Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

In today's reading from Acts, the killing of Stephen leads to a wholesale persecution of the first Christians. Acts provides no insights into what those Christians were feeling at that time or what they thought about these developments. But surely they had to have been perplexed. They had sought to be faithful, to do as God had called them to do, and now people were being arrested and even killed.

It's speculation on my part, but I have to assume that it was only much later, in hindsight, that these Christians were able to have the perspective of the book of Acts. In our reading, the persecution of the Church leads directly to the Church spreading out over the Mediterranean world, fulfilling the command of Jesus to be his witnesses
"in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth."

Very often in my own life of faith, or my feeble attempts at one, it is very difficult to make sense of events. Sometimes the phrase, "No good deed goes unpunished" comes readily to mind. But I think that some popular notions of faith are very unhelpful at moments like these. Faith has never been about easy platitudes that make everything okay. Faith is about trusting, even in times of terrible darkness, that somehow God's will is nonetheless moving forward. Surely the Christians in today's reading from Acts must have cried out, must have demanded of God, "Why?" or "How long?" After all, they knew well the psalms of lament that that speak this way.

Many times I would like faith to mean that if I do certain things and believe certain things then God will have to treat me favorably. But such easy faith formulas eventually fail us. And when they do, God may open the door to a deeper faith which dares to trust that God is at work even in life's most difficult moments. After all, that is the model we have from Jesus in his prayer at Gethsemane.

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Monday, June 29, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

Today's reading from Acts depicts the end of Stephen's speech as he is on trial before the religious authorities. Stephen does not really address the charges against him, but he does recount the history of Israel beginning with Abraham. Two key points come up in today's reading. Stephen reminds the Council that although Solomon built a house for God, "the Most High does not dwell in houses made with human hands." This point is apparently related to Stephen's charge that "you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors did." And he connects the persecution and killing of the prophets in previous times to the rejection and killing of Jesus.

It would be easy to regard this as
simply an account of events far in the past. But I believe Stephen speaks of timeless truths here. Religious institutions by nature often seek to contain and manage God, to get God on our side. This is not an argument against religious institutions. It's nigh impossible to practice any faith seriously without one. But we religious folk need to be keenly aware that institutions run by humans are prone to human frailties. As my own Reformed tradition has long held, religious institutions need checks against these tendencies, and we need to be reformed on a fairly regular basis.

And this brings me back to Stephen's lesson for the Council and for us. I am increasingly convinced that in a time of huge changes in history and culture, new models of church must and indeed are emerging. Figuring out which of these models are "of the Spirit" and which are more worldly is a daunting task. But regardless, this is a time to be very attuned to the working of the Spirit, and to be very aware of our tendency to resist the Spirit in favor of the institutional apparatus we already have in place.

I truly believe we are living in one of the most exciting times for the Christian Church since the Protestant Reformation. But this means we are living in a tumultous time for the Church as well. But let us not cling to old wineskins simply because we fear the tumult. With humility, passion, openness, and testing, let us seek to follow where the Spirit leads, trusting that the future is secure in God's hands.

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Sunday, June 28, 2009

I didn't preach today. Brett, our associate pastor, who usually preaches once a month, did so today. I helped lead worship, but with my reduced role, it was easier for me to join in the worship and to listen for God in the Word read and preached. And so this seems like a good moment to reflect on the summer sermon series that is underway.

We normally preach from the lectionary readings here at Boulevard Presbyterian, but last summer and this, we have chosen Bible passages to fit a theme. Last year we focused on the idea of call. This summer Brett and I are more tightly focusing our view, preaching on a specific call we believe is given to BPC: the call to be a congregation that reaches out, welcomes all, and exhibits Christian hospitality to everyone we meet. The unifying theme is "All God's Children."

Brett's sermon today - "All God's Children: Us and Them" - not only fit well into this theme, but it also pointed to the crucial challenge facing most traditional congregations. Many people my age and older grew up understanding their church life as an integral part of life in America. Church participation was simply one facet of good citizenship, of being a part of our local community. But those days are long gone, and congregational methods and styles well suited to that day may no longer serve us well.

Not only are Americans much less a culture of joiners than we were 50 years ago, but being part of a congregation is no longer a recognized part of what it means to be active in a community. Churches are no longer propped up by culture. Nothing closes on Sunday morning, and no one is dismissed in public life if he is not part of a congregation. All of this means that Christian faith now must present itself to the people around it in entirely new ways. If people no longer come to Church because they are supposed to, because everybody goes, etc. how do we communicate the faith to those outside our walls.

Actually, I see this as a huge opportunity for congregations to rediscover their calling and purpose. But this opportunity also brings a fear of the unknown. In both the opportunity and the fear, we have connections to those Jewish Christians of the First Century who began to reach out to Gentiles, to those they had long considered religiously unclean. The Church exploded across the Mediterranean world because they reached out, but they had to overcome much anxiety about losing their Jewish identities, about giving up old, familiar, comfortable ways of doing things. Our communities are filled with people looking for meaning and purpose who are not "church folks." And like those first Jewish Christians, we must learn to translate our faith into their, non-churched world. We may even have to give up some of our traditional church identities in the process, in the same way that the early Church gave up much of its "Jewishness" in the process of reaching out to non-Jews.

Our call to reach out, to find new ways to speak the faith to non-churched folks, is in no way a condemnation of our congregations. Rather it is the embracing of a new call for a new age. Neither is this a call simply
to thow out everything traditional. Instead it is a call to serve God first and institution second. It is a call to think carefully about which traditions are essential, core parts of the faith, and which traditions are simply habits, the ways that we did things that were well suited to a particular time, but not necessarily to this one.

Now I am not naive enough to think that a summer sermon series is going to change any congregation overnight. But I do think it is one, important step in considering who we are and what we are called to do as the Church of Jesus Christ on Northwest Boulevard in Grandview Heights. It has certainly helped me wrestle with this question, and I hope it will be of some help to others who want, more than anything, to be faithful to Christ's call.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

Many of us wish for, dream of, and often strive to achieve status, power, and prestige. Pastors are by no means immune to this desire to be important and impressive. There's even a name for it: "steeple envy," where pastors of smaller churches long for the positions of their big church colleagues. More than one person has noted that when pastors leave a congregation, God almost always seems to call them to a bigger church with a better salary.

I don't want to overstate this. Many pastors labor very contentedly in smaller congregations and feel blessed to be there. And most pastors I know make a genuine attempt to listen for God's call. I point out "steeple envy" only as a way of acknowledging the strong pull the ways of the world exert on most all of us.

In today's verses from Luke, Jesus talks about something often labeled "servant leadership." Contrary to what some suppose, Jesus does not necessarily condemn having power or influence or prestige. Rather the issue is more about how one employs them. And Jesus insists that it must be for the sake of others. "But I am among you as one who serves."

What motivates a person's actions can be difficult to know. It can be hard to know it for ourselves at times. It's one of those heart things central to a life of faith.

God, bend my heart to your will. May all my acts in some way share your love and serve others.

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Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

In today's reading from Acts, the first church conflict erupts as "the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food." Just who these two groups are is unclear, perhaps Greek speaking Jews from the Jewish diaspora versus local Jews. Regardless, the twelve recognized the problem, but are too busy with their evangelistic work to "wait on tables." And so some are chosen for this serving role. (This is where Presbyterians get the idea for Deacons as opposed to Elders who are more focused on apostle-like duties.)

But this story is more than a little curious to me. Stephen, the first of these waiters, hardly sounds like a waiter. "Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people." Somehow I doubt that this means he could balance a lot of trays as he carried food to needy widows. Maybe the job descriptions didn't work out quite like the twelve had planned. And Stephen will go on to give a witness as bold as any apostle.

Churches and societies need people with different gifts and different callings. We all have our own particular roles to play. But we probably shouldn't get too locked in by our job descriptions. When we are "full of faith and the Holy Spirit" like Stephen, the fact that we are just a waiter, or a youth, or a you-fill-in-the-blank doesn't much matter.

What signs and great wonders is God seeking to do through you and me?

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Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

What is God like? Surely that is one of the most basic faith questions. But answering this question is a complex task. Getting to know another human being is difficult enough. God, even more so. And much of our knowledge of God is somewhat indirect, the insights and encounters of others who have drawn close to God. For Christians, Scripture is a unique and authoritative witness that points us to God, that reveals the true nature of God, but even here we sometimes encounter aspects of the divine that seem hard to reconcile. You sometimes hear people speak of "the God of the Old Testament" and "the God of the New Testament" as though these were different being altogether.

I think this is a false dichotomy, but it does point to the real difficulty of weaving together disparate images of God into a single, coherent one. It also points to a difficulty we humans have with some of the paradoxes presented to us by God. We tend to see either/or choices when it comes to mercy or judgment, a God who loves us or God we are supposed to fear, a God who demands holiness and righteousness or a God of grace who embraces the unworthy. Yet God seems to integrate all this into Godself.

Images of God in Scripture often are focused on one side or the other of such paradoxes, but there are elements of God's nature that seem constant, that are pictured fairly uniformly throughout the Bible. Some of those are seen today in Psalm 146.
Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD their God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith forever; who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry. The LORD sets the prisoners free; the LORD opens the eyes of the blind. The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down; the LORD loves the righteous. The LORD watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.

It seems there is a special place in God's heart for many that the world often ignores, for those the world does not value. And surely one of the ways we get to know God, that we draw closer to God, is to love, care for, and value those who are special to God.

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Monday, June 22, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

I've never really understood the fascination that some Christians have with figuring out when "the end" comes. Longing for God's Kingdom I get, but trying to find a formula that will accurately predict the timing; I just don't see the point. And my take on today's reading from Luke is that Jesus wants to dissuade speculation about "the end." In both Matthew's and Mark's gospels, Jesus says that even he does not know the time. But in those gospels, and in Luke, Jesus does talk about what "the end" looks like. And in today's reading he says, "Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near."

I take Jesus to mean that although we do not know when the Kingdom will arrive, its arrival will be obvious, as clear as the signs of spring. And our call as followers of Jesus is not to figure out the timing, but to live by the ways of the Kingdom now. Our energies will be much better spent praying for strength to do God's will when the "worries of this life" tempt us to forget our callings.

I suppose that this gets to the heart of what it means to be a Christian and, more particularly, to live a Christian life. If the alertness Jesus commands is not about anticipating the moment, then what does it mean for us to live as those who are prepared for the day of the Lord?

Lord, give us strength to live each day in ways to declare your coming Kingdom.

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Sunday, June 21, 2009

Sunday Sermon: "All God's Children: All Sorts of Folk"

A sermon from Matthew 28:16-20, the so-called "Great Commission." Though not often thought of this way, Jesus may actually be telling us to reach out and welcome those who are different, who don't look like us, who don't seem like our sort of folk.

Sermon for June 21.mp3

No video of worship this week. Audio coming soon.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

If you want to make an avowed capitalist squirm, just read from today's verses in Acts. "Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need."

Acts' commune-like description of the early Church bespeaks an ideal that most congregations don't even attempt to emulate. Of course today's reading from Acts also tells of a couple who did not live up to that ideal. It seems that the difficulty of living up to our calling as a Christian community is nothing new.

But it is not clear that modern Christians even aspire to the ideal found in Acts. We treat it as a kind of fantasy not to be taken seriously. I wonder how it might impact the witness we give as congregations if we at least attempted to move toward the image in Acts. Even if we fell far short, how might we look different, and how might we offer something compelling to the world, if we embraced these verses in Acts as a part of our calling to follow Jesus?

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Thursday, June 18, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

In today's gospel reading, Jesus tells anyone who will listen, "Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets." The term "scribes" may sound something like a stenographer to us, but scribes were a highly educated, professional class of teachers and interpreters of the law. And so I suspect that Jesus' warning about such folks might well fit any sort of religious professionals. Thus it might also apply to those religious institutions that such religious professionals manage.

As a pastor, I have on occasion heard a conversation about the appropriate car for a pastor to drive. What general rule I can glean is that such vehicles shouldn't be overly ostentatious, but they should they should be befitting a respected professional. I can remember a time not so long ago when I thought of Lincoln Town Cars as a pastor's car. I recall this as I wonder about Jesus' apparent disdain for religious professionals.

I am convinced that there is no such thing as pure, unadulterated spirituality or faith. The practice of such things by necessity takes on forms that must be managed in some way. I believe that any spirituality that does not build community is a false one, and with community inevitably comes some sort of organization or institution. And therefore, "organized religion" (though in my experience it often seems hopelessly disorganized) is a necessity.

Yet there is no denying a tendency for such religious institutions to become self serving and to lose sight of their fundamental purposes. For the Church, this means there is always a tension between our following the commands of Jesus and our being corrupted as the Church becomes a vehicle for getting what we want. Even in the very best Church (or any other sort of religious enterprise) there is always a mix of good and bad, of God's work being done alongside greed, lust for power, and outright hypocrisy. There is no pure church, just as there is no pure synagogue, mosque, government, movement, cause, etc.

My theological tradition has long held that this situation requires regular change and reformation. Churches must be remade and refocused on their fundamental purposes. And I increasingly believe that a time of reformation is upon the Church, a time when we must carefully examine ourselves. It is a time when we must work to cast off all that makes us like those Jesus warns people about, and it is a time when we must hear anew the call to be faithful disciples who join together to be the body of Christ in and for the world.

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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

I've always thought that the Acts account of Pentecost was both funny and confusing. Peter's defense against the charge of drunkenness? It's too early in the morning. "I'd never be drunk by 9:00." And which is it, by the way? At one point Acts says, "Each one heard them speaking in the native language of each... All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, "What does this mean?" So it seems that everyone heard the disciples speaking in his or her native language, and all of them were amazed. And yet Acts also says, "But others sneered and said, 'They are filled with new wine.' " Well, which is it?

Acts almost seems to describe two different events, the first a remarkable undoing of the Tower of Babel story from Genesis 11, and the second some sort of ecstatic blubbering that is mistaken for drunkenness. One describes gifts of the Spirit that will assist the Church in taking its message to others. The second describes an exuberant frenzy that is unintelligible to outsiders.

Reading this passage literally, as modern people so tend to do, one can't really reconcile the two depictions in the story. But then again, what need does the Bible have to abide by our modern sensibilities.

I'm by no means an expert in this area, but as I gradually gain some small measure of spiritual maturity, I discover that figuring out exactly what happened rarely gets me to the meaning and purpose, to the truth of the Bible. The truths in Scripture are sometimes much more evident when I let go of the modern notion that truth means getting the facts straight.

Lord, open me and guide me to your truth.

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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

"Then give to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's." I've always liked the translation that says, "Render unto Caesar," when Jesus is asked about paying taxes. Of course the question isn't really about taxes. It's an attempt to trap Jesus. The taxes in question are those due to Rome. Rome was not only an occupying power, but it made claims of divinity for its emperor, and Roman coins had inscriptions referring to this divinity. And so there were theological objections to the taxes along with a general dislike of Rome, but a great fear of what happened if you defied Rome. Thus Jesus' opponents think they have cornered him with their question. If Jesus says, "Yes" to paying taxes he alienates all those who object on theological or nationalistic grounds. Say, "No," and the Romans will be after him.

But as often happens with Jesus, he doesn't
really answer the question. Instead he springs a trap on his opponents. Asking them to show him a Roman coin, one that contains a graven image of the divine emperor, he catches them in violation of the commandment against graven images. He then sidesteps the trap laid for him with that well know phrase about rendering to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's. But Jesus never says how one determines which is which.

Of course Jesus knows his Scripture, our Old Testament, backward and forward. And I'm convinced that he has this verse in mind as he parries his opponents. "The Earth is the LORD's and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it." (Psalm 24:1)

And so we're left with a hanging question about loyalties, about what is owed whom, about who and what we should support and serve. If Jesus' answer to his opponents is a bit evasive, the way he lives his life is clear. Serving God trumps all other loyalties, to family, to his religion, to his country, even to his own personal desires and safety. And for me, following him in this path is a lot more difficult question than the one about taxes.

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Monday, June 15, 2009

Sunday Sermon: "All God's Children: Adoptive Families"

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

In today's reading from Acts, the disciples are talking with the risen Jesus shortly after the first Easter. Considering all that has happened, the question they ask Jesus is hardly surprising. "Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?" Jesus the Messiah has been raised from the dead. Jews of Jesus' day thought that the resurrection would come at the end of the age, so it made perfect sense to thing something big was about to happen.

But Jesus' answer tosses aside any concerns about timetables and and the arrival of the end. Instead he says his followers have work to do. "It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth."

This is not the only place in the Bible where Jesus tells his followers not to concern themselves with figuring out when the end comes. And here Jesus insists that the life of the Christian is not about figuring out such mysteries. Rather it is about being witnesses. And yet many Christians are
still fascinated with trying to figure out supposed formulas in the book of Revelation. And the Christian life is often understood to be more about belief than about anything else.

I suppose it is not surprising that any focus on being witnesses diminished in this country over the years, especially when we tended to think of ourselves as a "Christian nation." But I wonder if we didn't lose our souls along the way. I wonder if we didn't cut the heart out of the Christian life when we shifted the focus of the faith to believing and attending church, forgetting that we are called to be witnesses. And of course, our lives are our most powerful witness. And if the Church is struggling in our day, surely the quality of our witness has something to do with that.

Jesus promises the Holy Spirit will empower us to be his witnesses. Send her to us, Lord!

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Friday, June 12, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

I can't quote it exactly, not having the book in front of me, but in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard relates a conversation between an Eskimo and a missionary. My impression is that this conversation takes place after the fellow's conversion, but regardless, he asks whether his soul was in any danger before he knew about God and sin. The missionary replies that it was not. To which the convert replies, "Then why did you tell me?"

When I first read those words, they gave me great pause. At least in that conversation, Christian conversion ended up sounding more like a loss of innocence than any great prize. And I couldn't help but wonder about the image of Christian life that this missionary had imparted, and that we in the Church typically demonstrate, if it would make a convert long for the former life he had lost.

"How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD of hosts! My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the LORD; my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God." So begins Psalm 84. Loveliness, longing, and joyous song springing from the heart pour out from these two verses. I wonder if the Christian life imparted by that Alaskan missionary had much of Psalm 84's feel to it. And more to the point, what about the Christian life that I demonstrate?

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Thursday, June 11, 2009

Summer Sermon Series

Once again this summer, we will have a sermon series. Last year we focused on call. This summer James and Brett will look at a specific call that we believe is given to BPC, to be a congregation that reaches out, welcomes all, and exhibits Christian hospitality to those whom we meet. The unifying theme will be "All God's Children."

Beginning in July, we will also have an open discussion group meeting in the lounge following worship and fellowship. We will discuss the sermon and other topics related to becoming a more welcoming and diverse congregation.

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

We live in a media saturated, visually driven culture. Talk with advertisers and they will tell you that it is more important to have visual impact and "feel" in a commercial than it is to have content. Sometimes it seems that packaging is more important than content. In politics the sound-byte replaces carefully articulated positions on issues. News broadcasts say they cannot make money doing traditional, in-depth reporting on complicated issues because of the public's shrinking attention span.

In the church, this trend often produces a desire for worship that is more about feel than content. Worshipers want to be energized and given a boost, but often they're not much interested in wrestling with what the Bible says. Especially for Protestants, who broke away from the Roman Church in part over insistence that each Christian needed to read and interpret Scripture for him or herself, it is stunning how few church members regularly read the Bible.

It makes one wonder how the Apostle Paul would have fared in our day. Even in the First Century, Paul apparently lost points because he was an unimpressive figure and a poor public speaker. Other missionaries, who had more flash, came in after him and sometimes persuaded churches Paul founded to abandon Paul's message of a gospel offered to both Jew and Gentile, restricting it to those who would become Jews. But when Paul defends himself by letter, he insists that his lack of looks, pizazz, prestige, and style is preferable. The good news he brings is not about him and not focused on him.

Today's reading from 2 Corinthians is at the end of a long discussion about boasting. Paul writes, "Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.' So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong."

Power made perfect in weakness is one of those biblical concepts than many Christians are familiar with, but lots of us don't quite know what to do with the idea. And I always wondered if the Church didn't sell a good deal of its soul all those years ago when we got respectable, when the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of Rome. From then on, at least in the West, we've been well connected to power, influence, prestige and the ways of the culture. I also wonder if the Church's current loss of status and prestige in the US might not just be one of the greatest gifts we've been given in modern times. Now if I could only really embrace what Paul says.

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Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

Today's Old Testament reading is a portion of The Song of Moses, some of Moses' final words prior to his death just short of the Promised Land. "The Rock, his work is perfect, and all his ways are just. A faithful God, without deceit, just and upright is he; yet his degenerate children have dealt falsely with him, a perverse and crooked generation. Do you thus repay the LORD, O foolish and senseless people? Is not he your father, who created you, who made you and established you?"

I have heard folks remark that they cannot understand how the people of Israel, who were rescued from slavery in Egypt and witnessed mighty, saving acts by Yahweh, could so easily turn away. The Israelites in the wilderness repeatedly complained, questioned whether God was with them, and broke covenant with God. What was wrong with these people?

But my personal experience very much mirrors theirs. I never saw the sea parted, but I have my moments when God's presence seems very real, when it has led me in directions I would never have gone on my own. But I have a lot more moments where I can't seem to find God, and God's absence often seems much more real to me than the memories of God's presence.

A lot of religious people, myself included, long for so-called mountain top experiences, but most of life is lived down in the valley. And I think that what I need is not more dramatic encounters with God, but more awareness of God in the moment, in the mundane, in the day to day, where life and faith are lived out.

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Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

A friend once told me about a conversation at a pastors' luncheon. It was an ecumenical gathering with pastors or all stripes at the table. At some point there was a discussion about what day each of them took off. Normally such conversations are a discussion on the merits of Monday versus Friday, but one pastor insisted that pastors had no business taking any days off. "After all," he said, "Satan never takes a day off."

My fried commented that God did, and that more or less ended that conversation. But the exchange reminded me of how some religious folk seem to be forever worried that the world is going to hell in a handbasket. Some seem convinced that if the faithful are not extremely vigilant, all could be lost. But this strikes me as terribly unbiblical, ceding the future to human hands rather than to a sovereign God.

Now I am making no claims that the world doesn't have lots of troubles or that evil isn't real. It would require a real talent for denial to do so. Not that this is anything new. Today's psalm begins, "Help, O LORD, for there is no longer anyone who is godly; the faithful have disappeared from humankind." The psalmist clearly despairs about the state of the world. Yet the psalmist still knows that the future belongs to God. "Because the poor are despoiled, because the needy groan, I will now rise up," says the LORD... The promises of the LORD are promises that are pure."

As Christians, I believe that we are called to work for peace and justice, to care for the poor and needy, and to struggle against all that is evil and despoils God's world. But in the end, the outcome is not simply left to us. God is at work in surprising ways to bring victory out of what seem defeat. If the cross says anything, surely it is that what may look like evil's greatest triumphs end up bringing about God's will.

Oh God, give us faith to trust that the future is securely in your hands.

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Monday, June 8, 2009

Sunday Sermon: "What You Know Might Hurt You"

Sermon for June 7: "What You Know Might Hurt You"

Jesus has a lot of trouble with the religious folks of his day. Their religious certainties made it difficult for them to comprehend the new thing he brought. We modern day religious folks can have a similar difficulty. Jesus says that we can only be part of the "kingdom" if we are transformed via the wind-like Spirit, which blows where it chooses, which defies the doctrines, platitudes, and formulas we devise to contain it.

Sermon for June 7.mp3

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

Psalm 62 begins, "For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation. He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall never be shaken." The exact same lines repeat again in the middle of the psalm, one clearly written from a place of distress.

I suppose that Jesus could easily have leaned on this Psalm as he moved toward Jerusalem and what he knew awaited him there. In today's reading from Luke, Jesus' disciples and companions do not understand what is going on and, presumably, are of little support and comfort to him. Yet he "set his face to go to Jerusalem," as Luke says in 9:51, and he never wavers. God alone is his rock and he is never shaken.

Oh if only I could do the same. I trust and hope in God, but I put my hope and trust in a lot of other things, too. My happiness, my sense of fulfillment, my sense of well being, and my sense of security are often more dependent on the economy, events at the church, the ups and down of family life, worries about the environment, and many more. Oh that all my worries were swallowed up by the certainty of God as my rock, a security that could not let me be shaken.

By nature, I tend to be a perfectionist and a worrier. And I think that both sometimes work at odds with faith. My perfectionism puts too much faith in me, and my worrying too little in God. God, how about helping me tone down both.

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Thursday, June 4, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

Sing aloud to God our strength;
shout for joy to the God of Jacob.
Raise a song, sound the tambourine,
the sweet lyre with the harp.
Blow the trumpet at the new moon,
at the full moon, on our festal day.

So say the opening verses of Psalm 81. Let's see; the Psalm mentions tambourine, lyre, harp, and trumpet, but no mention of organ or piano. Of course that's not really surprising when you remember that these instruments had not yet been invented.

Most would be so bold (or arrogant?), but I've heard people state that the organ is the only musical instrument truly appropriate for Christian worship. That of course begs the question of how the Church survived all those centuries before there were organs.

There seems to be a human tendency to connect the way we do it with how God prefers it. Personally I love a big pipe organ playing a hymn, but that hardly means that worship without hymn and pipe organ is somehow deficient and displeasing to God.

Back in the heyday of the missionary movement into Africa, missionaries were quick to push out traditional, indigenous instruments in favor of pianos or small organs. And they insisted on singing western hymns, as well as requiring pastors to wear black robes in sweltering conditions. Apparently these missionaries presumed local culture was pagan as opposed to their own Christian, Western culture. Only their culture would do. And we wonder why Christianity became linked with Western imperialism.

But questions about what sort of church is pleasing to God are hardly relegated to the past. Some present day congregations serve more as museums to a dying church culture of 50 years ago than they do as communities reaching out to share God's love in Jesus, as places where new disciples can learn a faith that is intelligible in their culture. There is rarely any malice or evil intent at work here, just that old assumption the way we do it is somehow required for a true church to exist.

At this time in history when the culture around us is changing rapidly, we need to rediscover how to translate church to those who are not from a church culture. This is an enterprise not unlike what went on when a First Century, Jewish, messianic movement was translated into the Greco-Roman culture of that day. It is an enterprise that requires us to discern what of our tradition is essential, and what is simply a part of the surrounding culture of a previous time. May God guide us in this task.

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Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

In today's reading from Luke, 10 lepers approach Jesus, asking his help. Jesus tells them to go and show themselves to the priests. Presumably this implies that they will be healed. When "unclean" became "clean" again, this needed to be certified by the priests. On their way to the priests, "they were made clean." One of the 10 comes running back, praising God, and falling at Jesus' feet to thank him. "And he was a Samaritan."

That line may not be so startling as it was nearly 2000 years ago. But as Jesus himself notes, Samaritans were foreigners. They were also considered to be vile by most Jews of that day. But this despised outsider is commended
for his faith by Jesus. "Your faith has made you well." The word Jesus uses here is different from the earlier word saying he was "made clean." This word literally means "saved" and is often translated that way. It also has connotations of wholeness. And so by faith this outsider has not only been cleansed but has been made whole, saved, become a part of the people of God.

Last night at our session meeting (that's the governing board of a Presbyterian Church) we discussed a passage from Romans where Paul writes that we have "received a spirit of adoption." Brett, the other pastor here, recalled a family in his home church that had a large number of adopted children, children from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds. We noted how different adopted families can look from biological ones, and we recalled how the Church is a family of adoptees. Christian faith is supposed to be a big tent, a diverse family of all sorts of people. It's there in our gospel verses today, and it's there in the famous words from Paul, "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus."

Paul cites the primary divisions of his world, insisting that all divisions have been undone by this adoption that we have in Jesus. And so it seems to me that when our congregations mirror the divisions of the world, divisions of race, ethnicity, class, and so on, we fail to live out our calling to be something new, to live out the oneness we have in Jesus.

O God, may our congregations become places of welcome and diversity that fully reflect the family of our adoption in Jesus Christ.

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Monday, June 1, 2009

Sunday Sermon: "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?

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

There is a popular image of Jesus as meek, mild, and saccharin sweet. Certainly Jesus is loving and kind, but he can also be very demanding of those who follow him. "Let them deny themselves and take up their cross... For those who want to save their life will lose it." And then from today's gospel, "And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, 'I repent,' you must forgive... So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, 'We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!'"

Now it is likely that the term "worthless slaves" was less harsh to the ears of Jesus' first hearers than it is to ours. "Worthless" may
here refer to a slave who is owed nothing and not be a value judgment on the person's character. But even so, there is nothing sweet and saccharin about what Jesus says.

One of the difficulties with following Jesus is the need to handle the paradox of Christian faith. On the one hand, God's grace is freely offered to us in Jesus. Forgiveness, wholeness, peace with God, and true community with others are ours for the receiving. But at the same time, followers of Jesus are called to live out Jesus' teachings, to do the will of God, to love Jesus more than family or life itself.

Most of us don't like paradoxes. We want to resolve them, usually by embracing one side of the paradox or the other. Some emphasize the obedience side of the Christian life. For them faith is primarily a matter of keeping the rules, remaining pure, walking the straight and narrow. Others emphasize the grace side. For them faith is primarily a matter of freely accepting God's love and offering it to others. And both these groups often see the other as perverting faith.

But as uncomfortable as paradoxes can be, resolving the faith paradox simply doesn't work. It cannot be grace or obedience, love or law. Somehow it must be both. May God help us live faithfully in the tension of this paradox.

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