Monday, January 26, 2015

Lectionary Notes for 4th Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B (Ordinary 4)

Readings for 4th Sunday after the Epiphany, 2/1/15:
Deuteronomy 18:15-20, Psalm 111, 1 Corinthians 8:1-13, Mark 1:21-28

Deuteronomy 18:15-20:

  • Moses declares to the people that God will raise up a prophet after his death - ostensibly he speaks of his successor, Joshua. He does this because the people feel that God speaking to them more directly, as at Horeb when God spoke out of the fire, is too frightening, too much to handle. Can you imagine thinking that God speaking directly too you is too much to handle? It might be intimidating, but most of us seem to wish God would speak to us more directly. (Maybe we'd change our minds after experiencing it!)
  • So this new prophet, like Moses, will act as a go-between between the people and God. Has anyone ever served in this role for you? A pastor/priest can fill in this role, but if you are a clergy person, do you ever wish someone would stand between you and God? What experiences have you had?
  • There is a condition, though, to the arrangement: The people must actually heed the words of the prophet. They can't make this arrangement and then decide they don't like the prophet - as they often threatened to do with Moses. When is it right to question authority, leadership? When is it not right?

  • Psalm 111
  • The psalmist is praising God for faithfulness, for being a provider and covenant-keeper, for following through and being with the people. This psalm is all about praising and thanking God for all God has done.
  • "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom." Do you fear God? We're instructed over and over again in the scriptures not to be afraid. What does it mean, then, to fear God or to be God-fearing? I interpret it to mean we're to have an awe of God that is an awe we give only to God. Should/do we fear God anymore, or have we gotten too cozy? It's great to feel close to God, but have we lost our reverence in the process, the believe that God is actually above and beyond us in many respects? Where is a good line between fear/love/respect? 

  • 1 Corinthians 8:1-13:
  • This is a great passage from Paul, regarding a common obstacle in the communities of the early church: the debate over whether or not Christians should eat meat that had been sacrificed in pagan temples to pagan gods.
  • Paul says, "Look - knowledge is all good and well. But what you need with God is love. If you love God, God knows you, and that's what's most important." He says, eloquently, "knowledge puffs up, but love builds up." Knowledge, like everything, is a gift from God. We can oppress others by withholding knowledge from them (women and people of color, for instance, have been denied education) but we can also give knowledge too much power when we treat it as the most important thing.
  • Paul argues that "smarty-pants" Christians might know that eating sacrificed pagan meat is no big deal. He doesn't disagree with the reasoning - if the gods the meat was meant for aren't real, who cares about eating the meat? But Paul says there is a much higher concern: Christians who don't "get it" can be led astray by those who do - so what's the point of weakening the faith of another just to indulge in some meat?
  • Paul concludes - why insist on doing something that will only cause another's faith to wobble, if that thing is not necessary. Personally, I think of drinking in this way. I don't think consuming alcohol is morally wrong. But it is a stumbling block for many. So, I choose to abstain, for the good of the whole. 

  • Mark 1:21-28
  • "as one having authority, not like the scribes" - Chris Haslam writes in his comments that the scribes would be knowledgeable, quoting scripture, but not have their own authority. Jesus, on the other hand, draws on scriptures, sure, but speaks for himself - his authority is from within.
  • Haslam also says that healers/magicians of the day would have done rituals/magic to cleanse the man of the demon. Since Jesus can do this with only spoken words, the people see that indeed he does have a different kind of authority.
  • Because of this deed, Jesus' "fame" begins to spread. Do you think this is what Jesus most wanted people to know about him? His casting out demons? Or would he have rather been famous for his teaching and message of love and grace for the least? I think Jesus was savvy - he got people talking and drew them so he could teach and touch them.
  • Sermon, "A New Name: Jacob --> Israel," Genesis 32:3-32

    Sermon 1/25/15
    Genesis 32:3-32

    A New Name: Jacob --> Israel

    Last week we talked about Abram and Sarai and the promise that God made to them to bless them and be their God and make their descendants more numerous than the stars. They had to wait a long time to see their promise begin to unfold with the birth of their son Isaac. And of course, to demonstrate waiting for God’s promises, I somehow promised 10,000 cookies to our children by the time they turn 16! And I’ll figure out how to make it work, because I’m convinced that God’s promises are dependable, and my children’s sermon won’t demonstrate much if I can’t even come through on some cookies as evidence of God’s faithfulness! In the meantime though, we see God’s promise continue to unfold as today we learn about some of Abraham’s descendants. Today, we’re talking about Jacob and Esau, twin grandchildren of Abraham and Sarah, sons of Isaac and Rebekah.
    The story of Jacob and Esau spans several chapters in Genesis. I encourage you to read it, because we can’t look at in the full detail that I’d love to go into in one sermon. But here’s the Reader’s Digest version: When Jacob and Esau are born, Rebekah gets a message from God that the older child will end up serving the younger. Any older siblings out there? How many of you would be excited about these words, and serving your baby sibling? Probably not many! Of course, in biblical times, male sibling birth order was even more significant. The firstborn son received a double portion of a family inheritance, and generally is considered the head of the family upon the father’s death. They are the leader. They have the authority. And they get more land and property and assets than anyone else. It’s the birthright of the firstborn. As the story is told, we get the idea that Esau, a twin, but still the firstborn of the two twins, doesn’t cherish his birthright as he should. We also learn that while Isaac is closest to Esau, Rebekah prefers Jacob. Eventually, Rebekah helps Jacob trick a frail and increasingly poor-of-sight Isaac into bestowing the firstborn blessing onto a disguised Jacob, rather than Esau.
    Esau, naturally, is beyond mad at Jacob over his lost blessing. Once Isaac dies, he plans to kill Jacob as soon as the mourning period is over. So Rebekah sends Jacob away, hoping that Esau’s anger wanes so that she doesn’t lose either of her sons. Jacob heads out of town. In his travels, he has a vision of a great ladder, reaching to heaven, with God’s messengers going up and down between heaven and earth. And he hears the voice of God, drawing him into the promise, the covenant, first spoken to Abraham. God promises to be with him, and his offspring, saying that they will be like the dust of the earth. And God says to him, “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” And when Jacob wakes, he says, “Surely God is in this place – and I did not realize it! How awesome is this place!” He decides that if God will be with him, he’ll claim God as his God, as his fore-parents had.   
    After this, Jacob spends many years in the house of his uncle Laban. Jacob, ever the trickster, figures out a way to care for his uncle’s flocks while setting aside the best of the flock for himself. But Laban, in turn, tricks Jacob into marrying both of his daughters in exchange for years of service in Laban’s house, instead of marrying just the younger daughter preferred by Jacob. Eventually, Jacob leaves Laban’s household, and is ready, finally, after decades have passed, to meet with Esau again. At the start of our reading for today, we find Jacob sending messengers to Esau indicating that he wants to come home. The messengers come back with distressing news: Esau is on his way to meet you – along with 400 men as his companions. The tone suggests that they aren’t coming as a friendly welcoming party. So Jacob does what he does best, and comes up with plan to make things go in his favor. He divides his family and property into two groups, so that if Esau destroys one group, the other might escape. And then, while Jacob lags behind, he sends ahead of him gift after gift to present to Esau, along with promises that Jacob is coming right behind. Jacob also does something else: he prays to God, saying, “You’ve made me this promise about my offspring being like the uncountable grains of sand. I’m not really worthy of your love and faithfulness, or of the blessings that I’ve accumulated. And I’m afraid. But you did mention that you would be with me.
    And then Jacob spends the night at this place, sending even his wives and maids and children ahead of him across the stream, so that he is the last left. And suddenly, a man appears, and wrestles with Jacob all through the night. Neither seems to prevail, and the man injures Jacob’s hip. But when daybreak approaches, the man asks to be let go. And Jacob says, “I won’t let you go unless you bless me.” The man asks for Jacob’s name, and when he gives it, the man replies, “You aren’t Jacob anymore. You’re Israel, because you have striven with God and with humans and have prevailed.” Israel means “May God prevail.” Jacob asks for the man’s name – but doesn’t get it. We read between the lines and see that this man was God’s messenger, an angel. Indeed, Jacob says, “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” After our text closes, Jacob continues on his way, and meets Esau, who weeps with joy when he’s reunited with brother.
    What do we make of this text? In many ways, I find it frustrating. For those of us who have generally been “rule followers,” not getting in trouble very often, doing good, it’s really hard to see someone like Jacob, playing tricks at every turn, get rewarded. He seems a bit like an arrogant jerk, doesn’t he? And he gets to trick Esau, trick Laban, escape death, demand a blessing from God, and come out on top! It’s so not fair! Here’s the thing about this God we follow, though. God isn’t fair. We’ll be learning more about that in our research group in the weeks ahead. God shows favoritism, in fact, much of the time – to the poor, the outcast, those on the fringes, those everyone else has rejected. God isn’t fair. Instead, God is full of grace.
    I think we would say that we know what grace is. Goodness knows I talk about it enough, and talk about what it is, and our hymns are about grace, and our liturgies and our prayers and our sacraments – all about grace. In our baptismal liturgies we talk about grace being God’s gift “offered to us without price.” Grace is God's gift of love to us, it is free, without price, God's unconditional – that is without conditions!  – love, which is poured out on everyone. That is grace. I hope that sounds familiar! We believe in grace as a concept, a theory. But in practice? I am not convinced we really believe in grace. We are really trying, still, to earn grace, to make sure we are doing what is good enough to be loved by God. We imagine that life is about working hard enough to get God’s blessings. Still, we know from our own human experience that love is inexplicable – who can explain why we love who we love? Can it be that God truly offers love to all of us? Do we believe in grace?
    Well, when we’re upset at the blessings God gives to Jacob, the trickster, the deceiver, the con-man, it suggests that we still think that God’s gift of grace should be given to deserving candidates, not just anyone. Our gut-reaction to Jacob’s story reveals what we really believe: that we see grace as a reward for good behavior and not an outright gift. But grace is a gift, not a prize. Repeat that with me: Grace is a gift, not a prize. Grace is not a prize that we get, but sometimes it seems that the only reason we are following God is because of the reward! But there’s a big difference between reward and gift. Grace is a gift, not a reward. God doesn’t mean for us to be good so that grace is the payment, the prize that we receive at the end. Instead, because of grace, because we have received and can trust in, can count on God’s grace and unconditional love – even though we, no matter how much better than Jacob we think we are, fail to love one another and to love God as we’ve been commanded to do – because of grace we are freed up to follow God with all our hearts. We aren’t supposed to work hard enough so that God will love us. Instead, we’re supposed to be inspired by our trust in God’s love and grace to follow God – so that others will know and experience God’s grace too.
    Here’s what I think happens at Peniel: Finally, Jacob realizes that God is inexplicably with him, even though he doesn’t deserve it. He realizes that God doesn’t play fair. God instead plays Giver-of-unwarranted-grace, which is God’s favorite game. And so Jacob prays his most honest prayer: I don’t deserve it, but please be with me anyway. And God and Jacob wrestle, and finally, Jacob – Israel – decides that God will be the leader from now on instead of Jacob. Pastor Edward F. Markquart writes, “God could … if [God] wanted to, with all [God’s] power … pin us down so very quickly. God could pin us within the blink of an eye, slam us to the floor and stomp on us. If God wanted to, God could pin us down and make us believe and obey. But that isn’t the way God wrestles. God wrestles in such a way that we slowly surrender our lives . . . We put our hands in [God’s] hands, and God begins to lead us on a path of righteousness, of right relationships. That is the way that God wrestles with us. God does not bash our hands down with . . . mighty power and pin us. Rather, God allows us to put our hands in [God’s] and we begin a walk together. That is the way God wrestles with us. We all go through that fundamental transition in life. The issue is this; whether or not I will continue to be a self-centered, cheating, cunning, manipulative person or whether I will finally let God rule. Who will rule in my life? Jacob or God?” (1)
    God has offered grace to Jacob over and over again. And after a good wrestling match, Jacob, who knows he doesn’t deserve it, says thank you and accepts the gift. Look, Jacob isn’t perfect from here on out. None of us are, even when we finally receive the gift God keeps trying to give us, really receive it. But Jacob, from this point on, seems to stop trying to demand his blessings in life. He doesn’t trick or deceive or try to pull one over on people anymore. And he especially doesn’t try to pull one over on God.
    What is your struggle with God? What are you wrestling over? Control of your life? Obedience to God rather than an addiction, or consumerism, or appearances, or what the world thinks is valuable? A direction God wants you to go, but you don’t want to? Here’s the thing about wrestling with God. If we feel like we’ve got the upper hand and demand a blessing – God will give it – love and grace, ours for the receiving! And if we feel like we’ve finally submitted to God, and God gets God’s way – well, God’s way is to give us love and grace, without price, ours for the receiving! And at the end of the struggle, hand in hand, maybe we can journey with God who leads us into life. Amen.


    Monday, January 19, 2015

    Lectionary Notes for Third Sunday after Epiphany, Year B (Ordinary 3)

    Readings for 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany, 1/25/15:
    Jonah 3:1-5, 10, Psalm 62:5-12, 1 Corinthians 7:29-31, Mark 1:14-20

    Jonah 3:1-5, 10:

  • This is the only week Jonah appears in the lectionary, so consider reading other sections, or expanding your focus, so that people get the full story.
  • The interesting thing about this story, not included in today's text, is that Jonah wasn't happy that God was sparing the people. In fact, Jonah knew that God was likely to be merciful and spare the people, and this is what most upsets Jonah. Are you ever upset at the liberal way God shares grace with others? Why do you think this is? Sometimes I think we act as if God's grace will run out for us if God gives too much to others!
  • How would you feel as a resident of Nineveh? Are you open to others telling you that you are not following God? Generally, we don't like people telling us what to do, or telling us what we're doing wrong. But the residents of Ninevah get their acts together, and repent. And God shows mercy. (I think God can show us mercy, obviously, even when we are undeserving. But wouldn't it be nice to do our part for once?)

  • Psalm 
  • "For God alone my soul waits in silence" - silence is such a rare thing these days. As I type, there is the whirr of my laptop, and my TV in the background. This is typical. Silence is rare. Will you find silent time for God?
  • "My hope is from [God.]" What's your hope? Where is it from?
  • The psalmist urges us to put our trust in God - rank in the world is "but a breath" or "a delusion" - only God has real power.

  • 1 Corinthians 7:29-31:
  • Paul clearly is anticipating a swift return of Jesus Christ to earth. But even though things didn't happen the way Paul was expecting, I think his words are still meaningful.
  • We're to live, in a sense, in the moment. I don't think this means to be irresponsible, or to not make plans, or to not take care of others, of obligations. But to live with an understanding that we have a different main purpose - to live as God calls us - and so to not let what is not important tie us down.

  • Mark 1:14-20
  • What's the good news? Sometimes, I think we believe the good news is that "Jesus Christ died for our sins." But according to Mark, Jesus himself was a proclaimer of the good news, and it was this: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe . . . "
  • "Follow me and I will make you fish for people." Are you fishing for people? What do you think Jesus meant by this? Evangelism? How? What kind?
  • Important: Don't forget that before you fish for other people, you should first be following Jesus. Any other way we try it is following only our own agenda.
  • Immediately! This is one of my favorite words in scriptures. We like things to happen in our lives in a convenient and fast way when it is for our own benefit - but how often do we respond to God immediately?
  • Sermon, "A New Name: Abram & Sarai," Genesis 17:1-8, 15-22

    Sermon 1/18/15
    Genesis 17:1-8, 15-22

    A New Name: Abram and Sarai

                What are you waiting for? What events, or situations, or circumstances, right now, are you waiting for to take place? A child or grandchild to be born? A birthday? A retirement? A vacation? And how often, like a child on a road trip, have you wondered, “Are we there yet?” As I child, I attended one of our church camps, Camp Aldersgate, every summer. And I couldn’t wait for my week of camp to come. I’d start packing way in advance. And then finally, we’d head for Aldersgate. The trip seemed to take forever. But when the trees changed into tall skinny pines, I knew we were close, at last. I was shocked, when I got older, to realize Aldersgate was only about an hour from home. Not even. How could that be? But from a child’s point of view, an hour drive may as well be a whole day spent stuck in the car. Perspective is everything.
                Today, we continue our series looking at the New Names given in the scriptures, we encounter two people who set out on what seems to them to be the longest of journeys. We meet Abram and Sarai back at the end of Genesis Chapter 11, when they’re listed in a genealogy after the Tower of Babel incident. If you don’t know about the Tower of Babel, check out Chapter 11. Anyway, we know from this that Sarai was considered barren. In ancient times, anytime a couple could not have children, the woman was considered barren, because the intricacies of fertility weren’t understood. It wasn’t known that sometimes men were the ones who could not father a child. However, in Sarai’s case, it seems that she, indeed, is the one struggling with fertility. At the start of Chapter 12, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” And the next verse starts out, “And so, Abram went.” Before this scene, we know absolutely nothing about Abram. We have no idea why God would call him for such a task, such a journey, or why God would make him such a promise. All we know is: God calls, God promises, and Abram goes. The text tells us that Abram is 75 when he sets out on this journey.
                Throughout the next chapters of Genesis, we see Abram and Sarai travel to Canaan, the land which God promised them, and travel from here to there, living in different places, occasionally getting into scuffles with local leaders. They’d started out in what is now Southern Turkey, and make their way through modern-day Syria and Lebanon to Israel, and then spend time in Egypt and other nearby regions. And occasionally, throughout this time, God reiterates the promise to Abram: I will bless you, and make you a great nation. God says to Abram, “Don’t be afraid, I am your shield, and your reward will be very great.” But Abram is perhaps a bit skeptical. The years are passing. Abram says to God, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless … and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” But God says to Abram, “Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them. So shall your descendants be.” And Abram believes, and is called righteous.
                And more years pass. Sarai is frustrated. She finally decides that since God has prevented her from having children, she’ll offer Hagar, her slave, to Abram to bear children for him. Abram and Hagar have a son together, named Ishmael. Abram is now 86 years old. Unsurprisingly, Sarai, seeing Hagar and Hagar’s child with Sarai’s husband, begins to feel regret over the events she set in motion. She treats Hagar badly, but God promises Hagar that her son, too, is part of the promise. He, too, will be blessed.
                And more years pass. And finally, when Abram is 99 years old, and Sarai is 90, God again reiterates the promises to Abram. He gives them new names. Abram, which means Exalted Father, a hard name to bear for one who had no children, will be called Abraham, Father of Many. And Sarai, whose name meant Princess, will be Sarah, Princess of Many. And this time, God offers a timeline: by next year, they’ll have a son. And newly-named Abraham falls on his face laughing. He indicates that God must mean it is through Ishmael that all these blessings will come into fullness. But God says again – yes, Ishmael will be blessed. But the promises I’ve made to you hold true. And Sarah will bear a child. Later, Sarah herself will hear the news from God, and she, too, will laugh. But sure enough, she bears a son. And they name him Isaac, which means “Laughter.”
                What a story! What a journey! From the time that God promises Abram that he will become the father of many nations, to the time Sarah gives birth to their son Isaac, 25 years have passed. 25 years! God repeatedly renews the promise, reaffirms that the promise is still going to be fulfilled, but I’m sure none of us are surprised, or unsympathetic that Abram and Sarai seem so often to doubt that the promise is true. This promise of God is a long journey of unfolding. And in fact, it is not truly played out, this blessing, until several generations later, Moses leads the Israelites into the promised land. It is a blessing that unfolds over years, over decades, slowly, piece by piece.
                We talked a lot in November about God’s blessings in our lives. It is one thing to count the blessing you see around you in your life. But it is another thing entirely to nurture the promise of blessing that hasn’t yet been delivered. What blessings have you sought from God? What promises to you feel yet unfulfilled in your life? Have you found it easy to wait?  
    In my first religion class in college, I learned what is still one of my favorite theological concepts: Kairos. There are two common words for time in the scripture: Chronos and Kairos. Chronos is the Greek word for our regular, ordinary, everyday time. Our human time. The seconds, the minutes, the hours, the days moving just as they do. But kairos – kairos is time in a different way. Kairos is God’s time – specifically, “God’s right time for action.” Usually the word “chronos” is used in Greek texts to talk about time. But in the gospels, for example, this “kairos” – God’s right time for action – is used more often than chronos – regular time. And that makes sense, because the scriptures are full of stories about God’s right time for things to happen. Kairos. God’s right time for action. I have no idea why Abram and Sarai needed to wait 25 years for God’s promise to come to fruition. But I believe that at the right time, God acts. Certainly God reminded them again and again that the fulfillment was on the way. And when the time was just right – for God’s plans – Isaac was born. Kairos.
    Have you ever tried to pry open the petals of a flower bud? It can be so tempting, when you see a flower that you’ve wanted to bloom, to just “help it along.” But your doing so is most likely simply to damage or destroy the flower altogether. I think Abram and Sarai tried to open some flower buds more than once in this story. Damage was done, especially, for example, to Hagar. They thought that they could find a way to sort of “help” God bless them, help God fulfill promises made. How tempted we are to do this sometimes! We try to offer God good ways to bless us. We try to set it all up, make our plans, and then ask God to add the blessing, make the promise fit to what we’ve put together. We are blessed, because even when we try to force God’s hand, God can work through the mess we make in the process. But waiting for the promises, the blessings, to unfold in our lives in God’s right time, in the unexpected ways that are better than our best plans – it’s the most beautiful bouquet of blessings you can imagine.
    I asked you to think of the nicknames by which you’ve been known, and how you got them. One of my nicknames I got in elementary school – it was Bisquik! My basketball coach gave me that name. He was known for giving every player a nickname. And I was so anxious to get my name! He once called me “Pearl” when I made a good series of foul shots, but that nickname eventually stuck on a teammate instead of me, and I was distressed. What would my nickname be? When would I get a nickname? I would even ask him about it, but he insisted I had to wait until something struck him. I had to wait for the right moment. Maybe “Bisquik” isn’t exactly flashy, but when my nickname was finally given, it was worth it for my one-of-a-kind name.
    When God names us, when God claims us, makes us new, fulfills promises in us, we find that our own small plans and visions pale in comparison. Instead of Abram, Exalted Father, God gives us Abraham, Father of Many, as countless as the stars. I can’t tell you why God’s plans sometimes unfold so much more slowly than we’d like. Only God knows that. I can only remind you of what most of you know. That looking back over our lives, our way has never turned out better than God’s way. Indeed, things have a marvelous way of bringing us to just the spot where we belong. I can tell you that serving at Apple Valley was never part of my plan. How could it be? I didn’t even know you were here! And yet, in what can only be God’s right time at work, here we are!
    God took Abram and Sarai’s laughter and drew from it their child, Laughter brought to life in the child Isaac. A promise fulfilled. The promises are being fulfilled in your life too. And in mine. And in this place. What shape will they take? Surely, only God knows. But that is so much more than enough. Amen.   

    Tuesday, January 13, 2015

    Lectionary Notes for Second Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B (Ordinary 2)

    Readings for 2nd Sunday after the Epiphany, 1/18/15:
    1 Samuel 3:1-10, (11-20), Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18, 1 Corinthians 6:12-20, John 1:43-51

    1 Samuel 3:1-10, (11-20):
    • This is a great story of call, and along with today's texts from Psalms and John, makes a great day for preaching about knowing who we are and what we're meant to be doing. Combine that with the fact that this is Human Relations Day, celebrating, among other things, Martin Luther King Jr., in the UMC, and you've got the makings for a great day to inspire people to respond to God's call.
    • Samuel is confused about who is calling him. He keeps thinking Eli is calling him. But his confusion doesn't keep Samuel from being willing, again and again, to respond to the call. How have you been called? Have you shared your call story with your congregation?
    • Eli plays such an important role in this text, helping Samuel understand what is happening to him. It is an essential role in ministry to have people who are willing to support, endorse, and guide people who are trying to discern a call from God.
    • "the Lord . . . let none of his words fall to the ground." What a neat phrase - God keeping your words from being useless. All pastors should pray for such a gift!
    Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18:
    • Not only did God knit us together in our mother's womb, but this whole passage reads like we are in God's womb - hemmed in by God behind and before. Our life is in God's womb - that is a very peaceful and comforting thought.
    • It is both comforting to know that we can't go where God is not, but it is also a challenge, in a way. We're reminded that God, in a sense, chases us. We are "hem[med] in" behind and before. God is strategically cornering us. An aggressive God, who insists, perhaps, on having a relationship with us.
    • How weighty to us are God's thoughts! Indeed!
    • "I am fearfully and wonderfully made." This psalm affirms God and God's power, but also affirms our human worth and goodness - a rare scriptural combination. You are fearfully and wonderfully made. How well do you know that? How many in this society know that and are taught to know that?
    1 Corinthians 6:12-20:
    • This is a great passage. Paul argues that though something may be technically ok, lawful for one to do, it is still not necessarily beneficial. We worry a lot about rules and whether what we are doing is right or wrong, but sometimes we're worried only about "what we can get away with" instead of what is God's best hope for us.
    • "your body is a temple" Here, in a rare moment, is some of Paul's best non-dualistic thinking. Our body is meant for God, and we're meant to glorify God in our body. How do you go about doing that? I love watching dancers, because they are such a beautiful example of body as temple. But as a society, we're really bad, dangerously bad at glorifying God with our body.
    John 1:43-51:
    • This is the second time in this chapter that Jesus tells someone to "Come and See" - he has just told this to Andrew, when John the Baptist 'introduced' him to Jesus, and Andrew asked Jesus where he was staying.  Now, he tells this to Nathanael, when Nathanael asks Jesus a scriptural, "can anything good come out of Nazareth?" It is almost like Jesus gives him a dare, a challenge. "Want to know the answer? I dare you to come and see for yourself."
    • "Do you believe because of [this]?" I get the feeling Jesus doesn't want Nathanael to believe in him because of 'magic tricks' but because of something deeper. Jesus promises Nathanael that that something deeper will come. Why do you believe in Jesus?
    • "Follow me." Jesus doesn't give many details for them to base a decision on, does he? What is the most daring thing you've ever done? Who have you trusted based on such little information?

    Sermon for Baptism of the Lord Sunday, Year B, "A New Name: Beloved," Mark 1:4-11

    Sermon 1/11/15
    Mark 1:4-11

    A New Name: Beloved

                Tim: Today we’re starting a new series in worship called, “A New Name.” Each week, we’ll be looking at a different person in the Bible who goes by a new name. Abram and Sarai become Abraham and Sarah, Jacob becomes Israel, Simon is called Peter. Saul becomes Paul. In each of these cases, the new name corresponds with a significant moment in their spiritual journeys. This is a series Pastor Beth’s been wanting to do since her first weeks at Apple Valley. Surviving a merger of congregations is a difficult task for churches. It usually isn’t all smooth sailing. And sometimes there’s a lot of residual grief and pain and tension and so on. Pastor Beth served as pastor for a few years at a church that was a United Church – Presbyterian and United Methodist– and when she first met with them, they told her about how firmly they thought of themselves as united. This made sense, because they had been merged together as one congregation for almost 40 years. And yet, Pastor Beth discovered that within two weeks of being there, she knew whether everyone was a Methodist or a Presbyterian! The differences between the denominations still stirred up trouble in the congregation all these years later. Making a new congregation out of older congregations isn’t an easy thing.
                The longer she’s here, the more Pastor Beth learns about the journey we’ve all been through to become one congregation – and she knows it wasn’t always easy, even still. But, she says, “I have to tell you, from this outsider’s perspective, you’ve done a remarkable job at becoming one congregation. Yes, I know what congregations some of you were once part of – but it isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when I interact with you. Every church has some traditions that are special, but I’ve also found you refreshingly flexible when Pastor Penny and I want to try something new. It’s really delightful to pastor that kind of congregation, because it means that there’s room in us for God to do something new.”
                And we serve a God who loves to make all things new. That’s one of the promises of the scriptures: In Christ, we are new creations. When we follow Jesus, we have an opportunity to let go of the past, let go of harmful behaviors, let go of destructive patterns in our lives. We can actually let go of hurting ourselves and each other, and claim new life in Christ, resurrected lives. So between now and the season of Lent, as we begin a new year, we’re also thinking about what it means to be new creations in Christ, children of a new birth, given new names. Today we do that as we celebrate Baptism of the Lord Sunday.
    Laura: Today, in our gospel lesson from Mark, we find Jesus at his baptism. Hopefully this text sounds a bit familiar – we just read most of it during Advent, the first section about John the Baptist. Mark is very brief in all things in his gospel, and so the actual baptism gets only three verses. John the Baptist, cousin of Jesus, is in the wilderness, preaching baptizing people, a symbol of repentance and forgiveness of sins. He speaks about one who is coming who is more powerful than he, who will baptize with the Holy Spirit. And then, indeed, Jesus arrives, and is baptized by John. The other gospels have a bit of dialogue between Jesus and John where John wonders why Jesus needs to be baptized by John, but that is of no importance to Mark. He only says that Jesus comes to be baptized, and that when he was, as he was coming up out of the water, the heavens were torn apart and the Spirit seemed to descend on him like a dove, and a voice spoke, saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Other gospels have these words from God directed to the crowd – This is my Son, the Beloved, with him I am well pleased. But in Mark, this message is right from God to Jesus – You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased. This event marks the beginning of Jesus' ministry – from here he goes into the wilderness himself for a period, where he is tested and tried, and then he begins showing up in synagogues, preaching, teaching, and healing. But it begins, in a way, with this baptism. “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
    Bev: A couple of years ago, Pastor Beth’s dearest friend Heather was struggling with the process of getting a learning permit for her then 16-year old daughter, who was ready to learn to drive. Somewhere along the way, Heather had misplaced her daughter’s Social Security card, which they needed to get Mickayla’s permit. Well, in order to get a new Social Security card, you need your birth certificate, which proves your citizenship, but you also need proof of identity – like a driver's license – which obviously she didn’t have. Of course, it turns out that you can also use a photo student ID card or a photo credit card or something like that, but proving your identity isn’t so easy.
    Every so often, you can read news stories about people who have accidentally been declared dead in paperwork even though they are quite alive! Somehow names and information got mixed up, and these folks had ended up with bank accounts frozen, unable to get loans or credit, had stopped receiving things like social security checks, and had real financial difficulties as a result of the mix-up. And, as crazy as it sounds, some people have had an extremely difficult time proving their identity, proving that they were really alive and who they claimed to be, once this mistake had been made.
    How would you prove your identity? Author John Reader, talks about how we keep trying to form our identity in different ways in contemporary culture. Sometimes we try self-as-commodity – we are sort of a “product” that can be branded and molded in a certain way. Sometimes we try self-as-consumer – “I shop therefore I am.” We try to take what we have, what we possess, and make it into who we are. Sometimes we try self-as-project, he says, constantly trying to put together a good-enough self by making sure we have the right trainings and qualifications and skills to be what we want and what is expected of us. Identity formation is an important process. We all go through a time or times in our life when we need to ask ourselves critically: Who am I? What do I believe? What is my life all about? But whenever we start building our identities from all these external sources, we are probably heading in a bad direction, never knowing our true selves. So who are you, really? What is your identity?
    Liz: Sometimes we need to be reminded of who we are. John Reader was right: if we look in the wrong places, we can find a million voices that will gladly tell us who we are and who we should be. But these voices don’t know us. God, who created us, knows us. Our identity is being shaped from the day we are born and before and onward. We might, the day we are born, have had our feet dipped in ink to make prints that would identify us. We have names that we were given that set us apart. But even our names aren’t who we are. When we celebrate a baptism in the church, we are celebrating the fact that we all know someone's identity. We are celebrating that the person is a child of God, made in God's image, and part of the body of Christ. That is our identity, our true self. It is something we all share in, but something that is made manifest in each one of us in a completely unique way. We are God’s beloved. With us, each of us, even you, even me, God is well-pleased. We are Beloved.
    Sometimes people get worried about baptisms when they have newborns. A lot of traditions and practices built up over time are hard to erase, and many pastors still find it hard to get people to believe that nothing bad happens to you if you aren’t baptized on a certain timetable. Baptism is a sacrament – and outward sign of an inward grace. And the inward grace is from God – God's unconditional love for us. Baptism, then, is a sign, a reminder to us of God's love. It is the thing we do to celebrate what is true no matter what. God made us. We are made in God's image. God loves us. Baptism is the reminder, the party, the celebration of that amazing fact. That’s why Jesus is baptized. It reminds him, as he starts what will be three years of heart-wrenching ministry that will lead to his death on the cross, that he is Beloved. Jesus is many things, and known by many names. But what he is first is God’s child, Beloved.  

    Tim: Isn't it nice to be reminded of who we are? Figuring out our identities in this world of competing voices can be exhausting. We can get off track. Lost. Mixed-up. Isn't it good to remember? Who are you? What is the true self buried under all those expectations placed upon you? What is your true self, when you strip away all those layers you’ve built up to fit in, to get ahead, to be good enough? Who are you?
    We have an opportunity to renew our baptismal vows, to remember the celebration that marked our true identity, so that we, too, might have strength for the journey that lies ahead. Do you need a reminder of who you are? Are you a disciple? Are you a follower of Jesus? Come, let God remind you. In whose image are you created? Who calls you by name? Come, let God remind you. You are loved without condition, part of God's own family. Come, Beloved, let God remind you. Amen.

    Tuesday, January 06, 2015

    Lectionary Notes for Baptism of the Lord, Year B

    Readings for Baptism of the Lord Sunday, 1/11/15:
    Genesis 1:1-5, Psalm 29, Acts 19:1-7, Mark 1:4-11

    Genesis 1:1-5:

  • "In the beginning," so starts the word of God. What a great beginning. I believe that science and faith can go hand in hand. I believe that evolution doesn't have to contradict our believe in God as creator. This said, I can't ask for a better description of creation than the poetic opening of Genesis.
  • Also compare Genesis 1 with John 1 - John clearly tries to align himself with this style of writing, showing Christ's presence even at creation.
  • "wind from God swept over the face of the waters" - how would you draw this - visually represent it?
  • Note that here on the first day, and throughout creation, God declares things as "good." Creation is good.

  • Psalm 29
  • "The Voice of the Lord" - I guess I've never noticed this psalm before, which speaks primarily of God's voice.
  • It is also visualizing God creating or in relation to a strong and powerful thunderstorm, which may be based on a psalm to the Caananite god, Baal (see Chris Haslam's comments on this) God over the waters, God's glory thundering, breaking the cedars, flashes forth flames of fire, "the voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness." What can we do with these images? Can we use our imagination to read the scriptures? Certainly this psalmist used imagination to create this imagery, to make God's voice come alive.
  • What imagery would you use to describe/envision God's voice in your life? I like the process theology metaphor of God's lure, God slowly luring me with God's voice until slowly, step by step, I followed.

  • Acts 19:1-7:
  • This passage represents a fulfilling of John the Baptist's words in our text from Mark today. John the Baptist says that he baptizes with water, but the coming baptism will be of the Holy Spirit. Paul happens upon folks who have been baptized by John, and he urges them to take this "Holy Spirit" baptism.
  • Paul and Mark both indicate that John's baptism is a baptism of repentance/confession/forgiveness. So how would you characterize the baptism of the Holy Spirit? As a baptism of grace? Do you think today that different denominations characterize the meaning of baptism differently like this? Some viewing it as a baptism of repentance, others as a baptism of grace? What do you think?
  • "spoke in tongues and prophesied" - what did they say? I always want more details, more information, more specifics.

  • Mark 1:4-11
  • John sees himself as facilitating Jesus' ministry - preparing people for it. His role is so important, isn't it? Do you know of people who play this kind of supporting role in ministry today?
  • Make sure you compare Mark's recording of this scene (remember Mark is the earliest gospel written) with the accounts in the other gospels. In Mark, God speaks directly to Jesus: You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased. Other accounts have God saying This is my Son. I prefer Mark's recording - God speaking directly to God's child.
  • We might all wish for the heavens to part and for a dove to descend and for God to declare in front of all that we are pleasing and beloved in God's sight, but it doesn't usually work quite that way for us. How does it work for us? How can we know God loves us? What are the markers and milestones in our lives and ministries? How can we play John to someone, preparing them, providing a space for them to begin their calling?
  • Friday, January 02, 2015

    My 2014 Reading List

    Books I Read in 2014

    I didn't read as much as I wanted this year, especially in the first several months. I did finish my DMin though, so perhaps reading what I had written over and over and over in the editing process counts in lieu of a few books....

    1.     Hamilton, Adam, 24 Hours that Changed the World (church Lenten study) - Pretty good. My congregation enjoyed this. 

    2.     Hamilton, Adam, Making Sense of the Bible (church Bible study) - I think this is a really excellent study. It's got a lot crammed into it, and will delve into some uncomfortable topics, but my folks took it mostly in stride. I think if pastors realize their congregants want and appreciate this kind of look at the Bible, it would make things easier from there on out. 

    3.     Kalas, J. Ellsworth, A Hop, Skip, and a Jumpthrough the Bible (church Bible study) - Not my favorite of his books. (Christmas from the Backside is) but this was a nice companion book to my Bible 101 class. 

    4.   Hamilton, Adam, Not a Silent Night (clergy Bible study) - Probably my least favorite Hamilton book to date. I felt like this was a "need to put out an Advent study" book. It wasn't awful. It was just not moving to me in any way. Forgettable. 

    5.     Lupton, Robert D., Compassion, Justice, and the Christian Life - I got this thinking I would use it as a DMin resource, but it wasn't really what I was looking for. A decent read, although I think Lupton could push farther in a lot of areas, and still uses an "us" "them" breakdown that is not helpful sometimes. 

    6.     Livermore, David A., Serving with Eyes Wide Open - Another one I got thinking it would work for DMin research. This focuses on short-term mission trips and on pastors training other pastors outside the US. If you and your church are involved in either of those things, I recommend it. 

    7.     Borg, Marcus and Crossan, John Dominic, The First Christmas - I've had this for a while, and finally got to it. I really enjoyed it. I think it would be a great read for some of my atheist friends who think they've discovered the myth of Christmas, and some of my Christian friends who might benefit from understanding the multi-layered symbolism of the Christmas story. 

    8. Lewis, C.S., Miracles - Oh, C.S. The Chronicles of Narnia are so good! So full of imagination! So open! His non-fiction - not so much. I'll give him this - he's got an interesting technique of argument. Reminds me of the apostle Paul. I'd love to see what he'd make of our scientific knowledge today. 

    9.     Smith Hill, Pamela, Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer’s Life - Loved this look at Wilder's life, especially the examination of the relationship between Laura and her daughter Rose and who really wrote what. (Smith Hill argues that Rose was an editor, not essentially a ghost-writer, and that Laura was forgiving of the large chunks of her writing that Rose lifted for her own work.) 

    11.  Monk, Theophane, Tales of a Magic Monastery - This is a book beloved by one of our CCYM coordinators, and thus, by our CCYM as a whole. I was glad to read the source of some of our favorite CCYM parables. 

    12.  Baum, Frank L., The Wonderful Wizard of Oz - My brother gave me his old kindle, and this was pre-loaded on it, so I read it. I like the movie better! (I know, I know.)

    13-15.  Roth, Veronica, Divergent, Insurgent, Allegiant - Divergent was awesome. Insurgent was pretty good. Allegiant - boo. It isn't just the ending, which I hated, but won't spoil here. It was the way the third book just changed so many key elements of the first book that I loved. Unbelievable character actions. A total change in setting. A change in the whole world of the book. A letdown after a great start.  

    16.  Fielding, Helen, Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy - I am a huge fan of Bridget Jones' Diary and The Edge of Reason, which are both hilarious. In this book (SPOILER ALERT), Mark has died, and Bridget is significantly older. I was SO disappointed we never got to see the rest of Bridget and Mark's relationship, their marriage, them parenting together. I don't mind Bridget growing up. I just wish we had gotten to see it happen.  

    17-19. Bracken, Alexandra, Darkest MindsNever Fade, In the Afterlight - A Young Adult series I heard about via some tumblrs I follow, appropriately enough. Excellent series. I hope it gets more widely read. 

    20.  Shapard, David M. and Jane Austen, Annotated Emma - An excellent read for this lover of all things Jane Austen. 

    21.  Norris, Bruce, Clyborne Park - CNY Playhouse is staging this show in the spring, and I read it before auditioning. I wasn't cast, but I'm so glad I read the script, and am looking forward to seeing the production. A contemporary look at race, housing, and the things we don't like to talk about out loud. 

    22.  Ehrman, Bart D., The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot: A New Look at Betrayer and Betrayed - Since I'm obsessed with Judas, I had to read this. I've had this book for a while and finally got to it this year. I like Bart Ehrman's writing style and approach, but I realized I really don't care about Gnostic writing. I loved the parts where Ehrman explores the canonical gospels and theorizes about actual Judas. I also found the section on the discovery of the text to be intriguing. But the rest - not my thing. 

    23.  Ruhl, Sarah, In the Next Room -  Todd was reading a stack of plays for school, and I picked up this one out of the pile. It was ok. 

    Selected Audiobooks: Mostly I listen to really light stuff I wouldn't both reviewing, but a couple of standouts - 
    Eugenides, Jeffery, The Marriage Plot - This was really good. I loved reading about students in the midst of the explosion of semiotics and deconstruction. I had no real sense when my SUPA English introduced us to this stuff in high school how contemporary it was and how useful it would prove to know about later in my educational career. Also, the main character is named Mitchell Grammaticus, and I think that is the best character name ever.  

    Weiner, Jennifer, All Fall Down - I love all of her books, and feel sad when she's mislabeled as "chic lit." This book focuses on a young mother caught up in prescription pain med addiction. The protagonist isn't particularly likable, but I think that's ok. 

    Fanfiction: Admission - In this past year, I've read a ton of fanfiction. I had no idea when I started out looking for a version of The Hunger Games written from Peeta's perspective the whole world of fanfiction that existed. I subscribe to updates from a bunch of works-in-progress now, and there's something neat about getting a story chapter by chapter. My favorite, which I mentioned last year, is still, hands-down, When the Moon Fell in Love with the Sun. The author has been through a lot in her personal life in the last year, resulting in a slow update schedule, but it is worth the wait. 

    In Progress: 
    Poehler, Amy, Yes Please 
    Stookey, Laurence Hull, Let the Whole Church Say Amen!
    Dashner, James, The Maze Runner
    Shealy, Daniel and Louisa May Alcott, Little Women: An Annotated Edition
    Aslan, Reza, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

    Thursday, January 01, 2015

    Lectionary Notes for Epiphany Sunday

    *I have a sung communion liturgy for Epiphany here,* set to IN DULCI JUBILO/"Good Christian Friends, Rejoice." 

    Readings for Epiphany Sunday, 1/4/15:
    Isaiah 60:1-6, Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14, Ephesians 3:1-12, Matthew 2:1-12

    Isaiah 60:1-6:
    • On Epiphany Sunday, we use many light/dark images which correspond to good/bad, and sometimes, unfortunately, white/black. Make sure to double check your language for overtones that may be perceived as racist or convey a message that you don't intend!
    • "Lift up your eyes and look around." Sometimes things that we need/want/pray for/hope for are right in front of us, we just fail to see them because we are not looking. During seminary, I had the chance to travel to Ghana, West Africa, and walk across high-suspended canopy bridges in Kakum National Park. I had to remind myself to stop, breathe, and look around at the rain forest that I was crossing high above!
    • This passage is addressed to Israel, as the people have been permitted by the Persian King Darius to return to the Holy City Jerusalem. This is a homecoming story, an image of a big party thrown for Israel's return to itself.

    Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14:
    • Judgment and Justice - To me the word justice is so powerful because of its double meanings. We want to bring criminals to justice, to make sure they get what they deserve in terms of punishment, but we want to bring the oppressed justice, to make sure they get what they deserve: equality, shelter, food, health, etc. I'm reminded of the Newsboys song with the lyrics, "When you get what you don't deserve, it's a real good thing . . . when you don't get what you deserve, it's a real good thing."
    • This psalm is written as a sort of call for blessings on a king, perhaps at the beginning of his reign/coronation/special ceremony. In my NRSV translation, some of the phrases sound quite demanding of God. "Give the king your justice, O God." Are we willing to demand of God so boldly when we have wants/needs? When is or isn't this appropriate?

    Ephesians 3:1-12:
    • "This is the reason": Paul has been writing in the previous chapter about how both the circumcised and the uncircumcised are now one in Christ, who has broken down the dividing wall. This is the purpose of Paul's ministry, to bring the Good News to the Gentiles.
    • "Although I am the very least of all the saints." When I was younger, before I came to better terms with my good friend Paul, these statements of self-debasing always irritated me to no end! :)
    • "Mystery", from the Greek musterion, a secret thing or secret rite. Not so much in a 'whodunnit' sense, but in an awe and intrigue sense.

    Matthew 2:1-12:
    • Matthew emphasizes the importance of this event because the visit of the Magi (the Latin term) symbolizes recognition from non-Jewish figures of prominence who recognize the kingship of baby Jesus.
    • Note that there is no mention of 3 Kings. A lot of common thought about the wise men is something of Bible mythology, such as their number, their names (traditionally Balthasar, Caspar, and Melchior), and their royal status. Of course, the wise men would not have arrived at the birth of the Christ child, as depicted in nativity scenes, but well after the birth, hence Herod's decision to kill male babies of two and under, to make sure the job was done.
    • What makes this story of the wise men the day of Epiphany? Writes Dennis Bratcher in this article, "The Wise Men or Magi who brought gifts to the infant Jesus were the first Gentiles to acknowledge Jesus as "King" and so were the first to "show" or "reveal" Jesus to a wider world as the incarnate Christ."

    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...