Tag: pentecost

Rosa and the General: Pentecost 24

Rosa and the General: Pentecost 24

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

November 4, 2018

Read 2 Kings 5:1-17 (CEB)

Introduction 

British author P.G. Woodehouse wrote a series of books focusing on two characters: Jeeves and Wooster (which was also a popular British television series in the early 90s).  Set in the 1920s, Betrie Wooster is a member of the idle rich. He tends to come off as very immature, a man with no goals other than hanging out with other members of high society.

Wooster was taken care of by Jeeves, his very intelligent and wise servant.  He is the one that gets Wooster out of fixes and keeps Wooster from flying off the handle.

Woodehouse’s stories remind people that the smartest person in the room is not always the one with the position or the big bank account.

Our text today deals with a number of nameless people who work to help the general, Naaman. Naaman was a great military hero,  dealing with a skin tradition. Naaman was clueless as to how to heal his condition, but a Jewish servant is able to point Naaman in the right direction. When Naaman initially refuses Elisha’s command to bathe in the Jordan River, it is another nameless servant that persuades the general to do what was asked of him.

Today, we meet Naaman and Elisha and the forgotten servants who helped Naaman see the light and be healed.

Engaging the Text

When Elisha the man of God heard that Israel’s king had ripped his clothes, he sent word to the king: “Why did you rip your clothes? Let the man come to me. Then he’ll know that there’s a prophet in Israel.”

-2 Kings 5:8

The passage opens with the first character, Naaman.  He is a mighty warrior, not in Israel, but in Aram (what is now modern-day Syria). Notice what is said in verse one about Naaman: “Naaman, a general for the king of Aram, was a great man and highly regarded by his master because through him the Lord had given victory to Aram. (Emphasis mine).  This tells us that God works not just for the Jews, but even those considered outside of the covenant.

Then we learn that Naaman has a skin disease.  Some versions will say he had leprosy, but it is more likely that he has some kind of skin disease that might make him appear like he is dying.  No one wanted to be around a guy who they think is death warmed over.

We also learn in those early passages that Aram goes on out on a raid and captures a young Jewish girl.  She is serving the wife of Naaman and then says that she wishes Naaman could go to the great prophet who lives in Israel.  This is kind of surprising.  This is a young girl that was ripped from her family and is now a servant to a foreign leader.  And yet, she was concerned about this foreigner, who took her away and maybe killed her family.

Naaman takes what the young girl has said and comes before his king who then sends a message to the king of Israel.  The king of Israel is kind of a comic character in that when he gets the letter he tears his garments, a sign of grief.  He thinks this is the end of the world, seemingly forgetting that there is a prophet that can heal Naaman.  While the young slave girl believed that Elisha could heal, the great king of Israel has forgotten that there is a prophet that can heal.

Naaman brings the bling to pay Elisha.  But Elisha isn’t interested in money.  He isn’t interested in fame. He doesn’t even come out to meet with Naaman.  Instead, he sends a messenger to tell Naaman to go out and wash seven times in the Jordan in order to be healed.

Naaman is angry. Elisha doesn’t even bother to show his face to Naaman, he just sends a servant to tell him to go and bath in what is nothing more than a muddy stream. You could also imagine he is angry because it feels like again, people are keeping their distance because of his skin condition. Again, someone that was behind the scenes steps forward to calm Naaman down.  The servant asks, “Our father, if the prophet had told you to do something difficult, wouldn’t you have done it? All he said to you was, ‘Wash and become clean.’”  Naaman is a general and he took orders and obeyed orders.  Isn’t this just one more order to take, one that can heal you?  Naaman takes this to heart and bathes in the Jordan and his skin is healed. Naaman returns to Elisha asking him to accept a gift, which Elisha refused. Not only is Naaman’s skin healed, but he also becomes a believer of the God of the Israelites.
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Conclusion

I’ve always been fascinated by Rosa Parks.  This was a woman who was a seamstress in Montgomery, Alabama.  She was not a mover or shaker.  She was involved in the civil rights movement, but no one thought a simple seamstress, let alone a black simple seamstress could do anything that could change the world.

And yet, her refusal to give up a seat to white man and sit at the back of the bus as all African Americans were supposed to do, changed the course of history.  It started a movement, launched the career of Martin Luther King and helped the United States live up to its ideals.

I sat in the actual bus where Parks said “no.” It’s located at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. I was visiting my parents who lived up the road in Flint.  Here was a simple bus, a bus where the world changed.

In this text, there are the big people, the movers and the shakers, and the small people, the servants who weren’t even named.  But notice who were the ones that changed things.  The young slave girl told Naaman and his wife that there was someone who could heal Naaman.  The unnamed servant helps Naaman to get over himself in order to do what needed to be done to be healed.

This coming weekend is All Saints Sunday.  We tend to think of the big saints, like Francis.  But saints also include the older woman who shows up at mission events, or the developmentally disabled man who always greets you with a smile.  Saints are not necessarily famous people, but they are faithful people.  If it wasn’t for a servant girl and an unnamed servant, Naaman would remained unhealed and not knowing the God of the Israelites.  Sometimes it is the “little people” that can change the world.

 

Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century.

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Solomon the Wise: Pentecost 23

Solomon the Wise: Pentecost 23

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

October 28, 2018

Read 1 Kings 3:1-28 (CEB)

Introduction 

“The Wisdom of Solomon.”

That phrase has been used in our culture as a way of saying that someone needs to have the smarts that Solomon had in order to solve a problem.

Solomon was wise.  But his wisdom was not something that was innate, it was something that came from God.

Solomon is the son of David and succeeds David as king.  Solomon’s rule is a time when the kingdom of Israel was at the height of its power.  Israel was a miniempire.  Solomon started a massive building program which included the building of the temple.  A fleet of ships was sent to far-flung places around the known world to bring back riches.  Solomon met many of the leaders of the day, including the Queen of Sheba.  Solomon brought a sense of cosmopolitan flair to Jerusalem.  Solomon, like President John Kennedy in the US, ushered in a Jewish version of Camelot. Things were good in Israel.

Or were they? As we read the text for today you have to look more closely to see that things are not perfect.  Just like President Kennedy’s time as President wasn’t the Camelot that we tend to think it was, Solomon’s actions carry within them the seeds of destruction not only for Solomon but for the entire nation of Israel as well.  Today, we learn the Wisdom of Solomon, an imperfect king trying to follow God.

Engaging the Text

Now Solomon loved the Lord by walking in the laws of his father David, with the exception that he also sacrificed and burned incense at the shrines.

-1 Kings 3:3

When people think of Solomon, they think of him in two different stages.  The first stage is when he is young and asks for wisdom.  A later version of Solomon is a man who has forgotten who he is.  He has become unfaithful to God, worshipping other gods instead of the God of Israel.  In real life, people are not all good or all bad and they are not all faithful or all not faithful.  As we learn today, Solomon was already making mistakes that would have severe consequences.

Chapter 3 opens with Solomon entering into a “marriage alliance” with the Egyptian Pharaoh. He marries not out of love, but out of politics. Marrying the Pharaoh’s daughter meant an alliance with the regional superpower which made Solomon a player on the world stage.

While aligning Israel to the Egyptian superpower through marriage had its advantages, there were also problems. For one, marrying someone who was not an Israelite was troublesome. Deuteronomy 7:3 notes that Israelites were told to not intermarry.  Why? The reason for this prohibition was that it could lead the Israelites away from God and worshipping foreign gods- which is exactly what happened to Solomon. His Egyptian bride was just the beginning. As he married other women from other nations, he would end up worshipping the gods of his wives.

Starting with verse two, we see that the people are still sacrificing in the high places. These high places were named not because they were in the mountains. In many writings, high places were not portrayed in a good light. Some saw them as a sign of their lack of loyalty to God. There are hints that the high places sometimes were places where people could worship other gods. A future king, Hezekiah, destroyed many of the high places as a way to get back to worshipping God alone. The talk about the high places could also be a foreshadowing of what will happen to Solomon: his worshipping the foreign gods of his wives.

It was at a high place that God came to Solomon in a dream. God’s first words to the king are to make a request. Solomon doesn’t take time to think about this. Instead, he blurts out that he wants wisdom. He asks for a “listening heart” or “understanding mind” to rule the people. The word wisdom in Hebrew is associated with legality and justice. In this time, the King was also the final arbiter of justice, in essence, Solomon was the Supreme Court as well as the President. God is pleased that Solomon chose…well, wisely. The king gets his wish; he has an understanding mind far beyond anyone else.

Solomon paints a portrait of a human faith.  He loves God and seeks to be faithful, and yet he is marrying foreign wives- he’ going against what God had commanded. This is not an excuse to sin, but it is a reminder that when we come to God, we bring all of ourselves, both good and bad.  Solomon wanted to be wise, to be faithful to God, but he is also doing things that will bring him trouble.

We get to see Solomon’s new found wisdom in action when two prostitutes came forward. It is telling that the king of Israel adjudicates a problem between two women on the lowest rungs of society. Both women had children. One mother rolled over during her sleep smothering the child. A mother decides to take her dead baby and switch it with the other baby. The case was about deciding who was the real mother. Solomon offers a shocking judgment: slice the living child in half and give both halves to the mothers. Was this a callous response to the women? We don’t really know. What we do know is that the judge allowed the two women to respond which revealed who was the real mother. The baby’s life is spared and Solomon gets a reputation for a wisdom that comes from God.

King Solomon was obsessed with women. Pharaoh’s daughter was only the first of the many foreign women he loved—Moabite, Ammonite, Edomite, Sidonian, and Hittite. He took them from the surrounding pagan nations of which God had clearly warned Israel, “You must not marry them; they’ll seduce you into infatuations with their gods.” Solomon fell in love with them anyway, refusing to give them up. He had seven hundred royal wives and three hundred concubines—a thousand women in all! And they did seduce him away from God. As Solomon grew older, his wives beguiled him with their alien gods and he became unfaithful—he didn’t stay true to his God as his father David had done. Solomon took up with Ashtoreth, the whore goddess of the Sidonians, and Molech, the horrible god of the Ammonites.

-1 Kings 11:1-5

1 Kings 3 is not a simple story of Solomon getting wisdom. There are hints of a downfall, one that is revealed in chapter 11. “King Solomon was obsessed with women,” says the Scripture. He started worshipping the gods of his wives and he built altars to these foreign gods.

Solomon’s choice to worship these foreign gods had consequences. 1 Kings 11 notes that like his father, God would judge him for his sins:

God said to Solomon, “Since this is the way it is with you, that you have no intention of keeping faith with me and doing what I have commanded, I’m going to rip the kingdom from you and hand it over to someone else. But out of respect for your father David I won’t do it in your lifetime. It’s your son who will pay—I’ll rip it right out of his grasp. Even then I won’t take it all; I’ll leave him one tribe in honor of my servant David and out of respect for my chosen city Jerusalem.”

Looking at chapter 11, chapter 3 is cast in a more tragic light. Chapter 3 shows a king that wanted to follow God and sought God for help. If we could stay just at chapter 3 this would be a wonderful story of someone seeking to follow and rely on God. Instead, it becomes a harbinger of things to come.
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Conclusion

Solomon was an imperfect leader.  He sought to follow God, but he also did things that harmed his faith in God.  Not so different from those of us who aren’t leaders.

Solomon asked for wisdom.  In the wider culture, we tend to think wisdom is something we can earn.  Wisdom is something that comes with time, from learning life’s lessons and so on.  But in Solomon’s time, wisdom is something that came from God.  Only God could make someone wise, not us.

What does it mean in our day and age to seek wisdom from God?  We won’t be asked to settle complaints like Solomon, but wisdom can be used as we live our lives in our churches, jobs, and neighborhoods.  What does wisdom look like to you?

But Solomon’s wisdom did not last.  Solomon’s story is truly a tragedy. Solomon took Israel to the apex of its power, but that all ended because of his choices.  He was the last king of a unified Israel. After his death, the kingdom would be split in two.

In Solomon’s dream, he was offered riches, but forsook them for wisdom from God.  This was odd, since there are examples in the Bible where material wealth was a sign of God’s blessing. Jesus picks up this theme of forgoing wealth in the Sermon on the Mount.  Matthew 6:25-34 has Jesus telling the people to not worry about eating or drinking because God would care for them.  Jesus even references Solomon in his talk:

27 Who among you by worrying can add a single moment to your life? 28 And why do you worry about clothes? Notice how the lilies in the field grow. They don’t wear themselves out with work, and they don’t spin cloth. 29 But I say to you that even Solomon in all of his splendor wasn’t dressed like one of these. 30 If God dresses grass in the field so beautifully, even though it’s alive today and tomorrow it’s thrown into the furnace, won’t God do much more for you, you people of weak faith?

-Matthew 6:27-30

 

Solomon is both a model to follow and a model of how not to do something. King Solomon has feet of clay.  But if there is any gospel to be drawn from this it’s that God used Solomon even though he was imperfect.  If God can use flawed Solomon, then God can use us.  We can have the wisdom of Solomon if we rely on God.

 

Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century.

Life-Giving Breath of God – A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost Sunday

Life-Giving Breath of God – A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost Sunday

Ezekiel 37:1-14 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

37 The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”
So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” 10 I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude. 

 11 Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ 12 Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 14 I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.”

 

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                When it comes to the church, the future can look bleak. At least in Europe and North America the church is retreating in the face of an ever more secular world. Christendom appears to be dead. While Christianity retains vestiges of the old ways, it has lost much of its cultural/social influence. There are those who cling to the stories of past glory and try to worm their way into positions of influence. It happens on the right and on the left. Where once the church was the religious face of empire, it has been replaced by other figures. Therefore, a more appropriate image for the church’s place in society might be exile. Thus, the words of prophets like Ezekiel can resonate, speaking words of hope to us in these challenging times.
The prophet Ezekiel is known for his imagery, and none of his images are as eye-catching as the valley dry bones. This image is an animator’s dream fulfillment. But what message does it convey? What did Ezekiel’s original audience take from it, and what does it offer to us as we gather on Pentecost Sunday? What word does it deliver concerning the life-giving presence of God, which blows into the community on Pentecost Sunday bringing life where once death seems to reign?
Pentecost Sunday is understood by many in the church to be the birthday celebration of the church. We wear red and perhaps make worship a little livelier. There’s no place on this day for sad faces. It’s a day to party, because the Spirit descends upon us, empowering our witness to the risen Christ, who now sits at the right hand of the Father. Life is restored, where death had reigned.
The story of Pentecost appears in the second chapter of the Book of Acts. It is a well-worn text that offers insight and encouragement. But what does Ezekiel offer us? What word does it speak to us? Perhaps the word it speaks is that there is life in the midst of exile. The word from Ezekiel challenges triumphalist visions, while providing us with a foundation to hear the promise of the life-giving Spirit that moves through the community empowering our witness.
The Pentecost story begins some ten days after the ascension of Jesus. The disciples (150 of them) are gathered in what we know as the “the upper room.” They appear to be praying, as they had been instructed by Jesus (Acts 1). Jesus had promised to send the Spirit, all they had to do was wait. When the Spirit came upon them, they would experience renewal and new life, and would be empowered to preach the good news to the world, moving from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. All they had to do was wait. Finally, on the Day of Pentecost (a major Jewish festival), the Spirit fell upon the disciples. They began to preach. Revival broke out. People responded and were baptized (some 3000 according to Acts). Thus, the church is born, and their mission begins, one that extends to us (Acts 2).
                The first reading for Pentecost Sunday comes from Ezekiel 37 (unless you choose to read Acts 2 in this spot), which speaks to a people living in exile. They are discouraged, wondering if they will ever return home. In other words, they have experienced death. God gives to Ezekiel a word to share with the people of Judah in the form of a vision. He is taken in the Spirit to a valley filled with dry bones. This is Israel. It is a nation of dead, bleached bones. Would the nation be restored? Or would they live out their lives in exile, a people without a country. God says to Ezekiel—prophesy to these bones. Tell them to let God’s breathe enter them so that they might be restored to life. So, Ezekiel did as he was told. He called for the four winds to come and breathe life into the bones. The winds came, and the breath of the Spirit filled the bones. They began to come together. Life returned to the bones. To those who doubt that life can be restored to Israel, Ezekiel is directed to say to the people: “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.”
                What word do we hear from Ezekiel on this Day of Pentecost? Is there a word of hope here for the church that is, it would seem, experiencing exile? Christendom has died, at least in Europe and North America. Churches are experiencing difficult times, with aging congregations, declining attendance, and financial challenges. There is a sense of hopelessness creeping through the church. We see it expressed in a variety of ways, including grabs for power or sense of resignation. So, what work of the Spirit should we expect in our age? Are we that valley of dry bones? Is there a wind of the Spirit present that will fill us with the breath of God?
                The church may never again reach the levels of power it once wielded, but that does not mean that there is no hope. The days when the church defined the public square is over, but God has not been banished. We still have voices to proclaim the glory of God. We can call upon the four winds, inviting them to fill the valley of dry bones, bringing to life communities that can embody and declare the glory of God before the world. As John McClure puts it: “The story of dry bones takes place at the intersection of human weakness and divine power. It reminds us that God’s power is made great in our weakness, and that the power of the church wields is not the power of the sword, but the power of God’s Spirit working through the Word proclaimed” [Preaching God’s Transforming Justice, Year B, p. 255].

                The church is called to proclaim and embody the Gospel. We do this in a variety of ways, but ultimately this is about the Spirit, who empowers and guides us in this work of God. We are participants in the proclamation of the Gospel in word and deed, but ultimately this isn’t about us. It’s about the Spirit. Yes, Ezekiel played a role. He spoke the words. He called for the winds. But it was the Spirit and not Ezekiel that gave life to the bones. It is the Spirit who gave life to the church on Pentecost and on every day of every year. With that we go forth with hope.

Elkan, Benno, 1877-1960. Ezekiel in the Valley of the Dry Bones, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55841 [retrieved May 14, 2018]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Collantes,_Francisco_-_The_Vision_of_Ezekiel_-_1630.jpg.

10646937_10204043191333252_4540780665023444969_nRobert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan. He holds the Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of a number of books including Out of the Office (Energion, 2017), Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016), and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015) and blogs at Ponderings on a Faith Journey.

 

Being Church-May 11, 2014

Fourth Sunday of Easter Year A
(Good Shepherd Sunday)
John 10:1-10 and Acts 2:42-47

anjolie-ela-menon-good-shepherd-paintings-oilThe fourth Sunday of Easter is what has generally been called Good Shepherd Sunday. Several Passages talk about Jesus or God as a shepherd. In John 10 where Jesus refers to himself as the Good Shepherd. We can look at this passage as being about God being the shepherd and that we sheep are to be good followers. But it can also mean  God’s relation with God’s church. God cares for us and looks after us in ways we can’t imagine, because God is in love with us; God has a relationship with us. A community that is loved by the God of the universe is called to care for one another- not because it’s something we have to do, but because it’s who we are. And when people see a local congregation living as a Christ-led, hospitable community, they will take notice.

Acts 2:42-47 says the church is called to be a place where we learn to be a follower of Christ. The church is a place where we have fellowship with each other, where we care and love each other. The church is a place where we realize that our material possessions are not the goal in our lives, but to use what we have to help those in need, especially those in our community, but also those outside of it. The church is a place where we come together and break bread in table fellowship together, realizing that it is Christ that calls us to the table regardless of who we are. The church is a place where we are happy in Christ and are generous to friends and strangers.

Download this week’s lesson.

Come Sunday: “What Would Jesus Drive?” (October 27, 2013)

23rd Sunday of Pentecost
October 27, 2013
Luke 18:9-14

Jesus commented, “This tax man, not the other, went home made right with God. If you walk around with your nose in the air, you’re going to end up flat on your face, but if you’re content to be simply yourself, you will become more than yourself.”
Luke 18:14 (The Message)

suvBeing from Michigan and having two parents who worked in the auto plants, I tend to have a fascination with cars.  I tend like most cars, but for a long time, I didn’t have much interest in SUVs.

Ah, the SUV-Sport Utility Vehicle.  In the late 90s it ruled American suburbs.  It seemed that ever auto maker had to make one, and the kept getting bigger and bigger.  Remember the Hummer?  I remember someone telling me the big Ford Expedition got something like 9 miles to the gallon.  I remember thinking how horrible that was.  I saw SUVs as a scourge, harming the environment and making us lazy.

Around the same time that the SUV was large and in charge, another car was making itself known in the American market.  In 2001, we saw Toyota unveil the Prius, a gas-electric hybrid.  It was the anti-SUV.  People who despised SUVs (and the people who drove them) flocked to the Prius to show how conscious they were. (For the record, I did own a Prius a few years ago.)

The first decade of the new century set up conflict between those that loved the big gas guzzling SUVs and those that loved the fuel sipping hybrids.  For a while there, a campaign made news urging people to use less resource heavy transportation than the SUV.  The campaign came up with these simple words: “What would Jesus Drive?”  The answer was that Jesus wasn’t going to be driving a Hummer anytime soon.

When I think about this week’s gospel lesson, I have to think of it in terms of cars.  (I even did a sermon based on the Prius back in 2007.)  I can see the Pharisee driving a Prius to the temple.  He gets out and starts praying to God, “thanking” God for making all the right choices.  He shops at Whole Foods, recycles and even drives Prius (his second Prius, by the way).  “I thank you God, that I am not like that guy,” he says guestering at the SUV pulling up to the curb.

Another man climbs down from the tall vehicle.  He slams the door and falls down to the ground.  He’s behind on his mortgage, his oldest son and his son’s wife won’t leave to find a place of their own.  His wife was laid off her job the week before and she found out about the affair he was having.  She was tired of dealing with his philandering and his alcoholism to boot.  After 18 years, she is ready for a divorce.

“Have mercy on me, God!  I’ve messed up!”

The reason the Pharisee didn’t go home justified isn’t because he did something wrong.  He did all the right things.  What he missed is relying on God’s mercy; to know that even if he did the right things, he was still in need of God- something that the tax collector understood all too well.

As we head to church this Sunday, I pray that we can not get caught up in doing the right things, but instead realize that we are made righteous not because of what we have done, but because of what God has done.

By the way, I think Jesus would have taken public transportation, but that’s for another time.

 

Come Sunday: Not for the Faint of Heart (October 20, 2013)

widow22nd Sunday of Pentecost
October 20, 2013
Luke 18:1-8

“Do you hear what that judge, corrupt as he is, is saying? So what makes you think God won’t step in and work justice for his chosen people, who continue to cry out for help? Won’t he stick up for them? I assure you, he will. He will not drag his feet.

Luke 18:6-8 (The Message)

Growing old is not for the weak.

This past summer, my partner and I were busy shuttling between Minnesota and Michigan to move my parents from their house of over 40 years to a senior housing apartment complex on the other side.  It was getting difficult for my octogenerian parents to maneuver around the house.  The neighborhood they lived in, on the northside of my hometown of Flint, Michigan had become more and more dicey, especially in the last few years as the auto industry imploded.  Moving my parents allowed me to see how aging is not something for the weak.  The independence that one had in their youth and middle ages is not as present.  Your body just doesn’t work like it used to.  You become more dependent on others.  It’s just not easy to be elderly.

The gospel text for today involves a widow, a woman who was incredibly vulnerable in that society, and a judge that was more than a little shady.  This woman who probably had little pride left, kept pressing the judge to grant her justice against an enemy.  She basically wears down the judge until he does what she asks just to get her off his back.

Now, God isn’t the unjust judge.  The point of this parable is not that you see God as some kind of holy Santa Claus that you pester until you get your way.  I think this parable has more to do with how we live a life of faith.

We are asked to believe and walk in faith.  But the road is not clear.  We never know how the story will end.  Like the widow, we must keep believing and pray persistently; not to get what we want, but because we have faith that God will answer in God’s time.

God’s time.  That kind of sucks.  Jesus talks about how God will listen to his children and grant them justice, but we know that sometimes our prayers aren’t answered- or at least they aren’t answered in our time or in the way we would like.

I think having the kind of persistent faith Jesus talks about is rather hard.  And maybe that’s the point; trusting in God is rather tough business.  Like growing old, it is something that leaves us rather vulnerable.  I think God knows that having faith in God is hard, which is why I think we don’t have to do it alone.  Maybe that’s one of the reasons we have churches- communities where we can bear each other and believe when others just can’t.

There’s an old African American gospel song whose lyrics include this passage: “He may not come when you want to, but he’s right on time.”

The life of faith can be hard.  However, we know that God is faithful and will be with us, even in those days where God seems distant.

Faith is not for the weak.  Thanks be to God that we don’t have to trust alone.

Come Sunday: “Let’s Get Liminal” (October 13, 2013)

liminal

21st Sunday of Pentecost

October 13, 2013

Luke 17:11-19

They went, and while still on their way, became clean. One of them, when he realized that he was healed, turned around and came back, shouting his gratitude, glorifying God. He kneeled at Jesus’ feet, so grateful. He couldn’t thank him enough—and he was a Samaritan.

-Luke 17:14-16

lim·i·nal /ˈlimənl/- 1. of or relating to a transitional or initial stage of a process. 2. occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold.

 

liminalBorders are interesting things.  I grew up in Michigan only an hour in two directions to the US/Canadian border.  When driving accross a border, you stop at a booth where someone from Customs asks why you are coming to their fair nation and what are your intentions.  After looking at our passports, the officer waves us through to a new nation.

Borders, especially land crossings, are interesting because one moment you are here and the next there.  You could walk from here to there quite easily if it weren’t for those customs officers that stand in your way.  Borders are like going through the looking glass into another reality, something that is familiar and yet very different.

In preparing for this sermon, a word kept showing  up in the online commentaries I was reading: liminal.  I’ve heard it being used more and more in religious contexts to describe the times we live in; the in between time, on the edge of something better. I kept wondering what liminal had to do with this passage.  As I think about it, the passage has everything to do with being liminal.  Actually, Jesus is all about the liminal.  Jesus seemed to stand in the middle of things, in the borderlands.  Jesus seems to be all about crossing boundaries.  Here’s Jesus talking to the Samaritan woman at the well.  There’s him healing a woman considered unclean.  In this passage he heals ten lepers.  He decides to cross the boundary that separated him from these lepers.  Because he crossed a boundary, one of the ex-lepers comes back to thank Jesus for healing him and that man happened to be a Samaritan.

As I am writing this, we are finishing up day 10 of the federal government shutdown.  I know people have their views on who is to blame, but what is striking me is how polarized we have become as a society.  Republicans over here, Democrats over there.  We humans are good at creating barriers, walls and fences at our borders to keep the other out.

And yet, Jesus walks in and cross the border with ease.

The Samaritan ex-leper was thankful for being healed.  Maybe we should be thankful for a God that is liminal, that breaks boundaries and heals us.

But there is another understanding of being liminal.  That meaning is basically being at the threshold of something.  Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem where he would suffer and die.  Each stop along the way was part of a process, bringing him closer and closer to a moment where everything would change.

When I thought of this second meaning, a song immediately popped in my head.  It’s a song from the 80s, but it feels at times like it came out yesterday.  It’s the song “Verge of a Miracle” by the late Rich Mullins.  Mullins was a contemporary Christian artist that was popular in the 80s and 90s and this song was one of his early hits.  The chorus goes:

You’re on the verge of a miracle
Standing there – oh –
You’re on the verge of a miracle
Just waiting to be believed in
Open your eyes and see
You’re on the verge of a miracle

I think that our lives as Christians are ones that are perched at the threshold of something, something we don’t always know.  What if we saw our daily walk as one where we are on the verge of a miracle?  What if we saw these miracles as times where we cross borders and become agents of healing?

Go and be church.

Come Sunday: “Part-Time Lover” (September 8, 2013)

Sixteenth Sunday of Pentecost (Year C)

September 8, 2013

Luke 14:25-33

One day when large groups of people were walking along with him, Jesus turned and told them, “Anyone who comes to me but refuses to let go of father, mother, spouse, children, brothers, sisters—yes, even one’s own self!—can’t be my disciple. Anyone who won’t shoulder his own cross and follow behind me can’t be my disciple.

Luke 14:25-27 (The Message)

part_time_helpOn September 8, 2002, I was ordained a minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).  As I reflect on eleven years in ministry, I’ve noticed something: every ministerial position I’ve had has been part-time.  I spent the last five years as part-time Associate Pastor in Minneapolis, and this Sunday I begin as the Supply Pastor of a church northeast of St. Paul.

I actutally like working part-time.  In most cases, the churches couldn’t fund a full time position, which is was okay by me.  I was still able to do ministry, though it was far more limited than what could be done as a full-time pastor.

When you’re a part-time clergyperson, especially if you have another job, you have to learn how to manage your time.  Since we only have 24 hours in the day, I have to decide what is most important to get done.  Somehow, I’ve managed to pull it off.  That said, being part-time with another job means that you aren’t always focused.  You have to deal with two things vying for attention which can weaken your committment to both.

In the gospel lesson for today, we see Jesus telling the crowds that to be a disciple, a follower of Jesus, they need to “hate” their families and even their own lives.  That’s a harsh statement to hear.  How many of us want to tell off our relatives?  We don’t like this passage (well, at least I don’t like it) because it’s so black and white.  There’s no room for a part-time lover; you’re either all in or you’re not.

I wonder though if we are looking at the text wrong.  What if Jesus isn’t calling us to hate our mothers and fathers and siblings, but is calling us to place everything, including our families under the lordship of Jesus.  What if Jesus is saying that to be a follower means that every aspect of our lives is given over to God?

The late Dallas Willard wrote about this passage.  He thought this was less about some kind of drugery, where we have to give up things we love and instead “count the cost” in a spirit of joy:

So this counting of the cost is not a moaning and groaning session. “Oh how terrible it is that I have to value all of my ‘wonderful’ things (which are probably making life miserable and hopeless anyway) less than I do living in the kingdom! How terrible that I must be prepared actually to surrender them should that be called for!” The counting of the cost is to bring us to the point of clarity and decisiveness. It is to help us to see. Counting the cost is precisely what the persons with the pearl and the hidden treasure did. Out of it came their decisiveness and joy. It is decisiveness and joy that are the outcomes of the counting.

What this passage in Luke is about is clarity. It is not about misery or about some incredibly dreadful price that one must pay to be Jesus’ apprentice. There is no such thing as a dreadful price for the “pearl” in question. Suffering for him is actually something we rejoice to be counted worthy of (Acts 5:41; Phil. 1:29). The point is simply that unless we clearly see the superiority of what we receive as his students over every other thing that might be valued, we cannot succeed in our discipleship to him. We will not be able to do the things required to learn his lessons and move ever deeper into a life that is his kingdom.

Of course, if we are holding on to our dear lives, we won’t want to give anything out of joy.  But what if we loosen our grip and start to see how God works in every nook and cranny of our lives.  Not just when it comes to religious matters, but in our work, our play and our relationships.  As Willard notes, this passage is really about clarity.  It’s that experience of dizzyness we get when we wear a new pair of glasses.  Everything looks the same, but everything is different now.

Jesus does want it all.  But I don’t think this is about some kind lenten abstinence writ large.  No, it’s more like having second sight and seeing things in a different way.  It’s learning how even the most mundane aspects of life are given over to God.

None of this is to say that there aren’t times when we do have to make a clean break.  But more often than not, it’s understanding that this is God’s world and we are God’s servants, ready to see what God would have us to in God’s world.

Jesus isn’t looking for a part-time Christian, but full-time disciples.

And the benefits aren’t that bad.

 

Go and be church.

Come Sunday: The Church on the Edge of Forever (August 18, 2013)

Thirteen Sunday of Pentecost (Year C)

August 18, 2013

Hebrews 11:29-12:2

city on the edge of foreverOne of the best episodes of the TV series “Star Trek” is one called “The City On the Edge of Forever.”  Dr. McCoy gets an accidental overdose of drug that makes him mad.  He beams down to a planet with Kirk and Spock right behind him.  They arrive on the planet and stand in front of what seems like the largest TV I’ve ever seen.  McCoy, still in his drugged state, leaps into what is called the Guardian of Forever.  The minute he goes in, the landing party loses contact with the Enterprise.  We find out that McCoy has somehow changed history, causing the Enterprise to not exist.  Spock and Kirk enter the portal and find themselves in Depression-era America.  The two meet a young woman who works at a soup kitchen.  She is a peace activist that was supposed to die in a car accident.  However, McCoy saves her from getting hit by a car.  His one action caused a series of other actions that lead to the timeline radically changing.  Edith is able to lead a nationwide peace movement that keeps the United States out of World War II.  This allowed Nazi Germany to develop the atomic bomb and win the war.  To make a long story short, Kirk stops McCoy from saving Edith from the oncoming car.  Edith dies and the timeline is restored, but at a terrible cost.

In last week’s blog post, I talked about how faith is about doing something for God without knowing how the story ends.  This week’s passage in Hebrews has me thinking about how our actions have implications far beyond our own time.  The passage talks about how so many folks acted on faith and didn’t face happy endings.  They were faced with a choice and in faith decided to follow one road.  Because Abraham believed, a nation was born.  Because the Israelite believed, they could cross the Red Sea on dry land.  Choices were made that shaped our future.

What comes to mind for this coming Sunday is about how so many churches and religious agencies are facing tight budgets.  Many churches struggle to make ends meet.  Others end up closing.  It’s easy to look at our sanctuaries, which were once empty and are now barely occupied and wonder if God can work with our faith community.

The answer is yes.  The writer of Hebrews talks about a number of unnamed people who also heard the call of God and chose to step out in faith.  But as they say, there is always a downside:

I could go on and on, but I’ve run out of time. There are so many more—Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, the prophets. . . . Through acts of faith, they toppled kingdoms, made justice work, took the promises for themselves. They were protected from lions, fires, and sword thrusts, turned disadvantage to advantage, won battles, routed alien armies. Women received their loved ones back from the dead. There were those who, under torture, refused to give in and go free, preferring something better: resurrection. Others braved abuse and whips, and, yes, chains and dungeons. We have stories of those who were stoned, sawed in two, murdered in cold blood; stories of vagrants wandering the earth in animal skins, homeless, friendless, powerless—the world didn’t deserve them!—making their way as best they could on the cruel edges of the world.

39-40 Not one of these people, even though their lives of faith were exemplary, got their hands on what was promised. God had a better plan for us: that their faith and our faith would come together to make one completed whole, their lives of faith not complete apart from ours.
Hebrews 11:32-40 (The Message)

The night before his assasination, Martin Luther King gave his “I’ve been to the Mountaintop” speech.  It’s an eerie forshadowing of what he was going to face hours later, but it also sums up what it means to have faith in God and our part in ushering in God’s kingdom.We all have a part to play, but we won’t always get to see the end of the story.  Here’s what he says towards the end of that speech:

And then I got to Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers? … Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t really matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live – a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

King saw that he was part of something bigger than himself.  He knew that he was doing God’s work and he had the eyes of faith to see what the completed work would look like.

As followers of Jesus, we need to remind ourselves that our actions matter.  We might not see the ending, but we can know that we part of the great cloud of witnesses that will have an effect on people generations from now.

Go and be church.

I preached a sermon in 2010 based on the Hebrews text.  You can read it here.

Come Sunday: The Ant and the Grasshopper-Remixed (August 4, 2013)

Eleventh Sunday of Pentecost (Year C)

August 4, 2013

Luke 12:13-21

Here’s what I’ll do: I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones. Then I’ll gather in all my grain and goods, and I’ll say to myself, Self, you’ve done well! You’ve got it made and can now retire. Take it easy and have the time of your life!’

20 “Just then God showed up and said, ‘Fool! Tonight you die. And your barnful of goods—who gets it?

-Luke 12:18-20 (The Message)

the-ant-and-the-grasshopper-an-interactive-children-s-book-by-tabtale-screenshot-4When I was a kid, I loved the fable of the Ant and the Grasshopper.  The Ant was the serious type and worked hard to prepare for the coming winter.  The Grasshopper was more of the free spirit who didn’t worry much about anything, especially the future.

The story ends with winter arriving and the Ant all cozy in his modest two bedroom apartment.  Meanwhile the Grasshopper is shivering in the biting winds, hungry and wondering what will happen to him.

I wanted to be that Ant.  I wanted to prepare for the winter and I even remember telling my mother one morning as I was getting ready for school that we needed to prepare for the oncoming Michigan winter, just like the Ant.

In today’s passage, we see Jesus telling a story of his own.  In this one the rich farmer ends up with a big harvest.  He ends up building large barns to store his harvest and he then decides to kick back, relax and enjoy life, a little like that Ant in that children’s fable.

Except this time, God comes in and tells the farmer that he will die this evening and all of big earnings will be of no use to him.

In this tale, the Ant doesn’t fare so well.

What was wrong with the farmer?  In one case, nothing.  He had a big harvest on his hands.  He had worked hard for this and wanted to enjoy it.  It’s hard to see this guy as greedy; I mean he is just enjoying the fruit of his labor.

Maybe that’s why this story is so upsetting- because the farmer’s greed doesn’t look like greed.  Most of us in his place would probably do the same thing and in fact, we do that all the time.  We buy things telling ourselves that we need them and it doesn’t really look like we are being greedy-we’re just enjoying life.

Was the farmer greedy because he didn’t share what he had with others?  The harvest ends up in the barns.  What would have happened had he shared the harvest with others?  What if we saw the bounty not as an occasion to pat ourselves on the back, but to be generous to others?

Jesus tells the story of the greedy farmer as the Message calls it, in response to a man who wants his bother to share their inheritance.  Theologian Russell Rathburn notes that the man is probably the younger brother who in that time and place was entitled to a smaller share than his older brother.  The younger brother wasn’t happy with what he had, he wanted more than his fair share. So Jesus then tells what has to be the first stewardship sermon.

As followers of Jesus, we are called to place everything at God’s feet and that includes our finances.  We are called to be wise stewards.  We are called to be generous with what we have.  And we aren’t called to build bigger houses…I mean barns to store our stuff…or harvest.

In one version of the Ant and Grasshopper tale, the Grasshopper is left to freeze in the cold.  Another version has the Ant taking the Grasshopper in and feeding his fellow insect.  I’m going to guess that the first version is the “correct” version of the tale.  But I kind of want to believe that the second version still has some validity, for the only reason to show that the wise Ant was not only supposed to be prudent, but also compassionate and generous.

Thanks the kind of Ant I want to be.

Go and be church.

More Resources

Here is what other scholars and pastors have to say about this week’s passage:

David Lose: What Money Can’t Buy

Carol Howard Merritt: Greed and Responsibility

Rick Morley: To Covet or Not