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.