance because Joseph, son of Jacob, son of Isaac, son of Abraham – Joseph made a deal with the Pharaoh to feed his family, his elevenbrothers who would be the starting points of the tribes of Israel – when Israel suffered a great famine. But eventually a Pharaoh arose in Egypt who didn’t remember Joseph, and the Israelites became poorly treated slaves, rather than friends rescued from starvation. The Pharaoh treats the people harshly, eventually ordering death of Israelite male newborns, lest the Israelites increase in number and power and overthrow their captors. God calls Moses to speak to Pharaoh and persuade Pharaoh to free the Israelites. Pharaoh, of course, will not agree to do any such thing, even after a series of plagues. Finally, God tells Moses there will be a plague killing the firstborn of all the Egyptian households. But God will spare the Israelite families, passing over their homes. Then, the Israelites will flee to safety across the Red Sea.
It is this Passover – the passing over of the home of the Israelites, this plague of the first-born sons – that our text for today describes. God tells Moses how each household should prepare for this first Passover, describing the meal they should prepare, a meal meant to be prepared and eaten with haste, with bags packed and shoes on and staff in hand, and ready to go. But blood on the doorposts and lintel from the lamb eaten for dinner will be the sign for God to Passover that home, keeping the firstborn safe. And then the passage concludes with “This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.” In other words, right from the start, before the first Passover takes place, God lets the people know that this will be an annual event. It’s the First Annual – and God already knows this action, this event, will be so important to the identity of the Israelites that they must remember it every year.  
            Indeed, the Passover is a significant event for the Israelites. It’s significant in Jesus’s life, and he makes it significant to us when, long after this first Passover, Jesus uses a celebration of Passover, an anniversary Passover just like God promises there will be, to share what we know now as the Last Supper – the first celebration of what has become Holy Communion for us. But as significant as it is, I’m also mindful of what a hard story this is too. Regardless of the hardness of Pharaoh’s heart, and the enslavement of the Israelites, a story where firstborn children are killed – Israelite or Egyptian – and where God is guiding the action – is hard to reconcile with the God of love we talk about so often. I wish we could spend more time on that now. This is something we’ll be talking about in our Wednesday night Bible Study in the weeks ahead. But for now, for today, let me try to point you to what I think are the key parts of our text. Why is God so sure already that the people will need to celebrate Passover again and again? Why will they need to remind themselves of this day, the day they left Egypt and slavery? Was there a chance they could ever forget such a significant event?
            As we think about this text and our own lives, I think there are two key points here. First, we have to know why we’re leaving Egypt, and second, once we leave, we have to remember why we left. That might sound pretty simple. And it is – simple to say. But the story of Exodus that we’ll follow this month will remind us that it is apparently quite difficult to do. The Israelites left Egypt because they had become slaves. They left because their living conditions were worsening. They were facing abuse and oppression and loss of life. I hope that our own situations are not so dire. But in these weeks that we think about what it means for God to call us out of Egypt, I do want us to seriously examine our lives and ask ourselves what we need to leave behind. What are the situations in our lives that are not life-giving? What about our lives is in conflict with what God hopes and dreams for us? What in your life is preventing you from responding with your whole heart to God’s call? These are the reasons God calls us from Egypt. Whatever keeps us from experiencing God’s abundance, and whatever keeps us from offering our whole selves to God – these are the reasons why we risk a journey into the unknown. That’s point one. Know why we’re leaving Egypt. What we’re leaving. Do you remember point two?
            Point two is: remember point one! Remember what we’re leaving and why we’re leaving. This is why God institutes a First Annual Remembrance of the Passover and Exodus before it has even happened the first time. God, who created us and loves us also knows how prone to forgetting even the most important things we are. The farther we journey from what Egypt means to us, the harder it will be to remember how much Egypt kept us from experiencing the life God wants for us. That’s what happens with the Israelites, as we’ll see in the next weeks. Think about it. This week is the thirteenth anniversary of the horrific tragedy of 9/11. How could we forget? And yet, I work with our conference youth, and my oldest youth, those who are seniors this year, were four or five years old when 9/11 happened. They don’t remember! And my youth who are just starting middle school – they weren’t born yet on 9/11. So this huge event that shapes our national identity still in significant ways – people who are now becoming legal adults – they already don’t remember. The farther we journey from Egypt, the less we remember why it was important to leave the things that were keeping us from drawing closer to God.
            And so, before the Israelites even leave Egypt, God sets them up with a plan to remember. Remember always that they were once slaves in Egypt, oppressed and abused, and that God led them to freedom. Remember that they had the courage, once, to follow, and to leave behind what was awful, but still known and so, in a way, comfortable. God starts them out with a way to remember. Of course, this shouldn’t surprise us. God is trying to help us in our discipleship all the time with ways to remember. With a rainbow in the sky. With the waters of baptism and renewal. With the bread and cup we will share today, remembering Jesus calling us to remember!
            God is calling us, even now, to leave Egypt, to leave our crutches, our addictions, our struggles, our excuses, our grudges, our settling for less than the Promised Land. I want you to think hard, in the weeks ahead, about what it is that you need to leave behind in Egypt. And even as you recognize what’s keeping you from offering your whole heart to God, plan to remember. Today we gather at the table: the table of forgiveness, the table of invitation, the table of reconciliation, the table of hope and life, the table of remembrance. We remember the whole story of God and God’s people. We remember the Passover. We remember Jesus transforming this meal into an offering of his life poured out for us. We listen for God’s call. We prepare for a new journey. We acknowledge what God is asking us to leave behind. Christ invites us to leave it there. And when we gather at the table again, we’ll remember. Amen.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Lectionary Notes for Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A (Proper 18, Ordinary 23)

Readings for 13th Sunday after Pentecost, 9/7/14:
Exodus 12:1-14, Psalm 149, Romans 13:8-14, Matthew 18:15-20

Exodus 12:1-14:
  • God describes to Moses and Aaron the Passover, which is the festival that centers Jesus' meal with his disciples - this reading also appropriately shows up for Maundy Thursday.
  • "this is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly." Ready to go. Ready to move. Prepared. Imagine if this was always the way we were, in terms of readiness to respond to God's call.
  • The Passover is a hard one to stomach (no pun intended). It is hard to imagine a plague of killing firstborns all through the land, isn't it? But it is a festival, a 'remembrance' that becomes so crucial in the identity of Judaism, and even in the events that shape Christ's last days. Death, blood, lamb, sacrifice. The ways the symbolism of the Old Testament and New Testament events overlap and tie in here is important.

Psalm 149:
  • Verses 1-3 talk about the juncture of praise and music. I’ve been blessed with musical abilities, and they certainly are tools I value very much in leading worship. But if music isn’t your thing, other gifts also can be used to worship – how do you use your gifts to worship our Maker?
  • “For the Lord takes pleasure in his people.” I like this sentiment a lot – do you believe it? God takes pleasure in you individually and in all of us as a people.
  • “Let them sing for joy on their couches.” That’s a funny image! Praise from couch potatoes…
  • V. 6 – Let the praises of God be in your mouth at the same time you are getting ready to kill some of those people that God takes pleasure in – nice sentiment, eh?
Romans 13:8-14:
  • “Owe no one anything.” Sigh. I wish someone would negotiate a deal for me with my student loan lender…
  • But we do owe one another love. I like that way of phrasing it – love is what is due from us to our neighbors. Have we paid up?
  • “The commandments . . . are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” Plain enough, right?
    Love fulfills the law. In this, Paul shows that the law is not abolished but fulfilled in Jesus’ teachings, just as Jesus said.
  • "you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep." There is such urgency in this statement and in this passage. I dislike our obsession, in Paul's time and today, with the end times. But i do like a sense of urgency. What are we waiting for to get going with doing God's work? We know what time it is: time for peace. time for justice. time for grace. Now is the moment to wake and work.
  • "make no provisions for the flesh, to gratify its desires." No provision? Poor Paul - so black and white sometimes in his thinking - body or spirit instead of body and spirit.
  • "salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers." - this is a good verse to plug John Wesley's idea of sanctifying grace - grace that grows in us as we become disciples. A time of conversion (justification) when we first come to 'be believers,' however we might define that, is not the end and all of our relationship with God.

Matthew 18:15-20:
  • What a passage with great potential for preaching in a congregation, eh? This passage talks about how to settle disputes in the community of faith. Do we ever put it into practice? Check out the policies in our Book of Discipline. Do our church trials follow the format Jesus suggests?
  • "whatever you bind" - note that these words are the same Jesus says to Peter after Peter proclaims him as Messiah in Matthew 16. Here, the authority is expanded to the whole group of disciples.
  • "if two of you agree," and "two or three" - Jesus is talking about the power of working together for the same godly purposes. 

Sermon for Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A, "From That Time On," Matthew 16:21-28

Sermon 8/31/14
Matthew 16:21-28

From That Time On

            Today, we continue immediately after our text from last week, where Peter proclaimed Jesus as Messiah, in response to Jesus’ question, “And who do you say I am?” Remember, we talked about how Peter claiming that title meant that he understood that Jesus, even though he wasn’t the typical picture of a king like David, an anointed one like the line of kings from the Hebrew scriptures, even still, Jesus was truly the anointed one, the messiah, ruler of the realm of God, this unexpectedly ordered way of God on earth. Jesus entrusts to Peter and the disciples the mission of continuing this reign of God. Today, our passage opens with the words, “From that time on…” These little seemingly throwaway phrases in the scriptures, especially when we’re reading the scripture in little pieces at a time, can feel so unimportant. But this phrase is important because it actually tells us: What happens next is directly related to what just happened. What’s coming next is a direct result of what happened most recently. So, we read, “From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” In other words, Peter naming Jesus as Messiah is almost like a trigger, the cause. Because Peter correctly calls Jesus Messiah, from then on, Jesus talks to them about the fact that he’s going to head to Jerusalem, where he will suffer at the hands of the religious authorities, be put to death, and rise on the third day.
            Peter, so on top of things in last Sunday’s reading, rebukes Jesus, saying, “God forbid it, this must never happen.” Of course, it seems like rebuking Jesus is probably always a bad idea. Chances are if you find yourself in the position of rebuking Jesus, and telling him, “God forbid it” in response to something he says, it’s not going to work out really well for you. On the other hand, if the person you loved most in the world told you they were about to suffer and be put to death, even if they said they would be raised on the third day, how could you do anything but say, “Absolutely not! I refuse to let that happen!”
            But Jesus is not sympathetic in his response to Peter. Peter, just named as the Rock, is now called Satan. “Get behind me Satan!” Jesus says, “You are a stumbling-block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” For Jesus to call Peter a stumbling block was a pretty significant criticism. In English, “stumbling block” sounds like you accidentally left a child’s toy where someone might step on it. In Greek, the word for stumbling block is skandalon, where we get our English word scandal, and it means more literally “a trap or snare laid for an enemy.” It’s an intentional action. Elsewhere in the gospels Jesus says, “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.” Stumbling blocks weren’t just bad luck. They were obstacles placed by an enemy to prevent a person from completing whatever path they were travelling on. And in this case, the enemy is Satan. And the path is the path to the cross, to the crucifixion, but also to resurrection. It is Jesus’ mission. And anything that stands in the way of that is an enemy laying a trap. In fact, Jesus’ language takes us back to the beginning of the gospel, just after Jesus was baptized, when he was driven by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness – and do you remember what happened? He was tempted by Satan. And every temptation focused on a stumbling block, a snare, a trap laid for Jesus that would lure him into believe he could do God’s will without actually … doing God’s will. For Jesus, these words from Peter, from one of his own disciples, don’t just represent someone upset about what suffering Jesus will face. Peter’s words are echoes of the temptation Jesus faced in the wilderness – the temptation, the powerful idea that he could somehow complete his mission … without all that awful suffering and death stuff.
            It does sound tempting, doesn’t it? But Jesus has already faced that temptation. And Jesus knows that the only way to show what it means to be truly the messiah – not a conquering, ruling by force and might messiah – is to demonstrate to the uttermost how mixed up we’ve got things. Jesus’ authority will be demonstrated even in pouring out his very own life for others – and then showing that even death can’t conquer God’s reign, God’s ways, God’s vision. Even death is powerless in the face of God. But Jesus must face it to demonstrate that.
            And so, Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers,” if we really want to claim Jesus as messiah, if we’re sure we know what we mean by that, we demonstrate it by picking up our own cross and following where Jesus is leading. “For,” Jesus says, in his upside down way, “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Under Roman rule, those sentenced to death would have to carry their own cross beam to the site of their crucifixion. Jesus is asking us to carry not a traditional symbol of power – no sword, no crown of gold, no other symbols of status. Instead, to follow him, we too take the cross. A sign that we are pouring out our own lives in order that we might have room for God to fill them up.
            Jesus is trying to tell us that we don’t get to choose just part. We can’t call Jesus messiah without the part that happens “from that time on.” They go together. They’re inseparable. Trying to separate them is a stumbling block. More than that, it’s a trap laid by an enemy, trying to convince us we can follow Jesus without actually following Jesus.  
            In some ways, then, what Jesus says is quite simple, quite straightforward. If you want to follow me, you have to follow me. And you can’t follow Jesus without following Jesus. When you put it that way, it sounds kind of silly, doesn’t it, to think anything else! It’s a package deal. If Jesus is the Messiah, then from this time on, what goes along with that is knowing that Jesus’ path leads to the cross. And if Jesus’ path leads to the cross, and if we’re followers of Jesus, if he is our messiah, well then, from this time on, following Jesus means we take up the cross too. A package deal. We can’t take it piecemeal. It’s not even possible. Trying to convince yourself or anyone else otherwise is a stumbling block. Are you a follower of Jesus? If you are, then from this time on, there’s only one thing left to do: Follow Jesus. Amen.