Thursday, July 30, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

Coming from North Carolina and growing up a Presbyterian there, I am very familiar with a beautiful place in the mountains known as Montreat. There is a Presbyterian college there, but I and many others know it primarily as a mountain retreat center - hence the name. This time of year there are youth conferences going on there, and I saw on facebook that this week's conference had 1089 youth in attendance. Youth groups come from all over the country to the six weeks of conferences, and it is an incredible experience.

Considering that it is a youth conference, open
only to high school ages, any participant 's tenure is fairly brief. Certainly people who came as youth come back as counselors and such, but there is a steady stream of new youth attending for the first time each year. And so you might think that there would be no way for any traditions to become entrenched the way that sometimes happens in local congregations, but you would be wrong.

I was at the conference some years ago when there was a great deal of upset over the expulsion of the song "Star Trekking" from the morning "energizers." It seems the powers that be had decided that one of the verses, "We come in peace; shoot to kill," was inappropriate. Many youth were outraged, and in a compromise, conference leaders allowed the song to be done at an outdoor event later in the week.

Traditions are sometimes thought of as the purview of old fogies, but traditions and rituals are effective ways of binding people together. There is a reason that fraternities, sports teams, sororities, and clubs have joining rituals.

I think it is important to remember how powerful rituals are we we hear Jesus speaking to the Pharisees in today's gospel. Many of the rituals used by these Pharisees helped them maintain their Jewish identity in a world that was not always very accommodating to them. And if you've ever attended a Friday night Shabbat meal in a Jewish home, you may have encountered some of the ritual washing Jesus speaks against. But it may have seemed a wonderful ritual to you.

We all need rituals. The early Christian Church, as it became more and more Gentile and abandoned its old, Jewish rituals, had to replace them with new rituals. Rituals of Baptism and the Lord's Supper were first. The bringing of bread and wine for the Supper eventually evolved into a ritual of offerings in worship. And even the most avant-guard, contemporary mega-church has a slew of rituals in place.

The issue - and I think this is Jesus' real concern - is whether or not our rituals help or hinder our life with God. Rituals that bind us together as community are helpful, except when they also work to exclude people who aren't like us. Rituals that help us maintain a distinct identity can be extremely helpful, as long that identity is Christ-like.

There can be a temptation when trying to renew or revitalize a congregation simply to throw out rituals without considering their purpose. I suppose this is a natural reaction to an opposite tendency to hang on to rituals long after they've outlived their usefulness. But rather than thinking of rituals and traditions as good or bad per se, we might do well to consider how ours contribute to or detract from "building up the body" and helping people to grow in their walk with Jesus.

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Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

Reading the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), you get the impression that Jesus' reputation as a healer was what really drew in the crowds. You can see that in today's gospel. When Jesus shows up - fresh from walking on the water - people immediately recognize him. "And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the market-places, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed."

It's a dramatic picture of folks clamoring just to get near Jesus, wanting nothing more than to touch him in hopes of being healed. Yet though Jesus makes his initial splash with these rather indiscriminate healings, we Christians seem to be know mostly for what we believe. And we fight mostly about what to believe. Some Christians are even sure that some other Christians aren't "saved" because they haven't gotten the formula quite right.

Yet in our gospel reading, folks who do nothing more than touch the fringe of Jesus' cloak are "saved." The term "saved" has taken on all sorts of religious meaning in the Church. But the Greek word that gets translated "saved" is the same word used to speak of those sick folks who touched Jesus and "were healed." In some gospel accounts where Jesus heals people he tells them, "Your faith has healed you," or "has made you well." Although in my copy of Luke Jesus tells a blind man whose sight he has just restored, "Your faith has saved you." But these distinctions are only in the English translation. In the original Greek, it's all the same word.

It seems that Jesus was a lot freer with his healing, with his salvation, that we in the Church sometimes want to be. Don't get me wrong. Jesus does call us to live and act in certain ways, to believe certain things. But he still runs around healing/saving folks at the drop of a hat. What's up with that?

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Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

I've always been envious (and also a bit suspicious) of those who seem to have a very clear sense of what God wants them to do, of God's will for them. I say that because I often struggle to understand what God intends for me. Even with help and advice from a Spiritual Director, I often feel quite in the dark.

That makes today's reading in Acts especially interesting to me. In it we see Paul, who seems to have a direct line to God if anyone ever did, have one and perhaps two false starts as he seeks to travel about sharing the good news about Jesus. He is forbidden to go to Asia; exactly how is not said. And when he tries to go to Bithynia, the Spirit of Jesus stops him. Once again we don't hear exactly how this works. Finally, Paul has a vision (a dream perhaps?) of a man calling him to come over the Macedonia.

I am especially intrigued by the account of what follows. "When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them." Now perhaps I'm making something out of nothing here, but after this vision, Paul and his buddies are described as "being convinced that God had called us..." Being convinced doesn't sound like absolute certainty to me. It sounds like they would try to go to Macedonia, but if prevented, they would then conclude that they had misunderstood.

In my own faith life, I would like to have more certainty. A burning bush in the back yard would be nice; perhaps an angel or two coming to the office and laying out a vision for the congregation. But it doesn't seem to work that way. We are required to do our best to understand what God's call is and then act on it, realizing that God may redirect us when we've gotten our instructions mixed up.

For the life of me, I wouldn't do it this way if I was God, but I have to assume that God's methods are better than mine. And based on my reading of today's scripture, it seems that we need to be both bold and humble when it comes to answering God's call. We do need to act, to move, to step out based on what may often be a rather vague set of instructions and directions. Waiting for God to send us Mapquest directions that say, "Go 1 mile south, turn left, talk to the person..." will likely mean waiting a long time, maybe forever. But at the same time, we can't be arrogant when we think we have discerned God's will. We may head out on that journey only to prevented by the Spirit.

I once was told by someone in strategic planning that one of the most difficult steps for some groups is to stop planning and start doing. Maybe that's what's going on in Acts. We have to move forward while the destination is still a bit fuzzy, and trust that God will provide the mid-course corrections along the way.

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Monday, July 27, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

There's an old saying that "there are no atheists in foxholes." I doubt that is completely true, but being in dire circumstances certainly does cause many to turn toward God. I think this is because dire circumstances can have a way of forcing us to acknowledge what limited creatures we actually are.

My own theological tradition has long held that we humans are prone to think more highly of ourselves than we ought. And the American ethos sometimes seems to encourage this. We celebrate the self-made man or woman and rugged individualism. We encourage the idea that everyone should pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. But in a foxhole, facing cancer, at the tragic death of a loved one, and in countless other situations, we come face to face with the truth that much is out of our control, that we are not nearly so powerful or substantial as we had thought.

The Psalms are filled with the prayers of those who realized that they cannot make it without help. Psalm 57 begins, "Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me, for in you my soul takes refuge; in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge, until the destroying storms pass by." Such psalms are not only cries of desperation, but they are theological statements insisting that we are dependent on God.

Anne Lamott has said that her two primary prayers are "Help me, help me, help me," and "Thank you, thank you, thank you." Her prayers seem to echo this notion of dependence on God, perhaps the "Thank you" even more so. It can be easy, once the storm is over, to reconstruct the illusion of self-sufficiency and control, and forget the "Thank you."

I wonder if women aren't better at both these prayers than men. The male ego can be a real barrier to faith. The old joke about men not stopping for directions has some truth to it. We don't like to admit we need help, which makes it hard to say, "Thanks."

"Help me, help me, help me. Thank you, thank you, thank you." I think I'm going to borrow Anne Lamott's prayers and make them my own.

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Sunday, July 26, 2009

Random Thoughts on a Non-preaching Sunday

I don't know why it struck me today, but with my mind freer to wander than usual for a Sunday morning, I found myself thinking about summer and worship attendance. I assume that most anyone who attends worship regularly has noticed that attendance drops off in the summer. There are some obvious reasons, of course. More people take vacations in the summer. Some folks take extended vacations, and so the pool of members and others who attend any congregation is diminished.

I don't have any hard data to back me up on this, but I am of the opinion that vacations, summer camps, and the like do not account for the total decline of those in worship. There is another factor, folks who "take summer off" from worship. In a pattern that somewhat mirrors schools, they take a summer vacation from church.

Now I'm not wanting to impugn these folks in any way. My interest in noting such vacations from church is not to chastise or cajole anyone. Rather I am wondering what it is about the way we do church, the way we conduct worship or education, or the way we envision ourselves that creates a church from which some folks need a break.

I written before that I don't think it's possible to have church without institutions. Practicing faith with no sort of structures usually ends up being terribly vacuous. But at the same time, religious institutions can become impersonal, and worse, they can lose focus on relationship with God and be more about the institution itself. And if doing church becomes mostly about institutional loyalty, maybe it should be no surprise that folks need a break now and then.

"My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the LORD; my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God." Psalm 84 seems to speak of something other than institutional loyalty. And I wonder what practices of faith and worship might enliven our congregations so that when folks get back in town from a vacation or trip, they couldn't wait to get back to worship.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains,
your judgments are like the great deep;

you save humans and animals alike, O LORD.

For some reason, these lines from Psalm 36 caught my eye this morning, specifically the part about Yahweh saving "humans and animals alike." This isn't the only place where the Bible speaks of God's concern for the earth's creatures. According to Jesus, not a single sparrow falls to the ground "apart from your Father." And in what it my personal favorite, the book of Jonah ends with God rebuking Jonah and arguing for animals. In the very last verse of the book God says, "And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?"

"...And also many animals?" What an odd way to end. Or maybe it only seems odd because people of faith tend to focus on souls and heaven to the point that we've forgotten about God's love for creation, for bodies and such. The Apostle Paul speaks of creation itself awaiting its redemption. And obviously God thought creation was a good thing when God created it.

I've been reading a wonderful book by Barbara Brown Taylor entitled An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith. It has some interesting chapter titles such as "The Practice of Wearing Skin - Incarnation" and "The Practice of Walking the Earth - Groundedness." In these and other chapters she notes how often we miss the sacred, miss God, because we are so unaccustomed to looking for God in the created, messiness of earthly, fleshy life.

"You save humans and animals alike, O LORD." If this is true, as the psalmist insists, then surely God is present and at work in the garden, in the backyard, in the day to day living of our lives. Surely God is more present than we often realize because we forget that God is not contained in the "houses" we build for that purpose.

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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

I've always been fascinated by the image of Jesus asleep on a cushion in the stern of a boat as a storm threatens to swamp it. (Mark's version of this event is the gospel reading for today.) I visited the Sea of Galilea once as part of a seminary trip. They had recently discovered a fishing boat from Roman times buried in the mud of the lake and were in the process of restoring it. It wasn't very big, and it's somewhat difficult to imagine anyone being able to sleep in it as a gale raged. When I was young I could sleep through phone calls and thunderstorms, but sleeping while waves crashed over the sides of the boat? That's mind boggling.

Yet Jesus seems surprised, perhaps even irritated, that the disciples awoke him. He acts as if his sleeping through the storm was no big deal. What were they worried about anyhow?

I don't need a storm to get the worry motor revving. I can get worked up and cry out for help over all sorts of things that might happen. Will the church be able to meet its budget? Will our congregation figure out how to reach out to the different sort of residents who are moving into this area? Why haven't we been able to find a new music director? The list goes on and on. And Jesus is asleep on the cushion, or so it seems much of the time.

My denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), has just released its latest membership statistics, and they are depressing. Our numbers are dwindling at an alarming rate. And there is much worrying and hand wringing over the future of the Church. "Wake up, Jesus! Don't you care that we are perishing?"

I don't think that God's plans require that any particular congregation or denomination do well or even survive. But surely God has things under control. If not, God wouldn't be God. And so Jesus' words from that boat come to us. "Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?" And I take that to mean that Jesus wants us to stop worrying, trust in God, and concentrate on living faithful lives. God will take care of the rest.

I'm trying to take that to heart.

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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

As a pastor I've had conversations with people whom seem to think that being a believer should somehow insulate them from the troubles of the world. And when things go badly, they feel God has abandoned them or that they've done something wrong so that God doesn't help them. Such feelings are natural, I suppose. I've certainly had my share of times when I thought God needed to step or I might throw up my hands and walk away.

But even a cursory reading of the Bible will reveal numerous instances of the righteous suffering, of people of deep faith being persecuted or dealing with terrible troubles. It's hard to come away from Scripture convinced that faith will protect one from all misfortune. And yet the same reading of the Bible will also reveal some pretty animated "discussions" with God about suffering and injustice. The psalms, especially, are filled with voices calling on God to act, at times demanding that God act. These voices insist that God's reputation is at stake, that a failure to do something will injure God.

There seems to be a more dynamic relationship at work here than I sometimes witness among we church members. There is often a formality and deference in our approach to God that makes it nearly impossible for us to shake our fist at God or demand that God do something.

Today's morning psalm, Ps. 123, is not as bold as some, but it nonetheless demands that God respond.
To you I lift up my eyes, O you who are enthroned in the heavens!
As the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master,

as the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress,

so our eyes look to the LORD our God, until he has mercy upon us.

Have mercy upon us, O LORD, have mercy upon us,
for we have had more than enough of contempt.

Our soul has had more than its fill of the scorn of those who are at ease,
of the contempt of the proud.

I would never suggest that if we enter into the correct sort of prayer pose, all our wishes will be granted. But I wonder about our difficulty is coming before God like the psalmist, saying that we will gaze toward God with pleading eyes until God does justice and mercy. Maybe that's what Jesus was talking about when he said, "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness."

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Monday, July 20, 2009

Sunday Sermon: "All God's Children: Problem Sons and Elder Brothers"

Love that embraces the most wayward and irresponsible; such is the love Jesus describes in his Parable of the Prodigal Son and his Brother, Luke 15:11-32. It's a beautiful parable. At least it would be if not for the problems presented by the good, responsible, older brother.

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

In today's reading from Acts, the "rejection" of the gospel by some Jews spurs Paul to carry the good news to the Gentiles, "and as many as had been destined for eternal life became believers." This isn't one of the primary texts for formulating a doctrine of predestination, but it certainly is compatible with such a doctrine. People became believers, not because the figured things out, not because it made sense to them, but because they had been "destined for eternal life."

Personally, I am glad that the Bible doesn't develop this idea at great length, a reticence that might have served my own denomination's theologians well at times. Presbyterians didn't come up with predestination. Calvin borrowed it from Augustine and we share the doctrine with Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and others. But we emphasized it more and became known for it. We've backed away from it some in more recent years. It's still on the books, but we don't talk about it a lot. After all, it seems so... un-American.

We Americans are big on notions of merit, of people getting what they deserve, of people getting ahead on effort and not status. What business does God have destining anyone for good or bad?

Someone once noted that no one would be inclined to embrace a doctrine of predestination without believing she was one of the chosen ones. But be that as it may, I wonder why it is that so many of us are more comfortable leaving things in human hands rather than simply trusting God. Most all Protestants want to talk about God's unmerited grace, about being "saved" as a gift and not by our own merit. So why does the idea of predestination bother us so? (It's important to distinguish between predestination and determinism. Predestination - formally known as the Doctrine of Election - is not about every event in one's life being preset. It is concerned almost exclusively with salvation.)

Part of being human is not knowing everything. Faith seeks understanding, but faith also knows that God is incomprehensible to humans in many ways. "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says Yahweh. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts." (Isaiah 55:8-9) So while I will seek to understand God and live as God calls me to live, I'm pretty comfortable leaving ultimate questions of judgment, of who's in and who's out, up to God. After all, the God we meet in Jesus is not only just, but loving, caring, merciful, and forgiving.

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Sunday, July 19, 2009

Sunday Sermon - "All God's Children: Problem Sons and Elder Brothers"

Love that embraces the most wayward and irresponsible; such is the love Jesus describes in his Parable of the Prodigal Son and his Brother, Luke 15:11-32. It's a beautiful parable. At least it would be if not for the problems presented by the good, responsible, older brother.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

There is a lot of conflict between Jesus and religious authorities in the gospels. It shows up in today's reading from Mark in the form of a Sabbath controversy. Over the years, Christians have tended to picture these authorities as evil folks in black hats, as cartoon bad guys. But that seems highly unlikely. No doubt they had mixed motives, as do religious leaders in every age. Some of them were concerned with preserving the status and privilege they had. And some worried about religious movements that might get out of control and lead to conflict with the powerful Romans. But along with such concerns, there were genuine religious concerns that God's laws be upheld. The Pharisees, especially, were a reform movement that wanted people to embrace the Law in day to day living, compared to what they saw as overly ritualized Temple Judaism.

My childhood was spent in North and South Carolina, when the Bible belt was a much stronger cultural force than it is today. And if you wanted a lot of folks in the neighborhood to look at you and shake their heads, all you had to do was cut the grass on a Sunday afternoon. Even though Sunday isn't the Sabbath, the culture had built in all sorts of safeguards to assure that the Christian Sabbath was not violated. And if you go back a bit further in the history of this country, you will find Sabbath enforcement that rivaled anything Jesus encountered.

Sometimes in these musings, I find myself sounding like one of those folks that hates organized religion. I'm not. I think that faith without a community that teaches and embodies the practices of the faith is a pretty nebulous and vacuous thing. But as much as I think the institutional Church is an absolute necessity, it, like all things human, has its dark side. The notion that Christians or the Church are somehow immune to the influences that made the religious authorities oppose Jesus, is a dangerous one, for it frees us from examining ourselves to see where we may be opposing God.

Now no genuine Christian would intentionally set out to oppose God, but then again, no genuine Jew of Jesus' day would have either. And Jesus himself notes how easy is can be to miss him in one of his parables. There people both good and bad say, "Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison?"

Lord, don't let my religious certainties cause me to miss you or reject you.

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Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

Here are a couple of verses from today's reading in Mark. "When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax-collectors, they said to his disciples, 'Why does he eat with tax-collectors and sinners?' When Jesus heard this, he said to them, '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.' "

Complaints about the company Jesus kept crop up all the time in the gospels. There is also a phrase I've heard all my life that I suppose is rooted in Jesus' response to his critics. "A Church is a hospital for sinners and not a museum for saints." (supposedly said by Abigail Van Buren) I've heard all sort of people quote some form of this line, but in my experience most congregations seem closer to a doctor's office than a hospital. We'll all admit to being sinners and in need of help, but our sins are like strep throat or a cold, not heart attacks of pancreatic cancers. And we're not real comfortable when people with such serious conditions show up at our church. To stretch this metaphor perhaps to breaking, we're more comfortable dealing in preventitive care than we are in treating life threatening diseases.

It would be interesting to know if people outside the church saw things in a similar light. If they do; if they see the the church as a place that only handles mundane little problems, will they consider coming to us when they have a big problem, a full blown spiritual crisis?

We say we're in the salvation business. Barbara Brown Taylor writes in her latest book of being asked many years ago to speak at a church. When she asked what she was supposed to talk about, the "wise old priest" said to her, "Come tell us what is saving your life now." What is saving your life now? That's an interesting question. Maybe we should ask it to each other in our congregations.

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Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

One reason I enjoy writing these "musings" comes from the fact that I don't approach the lectionary readings in the same manner I do when I prepare a sermon or a Bible study. What I do is closer to lectio divina, where you simply read a text and let it draw you where it may. This means that I am sometimes drawn to something in a reading that isn't its central point, that may even have nothing to do with its main point. I wouldn't want to approach scripture this way all the time, but sometimes this method lets the Bible touch me in unexpected and rewarding ways.

When I read today's story in Mark about the paralyzed man whose friends lower him to Jesus through a hole in the roof, I was not drawn to the issue of Jesus first forgiving the man's sins and then healing him as proof of having such authority. And I didn't think about the great faith of this man's friends. Instead, I found myself reflecting on what it was that drew these people to Jesus.

The story does not tell us what these four men carrying a friend know about Jesus. It seems quite possible that they knew nothing of his teachings, perhaps nothing that he had said. But they certainly had heard that he could heal. They had heard that there was something about Jesus that restored people, that made them whole. Here was salvation in the biblical sense. Nothing about going to heaven when you die. This was about life.

And so it seems to me that if the Church is somehow the body of Christ, we should exude life. We should be all about becoming whole, about being restored to full and abundant living. But I know that I sometimes worry so much about getting things right - whether it's doing worship correctly or trying to improve a congregation's programs - that any sense of vibrant life can get obscured.

Surely the picture in the Bible of crowds flocking to Jesus is not a picture of people coming to make sure they have their doctrines straight. Rather they sensed a life giving power and presence that drew them in. Lord, help us as the living body of Christ, to be a life giving presence in the world.

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Monday, July 13, 2009

Communion Meditation, July 12

Sunday's worship focused on singing favorite hymns and songs, and so the sermon was replaced by a very brief communion mediation from 1 Corinthians 11:27-34. In this letter, Paul is upset with his Corinthian congregation because of divisions that have developed there. One is particularly troubling. When they gather in homes for worship, the well to do are arriving early and finishing off all the food and wine before the poorer members can arrive. Paul's insistence that they not eat the Lord's Supper without first "discerning the body" is sometimes thought to mean discerning Christ's presence in the bread and cup. But a quick look at the context shows that "the body" Paul speaks of here is the congregation, the Church.

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

In today's reading from Mark 1, Jesus does a whole lot of healing. In Mark, Jesus' ministry begins with him proclaiming the coming kingdom and calling disciples, but the focus seems to be much more on the healings. Initially, we hear very little about the content of Jesus' message.

I'm not sure if I should make anything of this or not. But it seems to me that when we think of sharing Jesus' message, we often think of beliefs and teachings first. Presbyterians may not employ that evangelical stereotype of asking strangers if they're saved, but I've had many Presbyterians tell me that they don't share their faith with others because they don't know it well enough. I presume that means they think faith sharing to be primarily about explaining doctrines and such.

But in the picture I get from reading today's gospel, Jesus simply heals everyone who is brought to him. No faith statements are required, no promises to join his movement, no donations to the cause.

Don't get me wrong. Doctrine has its place, and people of faith should be seeking to deepen their understanding. But reaching out to people who are in need or are hurting does not require any doctrinal expertise. And if congregations did more to help hurting people, I suspect a lot of them would want to talk with us about what made us care for them with no strings attached.

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Sunday, July 12, 2009

Sunday Communion Meditation

On a Sunday featuring a "hymn sing," this short meditation, drawn from 1 Corinthians 11:27-34, replaces the sermon. Paul is upset with his Corinthian congregation because of divisions that have developed there. One is particularly troubling. When they gather in homes for worship, the well to do are arriving early and finishing off all the food and wine before the poorer members can arrive. Paul's insistence that they not eat the Lord's Supper without first "discerning the body" is sometimes thought to mean discerning Christ's presence in the bread and cup. But a quick look at the context shows that "the body" Paul speaks of here is the congregation, the Church.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

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 opens Psalm 84. Compare that to the plea my siblings and I whined to our parents. "Do we have to go to church today?" I've heard the same from my own children, and I don't think this experience is unique to my family.

I don't want to press this too much, but I do wonder what separates the experience of the psalmist from so many worshipers. I suppose that in a culture which no longer puts any real pressure on people to attend worship, the fact that so many still attend says that some of them may feel more like the psalmist. But I still wonder if there is something about the way we do worship or construe church that makes the experience something many people can't imagine longing for. What do you think?

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Thursday, July 9, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

Today's gospel reading is the conclusion of Luke, where Jesus tells his followers to remain in Jerusalem until they are "clothed with power from on high." Then Jesus ascends into heaven. (These events are reported again, with more detail, at the start of Acts, the companion piece to Luke.) In his final words, Jesus is clear that "repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations."

I suspect that the intent of Jesus' words would be better served if the translation said all "peoples" or all "Gentiles." The Greek word ethnos carries those meanings and is often translated as such. Jesus' instructions do include the notion of missionaries going to new places, but just as importantly and perhaps more so, they are an emphatic statement that God's love and grace are offered to those once thought to be outside the boundaries of us and them.

Given this command from Jesus (see the similar command from Matthew 28:16-20 where the same word ethnos is again translated "nations"), it is perhaps surprising that the early church struggled so over the mission to the Gentiles. Read Paul's letter to the Galatians and you will see how intense this conflict became. Clearly even Jesus' closest companions struggled to do as he commissioned them to do. The boundaries of Jew and Gentile, us and them, we so much are part of them, they sometimes found themselves working against Jesus' command rather than for it.

Makes me wonder what boundaries that seem certain and unquestioned are at odds with the love Jesus has to share.

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Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Church as the World Sees It?

Brett, my colleague at Boulevard Church, is using this picture on a poster advertising a young adult event. Aside from the weird twin thing going on, what's with the clothes and the hair? Did someone actually think this looked good?

I wonder if a lot of congregations don't look a bit like this picture to the world, or at least to people who did not grow up in the church. After all, you can enter into many congregations on a Sunday morning to find things virtually unchanged from what took place there in the 1950s.

Of course many would argue that part of Christianity's strength lies in its traditions. That is certainly true. Hearing Scripture read, sharing the peace that comes from being loved and forgiven by God, joining together at the Lord's Table; these are all wonderful traditions that have sustained the Church over the centuries. But that is not to say that most everything going on during Sunday worship is tradition. Much of it merely custom, the way we do it. Customs are like clothing and hair. Styles come an go. I thought that silk shirt looked good when I bought it. By I cringe to see a picture of me in it now.

Customs and styles change. But sometimes we in congregations act as though our styles and customs of worship are eternal. We insist that the hymns we grew up with are a tradition, not a custom. Pastors are supposed to wear robes, and don't dare mess with the layout of the sanctuary.

I ran across this quote from Abraham Heschel the other day. "Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid. When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion, its message becomes meaningless."

Looking around this congregation, what part of us is genuine, Christian tradition bearing the truth of our faith, and what part is mere custom? Something to ponder.

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

Today's gospel reading tells the "Emmaus Road" story, where the risen Jesus joins a pair of his followers on the road. He walks with them and interprets the scriptures to them along the way, but they do not recognize him. When they stop for the evening they invite him to stay with them. At the table, Jesus "took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him."

The allusion to the "Last Supper" a few nights earlier is obvious. But what about this reenactment of that meal reveals Jesus to them? Over the years, a lot of doctrinal fussing and fighting has gone on over the meaning of the Lord's Supper, Eucharist, Communion, or whatever you choose to call it. Certainly this story argues for this meal to have an important, prominent place in Christian practice.

I don't want to discount a mystical, spiritual presence of Jesus in the meal. I believe this is a part of the sacrament. But I wonder if Luke is talking about that here. If I try to ignore the doctrinal issues about the meal and look just at this story, it is quite possible that Luke is not focusing at all on the mystical. Two elements are here that are prominent in the early Christian movement: hospitality and table fellowship.

The story tells us that the disciples have to urge Jesus "strongly" to stay with them. Without this hospitality, no meal would ever have happened. And the idea of table fellowship with others will become extremely important as the Church begins to reach out to Gentiles. And in the second half of the two volume work, Luke-Acts, the issue of table fellowship with those who do not adhere to Jewish dietary laws becomes a big issue.

This story can certainly be read in other ways, but it seems very much in keeping with Jesus' basic message to say that when radical hospitality welcomes strangers into close fellowship, Jesus' presence becomes known.

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Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

Most people go through times in their lives when everything seems to come unhinged. The situations that invite despair vary from person to person, but I dare say that some set of circumstances could drive anyone to wonder why the cosmos was coming unglued.

As a religious professional (I can identify myself as such because I get paid, not necessarily because I know what I'm doing), I am affected by the typical sorts of personal situations. But I also find that I can be terribly affected by religious goings on that don't really impact me directly. The "success" and appeal of prosperity gospel types such as Joel Osteen truly get under my skin. I am deeply troubled by politicians who invoke God's support but seem to understand little of the Bible's vision of a just society. And the fact that, in this so-called Christian nation, personal liberty generally trumps loving one's neighbor can drive me to the brink of despair.

I know that some Christians think it is a lack of faith to have doubts and to despair, but I seem to have a fair amount of company among the psalmists. Today's Psalm 12 is a case in point. "Help, O LORD, for there is no longer anyone who is godly; the faithful have disappeared from humankind." And it would seem that this pessimistic outlook is "Because the poor are despoiled, because the needy groan."

There are times when the psalms of lament resonate with me, but I am most struck by the faith that remains despite circumstances that make psalmists cry out, "How long, O Lord?" or "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" In times when everything around failed them, and even when God seems terribly absent, they still stake their trust in God. In my experience, I've seen this go both ways. When everything around them fails, some folks turn to God as their last hope. But sometimes folks give up on God. I've had my experiences in both directions.

If history is any guide, God's not going to wave any magic wand and set all things right, at least not in this age. And so I simply pray that when the people, institutions, and movements I hoped would make the world better fail and even betray me, I can trust that God remains faithful, and that in ways I may not be able to discern, God is somehow bending history toward God's intent.

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Monday, July 6, 2009

Sunday Sermon: "All God's Children: We Are All Witnesses"

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

In today's gospel reading, we find Luke's account of Jesus' death on the cross. Following his death we read, "Now there was a good and righteous man named Joseph, who, though a member of the council, had not agreed to their plan and action. He came from the Jewish town of Arimathea, and he was waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God. This man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then he took it down, wrapped it in a linen cloth, and laid it in a rock-hewn tomb where no one had ever been laid."

I've sometimes wondered why Luke feels the need to tell us about Joseph of Arimathea. Joseph is mentioned in Mark and Matthew as well, but only Luke adds that Joseph, a council member, had been against the plan to have Jesus executed. We really don't need to know about Joseph. Knowing that Jesus has been taken down from the cross and laid in a tomb would be enough to set the stage for the events of Easter morn. But Luke tells us about Joseph's objection the killing of Jesus and his donation of an expensive, pristine tomb.

Surely Joseph cannot have anticipated the resurrection. To this man who was "waiting expectantly for the kingdom," things must have seemed in terrible disarray. His attempts to help Jesus on the council had failed. If he had hoped that Jesus was bringing the kingdom, those hopes had been dashed. And so his actions in today's reading must have seemed pointless to some. Why care for the body of a condemned criminal? Why give him such an expensive tomb? There was nothing to gain from these actions, no points to be made, no rewards to be earned.

I suppose that Joseph acts as he does simply because he is "good and righteous." And perhaps his prominent place in Luke's gospel is a reminder to us that being good and righteous and expecting the kingdom are not about goals and objectives or achievable outcomes. They are not about measuring whether our actions will bring about some desired good. Sometimes we people of faith need to do the right thing simply because it is the right thing, and leave it to God what unexpected part we might play in revealing God's kingdom.

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Sunday, July 5, 2009

Sunday Sermon: "All God's Children: We Are All Witnesses"

From Acts 1:1-11; The multi-cultural, religiously plural world we now live in looks more and more like the world in the book of Acts. And Jesus' call to be his witnesses echoes down from that day to ours, pressing the question: What does it mean for us to be witnesses in a world that looks little like the one in which our congregation was born?

Sermon for July 5.mp3

Friday, July 3, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

The daily readings from Acts have followed the growing persecutions of the Christians, noting Saul's approving presence at the stoning of Stephen. In today's reading, Saul is described as "still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord." Saul gets authority from the high priest to go to Damascus and arrest any followers of Jesus he might find there.

Saul's encounter with Jesus while on the road to Damascus became so well known and revered in Christian circles that it gave rise to the phrase "Damascus road experience" to describe a dramatic, life and faith changing moment. But while any Christian might want to have such an experience, Saul certainly didn't seek his encounter.

This is a rather remarkable model of evangelism. Not only is there no human agent, but Saul is hardly an obvious convert. He is an enemy, and the usual model of dealing with enemies is to avoid them or get rid of them. But Jesus embraces his enemy (admittedly in rather dramatic fashion). And Saul, renamed Paul, will go on to be one of the great heroes of the faith.

It would seem that from Jesus' perspective, the worst sort of folks aren't beyond the reach of God's grace. And while this might give us pause when we want to write someone off, it also offers tremendous personal reassurance. If Jesus won't give up on Saul, surely he won't give up on us.

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Thursday, July 2, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

I suspect that many readers of today's story in Acts miss the surprising, radical nature of Philip baptizing the Ethiopian eunuch. Not only is this fellow a Gentile, but according to Scripture he could not be "admitted to the assembly of the LORD" (see Deuteronomy 23:1). Because he was a eunuch, he could not become a Jewish convert, and so his question to Philip, "Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?" is much more than a casual one. It raises issues of what the boundaries are in this new, Christian community.

In Isaiah 56, there is the promise that God's salvation will include those heretofore excluded, foreigners and even eunuchs. And now this event in Acts proclaims that God's salvation has indeed moved outside the boundaries set in the Law. And it seems to me that this raises real questions about the boundaries we might set today.

We humans seem to like "us and them" boundaries. We have boundaries of nation, ethnicity, politics, region, age, educational level, and gender, not to mention religion. But as Christians, we all are one in Christ. Today's reading from Acts speaks of the radical breaking down of boundaries. How are we Christians to live that out today? How might our faith communities bear witness to Christians unity rather than the conventional divisions of the world?

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Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

Today's gospel reading from Luke tells of Jesus on trial before Pilate and Herod. Even non Christians are generally aware that Jesus fared poorly before both of these powerful men. And like Jesus, the early Christians often found that those in power did not care for the people who followed the risen Jesus.

None of this is very surprising when you consider Jesus' teachings. Especially in Luke's gospel, the coming of Jesus is portrayed as a threat to the rich and powerful but a boon for the poor and outcast.

But when the Church became an established religion nearly 300 years after Jesus, much of that changed. Christianity was pressed into the service of empire, and the Church became a powerful institution. In the West, this situation persisted until very recent times. And the Church has often struggled to stay true to Jesus' teachings while exercising and protecting its considerable power. Sometimes the Church is a champion of the poor and the outcast, the lowly and the least. But other times the Church has wielded power, insisting on laws that favored it and demanding that its version of morality be enforced. Even in America, with its separation of Church and State, the Church often threw its weight around.

But the Church's power has been greatly eroded in the past few generations. And many denominations and congregations are struggling to find their way in this new landscape. Some would like to recover the implements of power. Some elements of the Christian Right espouse a return to the good old days when Christian belief and morality was coerced and enforced on society. But I can't help but think that the Church lost its way back in the time of Emperor Constantine, who made Christianity the Roman state religion because he thought Jesus had helped him win a great battle.

I wonder what the Church would look like if we abandoned all the trappings of power. I'm not suggesting that Christians shouldn't vote or influence public opinion, but what if we did this more in the manner of Jesus? What if we exhibited more loving concern for the lost and the broken, for the weak and the poor, and saved our harshest criticism for those who oppress, for self-righteous, self-serving religious leaders and institutions? I wonder what the Church would look like then.

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