Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas Homily

A meditation on The Nativity of our Lord--Proper II. Appropriate to the day's celebration, there was also a baptism at this service.

Gloria in excelsis Deo. Glory to God in the highest. The heavens light up, an angel choir sings of peace. Shepherds run from the fields into town. A Savior is born, and the whole world rejoices!

Many of us may be familiar with these images, and have probably had them embellished with stories of various Christmases throughout history or our own lifetimes. There is the story of the Christmas truce of 1914, where German and British soldiers had an unofficial ceasefire at many points along their fighting lines on Christmas Eve, and in some cases exchanged gifts or greetings with one another. There is the tradition of providing gifts and bringing food, clothing, and the like for people who cannot afford that on their own. There is the story of Christmas being celebrated in India by peoples of many other faiths along with their Christian neighbors. There is today’s story of celebrating Christmas with a baptism—and of hearing those promises of baptism as we remember Christ’s birth. There are probably many more stories you could tell as well from your own past and traditions.

How wonderful to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the World, Prince of Peace, in this way. I sincerely mean that. I think it is amazing that across cultures and times and spaces, we have taken the initiative to celebrate the coming of Jesus with acts of kindness and peace and promise. There is something in this holiday that tends to inspire us to want to be better than we are the rest of the year, and it is more than just the idea that Santa’s coming and you have to behave. For those of us that Santa no longer visits, there is still that desire to be better as well.

Perhaps it’s that this very real, very tiny baby actually appears. God’s promise to never forget God’s people is kept in this moment when Jesus, the Incarnation, appears for the first time here on earth. Isaiah’s proclamations ring true—this is a time when salvation comes, reward with him and recompense before him. The redeemed are not forsaken. It is a gift, a true gift, a gift beyond measure—and it is a gift for all, too. At this point in the book of Isaiah, Jerusalem had been devastated, the city broken and wasted by the exile of its people. As bleak as it looks, however, the promise still holds. This is a Holy People, who are not forgotten or forsaken.

This theme is echoed in our gospel lesson as well—angels fill up the sky and announce to the shepherds. “Unto you is born this day in the City of David, a Savior, Jesus Christ, the Lord.” Unto you. Unto you shepherds—you people who have been called smelly, lowly, outcast, who have been called dishonest, unworthy, you who are unable to sleep in a house, but have for your bed a cave filled with animals as well. Unto you is born Jesus Christ. The angels of God personally invite the shepherds to visit Jesus in Bethlehem. No matter who you are, where you are, what you have done or what you do now, you are invited to Bethlehem to see this baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a feeding trough. You are not forsaken, and you are not forgotten.

It seems so simple; a baby is born, yet this baby is beyond our ability to achieve. We could never make God do this, yet God chooses to come to us this way. Simple. Vulnerable. Perhaps in this moment, in reflecting on the miracle of birth itself, of the helplessness of newborns, we begin to realize the gift is something we could never imagine or do for ourselves.

The book of Titus perhaps puts it best in these few verses, “When the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, God saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to God’s mercy, through the water and renewal by the Holy Spirit. This Spirit God poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior.”

And so we enter the celebration of Christmas, aware of this gift the angels announce to the shepherds as they sing, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace and goodwill to all.” We maybe even join the whole earth in their song—Gloria in excelsis Deo! We renew our connection to the larger community of faith, perhaps thinking of those stories from around the world as we contemplate this one particular story set in what is now the Middle East.

Something happens, though, doesn’t it? We spend so much time from Thanksgiving through December preparing for it, and we do celebrate—and celebrate well—for one or two days, but then December 26th rolls around, and we go back. The Germans and the British troops did cease fire for Christmas, overturning orders and strategies, but they began shooting again. We got books or presents or toys for those people who didn’t have much, but now we don’t even remember who they were. We were better for a while. We crossed the aisle or street to shake hands, but now we’re back in our proper places. We made it. We worked towards that deadline, and now it’s over. Whew! We can go back to being just like we were for the rest of the year now.

Is that all it is? Christmas—a one-day deadline we work towards? That’s reality. We go back to work, or school, or whatever, and are relatively unchanged by the miracle that has happened. What will you do tomorrow? Monday? Christmas is a celebration, yes, and a wonderful day, but it’s also the observance of the anniversary of a birthday. Birthdays are something we tend to work from—we make wishes for the coming year and use any gifts we may have to help us live it better. So it is with Christmas. We celebrate, but also think about the coming year. We are reminded that we are not forgotten or forsaken, no matter what has happened in the past. And just as we are not forgotten, we are invited not to forget, but to grow and learn and use our gifts—and this gift of Jesus—to help us better live throughout the year.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Sermon Matthew 1:18-25

Fourth Sunday of Advent texts here, audio version here.

When I was about fourteen years old, I was driving my brother and me to school—now I know some of you won’t get past the fact that in North Dakota you can get your license at fourteen, but I promise there’s more to this story. I was driving my brother and me to school, and as I backed out of the driveway, I didn’t watch the nose of my parents' massive 1976 Chevy pick-up, and I knocked over the mailbox at the end of the driveway…a quality brick structure, not some little mail order tin thing on a stick. I put my head down, looked up, and saw my mom standing at the door to the house, watching the whole thing.

The feeling I had at that moment can only be described as a mixture of panic, guilt, and inexplicably wanting to become invisible. The sort of feeling that causes your stomach to sink right down to your toes…your hands go numb, and you’d maybe cry and your cheeks would flush if all the blood hadn’t drained from your face just a few seconds earlier. There are many levels to it and lots of causes.

It doesn’t have to be necessarily knocking your mailbox over—or being fourteen. Perhaps for you it’s seeing those flashing lights in your rearview mirror when you know you’re going too fast. Perhaps it’s letting it slip that you voted against something your political party wanted, because you thought something else was actually more right. It’s probably a little radical to even mention that—voting. Oh, I can feel the tension rising—it’s almost crackling in the air. You’re maybe starting to wonder what angle I’m going to work next. What’s going on now. What I’m going to say next. What I’m going to say is I think maybe now you know the feeling I mean...that "oh no, now what?" feeling.

Maybe now you have an idea of the feeling Joseph would’ve experienced in our story today. Mary’s pregnant, and he knows he’s not the father. The law is pretty clear about what should happen in these situations. Deuteronomy 22:23-24 states that the punishment for this is to bring the pregnant woman to the town gate and throw stones at her until she is dead, and by doing so purge the evil and cleanse the community. Joseph knows the law; being a righteous man, this is what he should do. There is another way out, however. Since Mary is technically Joseph’s property, he disown her by presenting to her a writ of divorce, and let her go quietly—disgraced but alive. Whatever he decides, the law and the social expectations are clear—he is to have nothing more to do with her, and both of them are in big trouble.

Something happens, though. An angel appears to Joseph in a dream and speaks to him. There is no mistake in this, because angel calls Joseph by his name and heritage—Joseph, of the house of David, the royal line—do not be afraid. Do not be afraid. The angel takes the situation and names it for what it is—fear. Fear—undiluted and unrestrained fear.

The angel then sorts out the truth of the matter, saying this is not just some random child, but the Son conceived from the Holy Spirit. Pure and simple education—knowing the facts rather than assuming the worst—sorts this mess out. The angel points out that it is what the child will eventually do that is important. Jesus, Jeshua, will save his people from their sins. Fear is turned to hope.

As Christians, we understand everything through this life story. We say that Isaiah points ahead to it, that Paul’s letters—like Romans, reflect back on it. In Scripture, then, we have both prophecy of and affirmation for the significance in Jesus’ life. In worship, we confirm our belief in it. In our daily lives, even our calendar has been set to it. And in a little town halfway around the world, it depended on one man’s rejection of society’s expectations. All I can say is, God must have known what God was doing in choosing Mary and Joseph. Mary had to accept this life, and Joseph had to protect it.

Joseph wakes from his dream with the angel, and (in my opinion) a miracle happens. He is given the faith to believe the angel’s words, and the courage to let his faith show through his actions.
What will the neighbors think? If Joseph had brought Mary out to be stoned, they might have pitied him—thought him righteous for upholding the law. They might have even been grateful to him for cleansing the community. If he had dismissed her quietly, they might have respected him—thought him betrayed but somehow kind in spite of it by letting her live at all.

But Joseph marries her! He is foolish, stupid, an idiot in the eyes of the neighbors…and worse—he ignores the law! What is going on? Joseph takes Mary as his wife, thereby protecting her from death and exile—he acts as the advocate for this woman who would be condemned. Joseph goes even further, though, claiming the child as his own by naming him Jesus. In naming him, Joseph steps up to take this role as Father, protector, guardian, Dad. You thought talking about voting was radical—this is insane!

And maybe, just maybe, there’s a lesson for us in there as well. We hear the Christmas story over and over again, until the Good News becomes Old News. Most of us are not like the Romans being addressed in the Second Lesson, when they articulate their faith for the first time or send greetings (as Paul does here) that retell the entire story of Jesus. We don’t need to be told, like Joseph, how important Jesus will be by an angel in a dream.

We forget sometimes that the challenge of Jesus’ ministry began long before his first miracle or even his baptism. Even before his birth, Jesus’ very existence challenged a family to act outside of the social expectations and beyond the status quo. There had to be an advocate for the condemned but not guilty people. We still need that. There are a thousand and one organizations I could name here or situations I could suggest, but you likely already know them. If you don’t, I’m more than happy to go through a list of them with you later. The point is, there are still people condemned to being cold, being hungry, having no control over wages, housing, marital status or life situation not by their own fault, but because someone higher up in the system decided that they don’t get a voice. The point is, we need to see what happened here not as happy news, but as good news that was costly to all involved. The point is, we need to stop being afraid of what the neighbors will think and just do what’s right.

I wonder what the world would look like if we were all a bit more like Joseph when discerning the truth—if we listened to the facts rather than jumped to conclusions. If we heard the Christmas story every year with new ears and saw this humble—humiliated—family and tiny baby with new eyes. If we saw the system not as something we should try to get the most from for ourselves, but as something that should support and advocate for all—especially those without power. If we recognized justice rather than status. If we had courage to show our faith through our lives outside of these walls and make our lives ones ruled not by the fear of what might happen, but by the hope of what could be. The angel says, “Do not be afraid,” and so we too may listen and live our lives with courage and hope. Amen.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

What about Joseph?

This week I'll be preaching on the story from Matthew 1:18-25. The lessons for the day can be found here.

Though many lectionary texts have common themes, and some seem to be randomly thrown together, it's reasonable to suspect that these particular lessons were intentionally put together for a reason. Isaiah's verses are referenced as being fulfilled in Matthew, and Paul's recollection of Jesus' life seems to affirm the story foretold by the angel. Essentially, both lessons point to the Gospel reading.

I wonder about the possible portrayal of Joseph as an advocate who does what is right regardless of the social stigmas of the day. There is a large emphasis on doing what is correct according to the law and what is acceptable according to society (today as well as in the Scripture reading). Most commentaries I've looked at have paid close attention to the laws and expectations of what a man was to do in ancient Israel if his betrothed was found to be pregnant. Not surprisingly, death by stoning and/or divorce are at the top of the list.

In our current culture of fear (fear of being hurt/attacked nationally, fear of losing our lifestyle, fear of 'the other' or unfamiliar, fear of disappointing those whose opinions we value, etc.), the angel says, "Do not be afraid!" I wonder what that means for us today.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Anna's Story

The reading for this sermon is Luke 2:27-38:

Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, 29 "Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; 30 for my eyes have seen your salvation, 31 which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel." 33 And the child's father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, "This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35 so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed-- and a sword will pierce your own soul too." 36 There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

Today's voice comes from Anna, the prophet mentioned in the last few verses of our text today. Anna, who, if she were here, might say...

This is ridiculous. I really shouldn’t be here--I'm nobody. Honestly. I'll prove it to you. Nobody famous ever came from Asher—Oh sure, there was Pagiel who organized the military to help Moses, but we didn’t even defeat the Canaanites in the land, so we had to live with them. How embarrassing is that?

There were a few names in the record books, but mostly it was the other tribes that got the big names out there…David from Judah, of course, Saul from Benjamin, Elijah the Tishbite, Deborah in Ephraim…Next to all of them, Asher is pretty insignificant when it comes to the people of Israel.

Even among the tribe of Asher, I am a very low person, status-wise. I’m a woman, for starters, and a widow, and old. You think eighty-four years is a long time in your world? Try eighty-four years in ancient Israel…some people thought I was cursed or blessed to be so old. Haha. When those people come around, I usually just smile and tell them that I guess those Kosher laws were there for a reason…

All this insignificance is why I really wasn’t expecting anything terribly important to happen in my lifetime. Especially something like this…especially to someone like me. I mean, we had been waiting so long—prophets had been talking for ages about this new vision of God’s world, one in which God’s dominion stretched from one end of the earth to the other. Israel had been expecting this deliverer for ages, and then it just happened. It was just a normal day…I was at the temple as usual—not really fussing over anything. I think the shirt I wore had perhaps been washed a week ago, so at least it was somewhat fresh.

Then Simeon started shouting about something—well, I’m old, I know, and sometimes the hearing gets a little fuzzy, but when Simeon makes a fuss, you can’t really miss it. He was over by the families waiting to dedicate their sons, and then there He was…just a little baby! It was so strange with all of the pop-culture versions of the visions from the prophets…you expect it to be, you know, different. Chariots of fire breaking through the clouds with angel warriors to take on the Romans and all that. Once I saw Him, though, there was no mistaking it. The Son of God, a little baby.

What struck me most were the child’s parents—they were as insignificant as I was! Well, maybe even more so since they were buying birds instead of the “preferred” lamb for the dedication. And let me tell you, there is nothing prestigious about their story, either. Giving birth with a bunch of barn animals wandering around—that’s just gross—and having your first visitors be sheep herders coming in from the fields. Seriously? The first visitors to this ‘king’ aren’t diplomats or royalty or even family, but a bunch of smelly herders…servants to the more comfortable, mostly. You know, those people who can afford things like houses and extra sets of clothing.

The Son of God, a little baby. How silly is that? How ingenious is that? I couldn’t stop talking about it for days. Well, I still can’t, if you can’t tell…anyone who’s willing to listen gets an earful from me. If I’d have known this was going to happen on that day, I probably would’ve prepared a bit more—written something hymn-worthy like Simeon…or at least have one of the Psalms ready in my back pocket…something more than the rambling words of an old woman. I’m just not as good when I do this ‘off the cuff’ stuff.

I guess my only real regret is that I won’t get to see how this little life turns out. I know I’ve been blessed with enough years to see this day finally come to Israel, but I wish I could see a bit more now. I mean, this is the Son of God, so you know it’s going to be a big life. I guess I’ll do what I can in simply telling as many people as possible what I know. This news has to be passed on to the rest of the country—it’s too good to keep all to myself. Oh, I know Simeon started it all—maybe I should just let him tell it. I don’t know…I thought that way for a while a few weeks back there, but I guess I sort of decided that I can still tell my part, no matter how small, and try to let a few people know about it, anyway.

As I look back on my long life, I wonder how many other stories are out there...I know my own time has been filled with stories. I look around at all the people around me now, and think of all the people to come, and I wonder how many of them will have stories like mine, of Jesus, I believe, is his name, entering into their life here or there and really changing it. And how many of those people might think that their story pales next to someone else’s, and, like me, consider not telling it, because they don’t think it’s as powerful?

I don’t expect most people will remember my name or part in the story—it’s not even that big of a deal, really. I saw Jesus in the temple as a child and kept on telling people about it until they told others. Now I know they eventually told this Luke guy, I guess, who decided to put a few verses of it in his book—a small part, easily overlooked…no wonder, the way I ramble…there’s really no possibility of getting a good quote from me, is there? I do hope that the story itself will continue to be told…the story of Jesus entering people’s lives. I wonder what that will look like, will sound like, I wonder how my story will be woven into the larger picture of this event.

I hope you—whoever you are, wherever you’re at on your journey—do take the time to remember and retell those times that Jesus entered your life, too. If it’s like mine, you know how amazing it is to you. The only way we continue to keep the story going is to share it. I’ve noticed that with something like this, if you keep it to yourself, it fades away, and becomes just as small as you think it is, but share it, and it joins with other stories—weaves together with them—until there is more to it than you ever imagined. And then, if we get enough of it, we might see a bit of what the Hope of the World really does look like.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Anna's Story--It's a short one!

This Wednesday I'm preaching for the Advent midweek service at church. I'll be preparing a sort of monologue-style representation of the prophet Anna, who appears at Jesus' naming and dedication. The text for the day can be found here.

Fortunately and unfortunately, the commentaries on this pericope focus largely on Simeon or the significance of the naming/dedication of Jesus. There is little said about Anna herself, other than her tribe and familial connections. I'll be looking further into her heritage (i.e. the tribe of Asher) and such to hopefully develop a faithful presentation of her.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Sermon Nov 27-28

Matthew 24:36-44

Something is happening. Something big. The whole world is buzzing. Jesus compares the coming of the Son of Man to the days of Noah—when the whole world was essentially wiped out. There are many possibilities for the implications of such a comparison, but whatever the background reason for the analogy, the parallel of the actual event is clear—it is sudden and unexpected. This isn’t Y2K, when the world waited for a technological meltdown, or a comet racing towards us that we have to go out in space shuttles to fight off after months or years of planning. It will be sudden and unexpected. As our text says, before the end, people were eating and drinking and marrying and giving in marriage. Pretty normal stuff—I know I ate some cereal and drank some coffee this morning just before I came to church. Never mind cereal and coffee, Thursday I cooked a whole turkey for my family to eat.

The point is no one knows the day or the hour. Jesus said that even the Son doesn’t know. Why would we be so arrogant as to suppose that we could know? People have been thinking the world’s end is imminent for thousands of years. The book of Daniel in the Bible, the Dead Sea Scrolls (a collection of sacred and secular texts collected up to the Jewish revolt in the year 73 not quite two thousand years ago), writings of our attributed founding theologian, Martin Luther, even today’s movies—2012, Armageddon, Deep Impact, etc.—all contain evidence that humans throughout the ages have often thought the end was near. It could be right around the corner right now, too. I’m not rejecting that possibility. But rather than having Apocalyptic tunnel vision, we need to open our eyes and see what’s really going on. Paul tells the Romans that this is the time to wake up—put on the armor of light against the darkness and the temptations of the dark. A fixed date isn’t mentioned, but he says that salvation is closer than when they became believers—that’s true for them, and true for us too. Every day we are closer…every day we grow and learn and go deeper in our faith walk with God.

Jesus also tells us to keep awake, stay vigilant. We know something is coming, but we don’t know when—only that it will be at an unexpected hour like a thief in the night. So we have to always stay alert. We have to prepare ourselves for any time. How do we do that? The tragic flaw of the people in Noah’s time wasn’t that they did ordinary everyday things—there are tons of rules and regulations about ordinary everyday things throughout the Bible from the time of Adam onward—but rather that they became consumed by them. They fell into an obsession with the world. The account of Noah’s story in Genesis states that all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth, that earth was filled with violence—so much so that they ignored God. Earlier in Matthew, Jesus said that one cannot be the servant of two masters. That is likely the warning that we should be hearing as well. We have these same cares—some of us (myself included) do stress about what or how we will cook for Thanksgiving or Christmas or lunch tomorrow. If we become consumed by those cares—what we will eat, what we will drink, what we will wear—we run the risk of forgetting who we are and whose we are.

However, this isn’t an excuse to ignore the world that God has created, either. Look at the lesson—two will be working in the field. This isn’t a call to give up on the earth or quit living to simply sit and wait for the end. If both are working in the field, if both are working at the grindstone, then this is not a call to stay out of the workings of the world, or to dispose of it as quickly as possible so that the end will come sooner. That’s not up to us. Rather this is a call to continue caring for God’s creation—for our neighbors, for the earth, for the air, for the waters, for the animals, for our brothers and sisters as citizens of humanity. It is a call to pay attention to what we are doing, and to what God is doing, so that we may be ready and may continue to be ready for days, weeks, months, or generations to come.

We’re living in the meantime. This is the time when the Kingdom of God has been glimpsed by us in the concrete historical life of Jesus and in the everyday moments of light we experience in the world. This is also the time when the true fullness of the vision of that Kingdom has not yet been realized. We are still living in that broken, imperfect world where we are still human and still retain our sinful nature.

This is the First Sunday in Advent. There’s a huge temptation to skip over this season in our culture and go straight to Christmas with Santa Claus and cookies and carols. Personally, I think I’ve seen the Christmas goodies out in the stores since Halloween was over…and I’m sure I’ll hear more carols in those stores during this season than I will in all four of our Christmas Eve services combined here at church. I’m not saying that we don’t need to or shouldn’t prepare for Christmas. Actually, Advent is a season of preparation, so that is quite appropriate. But it is more than just that. It is also the season of waiting, of watching, of reflecting on what it means to be getting ready for Jesus as a community of faith.

If there is a cultural theme for this whole season, it might go something like this “You need to be good because Jesus is coming!” but that doesn’t work, either. We can’t be like kids being good for Santa Claus in order to get better presents at Christmas for two reasons. One—while we have a deadline for Santa’s arrival, we have no idea when Jesus is coming. Two—there’s nothing for us to earn.

This is good news on both accounts. We don’t know when this will happen! Hallelujah! Do you realize what that means? It means that right now is all we know about…right now is what we are able to act in. We can look around us—open our eyes—and see God’s people and God’s work in the world without wondering, without predicting, without obsessing about Y2K or 2012 or the like. We get to live today. We get to work to find and reflect God’s light right now.

We also don’t have anything to earn. We don’t have to worry about who will go where or what will happen then. Jesus sorted that out for us. Since we don’t have to worry about that, what are we freed up to worry about? I often wonder about that—if my ultimate salvation is no longer to be a concern to me, what is? Should I worry about how Jesus will find me rather than about what he will do? I don’t think that’s even the point. It’s not a fear or a worry that drives us at all, but a freedom. A freedom instituted by the Son of God.

Something is happening. Something big. The whole world is buzzing. It will be unexpected and sudden—coming like a thief in the night. Until then, we get ready. Until then, we are in the meantime, constantly reminding ourselves we must live in the now even as we anticipate the not yet. Until then, we do our best with the freedom we have been given. Until then, we wait, we watch, and we live. Amen.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Ok, so no one knows. Now what?

Here are a few more thoughts on Matthew 24:36-44 and the 1st Sunday in Advent.

Some of the commentaries I’ve looked at have flipped the popular-media images of the rapture completely around, suggesting that those taken are taken to judgment, and those “left behind” are actually being spared. This would be similar to those swept away by the flood, as suggested by the comparison made in this passage.

Regarding the verses on Noah’s Day, Sherman E. Johnson states in The Interpreter’s Bible,

“There was nothing wrong in their eating and drinking and their other lawful pursuits. What was wrong was that they were heedless and entirely immersed in ordinary occupations.”

In his commentary, Brian P. Stoffregen states,
“In contrast to the terrible and great signs of the end that no one could miss -- and without God's help believers could not endure (24:22), our text indicates that the time of the end will be quite peaceful and normal. People will: be eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, and working at home or business. In the everyday-ness of this life, it might be easy to forget about the "coming of the Son of Man."

"In contrast to the long, commercial buildup and advertising about the shopping
days until Christmas, our text clearly indicates that we do not know when the
day and hour of the Coming will come. Perhaps a reference could be made back to
the Garden of Eden -- the humans sin by trying to know more than God intended
them to know.”

Stoffregen also points out that much of the text has to do with prioritizing—what are we most concerned about? When the time comes, will we be ready? How do we become ready or prepare?

In The Interpreter’s Bible, George A. Buttrick echoes Stoffregen's sentiment:
“We must be faithful to our human ignorance about all things, and especially
about ‘last things.’ How little we know! Our political and economic wisdom is
again and again confounded by events.”

Therefore, it seems we cannot be the small children cramming all our good behavior into a few days or weeks to please Santa before Christmas. We must be ready at all times, and somehow carry out the tasks of daily living without becoming preoccupied or ruled by them.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Initial Thougts on No One Knowing

Due to the fact that there are several guest preachers over the next few weeks, my next preaching date is November 28-29. The texts for that day are from the Revised Common Lectionary.

My thoughts are still really disjointed on the readings. Hopefully the commentaries will help me develop a bit of coherence. Some of my initial reflections will definitely need to be thought through a little more.

All the readings have undertones of the End of Days and/or the judgment that comes with them. This is definitely a little tricky since judgment is often seen as punishment rather than something good to be prayed and hoped for.

The Gospel lesson does seem to have some good news here--no one knows the day or hour. Therefore, rather than worrying about when exactly Jesus will come again, we can worry about living our lives as best we can.

Advent begins. While we prepare to celebrate Christmas and New Year's--and maybe recover from Thanksgiving--we have to remember that the church's new year or cycle has already begun. How do we reconcile the sacred and secular of our lives?

There is also the theme of readiness. How do we get ready for the coming of the Son of Man?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Sermon October 9-10

2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c; and Luke 17:11-19

A couple of canoers were traveling down the Pembina River in Manitoba, Canada. After a few hours, they fell into just watching the scenery pass them by…trees… flowers…the occasional turtle… Eventually, they came upon some people picking berries. One of the canoers looked up and, realizing what had happened, shouted to them, “Oh no! Are we in the United States?”

The canoers, in fact, had unintentionally crossed the 49th parallel—that invisible line that separates Canada from the United States—and ended up near Walhalla, North Dakota. This might sound like something that should have happened back in the pioneer days of the 1800s. Actually, it was around the mid-1990s. The landscape simply hadn’t changed much from the river’s point of view, and the latitude line wasn’t marked with a major fence or signpost. It was simply an arbitrary point—like the difference between walking through Nebraska or Iowa—lots of corn and fields. Without those human-made signposts, not much would distinguish the two.
This notion speaks very clearly to our lessons for this week. Throughout the readings, boundaries are being crossed, and eventually, no one knows who is ‘inside’ or ‘outside’ of them. Our reading from 2 Kings is particularly complex with these outsider/insider relationships. We encounter so many social implications that there is not really a distinct line to separate for sure who is in or out at any point in the text.

Here we have Naaman, a commander of the Aramean army, which would make him an insider there, whom God has given victory, making him even more of an insider to the Biblical audience. However, he has leprosy, a disease which automatically makes him a social outsider anywhere. The army captures an Israelite girl and has her work for Naaman’s wife, so she would be a double outsider there—a female and a foreigner in Aram. But then we find out that she knows of a prophet in Israel who could cure Naaman, which makes her an insider with her privileged and possibly life-saving knowledge. Naaman goes to Israel, where he would be an outsider, with a letter and some treasure from the king of Aram, indicating his superior status as an insider. The king of Israel is really upset, thinking the more powerful kingdom of Aram is picking a fight with him, to which he is a powerless outsider. However, Elisha steps in, an insider for sure, and has Naaman sent to him. Naaman arrives in all sorts of grandeur—chariot, servants, etc—but Elisha doesn’t even come out to greet him. Naaman is treated as an outsider where he thinks he should be an insider, which makes him mad, and he leaves. His servants, outsiders, advise him to listen to the prophet. He finally does, recognizing his outsider position, and is made well. He returns to acknowledge Elisha as a prophet and God as the One true God.

Whew. Did anyone follow that? Just when we think we have it figured out, the story takes a strange turn and shows us that we’re clearly wrong. That’s perhaps not so different from our world today. At church, I talk to this person and this person, and at work or school, it’s this person and this person—but not that person. Where do we draw lines? What do we value? What do we think we have figured out?

Naaman thought he had it figured out. He brought a letter from the King of Aram and a bit of treasure. Money and political power. However, it is going to take more than money to heal him of his condition. He is going to have to surrender his pride and his beliefs about ethnic and social boundaries.

Who is important in this text? Naaman and Elisha are the named characters, so that seems pretty obvious. What about the little girl who started it all…simply by expressing her faith? A female, a double outsider, is practically a non-person in this ancient time and place. If she had never voiced her belief in God and the truth that there was a prophet in Israel, Naaman would not have even known where to turn to be healed. He would likely have ended up a faceless, nameless leper swept into the void of history and time. However, because of this one true message of faith, this little Israelite maid changes the lives of many who hear her words—Naaman, his family, the Arameans under his command, and even us today.

It’s like that with the lepers in the gospel text as well. Ten are healed by Jesus, but only one recognizes the true miracle and returns to thank the source of the gift, of all gifts, in fact. This is another double outsider, a Samaritan and a leper, and this non-person of society sees the true message and changes our lives as we hear the story.

Who are the people we would usually ignore? Who are the outsiders or non-persons in our society? In our lives? Who do we hesitate to greet or welcome as an honored person and fail to recognize as a Child of God? How do we let go of our discomfort and let others in?

Naaman lets go of his hold on the social norms by listening to his servants. His wife demonstrates wisdom by letting go of her superior household status to listen to the Israelite maid. Naaman himself is an outsider in Israel—a foreigner—who acknowledges Elisha as a true prophet of the One God and is healed. Jesus has a reputation for overturning social norms and does so once again here—he includes the Samaritan as one of the lepers who is healed.

Faith is not just for one select group of people…as we’ve studied and grown as a faith community throughout the centuries of our history, we’ve begun to understand more fully what that means. In church ministry we’ve recently begun to break down boundaries of age, gender, race, political leanings, and ethnicity to open ourselves to and incorporate more and more of God’s people—allowing these people to serve as the Spirit moves and calls them. This is something to really celebrate. However, it makes us ask the question what’s been stopping us from going further? Maybe, like Naaman, we’re really the outsiders thinking we should be treated as insiders. Perhaps, like the lepers, we’re so stuck on being insiders and following the expectations of our usual routine that we miss the bigger picture.

The boundaries we still have—even the ones we’ve broken down, are human boundaries. God’s love does not recognize them. God heals all—Naaman, the foreigner. Jesus heals all—including the Samaritan. The stories show us that perhaps sometimes the outsider—the one to whom we would say “you don’t really need to come in,”—has the greater sense of gratitude and the purer heart for faith and worship. The rest of the people in the stories aren’t wrong, necessarily, the lepers do what Jesus tells them to by going to the priest, the kings and those in Israel aren’t criticized for not knowing, but it is the outsiders who are lifted up as going the extra mile, so to speak. They recognize the miracle and are so moved that they return to say “thank you” for the gift.

Who are the outsiders still in our society? Where are we failing to recognize the Spirit in them and the witness they bring? How do we reinforce the boundaries society has set up for us—political borders, racial discrimination, gender roles? Considering a simple question can test for this—When do ‘we’ use the word ‘they’? We can’t ignore differences, every bit of us is part of who we are. For example, I am a blue-eyed, brown-haired, left-handed American woman from North Dakota with ethnic roots in Germany, Norway, and Holland. Chances are, you are not, but who you are and who I am is informed and completed partly by these traits and should be celebrated. I have something unique to offer because of them, and so do you. We can’t and shouldn’t ignore the differences that give the world such wonderful variety. However, we can dissolve the boundaries society would have us create based on those differences.

Our Psalm today ends with this verse, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding. God’s praise endures forever.” Who may practice their reverence for God? Who has a good understanding if they practice it? Israelite or foreigner? Men or women? ALL. All those who practice it have a good understanding. There is no specific select group of people who are ‘in’ or ‘out.’ Once we start to recognize that, we might begin to see our church, our faith community, less like a building with walls and more like that river in Canada—the one where you can’t tell where that boundary line actually is—because it isn’t really there except in our minds.

“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; all those—ALL those—who practice it have a good understanding. God’s praise endures forever.” AMEN.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

More Thoughts for This Weekend

In researching 2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15, I found that most of the commentaries did address, at least to some degree, the outsider/insider dynamic at work here. Some reflections I found particularly intriguing:

“When we read the Bible carefully we notice how often it features prominent outsiders. This inclusion of outsiders, Spina argues, is ‘neither incidental nor haphazard in the biblical witness.’ These outsider stories often include a significant plot reversal in which the ostensible insider is cast in a negative light and the outsider is portrayed as superior in virtue or faith. In his book Spina considers seven of these stories where the outsider is mainlined and the insider is marginalized — Esau... Jonah, Ruth (a resident alien who remarries a Hebrew), the woman at the well in John 4 who had married five times, and then the lectionary passage for this week about Naaman in 2 Kings 5.
“...‘No outcasts,’ writes Garry Wills in What Jesus Meant, ‘were cast out far enough in Jesus' world to make him shun them — not Roman collaborators, not lepers, not prostitutes, not the crazed, not the possessed. Are there people now who could possibly be outside his encompassing love?’ Instead of defining other people as beyond the pale of God's love, we'd do better to emulate the apostle Paul, the consummate Christian insider, who in the epistle for this week contemplates the real and harrowing possibility of his own banishment to outsider perdition (1 Corinthians 9:24–27).”
--“The Journey with Jesus: Notes to Myself” by Dan Clendenin

“So Naaman departed and took much treasure with him. Yet the price which Naaman had to pay to be healed of his leprosy was even greater than that. Money can do much, yet it never yet purchased for a [person] the healing of [the] soul
or thepeace of [the] mind.”
--“II Kings Exposition” by Raymond Calkins in The Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 3

Also, as Jennie pointed out, there is the honor/shame system of the Ancient Near East to consider. This should be interesting!

Breaking Boundaries--Thoughts for the 10th

Moving right along, I am guest-preaching this coming weekend at a nearby church in Lincoln. As I mentioned earlier, this church will be using the lectionary texts, and are having a “Women in Ministry” Sunday. Essentially, this means that all parts of the service will be facilitated by women (except presiding at the table since the available ordained people at this church are men).

At first, I was a bit nervous about preaching a faithful and contextually relevant sermon. However, both the Gospel and Old Testament texts this week contain stories in which very unexpected people are lifted up as examples of faith. This would lend itself to celebrating the boundaries that have been dismissed as well as looking to ones that may still need to be.

In the Gospel pericope, the Samaritan is the one leper who turns back to thank Jesus for his healing. Earlier in Luke, Jesus had referenced the story of Naaman (this week’s First Reading) as the foreigner who acknowledged Elisha as a prophet and was healed. While these selections have complementary themes, I think my focus might lean towards the lesson from 2 Kings 5.

Simply looking at this text from 2 Kings becomes confusing when trying to figure out who is 'in' or 'out.' As the situation and context change for the people mentioned, so does their perceived status. A quick attempt to attach such labels might look like this:

Naaman himself is a commander in the Syrian army (insider), but is a leper (outsider). In his house is an Israelite maid (outsider in Syria) who serves his wife and tells them of a prophet in Israel (where she is an insider). Naaman goes to Israel (as an outsider), bringing a letter from the king of Syria (where he is an insider), which makes the king of Israel think that the demand to cure leprosy is a trap intended to start a quarrel with Syria. He remembers the prophet Elisha (insider), and sends Naaman there. Elisha does not come out to greet Naaman, but orders him from afar to go wash (treated as outsider). Naaman is offended by this treatment (outsider thinking he should be an insider), but does what is asked with the encouragement of his servants. He is healed (insider), and goes to thank Elisha and praise God (acknowledging his place as a person for whom the boundaries have been broken).

The intricate complexities of this story mirror those of our modern society. When we start thinking about who is “in” or “out,” we almost inevitably set ourselves up for a shock. Both the Old Testament and Gospel texts seem to be advocating a sort of breaking down of those social boundaries. I will be interested to see how the commentaries address these issues.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Sermon--October 2-3

Luke 17:5-10; Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4; Psalm 37:1-9
It’s a fairly average day. You wake up, get dressed, maybe eat breakfast, brush your teeth, and head out the door. Go through the normal routine. By the third or fourth cup of coffee or can of soda you start waking up. You try to catch up or keep up with the work at hand, and wonder if there is supposed to be more to a day than this. It’s not really a bad day, but it’s not a good one either. Nothing bad happened, but you didn’t really make a difference anywhere, and that’s the problem. Nothing happened. The status quo remains. You go home, sleep, and hope tomorrow is better. Tomorrow you’ll make a difference. Today was just…today. You survived.

How many of you can remember having at least one of those blah days? Yeah. We all have those days. It’s no use pretending that there aren’t days when we just don’t feel totally with it. Days where we’re not at the top of our game, ready to tackle all of the tasks before us, or even completely awake. I think it’s safe to say the people in today’s readings are also having one of those days. They’ve had a lot of…stuff…laid on them recently. They want to see something done about it, but just can’t seem to get going. Habakkuk sees the wicked prospering and can’t understand where God is in all of this. The disciples have gotten some requirements from Jesus about how they should live and what they should do, and they’re just trying to keep up. Even the Psalmist seems to be trying to cope with the social imbalance of the wider world.

…tired days, stressful days, days when that one little thing seems to be the last straw, days where we simply go through the motions to survive, days when we don’t think we can take another minute of whatever is happening, but we have to keep pretending that we’re just fine and happy about it all.

Enough is enough. We don’t have the energy to deal with all of this and keep a smile on our faces. Enough is enough. We don’t see it getting better any time soon, and we even maybe think we’ve failed. We’re not alone in this. We’ve got a history stretching back thousands of years filled with faithful people—role models, even—who have had days just like this. Having bad days is not a new problem. The disciples feel the weight of living their lives, too. They call out “Increase our faith!” Before them, Habakkuk sighs “How long, O God?” We are most definitely not alone.
And we haven’t failed, either. Such days happen, and they happen to everyone. Is it okay to have an off day? Of course. God doesn’t leave us just because we’re not feeling “happy” about everything. In fact, there’s really no interest in any of these stories for putting on a false happy face. Honesty, authenticity is what is recognized here. What happens when Habakkuk voices his honest frustration? God answers. God says, this might not happen right now, but the vision will be fulfilled. What happens when the disciples say they don’t think they have enough faith? Jesus answers, you do. Faith as small as a mustard seed is enough.

God answers, Jesus answers, the Holy Spirit empowers us to move on. We will have bad days, but we won’t be stuck on our own in them. Perhaps the question is not whether we will have these days, or even if it is okay to have them, but what we do when we’re in the midst of those days. What are we looking for?

The disciples ask for more faith. This seems admirable at first glance. The disciples acknowledge that God is the source of faith, that it’s not something they can supply for themselves. Why do they ask, though? Maybe they want to better live the life God has called them to live. Maybe they want to heal more, forgive more, cause no one to stumble. It’s really speculation at this point. Maybe they want to be told they did well. Maybe they want to be told they are done with their work. Maybe they want someone to say “thank you.” Maybe they want to know that they’re not totally missing the point.

Jesus answers them. He says, if you have faith like a mustard seed you could tell this tree to replant itself, and it would. Jesus isn’t trying to make fun of the disciples, but simply telling them that the faith God gives is enough...something the size of a mustard seed is enough. Be ready, though, because the mustard seed has the ability to change, to grow, to produce and scatter more seeds. In these few words, Jesus reminds them that they have this faith, they just need to realize it. They are doing just fine, and they are going to be all right.

And Jesus goes on. Speaking as a servant himself, he says, “Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, 'We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!'"” It’s a word of caution. Are we looking to earn thanks or praise? We are the servants. When all is said and done, there is nothing we might do to earn thanks or praise or anything from God. All is a gift, including the faith we need—and have—to get through the day.

It’s okay to have bad days, yes, but that doesn’t mean we are stuck in them forever. Jesus calls the disciples back to the reality of their lives of service. He reminds them that they are part of a larger community, and that they do have the faith it takes to face their challenges, even if sometimes they need to be reminded of it.

We say it nearly every week in church “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.” The church, the communion of saints—a history stretching from Adam to Habakkuk to the disciples to the person sitting next to you today.

It is not just one person—me or you—left to face the world and the day to day trials that come with it. We are connected to something much bigger—the body of Christ. Some days, I confess, I do feel like the hand or foot that fell asleep, but I also realize that there are eyes and ears and voices working on those days. On those days, I can lean on and take comfort in the witness of the larger community—the witness of Habakkuk as well as the witness of the person next to me. On those days, I take comfort in knowing somewhere out there is the arm or leg that will shake me awake. Eventually, the dreary day will pass for me, and perhaps I can be that person for someone else to lean on. Maybe on that day it will be my turn to shake someone else awake.

God answers Habakkuk, saying that the world as it is will not change magically overnight, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t hope. It is an answer for us as well. Our world will not change to perfection, there are no promises of happiness or elation each and every day, but that doesn’t mean we have failed. Like Habakkuk and the disciples, we listen for God and remember that life is not all bad days, either. It’s full of good and bad and in between. Each one is a gift and opportunity to live faithfully and remember our connection to the larger community of faith, where it’s okay to be yourself—happy, sad, joyful, sorrowful, and just blah.

Jesus answers the disciples, saying that they already have what they need to face the world around them and affect the change they seek. This is also an answer for us. We have what we need to face the world around us. We remember that each day is a new possibility, a chance for us to learn from the mistakes of yesterday even as we leave them behind and try again. It’s a chance to live, to learn, to look for and find those moments when life makes sense again—when we hear Jesus saying, “You’re doing just fine, and you’re going to be all right, keep going.”

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Thoughts for the Third

When looking at the texts for October 3, I was intrigued by the amount of outcry there is in each of the lessons. Habakkuk cries for justice, the disciples beg for more faith, and Timothy is encouraged in his tears and sufferings. Even the Psalm, which offers words of comfort, seems to be speaking to someone who has had—at the very least—a really bad day.

I’m sure any of these could be more deeply explored and easily lend themselves to such a subject. In the interest of being a bit less scattered, I will be focusing on the gospel—Luke 17:5-10.

The two commentaries I have found to be most helpful thus far are those of David L. Tiede and Fred Craddock. Regarding Jesus’ reply to the disciples’ plea, Craddock says,
“The conditional clause in verse 6…could translate [as] ‘If you had faith [and
you do].’ Jesus’ response, then, is not a reprimand for an absence of faith but
an affirmation of the faith they have and an invitation to live out the full
possibilities of that faith.” (200)*
David L. Tiede comments on this passage as a whole. Though most commentaries I’ve seen tend to completely separate the section on the mustard seed from the one on slaves doing what is required, Tiede draws them together. He looks at their themes and proximity to one another and says
“If desperate please for ‘more faith’ are excluded on the one side, boasting at
obedience is forbidden on the other. These words of Jesus are used by Luke to
fill out the discourse, and they assume particular force in this context. This
is not a denigration of the servant or a pronouncement of human worthlessness.
The Jesus who is among his disciples as ‘one who serves’ is not ‘putting them in
their place.’” (294)**
It will be interesting to see where the rest of this exegesis goes. For now, I’m not ruling out referencing the other readings, but I think I will be focusing on this for most of the sermon. As aslways, thoughts/feedback welcome!

*Fred Craddock, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching: Luke, John Knox Press, Louisville.
**David L. Tiede, Luke: Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament, Augsburg Publishing House, Minneapolis.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Looking Ahead--October Sermons

With one sermon complete at my internship site, I've begun to think about the next one on October 3. The readings for the day will be
Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4
Psalm 37:1-9
2 Timothy 1:1-14
Luke 17:5-10

After preaching on October 3 at my site, I will be guest preaching at another church in town on the 10th. This church will be having a 'Women in Ministry' Sunday, but will be using the lectionary texts for the service. The readings for the 10th are
2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c
Psalm 111
2 Timothy 2:8-15
Luke 17:11-19

I am excited to have the opportunity to work on sermons for two consecutive Sundays. However, I am a little nervous about finding a connection between the texts for the 10th and the congregation's contextual theme of 'Women in Ministry.' Thoughts?

Monday, September 6, 2010

Sermon September 4-5

Luke 14:25-33, and Malachi 4

A few days after I’d learned that these texts would be the first I would preach on in Lincoln, I was talking with my brother on the phone. During our conversation, I told him the general gist of the gospel lesson for today. After a short pause, my brother’s voice came back across the line to me, “What gospel are you reading?”
What gospel are you reading? That’s a valid question. This isn’t the happy or easy proclamation we like to hear on Sunday mornings. The fact that today we have the last of our prophets, Malachi, is no coincidence, either. These last words of what has become our Old Testament proclaim the possibility of a curse. If we back up just a bit, we find out that Malachi is criticizing the Israelites for being lazy. They’ve been offering sub-standard sacrifices—the lesser choices from their flocks and herds—and practicing empty or meaningless ritual. Essentially, Malachi points to the truth that the Israelites are becoming complacent in how they honor the God who brought them back from exile. Their actions are not reflecting the visions that earlier prophets had for them. Their worship life has become an empty gesture…meaningless without the actual devotion of the people. So he tells them they’d better wake up and start paying attention. Elijah is coming, and if things aren’t better, God’s curse will follow.
Like Malachi’s pronouncement to Israel, Jesus’ words in Luke seem equally harsh. Jesus tells the crowd they must hate their family and give up everything to follow him. Wow. That’s a big order. Now, we must take into account the context of ancient Israel. In its time, “hate” likely meant to detach or remove yourself from the care you had for something, rather than the strong emotional word we know it as today. Since the family or clan to which you were attached was almost a possession in itself—a name that established your status, honor, and societal position—removing yourself from that would have been extremely difficult. To do this really meant giving up possession or privilege.
Detach yourself from the opinions of your family. Act without care of what they may think in order to follow the life that God has called you to live. Give up the best things in your life. That’s still a really big order—one I’m not sure I could ever fill, and I’m not sure the crowd can, either. Jesus says three times that they’re “not able” to be his disciple. The builder may not be able to finish the building, and the king cannot defeat the enemy. Jesus doesn’t ask anyone to go into this blindly. Jesus wants his followers to have faith, yes, but also to understand—to count the cost and know the outcome. Likewise, we need to realistically look at the things asked of us. We may be laughed at for trying—as the builder is. We may realize we cannot do this on our own—as the king does. That is the truth—we can’t do this on our own. We can’t ever do enough on our own to ever earn any part of our salvation. We cannot even fully follow Jesus on our own; we need God’s help for that, too.
This doesn’t get us off the hook, however. Although we are saved from sin through grace alone, we’re not given a license to go out do whatever we want, knowing it will be fine. We are called to let go of the things that society tells us we should cling to. We are called to a life of discipleship—of following Jesus—and we may do this not in order to be saved, but because we already are. The grace that saves also inspires. It inspires us to live in a way that reflects what we have been given. It inspires us to find our gifts, our passions, our callings, and asks us to live them out—giving them as freely as we have been given them…to live as one who loves God so much, all else is hatred by comparison.
Following Jesus is more than just a state of mind. It’s not about thinking the right thoughts. It’s about knowing that we are, as Luther said, freed from sin through faith alone. The question, then, is what have we been freed for? How do we live as those who are free? How do we live faithfully?
This weekend, many of us will get a day off to recognize the fact that we do work—all the time. We have to work—to act—in order to function and survive. If we look a little closer at our readings, we find that the stories in Luke—and Philemon and Malachi, for that matter—are calling us to ask ourselves what we are working for and how we are acting in a way that reflects our beliefs. Okay, that makes sense. Generally, we do act in ways that reflect our beliefs. This weekend is also the Husker season opener, as one or two of you may know. Chances are, those football players have acted in a way that reflects their belief that football is a worthwhile activity. They’ve practiced over the years, run miles, endured physical pain even, to play football this year. Some of them maybe had to even live through not being the best at their sport right away, but worked to get better.
So back to the question my brother posed at the beginning…what gospel are we reading? Are we reading a gospel that is full of musts and have to's? Have to do this in order to get that. Or, are we reading a gospel that is full of possibilities and challenges?
I like to think it’s both. We’re reading gospel of musts and have to's which help us realize how lost we are if we don’t have God’s grace. We’re reading gospel that challenges us to look at ourselves and our lives—to find out where the Holy Spirit is giving us gifts, passions, and callings, to serve God and God’s world. We’re reading gospel that asks us where we’re holding back or hiding our gifts. We’re reading gospel that hopes that we will disregard public opinion and risk not being our family’s favorite for the sake of doing what the Holy Spirit is calling us to do. We’re reading gospel that challenges us to dissolve the distinction between family and non-family, between friend and stranger, and give all people—rich, poor, weak, strong—the same consideration.
Malachi makes it easy for the Israelites, in my opinion—he evaluates the situation at hand and tells them exactly what they need to do to live more faithfully…stop being lazy when it comes to the choice of sacrifice given to God and remember who brought them out of exile. I can’t do that for you. I wish someone could do that for me—just walk up to me and say ‘on Friday, you need to go here and do this.’ Whatever ‘this’ is—watch a movie, call a friend…but the truth is, we are each unique, and I cannot tell you what gifts God has given to you or what passions and callings God has laid on your heart. I can only remind you that you’ve already been saved, and that you have been given the ability to live in a way that reflects whose you are. I can only encourage you to listen to God’s word and hopefully realize that you are in fact empowered by God to be God’s children.
It’s not easy—we’re being asked to take seriously what we could be. You know what I mean—potential. Potential is a frightening word, but I’d say it’s a word that’s worth the risk. This week, we recognize and remember that we work and act every day. I’d invite us all to risk remembering that we have been empowered to be God’s people and to act as such. That is an amazing gift—a gift worth exploring...a gift worth realizing. AMEN.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Disturbing the Comfortable?

The first thing I got caught on in these texts is the idea of hating one’s family. Various commentaries* seemed to consent that the word “hate” in this passage is either a comparison to the love for Jesus, i.e. that we love Jesus to the degree that our feelings for others are hatred by comparison, or an expression understood to mean detachment from those things. Essentially, following Jesus means separating ourselves from the opinions and expectations of others—especially those who do have so much influence over us—and taking up the life we are called to live.

Giving up our concern over opinions and favor of our family and friends can be difficult. Stoffregen** notes that this passage counters the more common giving up of vices in response to faith by calling would-be followers to renounce not the worst, but the best things in their lives.
Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship had some helpful insights regarding this concept:

“Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system. It means
forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth, the love of God taught as the
Christian conception of God. An intellectual assent to that idea is held to be
of itself sufficient to secure remission of sins. The Church which holds the
correct doctrine of grace has, it is supposed, ipso facto a part in that grace.
In such a Church the world finds a cheap covering for its sins; no contrition is
required, still less any real desire to be delivered from sin…justification of
sin without justification of the sinner.” (45-46)

“To deny oneself is to be aware
only of Christ and no more of self, to see only him who goes before and no more
the road which is too hard for us…only when we have become completely oblivious
of self are we ready to bear the cross for his sake. If in the end we know only
him, if we have ceased to notice the pain of our own cross, we are indeed
looking only unto him…The cross is laid on every Christian. The first
Christ-suffering which every[one] must experience is the call to abandon the
attachments of this world.” (97-99)

Given this angle, I can’t seem to ignore the complimentary themes in Malachi and Philemon, who call their hearers to concretely live out their faith in ways that may not necessarily be easy.

This brings additional themes to mind:

  • Salvation/discipleship—We follow because we are saved; we are not saved because we follow.
  • Stewardship of gifts and resources—We must think about how we use what we have, including ourselves.
  • Law/gospel—We cannot really do this for ourselves or on our own.

I'm not sure yet if I'll try to go with just one theme/reading, or attempt to incorporate a few of the ideas I've come across as sub-themes while focusing on one main thought.

Feedback appreciated on this one!

*Fitzmyer, Joseph A. The Gospel According to Luke (X-XXIV). Anchor Bible. Doubleday.

Tiede, David. Luke. Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament. Augsburg.

**Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes. Crossmarks.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Labor Day and Exegesis

Having settled in at the church in Lincoln, I have been assigned to preach for the first time on September 4-5, right before Labor Day. The church will be wrapping up its summer series on the prophets with Malachi 4:1-6 substituted for the first reading in the Lectionary. The gospel text, Psalm and second reading all follow the Revised Common Lectionary.

Malachi 4:1 See, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all
the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn
them up, says the LORD of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor
branch. 2 But for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise,
with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall.
3 And you shall tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of
your feet, on the day when I act, says the LORD of hosts. 4 Remember the
teaching of my servant Moses, the statutes and ordinances that I commanded him
at Horeb for all Israel. 5 Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before
the great and terrible day of the LORD comes. 6 He will turn the hearts of
parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I
will not come and strike the land with a curse.

Luke 14:25 Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, 26 "Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. 27 whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. 28 For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? 29 Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, 30 saying, 'This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.' 31 Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32 If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. 33 So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.

At first glance, it's easy to see these are not necessarily going to be 'comfortable' texts to work with. However, there is a lot in there about how what we do actually does matter. Ties might be able to be made with the renunciation of cheap grace as well as the celebration of Labor Day. I will be interested to see what the commentaries say, especially about what is required of those who follow God.

Monday, May 24, 2010


Hey everyone. I'm headed out from seminary this year on internship. One of the requirements for me there will be that I preach several times throughout the year. Since I will be removed from my usual community and the feedback at school, I am hoping to blog about my sermon ideas, exegesis, etc. throughout the year (beginning in August) and will try to continue this practice even as I return to academia in the fall of 2011. Please feel free to post thoughts, reactions, and any other feedback. I am looking forward to an interesting and eye-opening year.