Sunday, May 31, 2009

Sermon for May 31: "Transitions and Identity"

Other than birth, we often think of our identities as fashioned by the transitions we accomplish, such as graduation. But what of those transitions that happen to us, such as the gift of the Holy Spirit?

Sermon for May 31.mp3

Friday, May 29, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

My denomination has struggled for many years now over the issue of ordaining those who are in same sex relationships. As Presbyterians, we tend to argue the issue over how we interpret the Bible. People of deep faith have very different but sincerely held views on what Scripture says on this issue. That is not to say, however, that this issue arose because it figures so prominently in biblical texts.

Why for example, has our denomination never fought about whether or not to ordain people who are greedy. The Bible has considerably more to say about this topic. Jesus spoke on how hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom, and Old and New Testament regularly condemn greed and especially how the rich exploit the poor.

Today's reading from Ezekiel is a case in point. The prophet speaks of God judging between sheep, that is between the different people of Israel, and it is the rich who appear to be in danger. "Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, but you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture?.. Therefore, thus says the Lord GOD to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep."

When it comes to the Bible, most all of us seem remarkably adept at grabbing those verses that support our positions and ignoring those which don't. And I can think of no real reason for the issue of gay ordination to become the line in the sand issue when it comes to following the Bible, except that a majority of Presbyterians feel safe that they can stay on the "correct" side of the line. But if the issue is greed or God's preferential care of the poor, that's less clear, and we dare not set up any clear cut standards on these.

An adult Sunday School class at our congregation has be reading A Year of Living Biblically, by A.J. Jacobs, which recounts a man's attempt to follow literally what the Bible says. It makes for interesting reading. And it just might make us all think about how we choose which parts of the Bible we will actually follow.

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Thursday, May 28, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

I've always marveled at the way Jesus answers questions posed to him. Today's "Good Samaritan" reading from Luke is a good example. (The striking contrast of the words "good" and "Samaritan" is pretty much lost on modern people who don't think of Samaritans as a despised, inferior, ethnic group.) The parable is well know, though I suspect people often forget the context. A lawyer -- that is, an authority in religious law -- asks Jesus about what one must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus simply asks this lawyer what the Law says, and quite naturally he is able to quote a good synopsis of the Law. "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself."

Jesus concurs and suggest the lawyer do so. But the lawyer presses the issue asking, "And who is my neighbor?" This is the question that provokes Jesus to tell the parable of the "Good Samaritan," the tale of a surprising hero who tends to the needs of a beaten and battered man who has been ignored by a priest and a Levite. And at the end of the parable Jesus asks the lawyer, "Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?" The answer is obvious, but, of course, this does not actually answer the lawyer's original question.

The lawyer knows he is to love, to do good, to his neighbor. But he is looking for limits, for who falls outside some boundary. In essence, the lawyer's questions is, "Who do I not have to love?" But Jesus turns the question on its head. To a question about who is outside the boundary, Jesus tells as story about an outsider who acts like a neighbor. To the question, "Who is my neighbor?" Jesus answers, "Be a neighbor."

We Christians engage in seemingly endless fights over what the Bible tells us to do or not do. And we have justified a fair amount of evil and hate from our readings of the Bible. Now clearly I would not be a Presbyterian pastor if I did not think the Bible had answers. But what if, like that lawyer, we're asking the wrong questions?

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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

Following the successful and joyful return of the 70, Jesus "rejoiced in the Holy Spirit," saying, "I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will."

Hidden from the wise and intelligent... The sentiment Jesus expresses is hardly unique. It is a regular occurrence in both Old and New Testament. It's not as though I just noticed that, but I have found such statements more striking lately. I'm especially struck by their contrast with my Presbyterian tradition, so enamored of education and learning.

Now I have no real plans to abandon my tradition's emphasis on studying Scripture and seeking to discern God's will through it. After all, my tradition insists that the Bible becomes God's word to us only through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and that refers to the Spirit's work both in inspiring the biblical writers and helping me hear what God wants me to hear, to speak anew and afresh from ancient texts.

But in practice I wonder how often I and others make much room for the Spirit's work. Beyond what I can learn by studying a passage's context, by utilizing my rudimentary proficiency at Greek or Hebrew, by consulting commentaries from eminent scholars, where do I open myself to God's revealing, that gracious outpouring granted to infants and denied the wise and intelligent?

God, open my heart to what you would reveal.

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Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Sermon for May 24, "Loving the World"

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

In today's reading from Luke, Jesus appoints seventy followers and sends them in pairs to all the towns he plans to visit. He tells them, "Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, 'The kingdom of God has come near to you.' " Those who do not welcome them are treated with disdain, although they too are told, "the kingdom of God has come near."

It had never really hit me until I was reading these words this morning how welcome is the only criterion Jesus applies. He does not say to cure the sick of those who believe your message, but of those who welcome you.

The Bible places a great deal more importance on welcome and hospitality than we do. They are much more than social graces. And biblical welcome was not always easy. It could mean housing strangers who were traveling through your village. That sort of welcome was precisely what "the seventy" would need in order to have lodging on their journey.

What if Jesus were to judge me, not on how well I understand doctrine, know the Bible, or believe the correct things, but on how welcoming I am?

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Sunday, May 24, 2009

Sermon for May 24, "Loving the World"

Comedian Jerry Clower once said, "Some people are so heavenly minded, they ain't no earthly good." In today's gospel (John 17:6-19), Jesus says that his followers "do not belong to the world," but this may not mean what it seems. And Jesus may just agree with Jerry Clower.

Sermon for May 24.mp3

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

Today's gospel reading comes from the ending of Matthew, the story of what is often called "The Great Commission." The disciples, as instructed by the women who found the empty tomb on Easter, have gone to Galilee where they meet the risen Jesus. "When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted." Jesus then proceeds to send them out to make disciples of all peoples.

When I was in seminary, one of the first big papers I had to write was on this passage, and I had to provide my own translation of it from the original Greek. My version of the above verse was, "When they saw him, they worshiped him; but they doubted." Now I would never claim to be a Greek scholar, but the
person who graded my paper, noted New Testament scholar, Jack Kingsbury, did not object to this translation. And it is what the Greek literally says.

I am taken by the notion that all the disciples worshiped but also doubted. I'm even more taken by the fact that Jesus commissions these folks anyway. I've talked with many in the church who seem to view faith as the absence of doubt. But here Jesus sends out the disciples to make new disciples by baptizing and teaching, even though they apparently still have doubts of their own.

Presbyterian minister and writer Frederick Buechner says that doubt is "the ants in the pants of faith." Maybe we would all do well to embrace our doubts a bit more. After all, we do live in world where religious certainties lead to all sorts of hate, violence, and war in the name of God, even in the name of the God who in Jesus spoke of loving enemies and forgiving those who killed him.

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Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

I saw this Twitter post a few weeks ago from a person traveling in Africa. "Observation from Ethiopia. There is no correlation between material possessions and happiness. None." Most of us have probably heard similar things. The 1897 poem "Richard Corey" spoke of a refined, charming, wealthy man whom everyone envied who went home one evening and "put a bullet through his head." Simon and Garfunkel used the poem as the basis of a hit song. And even after Richard Corey is dead the chorus sings, "But I work in his factory, And I curse the life I'm living, And I curse my poverty, And I wish that I could be, Oh, I wish that I could be, Oh, I wish that I could be Richard Cory."

All of us have heard that money and possession don't buy happiness. But we don't believe it, even when Jesus tells us so. "Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing."

What is it that makes life good, meaningful, fulfilling? Jesus says that it comes from letting go of our worries and striving for God's Kingdom, which I take to mean working for love, justice, peace, healing, the end of poverty, etc. Now if I could just trust Jesus enough to really believe it.

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Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

I got back into town around midnight this morning after a lot of driving and a busy weekend in Boston, all of it occasioned by my daughter's graduation from Boston University. I can't say that I have a good sense of what this year's college graduates think about the future, but I get the impression that this generation expects to do big things. I suppose that's true of all graduates, but I also think that this generation is part of big shifts on multiple fronts, from technological to political. I hear voices of optimism and idealism beyond that which simply accompanies being young. These graduates are very different from me in many ways, and they may be ready to push the Baby Boomers off the stage ( though I doubt the Boomers will go quietly.)

All this makes me wonder what these graduates will be thinking when they're in my shoes, watching their own children graduate. How connected will they still be to their current hopes, causes, and ideals? How much will they have changed the world? And what of that will be for the better and what for the worse?

Today's reading from Deuteronomy raises similar questions. As Israel prepares to enter the Promised Land, Moses gives them a commencement address of sorts. ""Take care that you do not forget the Lord your God, by failing to keep his commandments, his ordinances, and his statutes, which I am commanding you today. When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery."

Sometimes life can have a way of narrowing people's focus. Worries about my career, my family, my retirement account, my children's education, and so on can push aside the great hopes and dreams of youth, can cause meto forget. Some loss of youthful idealism is likely required to acquire true wisdom, but the loss of hopes and dreams to concerns about me and mine is a real tragedy.

Religious institutions regularly demonstrate this as they become more focused on their own survival, on maintaining their structures, and on keeping their constituents happy, rather than on the hopes and dreams of God's kingdom, on the triumph of love over hate and peace over war, on the hope and dream of God's power made fully manifest in weakness, on the hope that God's Spirit can bring vitality and life out of that which we have pronounced dead.

What a tragedy when graduates forget their hopes and dreams for a better world. Temper those hopes and dreams, but do not forget them. Ditto for people of faith. We would do well to remember and cling to the dreams and visions that are of God.

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Sunday, May 17, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

This Sunday I won't be in my regular place in worship. Instead I'll be watching my daughter graduate from Boston University. (She and her classmates would greatly appreciate it if you distinguished between her school and Boston College.) And although I won't be preaching, it is interesting to hear the gospel reading for today's worship, John 15:9-17, in the context of a graduation.

Something similar is happening with the disciples when Jesus speaks to them shortly before his arrest. He tells them to abide in him, to love one another, and to bear much fruit. The disciples are graduating from their time of training with Jesus, but modern day grads would do well to abide in Jesus, to love one another, and to bear fruit.

I think that the very lowest level of education is to learn to do something. And some people graduate from college having learned only this, even if it is how to do something difficult and complicated. I'm much more impressed by education through which people have gained a sense of meaning and purpose. And when I read an article about how human technology has outpaced human ethics, I wonder what level of education has brought us there.

"As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love... This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you... You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last." Jesus has taught his disciples much, but most of all, he wants them to stay connected and grounded in his love and his purpose for their lives. Not bad advice for grads, or for all the rest of us.

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Thursday, May 14, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

I'll be heading out later in the day on the long drive to Boston. This weekend I'll watch my older daughter graduate from Boston University, and so it is perhaps not surprising that I wonder about her faith life as she goes "out into the world." In my limited experience, many young people have lots of faith questions and few faith certainties. They would seem to be precisely the sort of folks who would come to congregations to explore their questions.

Yet from what I gather, folks with more questions than answers,
be they young or old, often find that the Church is not a very inviting place. It can seem to outsiders a place filled with certainties, where all questions have already been asked and answered, and where there is not much room for exploration.

In his letter to the Roman Church, Paul writes, "Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions." Repeatedly in his letters, Paul insists that the Church must always have the needs of those weak in faith, new to the faith, struggling with the faith as a primary concern. To Paul, anything that hinders a person from coming to faith or growing in faith is a travesty, and a failure to be the Church of Jesus Christ.

I know that I often have a strong desire to do things correctly, to get them right, and I suspect that this puts up a barrier to those whose faith questions are more basic or fundamental than my concerns over the finer points of getting things right. May God help me to become a person of welcome to all who are seekers and questioners.

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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

The standard Presbyterian worship service has a "prayer of confession" right after the opening song of praise. (So do many other denominations.) The notion is that when we encounter God, we cannot help but fall on our faces, realizing how woefully undeserving we are to be in God's presence. And yet, a common complaint that pastors get about worship concerns a dislike for this prayer. "It's such a downer," one says. "I'm not that bad," says another. "Who wants to hear about sin," goes yet another complaint.

It has always struck me as a bit odd how we Christians will speak about being "saved," and then act like we don't need saving in the first place. We will proclaim that Jesus died for us, but then chafe at the notion that we are sinful.

In today's reading from Jeremiah, God speaks a word of hope through the prophet to the people of Israel who are about to be defeated and taken into exile. "I will make an everlasting covenant with them, never to draw back from doing good to them; and I will put the fear of me in their hearts, so that they may not turn from me. I will rejoice in doing good to them, and I will plant them in this land in faithfulness, with all my heart and all my soul."

If we are looking for joy in worship, there is a lot here. God's deepest desire is to bless and do good for God's people. But doing so requires those people, us, to be changed. Our hearts have to be reoriented. That's just another way of saying something has to be done about our sinfulness.

As the tax collector says in Jesus' parable (Luke 18:9-14), "God, be merciful to me, a sinner!" And Martin Luther advises that when we find ourselves before God's judgment seat, we should plead our faults and not our merits. I wonder why that is so hard for many of us?

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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

My theological tradition produced, among others, the Dutch Reformed Church, the French Huguenots, the Presbyterians, and those barrels of fun the Puritans. Perhaps it's a stereotype, but many of us get our image of dour religion from folks such as the Puritans. And many people imagine most Christians as having a low fun quotient. They think of religious folks as worried about making sure everyone is behaving. They imagine us to be very judgmental, and, quite naturally, tend to imagine God in the same way.

One quote that I've heard used countless times in movies and on TV picks up on this image. A puritanical preacher hurls fire and brimstone judgments down on someone he views as a moral failure. And wagging an accusing finger at them says, "Vengeance is mine sayeth the Lord!"

Curious that this phrase is sometimes used to justify hatred or even violence against others, especially when you read it in its context. Paul is concluding his letter to the church at Rome with some general admonitions about Christian living, and the line about God's vengeance is there to dissuade them from using violence or taking vengeance. "Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, 'Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.' "

Paul clearly believes that God does judge, but he is insistent that we should leave that to God. In fact he urges us to care for our enemies as our way of getting back at them. Not much like the dour preacher with the wagging finger. And Paul also counsels rejoicing, love, hope, blessing others, living in harmony, being patient.

What sort of image do you have of religion? Perhaps more importantly, what sort of image do you project for others to see. Lord, help me to let others see your love.

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Monday, May 11, 2009

Sunday Sermon for May 10

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

My theological tradition, like many that came out of the Protestant Reformation, holds the Bible in very high regard. Its authority is above all others, and the Church's practices and beliefs are to be critiqued and reformed through the witness of Scripture. Not surprisingly, most of the big debates in my Presbyterian denomination are about what the Bible says, or more precisely, what it means.

Now some folks claim simply to take the Bible literally. But, contrary to the bumper sticker, that is virtually impossible to do. And so most everyone who takes the Bible seriously has some means for distilling meaning out of it. Some say that some parts trump other parts, as in New Testament trumping Old. Some simply choose to ignore parts that trouble them, or are at odds with what they hold dear. John Calvin, when he was wrestling with the Bible's ban on charging interest on loans, spoke of discerning an intent in the Law. He argued that the ban on interest was to keep the poor from being entrapped by the wealthy in the manner of the old "company store" that sold goods on credit and then trapped employees in a debt. But if loans with interest were instead used to help build factories that employed the poor, i.e. if a good was done via this interest, then the biblical ban need not be enforced.

Being theological descendants of Calvin, my denomination has wrestled with Scripture over the years, seeking to discern its intent. On occasions, we've had to revise what we thought we'd discerned. At various times in history we said that the Bible supported the institution of slavery and prohibited women from being pastors. Now we say the opposite, and both these cases serve as a reminder that discerning God's will is not always as easy or simply as we'd like.

Today's reading from Colossians is one of those that I am tempted to ignore. "Wives, be subject to your husbands... Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything." Most Christians that I know are appalled at modern manifestations of slavery. Many campaign to end it. So how do we deal with a Bible passage that seems to approve of slavery?

I believe that mature Christian faith must embrace two things which are often in tension. We must recognize that we cannot adequately know God and God's will for us on our own. We need God's self revelation. We need the Bible to point us to the God we cannot know by our own devices. But at the same time, we cannot mistake the Bible for God. It is a witness to God. It points us to God as no other witness can do. Yet it is a large and complex witness filtered through the cultural assumptions and expectations of those who wrote and compiled it. And we must always acknowledge the difficulty and effort involved in discerning what God says to us through this witness.

May God's Spirit guide all of us as we seek to know God better, and know God's will better, through the Bible.

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Sunday, May 10, 2009

Sunday Sermon: "Who's In and Who's Out?"

In the Law given to Israel at Mt. Sinai, eunuchs are banned from being a part of "the assembly of Yahweh." Yet God's amazing and surprising love reaches out to a eunuch in today's reading from Acts 8:26-40. God's love in Jesus regularly shatters the boundaries that we think are sacrosanct .

Sermon, 5-10.mp3

Friday, May 8, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

One of today's psalms, Psalm 148, is one of those Let everything praise the LORD psalms. Angels, sun, moon, stars, waters, sea monsters, hail, snow, mountains, trees, wild animals, birds, kings, princes, men, women, young, and old are all called to praise Yahweh. It is an extravagant explosion of praise, and the psalmist clearly thinks that such an extravagant explosion is natural, an obvious reaction in gratitude for all that God has done.

It struck me the other day -- I don't know if this is an original thought or if I'm simply remembering something someone else said -- that most of the things we feel proud about should instead be cause for gratitude, for thanksgiving. Proud to be an American? What did I do to become an American other than be born? Proud of my accomplishments? Aren't they largely the results of gifts I received, both those that are innate to me such as intellect and abilities, along with opportunities for education provided by parents and situation?

I don't for one second mean to denigrate the hard work of people. Who we are is always a combination of the gifts we received and what we do with them. But is seems there is a natural human tendency to take credit for our efforts without acknowledging the gifts.

John Calvin, my tradition's most significant forebear, said that the primary motivation for the Christian life is gratitude. Not fear, not desire to get something, but gratitude. I think Calvin would have thought that what we do with the gifts and opportunities handed to us is our way of saying thanks, our way of praising God.

May all that I do in some way give you praise, O God.

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Thursday, May 7, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

Two very different newspaper columns caught my attention this morning. In the first, Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts, Jr. wrote about how people of faith were more likely to support torturing terror suspects than those with no religious affiliation. And he noted how non-Christians are often the ones who take hard or dangerous stands rooted in moral principle while many Christians choose to remain silent. Think German Christians during the Holocaust, or white, Southern Christians during the Civil Rights era.

Now sometimes those of us in the more liberal parts of the Christian fold want to claim that Pitts' criticisms fall harder on more conservative Christians. (White, evangelical Christians were the group with the highest level of support for torture.) But if we liberals fare better by some measures, on others we do not. We often want to trumpet how inclusive we are, how open to others of differing viewpoints, and what lovers of diversity we are. But I was reminded of how hypocritical we can be about this by -- of all things --
Rob Oller's sports column in today's Columbus Dispatch. He wrote, "It is an irony of our age: Those who preach tolerance show intolerance toward those they deem to be not tolerant enough." I have often observed a similar behavior amongst us liberal pastors. When we speak of being inclusive, that inclusiveness often extends in only one direction, to those more liberal than ourselves.

In today's reading from Luke 6, Jesus says, "Why do you see the speck in your neighbor's eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, 'Friend, let me take out the speck in your eye,' when you yourself do not see the log in your own eye? You hypocrite... Why do you call me 'Lord, Lord,' and do not do what I tell you?"

Why is it that many of us find it so easy to take Jesus' name, to call ourselves Christians, but also find it so easy to ignore what Jesus says to us? Lord, help me see myself as I truly am. And help me to become what you would have me be.

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Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

I've written before about the cavalier, overly casual way many of us approach God, as if God were our co-equal or our buddy. But while I think we would do well to recover a sense of awe about God, I would not want us to imagine God as simply distant, powerful, and terrifying. Both Old and New Testaments of the Bible insist that the awesome God who created heaven and earth is deeply concerned for all creation, as verses from one of today's psalms attest. "God heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds... God covers the heavens with clouds, prepares rain for the earth, makes grass grow on the hills. God gives to the animals their food, and to the young ravens when they cry." (Psalm 147)

Over and over the Bible is quite clear that God cares deeply for us. And while the life of Jesus' shows that God's love does not mean that life will always be a piece of cake, a basic, fundamental claim of the faith is that God loves us and wants good for us. What could be more wonderful? As the Apostle Paul says in his letter to the Romans, "If God is for us, who is against us?"

Amidst all the uncertainties and vagaries of life, what a wonderful thing to fall back on. God is for us. God loves us. Thanks be to God!

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Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

Luke's version of the Beatitudes has never been as popular as the one found in Matthew. Not only are the poor simply the poor, not the "poor in spirit," but there is a corresponding list of woes. Here is a portion of today's gospel. "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh... But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep."

Does God really care more for the poor? Does God really place a curse (that's what a biblical woe is) on the rich and those who are laughing? If so, then I sure seem to work pretty hard to get myself under a curse.

The Bible is a complex document, and it is filled with metaphor and hyperbole. But these verses are still startling. And it seems to me that the more literally one reads the Bible, the more problematic these words become. I am no biblical literalist, but nonetheless, the verses surely say something about God's priorities. So why do my priorities seem so different?

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Monday, May 4, 2009

Sunday Sermon

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

Today's reading from Luke 6 features two episodes where Jesus upsets people by violating the Sabbath laws. Nearly 2000 years removed from these events, it is easy to dismiss these Sabbath regulations as petty legalism, but keeping the Sabbath had helped define and preserve Judaism through some very difficult times. During the exile in Babylon, with the Temple destroyed and all religous activity associated with it impossible, the keeping of Sabbath became the primary way that these exiles maintained their Jewishness. And in a world that as yet knew nothing of weekends, Sabbath keeping was a public faith statement.

For Jews who were serious about keeping their faith such as Pharisees, Sabbath was crucial. And so the ease with which Jesus seemed willing to bend Sabbath rules was deeply troubling to them. They saw it as a threat to a foundational element of their faith.

Pharisees often come off like stock villains in the gospels. But the Pharisees constituted a serious reform movement within the Judaism of Jesus' day. They took their faith very seriously and worked diligently to live out a faith that permeated daily life rather than focusing on rituals, sacrifices, etc. On some issues they must have found Jesus quite refreshing, but on others...

People sometimes place the Pharisees on the law side of a Grace versus Law conflict. But we still wrestle with this conflict today. Presbyterians, along with others spawned by the Protestant Reformation, have long emphasized grace. And yet our denomination's big fights are usually about rules, about law, if you will.

I'm not sure there are easy answers here, but I pray God will give me wisdom to know where the law is getting in the way of the grace offered in Jesus.

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Sunday, May 3, 2009

Sermon for May 3, "Becoming the Flock"

The sheep become one flock, not because of anything the sheep do, but because the Good Shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep, calls. All who recognize his voice, be they rich or poor, black or white, young or old, are the flock.

Sermon, 5-3.mp3

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

In today's Luke reading, Jesus calls Levi, a tax collector, to follow him. In Jesus' day, tax collectors were not workers for the IRS. They were contractors who collaborated with the occupying Roman Empire. They were allowed to use Roman soldiers to force collections, and they could keep for themselves any amount collected beyond what went to Rome. Tax collectors were therefore seen as greedy, criminal, and traitorous, having turned against their fellow Jews for the chance to become wealthy.

When Jesus calls Levi, people object. It is the scribes and Pharisees who speak up, but likely most everyone would have shared their feelings. Jesus responds by saying, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance."

There is a famous quote -- attributed to Abigail Van Buren -- about the church being "a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints." But I wonder how many people like Levi, people labeled sinners by the public, would feel welcome at most congregations.

Lord, show me how to be more welcoming to those you call.

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Friday, May 1, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

"Which is easier, to say, 'Your sins are forgiven you,' or to say, 'Stand up and walk'?" This is Jesus' response to scribes and Pharisees who accuse him of blasphemy. Jesus has just said, "Friend, your sins are forgiven you," to a paralyzed man after his friends lowered him through an opening in the roof. That was the only way they could get through the crowds coming for healing. Jesus seems genuinely moved by their efforts, and so he forgives the man.

It strikes me as a bit odd that Jesus' first inclination is to forgive the man. Nothing in the story indicates the man needs forgiveness more than the next guy. And while Jesus does eventually heal the man, the healing remains secondary to the forgiveness.

When I think of all the things I would like to get from God, I'm not sure forgiveness is anywhere near the top of the list. I wonder what Jesus thinks I need most.

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