Friday, November 16, 2018
Friday, November 9, 2018
Sunday is our annual Stewardship Sunday, the day we make financial commitments for our shared work of ministry for the year ahead. It may not sound too exciting, but faithfulness, properly understood, is rarely dramatic. Faithfulness, rightly practiced, simply becomes a part of the way we live our lives.
One of the least dramatic and most overlooked heroes in the Bible is Boaz. He was not a warrior, prophet, or king. He was a farmer and real estate developer. Those may not sound like the most exciting of vocations, but Boaz’s skills, focused though his steadfast faithfulness, become the means through which God advanced the redemption of first Boaz, then his new family (including Ruth and Naomi), then his community of Israel, and finally the redemption of all flesh, through Boaz’s great (28 times over) grandson, Jesus of Nazareth.
Come and hear about how we are all called to practice faithfulness with precisely the gifts we have already received. And at the end of each service we will share our commitments for 2019 in a celebration of our community’s faithfulness and the faithfulness of God from whom all our blessing flow.
Friday, November 2, 2018
Faithfulness is not a sentiment. Faithfulness is action lived out in committed love. The Hebrews had a special word for this, they called it Hesed. Hesed is that special kind of stubborn, faithful love that God shows to God’s people and that God asks us to emulate. The best example of living this sort of love in scripture is the story of Ruth and Naomi who commit to each other, despite poverty, death, and danger, to form a new family, a new community, and ultimately a new nation to which we now belong.
The story of Ruth is the only extended narrative about women in the Bible that does not involve the men in their lives (fathers, sons, or husbands). Instead, it is an extended reflection on what can happen when we start living into (however provisionally) God’s love in our lives. When Ruth and Naomi start emulating the love of God, their lives and destinies change forever.
On Sunday we will consider their lesson and what it may mean for us today.
Friday, October 26, 2018
What does a blind man begging on the outskirts of a dusty Middle Eastern oasis town have to do with the Protestant Reformation?
Rather a lot actually.
Sometimes it takes a blind man to see what is really going on. All throughout the Gospel of Mark, people are asking Jesus for things. Peter wants a better sort of Messiah. James and John want to be princes in the Kingdom of God. A rich young man wants eternal life. One beggar outside of Jericho seems to be able to see much more than they ever saw. Bartimaeus, although blind, sees how dependent he is on God. He asks for mercy and receives it.
Jesus heals lots of people in the Gospel of Mark, but only one will follow him. Come and find out about this man’s story, a story that can also be ours.
Friday, October 19, 2018
He gives us a seemingly simple instruction: you must receive the kingdom of God as a little child in order to enter it. It is another of Jesus’ “mic drop” moments that has the disciples (and us) scratching their heads in confusion and frustration. Much like camels and eyes of needles, this, too, seems like an impossible expectation for us as human adults. We are not children; therefore, how can we possibly receive the kingdom of God as a child?
With this instruction, Jesus encourages us to think deeper about what it means to be like a child. Innocent? Humble? Honest? Good? What exactly is it that makes a child a child and, more importantly, how do we as grown women and men of Christ adopt those traits ourselves? These are the big questions that Jesus encourages us to consider.
Join us this week as we celebrate Children’s Sabbath and learn what it means to teach, love, and grow our youngest worshipers in the practices of Christian discipleship. Come learn what it means to answer Jesus’ invitation to “let the children come.”
Friday, September 21, 2018
I feel embarrassed and ashamed for the disciples and, ultimately, for me. Jesus, whose face will from now on in our narrative be set toward the cross, has told the disciples that he will be betrayed, be killed, and then rise again. The disciples are completely unable or unwilling or unprepared to hear this news. They do not understand his words and are afraid to ask Jesus to explain any further.
My embarrassment and shame come with knowing that all the while Jesus is telling the disciples of his pending death, suffering, and resurrection, the disciples are arguing! Arguing about who was the greatest among them! Something that is easy for me to laugh about and easy for me to point to the disciples as complete failures, until I remember that I have been exactly where the disciples are in this passage. Focused on such trivial, individual, ego-centered things in my life while completely missing God’s call to be a servant to others and to God.
What a contrast between the two scenarios! We are called to be servants of God. And just in case we don’t understand what Jesus is saying (like the disciples), Jesus takes a child and puts the child among them as a visible reminder of how we are to be as God’s people.
Friday, September 7, 2018
Mark is a funny book. Unlike other books in the Bible, it actually has a title and it is not Mark. “The Beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” is its formal title and that tells you something very important. The whole rest of the Gospel, all of it, is merely the beginning of the good news. This curious nature of the Gospel is accented by its equally curious ending. There isn’t one. All the oldest texts of this Gospel end abruptly at verse 16:8, a cliffhanger almost daring you to write the next chapter. And in the absolute middle of the Gospel, at its geographic and narrative hinge hangs Sunday’s lesson.
Mark is a funny book for another reason. While you are reading it, it is reading you. It challenges us at every turn asking as much as telling us about who this Jesus is and what he means. Nowhere is this more starkly displayed than in the eighth chapter where Jesus asks you and me, the reader, who do you say I am? The question confounds and cuts to the core of our faith and life. We all answer it one way or another and ignoring it is a clear answer as well. We do not answer it so much with our words as with our lives and the commitments to which we give witness. The world–markets, media, politics, law, culture–will quite happily provide an answer for us, but that is not what Jesus is asking. He wants to know your answer.
He is waiting.
Friday, August 31, 2018
Okay, enough of questionable Old Testament Kings. It is the end of summer, Labor Day Weekend, time for something a little different.
In between all the heavy duty doom and gloom of the Old Testament books is a tiny little text squeezed between Proverbs and Isaiah. Most Christians have never read it and most ministers will never preach on it. The Song of Songs (aka The Song of Solomon) is the Bible’s one and only epic love poem. For centuries, it has been interpreted allegorically as a poetic description of the love between God and humankind, but it can be read much more directly as a reflection on human love. Mostly it has been ignored especially by Protestants who don’t seem to know what to do with it.
What is the relationship between human love and divine love? If there is a relationship, then what does our experience of love tell us about God? Maybe this silly little love song provides us some answers.
Friday, August 24, 2018
King Solomon finally gets to dedicate the Temple in Jerusalem. It had always been something of an embarrassment for him and for David that their capital city lacked a suitably impressive temple for their national god. All the other Kings and Kingdoms had their national shrines dedicated to their tribal deities and Israel wanted one too. The only problem was that Israel’s freedom-loving deity, “I will be who I will be!” does not seem too interested in being kept as anyone’s domesticated deity no matter how impressive the temple abode might be.
Of all the religions of the ancient Near East, the God of Israel appears to be the only one who does not hallow space. Time is held sacred for this God, remember the sabbath, but not so much space. Indeed, God instructed Moses specifically not to build a temple, but rather a modest pup tent outside the camp where they could meet.
Instead of desiring architectural masterpieces, this curious God of the desert seems much more interested in relationships than in real estate. What seems to matter is the quality and depth of sharing, commitment, and trust that can be nurtured between this God and the people.
Temples are the places where God directly encounters God’s people and the world. For this God, the name of the only temple that really matters is your name and its only location that will ever matter is at the center of your life.
Friday, August 17, 2018
King Solomon has a reputation for great wisdom. And at least at the start of his reign, he seems to have been a genuinely wise ruler. But as the years went on, he started to change. Power and wealth changed him. He began to view himself less as a servant of God’s people and started to view the people as his servants. He raised taxes, got involved in foreign wars, and impressed the people into forced labor gangs to build his magnificent building projects. His administration alienated the northern tribes of Israel, and upon his death they broke off to form their own Kingdom.
And yet . . . and yet at the beginning of his reign he showed such promise. He prayed one of the greatest prayers for leadership ever known. He starts with such good intentions and then things fall apart. Why? That is the question we will be considering on Sunday along with some of the possible answers.
Friday, August 10, 2018
We all love the parable of the prodigal son as told by Jesus in the Gospel of Luke, but that parable is an illustration about the character of God, not us. On our own, we produce other stories. On our own, the prodigal does not always return.
The origin story of Israel is the story of David and his family. We easily remember the heroic beginnings facing Goliath, but few remember the long ugly story that follows filled with murder, rape, betrayals, and ultimately civil war. But that too is part of David’s story and Israel’s.
Tragedy, in the literary sense, is a drama that considers the sorrowful events that necessarily flow from the protagonist’s fatal flaw. The protagonist eventually realizes this, but it is too late to do anything about it. This underlying plot informs much of world literature from Oedipus Rex and Hamlet to Game of Thrones. It also happens to be the underlying story of Israel. The Kingdom of Israel is formed out of the desire of the people to be like other Kingdoms, to have a strong an domineering King, and a powerful army. This desire for worldly power will be their undoing.
Somewhere in David’s career, he ceases to be the shepherd and poet and assumes the persona of the King. From that moment on, everything else in the story will necessarily follow. The King cannot also be the shepherd. The King cannot also be the father. The iron clad necessities of Kingship and power politics eventually deprive him of his family. And in the end, there is nothing that the King can do about it and he realizes it. Tragedy entraps the King and the commoner alike. In order to break that cycle of tragedy you are going to need someone a good deal more powerful than the King. In order to finally break the cycles of tragedy and redeem the prodigal, you are going to need God.
Friday, August 3, 2018
The sins of humankind have a rippling effect. We know the damage and suffering which David’s sin against Bathsheba and Uriah had on each of these innocent folk but the suffering does not stop with Bathsheba and Uriah. Generations following David will suffer due to David’s lust and greed. It is a humbling reality to know that our sin hurts others and hurts the Body of Christ. It is a humbling reality to know that when we sin against each other, we sin against God.
What a mess we are as broken, sinful humans! And how much greater is God’s forgiveness when we are faced with our own brokenness.
The story of God calling out David through the voice of Nathan the prophet is told through a parable. We are drawn into David’s complete obliviousness to his own sin as the parable unfolds and David’s wrath builds. We have to admit that we are pleased when David finally realizes that he is the offender in the parable!
Our scripture passage for this Sunday draws us into the painful reality of our sin and the way our sin hurts others. It also draws us into the loving and forgiving nature of God in spite of our brokenness. As we join together for worship this Sunday, may we find ourselves in the characters of this story and may we find ourselves in the forgiving arms of God.
Friday, July 13, 2018
It is an awful story, the worst in the entire Gospel. It may be worse than the passion narrative because at least that has a happy ending. The end of John the Baptist displays all the worst qualities of humanity: fear, greed, violence, and injustice. There is no good news here, no Gospel, only tragic, senseless loss.
So, why did Mark include it? Luke deletes it altogether. Matthew offers an edited summary. John never mentions it. Only Mark shares the story in all its ugly details. And Mark places it in a curious spot, right in the middle of Jesus’ public ministry. Right between Jesus sending out the Twelve and the feeding of the five thousand, Mark inserts this extended flashback. The execution of John presents the counter narrative to everything that Jesus has been preaching and teaching. Indeed, it is the only story in the whole Gospel in which Jesus does not appear. Maybe that is Mark’s point. This story is the alternative for humanity. This story is the anti-Gospel. This story is all about what life is like without Christ.
Friday, July 6, 2018
First an important theological statement: Jesus is not Superman. This will be relevant later on.
Sunday’s passage is often overlooked because it tends to contradict people’s assumptions about Jesus. Jesus walks back to his hometown, Nazareth, and finds a rather chilly reception. He has a hard time doing miracles there. Actually, other than a few healings, he cannot do any miracles there. Jesus failing to do miracles is not what we expect the Bible to be describing. We much prefer Superman Jesus able to do whatever he wants whenever he wants it, especially supernatural miracles. But we tend to forget that the word miracle also means, “sign.” Miracles were not simply displays of power. Miracles were signs and portents of the coming of the Kingdom of God. The problem is what kind of signs of the coming of the Kingdom of God will manifest among people who were not all that interested in the coming of the Kingdom of God? Answer: none.
It seems that this whole Kingdom thing is necessarily going to involve us. It will not depend on us, on our successes or failures in ministry, but also will not happen without our involvement. Maybe that is because neither faith nor love can be coerced or compelled, not even by God. God though Jesus invites us as family and friends, not subjects or pets. Love, without freedom, is merely submission.
After the Nazareth fiasco, Jesus sends the Twelve out for their first discipleship mission. After telling them what not to bring, he tells them what to do when they fail, “If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.”
It may seem odd that Jesus starts his pep talk to the disciples by discussing failure. But that is sort of the essence of His plan. Our ultimate victory is not dependent on our superhuman achievements but rather on defeat. The Kingdom comes not through fantastic displays of power, but rather through the cross in which our end is foreseen and already present. Superman never embraced defeat and death, but Jesus did and made it the means to an even greater victory: the reconciliation and restoration of all things. And that victory can never be our achievement (it is way out of our league). Our victory is never a work of our labor or even our love, it is an act of wonder emerging right in the heart of failure and defeat.
Friday, June 8, 2018
The actual good news (the Gospel) that Jesus announces is that the Kingdom of God draws near. All the other things he demonstrates along the way like forgiveness, love, justice, and resurrection are merely attributes of that Kingdom that have started manifesting now in this world. All of it is good news, but we tend to forget that it is also unsettling news. The arrival of God’s Kingdom necessarily displaces every other Kingdom, loyalty, commitment, and assumption. And some of those things we are quite fond of. Some of those commitments give us status, security, wealth, ground our identities. So when Jesus goes out of his way to start questioning or at least relativizing some of the core commitments of his community–religion and family–it upsets a lot of people.
Jesus’ own family goes out to persuade him to tone it down a little. So do the religious folks. Jesus is utterly uncompromising. To the religious folks who seem to think he is possessed he suggests that their lack of perception is a sin that will never be forgiven. And then when his own mother, Mary, and his brothers call him aside he rebuffs them, “who are my mother and brothers?” Those roles and relationships so foundational to our identity–religion and family–do not seem to be so important to Jesus. He never seemed to get the church memo on “family values.”
But Jesus also never advocated abolishing religion or family. He simply wanted to expand it. Religion is a good way of entering into a relationship with God, but the relationship itself is what matters not the means of getting there. Similarly the kind of love and commitment one learns and shares in family is precious and holy so it must be shared beyond our genetic families with everyone. Jesus is redefining and expanding the span of the human heart to embrace everyone who share in his project. This new family is the people the God, the ones who even now have started living their lives as citizens of God’s Kingdom.
We tend to organize our world into neat, tidy categories of us and them. Jesus pokes holes in all our boundaries, even the one between life and death, and then invites us to step through to embrace the stranger on the other side. When we do that we discover that we are the ones being embraced. When we do that we discover we are held by the true mother and father of us all.
Friday, April 20th, 2018
On Easter Sunday the job of the preacher is to announce the reality of the resurrection: Jesus who was once dead is now not dead. It is not something you preach about so much as simply point to and let the music and scripture make the triumphal announcement far better than humble prose. But in the weeks that follow Easter, that is during the church’s season of Easter, we explore what Jesus resurrection signifies and means for us.
The Gospel of Luke explores resurrection through the experience of the disciples, the men who (unlike Jesus’ female followers) had abandoned their teacher and were off in hiding. It is to them that Jesus comes and invites them to participate in his world healing work. I take great comfort in the fact that that the disciples were anything but saintly. They were confused cowards, which to me indicates that God sets the bar for discipleship rather low. They could not even open the door to let him into their room. Instead, Jesus simply passes through the wall and materializes before them, which reassures me that no matter how many barriers I erect to keep Jesus away, he can walk straight through them. And there in the middle of all their fears and their doubts he invites them to be his witnesses–simply telling the truth of what has happened.
I will never be a saint. Sometimes I do not even want to get out of bed in the morning. But I can tell the truth. I too can be a witness. And so can you. Jesus does not call us to superhuman heroics. We can start participating in Jesus’ healing of the world the moment we simply decide to start telling our truth.
Friday, March 30th, 2018
It is a very odd way to end a Gospel. You are not supposed to end a sentence with a preposition, let alone a book. But that is precisely how Mark ends, with a grammatically dangling cliffhanger. It is actually no ending at all. It is all a beginning. The original title (the Gospel is anonymous) of the whole Gospel is “The Beginning of the Good News of Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God.” Everything else that follows is just that, the beginning of the Good News. Unsurprisingly, there is no ending because the book we call the Gospel is the beginning, not the end of the story. Mark intentionally leaves the story open to us, the readers who now will write the next chapter in the story of the Messiah’s saving work. Nothing is over, nothing is finished. Now it is our turn.
The redemption of the world began outside of Jerusalem 2000 years ago, and now we are a part of it. Jesus died on Friday and was alive again on Sunday and somewhere in between broke death. Happy Easter . . . and remember that resurrection is still going on right now.
Friday, March 23rd, 2018
Palm Sunday is a profoundly ambiguous day in the life of Jesus . . . and the church. Jesus rides a donkey into Jerusalem and the crowds cheer him on, but why? Who do they see? A preacher and prophet or a rebel coming to take on the Romans? The governor sees a trouble maker who will need to be ‘taken care of.’ The Sanhedrin sees a rabble rouser who is going to get some gullible people killed. The crowds see some sort of national liberator so they greet him with cries of, “Hosanna, blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord,” which is the exact same greeting used for the Maccabees, revolutionary nationalists who stormed Jerusalem 150 years earlier and established their own rather corrupt for of kingship. It is almost as if Palm Sunday was a Rorschach test in which every person saw what she or he wanted to see.
The question is the same for us. A Galilean peasant wanders into town on a donkey, who do we see? We tend to worship our assumptions about Jesus more than the actual Jesus and we call those assumptions idols. This final week of Jesus’ life challenges all our assumptions demonstrating their presumption and indeed the limits of all human reason and imagination. The cross proves for all time that whatever we know or think we know about God is probably wrong. God is beyond all that. God is beyond life and death. And at the exact same time, God is also that man riding the donkey down the hill. Hold those two contradictory thoughts in your head at the same time and you will be well on your way to the truth of Holy Week.
Friday, March 16th, 2018
I like the idea that God forgives sin. I like the idea that my “verdict” is changed from guilty to pardoned. My problem is that I still know what a mess I am–all the things I have done that I have regretted and all the good things that I was too timid to do–and so does God. It is nice to be forgiven, but that still leaves a pall over the relationship, both for me (I tightly cling to my own failures) and for God (who knows me a little too well for comfort).
But what if God forgets? I realize that selective amnesia would be a curious attribute for an omniscient being, but what if God intentionally forgets the bad stuff? What if God’s knowledge, vast though it may be, is subordinate to God’s love? Maybe God could selectively forget all my mess ups, my fears that prevented me from acting when I should, my petty desires and idolatries, and my foolishness. If God forgot all that, then what God would remember would be a lot more like the me I want to be and the me God intended me to be. Maybe resurrection is simply God selectively remembering us (literally putting us back together) and forgetting what should be forgotten.
Dear God, please forgive me and please also forget in your great love everything in me that is not of you. Amen.
Friday, March 9th, 2018
One of the distinctive things about our particular branch of Christianity, the Reformed theological tradition, is that we do not view salvation by God through the love of Jesus as the end of our story, but rather the beginning of it. God forgiving us and embracing us in love is the starting point for life. Indeed, if some street preacher ever asks you when you were “saved,” the best answer is over a long weekend sometime around 33 A.D. We begin with salvation. The interesting question is where do you go from there?
In the book of Ephesians, Paul (or at least I think it was probably Paul, but that is another conversation) talks about the real direction of life, both mortal and eternal. We were made to grow into communion with God. We enter into union with God through participation with what God is doing in the world, which is Christ. We are created in Christ and returning towards that union is the direction and the journey of our lives.
Friday, March 2nd, 2018
Friday, February 23rd, 2018
Among the conversations I had with members of our community this week, two struck me as uniquely helpful in understanding this week’s Bible passage. The first observation came from a very honest Bible interpreter in our congregation who noted that Abraham was kind of a jerk. And so were many of his descendants. This may seem obvious, but it is important for how we understand what God is up to and what covenant means. God’s covenant with Abraham is not a reward for meritorious service. Whatever Abraham does that makes him arguably “faithful” comes later in the story after God establishes a relationship, the covenant, with Abraham. At the beginning of the story, the only thing that happens is God asks Abraham (at that time Abram) if he wants to go for a walk and Abraham says okay. That’s it. So, this whole covenant thing certainly does not seem unduly reliant on promises from our side. It is all coming from God.
The second significant conversation I had was with a person who felt like he/she had insufficient faith. I know this person to have deep convictions and a lifetime of committed service to others. It made me realize how important it is to understand that faith is not forcing oneself as an act of blind will to assent to an ever longer list of ever more improbable facts. Faith is simply trust. Trusting God. Trust does not require understanding. Trust arises between us in relationship. Trust is never our possession, but rather a quality of our relationships. And based on the entire story of the covenant, God seems to yearn for trust over understanding.
Both of these observations help me make sense of the story of Abraham and Paul’s subsequent interpretation of it. God does not love us because we are particularly good, just, loving, or righteous. Most of the time we are none of those things. God simply wants to enter into a trusting relationship with us, and if we are are willing to do that, we may find ourselves led like Abraham to a whole new world and a new destiny.
Friday, February 16th, 2018
The story of Noah’s Ark always made me feel uneasy. The animals processing into the ark two by two (or fourteen by fourteen depending on which verses you read) makes for a nice scene, but the story is fundamentally about genocide–God wiping out almost every human being and terrestrial animal. It was the whole genocide part that scared me as a child partly because I could not swim very well!
As odd as it sounds, it is is the direct aftermath of this world spanning destruction that God changes the terms of God’s relationship with us and with this world forever. God unilaterally commits to limit God’s own freedom and never again destroy the world with a flood. God did not need to do that. God chose to do that. God enters into a new and closer relationship with humanity and with the entire created natural order and commits to be with and for creation (and humanity as a part of it) forever. The name of this change in our relationship is called covenant.
It is so easy in our presumptions of self importance to forget that we (human beings) are not the only things God cares about. Salvation is not merely about us, it is about all of creation and every creature within it.
Friday, February 2nd, 2018
If you want to learn about Jesus’ life, read the Gospels. If you want to learn about following Jesus in this messed up world, especially with other people who are not always so cooperative, read Paul’s letters.
It may sound like an esoteric question for cultural historians of ancient religions: what do you do with food (left over burnt animal sacrifices) that has been offered to pagan gods? Most people’s immediate answer is, who cares? But look more closely at how Paul answers this question and you may be surprised at its contemporary significance.
Ancient pagan temples (and the temple in Jerusalem as well) sacrificed animals to the gods every day. But according to the priests the god(s) were only interested in the aroma. As a consequence, temples became enormous sources of grilled, smoked meat. In other words, ancient temples were barbecue joints. Offering free or steeply subsidized beef, lamb, goat, pigeon, chickens, and who knows what else to the public, these temples became enormously popular for the poor and often protein-deficient urban masses. So now imagine yourself as a newly baptized Christian in the great port city of Corinth. Can you join your friends and eat temple barbecue? Would eating it somehow be tacit worship of pagan gods? Or, since you know there is only one God who does not demand temple sacrifices any more, are you free to eat whatever your foolish pagan neighbors offer you?
Paul addresses this question in a surprising way. First he questions the value of knowledge: “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” As a result he goes on to suggest that there is no yes or no answer to the question independent of the relationship to the questioner. Of course, Paul admits there are no other gods so it really does not matter. But that is not the point. Instead, Paul insists that we must consider the consequences of our answer and its impact on others first. If eating temple barbecue would somehow offend the sensibilities of some members of the community causing them to drop out, then we should not eat it even though we may know, in principle, that it is okay to do so. What Paul seems to be saying is that there is no knowing, no deciding, no judging separate and outside the context of love, relationships, and community. What matters then is not whether we are right or wrong, but whether we are building up others in love or not.
Paul is hinting at a revolution in human consciousness and thought placing love, or more specifically loving, ahead of being right or wrong, even ahead of knowing.
Think about our world and all our little binary judgments: right and wrong, left and right, good and bad, black and white, male and female, Democrat and Republican, truth and falsehood, Patriots and Eagles. What if all those either/or judgments and distinctions are the wrong way of thinking? What would it look like, what might it feel like, what might it think like, if we transformed our minds so that love was the necessary and sufficient criterion of truth?
This is the Gospel according to Barbecue: we are called not only to live anew, but to think anew and reason anew in love. Being right, at least after Jesus, just is not so important any more.
Friday, January 26th, 2018
These words from St. Paul in his first letter to the church in Corinth are most frequently used in weddings. Unfortunately, they are not really about romantic love at all. English is a rather imprecise language and our word, “love,” tends to cover a lot of meanings from, “I love my wife,” to “I really love these cheese enchiladas.” The original language of the New Testament was a bit more subtle and sophisticated.
There is a very particular sort of affection that the Bible talks about, a selfless and self-giving sort of courageous openheartedness that the New Testament calls agape. It is more all-consuming than charity, disconnected from desire unlike our usual sense of romantic love, and more demanding than mere affection. C.S. Lewis described it as the sort of love that is passionately committed to the the well being of others. Agape is the kind of love that God shows and shares through Jesus with humanity and now asks us to share and show with each other. At its essence agape is the quality of God’s own internal love in Trinity, a type of love into which God, through Christ, invites us to participate. It is the same over-pouring love that gives rise to creation itself and will in God’s due time return us to God.
Agape, for Paul, is the mark and the measure of Christ’s community on earth, the church. Without it, we are just a lame social club that meets on Sunday morning. With it we are the vanguard of a new humanity emerging here and now amid the kingdoms of this world. It is God’s own love that we are called to reflect and share. The question for the church down through the ages and for us at Fairmont today is do we share and show that same quality of love and affection?
Friday, December 1, 2017
Mary never gets the credit she deserves in Protestant circles. She is the very first disciple. She says yes to God, yes to Jesus, solely on the basis of a promise. And at the very end of of Jesus’ life, at the foot of the cross after all the other disciples ran away, Mary is there too bearing witness to her son. She was a remarkable woman indeed.
Nazareth was not so much a village as a shanty town for laborers building the nearby Roman-Jewish city of Sepphoris down in the valley. Nazareth did not appear on any maps comprising just a few dozen homes and a well. In this inauspicious bordering on shabby setting, something amazing happened. Not the virginal conception, that is another miracle for another day. The more amazing miracle is demonstration of courage and trust by a young teenage girl perhaps 13 or 14 years of age saying yes to God–yes to God overturning her life and her plans, yes to God using her to intrude into space and time, yes to God setting her on a path that would lead to both great joy and great pain, and yes to God entering into her in the most intimate way imaginable. Moses was a great prophet and Daniel a great King, but Mary tops them all in her courage, resolve, and openness to God. Mary is a model for us all.
Unfortunately, Mary is often presented as the epitome of passivity, merely acquiescing to the demands of God, Joseph, and later Jesus. But that caricature (no doubt created by men) comes much later. Mary’s tenacious courage is on full display as she lets Gabriel hear some choice words that would likely not be fit for the pulpit and later when she elbows past the Roman guards at the cross, ignoring the risk of arrest. From her cousin Elizabeth she receives one of the rarest accolades in scripture: blessed are you among women. There are only three women described as blessed in all of scripture: Mary, Jael, and Judith. You know about Mary already. Jael is the Hebrew war leader described in the Book of Judges who assassinates Sisera, the commander of the Canaanite army, thereby saving the Jews. Centuries later in the Apocrypha, Judith would decapitate the invading Babylonian general Holofernes. These strong warrior women who save Israel through their courage are Mary’s scriptural sisters and the image they present is a far cry from Mary meek and mild.
Through the miracle of the incarnation God invades time overthrowing the power of sin and death and Mary is the first disciple to participate in that revolution. Blessed art thou among women indeed.
Friday, November 24, 2017
Sunday we celebrate Christ the King, the final Sunday of the year in the church’s liturgical calendar. It is not Thanksgiving. It is not pre-Christmas. It is something altogether different but merits giving thanks all on its own.
On Sunday we do not really celebrate merely that Christ is King. Kings are generally quite a bother. Instead, we celebrate the kind of King Christ is. At the very end of his life in the final moments on the cross, Jesus starts demonstrating exactly the kind of King he is and what his rule and reign will be like. With his final breath he starts exercising the prerogatives of sovereign rule and uses his authority to pardon. He does not declare the criminal dying next to him to be not guilty (and as an aside the Greek term here suggests that the man was a terrorist), but rather pardoned.
I believe in the Kingdom of God with all my heart and we do not fear the King’s judgment because we know already know what that judgment is. The judgment over your life and mine is pardon, not acquittal, not not-guilty, but pardon: the exclusive gift and grant of the royal sovereign. So now we are free to get on with the business of following Him. All thanks be to Christ our King.
Friday, November 10, 2017
Everything flows from a fundamental premise: do you believe in the resurrection? Jesus, throughout his teaching career, encountered Jews who believed in the possibility of resurrection (e.g. the Pharisees) and those who did not (e.g. the Sadducees). It is not an abstract question of theological fine print. How you answer this question determines what sort of universe you live in and indeed what kind of life you will live.
Do you believe in the resurrection? For Jesus and the early church, trust that God would redeem their bodies and indeed all creation provided the foundation for all their hopes and empowered their courage. But for their detractors, both then and now, it was simply an idle hope. We spend lots of time around Easter talking about why it is not an idle hope, but today I want you to consider some of the implications of resurrection. Our lives, our mortal lives that is, are not necessarily the full measure or flowering of who we really are. Who we really are is yet unformed. The things that can hurt us like sickness, shame, fear, and want, cannot really hurt us in a lasting way. And the things that we so often find important in this life like wealth, fame, and success, may not be so important after all. Resurrection resets all our assumptions and puts us into a new playing field with new rules. Resurrection makes everything different.
One way that resurrection changes everything is that our assumptions about economics, money, wealth, and security no longer make sense when examined from the point of view of God’s Kingdom. We don’t need to worry about financial security if we are already infinitely valued beyond time. We don’t need to be afraid if we know we have already won. Anxiety makes no sense when eternal belonging, joy, sharing, and growth are already ours.
So this year, I would like you to consider stewardship from the point of view of Easter Sunday. Now that you know death is broken and Jesus alone is Lord of life and death and life, what does that set you free to do? If you no longer needed to worry about fear, how would you live your life? The good news of the Gospel is that you are already free to start living that way today.
Friday, November 3, 2017
Where does generosity come from? Is it a vague emotional sentiment or a caring impulse? Well, yes but it is also much more. In the Bible generosity is simply part of humanity’s response to the truth. God has been abundantly, gracefully, generous with us–forgiving all our offenses and offering us new life as adopted children through Christ. As a consequence we are asked now to share in the family values and methods and participate in God’s generosity in our own lives. That means that the measure of generosity is not in dollar signs, but in the human heart. What we do with our time and our money matters because it reveals the truth of our lives. Generosity is simply the shape of the life of a person who has been touched by grace.
Stewardship sermons are as old as Christianity because Jesus calls us to participate in his ministry by stewarding our relationships, commitments, time and money. Jesus calls us to use those things that we have control over, whether they be meager or grand, for his mission and purpose of healing creation. Ultimately that is all that stewardship is about.
The church will continue by and through the Holy Spirit until its work is done. But our lives are shaped and directed by the commitments of our hearts and values. Who we are and who we will become are determined by what we do, how we think, how we love, and how we share. So the real question of Christian stewardship is not how much do you give, but who do you want to become?
Friday, October 27, 2017
On Sunday we celebrate Fairmont’s roots in the Protestant Reformation and in the Scottish Reformation in particular. This year’s celebration is especially significant because it marks the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. Beyond all the cultural trappings of tartans and bagpipes lies a much deeper inheritance. Luther, Calvin and Knox, all nudge us towards a new way of seeing the world no longer centered on our actions and our frequent failures, but rather on God’s sovereign reign and prevenient grace. In the formal language of Reformed theology, this as known as justification by grace through faith–we are made right with God through God’s action not ours. But in our lived experience it means that while we may get lost in the separation and alienation of sin, we are sought out, embraced, and made new through the power of God acting upon us. Nothing we do can earn this make it happen. It is all God’s doing. All we need to do is simply accept the fact that we are accepted!
Friday, October 20, 2017
Since child-like humility is the measure of true greatness, then we have a special responsibility to nurture and love not only our children but all children that God places in our life. Jesus warns what will happen to those who fail in this responsibility.
Whenever we baptize a child at Fairmont, our entire congregation makes a covenantal promise to God and that child that we will commit to guide and nurture that child and through prayer and love help them grow in discipleship. Jesus will hold us to account on how well we fulfill our promise. This Sunday we celebrate children in our congregation and the importance of our mission to nurture them in Christ. How will we, how will you commit yourself to help the children grow? We need your prayer, your hard work, your love, and your financial support to make this possible. It will not just “happen.” To raise up the next generation of Christ’s church requires all of us.
Friday, October 13, 2017
Friday, October 6, 2017
Friday, September 29, 2017
They may be the oldest words in the New Testament, song lyrics from a hymn whose tune is long forgotten. Paul quotes them to the congregation in Philippi knowing that they would be as familiar to the the Philippians as Amazing Grace is for us. They likely come from the very first generation of the church, the age when the disciples first preached the good news about Jesus. What they tell is that his good news is unlike any they ever heard. Unlike all the kings and emperors who went before, this King’s good news is all about one who emptied himself of everything–kingship and majesty, power and glory, and ultimately even life–for our sake. This Jesus was indeed King, but unlike any king we had ever known or could ever on our own imagine.
Everything in our world conspires to tell us that what counts in life is possession: getting and holding. We cling to our possessions, power, security, truth, prestige, and privilege. We embrace what is familiar and comforting. We grasp hold of our loved ones. But deep down we know it is all impermanent. Time has a nasty way of subverting all our attachments. And that means that our attachments give rise to a life time of pain, because we love the impermanent. That mismatch between transcendent love and the mortal, impermanent objects of our love is the source of all grief.
Jesus first says and then demonstrates with his own life that the way out of this trap is to let it go. Let it all go. “[He] emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.” And the curious, amazing, awe-inspiring, and bewildering thing is that release does not lead to loss, absence, poverty, or even death. Letting go leads to life.
This is what he showed us. Now he urges us to go and do likewise.
Friday, September 22, 2017
Of all the prophets in the Old Testament, none are as successful as Jonah. Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, Micah and all the rest preached to their own people urging them to repent. They all failed. Jonah, on the other hand, was sent to go preach to the citizens of Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire. Assyrians were the bullies of the late bronze age near east. They were famous for their savagery in war and cruelty in domination. It was the Assyrians who conquered and utterly destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel. These were the people to whom Jonah was sent on his prophetic mission.
We would expect Jonah to be used for archery practice or worse, but that is not what happened. The people of Nineveh listened to him and repented. They changed their ways. They changed their minds. They put on sack clothes and ashes as a sign of their transformation. Jonah had succeeded in his mission beyond his wildest dreams, which you would think would make him overjoyed. But it did not. Jonah was angry, angry at God.
Jonah had expected God to wipe out the Ninevites and when that did not happen, Jonah goes out to pout. God creates a little trellis of shrubs to shelter him, which makes Jonah quite happy. But the next day worms ate his cabana and Jonah had a temper tantrum. At the end of all Jonah’s whining, God asks a good question, “is it right for you to be angry?”
When we talk about repentance we get hung up on that word and all its baggage in our language. “Repentance,” for us usually means feeling really bad about things we have done that we now regret. But that is not what scripture in either the Old Testament or the New mean by it. In Hebrew, the term literally means to turn around. And in the Greek of the New Testament it means to transcend or transform one’s mind. In both cases repentance is not about guilt or shame. Repentance is about change.
The people of Nineveh heard God’s message and they repented. The Ninevites changed. God saw the genuine repentance of the Ninevites and so repented of his anger. God changed. The only one who cannot change is Jonah. He is stuck in his judgment and his anger. He is already certain that he has all the answers, so he cannot perceive a new way of being emerging all around him.
Friday, September 8, 2017
It is one of Jesus’ most familiar and comforting promises. Whenever just two or three people are gathered together in worship or fellowship he will be present bringing his peace and hope. This verse has encouraged Christians in humble setting, perhaps far from home that despite everything they were connected through Christ.
Unfortunately, that is not what Jesus meant at all. Comforting as it may sound, Jesus’ promise comes at the end of a rather demanding call to action. Jesus promises to be with his children, not whenever and wherever we gather, but whenever and wherever we gather to resolve disputes and bring peace.
Sacraments are those practices that Jesus told us to follow where he promised he would actually be present. They use the ordinary stuff of life–water, bread, and wine–as the touchstones of encounter with our risen Lord. In addition to baptism and the Lord’s Supper, there appears to be one more. Whenever we work together to resolve conflicts, Jesus promises to be there alongside us, actually, tangibly present. And not simply present with one side or the other, Jesus does not take sides. Jesus is present with all sides as we seek to resolve our conflicts together.
Our world seems rent asunder by conflicts, arguments, old hurts, accusations, and rage. We see it in our communities, our families, and our nation. Precisely where there is brokenness there you will find Jesus at work inviting us to join him. This is our invitation and our vocation.
I know where we can find Jesus! Shall we meet him there?
Friday, September 1, 2017
Okay, our sins are forgiven and we are reconciled to God. So is that it? Jesus dies, gets resurrected, ascends and game over, nothing more? No. Actually it is just a beginning.
God’s rescue plan for humanity seems to have two parts. After various earlier remedial plans (like the law) God intervenes directly into creation forever reconciling us with God. When we say Jesus saves us, that is what we mean. Once we were estranged, but now we are forgiven, embraced, and welcomed as part of the family of God because of what Jesus did and is doing for us. But the problem is that we are still us. We are now in God’s good graces, but most of our lives are still messes. Collectively our world is still a mess.
The second part of God’s plan is largely up to us. Not completely up to us, we do get assistance from the Holy Spirit along the way, but it is fundamentally our task. We need to grow up. We need to grow up into the example and stature of what a human being is supposed to be as shown to us by our elder brother Jesus. That means that we need to change. Specifically we need to change our behaviors and in doing so rewire our characters so we are a bit more like Jesus. In the West we call this process, “sanctification,” which sounds awfully ambitious. Few of us want to be saints. But at its essence, it simply means growing up. Jesus shared and showed us the pattern of living a real human life. He explicitly said, I am the way, the truth, and the life. And now it is our turn to follow that example, learn that pattern, walk that way, learn that truth, and live that life.
This is our task and our work for a lifetime. God cannot do this for us without depriving us of our freewill. The Spirit helps us along the way, but sometimes it is going to be difficult.
The Bible often sounds like it is going overboard on personal ethics. The New Testament is much simpler than all that. All we need to do is become a bit more like Jesus and then we be living true life indeed.