Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

"O sing to the LORD a new song;
sing to the LORD, all the earth.
Sing to the LORD, bless his name;
tell of his salvation from day to day."

It is easy for me to get caught up in trying to do faith and live the Christian life in a manner that gets things just right. I want to make sure I understand what this passage of Scripture or that one really means. I want to figure out just what it asks me to do. I want to examine my life and see where I'm getting it right and where I need to change. Certainly there is a place for this, but sometimes I need simply to cut loose and worship.

I was watching the Ken Burns film on our National Parks last night as they showed footage of the Grand Canyon. And there was one quote about how when the Creator made it, God created no sufficient word to describe it. One is simply left awed and can only marvel, and perhaps worship.

I don't necessarily mean "going to church" on Sunday. I include that, but I am talking about simply being overwhelmed by the wonder, majesty, and goodness of God to the point that all I can do is praise, sing, and say "Thank you, thank you!"

I come from generations of Presbyterians, and sometimes we worship mostly with our heads. It is good sometimes to remember the heart, to do worship that is like responding to seeing the Grand Canyon.

Praise the Lord!
How good it is to sing praises to our God;
for he is gracious, and a song of praise is fitting.

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Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

Today's gospel reading contains some seemingly unrelated sayings of Jesus as the "Sermon on the Mount" nears its end. These instructions end with Jesus saying, "In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets." This line doesn't garner the attention lavished on Jesus' later statement about the "greatest commandment:" loving God with your whole being and loving neighbor as self. But the same summary about this being the essence of "the law and the prophets" is found both places.

For Jews, including the Jew named Jesus, "the law and the prophets" included the bulk of scripture and encompassed the whole of righteous living. And while Christians sometimes want to reduce faith to what someone believes, Jesus insists that he does not invalidate the law, but rather fulfills it. Jesus seems to presume that his followers will continue to embrace the law, even if it is reinterpreted through his life and teaching.

And so Jesus tells his followers, not once but twice, that treating others as we would like to be treated is a reliable guide to living as God's law demands. How wonderfully simple, and how terribly difficult. Not only do my needs often override Jesus' instruction -- if I'm in a big hurry I may not stop to help a stranded motorist even though I would want someone to stop for me -- but I also tend to cut myself a lot more slack than I do others.

As a pastor I find it easy to get frustrated with church members who don't volunteer for the wonderful projects or activities that the leadership has planned. But of course I don't do that much volunteering of my own. "I'm too busy at the church," I say. As though the busyness of my job is more important than the busy lives others lead. And it is easy to presume that the people I disagree with are motivated by greed or selfishness while my beliefs and opinions come, of course, from only the purist of motives.

I wonder if the best way to pursue the righteousness Jesus recommends might not be to focus on enemies, strangers, and those I disagree with. Maybe if I could treat them as I want to be treated, then I might come close to living as Jesus calls me to live.

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Monday, September 28, 2009

Sunday Sermon

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

Today's psalm begins, "For God alone my soul waits in silence." And the gospel reading opens with Jesus saying, "Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?" Focused on God alone with no worries; now that sounds like bliss.

One of the prominent schools of thought in church leadership encourages pastors to practice something called "non-anxious presence." This means that you are to be fully present or engaged in the issues that your congregation or committee or board is dealing with, but you are not supposed to let the anxieties surrounding these issues affect how you respond. In theory it is wonderful, but in practice it can be terribly difficult. I can be non-anxious fairly easily if I remain detached and unengaged. But when I begin to give myself fully to the situation, I often have a hard time keeping those anxieties at bay.

I may have gotten a tiny bit better at non-anxious presence after years of trying, but for me, this is less a proficiency issue and more a faith one. Too often I am tempted to think that "success" or "failure" as a church leader is primarily about my competency. But if it's all about my competency, or lack thereof, then what room do I allow for the Spirit to move in the congregation? If it's all about my proficiency, what is faith about?

In a success and results
oriented culture, pastors, just like many others, can view their self worth as a matter or what they have accomplished rather than how faithful they are. We are called to live out our faith, and so what we do matters. But we are also called to trust in God's providence. Integrating and balancing faith and human effort may just be one of the most difficult practices of Christian living.

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Sunday, September 27, 2009

No sermon but a busy day!

I didn't preach today in what has become our regular rotation here. (I'll post a video of Brett's sermon here tomorrow.) However, I did a funeral for a dear member just a bit ago. I've never done many Sunday funeral services. I suppose that funeral homes and cemetaries frown on such things. But having a funeral service on "the Day of Resurrection" seems entirely fitting. And in this time when more people are doing cremations, when services don't necessarily need to be on a "work day" for funeral homes and cemeteries, I wonder if Sunday funerals might become more frequent.

Funerals are an intriguing part of the pastor business. For some reason I've recently run across a number of articles and a new book by Tom Long on Christian funerals. To be honest, I've always wondered about some funeral traditions. Why, for instance, do so many church members opt to have a family member's funeral service at the funeral home rather than at the church sanctuary? I'm happy to be of help at either locale. I simply wonder why a church member would prefer the non-church setting.

But while I do sometimes wonder about funeral customs and the like, I should add that funerals are often places where that I most feel like I have helped or comforted someone. People often seem genuinely appreciative of a pastor's efforts at a funeral. I suppose that's why I've heard more than one pastor utter, "I'd rather do five funerals than do one wedding." But that's a different conversation.

In the sure and certain hope of the resurrection, we commend to Almighty God our sister, Betsy.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

Today's reading from Matthew is always one of the readings for Ash Wednesday. I've always thought it a bit strange to read Jesus' words warning against "practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them" at a service where people go out with a cross clearly marked in ashes on their foreheads. (Some congregations take note of this situation by encouraging people to wash off their crosses before going out in public.)

Of course Jesus also says things such as, "Let your light shine before others, so they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven." It seems that the issue is motivation. What drives people to be public about their faith?

If you look at church signs, you will no doubt notice that a fair number of churches are named after someone. As a seminary student I did my internship at Howard Memorial church. That was a second name for this congregation, a change prompted by the Howard family donating the money to build a sanctuary. I even know of a William and Mary Hart Presbyterian Church. Usually you can only get your last name on the sign.

Now I have no idea if the Harts wanted the church named for them or not. Perhaps is was done posthumously to honor what had been lives of humble and dedicated service. Or perhaps they gave money on the condition of it being named for them. I'm hoping it's the former.

What motivates us to do what we do in the name of faith? Many churches, mine included, are moving into their "Stewardship Season," and this always raises questions of why people do or don't give. What lies behind our giving, our service, our worship, our private devotion, the way we act toward others, and on and on. I suppose that the answers we give say a lot about who we really are, and how we understand that our lives are lived to and in the presence of God.

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Creation & Evolution - Faith & Science

Join us this Sunday at 10:00 a.m. for the second in a three part class that examines if there really is a conflict between science and religion. Do the creation accounts in Genesis mean that Christians can't believe in evolution? What sort of book is the Bible and just where is it authoritative for people of faith? Join the discussion this Sunday and next as we continue to explore these questions.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

Today's gospel reading in Matthew has Jesus' famous words about turning the other cheek, which means to offer your left cheek to the person who has struck you on the right. Jesus not only commands an ethic of non-violence for his followers, but he goes on to say, "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." Jesus says that if we love only those who love us, we are no different from anyone else in the world. Only by loving those who hate us can we become more like Jesus, more like God.

A common biblical refrain calls for the people of God to be distinct from the world. Sometimes this has been construed as disdain and separation from the world, but mostly it is about being a light to the world, an example of another way, the Way of Jesus, the Way of the cross, the Way of God's coming dominion.

Perhaps because Americans so long thought of this as a "Christian country," we lost our appreciation for this call to be an example, a light to world, a distinct community that embodied God's Way rather that the world's way. And while I would be lying if I said the decline of the American church and of my denomination didn't bother me, I can't help but think we are being given a new opportunity to rediscover this call for Jesus.

Now if I could just find the allure of the world a little less captivating.

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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

You know, sometimes I think I'd be a lot happier, and being a Christian would be a lot easier, if the Bible was a pamphlet instead the voluminous work that it is. And couldn't we have just one gospel? Even better if the picture of Jesus in that gospel was perfectly consistent, with no room for questions or interpretation regarding what it means to follow him. But as it is, we have Jesus forgiving those who crucify him in Luke. But in today's reading from Matthew Jesus not only demands that people cannot fool around, but that they cannot even think about it.

The fact is that I like some of the portraits of Jesus in the Bible better than others. And I tend to hang those on the walls of my life and put the others in the basement somewhere. And from what I can tell, I'm far from alone on this. But if God's inspiration and providence were in any way responsible for the Bible that we do have (as I assume they were), then apparently we are meant to wrestle with those images of Jesus and God and faithful life that are not our favorites.

In fact, I've come to believe that the complexities of Scripture, including those passages that we find appalling or unfathomable, serve to shake any arrogance we might have about getting God all figured out. And they keep rattling and shattering those all too comfortable images of God and faith we construct for ourselves. I think it was C. S. Lewis who called God a "great iconoclast," who allows us to seize on images that draw us closer to God, but then shatters those images so that we have to keep moving closer and closer to the divine whom we can never fully comprehend.

Not the way I would have done it. But then again, it's probably just as well that I'm not God.

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Monday, September 21, 2009

Sermon for Sept. 20 - "Wisdom from Above"

Sunday Sermon - "w

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

I've always loved the story of Naaman, the Syrian commander whose leprosy is healed by Elisha. The Bible has quite a few healing stories, but what fascinates me about these verses (2 Kings 5:1-19) is the "unimportant" people without whom this healing would never have occurred.

Naaman learns that he might be healed from the words of a slave girl who was captured by one of Naaman's raiding parties into Israel. But although a slave has directed him to Israel, Naaman still thinks in the ways of the rich and powerful. And so he carries all sorts of treasure, along with a letter of recommendation from the King of Aram, to the King of Israel. Anything so significant as a healing surely runs through kingly avenues of power.

But things don't go at all as Naaman had expected. Not only is Israel's king not in command of such events, but Naaman is unimpressed by the prophet Elisha's instructions for healing. And once again servants have to step in and convince Naaman to do a task he assumes is too menial to go with a healing. And even after he is actually healed, he still thinks in terms of tribute, of treasure offered in payment. But Elisha will accept none.

I'm still inclined to view things a little like Naaman. Despite the fact of Jesus, a Savior and King far from any palace, who went to the poor and the outcast, who was, according to Paul, "God's power made perfect in weakness," I still expect God to operate through proper channels.

I wonder how often I miss the healing, life-changing power of God because it comes it ways I don't expect, shows up in places I assume it wouldn't go, and is revealed through the most unexpected sorts of folks.

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Sunday, September 20, 2009

Sept. 20 sermon: "Wisdom from Above"

James 3:13--4:3, 7,8 says that when Christians share in the divisions and conflicts typical of the world, we are devilish, unspiritual, and not from above. But when God is with us we have a wisdom that is from above, that "is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits..." How different that sounds from much of the partisan rancor engulfing our country. Yet often people on both sides claim to be motivated by faith.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

Today's verses from the "Sermon on the Mount" in Matthew are some of the more well know words from Jesus. They're often called "The Beatittudes" from the Latin for "blessed," which has led to some unfortunate word plays such as "the be-happy attitudes." But this list is not a self-help guide to happiness. It is a surprising list of those whom God favors, who are aligned with the ways of the kingdom. While the list is often spiritualized (and even Matthew seems to have done this with the blessing on the "poor in spirit, see Luke 6:20), these are not "attitudes" for the most part but concrete conditions of life.

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers,for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."

Most people don't think of mourning, being persecuted, or longing for the world to be set right (the meaning of hungering and thirsting for righteousness) as particularly blessed states. And our culture clearly doesn't think that meekness leads to anything good. Jesus' beatitudes embrace people the world views as not particularly fortunate, as not particularly blessed. And these blessing clearly set apart the ways of God's dominion from the ways of the world.

One of the perpetual problems for all religions is that they tend to get "domesticated" over time. Christianity is no different, and when it went mainstream all those centuries ago, it gradually lost a lot of its radical edge. And when it became the official religion in the West, too often it moved from challenging the ways of the world to supporting them. It may well have softened its world a bit, but it was softened as well.

From time to time we all need to take a good look at what Jesus actually said and stood for, to look at the ways we have made his hard words easy. From time to time the Church needs to be reborn in the image of God's reign, shedding the image of the world we have embraced. And I wonder if the loss of prestige and influence by mainline denominations such as my own may be something to celebrate and embrace rather than mourn. Perhaps these are an opportunity given us by God to rediscover who we are really called to be.

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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

I am intrigued by the way Jesus' proclamation of "the good news" is linked with healing the sick. Far too many Christians relegate the "good news" to what happens when they die, but Jesus' ministry seems to say otherwise. He spends a great deal of time dealing with concrete, physical ailments. Today's gospel is a good example. "Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them."

Over the years, many Christians have emulated Jesus through the work of medical missionaries and other health related ministries. There are more than a few Presbyterian hospitals in this country, along with many founded by other denominations. And all of this makes me wonder why some Christians are so outraged at talk of health care reform.

Health care is an extremely complex issue, and figuring out how best to fix our health care system is a huge challenge. Still, it is a fact that many of our fellow citizens, especially those toward the bottom of the economic ladder, receive woeful health care in a nation where the best services are available. And given that these are the very sorts of folks that Jesus ministered to, you would think that Christians would be in agreement that our faith calls us to help such folks. We might not agree on specifics of a particular plan, but any sort of "What would Jesus do?" test surely precludes the stance I've heard from some opposed to reform. Saying, "I'm happy with the insurance I've got, so leave it alone," is another way of saying, "My needs matter more than my neighbors." Hardly the message Jesus preached.

"And they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them." Jesus cured "all" of them, not just the ones who had good jobs, not just the ones who were deserving, but all of them. I don't know how to fix health care, but I'm sure Jesus weeps for all the people in this country, and in the world, who could be healed but aren't.

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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

I was struck by the opening of this morning's psalm. "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."

I think these words grabbed me because of something I read yesterday in Barbara Brown Taylor's book, An Altar in the World. She told of meeting someone at a mosque where she takes her college religion class for a field trip of sorts. This woman shared how difficult it had been for her to adopt the prayer practice of bowing to the floor five times each day. She had struggled to "stand up for herself," and assuming this subservient pose seemed like regressing in some way.

We Presbyterians don't do much bowing, but I wonder if we wouldn't do well to try the practice, if for nothing more than to wrestle with the same issues as this Muslim woman. It might help us to put some flesh on the words of the psalm, to come before God as a servant approaches a master.

I think that much of the time I approach faith from a different viewpoint. God has something I may want and I'm looking to get it. I'm not really interested in a master, someone who tells me what to do. Trouble is, that makes if very difficult to respond when Jesus says, "Take up your cross and follow me."

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Monday, September 14, 2009

Sermon for Sept. 13 - Who Is Jesus?

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

In the opening of 1 Corinthians Paul writes, "Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe's people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters."

"For it has been reported to me...that there are quarrels among you." Wow, quarrels and division in a congregation. That's a real shocker. I can't begin to recall all the times I've heard someone say, "The worst fights are church fights." I might take some solace in the fact that faith must be very important to people in order to fight about it. But one of the others sayings I've heard frequently is, "The worst church fights are over the color of the carpet." Oh well.

The fights in the Corinthian church weren't about carpet. Some of the folks there like Apollos better than Paul and that had caused a rift. This also seems to have been a very exuberant congregation, and they apparently tried to outdo one another in developing spiritual gifts, with a special emphasis on more exotic gifts such as speaking in tongues. They thought such gifts a sign of their spiritual maturity, but Paul considers their spiritual competitions a sign of their childishness.

If you read Paul's letters, it is clear that he engages in some pretty heated arguments of his own with other Christians. So Paul probably doesn't mean, "Can't we all just get along?" Rather, Paul sees the divisions and quarrels in Corinth arising because of a self-centeredness that fails to keep the needs of one's neighbor always paramount.

I am a very competitive person by nature. I love to win, whether it's sports or a debate. Sometimes this is relatively harmless. But others times it can poison discussions about everything from how to improve worship to what color flooring to use in the chapel renovation. And as a pastor, with more theological training than most people in a congregation, it is all too easy to bludgeon people with impressive sounding rhetoric. I can employ my knowledge less to illuminate and more to win.

I would do well, as perhaps some of you might, to step back a bit when the discussion starts to get a little testy. Who's agenda am I pursuing, that of Jesus or my own? Come to think of it, sometimes I can be in the right from a biblical or theological point of view, and still tarnish the glory of God by my methods. A little help here, God?

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Sunday, September 13, 2009

Sermon for September 13

"Who Is Jesus?" - from Mark 8:27-38 - Christians say that we follow Jesus, but just what that means depends on who we think Jesus is. And like Peter, we often want Jesus to conform to our wishes rather than our going where he leads.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

"Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure." Philippians 2:12-13

The opening verses of this lectionary passage may seem just a bit strange coming from Paul, that champion of salvation by faith and not by works. If we are "saved" by faith, that is by trusting in God's grace, what is all this about "working out" our own salvation?

Actually, I think that Christians sometimes create more of an either-or situation regarding faith and works than is found in Paul or the Bible. While Paul will insist over and over that no one can earn God's favor by their behavior, he nonetheless expects those who have encountered God's love in Jesus to work that out in their lives. For Paul, the right relationship with God that comes through faith inevitably leads to right behaviors. And so Paul's letters routinely move from the free gift of God in Jesus to exhortations to live holy, just, moral, and righteous lives. How can anyone who is "in Christ" not live in a manner that expresses that?

I saw some posts on Facebook yesterday recalling a sermon which said that while Jesus says to us, "Follow me," we find it easier
just to worship him instead." Many of us find it easy to talk about Jesus, to claim God's love, and then to live no differently from anyone else in the world. It reminds me of the popular line often repeated in back the 1960s and 70s. "If you were arrested for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?"

If Jesus is in any way really present in our lives, how can we not seek to follow where he leads us?

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Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

"Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness." Philippians 2:5-7

Years ago a church member came up to me after worship to complain about one of the songs we had sung. He was good sort of fellow and his complaint was gentle and intended to be helpful. It wasn't the typical complaint about the song being unfamiliar or hard to sing. Rather, he was somewhat troubled by the words. It happened so long ago that I can't recall the exact song, but the issue was a line in it addressed to God or Jesus stating something to the effect, "I want to be like you." To this person, that seemed to be going too far. His sense of reverence for God and Jesus made it difficult for him to sing these words.

I appreciated his desire to maintain appropriate reverence for God. Too often there is not a lot of that in the Church. We approach God easily, even casually, as though it were no big deal. A lot of Christians seem to have little sense of the awesome, transcendent majesty of God, that biblical "fear of the LORD" that Proverbs calls "the beginning of Wisdom."

But while we would probably all do well to heighten our reverence and "fear" of God, the Apostle Paul does seem to think we can be like Jesus. We can have "the same mind" that was in Christ, which is to say we can regard our relationship with God as something not for our own personal gain, but for doing the work of God. For Paul, this shows up concretely in the sort of behavior he recommends to the Philippian Church. "Regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others."

For Paul, having the same mind as Jesus is not about mystical communion -- not that he's opposed to that sort of thing -- but is about the way we act. That might be a pretty good way for me to evaluate my day. Did my actions seem to flow from the mind of Christ, or from something else entirely?

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Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Sunday Sermon - All God's Children: Risking It All for "Them"

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

Today's verses from Philippians begin, "I want you to know, beloved that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ." Despite being imprisoned, Paul can joyously claim that his hardship has furthered the cause of the gospel.

I sometimes find it very difficult to trust that God is still at work and in control when bad things are happening to me. Likewise, when the world seems to get out of kilter, I can be tempted to throw up my hands in disgust. Sometimes we humans seem to be a hopeless enterprise, and sometimes I have the hardest time feeling anything like how Paul says he feels.

As I think about these words written to the church in Philippi, I suspect that my notion of things working out for the best may not be exactly the same as Paul's. I usually evaluate how things are going based on how they are going for me. However Paul's frame of reference is not himself, but Christ and the good news about him. Paul thinks that things are going well for him when Christ is being proclaimed, as opposed to when he is comfortable, well fed, secure, etc.

In America, Christian faith has become very personalized over the years. And many people view their beliefs in terms of personal benefits associated with faith, be they salvation, heaven, happiness, wealth, or some other measure. But Paul's measure is not so personal. Paul's measure is a healthy Church, people growing in Christ, and Christ being proclaimed to the world.

Before being ordained as pastors, candidates in my Presbyterian denomination have to undergo an examination by the presbytery, a representative governing body made up of pastors and church elders. I've been told that at one time, candidates have been asked, "Would you be willing to be damned for all eternity if it would glorify God?" It many ways this seem a very odd question to me, but it does touch on this subject of where one locates success, happiness, blessedness. (By the way, I've also heard that this question was once answered, "Sir, I'd be willing for every member of this presbytery to be damned for the glory of God.")

But all jokes aside, I would like to be motivated more by the sort of thing that motivates Paul, and less by the sort of worldly things that so often drive me.

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Sunday, September 6, 2009

Sermon for Sept. 6 - All God's Children: Risking It All for "Them"

Matthew 25:31-46 is Jesus' last public teaching prior to his arrest. He describes a judgment at his return in which righteous and unrighteous are separated like sheep from goats, all of them judged by what they have or haven't done to care for "the least of these." All the nations are gathered for this judgment, but "nations" seems to actually describe the non-Christian Gentiles who will be targets of the Church's evangelism efforts. Heard in this light, Jesus' words have something much more to say beyond care for those in need.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

After Pilate has sentenced Jesus to death, he hands him over to the soldiers for crucifixion. In Mel Gibson's movie, The Passion of the Christ, the abuse Jesus endures is depicted as something beyond imagination, more than anyone could endure. When I saw that movie I wondered if Gibson believed that Jesus' suffering had to be beyond comparison so that it would be sufficient to atone for our sins. But that's certainly not what I see in today's reading from Mark. Rather I see a group of soldiers who decide to have a bit of fun with someone arrested as a threat to national security. And the antics they use are not so different from those used by the soldiers holding terror suspects at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

When I view this scene, I do not see Jesus enduring superhuman suffering. Rather I see him entering into the all too typical unhumaninty and cruely that humans inflict on one another. Nazi death camps, the killing fields of Southeast Asia, genocide in Serbia, Darfur, Rwanda, and countless other places; the list goes on and on. And though we Americans like to think of ourselves as above such things, Abu Ghraib and our willingness to use torture show how easy it is to justify the very sort of behavior we recoil from when we see Jesus suffer it.

When humans are afraid, they will resort to all sorts of uncivil behaviors. Our fears often evolve into anger and venom. Surely Jesus felt fear as he faced his own torture and death. After all he begged God to "remove this cup from me." But faced with the sort of cruelty and inhumanity that powers so typically use to maintain that power, he never lashed back. Somehow he was able to trust that God was still in control and would vindicate him in the end.

It is admittledly very difficult to employ Jesus' method at the level of national security. Even if I can "turn the other cheek" towards violence done to me, how am I to respond to the innocent suffering of others that I might be able to prevent? Still, we seem to find it all too easy to dismiss Jesus' call to non-violence. In America especially, we embrace guns and "the right to protect ourselves" with scarcely a thought as to how strange that sounds coming from someone who claims to be a follower of Jesus.

I suppose that people will continue to encounter cruelty, torture, and horrible deaths until God's reign fully comes. But for the life of me I can't understand why a great many Christians can so casually embrace and endorse such behavior as long as it is aimed at "the enemy." The enemy; you remember them, the ones Jesus told us to love.

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Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

In today's reading from Mark, Jesus is on trial before Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea. Pilate is willing to let Jesus go, but the priests stir up the crowd to ask for Barabbas instead. Now this passage has too often been used to "blame" the Jews for Jesus' death. But the fact that the people get what they want, freeing Barabbas rather than Jesus, doesn't strike me as a particularly Jewish issue. Rather, I think this a universal human problem. All too often, what we want turns out to be a poor guide for what is right, best, etc.

We Americans are especially partial to "the will of the people" being a good thing. And I agree that the American system of government is a stroke of true genius. (I should add that I believe the founding fathers were extremely wise in going with a democratic republic rather than a true democracy.) But the checks and balances that are a part of our government are there in large part because our founders realized that what people want is not always the best way to go. In fact, they had a lot less faith in the people that we tend to, as witnessed by the fact that our constitution did not originally allow for the direct election of US Senators. And they did not expect those in Congress simply to parrot the desires of their constituents. They hoped they would do what was best and right.

So how are we to know what it right and best? If we accept the notion that what we want may not be the most helpful guide, where do we turn? My tradition has always insisted that the Bible is our best help here. Is the course of action we desire consistent with the message of the Bible? And no proof-texting allowed. I'm talking about the overall message of the Bible.

But being led by Scripture is no small task. We are all prone to notice those parts that agree with us and conveniently ignore the parts that don't. This means that we would all do well to listen to the interpretation of the larger Christian community, not just folks who think just like us.

Whew! Being faithful ends up being a lot of work.

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Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

Today's reading from the book of James so troubled Martin Luther that he argued against James being in the Bible. (The Reformation included a debate about what books were legitimately a part of the Bible and what had slipped in inappropriately. A quick comparison of a Catholic Bible and one in Presbyterian church will reveal the outcome of this debate.) Martin Luther, who championed the notion of "salvation by grace through faith" and not by works, didn't like the way James highlighted works.

The tension between faith and works may be one of the more difficult to keep in balance for a lot of Christians. Is being a Christian primarily about what you believe or about what you do? Luther worried that a focus on works made people think they had earned or merited salvation, undermining his and most of Protestantism's understanding of God's love freely given in Jesus. But Christians have often done horrible damage to the reputation of the faith by their failure to live in ways even remotely resembling what Jesus taught. The stereotyped depiction of Christians as hypocrites arises directly from this.

Not surprisingly, I've always loved my tradition's attempt to deal with this tension. For Calvin, the Christian life grows out of a profound sense of gratitude. The more one realizes the stunningly abundant grace and love so freely given, the more one wants to say "Thank you," with his or her life.

There's a scene at the end of the movie Saving Private Ryan that captures this perfectly.
The former Private Ryan, now a grandfather, walks with his family through one of the many military cemeteries that dot France. Among the neat rows and rows of white crosses and stars of David, Ryan finds the grave of the captain who died saving his life, and he falls down beside it weeping. When his wife seeks to comfort him he says to her, "Tell me I've lived a good life. Tell me I've live a good life." He knew that his "Thank you" could never fully repay the debt of gratitude he owed.

If we experiened "salvation" as profoundly as Private Ryan had experienced his, perhaps we would be as motivated as he had been to "live a good life."

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