Monday, November 30, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

This is the first Monday in Advent, and the gospel reading for the day tells of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey. "What does Palm Sunday have to do with Advent," I thought as I read Matthew's account. This prompted me to consider how Advent has become an extended celebration of Christmas, even in the Church. And I couldn't help seeing parallels with the celebration of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem just days before his arrest and execution.

Any time I tell people that Advent was originally patterned after Lent - intended as a time of repentance to prepare for celebrating the good news that God has not left humanity to fend for ourselves - they look at me like I am crazy. And the surest way I know to upset people in the pews is to sing only Advent hymns and songs prior to Christmas.

The birth of Jesus is wonderful, good news. God has decisively entered into human history in Christ, giving us a sure hope that God continues to bend history to God's will. But truly appreciating the good news and hope of Christ requires recognizing the darkness and brokenness into which Jesus comes. Turning Advent into a month long Christmas celebration is like celebrating Palm Sunday with no thought of the cross Jesus knows awaits him there.

I have no desire to "Bah, humbug" our culture's celebration of Christmas. I love trees, presents, Santa, and the whole bit. But we in the Church should surely realize that good cheer, nostalgia, and a brief upswing in charity won't begin to deal with the brokenness of our world. Only God can do that. At Christmas, we celebrate the fact that in Christ, God has acted. And we draw comfort and hope from the promise that God will bring peace on earth in God's time. But for now, let us spend some of Advent contemplating the ways that we are a part of a broken world that needs saving.

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Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving to All

I've been taking some time off this week to spend with family. That's something to be thankful for. Hope everyone has a wonderful holiday. Amidst all the food and football, I'll try to do a bit of reflecting on how much I've been blessed.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Sunday Sermon - "Is That True?"

Christ the King sermon from John 18:33-37: Many people think faith and politics don't mix, but "king" is a political title, and Christ's rule extends to every facet of life.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

No Stumbling Allowed -- So Jesus seems to say in today's gospel verses. If you cause little ones to stumble, (the term likely refers to novice Christians) woe to you. And watch out for things that cause you to stumble. Jesus goes so far as to suggest getting rid of anything that might cause stumbling, even a hand or an eye or a foot.

Now Jesus lived in a culture where hyperbole was a regular feature of communication. And so I doubt he actually envisioned many one-armed, one-eyed Christians. But Jesus knew full well that our desire to follow him is always being compromised. All sorts of things trip us up. Sometimes others cause us to stumble, but usually we do it to ourselves.

We hear the culture telling us all those consumer items we need to be happy, and we spend ourselves into debt acquiring them, with little left to give to God or to help those in need. We work long hours and live hectic lives, but we have little time for God--for prayer or reading Scripture, for worship or serving others. Jesus calls us to a single minded faith that puts God above all else. But we prefer a little spiritual window dressing in our lives.

Even though I am a pastor, faith is often far from the center or my life. There is much in my church job that may seem to be about faith, but is actually a stumbling block, religious busyness that keeps me from actually following Jesus. And Jesus says, "Tear it out and throw it away."

I think that one thing Jesus expects us to do from time to time is take stock of our faith walk and see where we've stumbled, where we've gotten off the path. What are those things that have tripped us up, led us astray? And how do we get rid of them?

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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

Today's reading from Revelation comes near the end of that book. John's final vision is of the new Jerusalem, of God's new heaven and earth. For reasons I don't really understand, people sometimes go to these verses for a description of heaven; streets paved in gold, gates of pearl, and so on. But this is not heaven, and the gold is "transparent as glass," a rather bizarre image. It seems that John is simply trying to say that when the kingdom fully comes, it will be grander than anything we can imagine.

John clearly doesn't expect to be taken with a wooden literalism, but he does expect to be taken seriously. He seeks to encourage and inspire first century Christians who face possible persecution and certain temptation to accommodate to Rome's way of doing things. And although he writes to small groups of believers, the image of the new Jerusalem is incredibly large, a city 1500 miles square, bigger than anyone can actually envision.

Two things strike me about this. First, the immense size speaks of lots and lots of people. God's new day will apparently not be restricted to a few, but will be the home of countless throngs. Second, the image of a city is an image of community. The consummation of history is not about each of us happily communing with God/Jesus. Rather it is about us with God while in intimate contact with others.

Many have noted the contrast this final picture from Revelation makes with the opening picture of humanity in the Bible. It starts in a garden, but it concludes in a city. There is no return to Eden, but rather a redemption of human society. As I said, it's an image or vision and not to be taken too literally. But considering how many of us have fled the city for the suburbs, it is an interesting picture of God's end.

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Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

Praise the LORD!
Praise the LORD, O my soul!

I will praise the LORD as long as I live;

I will sing praises to my God all my life long.

I don't remember exactly where I saw it. It may have been on a bulletin at a church where I attended a meeting, or it may have been on some congregation's website. But if I can't remember where I saw it, I vividly recall seeing those words and reading them. It simply stated, "Worship is the most important thing that we do."

I grew up in the Presbyterian Church at the time when study of the Catechism was disappearing. I never learned to recite it the way some previous generations did, but I did receive my own little pink copy of "The Shorter Catechism." And the very first question and answer read, "Q. What is the chief end of man?" (This was written in the 1600s when no one had thought about gender inclusive language.) "A. Man's chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever."

Obviously glorifying God can and should include much more than Sunday worship. But the very notion that we are best suited to a life lived to glorify God runs counter to much we learn in our culture. We measure most things by whether or not they make us happy, fulfilled, or feel better. And God is no exception. How could the most important thing we do be worshiping God or glorifying God?

Most of us have fallen in love at some point. When we do, nothing is so wonderful as to make that other person happy, to do something for that person. Life is animated by and lived toward that person. Maybe I need to fall back in love with God.

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Monday, November 16, 2009

Sunday Sermon - Faith for Difficult Times

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

Today's gospel reading is Matthew's account of the Transfiguration, where Peter, James, and John see Jesus shining like the sun as he talks with Moses and Elijah. Upon seeing this, Peter suggests building a shrine of some sort. "Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah." Peter's suggestion is forgotten when the voice of God speaks, and in Mark's version of this event we learn that Peter makes his suggestion because he's terrified and doesn't know what to say.

I don't want to be too hard on Peter, but he seems to be like a lot of us religious folks, wanting to somehow capture and institutionalize this remarkable experience. Build a shrine. That way they can come back later and commemorate the event as a religious holiday. But when God cuts Peter off, the only command spoken is "Listen to him."

We're fast moving into the Christmas shopping season, and I've already seen a poll on Facebook where people can vote for or against the idea of having a "holiday tree" in the White House as opposed to a Christmas tree. And there will be campaigns directed at retailers demanding that they "put Christ back in Christmas" if their banners announce "Happy Holidays." People, presumably for genuine religious reasons, will get all worked up about this slight against Jesus, will demand that Christmas be an appropriate shrine.

Sometimes I wish that God would show up, terrify us all out of our decorating and singing Christmas carols, and a divine voice boom, "Listen to him!" And I'm pretty sure that what Jesus says won't have much to do with celebrating Christmas, but will have everything to do with caring for the poor, loving enemies, turning the other cheek, and all that other stuff we prefer to ignore.

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Sunday, November 15, 2009

Sunday Sermon - "Faith for Difficult Times"

From Mark 13:1-8: Jesus speaks of the Jerusalem Temple being destroyed, but while many read the Bible looking for timetables, Scripture is much less concerned with prediction and more concerned to encourage faithful living in difficult times.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

In today's gospel reading, Jesus is asked by Pharisees and Sadducees to show some sort of heavenly sign, presumably to prove his identity. Jesus refuses--other than a veiled hint about the sign of Jonah, something that can only be understood in light of the cross and the resurrection. But Jesus clearly thinks that they should have already been able to figure out who he is. But they "cannot interpret the signs of the times."

There was a Bob Dylan song in the 60s about the times. One verse goes:
Come mothers and fathers throughout the land
And don't criticize what you can't understand

Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command

Your old road is rapidly agin'.

Please get out of the new one if you can't lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin'.

A couple of generations later, people who sang along with Dylan now struggle to lead the church in new times. Especially in mainline denominations like my own, we can struggle to break out of patterns from an older time. As we struggle to connect with those generations born after 1980, we often embody Einstein's definition of insanity, continuing to do the same thing and expecting different results.

But if our faith is in any way true, then surely God is at work in our world. Are our churches decline because that is simply the hallmark of a more secular age? Or are we, like Pharisees and Sadducees of long ago, unable to interpret the signs of the times?

If Christ truly died and rose again; if the Church has received the gift of the Holy Spirit, then God must be up to something, and God must expect us to be a part of it. But if I'm going to glimpse this work of God, I suppose I might need to lift my head up out of the routines of church work to see, and then interpret, the signs of the times.

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Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

O LORD, who may abide in your tent?
Who may dwell on your holy hill?

Those who walk blamelessly,
and do what is right.

How good it is to sing praises to our God;
for he is gracious, and a song of praise is fitting.
The Lord builds up Jerusalem;

he gathers the outcasts of Israel.

He heals the brokenhearted,

and binds up their wounds.

These verses from Psalm 15 and 147 seem to me to describe two aspects of God that are often difficult to reconcile. In the first, one can come before God only if she is good and follows the Law. But in the second, a gracious God reaches out to gather in the outcasts. In a sense, here is the dichotomy of Law and Grace. Do we relate to God because we keep on the straight and narrow? Or do we relate to God because God pursues us and rescues us?

I think that a lot of denominations and traditions seek to resolve the conflict between these two views by featuring one component -- Law or Grace -- more prominently than the other. And so in some churches faith is mostly about following the rules, and in other churches faith is mostly about accepting God's freely given love. Problem is, the Bible never resolves the tension between these two poles. The call to purity and God's forgiveness and love are not either/or but both/and.

We humans tend not to like paradoxes, and there is a paradox here. But I think that this paradox serves as a powerful corrective for those of us gathered around either pole. If we emphasize Law and right behavior over all else, we need to be reminded of God's embrace of those who are undeserving. But if we tend to think that God simply loves everyone no matter what, we need to be reminded that God calls us to live holy lives.

You sometimes hear the tension between these two poles explained as the "God of the Old Testament" versus the "God of the New Testament," as though they were different Gods. But instead, what we see in this tension is a God who will not be conformed to our labels, who will not be as we would prefer, but who is more than we can imagine and comprehend. And I know that for me, it is a good thing to be reminded that God embodies more than I can take in at one time.

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Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

I've always been fascinated by today's gospel reading, where Jesus at first refuses to help a Canaanite woman who asks Jesus to heal her daughter. Jesus refuses because she is a foreigner, a Gentile. He even goes so far as to compare such foreigners to dogs. (Attempts to soften Jesus' words by saying heuses an affectionate term for a family pet don't really help at all.) But after this woman insists that even the dogs are allowed to enjoy the scraps that fall from the table, Jesus commends her for her faith and heals her daughter.

Why does Jesus say he won't help and then change his mind? Is his own, exclusive view of God's grace expanded by the woman's answer? Does he plan all along to heal the child but engages the woman as he does to help expand his followers' view of God's grace? Or does Matthew tell the story in such a way that Jesus becomes an example for the Church which is called to move beyond the limits it knows and embrace those it thinks are outsiders?

However you explain the way Jesus acts, the story clearly insists that the Church and individual Christians call into question the boundaries and limits that they assume are hard and fast. Are our boundaries God's boundaries, or are they simply our conventions, traditions, and assumptions? What conversation do we need to have with those who are not like us so that we can discover that they too are embraced in God's love?

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Monday, November 9, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

In today's Old Testament reading Nehemiah speaks to an Israel who has struggled and languished after returning from exile in Babylon. And he recalls their history with God for the people, asking them to remember who they are, a people formed by God, a people who exist because God cares for them.

In the gospel reading from Matthew, Jesus speaks to Pharisees who complain about his disciples' not washing their hands before eating, breaking "the tradition of the elders." But Jesus says that it is the Pharisees, and not his disciples, who have lost their way, have forgotten who they are. "You hypocrites! Isaiah prophesied rightly about you when he said: 'This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.'"

In much of traditional, Protestant, American Christianity, the term "going to church" has come to describe the dominant form of religious participation. But more and more, people are finding that this falls woefully short. And they are beginning to ask themselves, Who are we? What does it truly mean for us to be the people of God?

Both Jesus and Nehemiah say that answering these questions requires some deep remembering. It is a remembering that reaches beyond how we've been doing things for a generation or two. It reaches back to remember who we are at our core. It finds an identity in God's saving acts, most especially God's saving act in Jesus. It answers questions about who we are by asking who Jesus calls us to be, by considering how we are called to serve God.

Who are we? Who has God called us to be in Christ? Is what we are currently doing about that? Or do we need to do some remembering?

Click here to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Please Stand By -- We are experiencing technical difficulties

Our video camera is on the fritz. Hopefully it will soon be repaired or replaced and sermon videos will again be available.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Sunday Sermon - Faith That Makes a Difference

From Mark 12:38-44: Features "the widow's mite," but also tells of widows whose houses are devoured by the scribes. Is the widow's generosity an example for us to follow, or an example of how religious institutions will sacrifice the needy for their own glory?

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

The LORD is king! Let the earth rejoice;
let the many coastlands be glad!

(from Psalm 97)

To say "God is king" sounds like standard religious fare that doesn't provoke a lot of thought. But in my own faith life, I think this may be the hardest thing for me to believe, or at least for me to live like I believe it.

Saying that God is king means that God is ruler, is in charge, is in command of everything. However chaotic the world may appear, God is running the show. Everything, from political events to evolution to the flow of history, is somehow under the rule of God's providence.

One of the other readings today is from Revelation. And while many people think of this as a book of predictions about the future, John writes Revelation primarily to remind struggling 1st Century Christians that God is indeed king. Despite some of them suffering because of their faith, despite the power and might of Rome which insisted that the emperor was divine, God was in fact in charge.

The LORD is king! All of history bends to God's command. And we people of faith are called to live in ways that show others this reality. Like I said, I think this is one of the most difficult parts of my faith life.

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Two technical glitches in one week, and so there is no video of Sunday's sermon, just as there was no audio. Hopefully all will be repaired for this coming Sunday.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

No audio of worship -- Video will be posted later.

Audit recording device failed today, so there is no audio of today's All Saints sermon, "The End." However, the video will be posted later.