Sunday, September 23, 2012

Lectionary Notes for Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B

Readings for 18th Sunday after Pentecost, 9/30/12:
Esther 7:1-6, 9-10, 9:20-22, Psalm 124, James 5:13-20, Mark 9:38-50

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10, 9:20-22:
  • Fun fact: did you know God is not mentioned anywhere in the book of Esther? Even so, it is one of my favorite books. When I went to Exploration ten years ago, a verse from Esther, where Moredecai tells her that she may be where she is when she is "for such a time as this," was the theme of the weekend.
  • Don't be misled. Though Esther was Queen, she didn't have any real power. If you read the whole book, you'll know that the previous queen was quickly ditched when she and the king clashed. So Esther's actions in this passage and elsewhere are extremely brave.
  • In this passage, Haman, who is the "bad guy" gets brought to justice. Of course, biblical justice for Haman was being hanged. Ugh.
Psalm 124:
  • "If it had not been the Lord who was on our side" - whose side is God on? Is God always on our side? Is God always on the winning side? We want God to be on our side, but we'd do better to seek to be on God's side of things...
  • This psalm is in thanks to God for escape from enemies. I've never had to literally flee from enemies, but I can relate, figuratively, to what the psalmist is feeling. From what dangerous persons/situations have you escaped by God's grace?
James 5:13-20:
  • "confess your sins to one another" - hard to do! I think we are much more comfortable confessing our sins to God than we are in confessing them to our peers, our faith community. What's the benefit, do you think, of confessing our sins to others?
  • James' list reads like an "easy solutions" guide, answers to FAQs from the church community about how to live rightly. If only it were as straightforward or easy as he makes it seem!
  • "the prayer of the righteous is effective and powerful." What effect do you think your prayer has? What is the most powerful experience of prayer you've ever had?
  • "whoever brings back a sinner" - what a powerful act. Have you ever done this for someone, or had someone do this for you?
Mark 9:38-50:
  • "because he was not following us" - Definitely a contemporary issues. There is so much in-fighting in the church - Christians accusing one another of not being right enough to really be Christians. The end result? Alienating people from the good news.
  • "Whoever is not against us if for us." Of course, else where, Jesus says, "whoever is not for us is against us," or something close to it. Each makes sense in the context in which Jesus speaks it though. Here: his point is that other people are doing good work in his good name - why criticize, just because it is a different approach, different leadership?
  • stumbling blocks - think seriously about your life. Have you ever been responsible for putting a stumbling block in someone else's path?
  • I recently read a great interpretation of this "if your foot causes you to stumble" section, in Brian McLaren's The Secret Message of Jesus - he was quoting Dallas Willard from an article in Christian Scholars Review. Willard argues that Jesus is simply reducing the principle of the Pharisees, "that righteousness lies in not doing anything wrong - to the absurd, in hope that they will forsake their principle and see and enter "the righteousness . . . beyond where compassion or love an not sacrifice is a fundamental thing." (pg. 124) What do you think?
  • saltiness - do you have it? What does that mean, to be salty, salted with fire?

Sermon for 9/23/12, "Room at the Table: RSVP," Luke 14:12-24

Sermon 9/23/12
Luke 14:12-24

Room at the Table: RSVP

            This past week I got a text from my younger brother Tim. “Are you going to Elise and Kevin’s wedding?” Elise is a family friend, who went to school with my younger brothers. I responded that Yes, I was. We’ve all been planning to attend this wedding for practically a year. I’ve had it on my calendar for a long time. “Are Todd and Andrea going?” he asked. My brother and his girlfriend. “Yes, I think so,” I said. “Did you send in your RSVP?” “Yes.” “Did Todd send in his?” “I think yes.” “Well, Elise hasn’t received them yet, and she’s freaking out.” Apparently, the RSVP deadline for the wedding was approaching, and the bride was getting a bit anxious. She was anxious because although she had sent invitations months before the event, many people had not yet responded. If you’ve ever been part of planning a wedding, you know that having a pretty accurate idea of the number of guests is important, because you need to know how many people you will have at the reception, how much seating to have, how much food to have, how many favors to have, and so on. At even the most casual weddings, people like to know how many people to prepare for.
             I don’t know about you, but I’m not always good at RSVPing to events when I’m supposed to. I was impressed with myself that I’d sent out my RSVP to Elise’s wedding ahead of the deadline. I’m usually ok with email RSVPs or facebook invitations, but I’m especially bad at calling people, if that’s the only option, to let them know whether or not I will attend. I should be better at it, if only because I understand how hard it is to try to plan an event without knowing how many to be ready for! For example, I am the coordinator of our conference young clergy group, and we hold retreats twice a year. I find it is like pulling teeth to get my colleagues to respond – yes OR no – to my emails about the retreat. I find myself sending increasingly frantic and emphatic emails, practically begging for an answer. Then, when it comes to the actual event, I can almost guarantee that at least a third of the pastors who said they would come actually don’t show up when it comes down to it. Which is worse, do you think: when people don’t RSVP at all, RSVP no, but then show up anyway, or RSVP yes, but then don’t show up when the time comes?  
            It seems like good party etiquette is at the center of our text today, from the gospel of Luke. Just before our text begins, Jesus has traveled to the home of one of the leaders of the Pharisees for a meal on the Sabbath. When a diseased man presents himself, Jesus heals him, and a debate about healing on the Sabbath ensues. And then Jesus begins to notice how the guests for the meal all try to sit in the places of highest honor. He speaks against their behavior, telling them that the exalted will be humbled, and the humble will be exalted. That’s where our passage for today picks up.
Jesus starts by telling those gathered for the meal that when they’re having a dinner, they shouldn’t invite friends, or relatives, or rich neighbors, because all of those could invite you in return, and you’d be repaid. Instead, Jesus says, when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. Then you’ll be blessed in the kingdom of God, because you couldn’t be repaid on earth. In Jewish thought, doing acts of kindness that can’t be repaid still is considered one of the highest mitzvot, or commandments. One of the guests at the meal hears Jesus and seems to catch some understanding. “Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God,” he says. And then Jesus responds with the parable. Someone gives a great banquet and invites many people. But when he calls them to come for the big event, they all give their excuses – they have land to inspect, oxen to test, weddings to celebrate. The party-thrower becomes angry, and sends his servant out into the streets, telling him to bring in the crippled, blind, and lame. The slave does so, but there is still room for more. So the master sends him out yet again, sending him farther out of town. He instructs the slave to compel people to come, so that the house is filled. And he concludes with the promise: “I tell you, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner.”
At first read, it seems like this is a great parable that teaches us about how to be welcoming and hospitable. We’re to invite and invite and invite to God’s banquet table. And if at first we don’t succeed, Jesus reminds us to also invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. Surely, we’re not great at that – inviting outside of our comfort zones. But we get the point, right? The trouble is, such an interpretation of this text skips over some important details of the parable.
Let’s look again. Jesus, in telling the parable, mentions that the slave goes out to call the guests when the banquet is ready. But this isn’t the first time they’re getting the invitation. In Jesus’ day, the invitation would have happened in two parts. “(1) the initial invitation some time ahead [of the event], and (2) the actual summons to the meal when it is ready.” You can think of it as the invite to dinner, and then the host actually telling you, “Dinner’s ready,” so that you come sit at the table. The guests the slave summons would have already been invited and RSVPed ‘yes’ to this banquet some time before the summons that takes place in our passage. So their excuses now represent a sudden, last minute change in plans. And their behavior, then, as now, would be considered impolite. “Not to come to a banquet where one had previously indicated acceptance was a grave breach of social etiquette. It was an insult to the host. [And] in a society where one's social standing was determined by peer approval -who is invited to whose dinners - this was an act of social insult as well." (2) For all those people to not show up would result in bringing shame on the host.
The excuses the guests give aren’t very sound, either. The tract of land purchased already would have been examined before this time. The oxen would have been tested. The new groom would have known about the wedding when he was first invited and could have refused then. The guests, one after the other, give excuses, and their excuses, coming at the last minute, after they’d already said they were coming, represent a great insult to the host, and a very weak attempt on the part of the guests to cover their own rude, neglectful behavior.
So the master sends the slave out to invite more guests – the same group of ‘unwanted’ community members that Jesus mentions before he begins telling this parable – the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And then he sends them out even of the town limits to bring people in. “Inside the town would be the poor, the beggars, the indigent. But outside the town would be the vagabonds and sojourners, those who were shunned and unwelcome in the towns.” These people would be considered ritually unclean, socially unacceptable. These people, the master invites into his home, and the parable closes with a sentence that certainly has a sense of threat and warning: “I tell you, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner.”
            The kingdom of God is God’s party. God is the party-thrower, the inviter, the one inviting us to the feast. You’ve heard us say that before: it’s God’s table. We’re guests. We’re invited. But we’re guests at God’s party. It’s not our party. Not our guest list. When we come together as this body called Liverpool First United Methodist, we offer ourselves as one (of many) locations for God’s party to be held – not limited to this building, of course, but in this community of faith. But as soon as we try to take over as hosts, I tell you, God will find a different way to throw the party.
            So we’re guests, invited by God. What does that mean for us? You’ll notice, in the life of the congregation, when we are trying to do something new, we give you a million ways to respond. You can call the office.  You can email the office. You can call or email a pastor. You can send us a message on facebook. You can text us. You can sign up on the bulletin board. In case you didn’t get it, we’re saying Respond, respond, please respond! We want to make it as easy as possible for you to participate in the mission and ministry of the church.
            God is doing the same thing with us, inviting us into the kingdom. I think God is giving us a million ways to respond. Giving us good things we don’t expect or deserve in our lives. Putting special people in our path. Offering us opportunities that are just what we’ve been thinking about doing. All these invitations, in all these different forms, all ways of God saying to us:  Respond, respond, please respond!
             Why don’t we? Why don’t we respond to God? Or, like those in the parable, have we said yes to God, but not really been showing up at God’s party? I was curious whether it was just my perception that we are, culturally, are less likely to RSVP these days, or whether things really have changed. And so I googled “the Lost Art of the RSVP” – and found over a million results. Here’s a snippet from a one:  
1) I followed up [on my invitation] after a few days with gentle reminder emails, as the event was less than a week away. The responses I received varied from “I have some other options that same day” to “I’m waiting to hear about something else” to “I’m so busy with other parties that day.” It seems as though the standard regretting due to a previous engagement has also been left by the wayside, probably dumped in the same trash bin as the original R.S.V.P. . . . Now, hosts get to hear from their potential guests that their event is part of a pecking order of importance when compared to others that might be going on at that same time. (2)
Is this what we’re doing with our invitation to serve God? To follow Jesus? Are we waiting for a better offer? Maybe one that doesn’t involve this whole humbling-ourselves thing? One that doesn’t involve that cross to take up and carry? Are we letting our lips RSVP yes to God’s kingdom, while meaning for our actions, our lives, to remain unchanged? Do we think that if we are not ready to come, or if we don’t like the guest list, God’s party gets rescheduled? Cancelled? If we can’t be the host, do we just not want to come at all? In the parable, the “second-tier” guests, and “third-tier” guests, those who get invited on the day of the party, they get what an awesome invitation they’ve received! Do you get it?
Friends, we need to RSVP. And then, we need to show up! Because God’s party is taking place no matter what. No matter what! Don’t miss the party. Don’t miss the opportunity to invite friends. Don’t miss the opportunity as a church for this to be a location of the party! Because if we won’t make room for God’s party here, God will make church wherever God takes the party. Please, RSVP. And then, show up! Show up to God’s kingdom. It’s right here, right now, and it’s the best party in town.
This week, friends, my homework assignment for you is fairly simple: I want you to respond – yes, or no – to all the invitations you receive this week, via text, facebook, email, or old fashioned pen and paper. And then, of course, if you say yes, I want you to actually show up! And in so doing, in being aware of how and when and by whom you are invited, I hope you will also be thinking about the many invitations God extends to you. And maybe, maybe, you can start carrying some of the invitations God sends, delivering them to those you know, and to those in the town, and to those in the streets. And when you show up to God’s party, you can show up with friends new and old.
You’re invited. Respond, if you please. Amen.

Lectionary Notes for Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B

Readings for 17th Sunday after Pentecost, 9/23/12:
Proverbs 31:10-31, Psalm 1, James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a, Mark 9:30-37

Proverbs 31:10-31:
  • This passage, given it’s time/context of writing, is actually pretty woman-friendly, even if it does require a ‘capable wife’ to be a jack-of-all-trades. After all, the passage describes a person who is strong, giving, fearless, a salesperson, successful, etc. Changing the gender of the pronouns doesn’t change much about the passage either.
  • Notice not a lot is said about the woman being a woman of faith. Perhaps these attributes are seen as ‘interwoven’ into the behaviors she is to live out – her actions. How would you describe your ideal partner in life? Do you practice those behaviors yourself that you wish to find in someone else?
  • “Many woman have done excellently, but you surpass them all.” That would be a nice compliment to hear from one’s spouse!
Psalm 1:
  • A typical psalm in its dualistic good/bad, righteous/enemies set up, but psalm is a little different since it doesn't emphasize God's wrath upon the enemies. Instead, those who do not have God in their life perish because of being outside God's law, consequences of their own actions/choices.
  • "On [God's] law they meditate day and night." I find it difficult, even as, or especially as, a pastor, to be faithful in my study and meditation on the scriptures. In a bible study I led a few years back, Companions in Christ, one of the units dealt with meditating on the scriptures. The participants and myself all found it difficult - to focus in on the text and on God, to tune out all the business of the world around, to really dwell in the text. The visual image this psalmist shares of how our lives might be dwelling in God's law, however, encourage us to keep trying: "They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season".
  • The tree/stream imagery is much like a sponge soaking up water - we absorb, take in God's word. But better than a sponge, which just absorbs and then is simply soaked, a tree soaking water bears fruit - bears results -bears change because of God's word.
James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a:
  • While many of us are comfortable claiming our gifts, I think many of us, wisely, would hesitate claiming wisdom as a gift. Who would you call wise? Are you wise? What does wisdom mean to you?
  • James recognizes that one can be wise without being wise "from above" - what kind of wisdom does our world most appreciate?
  • James prizes wisdom that "is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy." That's a very wide and broad definition of wisdom. Using James' definition, is there anyone you thought wise that you wouldn't put now in this category?
  • Conflict arises from our own cravings - that's a unique way of putting it, but perhaps right on!
  • "Draw near to God, and God will draw near to you." Let it be so!
Mark 9:30-37:
  • "He did not want anyone to know it" - Mark's gospel is notorious for the "messianic secret" theme - Jesus constantly trying to hide or obscure his true identity somehow. Why do you think Jesus wouldn't want people to pin down his identity?
  • What would you think if a person was predicting death and suffering for themselves? These days, we'd probably (rightly) want the person to get psychological help, worrying that they were depressed or suicidal. How do you think Jesus expected them to react?
  • Apparently, the disciples weren't too bothered - they were busy talking about who was greatest among them. Power struggles in the church existed from day one, pre-'church' even.
  • What does it mean to welcome a child? How are we meant to be child-like when it comes to faith?

Monday, September 10, 2012

Lectionary Notes for Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B

Readings for 16th Sunday after Pentecost, 9/16/12:
Proverbs 1:20-33, Psalm 19, James 3:1-12, Mark 8:27-38

Proverbs 1:20-33:
  • Wisdom, from the Greek sophia, is virtually always depicted as a woman or in feminine imagery, as the word itself is feminine in both Greek and Hebrew. This sophia, of course, is the basis of the imagery of the Re-Imaging conference that caused such controversy over referring to God as Sophia. What the difference is between using Sophia and using Logos to refer to Christ sometimes is unclear to me, except that sticky issue of gender! But I digress...
  • "How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?" This verse (22) puts a smile on our faces, but unfortunately, I think it's a serious question! I think we actually like to pretend we don't know what's going on a lot of the time. If we don't know what's going on, we can't be held accountable for action. God doesn't want to let us off the hook so easily, however!

Psalm 19:
  • "The heavens are telling the glory of God." This psalm is often set to music.
  • This imagery of the sun "like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy", this personification of the sun draws to my mind Greek/Roman mythology, and no doubt made contemporaries of the psalmist think of similar images of sun-gods in other religions. The difference? Here the sun is put into place by God, not a god in intself.
  • God is more than gold, sweeter than honey. A simple message - but reminds us of things we put too often before God in our lives.
  • "Let the words of my mouth and the meditations..." This verse is often used by pastors before they begin preaching. I like it, but if there's a way to use a Bible verse too much to the point of over doing, this one makes it on my personal list!
James 3:1-12:
  • "We who teach will be judged with greater strictness." (Can we insert "or preach" into that sentence?! All through college and seminary, my younger brothers, whenever I did something they didn't like, would say, "And you're going to be a minister?" Very appreciated, of course!)
  • There is an easy children's time object lesson to go with this verse, all about watching what we say and how we speak. It's called "Watch What You Say". I always have a hard time with children's time, so I try to share helpful ideas when I can!
  • OK, I know this passage is all about how we speak and how we affect one another with our words, but I think it is also an interesting interpretation if we stick with the original substitution I made: read this all as a metaphor for pastoral leadership. Can we function as pastors as the bridle on a horse? The rudder for a ship? A small fire in a forest? Aside from the "restless evil, full of deadly poison" part, I kind of like it!
Mark 8:27-38:
  • "Who do people say that I am?" Who do people say that you are? It would be a good exercise to find out - ask people to describe you in 5 words. How are you seen?
  • Peter gets it right at first: Jesus is the Messiah. But though he knows the right words to say, he shows he doesn't yet get what that word means, by rebuking Jesus when Jesus shares his path of suffering with Peter.
  • Jesus returns by saying who he thinks Peter is at that moment: Satan!
  • To save your life, you must lose it, if you lose your life for Christ, you save it. Certainly there is a degree of literal-ness here. But also, I think of things we say we "lose ourselves" in, like our work, our art, our passions, our music, our spouse, etc. Christ wants us to lose ourselves . . . in him!

Sermon for September 9th, 2012, "Room at the Table: Enough Room," John 6:1-15

Sermon 9/9/12
John 6:1-15

Room at the Table:

            Friday night, the adult leaders of LIFE, our youth program, met at Eric and Jen Holmes’s house to talk about our kickoff this Friday night. As we were making our plans for Friday, one of the things we talked about was what food we would have available at the LIFE CafĂ©. This wasn’t just a detail to discuss and check off our list. We actually think a lot about it, because some of our youth, with their busy schedules, will come and spend so much of their evening with us after a full day at school and after-school activities that they won’t have had a chance to eat. So we want to be able to provide a little more than chips and soda. Plus, honestly, people are always more likely to attend an event when there’s good food than when there’s not, right? I shared with Jen that during seminary, if we wanted to have people attend a meeting for this group or that group, we would always make sure to offer free lunch, because regardless of the meeting topic, broke seminary students will attend if there’s a free lunch involved that can make your dollars stretch. Maybe not if you build it they will come, but rather, if you feed them, they will come!  
            Sure, in our culture of excess you can’t go anywhere or do anything, it seems, without food being involved, and probably too much, too processed, too not-so-good-for-you food at that. But food and hospitality have gone hand-in-hand forever, and certainly make up a rich part of our scriptures, with stories sprinkled throughout the Old and New Testaments that deal with welcoming one another and sharing food. If you had a chance to read my column in our September newsletter, you read about how Jesus was frequently and particularly in trouble for who he chose to share meals with. I encouraged you to think about who you share meals with. Think about it. Although you may be in mission, ministry, and service to people of all different types, it is much more unusual to actually sit down and share a meal with people who are unlike us. Most often, we eat with the people we know the best, are most familiar with, because sharing a meal is an intimate act – an act that implies familial connections, and act that implies closeness, common ground, and relationships. That’s why food and hospitality have always gone hand in hand. Inviting someone to share food with you, inviting someone to your table is an act that invites someone into relationship with you, beyond the polite exchanges that happen between strangers or acquaintances.
            Today, this day of beginnings, we are starting a new focus in worship for the next several weeks: Room at the Table. We’ll be exploring the rich themes in the Bible about food, hospitality, and welcome, as we consider what it means to know that we all have a place at God’s table. This morning, we’re beginning by looking at a story from the gospels that may be familiar to many of you – the Feeding of the 5000. We find ourselves in the gospel of John, where, following a time of teaching, Jesus has crossed to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, and the crowd has just followed right along. They’ve seen the signs Jesus has been doing, the healing that he’s been doing, and they want it for themselves, or want more, or just want to be around him. Jesus asks Philip, a disciple, where they will get bread for this big crowd to eat. John tells us that Jesus had a plan, but was interested to see how his disciple would answer. Philip suggests they don’t have enough money – it would cost half a year’s wages just to get everyone a little bit of bread. Andrew, Peter’s brother, mentions that one boy has five loaves and two fish, but wonders what difference they can make among so many. Jesus has everyone sit down. He gives thanks to God, and hands it out. We read that people had “as much as they wanted” and ate “until they were satisfied,” and that still, there were twelve baskets of food left over. Seeing what has taken place, the people say that Jesus is “indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.” And Jesus realizing that they are so excited by this man who can feed them with five loaves and two fish that they’re going to make him king on the spot, withdraws from the crowds to the mountain to be by himself.
            Biblical scholars have debated the details of the Feeding of the 5000 for centuries. What exactly took place? Did Jesus miraculously make the bread and fish multiply? Did people just start sharing stuff they had with them, once they saw what was happening? Is the miracle that Jesus moved people to give what they had by showing them how to trust in God? But as I read this text, those questions don’t really get at the main point of the passage. If you look at the interaction between Jesus and Philip, the recurring question is whether or not there is enough. Is there enough food? Is there enough for everyone, or should people be sent home? Is there enough money? Do the disciples have enough faith to guess what God is about to do in their midst? And everywhere in this story, we get the answer: There’s enough room at God’s table. More than enough room. And we’re all invited.
            You are invited to this table, God’s table, and it doesn’t even matter why you came. Did all 5000 people come to see Jesus because they were looking for a deep relationship with God? I doubt it! But Jesus makes them welcome anyway. We knew in seminary that sometimes people were coming to meetings only because of the free lunch, and not because of the meeting topic. But our theory was that they were just going to get more than they bargained for, and end up receiving the information we wanted to share too. There are many reasons why you might be here today. Maybe you came because that’s what you’ve always done. Maybe you’ve come because someone has been inviting you, and you finally said yes. Maybe you’re here because someone, like a parent, or a spouse, required your presence! Maybe you’re looking for something you can’t even describe. Maybe you are looking for answers to questions that keep coming up. There are many reasons why you might be coming to God’s table today. Whyever you are here, you’re invited, there’s a place for you, and God welcomes you.  
            You are invited to this table, God’s table, and there’s enough for you, and for everyone. We can be a part of the welcoming committee. We can offer invitations to the table on God’s behalf. But God has all the supplies covered. The first church I served in Oneida had a lot of potluck suppers, and I was always amazed at the amount of food that people brought. There was just so much food. When I mentioned this, I found out that once upon a time, at a potluck long, long ago, there hadn’t been enough food. The food ran out before people were done going through the serving line. And everyone was so horrified by this event, that they never, ever would let that happen again. Since then, there’s always been way too much food at a potluck in Oneida. Friends, when it comes to God’s table, there’s no running out of room. There’s no running out of food. There’s always so much that there will be baskets-full left over. That’s because we’re not the suppliers of what is needed. God supplies the love and the grace. We’re the stewards. We can co-host with God. But we’re the only ones worried about there not being enough to go around. There’s enough at this table God invites you to, more than enough.
            You are invited to this table, God’s table, and you’ll be fed – you won’t go home empty, but filled up. When people shared in this meal that Jesus offered, John tells us that they ate as much as they wanted to, until they were filled up. That’s exactly what God wants to happen in our journey of discipleship. How close do you want to get to God? How deep a faith do you desire? How much of your life are you willing to hand over to God? Because however much you want, God is ready for you, ready to shake you up and stretch you and give you meaning, give you purpose and hope. God invites you to be filled up to overflowing with blessing and challenge. How much do you want?
            You are invited to this table, God’s table, and miracles will happen here. As I mentioned before, what exactly happened when Jesus started passing out bread isn’t all spelled out for us in this passage. But did a miracle happen? Well, 5000 people came together, had more than enough to share, were filled up, and had baskets overflowing at the end, when they thought they only had five loaves and two fish. That seems pretty miraculous to me. Maybe we can’t exactly plan on miracles. They’re a gift from God, and they come in shapes and forms we won’t anticipate. But I believe that we can expect God to act in miraculous ways, especially when, in turn with God making room for us, we make room for God. We’re invited to this table, God’s table. Will you invite God into your life? Have you made enough room for God’s miracles? Do we have room here at Liverpool First for God to do miracles among us?
            In the weeks ahead, we’re going to be exploring many ways that God makes room, and we can help make room, at the table. We’ll be thinking practically – how do we welcome one another in this building, this space of worship, this community? We’ll think spiritually – what does it mean to accept God’s invitation to the table? And I hope we’ll begin to get a feel for what kind of place, what kind of community, what kind of place of welcome we want this particular community of faith to be. As we prepare to ask these questions, I have another homework assignment for you. You know I’m fond of homework assignments. This one should be easy – for now. At every meal you eat this week, I want you to make note of who you are eating with. Who is at the table with you? Make a list. And I’d love for you to share it with me, or Pastor Aaron or Pastor Penny. And if you’re really brave, there’s still that space on my bulletin board, where I’d be glad to hang it up. Who is at the table with you? This week, pay close attention.
            You’re invited, friends, to God’s table. There’s room for us no matter why we’re here. There’s enough for everyone – more than enough. In fact, God plans to fill your life to overflowing. You’re invited to be inviting! You’re invited to make room for miracles. You’re invited to make room for God. Enough room for miracles to take place. Come to the table. There’s enough room for everyone, and then some. Amen.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Lectionary Notes for Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B

Readings for Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, 9/9/12: 
Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23, Psalm 125, James 2:1-10, (11-13), 14-17, Mark 7:24-37

Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23:
  • "a good name" - What does it mean these days to have a 'good name,' when perhaps there is less emphasis on family of origin=prestige than there once was? Do you have a good name? Who would you say has a good name?
  • "Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity" Can you think of times when you have been responsible for sowing injustice? I hope never to do so, but sometimes I'm afraid I don't sow anything at all instead.
  • "for the Lord pleads their cause" - Imagine God as your attorney, God as your advocate in a dispute or argument where you felt you were treated unfairly.
Psalm 125:
  • "so the Lord surrounds his people" - great imagery. What image would you use to describe God's protection of you? Do you feel protected?
  • "the scepter of wickedness shall not rest on the land allotted to the righteous" - another great image. Sometimes it seems that indeed some evil is on the land, the world, with all the fighting, war, injustice. But at heart, God is with us, and in us, and in our world.
  • :5 This verse expresses the psalmist's desire to see evildoers receive some sort of punishment. I think it is natural to seek and desire revenge in some ways, but I think that the 'peace' the psalmist asks for in the same verse only comes when we move beyond a desire to see those who have wronged us suffer.
James 2:1-10, (11-13), 14-17:
  • Perhaps we think issues of how people are dressed in worship were only issues in James' day. But we still often associate how one dresses for worship with how serious one is about God and discipleship.
  • :5 Like our text from Proverbs, here James highlights God's special relationship with the poor. Knowing how special those who are poor are to God, why can't we (I) seem to get more active at working for/with those who are poor?
  • :10 Sounds harsh, extreme, but James is saying: if you follow all the laws except one, but that one is the heart of the law, crucial to faith/righteousness - how much does the rest matter?
  • "law of liberty" - interesting phrase. Sounds constitutional, doesn't it?
  • "Can faith save you?" Hm. Many would say yes. James stands and says loudly, "yeah right!" Not without works to support the faith. What do you think?
  • "Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill." Ah, too often our response to those in need.
Mark 7:24-37:
  • "Yet he could not escape notice." - No kidding. I can't imagine the stress of feeling constantly in demand. Really constantly, not just 'busy' like we are today. But how could they not come to one who was offering them so much?
  • The first part of this text is one we have a hard time dealing with. "Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs" - A hard sentences to construct in a way flattering to Jesus. I don't have good answers. I don't want to explain away Jesus' words by trying to translate the Greek differently. Was Jesus just joking with the woman? I don't see it. What I see is a woman who is as persistent as the widow Jesus tells a parable about elsewhere in the gospels, and she receives her reward. And what I see is a Jesus who is focused on the mission he sees: to the Jews - who lets his own vision be expanded. The woman shows him a way to spread more grace.
  • Even with his resistance, we can be comforted that Jesus heard her out, and really listened, until he recognized great faith in one whom he did not expect to find it.
  • Check here for Chris Haslam's interesting interpretation of the deaf man described in the second part of this text.
  • ephphatha - what a word! "Be opened!" A commandment we might try to follow in many situations...
  • "he has done everything well." A sweet compliment, at last.

Sermon for Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B, "Inside Out"

Sermon 9/2/12
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Inside Out

Many of you know that my youngest brother Todd is a professional actor. Near Christmas, you’ll probably have the opportunity to see him do a bit of acting during worship, as I usually recruit him to help bring to life some of the nativity story. But you might not know that I have a passion for theatre myself. I actually used to have an incredible fear of public speaking as a child. I would hyperventilate if I had to give an oral report in school. But I always wanted to be in plays, and I auditioned for a part in Cinderella when I was in fourth grade. I got cast – everybody got cast. But I got cast as a mouse, which was one of the parts that went to, well, the less talented performers. And I watched with envy as the bolder kids got to play more interesting roles with more interesting songs to sing. After that, I had an epiphany: If I wanted a more interesting part, I would at least have to talk loud enough for people to hear me on stage! I never went on to have starring roles, but I became confident enough to get some small parts, and I fell in love with theatre. I definitely credit my theatre background with helping me prepare for being a preacher, being at ease up front in a space like this. In college, I was already preparing for seminary, majoring in pre-theology, but my minor was theatre, and almost all of my free time was spent at the theatre.
Recently, I’ve been lamenting that since becoming a pastor, I haven’t had much time to work on any shows. Well, as I was lamenting, someone was listening. Chris, briefly our organist, was here long enough to hear my lament, and invite me to play violin in the pit band for the show he’s musical directing: Fiddler on the Roof. I explained to Chris that my schedule isn’t always cooperative, and that I hadn’t done any serious violin playing in quite some time, and Chris promised me a very brief commitment to rehearsals, and a violin part that would be supporting the more experienced players. How could I refuse? Fiddler, here I come!
Are you all familiar with the story and music from Fiddler on the Roof?  In the opening scene, Tevye, the lead character, a poor milk man, asks the question and gives the answer that frames the whole story: “How do we retain this fragile balance in life?” He can tell you the answer in just one word: Tradition! Throughout the musical, three of Tevye’s daughters marry in turn, but each match poses a challenge to Tevye’s sense of tradition and how things are meant to be done. His oldest daughter, Tzeitel, asks her father to be let out of the arranged match for her, so that she can marry the man she truly loves, Motel, the tailor. Tevye groans and complains, but finally agrees that they can marry for love. Then his second daughter, Hodel, wants to marry revolutionary Perchik. When they approach Tevye, they tell him they are not asking for permission, only for his blessing. Again, Tevye refuses at first, but finally gives in. And then finally his youngest daughter Chava falls in love with a Christian man, Fyedka. She, too, seeks to change her father’s heart about her match, but Tevye says “enough” – he has bent enough and let go of too much tradition. Near the end of the story, he does, at least, pray God’s blessing on Chava and Fyedka, even if he cannot fully come to terms with the marriage.
As enjoyable as Fiddler is as a musical, as lighthearted as it is at times, the questions asked are serious ones, important ones. How far should you change traditions to meet the demands of an ever-changing world? How far is too far to bend? When do the traditions hold us to what is good and important, and when do they keep us from moving forward, from growing and changing in healthy ways? What traditions are based on simple habits that have extended over generations, and when to they represent the unchanging truth?
            Today we lay aside our journey with Ephesians and take up the gospel of Mark, as we look in on a conversation between Jesus and a group of scribes and Pharisees. If you are at all familiar with the Bible, I think it is easy to come to a scripture text and see the Pharisees and think: “Aha! The bad guys!” whenever you encounter these religious leaders. But the Pharisees, of course, didn’t view themselves as bad or faithless or villains. They were, in fact, religious leaders, devout Jews, who tried very hard to follow the law of Moses carefully and interpret it for daily living. They emphasized upholding the rituals, the traditions. They insisted on using oral tradition as well as written tradition, and in that way were viewed as quite liberal by other Jewish sects. For example, they added qualifications to laws like "an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth" so that executions took place in less situations. On the other hand, however, their additions to the law through oral code sometimes added many new requirements for people to follow, like around issues of observing Sabbath, for instance. And their learning and education began to set them apart from the rest of the people, making them their own aristocracy. (1) These kinds of practices, all these additional rules and looking down on those who didn’t follow them all, these were the practices of the scribes and Pharisees that Jesus most often criticized.
            The Pharisees have noticed that some of the disciples of Jesus are eating without washing their hands. Their concerns weren’t about hygiene, but about ritual cleanness – an act of spiritual purification before eating. Mark notes for us that the Pharisees have elaborate washing rituals that they engage in before eating, traditions handed to them by the elders. They question Jesus: “Why aren’t your disciples following the tradition of the elders?” And Jesus responds with very pointed words: He said to them, ‘Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.” You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.’ And then, to the crowds he says, ‘Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.’ For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come.” Jesus indicates that somewhere along the way, the Pharisees stopped being concerned with carefully explaining God’s law, and started being concerned with doing things a certain way because that’s how they’d always been done. Somewhere in there, actually following God’s commandments got lost, in favor of human tradition. But what matters to God is the shape of our hearts, the state of our souls, not the nitty-gritty of these outside practices we adopt to practice our faith.
If you think about your traditions – your faith traditions, your family traditions – do you know where they all came from? Can you remember their origin? This week I was talking with Eric Holmes, one of our LIFE youth group leaders, about change. I told him about a young person named Al, who was part of the Conference Youth program, who liked to offer prayer during worship. He was eloquent, and the other youth recognized his gift for moving prayer, and whenever I would ask for someone to pray, the kids would say, “Al!” and call his name. Only, eventually, Al graduated. And for the year after he graduated, when I would ask for someone to pray, the kids would still yell, “Al!” But of course, Al wasn’t there to pray. I told the kids: “If you keep doing this, eventually, I will be asking for someone to pray, and everyone will yell, “Al,” but no one will have any idea who Al is or what you are talking about.” We were in the process of creating a tradition, a ritual, but I was worried that it was only leading us away from the main point: praying during worship!  
Other times, I’ve noticed that traditions that make perfect sense to those on the inside make no sense at all to people on the outside. For example, in my first church, we also made regular mission trips to Redbird, a mission site in rural Kentucky, like you do here. But we got in the habit of talking about Redbird all the time without adding any more descriptions. Bulletin announcements would refer to a meeting to plan for Redbird, but if you were a new visitor to the church, you would have no idea what this Redbird thing was all about. Have you ever had someone who is looking in at what you do from an outsider’s perspective, and they’re just able to really make you look at your own situation in a whole new way? One of the most important days in my life so far, most meaningful days, was the day I was ordained. I found it incredibly moving. And walking in with my clergy colleagues at the start of the service, with that community of pastors I was joining, was something I found very significant. But I talked with my older brother Jim, after the ordination, and found that what was so meaningful to me just didn’t make sense to him. He said it reminded him of the Imperial Guard in the Star Wars movies, a comparison I’m afraid I will never be able to get out of my head.
Jesus says that the Pharisees – and since he’s talking to religious leaders, we can assume he’s speaking to us, too – he says that we add so much stuff to the list of what we have to do to be a good Christian, and then get so worried about doing this little stuff, that we miss the main point, the core stuff, that Jesus asked us – commanded us – to do in the first place. And when we start worrying more about the stuff we’ve added on, then the stuff Jesus told us to do, all that extra stuff becomes a form of idolatry, which is anything we make more important to us than God.
            Did you know that the ability to tell that when I’m pointing my finger, it means I want you to look at what I’m pointing at, rather than at my pointed finger, is a sign of our developed human brains? Only a few other species get this concept: elephants, dolphins, apes, some birds. But as smart as I think my cat is, if I point my finger, she’s going to look at my finger. I think that’s what happens when we spend more energy on the trappings of our faith than on deepening our faith. Our purpose as a community of faith is to point others and ourselves to the gospel, the good news of Jesus. But sometimes we get so caught up in how we do that, and doing it just right, that we end up gazing at our own pointed finger, instead of at Jesus. That’s idolatry. And that’s why Jesus speaks with such passion, warning us not to confuse our human traditions with God’s purpose and call.
            At Ohio Wesleyan, where I went to college, there was a big rock outside the main dining hall, and different groups on campus would make a bonding activity of painting the rock, a practice allowed by administrators, I might add. Different groups would either sign their names in paint, or paint it in school colors, or do something creative, like make it into a giant ice cream cone. But I’ve always been curious: how big is that rock, really? I’m not sure how long the tradition of painting the rock has been around. But it’s been a long time. And if you peeled away all the layers, chipped away all the paint, would that rock be so small you could actually just carry it with you?
            Jesus told us to love God with our whole selves, and to love one another. Have we added so many layers to these tasks, that we’ve made them into boulders that no one can carry with them?
            Let me be clear. The way we do things isn’t unimportant. Having traditions isn’t bad. I love the traditions my family shares, and despite what my brother says, I still love the ordination service! Jesus himself participated in the traditions of his time and place and culture. But the methods and practices we use to carry out our mission, following God, can never become the most important thing. We always have to remember to point to the gospel, and not get stuck gazing at our fingers. Jesus reminds us that it is not the things outside ourselves that make us who we are. Who we are is what is inside of us, and God hopes that what is inside of us is a heart that is seeking after the way of Jesus. Amen.

Sermon, "In Denial," Mark 8:31-37

Sermon 2/20/24 Mark 8:31-37 In Denial My sermon title is both a reflection of our gospel text for today, and a reflection of how I felt abou...