Monday, March 24, 2014

Lectionary Notes for Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year A

Readings for 4th Sunday in Lent, 3/30/14:
1 Samuel 16:1-13, Psalm 23, Ephesians 5:8-14, John 9:1-41

1 Samuel 16:1-13:
  • This is a classic story of God calling an unexpected person. David seems to be the last choice of all the brothers - except to God.
  • "how long will you grieve?" God asks Samuel. Sometimes we can get bogged down in bad decisions, plans gone wrong, etc., that distract us from following God. God says - Get on with it. There are other plans. Other ways I can work. You just have to keep moving, keep being open to God's creativity.
  • "for the Lord does not see as mortals see" - THANK GOD for that!!! God sees insides, not outsides. God sees potential, not past.
Psalm 23:
  • Ah, perhaps the one passage of scripture that most people, regardless of their usual preference of translation, prefer to hear in the poetry of the King James version, myself included. Just a part of our identity as people of faith.
  • "I shall not want." Hmm. I think we skip right over this little phrase. We like to hear about our overflowing cup. Less interesting to us, less believable, is that we could be without want.
  • Have you ever tried writing this as a reverse Psalm? Verse by verse, reverse the meaning of the phrases. Not necessarily point for point, but in the sense of it. Instead of "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want," try, "I have no one to lead me, and my need is boundless." I've been led in this process, and led my Bible Study in it. At first you might ask, "Why do it this way?" But, especially when in a group, reading back all the hopeless examples of our life without God, we see the power of this psalm more clearly.
  • Like all well-known texts, there is a danger of it communicating nothing fresh to us. This psalm is often used at funerals - many people know it by heart. Many find it comforting and strengthening. What else can it be? Challenging? Guiding us?
Ephesians 5:8-14:
  • light/dark imagery. I recommend using care in the way we use light/dark imagery in our preaching. Whether you think it makes sense or not, there are racial implications with light and dark imagery that can cause pain if we are not careful in our words.
  • "sleeper, awake!" I like this sense that we are just sleeping before the light comes to our lives - not dead, or nonexistent. But in a sleep, a dream-like state.
  • "everything that becomes visible is light" Paul starts saying that everything exposed by light becomes visible. Logical enough. But the reverse statement is not a logical assumption. Intriguing.
John 9:1-41:
  • "who sinned?" That's our natural human response, isn't it? We want to know who we can blame, who is at fault, when we see suffering. We don't like to admit that people might experience suffering not because of a sin committed.
  • Isn't it amazing how much different the blind man looks to people once his sight is restored? People don't even recognize him, with his vision restored. But we have no reason to think his outward appearance has changed in any way. Amazing - how much we must judge people by what we believe they are or are not capable of doing. Amazing - how much an encounter with God can change someone. Amazing - how impossible it seems to everyone that we can change so drastically.
  • The man tells it straight: he doesn't know who Jesus is, if he's a sinner or not, exactly. But he knows this - "I was blind, now I see." The results point to who Jesus is.
  • "You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?" Today, do we still condemn people because of the wrongdoings of others? Even though Jesus says this man's parents did not sin, pretend that they were sinners for a minute. That the man was born blind because of his parents' sins. Is the man to be held accountable? Do we do that in society? I'm afraid we do.  

Sermon, "24 Hours that Changed the World: Condemned by the Righteous," Mark 14:53-55, 60-72

Sermon 3/23/2014
Mark 14:53-55, 60-72

24 Hours that Changed the World: Condemned by the Righteous

            We continue, today, following Jesus through the last 24 hours of his life on earth, 24 hours that changed the world. First, we started with the Last Supper. Last week, we spent time with Jesus, Peter, James, and John, in the garden, as Jesus anguished. Now, we find Jesus arrested, having been betrayed by Judas. He’s brought to trial by the Sanhedrin. Meanwhile, Peter, confronted about his association with Jesus, denies, three times, ever knowing Jesus, just as Jesus told him he would.
            The Sanhedrin was a body of the religious leaders in Jerusalem who were appointed to judge in disputes among the people. Their origins trace back to the days of Moses, when Moses found he alone could not judge in all the matters that came before him. Sanhedrin means literally “sit together.” They were the ones who could try the king, extend the boundaries of the Temple and Jerusalem, and they were the ones to whom all questions of law were finally put. (Wikipedia) Although in the gospels we see them as enemies of Jesus, they were a body of incredibly respected, devoted, religious leaders. And they are looking, we read, for a reason to condemn Jesus to death. Why? Because he’s been breaking rules, repeatedly. Challenging their authority. Drawing crowds to him and teaching in a way that suggest that they, who have been properly invested with power and authority, have actually been getting it all wrong. He’s upsetting the whole order of things, and calling everything they think they know into question. Jesus frightens them, badly. If they thought Jesus was just crazy, he probably wouldn’t have posed such a threat to them. But since they can’t find a way to dispute his teachings, since he speaks with authority they don’t have or understand, they’re frightened. They recognize his power, and the power they would have to give up if they admitted Jesus was right. They’re afraid.
            Peter – I don’t know if it is harder or easier to understand Peter’s actions. The Sanhedrin weren’t Jesus’ friends, his disciples for three years. You could say, it wasn’t “personal.” But with Peter: he has followed Jesus everywhere, tried to do everything Jesus wanted for three years. But he’s afraid too. Not of giving up power, maybe, but of the authority Jesus seems to want Peter to take. Afraid, especially that continuing to follow Jesus will find Peter following a little too literally in his footsteps. Yes, he thinks Jesus is the Messiah. But what if claiming that results in Peter’s arrest, Peter’s trial, Peter’s death? Peter’s very afraid.
What are you afraid of? Adam Hamilton suggests in our congregation Bible study book that both Peter and the Sanhedrin do what they do because of their fears – because they were afraid of the consequences. Afraid of losing their power. Afraid of being condemned like Jesus if they spoke up. Afraid to act. Afraid to even object to the unfolding of events. What are you afraid of?
I wonder if, every day, we don’t live our lives shaped by fear, at least in part. Sometimes little fears – we like to call them “worries.” Sometimes we struggle with big fears – usually fear of major loss – of home, career, loved ones, our own lives. And our fears prevent us from living the life we believe, somewhere deep in our hearts, we should be living. I think the gap between the life we have and the life we think God wants for us is created in part by the fears we let rule us. I’ve shared with you before that the scriptures tell us “Do not be afraid” more than 80 times. I don’t think this is accidental, but rather, God’s knowing how much we’re ruled by fear.
One of my favorite passages from scripture is from 1 John 4:18-19: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because God first loved us.” Perfect love casts out fear. Think of all the relationships in your life – of all the people you love. How does fear in relationship prevent you from experiencing perfect love? Fear of being hurt. Fear of hurting. Fear of a commitment. Fear of being vulnerable. Fear of not being deeply understood. Fear you aren’t worth love. Perfect love casts out fear, which Jesus demonstrates for us, even as he stands trial, faces death.
Finding no other testimony that would justify putting Jesus to death, finally the high priest asks Jesus a question he can’t really expect Jesus to answer affirmatively. That would make things too easy! “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” And yet, Jesus answers, “I am.” I am. The defining moment has arrived. The moment of truth. And Jesus is condemned as “deserving death.”
We use the phrase “moment of truth” to mean a “defining moment,” a moment where it becomes clear what someone really thinks or believes, when previously it had been unclear, or when a decision is made known explicitly. For example, election day is the “moment of truth” on how the nation feels about political candidates, after months of polls, for example, only give a partial picture. A high school senior deciding between different schools to attend has a moment of truth when they have to make a final decision about where to go.
We also face moments of truth, personally, when we have opportunities to reconcile what we say we believe with what we actually do. We say that we detest racism, and we hear someone telling a joke that is racist. Moment of truth: do we speak up, or stay silent? We say that we hate it when people talk about someone else behind their back, but we’re presented with an opportunity to malign our nemesis to a friend. Do we take it? How much do we really believe what we’ve said we believe?
When Jesus answers the high priest’s question, “Are you the Messiah?” so clearly, so directly, “I am,” it is the moment of truth. It’s decision time. His followers, the crowds, the religious leaders – all of them, all of us – we can no longer pretend that Jesus is saying something else, that he’s making some other claim. He lays out who he is so clearly, and we have to react. The Sanhedrin certainly reacts – they condemn him, beat him, spit on him, blindfold him, and hand him over to guards. And Peter – Peter, earlier in Mark’s gospel, as we read a few weeks ago, said he believed Jesus to be the Messiah – but here Peter has a moment of truth too. When his own life is in danger, will Peter admit to being a Jesus-follower? And the answer is: No. No, he won’t even admit knowing Jesus.
And that’s the end of the story, right, for Peter? For the Sanhedrin surely, at least, right? The moment of truth came and they let fear rule their actions, and the end.
I appreciate the stories people have of the moments in their life that stand out as defining moments: There was a moment that they knew that they were in love with their now-spouse. The moment that one discovered they were to become a parent. A specific moment they accepted Jesus as their savior. Those are some important moments. But although less exciting, sometimes, marriage is the relationship over time. Parenthood is the unfolding of your child’s life. And our relationship with Jesus is a journey of two-steps forward that hopefully outweigh our frequent steps backward. In John’s gospel, Jesus describes himself as being The Way. We often think of this is as “the moment of truth” – we choose Jesus instead of other possible ways – a defining moment. And that’s certainly one way to think of it. But the “the way” in Greek means “the road,” “the path.” It’s something you travel on – it suggests movement. Jesus is the journey, a lifelong direction we try to travel, not just a moment in time.
In our United Methodist heritage, we understand salvation in the same way – not only a moment of truth, but instead, a life-long experience of stepping into the wholeness that God offers us – we believe that grace is evident before we even know it. We call that prevenient grace. And we believe that we have the experience of becoming aware of and accepting God’s grace – we call that justifying grace. And then we have a lifetime of figuring out how to live in God’s grace – we call that sanctifying grace. It’s the road we’re on, the way we’re going.
We know at least one member of the Sanhedrin, Joseph of Arimathea, eventually became a Jesus-follower, claiming Jesus’ body after the crucifixion and laying him to rest in Joseph’s own family tomb. He’s remembered as a saint. His fearful response at Jesus’ trial wasn’t the end of the story. And we certainly know Peter’s story didn’t end with his denial. Later he’ll declare that he loves Jesus three times, and preach on Pentecost before the crowds, and baptize in the name of Jesus, and be put to death because of Jesus. His fearful response was not the end of the story. Those moments of truth didn’t become the whole story, thanks be to God.
And so too it is with us. We don’t have just one moment to love perfectly in a way that casts out fear. God loves us perfectly already. And so God is not afraid to wait and love us as we see more clearly, know more fully, even as God so fully knows us. Thanks be to God, there is more to our story than our worst fear-filled moments of turning from God’s love, failing to love one another so fantastically, rejecting who God has created us to be, making of our lives less than the abundant blessing God means for them to be. Thank goodness there is more to our story as we journey on the way, the road, the path, following Jesus.
If fear has been defining us, catching us in those moments of truth, let it be for us just that: a moment. A moment that God, thankfully, doesn’t see as the end of our stories. There is no fear in love. And God loves us perfectly. And perfect love casts out all fear, moment by moment. Amen.  

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Lectionary Notes for Third Sunday in Lent, Year A

Readings for Third Sunday in Lent, 3/23/14:
Exodus 17:1-7, Psalm 95, Romans 5:1-11, John 4:5-42

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 95:
  • This is a good call-to-worship psalm - that's what it is, in part.
  • Note the switch in voice between verse 7 and 8: first the psalmist is speaking, then God is speaking first person.
  • The second part refers to the people wandering in the desert after the exodus from Egypt. God is depicted as moody, temperamental. I like the first half better!
Romans 5:1-11:
  • "Since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God." That's in interesting if --> then statement. Both parts on their own are not necessarily surprising, but that the first causes the second is an interesting play on words. What does it mean to have peace with God? Trusting that it is our faith, not our faulty, failing works, that brings us to God, and more than that, God's grace, then we can rest in peace (not just the RIP kind!) with God.
  • Suffering --> produces endurance --> produces character --> produces hope. "and hope does not disappoint us." I like Paul's logic here. It's sort of like those puzzles where you have to make the first word into the last word by changing one letter at a time like this: PAIL - MAIL - MALL - MILL - MILK
  • "and hope does not disappoint us." What do you think about that? Has your hope ever disappointed you? If you're like me, you can probably think of times that you would say, 'yes' to this question, so what does Paul mean here? Has your hope in God ever disappointed you?
  • "right time" - again, kairos, as I mention in my Ash Wednesday notes: God's right time for action, not just any regular time.
  • "God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us." - straight from Paul to our Holy Communion liturgy.  
John 4:5-42:
  • A lengthy reading, Jesus' encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well. This is a daring conversation for the woman: Jesus is a Jew, and a man. She converses with him at length, even though both of them cross social customs to do so.
  • Even though Jesus offers living water, he asks the woman first for a drink from the well. He asks her to give him something, even as he offers the immeasurably valuable to her. Give and take. I think God seeks that kind of relationship from us. Wants us to give, even though God can give to us so much more.
  • "God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth." Nice. Despite the divisions of Samaritans and Jews, or Catholics and Protestants, or Christians and Muslims, etc. Spirit and Truth.
  • "I am he." Another declaration of identity - common to John while rare in the other gospels.
  • "the fields are ripe for harvesting." I love the garden/vineyard/harvesting imagery that Jesus uses, even though I don't always understand it completely. How it must have sounded to his contemporaries who lived in such a society!
  • "for we have heard for ourselves" ah, another sign of human nature. We don't like to believe from another person's information. We always want to hear it first-hand, from a credible source. That's just sensible, right? It is hard to let go of those rules in order to come to belief through faith. Hard to figure out when it's right and when it's foolish... 

Sermon, "24 Hours that Changed the World: The Garden," Mark 14:32-42

Sermon 3/16/2014
Mark 14:32-42

24 Hours that Changed the World: The Garden

We’re continuing today with our Lenten series examining 24 hours that changed the world, as we study in depth the 24 hours before Jesus’ death on a cross. Last week we looked at the Last Supper, and thought about how we are Christ’s body in the world, how we say yes, again and again, to God’s offer of covenant with us. Today, we turn to what happened after the meal. After the meal, Jesus and his disciples go to the Mount of Olives, and sing hymns, as was customary. And there Jesus tells the disciples that they will all soon desert him. They all protest, Peter in particular, but Jesus tells Peter that Peter specifically will soon deny Jesus, multiple times.
And then they all go to a place called Gethsemane, a place that meant “Olive Press,” named for a place to process the olives from the olive trees of the region into olive oil. And there, among the olive trees, Jesus takes Peter and James and John – the three he’s selected in other times when he’s wanted only his closest with him – he takes them aside and tells them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.” That’s what amazes me most about this passage: even though Jesus knows that Peter is one of the people who will ditch him – not just abandon him but actively, verbally, repeatedly deny even knowing him – even knowing this, Peter is still one of the three that Jesus wants to accompany him on his darkest night. The grace of that is so powerful, of God loving us, and not even just loving us, no small thing in itself – but using us, valuing us, even with our ridiculously messy, faulty lives.
Then, we read, Jesus goes a little farther off from them and throws himself to the ground, an action of deep distress, of submission, of begging. And Jesus prays and prays, “Abba – Father – you can do anything. Take this cup away from me!” Take this unfolding of events out from in front of me. Let there be another way! “But,” Jesus says, “not what I want, but what you want.” Jesus returns to Peter, James, and John, and finds them sleeping. He ask them again to stay awake with him, even for just an hour. And again, he prays, the same words. Not what I want, but what you want. And again, he returns to find the disciples sleeping. Mark, the gospel writer, tells us that yes, their eyes were very heavy but that also, “they didn’t know what to say to him.” Their sleeping is at least part an avoidance technique. Hey, sorry, we couldn’t be more helpful, Jesus, but we were really tired! This pattern repeats even a third time. But finally, returning the last time, Jesus says, “Enough! The hour has come … see, my betrayer is at hand.” The night is over.
I think there are two points of view for us to consider in this passage. What do we take away imagining the perspective of Peter, James, and John, and what do we take away as we imagine what this experience was like for Jesus? I appreciate particularly Adam Hamilton’s chapter, “The Garden,” which you either have or will study in Bible Study this week in our Lenten study book. In the chapter, Hamilton acknowledges that scholars have pondered why Jesus kept praying to have the cup removed from him, why he was so anguished in the garden as he prayed alone. Various theories abound – maybe Jesus was feeling tempted, as he had at the start of his ministry, to take a different path – to say the disciples weren’t ready yet to lead on their own, to say that more could be accomplished if Jesus lived on earth longer. Others theorize that Jesus could have been anguished in Gethsemane, anticipating that people would confuse and misrepresent his message, that he hadn’t reached enough people, that Jerusalem would soon be destroyed by the Romans. Jesus was anguished over the future. And I think there is probably some truth in both those theories. But Hamilton, sensibly, I believe, simply asks, “Why wouldn’t Jesus have been full of anguish about the prospect of being arrested and beaten and crucified?” Why wouldn’t Jesus be thinking, praying, “If there’s another way to do this, I’d like to choose that way instead!” We follow a God who is God-with-us, Emmanuel, God made flesh. And so Jesus, God made flesh, can grieve, as we would, because of the difficult road he knows lies ahead of him.
When was the last time you knew that the right thing to do was something you really, really didn’t want to do? Oh, I’m not talking about doing a household chore or something – you know you should wash the dishes, but you really don’t want to. But when you were at a crossroads in life, and you knew which way you were supposed to go. You just really, really, didn’t want to go that way. I was talking with Sara Bailey recently about her prayer time, and about how you know the difference between your own voice and God’s voice in prayer. Sara, I have to tell you, is a powerful pray-er, and between her deep faith and God’s amazingness, some pretty neat things happen when Sara sets her mind on praying for something specific. Sara had encountered a challenging situation, and she was praying for direction from God. For clarity. And God answered. Clearly. God told Sara to lead. As she and I were talking, Sara wondered what we often wonder in prayer: Is the answer I’m hearing my answer, or God’s answer? Sara and I are both introverts, though, and since I understand a bit about Sara’s personality, I could tell her with confidence: if you were just hearing your own voice Sara, and not God’s, it would never be telling you to lead like that. If the answer you are hearing is telling you to do something that you kind of dread doing, then chances are, you’re hearing from God! 
A few weeks ago, when we were talking about habits of effective disciples, we talked about service, about what it means when we say “God’s will be done.” And here, we witness the most powerful example of what it means, as Jesus prays these words in the garden. Jesus prays, and he knows that what God’s will is for Jesus to drink from the cup set before him. And so Jesus grieves, because he knows he’s going to follow God’s exact plan for him. Because he knows he’s heard God’s answer. We, too, can grieve, even when we’re faithfully following God. We grieve for other plans we might have had, or for the hard path that’s ahead of us, or for the anguish that giving up our control and handing it to God causes us. The anguish is a part of the journey of discipleship. A part we go through before the joy to come is visible from where we stand.   
Sometimes we connect to Jesus’ anguish in this passage. But often, I think, we’re the disciples with eyes very heavy with sleep. This particular passage of scripture became personally meaningful for me when I was doing a chaplaincy internship at Crouse Hospital while I was in seminary. I’ve shared with you before about my experience of being in a chaplain in the NICU – the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit – being with anxious or hopeful or grieving families of newborns struggling to live – and realizing what every pastor, perhaps every person needs to realize. Sometimes we’re not able to or supposed to or wanted to fix things for people we encounter who are experiencing such suffering. The parents of struggling newborns knew that I couldn’t make their babies thrive. But if I could, if I would, I could listen to their anguished soul-bearing. That’s harder to do though. It’s easier to look for solutions, fixes, that keep us busy and separated from the emotional impact of feeling the agony someone else is experiencing. And so this passage of scripture, of the disciples sleeping through the night while Jesus really, really just wanted some company, some people to share in bearing witness to his grieving, became my touchstone verse for my chaplaincy, and for my understanding of pastoral care in general. Ninety percent of the time, I can’t fix things. But I can stay with someone while they offer their cries of anguish to God. We can all do that.
Back in February, I attended our conference’s clergywomen’s retreat, a gathering for women in ministry for some continuing education and spiritual renewal. We met with Rev. Jane Vennard, who works as a spiritual director. At one point, she asked us to pair up and to take turns – 5 minutes of time a piece, speaking, about whatever was on our hearts and minds, while the other person would just listen. Not comment, not interject. Not share how they went through something similar themselves. Not agree, or disagree. Simply listen. As an introvert, I didn’t find the prospect of listening without interrupting particularly challenging. But I found the prospect of having someone else listen to me in such an intense, focused way pretty overwhelming. How often do we expect someone to truly, deeply listen to us? Is it so unexpected, someone listening to us so deeply, that it even feels uncomfortable and unfamiliar?
We, like Jesus, can offer our anguish to God, even as we commit to following where God leads. And we, reminding ourselves how easy it is to feign sleep like the disciples, can offer ourselves to our companions on the journey as they offer their anguish to God. It sounds so simple. And yet, the disciples didn’t find it so. And yet, it was such a valuable gift, that companionship, that it was one of a very few things Jesus ever asked for.
This Lent, let us keep awake, praying that God’s will be done in our lives, even when we’re having a hard time syncing God’s will with our own. Let us keep awake, knowing that for God, all things are possible, and we want to be ready for them. Let us keep awake, even if it is only because we must offer our cries of anguish to God. Let us keep awake, even if it is only to stay, stay, stay with one who needs some strength for the journey. Let us keep awake, even when our eyes are heavy with sleep, even when we don’t know what to say. Let us keep awake. The flesh is weak. But let our spirits be willing. Amen.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Lectionary Notes for Second Sunday in Lent, Year A

Readings for Second Sunday in Lent, 3/16/14:
Genesis 12:1-4a, Psalm 121, Romans 4:1-5, 13-17, John 3:1-17

Genesis 12:1-4a:
  • "So Abram went" - ah, I can't imagine just up and going like Abram did. What courage he must have had.
  • Why did he go? God laid out a vision and a promise to him, which Abram found compelling enough to take risks for. As a church, perhaps that is also what we need to do: lay out a compelling vision for where we are going. Then, perhaps, people will have the courage to go with us as we seek to follow God.
  • "I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse." Not sure how I feel about this. But God is protecting God's promise here, however you look at it. Protecting the vision God wants to see come into fullness.
Psalm 121:
  • "I lift up my eyes to the hills." This is one of the best known psalms, next to the 23rd. Indeed, just hearing the first line makes me want to chime in with the rest. I find it most comforting, more so, perhaps, than the 23rd. God's constant, non-stop care. Nothing we can do to be outside of God's reach. Outside of God's love. That is comfort.
  • I think this Psalm speaks to a basic human need: we desire so much to be protected and to know that we are going to be safe. In some ways, we know that this psalm can't mean no harm will ever come to us; we know that we are not safe from anything bad ever happening to us - that's not how life works. But we can know that God is always with us. In a lonely world, that's a pretty powerful comfort. "[God] will keep your life."
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17:
  • This was a text I studied carefully when I was writing a paper my freshman year of college on sola fide. Ah, how enlightened I was. But the texts I used still bring me straight back to the paper I was working on: are we saved by faith or works? We answer faith with our lips, but sometimes works with our actions and attitudes. "It depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace." 
  •  Paul is good at emphasizing the heart of saving faith: God's grace. It is not our faith but better stated God's grace alone that saves us. Paul argues that Abraham was justified not by works but by faith, which was credited to him as "righteousness."
  • "and calls into existence the things that do not exist." God is calling us into existence - I like that, a very process-theology sort of statement. Who is God calling you to be?
John 3:1-17:
  • This passage includes perhaps the most famous and most memorized Bible verse in all the world. When I was little, I had one of those little New Testament Bibles that had John 3:16 in the front in about 20 different languages. Many consider "for God so loved the world" the verse to know if you're going to know any.
  • However, I find the rest of this passage much more meaningful. We throw around the phrase "born again" a lot in the Christian community, sometimes as a state to be desired, sometimes with a roll of the eyes for the implication the word has come to have. But what is Jesus really saying here when he says we must be born again, born of water and the Spirit? Actually, I think we are all constantly being born-again. We're always renewing and remaking ourselves as we grow. The question is not whether we are born-again, but how we are born-again. Are we born again through water and Spirit, as Jesus says we must be, or something else?
  • If you didn't do a renewal of baptismal vows on Baptism of the Lord Sunday, this is another good day to do this as a congregation. I've always found it very meaningful.
  • :17 "Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him." This is an important verse, and I think it helps us ground verse :16, instead of using verse :16 as an exclusive litmus test type verse.
  • I admire Nicodemus, even if he didn't get exactly what Jesus was talking about. He was willing to ask questions that would set him at odds, no doubt, with some of the other religious leaders. He had to take risks, and taking risks means having some faith. How are you or can you be like Nicodemus?


Sermon, "24 Hours that Changed the World: The Last Supper," Mark 14:12, 22-25

Sermon 3/9/2014 
Mark 14:12, 22-25

24 Hours that Changed the World: The Last Supper

            Normally, liturgically speaking, I don’t enjoy doing things out of their proper season. We’re always in such rush in this world, barely enjoying what we’re actually doing before we want to move on to the next thing. Hurry, hurry, hurry. So I don’t like to sing Christmas Carols during Advent, and I cringe when my colleagues move the day of Pentecost around to better suit their church calendars. But this Lent, we’re doing the exact same sort of thing here at Liverpool First, and I think it’s a great idea! Normally, in Lent, we’d be dealing each week with themes that prepared us, eventually, for Holy Week and Easter – Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, the anointing of Jesus’ feet, the raising of Lazarus, Jesus’ late night conversation with Nicodemus. These passages are indeed great preparation in the season of Lent, a season of reflection and honest repentance, as we seek diligently to turn our lives back into God’s direction, in places where we’ve wandered off on our own way.
            But this year, we’re doing something different. We are taking 24 hours – the last 2 hours before Jesus’ death on a cross – and stretching it out over the whole season of Lent. Although in some ways, we’re rushing ahead – starting Lent at Maundy Thursday – I like to think of it instead as slowing down – we’re taking a microscope to Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, examining every detail of, as Adam Hamilton’s book title so appropriately suggests, 24 Hours that Changed the World. We’ll still celebrate these days during Holy Week – we’ll still gather on Maundy Thursday and celebrate Holy Communion together as we remember Jesus’ meal with his disciples, his prayer in the garden, his abandonment. We’ll still gather on Good Friday and reflect on Jesus’ crucifixion. But we’re preparing for it in a different way this year – but examining every facet of it before we participate in our observance of Holy Week.  
            Still, though, I struggled with what to do in this time of worship when we’re spending a lot of time talking about the Last Supper today without actually celebrating it. I debated whether we should celebrate communion in worship or not. But we’re not so much celebrating Maundy Thursday and the Last Supper today, as we are preparing our hearts and minds for the Holy Week observance that is yet to come. So, what should we be thinking about between now and Maundy Thursday next month? How do we prepare all season long to remember again on Maundy Thursday?
            We’re focusing on 24 hours – Jesus’ last 24 hours before his death. Yes, we know there’s more to come. But this part of his journey is coming to a close. With 24 hours left in your life, how would you spend that time? If you had one last meal, what would you eat and with whom would you spend your time, and why? How would you be feeling? In the days before this meal, things between Jesus and the local religious leaders where escalating to the point of crisis. He was in conflict every day with them, and we see his teachings become more direct, more critical, more targeted at their hypocrisy. On top of that, before sharing the bread and cup, Jesus tells the disciples that he knows they will deny, betray, and abandon him. Have you ever been at an uncomfortable family gathering? Have you had a dinner where everyone knew about the conflict going on but no one would bring it up? This is the context of the Last Supper. The stress level must have been enormous. Static images don’t do justice to the turmoil among the hearts of the gathered disciples and Jesus.
            So, in the midst of all this tension, surrounded by people who are both his closest companions, and the very ones who will deny, betray, and abandon him, as only those so close to us can, and in the midst of anxiety about what is to come and the increasing danger they are in from Jesus’ escalating words, and in the midst of the disciples being more and more confused about what Jesus is talking about, in the midst of all this, the Last Supper comes. On Ash Wednesday, we talked about Lent being a season where we offer our brokenness to God. And broken is how Christ offers this meal to us. As Pastor Corey Tarreto Turnpenny writes, “The bread and the cup aren’t really the symbols, it’s the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup.” Indeed, it is only in the breaking of the bread that Christ can share it with us, and what Christ shares with us is brokenness.
Those of you that are participating in the Lenten Bible Study have or will read Adam Hamilton writing about the Last Supper as Jesus’ invitation to all people to become God’s covenant people. Jesus and his disciples were celebrating a Passover meal together, remembering God saving the Israelites, leading them from slavery in Egypt into the Promised Land. “You start out as a slave, and at the end of the night you are free” is the Passover message, Hamilton shares. But at the Last Supper, Jesus invites us all into the covenant. And that’s the invitation we respond to every time we share in communion. We’re saying “yes” again to covenant. And so this Lent, we’re preparing to say yes again – every time we take communion, but especially yes as part of this Lenten journey, yes, in the midst of Holy Week, yes, even though we, like Peter and Judas and the rest, sometimes deny and betray and abandon following Jesus, yes, even though we’re broken. Broken bread for a broken people, but a covenant that is made new when we say yes. We’re preparing again to say yes to the covenant of broken bread and cup outpoured.
            So aside from reflecting on this, hearing about it in a sermon, or maybe in a Bible study, how do we prepare to say yes to the covenant? I posed that question, actually, on facebook this week. Short of actually celebrating communion in worship, how do we live into the message of the Last Supper? They had a lot of interesting ideas, let me tell you. One friend suggested I tape wheat thins into the bulletins. But I thought that might get kind of messy.
            So what do we do instead? If you’ve seen the Liverpool First t-shirts that Red Bird is selling, you’ll notice that they have a quotation on them from a meditation by Teresa of Avila. Saint Teresa, a 16th century Spanish nun, a mystic and practitioner of contemplative prayer, wrote this poem from which the quotation is taken:
Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

Today, at times when we celebrate the sacrament of communion together, the traditional prayer of consecration prays to God, “Make [the bread and cup] be for us the body and blood of Christ so that we may be for the world the body of Christ.” As we prepare for another Holy Week, to remember the crucifixion, and look beyond to the resurrection, we, like the disciples, prepare to live where we are the only body of Christ in the world. Christ is alive among us, always, but we, the body of Christ, are the eyes and hands and feet of Jesus on this earth.
So I believe we prepare to renew our covenant with God by striving to embody Christ in the world as fully as we can. That means we seek each day in Lent to see with the eyes of Christ, so that when we encounter others, we look with the same compassion with which Christ looks. And if we are embodying the hands of Jesus, that means we reach out to all the people to whom Jesus reached out: the unclean, the unwanted, the untouchable, the unloved, the unaccepted – our hands must take theirs. And if we are the feet of Jesus, our feet must take us where Jesus’ feet took him. Among people who didn’t look like him or worship like him or practice the traditions he practiced. Into homes that no one else would enter. Into places where illness and disease left little hope. And eventually, into the city where he would have to confront those who sought to kill him rather than be moved by him.

Between now and Maundy Thursday, pay attention to how you are Christ’s body, Christ’s representative in the world. We – broken, on our own, but together, Christ’s body – we prepare by being the body of Christ in the world. We prepare to experience our unity with Christ and with one another at the table. We prepare to say yes to covenant with God. For Jesus and the disciples, it was the beginning of 24 hours that changed the world. For us, it can be the beginning of the rest of our lives in Christ. Say yes. Amen. 

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Lectionary Notes for First Sunday in Lent, Year A

Readings for First Sunday in Lent, 3/9/14:
Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7, Psalm 32, Romans 5:12-19, Matthew 4:1-11

Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7:
  • I love the story-telling quality of this text. Growing up, going to Camp Aldersgate, the then-director Rick Stackpole used to tell this story about the creation of the world, about how the turtle had to swim to the bottom of the water to pick up sand to make the land. I loved those stories, and loved camp, and was shaped by experiences there. So then, I read this story, with phrases like, "now the serpent was more crafty than any other," and I can just hear the intonation of a story-teller sharing this with people thousands of years ago. And no doubt, as we have it to read today, this story shaped the people, and their faith, as they sought to understand God at work in their world.
  • For other great creations stories, check out two of my favorite C.S. Lewis books: The Chronicles of Narnia: The Magician's Nephew and from the space trilogy: Perelandra.
  • Read closely and carefully: compare what the snake says God says, with what Eve says God says, with what God actually says. It's like a game of telephone, where the truth gets slightly altered in each telling.
  • Nakedness. Today, perhaps it seems no one has shame in nakedness, if we look at media images... but emotional nakedness - perhaps we fear that now more than ever. What does it mean to be naked before God? What are you ashamed of God seeing?
Psalm 32:
  • Watch for the change of voice in verse 8-9. It threw me off for a couple minutes. First the psalmist is talking to God, then God to the psalmist. "I will counsel you with my eye upon you," says God. What an image! Being a Lord of the Rings fan, the big eye of Sauron comes to mind first, but that's not exactly how I like to imagine the eye of God! Think perhaps instead of those pretty "God's Eye" craft projects you might have completed in elementary school.
  • There's a Hide and Seek theme going on here. The psalmist talks about hiding and not hiding our sinfulness from God. But the psalmist also talks about God being our hiding place.God is the one seeking us. We can hide from God or hide in God. Which will it be? God will cover our sin.
  • Note the theme of clean slates - God is wiping out our sins.
Romans 5:12-19:
  • Make sure to read the beginning of chapter 5 to pick up Paul's whole conversation here.
  • Paul is taking about Jesus being the one through whom grace comes, just as through Adam our sin comes. I have questions about original sin and substitutionary atonement for myself, but what I like is this verse: "the free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through one man's trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ." (emphasis added) It always makes the most sense to me to hear about the limitless nature of God's gift of grace. That  "much more surely" phrase is repeated in this passage. With God, with Christ, it is always much more surely that we are given!
  • "one man" is another phrase Paul repeats here. He says if one man's actions leads to death, so also one man's righteousness leads to life. Obviously he's speaking of Adam and Christ, but I think we can also apply this to ourselves: one person's actions can have significant impact, for bad or for good. We can control what kind of actions we want to share with the world: what results do you want your influential behavior to have?
Matthew 4:1-11:
  • Good to compare this passage with Luke and Mark's version of the temptation - Matthew has some different order to the trials, and he also fleshes out some of the scriptures that are quoted. You can decide if the differences are significant! 
  • Jesus is tempted by the devil. It's easy to get caught up in an argument about who the devil is, if the devil exists, if the devil is a being, etc. But I think if we get stuck in that argument, we miss the actual point of the story. Point is, Jesus went through a time of testing and tempting and trial before he began his ministry. Point is, Jesus could have chosen many paths of action that would have left him better off, but instead he chose God's path. Point is, Jesus, a human, faced the same tough decisions we face, and remained faithful - so, so can we.
  • Jesus is tempted in three ways: in the first, he resisted using his powers to meet his own needs. In the second, he resists putting God to the test, demanding of God to meet his needs. In the third, he resists using his power to be a dynamic leader of the type that seeks fame and glory.
  • It's interesting - the devil tempts Christ by using the scripture from Psalms. He takes the words of the Holy Book and twists them into a wrong meaning. It's not just bad theology when we do the same things with "proof-texting" and other abuses of God's Holy Word - it's actually evil when we use the word in this way!


Sermon, "Seven Habits of Highly Effective Disciples: Committed," Mark 8:27-38

Sermon 3/2/2014
Mark 8:27-38

Seven Habits of Highly Effective Disciples: Committed

“As members of the body of Christ and in this congregation of The United Methodist Church, we will faithfully participate in the ministries of the church by our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness, that in everything, God may be glorified through Jesus Christ.” Today, we finally come to the close of our sermon series on the Seven Habits of Highly Effective Disciples. We started out talking about our purpose: what is the purpose of our life? Our church? What’s our life’s mission statement? Our thesis? And then, we spent several weeks figuring out how our life would give supporting evidence that proves our thesis. How do we prove our purpose – and in the collective sense our denomination says our purpose is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world – how do we prove our thesis in our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness? Those are the vows we’re asked to make, the ways in which we commit to engaging in the life of this community when we become part of this congregation. And so today, to finish our series, reflect on our thesis and supporting paragraphs, we come to our conclusion as we ask ourselves: Are we in? Will we commit to this? Recommit for some of us. Commit for the first time for others. Commit more fully. Commit with a better understanding of what we’re saying. Are we in? Are we committed to the purpose of following Jesus?
Today we find ourselves in the gospel of Mark, in a passage that I hope sounds familiar, because Aaron and I have preached on this very scripture several times since we’ve been here with you. And we’ve talked about the theme of commitment before too. It’s not because we’re forgetful worship planners, and we can’t remember what scriptures and themes we’ve used before! No, this text and theme was chosen on purpose. Way back in September, when we spent the month particularly focusing on our purpose, when my Uncle, Bill Mudge, and Bill Gottshalk-Fielding came to share in worship with us – this passage was our scripture text back on that Sunday in the beginning of September. And we spent a lot of time asking why we were here doing this thing called church, why it seemed important that we keep doing it, why we wanted to invite others to join in with us.
At the beginning of our text, we find Jesus travelling with the disciples, and on the way, he asks them about how people see him. Who are they saying he is? The disciples tell him: some are saying he is John the Baptist, some Elijah, or another of the prophets. But then Jesus is more direct. And who do you say that I am? Peter answers boldly, rightly: You are the Messiah. But then Jesus begins to talk about what that means, his being the Messiah. He tells them about the suffering he’s about to go through, his death, and his ultimate resurrection. Somehow, though, Peter, who just called him Messiah, didn’t understand what that title would mean. He rebukes Jesus, and in turn, Jesus says, “Get behind me, Satan.” Then Jesus turns to the crowds and says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.
It’s been a long time since I had to take math in school. I loved math, but I stopped taking it after 10th grade to focus on other classes, and my college didn’t require a single math class (although I had to take three dreaded science courses in college!) But even though it has been a long time, and even though when I talk to my 6 year old nephew Sam about how he learns math at school and I have no idea what he’s talking about, I still do remember some things. I especially always loved logic statements in math. If-then statements. If x equals this then y equals that. These if-then statements are conditional. One thing is only true if another thing is true. For example, if p = students do an extra credit project for a class and q = students will receive bonus points on their grade, the conditional logic statement tells us that q is only true if p is true. Students will only receive bonus points if they do the extra credit project.
            Every time I read this gospel lesson from Mark, I can’t help but think of this type of conditional logic statement. If you want to follow Jesus then deny yourself, take up the cross, and follow. If, then. The implication, as I read it, is that if you don’t deny yourself, and take up the cross, you will have a hard time proving that you are, indeed, a follower of Jesus. In a way, this fits right in with the theme: we’ve been talking about showing the evidence that supports our claimed purpose. As it turns out, Jesus is looking for our evidence too. Peter, voicing what most of the disciples were probably thinking, seems to like the idea of following Jesus, but not some of the hard stuff that comes with it. But Jesus says it doesn’t work that way: if this, then that. If p, then q. If you want to follow, then deny yourself, and take up the cross. Jesus is saying discipleship takes commitment. So what are we ready to commit to?
We’ve recently learned that we’ll be going through a significant transition as a congregation. As you know, now, Pastor Aaron and I will transition into new ministry roles in July, and new pastors will come and lead you in ministry here at Liverpool First. Pastoral transitions bring uncertainty and confusion, and grief and angst and sadness – all those things. And I think the temptation, in the midst of this, is to say, “Committed? How can we talk about the theme of commitment when everything is changing?” How is now a good time to talk about commitment? Who wants to make a commitment when you don’t know what exactly you’re committing to?
 In my newsletter article this month, which you probably just received this past week, I wrote: In the midst of change, I can tell you that the thing that would hurt me most, as your pastor who loves and cares for you, would be if mine and Pastor Aaron’s leaving caused others to stop in their tracks, so to speak, in the work of the church, in the work of discipleship. We have talked a lot together about God’s hopes and dreams for Liverpool First and our community. My deepest wish is for all of those plans and hopes and dreams to still unfold in God's time for us. How our commitment will unfold, the details, the specifics – that’s something that we learn over time. It varies from person to person – what following Jesus looks like for you is going to play out differently for me and for the person next to you, overlapping and diverging in different places. But despite different variations on the theme, we really only have one commitment to make: to follow where Jesus leads us. That’s really the only commitment we need to worry about. And it’s true – we might never know where we’ll end up when we follow Jesus. But we’ll always know who we’re with. And Jesus knows where he’s going – we just have to follow. And in so doing, in losing our life to the way of Christ, we save it.
This Wednesday, the season of Lent begins. And we’ll be focusing in, studying deeply the journey to the cross. Jesus asks the disciples to go with him, to make a commitment, in the midst of turmoil and change. Maybe we can relate, just a little bit. But I hope we’ll commit anyway. Because if p, then q. If disciples, then the cross, then follow.
I want to leave you with a poem written by Pastor Michael Coffey, a reflection on this text. It’s called “Lose yourself along the way.”  
this road you pave with your words
and your broken body and blood poured

it is not on the lustrous map I bought on Amazon
the Travel Channel has not done a feature on the highlights and hot spots

there is no restaurant tour with stops for every palate
and no kitschy giant dinosaurs to stop and take snapshots with the kids

this way that you speak of with mouth wide open
is every dark dream we ever feared might be true

and all that we wish we could fix about our lot
and the sum of all we reject and hide in the mind’s black box

hoping we will never lose control and crash into the jungle
and have its contents played for all to hear

but you say this path, this bumpy road, this crooked cross highway
is the way of life itself, the gift hidden inside the ugly truth

that we will indeed know suffering no matter our resistance
but oh, letting it befriend us we finally have something to live for

something bigger than ourselves, so trembling we submit
and sink into your eddy of mercy and welcome the news

we live only when we have something we are willing to die for
when we know that our lives in their short span were spent for love

            Are you in? 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...