Thursday, September 29, 2011

400 Years of the King James Version!

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Worship Resources:Year A, Ordinary 27

For this week's lectionary texts and reflection, scroll down to previous post.

Some resources to use in worship based on this week's texts:

Call to Worship
One:     We are all part of God's story.
Many:  A story that includes the good, the bad, and the ugly.
One:    We are all part of God's story. 
Many:  A story full of love and grace.
One:    We are part of a story, 
Many:  a story that tells of our relationship with God,
One:     a story in which God forgives us again and again. 
All:      We are part of a story in which we press on toward the goal alongside Jesus and we have come to worship God.

Call to Confession
God gifted us with the law found in the 10 commandments to help us live our best lives. God also gifted us with the grace found in Jesus Christ and promises to forgive us when we repent of our sins. So, now, before God and one another, we confess our sins.

Prayer of Confession
We too often think of you, God, as waiting for us to mess up so that you can reign down your judgement on us. Like a vineyard owner, you expect good things from us and we often let you down as if we are rotten grapes. We envy others. We lie. We steal. We are full of love for self and turn our backs on our neighbors. O God, please forgive us. Make us into the children you created us to be. Make us better. Yes, God, forgive us. Amen.

Assurance of Forgiveness
There is not much in this world that is certain, but we can be certain of this: even while we continue to sin, God forgives us over and over and over again. Never question this fact. Through Jesus Christ, we are forgiven!

Here's a thought:
What if we invited our congregations to share parts of their own stories with God? What if there was a moment around the offering where people had the opportunity to vocalize their role in the story of God with God's people? If you have a large congregation, you could invite two or three people ahead of time to be prepared to do this. A smaller congregation could have "leading questions" listed in the bulletin to help focus the sharing. Those questions could be something like, "In what ways have you seen the grace of God extended to you over and over again?" or "What does it mean to you to press on toward the goal?" If your congregation is one that uses live Twitter feed, these questions could be answered on that feed during worship. In what other ways could we be creative in worship?

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Tell Me a Story: Year A, Ordinary 27

This Week's Lectionary Texts:
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20 or Isaiah 5:1-7
Psalm 19 or Psalm 80:7-15
Philippians 3:4b-14
Matthew 21:33-46

This Week's Reflection:
The Lectionary texts this week read like a story from Exodus to Matthew. There are gaps in the story and problems with the plot in places, but if we look at the pages just right, we can see how the story of God's relationship with God's people is very clear.

In Exodus 20, we have the life changing moment of Moses presenting the 10 commandments - laws given to the people to help them, to make life easier, a little clearer, ground rules to follow in this new life outside of Egypt. The people responded to this gift by asking that God never speak to them again.

The story moves forward and God is witnessing the results of the people's selfish behavior. In a song, the writer of Isaiah 5 laments the fact that even though the vineyard has been planted and cared for with love and understanding, it has not produced as it should have. The owner decides to give up, let it go, allow it to wither away.

Both of the Psalms join in the story by presenting the character of the people. Psalm 19 reminding us to follow the laws of God and Psalm 80 crying out to God to restore the vineyard, to give us another chance, to allow us to grow once again.

Philippians' part of the story is to point us toward the character of Jesus. With Paul reminding us that without Christ, we are nothing. In fact, it is stressed through Paul's boastful language that even at our very best on our own we can't begin to live up to our best in Christ Jesus. This is the second chance of all second chances. If we want to be the productive vineyard that God desires of us, then we have to allow Jesus to help us.

Then, we have Matthew's part of the story with a story in a story. Here we have another parable of Jesus that leaves us asking lots of questions. As we come to the end of this week's story, the lectionary brings us back around to the Isaiah text as Jesus tells of a vineyard owner who cared for and planted those grapes and waited to see what wonderful things would occur. There is a twist this time, though. All good stories have them. It is a nasty and scary twist. In the climax of this week's story, the vineyard isn't simply left to wither away, but those who have been given the opportunity to tend the vineyard are murderers and thieves. They even go so far as to kill the owner's beloved son. (Remind you of anyone?) And, Jesus leaves the chief priests and elders to whom he was speaking with the question of what they think that owner will do. Repay them, of course. Kill them, get rid of them for good, and find someone who will do what they should have been doing in the first place. (These elders are none too happy when they realize that they have been made the bad guy in the story.)

It is a story with lots twists and turns. It also has characters that we don't like and morals that make us squirm. Are we to believe that God will allow us to wither away? Worse yet, are we to believe that God will punish us if we do not tend the vineyard like God wants? Remember how the story began? God gave us these commandments as a gift to help us in this life. They are not rules made to give God a reason to get angry with us, but they are safety nets for us to use so that our lives are the very best they can be. Instead, we ask God to stop speaking to us. So, God finds other ways to provide those gifts to us, stories of vineyards, Paul's dramatic turn-around, and Jesus, God incarnate, providing grace upon grace upon grace.

A fellow pastor in the Lutheran Church, Delmer Chilton, puts it this way:
God showers God’s people with grace. The people prosper. The people forget God. The people become “wild.” God becomes angry and regrets making or saving or favoring the people. God allows the people to suffer. The people cry out for forgiveness. God hears, God forgives, God heals and restores. And so it goes: over and over and over again.

That is the story this week. It is the story of God's relationship with God's people. It is a story that is often filled with pain. And, it is a story that ends with healing and restoration.

This Week's Artwork:
(in order of appearance in reflection)

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Challenge of Grace: Year A, Ordinary 26

This Week's Lectionary Texts:
Exodus 17:1-7 or Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32
Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16 or Psalm 25:1-9
Philippians 2:1-13
Matthew 21:23-32

This Week's Reflection:
As if in answer to last week's reflection, the Ezekiel passage actually has God asking, "Yet you say, 'The way of the Lord is unfair.' Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair?" The Israelites find themselves in Exodus 17 feeling like they will die of thirst. They are angry and confused. They can't help but wonder why Moses has brought them out of slavery, yes; but into a place where they will starve and thirst to death. Moses fears for his life too because he is afraid that the people's anger will lead to his stoning.

I'm most fascinated by that first phrase of the passage, "From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages." Isn't that how life feels sometimes? It is like we journey by stages through a wilderness of sin. And, we find ourselves in the midst of that place asking God, "Why have you brought us out here just to leave us to die of thirst?"

Ezekiel reminds us that while we like to blame all our troubles on God, God is not the one to take the blame. Whose ways are unfair? Our ways are unfair. Yuck! It is a whole lot easier to blame God, this being out there somewhere, this God that we know can take it.

It may be a stretch, but I think that the Philippians passage this week flows out of those Hebrew scriptures as a way of saying, "And do you know why you can take the blame instead of God? Because you are selfish and cruel." 
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.
The writer points us to the example we have in Jesus, the Christ, who was willing to give up all power and die on a cross for crimes he did not commit.

This self-righteousness is apparent in the gospel lesson as well. The elders want to test Jesus, to see if he is up to par, but they find themselves being tested instead. It is their self-righteousness - their belief that they know better and do better and believe better - that results in their failing grade. Once again, Jesus uses one of his weird little stories to make a point. While it may seem wrong for a son to tell his father NO, somehow it is made right when he realizes his mistake and does what his father asked in the first place. On the other hand, a son who says YES with no intention of ever following the father's requests has no way of making it right. In other words, Jesus is pointing out to the elders that they have always shouted a big "Yes Sir!" to God, but have refused to heed the commandments given through prophets like John. Others who are clearly sinners, who have had a history of saying, "No way, God!" have instead heeded John's teachings and followed the way of God even though they first refused. They are the ones who have done right in the end and the elders are the ones who have let God down.

For preachers this week, there is an opportunity to challenge our congregations to ask themselves where they fall in that parable. In addition, though, it is of the utmost importance to focus on what God is doing in these passages. 

What God is doing is providing living water from a rock. What God is doing is reminding us that God is a fair and just God. What God is doing is giving us a Savior willing to be humble and self-less. What God is doing is providing opportunity beyond opportunity for God's children to turn around, make a change, and do the right thing. God is gracious and merciful. We may want to challenge our congregations about what they are doing in their lives, but we need to present the Good News of what God is doing as well.

This Week's Artwork:
(in order of appearance in the reflection)
Moses Striking the Rock by Qi He
Turn Around by Alicia Silvester
Hitting a Rock with a Stick

Sunday, September 11, 2011

It ain't fair: Year A, Ordinary 25

This Week's Lectionary Texts:
Exodus 16:2-15 or Jonah 3:10-4:11
Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45 or Psalm 145:1-8
Philippians 1:20-30
Matthew 20:1-16

This Week's Reflection:
Ever since my kids could talk whenever one of them would utter those words that all kids repeat again and again, "But it's not fair!," I have responded with all my motherly comfort and understanding, "Well, life isn't fair! Get used to it!"

The texts this week seem to be crying out with my kids on this one. (And, if I'm being honest, with myself as well.) The story in Exodus has the Israelites wondering why in the world they have followed Moses out there to the wilderness only to starve to death. I can imagine there were lots of "It ain't fair!" being thrown around as their bellies growled with hunger. And, don't we have to agree? How fair is it to be taken out of one kind of slavery only to find themselves enslaved by hunger and fear?
Jonah's story has always fascinated me. Again, if I'm being honest, this is probably because I relate so much to his sentiment in this passage. He has been through hell. Sorry, no other way to describe finding oneself in the deep, dark depths of the sea INSIDE a big fish! He tried to get out of the job in the first place, then followed God's will and did what was asked - proclaimed that destruction was coming for their wicked ways - and now God has decided to forgive the city of Nineveh and nothing happened. Jonah is so upset that he goes to sit under a tree and pout. "It ain't fair, God," he says, "I went through a lot to do what you asked and now nothing?"

The writer of Philippians points out the classic question that we all have asked at some point or another, the same question that the Israelites and Jonah asked, "Wouldn't it be better to just go on and die than to live this unfair life?" And, this passage reminds us that all is not suddenly hunky dory just because we follow Jesus. In fact, much the opposite - "For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well." It is that suffering thing that always gets me. How is that fair?

And, then there is the gospel. No other story of the Bible elicits cries of "But that ain't fair!" more than the parable of the workers in the vineyard. This owner goes out to hire day workers at the nearest spot where folks hang out to find that kind of work. He drives up in his pickup truck and says, "Come on and work for me." Five times throughout the day he did this, going out and finding those who had not found work anywhere else, loading them up and taking them so they can receive a day's pay. The last time was about five minutes from quitting time, but he took them anyway. And, here is where it gets really crazy. Everyone was paid the same amount. The ones who had worked five minutes receive the exact same amount as the ones who had been out there working since dawn. That ain't fair by any stretch of the imagination.

So, what is Holy Spirit saying to us preachers and teachers this week through these texts? Is Spirit responding with a smart alec tone like I do to my children, "Life isn't fair! Get used to it!" I like to think not. Though, life isn't fair and we do have to live with that reality. No, what I think is more likely is that God is saying, "Life isn't fair. If it were, wouldn't you be in a mess?"

Jonah got all kinds of second chances to do what was right, but didn't understand when God did the same for the people of Nineveh. The Israelites found it difficult to see the big picture from all that they had been through to God providing them with miraculous amounts of food even in the midst of their whining and complaining. When Paul reflects on life in Christ and all the suffering that comes with it, he honestly admits that going on through death to the other side would probably be better. And, when Jesus uses this absurd story of workers who worked unequal amounts but received the same pay, he is practically yelling in our faces, "It ain't fair! Isn't that wonderful?"

If the way that God works was fair, we would be in a heap of trouble. If the way God works was fair, we would find ourselves lost and alone with no clear direction of where to go. If the way God works was fair, we wouldn't have a Christ who was executed though innocent. It ain't fair. And, I, for one, am so very thankful that it isn't.

This Week's Artwork (in order of appearance in reflection):
Pouting by Shante Slagle
In the Vineyard by Jean Francois Millet
Jonah Awaiting Destruction of Ninevah by Trenet Worlds
Day Laborers Napa Valley by Dave Getzschman
The Late Comers by Jesus Mafa
Justice vs. Greed
Shelter Solution with Fence and Sign