Monday, October 24, 2011

Balance: Year A, Ordinary 31

This Week's Lectionary Texts
Joshua 3:7-17 or Micah 3:5-12
Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37 or Psalm 43
1 Thessalonians 2:9-13
Matthew 23:1-12

This Week's Reflection
"He doesn't walk the talk." 

"She doesn't practice what she preaches." 

These are harsh words and words that no preacher ever wants to hear said about him or herself. I imagine the Pharisees felt the same way when they heard Jesus, as Matthew writes in chapter 23, say that very thing about them.

I find myself being sympathetic with the Pharisees, though. As a preacher myself, I often feel that the sermons I write (or this blog for that matter) are like a conversation between me and God. The congregation simply has the opportunity (or burden) of eavesdropping on that conversation. So, I preach about a lot of things that I don't necessarily feel that I have "mastered." I preach a lot of words that I don't yet know how to walk day in and day out in my life.

So, what are we preachers, we broken and sinful preachers, to do with this text from Matthew this week? I think that just maybe the problem comes in when we begin to believe that we are not broken, not sinful. The problem occurs when we believe that everything we say is good and right and that everything we do supports all that is good and right. I'm not a big fan of Christianity that promotes in its believers a feeling of being no better than a worm (no offense to all the worms out there), but there is some place for a balance between thinking that we are God's gift to proclamation and thinking that we could never say anything that would be meaningful for anyone.

Jesus says to his disciples, "Listen to them. What they say is good. Just don't do what they do." Maybe it is a call for balance in living our lives between humility and vanity. This is a good lesson for preachers and for our congregations alike.
Maybe it is a call for balance in living our lives between humility and vanity.
This makes me think of the Joshua text in which God is giving him a bit of a pep talk. As if Joshua is wondering how in the world he will follow in the footsteps of the great Moses, God tells him how. God will make it possible, God will exalt him, God will lead him so that he can lead others. While Joshua may not feel worthy, may even feel a bit like a worm, God proves to him that all that is needed to lead will be provided. Right down to stopping a river from flowing so that the people can cross. It wasn't Joshua's power that did that. That was God.

It seems like a similar message is found in Micah. Beware of those who think that it all rests on their shoulders. Beware of those who preach peace, but act in violence. Beware of those who claim power that is not theirs to claim. It is the power of God that makes anything possible.

So, I don't walk the talk and I don't practice what I preach - but, I'll keep working on relying on the power of God. And, in so doing, I'll trust that I'll get better and better at both as balance comes my way.

This Week's Artwork
(in order of appearance)
Monday, October 17, 2011

Religious, Not Christian: Year A, Ordinary 30

This Week's Lectionary Texts
Deuteronomy 34:1-12 or Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18
Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17 or Psalm 1
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
Matthew 22:34-46

This Week's Resources
A Prayer for Pastors by a Pastor
Dear God who continues to call us, we come to you, broken, hurt, abused, and confused. Like Paul, we too often feel mistreated by the very people we long to serve in ministry to you. We struggle constantly with the question of how to be in the institution, but not of the institution. Help us, God. Help us when we are victims of the religious. Help us to remember the moment when we knew beyond a shadow of doubt that you had called us to ordained ministry. And, help us when we become religious leaders forgetting how to truly follow the Christ. Heal us. Heal the Church. May the healing of one aid the healing of the other so that the body of Christ on this earth become the true representation of his love. Amen.

A Litany
One:  When the religious elite stone the woman caught in adultery,
All:  Love God. Love your neighbor.
One:  When the lineage of the Messiah is called into question,
All:  Love God. Love your neighbor.
One:  When Moses is taken just to the edge of the land promised,
All:  Love God. Love your neighbor.
One:  When the Apostle Paul is mistreated by folks in the church,
All:  Love God. Love your neighbor.
One:  When the single teenaged mother comes into worship,
All:  Love God. Love your neighbor.
One:  When the man with autism yells out in the sanctuary,
All:  Love God. Love your neighbor.
One:  When we can't agree on the color of the new fellowship hall carpet,
All:  Love God. Love your neighbor.
One:  When the rules are broken,
All:  Love God. Love your neighbor.
One:  "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind."
All:  "This is the first and greatest commandment."  
One:  "Love your neighbor as yourself."
All:  "All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Amen.

Think on this:
What are ways in which your congregation could physically represent putting God and neighbor above our religious nature in the Church? I do not intend to imply that being religious is only negative (I am very religious!), but in the context of these passages this week, how can we put ourselves in the place of Pharisees and Sadducees and ask God to help us to be more open to the top two commandments that Jesus shares in the Matthew passage rather than excluding people because of our religious notions of what the rules mean? 

Is there a particular wrong in the life of the congregation that was caused by religiosity taken too far? What symbols could be used in worship to represent a letting go of that event? Would a renewal of baptism or a service of healing be in order?

To take the idea of setting rules aside that may stand in our way of serving Jesus to the extreme, perhaps your congregation should do away with a bulletin this week (if your tradition is to rely on such). Or maybe this Sunday is the day to bring forward some persons who would not normally be acceptable in the sight of the members. Have them participate in leading worship by reading the scriptures or singing an appropriate song.

This Week's Reflection
I attended a conference for ordained ministers last week and I realized something. Most pastors have been through some kind clergy killing event within a particular congregation. I heard pastors repeat again and again, "I come to this conference every year because it is just for us clergy so that we can worship and be fed and taken care of." My first call after seminary ended only two years later and it was not pretty. As I told my kids just today, "It takes two to tango," but at the time I felt persecuted, abused, and unloved. If I'm being honest, there are still moments when the sting of those days sneaks up on me again. I mention the conference because I realized how many of us have had similar experiences. I mention these kinds of experiences because of the passage this week from Thessalonians. Paul is still stinging from trouble with the Philippians. It seems that he has even considered dropping out of the whole pastor business. Even though he and his companions have been treated so poorly by the church, he brings the love of God to the people in Thessalonica saying that with that love, he also brings his very self to them.

Today my mother said to me, "People who are judgmental are religious, not Christian. Unfortunately, our churches are full of the religious." We know that Paul is not the only one who came up against this fact. In the gospel lesson from Matthew, we come to the end of the many questions that the religious authorities brought to Jesus in an effort to trap him, to judge him, to make him look bad in front of others, and in hopes of getting him out of their way. "What is the greatest commandment?" Beyond anything they could have ever imagined, Jesus' answer was "The greatest is to love God, period. And, immediately behind that is to love your fellow human beings as much as you love yourself." To these religious people hell-bent on following the rules (pun intended) even when it meant hurting one of God's children, Jesus says, "Could you just love each other? Could you love God, really love God, and then share that love with everybody you meet? Could you do that, please?"

As Kathryn Matthews Huey points out in her Sermon Seeds, all of the questions by the religious folk had been to trip up Jesus, to prove that he wasn't a good Jewish rabbi, that he didn't truly understand the faith. So, to put an end to all the nonsense, Jesus asks them a question to prove that he understands very well the faith, in fact, he understands much better than they. "Whose son is the Messiah?" When they give their very church-y answer, he puts them in their place to show them and anyone who happens to be listening that they don't have everything all worked out as well as they think they do. Sadly, that is what happens to us when we try to wrap God up in a nice neat package as if we have the ability to understand God and God's ways. Luckily, we have Jesus to remind us that we don't have to understand in order to experience God's love and to share that love with others.

Simplistic, yes. But, not simple. Moses was lead right up to the edge, but did not cross into the land that was promised. Even so, the passage from Deuteronomy speaks of the love that God and the people had for Moses, saying, "Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses." And, of course, we find the source material for the Matthew quote in Leviticus when God spoke through the beloved Moses to tell the people, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord."

There are too many religious people in our churches and too few Christians. Don't get mad at me for saying it. Blame my mother! Who, by the way, is the sweetest and most devoted church lady you could ever find. I know that if she and I were to unpack that statement of hers that we would quickly come to disagree about how we define those terms and who we would categorize as each - religious and Christian - but there is truth to be found in that statement. Truth that Jesus fought against and truth that we preachers and pastors better be fighting against too - even if it means we don't get to cross over into the promised land.

Simplistic, yes. But, not simple. This Sunday may God give us strength to preach the truth of love that is God through Jesus, the Messiah. May our religious ways be continuously transformed into Christian ways by the power of the Holy Spirit. Love God, period. And, love everybody else too.

This Week's Artwork
(in order of appearance)
Job Rebuked by His Friends by William Blake
Love your neighbor as yourself by Tom Raterman
blank masks borrowed from

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Year A, Ordinary 29

This Week's Lectionary Texts
Exodus 33:12-23 or Isaiah 45:1-7
Psalm 99 or Psalm 96:1-9, (10-13)
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Matthew 22:15-22

This Week's Reflection
This week's gospel lesson has us continuing through Matthew and is the beginning of a series of moments when "the powers that be" attempt to trap Jesus in order to have reasonable charges to lead to the getting rid of this man who has displeased them with his teaching. Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey with a parade of misfits, threw out money-changers from the temple, and told stories in which he painted the rich rulers as the bad guys - a whole new way of talking about those in power. So, now the writer of Matthew tells us right up front that the Pharisees are trying to entrap Jesus by asking about his allegiances. There is no way out of this question, by the way. "Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor?" A "yes" will offend the religious establishment. A "no" will offend the state establishment. There is no winning here. Jesus, of course, throws them for a loop. "What? Why are you wasting my time with this? Oh, good grief, give to the emperor what is the emperor's and give to God what is God's." Now, stopping at this point seems like Jesus won. They left speechless, it appears, but if you read further, you see that this was just the first question of many and they gather others to continue to bombard Jesus with questions that are posed for the purpose of trapping him. There was no winning with these people.

Seems like Moses may have felt like he couldn't win either in the Exodus text. In conversation with God, Moses says, "I've done everything you have ever asked me to do and I'm not seeing any benefit yet. Do something, God, show me your glory!" And, God, being the wonderful God that God is, finds a way to provide. "You can't see me because seeing God in complete glory is too much for your little pea brain. But, I hear you and I will pass by so that you can get a sense of my glory and feel appreciated for all you have done." The prophet Isaiah shows a similar aspect of God. God says, "You don't even really know me, but I help you, I love you, I am your right arm."

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

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

What if?: Year A, Ordinary 28

This Week's Lectionary Texts:
Exodus 32:1-14 or Isaiah 25:1-9
Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23 or Psalm 23
Philippians 4:1-9
Matthew 22:1-14

For worship resources, scroll to bottom of post.

This Week's Reflection:
Hold on to your hats. It is one of THOSE weeks. Seems like God gives us lots of THOSE weeks. The gospel text this week is that story Jesus tells about the wedding banquet that no one wanted to attend. This is Matthew's version which doesn't end with everyone being invited, but with the king finding someone dressed improperly. Upon finding the man not wearing a wedding garment, the king throws him out to where there is "weeping and gnashing of teeth."

A few weeks ago, one of the oldest members in my congregation came to me asking me what to make of this same parable. He was flabberghasted by a Jesus story in which "the good and bad" would be invited in and then end with someone being punished for not dressing properly. Being the seminary trained scholar that I am, I answered his questions with the profound statement, "Well, I just don't know. It is hard to understand, isn't it?" I'm sure that was extremely helpful to him!

What are we to make of this parable? There are plenty of biblical scholars who could explain this to the church member, I'm sure, and have it make perfect sense. I've read some of them. The king is God. Those refusing to come to the banquet are those who were hostile toward Jesus. The king opens the doors to EVERYONE, but the man who came dressed improperly didn't put his whole being into answering that call. God extends to us this grace, but we do have to bring our all to the table.

Let's take a little detour for a moment. I had a conversation with a scholar once about the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30). For my entire life, the only way I had read that parable was as if it was a call to each of us to do the very best with what God has given us. But, this scholar pointed out that the servant who simply buries the one talent, returning only that and no more to the master, says that the master is harsh and takes what does not belong to him. This doesn't sound like God, does it? Suddenly my eyes were opened to a new interpretation about a servant standing up against an unjust system, someone who was willing to risk his life in order to say to the master, "No more. You steal from the poor and take what does not belong to you. I will not help you do it." Guess what happens to that guy? He is thrown out to where "there is weeping and gnashing of teeth."

So, I'm finding myself looking at this wedding feast parable from Matthew and wondering if there is another way to read it. In fact I wish I access to that scholar right now so I could ask his opinion. What if we get so caught up in the opening line, "The kingdom of heaven may be compared . . ." that we mistakenly believe that Jesus wants us to think of the king as God? What if, and I have to ask it as a question because I truly do not know, but what if what Jesus is really talking about in this parable is an uprising of the people against a ruthless leader? Do you know what happens in the text immediately following this? It is when the Pharisees come in an attempt to trap Jesus and ask about paying taxes. Are you with me here? What if Jesus tells a story about the people finally saying, "We've had enough!" and the Pharisees hear and understand so they come to question where his allegiances lie?

If these are valid questions and a different reading is appropriate for our congregations, what does it mean for us? Where is the good news? Who is saying "For many are called, but few are chosen?" Is that the character of the king in the story Jesus is telling? Or is that Jesus? What if it is the king and Jesus is trying to contrast the ways of the world, the ways of an evil system, that seek to keep common folk down, to the ways of God?

The prophet Isaiah says, "Therefore strong peoples will glorify you; cities of ruthless nations will fear you. For you have been a refuge to the poor, a refuge to the needy in their distress, a shelter from the rainstorm and a shade from the heat. When the blast of the ruthless was like a winter rainstorm . . ." What if the lesson for this week is that God does not stand with the powerful? What if the lesson for this week is that God does not stand with the ruthless nations?

These are, as a dear friend of mine would call them, "real questions." I don't know what I think about it all, but I do think there is further exploration to be done here. The Exodus text is the story of the Israelites building the golden calf, something that other scholars say was not necessarily a replacement for God, but a replacement for Moses who had disappeared and they feared would never come back. For them, Moses was the very representation of God. Without Moses, they felt lost. So, they created something that would stand in for Moses as the representation of God (another way of looking at a text that I never thought of before!). Is it too much to make comparisons this week between that golden calf and the Wall Street Bull as demonstrators Occupy Wall Street in an effort to stand up to what they believe is an oppressive system?

Just for argument's sake: The kingdom of God is like a righteous people who stand up to what is wrong in the world, fight for "whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable," as Paul writes, "if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things."

This Week's Artwork:
(in order of appearance in reflection)
The Wedding Feast by Nelly Bube
Question Mark
Asking the Right Questions by Jim LePage
Philippians by Jim LePage 
golden calf idol courtesy of  Dwelling in the Word
wall street bull by O. Viera

This Week's Resources:

Call to Worship:
One:  What if, God?
Many:  What if we admitted that we can't possibly comprehend you?
One:  What if, God?
Many: What if we read scriptures as if we are in conversation with you?
One:  What if, God?
Many:  What if we relinquished our hold on our idols?
One:  What if, God?
Many:  What if we focus on whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, and commendable?
All:  What if, God? What if we truly worship you today?