Monday, August 31, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

I read Simon Critchley's op-ed piece, "Coin of Praise" in yesterday's NY Times just before I read today's lectionary texts. Here is a part of it. "To push this a little further, we might say that in the seemingly godless world of global finance capitalism, money is the only thing in which we really must have faith. Money is the one, true God in which we all believe. It is this faith that we celebrate in our desire for commodities, in the kind of fetishistic control that they seem to have over us. It’s not so much that we revere the things that money can buy. Rather, we venerate the money that enables us to buy those things. In the alluring display of shiny brands that cover the marketplace, it is not so much branded objects that we desire, but rather those objects insofar as they incarnate a quantifiable sum of money."

I found this rather thought provoking, especially in light of today's reading from James. "For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, 'Have a seat here, please,' while to the one who is poor you say, 'Stand there,' or, 'Sit at my feet,' have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?" James, along with Jesus, takes a fairly dim view of earthly riches and the efforts to acquire it. In one place Jesus goes so far as to say, "But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation." A "woe" is the opposite of a blessing, in essence, a curse.

Noted Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann has said that we chase so hard after money because we have bought into what he calls "the myth of scarcity" rather than trusting in generous provisions of a loving God. And while I would agree with those who say that some sort of capitalism is superior to any other economic system yet devised, it is not without significant problems and dangers. Whether it be the sort of blind faith in "the market" that allowed regulators, bankers, and financiers to drive the world's economy off the cliff, the tendency to value people based on how much money they have, or the idolatry of self that claims I am responsible for all that I have, unfettered capitalism is fraught with potential to corrupt both the individual and society.

I have watched with interest as the recent political debate has found a new boogieman, "socialism." Presumably we should all run screaming in horror from any notion of socialism because it is some innate form of evil. But of course Social Security and Medicare are "socialist" styled programs. And a quick read of Acts' description of the early Church will find a group that would conform to many definitions of socialism.

It seems to me that in tough economic times our anxieties and fears grow. In such a climate, the "myth of scarcity" becomes all the more attractive, and we are driven to protect what is ours. But perhaps such tough times could also be a call for us to examine ourselves and see where our true faith lies; in money, in ourselves, or in the gracious promises of abundant life freely giving by God.

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Sunday, August 30, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

Two Sundays in a row absent worship at Boulevard Presbyterian seems quite odd. But I've made good use of this week, getting a significant amount of a Bible study on Revelation written. I mention this because one of today's psalms reminded me of Revelation's depiction of the heavenly throne room. There was lots of worship filled with lots of singing. Psalm 66 has a similar feel. "Make a joyful noise to God, all the earth; sing the glory of his name; give to him glorious praise. Say to God, 'How awesome are your deeds! Because of your great power, your enemies cringe before you.' "

It's amazing how much singing of this sort is in Revelation. I suppose I've rarely noticed because, like many mainline Christians, I have a tendency to ignore the last book of the Bible, which unfortunately leaves this book in the hands of irresponsible and even dangerous interpreters. But Revelation isn't really a book of predictions. It is a call for Christians facing persecution and even death to continue embracing Psalm 66 despite all that. John of Patmos insists that his readers not accommodate their faith to Roman culture, but to trust that God is indeed the Lord of all the earth. Despite their fears, they should live and worship in ways that proclaim the God worshiped in Psalm 66.

I'm not sure that much of the worship I lead really appreciates this, but Revelation and probably Psalm 66 see worship as more "real" that the "real world" outside of worship. The heavenly worship depicted in Revelation is totally focused on God and the Lamb. And this is precisely the world we pray for when we ask for God's kingdom to come and will to be done on earth as it is
already done in heaven. In other words, worship that is totally focused on God enacts what it will be like when the kingdom comes, enacts the fulfillment of human history.

And so perhaps the biggest question when it comes to how best to do worship is: How do we become so radically centered on God that we cannot help but offer thanks and praise and song? So how do we do that?

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Friday, August 28, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

In today's gospel, Jesus' arrest is drawing near and the tells his followers, "You will all become deserters; for it is written, 'I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.' " But Peter insists otherwise. "Even though all become deserters, I will not." And even Jesus' prediction that Peter will deny him three times cannot shake Peter's insistence, nor that of the other disciples. " 'Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.' And all of them said the same."

Peter's arrogance has always struck me as a bit laughable. And yet I often engage in an arrogance of my own. I find it all too easy to see the shortcomings in others' faith lives while minimizing my own. I don't know if this is a particular problem for pastors or if it's just me. But to paraphrase Jesus' criticism of the Pharisees, it's easy to see the speck in another person's eye while missing the log in my own.

Does my ability to overlook my own faults rise to the level exhibited by Peter in today's reading? I'd like to think not. But it certainly is nice to know that even Peter's threefold denial of Jesus did not cost him his disciple's credentials. The risen Jesus still embraced him. I'm counting on that.

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Thursday, August 27, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

Today's gospel contains Mark's account of "the Last Supper." This community meal became the centerpiece of Christian gatherings in the 1st century Church. I certainly had no appreciation for this fact growing us. I rarely saw what my tradition called "communion." We had communion four times a year. As a small child, it was both exotic and mysterious to me. The mysterious nature was compounded by the fact that I wasn't allowed to actually partipate in communion until I was middle school age.

Most Presbyterian churches celebrate the Lord's Supper more frequently nowadays, but I think we still struggle to recover any real sense of a community meal. Much of American, Protestant worship is highly personal and individualized. We gather with other people, but
often we're still very much alone. It's similar to attending a movie or concert. Others are there, but we're not really there with them. Perhaps I'm overstating the situation a bit, but I think the analogy is appropriate.

In my childhood experience, church covered-dish suppers and picnics probably came a lot closer to the feel of 1st century Lord's Suppers than anything I experienced in worship. And I'm left to wonder why the congregations I've known find it easier to experience community outside of worship rather than in it.

When Jesus was about to leave his followers, he did not hold a class or preach a sermon. He gathered them together for a Passover meal, and this meal that celebrated God's salvation in the Exodus was reinterpreted to celebrate the new saving act of God in Christ. And I continue to wonder how we might better reclaim the community nature of friends and family gathered at table that is so integral to this celebration.

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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

In today's gospel reading, a tension that still exists in the church is on display. When a woman pours a jar of incredibly expensive ointment on Jesus (it was worth nearly a year's pay), some folks grumble about the extravagance, complaining that the money could have been better used to help the poor. I've heard similar arguments in congregations when some want to build a beautiful sanctuary and others say that the money would be better used to do ministry for those in need.

Jesus' response has troubled many over the years. "For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me." But there is no callousness toward the poor here, and I'm not sure if there's much general guidance contained in these words. Jesus' death on the cross is drawing near, and, as he says, this sort of opportunity for extravagance will soon cease to exist.

And so we are left with this tension between caring for others and displays made to honor God. Or perhaps not. One of the things I've discovered in my time as a pastor is that generous people tend to be generous on both sides of this tension. The same folks who give extravagantly to renovate the sanctuary often give sacrificially to fund mission.

Now I am aware of people who want to build sanctuaries as monuments to themselves. Perhaps this provides a key for dealing with this tension. Presumably the woman in the gospel reading engages in her extravagant act without ulterior motives. It is simply an act of love on her part. As Christians, we are called to love God and love neighbor. Perhaps if our extravagances can always be rooted in this love, we can live faithfully in the midst this tension.

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Sunday, August 23, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

I was struck by the opening line of today's Old Testament reading before I ever got to the particulars of the situation. "Again the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel..." I admit that I find such lines in Scripture troubling, as well as difficult to reconcile with my own image of a loving God. Although I am convinced that all our pictures of God are partial and incomplete, it can still be difficult to hold together some of the seemingly contradictory pictures of God found in the Bible.

On the one hand, these varied pictures of God do serve to overturn the God I create in my own image. They force me to see a God who is bigger than any image of mine, and who is beyond my ability to fully comprehend. And yet...

I suppose my struggle with this raises the issue of how one approaches, receives, and interprets Scripture. I've never thought of Scripture as being dictated by God, by I do firmly believe that it is inspired, that it reveals God to us in ways we could never discover on our own. But what exactly does it mean for something to be divinely inspired? How much of the writers' biases and preconceptions about God's nature mix in with this revelation?

Do the opening words of today's reading speak of a God who gets mad, who in anger lashes out at humans? Are an ancient writer's notions of God coloring these reports of what happens when people live contrary to God's desires? Difficult questions, but are they rendered moot in a day when fewer and fewer people view Scripture as authoritative? And is my own discomfort with
"Again the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel..." indicative of my own inability to accept scritpural authority over the idol of personal feelings?

Whew! Lots of questions without easy answers. No wonder some go the route of fundamentalism and others the route of "spiritual but not religious." But I guess I'll keep muddling along somewhere in between.

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Saturday, August 22, 2009

We're all Hindus?

This fascinating little piece from Newsweek points out that many beliefs of American Christians aren't Christian at all, at least not the biblical Christianity of our ancestors. Even evangelical Christians stray fairly far from traditionally held, biblical views. Reincarnation anyone?

Click here to read the article.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Sunday Sermon - "All God's Children: It Comes via Strangers"

When Jesus sends out 70 of his followers, they are told to cure the sick in those towns that welcome them. It seems that encountering the good news of God's coming rule requires loving the stranger.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

The exchange between Jesus and a blind beggar in today's gospel reading has always struck me as a bit odd. The man hears that Jesus is passing by and he repeatedly screams out, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!" despite the attempts of some to shut him up. When Jesus calls him over he runs to Jesus and this conversation occurs. " 'What do you want me to do for you?' The blind man said to him, 'My teacher, let me see again.' Jesus said to him, 'Go; your faith has made you well.' Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way."

A blind man begging for mercy, and Jesus has to ask him what he wants? But as soon as the blind man states the obvious, Jesus says, "Go; your faith has made you well." (The word here translated "made well" is often translated "save.") So just what was the content of this man's faith, that he hoped Jesus might be able to help him? That he was bold enough to state the thing he so desperately wanted?

Christians (and members of other religions) sometimes refer to ourselves as "people of faith," but just what we mean by faith isn't always clear. Is is believing the correct things? Is it trusting in God? Is it hoping when hope is difficult? Is it taking a chance on God? Is it turning to God when all else has failed?

Today's gospel reading doesn't offer a precise answer. But it does say that this faith makes us well, makes us whole, saves us, and when we experience this, we follow Jesus on the way.

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Thursday, August 13, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

Today's reading from Acts reports the arrest of Paul, which sets in motion events that will eventually take him to Rome and, presumably, to his execution. His arrest happens following a mob scene at the Temple after some Jews accuse Paul of defiling the Temple. It isn't clear just who these Asian Jews are, but it is entirely possible that some of them are Christian Jews. Read the letters written by Paul and you will get an idea how strained his relations were with some Jewish Christians who insisted that all converts be circumcised, adopt Jewish dietary restrictions, and so on.

The fact that the accusations against Paul are made up of lies, half-truths, and misunderstandings makes no difference. The crowd is whipped into such a frenzy that soldiers arrest Paul, and when the tribune attempts to make sense of the situation, "Some in the crowd shouted one thing, some another; and as he could not learn the facts because of the uproar, he ordered him to be brought into the barracks." Sound familiar?

Given what trouble mobs cause in Bible - Paul has been beaten before by enraged mobs, and, of course, a mob helps get Jesus crucified - you would think that Christians would be extremely wary of them. Yet we've participated in quite a few over the years. Whether it's witch trials or pogroms against European Jews, Christian mobs have had the same sort of disastrous results as those in the Bible. And yet I see all sorts of people who clearly consider themselves Christians engaging in what looks a lot like mob mentality at "town halls" to discuss health care reform.

While I'm quite certain that Christians of deep faith can hold many different views on health care that are in keeping with that faith, when Christians start acting like mobs, they are not following the ways of Christ, but the win-at-all-costs ways of the world. Mobs and love are pretty much incompatible, and above all, Christians are called to love God and to love our neighbors, even the ones we think are enemies.

Have Americans become so partisan, so selfish and narcissistic, as to make both democracy and Christian discipleship hard to envision? Lord, save us from ourselves!

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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

The several versions of today's gospel reading have led people to speak of "the rich young ruler" even though no such person appears in the gospels. In Mark (our reading for today) he is simply "a man." In Matthew he is "the young man," and in Luke he is "a certain ruler."

This story is a difficult one for many of us, for most of us are certainly rich by the standards of Jesus' day. That's probably why people often disparage this fellow who came to Jesus asking what he should do to inherit eternal life. They presume he must have been unusually greedy, or they think his answer to Jesus about keeping the Law since his youth to be arrogant. But in fact, the Apostle Paul describes his own keeping of the Law the same way. In Jewish thinking of the time, to have "kept all these since my youth" does not claim perfection. It means that a person has diligently tried to keep the Law and has asked for forgiveness when he faltered. And the story says nothing about the man being greedy.

And if there is any question as to how to view this fellow, Mark's gospel states, "Jesus, looking at him, loved him." Jesus' command, "Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me," is not a way of catching some religious hypocrite. It is the one thing this man lacks and that Jesus wishes for him.

Just as many of us do today, people in Jesus' time assumed that riches were a sign of God's blessings. But here Jesus speaks of them as a curse, a curse that I and many others pursue nonetheless. I check my stock portfolio online most days, happy when it goes up in value and grumbling when it goes down. Obviously I have a hard time accepting what Jesus says. "Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God."

If Jesus ever said to me,
"Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me," would I be able to do it? I wonder if I'm poor enough to say "Yes."

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Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

These words of Jesus are familiar to many. "Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. " What these words mean is another issue. What is it about little children that make them especially suited to the kingdom of God?

Some of the more popular answers are probably off the mark. Notions of children as sweet, cute, and innocent are relatively modern ideas, not shared by Jesus' original listeners. If modern, romantic notions of childhood are put aside, what is Jesus saying?

As hard as it may be for us to imagine in our child focused culture, children in Jesus' day had no status. They were virtual non-entities with no say or control over their lives. In essence, they were property that belonged to their fathers. And it's likely that Jesus is not using the image of a child in a positive sense. In fact, had Jesus first come to earth today, he would likely have used a different example, perhaps a homeless person.

None of this is all that appealing to me. I want power, at least over my own life. I want to be in control. Yet Jesus says the kingdom belongs to people without power or control. I don't know. I want God's help in my life, but I still want to be in charge.

I wonder what it would look like for me to become more "child like" in the sense Jesus is saying.

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Monday, August 10, 2009

Sunday Sermon - "All God's Children: Invisible Jesus"

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

Today's gospel reading can't be many people's favorite. Jesus says, "If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire."

It helps a little bit to realize how important hyperbole was in Hebrew and Middle Eastern thought and speech. Our culture is much more literal, and we tend not to be as adept at handling metaphor and imagery. Jesus doesn't expect anyone to cut off her hand. Rather, Jesus is talking about prioritizing, about a kind of single-mindedness when it comes to the life of discipleship.

Jesus presumes that there are things in life that get in the way, that distract us from living as we should. This is hardly an earth shattering notion, as anyone trying to lose weight or undertake a workout regimen can attest. The ice cream in the freezer calls and the blankets implore you to stay in bed a little longer rather than getting up for that run. Health and fitness require pushing those distractions aside.

Jesus speaks to two different sorts of distractions or stumbling blocks. (The Greek word for "stumble" is the root of our word "scandalize.") The first is when we trip up someone else, especially "little ones" which is used in the New Testament to refer to people who are new to the faith. Think of all the people who have been "turned off" to Church because of the actions of people in the Church. From general hypocrisy to unfriendliness to strangers, to overbearing moralism, there are a plethora of things that have tripped up little ones along the way. Strange that most folks I've talked to are more offended by the second sort of distraction Jesus talks about.

Perhaps the sound of cutting off one's hand just jars us. Maybe because we're so individualistic in our culture, this second sort of distraction is simply more up our alley. Or maybe it's that we have come to believe that the good life mean having it all, and we're troubled by this notion that we might need to give something up to be a part of what Jesus is up to.

In recent days I've watched news reports about the failure of a local school levy, and the fighting about health care reform. And in much that I've heard, I think I detect an inability by many folks to think communally, about the good of the other. And I've also heard people who obviously want the Medicare that they enjoy, want the goods and services that the government provides them, but rage against health care or other services they don't use. They seem unable to see beyond "how does this affect me?" and they seem completely unwilling to give up anything.

Maybe the reason Jesus' words bother us so has nothing to do with the offensive notion of self mutilation. Maybe we just don't like him telling us that the call to live by the ways of God's coming reign might mean some things we like or want might have to be pared.

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Sunday, August 9, 2009

Sunday Sermon - "All God's Children: Invisible Jesus"

After the disciples argue about influence, about who's most important, Jesus plops a child down in their midst. Children in that day were regarded as non-entities, unimportant and invisible. And Jesus says that welcoming the unimportant and invisible is how we welcome him, and so welcome God.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

O sing to the LORD a new song;
Sing to the LORD, all the earth. (Psalm 96:1)

What's wrong with old songs? Why do we have to sing a new one? I vaguely recall watching a movie on the life of Peter Marshall on our TV when I was a child. At the time I didn't know that he was a famous preacher, and I don't remember very much about the movie. But I do recall a scene where he was struggling at some outdoor event early in his career, and the situation was salvaged when someone fired up the crowd by getting them to sing "Gimme that Old Time Religion." It wasn't a song I knew, but it had lines that went, "It was good enough for Hebrew children; it was good enough... And it's good enough for me."

We recently did a "hymn survey" in my congregation so we would have a good list of favorites to use for a "hymn sing" Sunday worship service. A few favorites were relatively new songs, but most were oldie goldies. I don't know, but I suspect that for many these favorites come from folk's childhood and youth, songs that were part of their Christian formation. Music is a very emotional part of life, and many of us have music both religious and secular that can immediately transport us to another time and place, that can conjure up all sorts of memories.

So what's wrong with old songs? Nothing. We need to sing old songs. We need connection to the traditions that have sustained faith over the years and centuries. But as the psalmist knows, we need new songs, too. A God who is "making all things new" can never be fully expressed using only the old and traditional. Our faith is aimed toward a "new heaven and a new earth," and it cannot be fully contained in what was "good enough" for some previous time.

A vital, lively faith must cast its vision in two directions, toward
both the past and the future. Traditions from the past form a foundation for us so that we can continue to move toward God's future. And as we catch glimpses of that new day, we will need to "sing to the LORD a new song."

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Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

"The country's going to pot." No doubt you've heard such sentiments expressed. Perhaps you've even felt that way yourself at times. I know I have. But apparently things have been going south for a long time. Consider the opening of Psalm 12.

Help, O LORD, for there is no longer anyone who is godly; the faithful have disappeared from humankind. They utter lies to each other; with flattering lips and a double heart they speak.

Clearly there are times in any people's history when things are going relatively well, and there are times when they are less so. There are times when a people display what Abraham Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature," and there are times when we display our worst, when we are petty, greedy, self absorbed, and apparently devoid of ethics and morality.

But even if we have reason think our time is a bad one, that does not mean all is lost. I have often been struck by how people of faith can be some of the most pessimistic folks. They can be sure that doom and gloom are just around the corner because of our failings. It's as though they believe that we have the ultimate say.

The psalmist knows better. Despite the pessimistic assessment of a world where "the faithful have disappeared," the psalmist still trusts the God "will rise up," that "the promises of the LORD are promises that are pure."

My own Reformed Tradition has always emphasized the sovereignty of God, but we often seem to forget about it. But when we remember that this is God's world, and God is sovereign over time and history, we can trust that despite very real troubles, God's purposes will be worked out.

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Monday, August 3, 2009

Sunday Sermon - "All God's Children: Acting Neighborly"

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

The opening words of today's psalm are hardly startling.

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 idea of God as absolute sovereign, as the one in whom our hopes ultimately rest, is basic to Christianity as well as Judaism and Islam. And what person of faith would argue with it? God is our rock, a mighty fortress.

But in practice most of us don't want to leave all that much up to God. We may entrust God with our salvation when that term is defined very narrowly to mean what happens to us after we die. But when it comes to most everything else in life, our theology often runs more along the lines of "God helps those who help themselves." A lot of people think that quote is from the Bible. It isn't. And while I think the Bible expects us to do our part, I think that this theology really expects very little of God and trusts mostly in ourselves.

I know that I have trouble really trusting God. I struggle with how to integrate God into my daily life. Like a lot of folks, I find it easy to let God be a God of the gaps, filling in those places where I don't have answers or need a little help. But really trusting in God to set things right, to bring salvation, not some "pie in the sky by and by" type salvation, but the biblical sort that is real, earthy, and tangible? I have more trouble with that.

I think this highlights one of the difficulties for mainline Christians in an era when the culture has stopped supporting us. One of the reasons most traditional Christian denominations are loosing members is because, for many folks, what we're selling seems so disconnected from day to day living.

What does is it mean to wait for God, to trust in God alone for salvation, when salvation means more than life after death?

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Sunday, August 2, 2009

Sunday Sermon - "All God's Children: Acting Neighborly"

The parable of The Good Samaritan is Jesus' answer to, "And who is my neighbor?" To a questioner looking for the limits and boundaries of who he must love, Jesus tells a story of a hated outsider who loves abundantly. And then Jesus says, "Go and do likewise."