Thursday, December 30, 2010

Past Present Future


This First Sunday in the New Year is also the Second Sunday of Christmastide (i.e. the 12 Days of Christmas!) and the Sunday that can be celebrated as Epiphany, the day of the Wise Men's visit to Jesus and the revelation of Jesus not just to the Jews but to the Gentiles (traditionally observed on January 6, which this year falls on a Thursday). The readings for this day remain fairly consistent every year: Isaiah 60:1-6, Ephesians 3:1-12, Matthew 2:1-12...stories of light, mystery, and strange visitors from far away. You can read them here.

So as we finish up our Advent/Christmas Series on time, perhaps no passage in its very word choice asks the question of "What Time Is It?" more than the appointed Old Testament reading for Epiphany from Isaiah 60. Now, I confess that I do not know a lot of Hebrew; but one of my regular sermon preparation practices is to read each passage in several different translations. All it took was reading this passage in a couple of different English translations to raise questions for me about time. This passage would have gotten slaughtered by any of my English teachers in high school because the writer could not seem to pick a consistent verb tense...is Isaiah speaking of something present, or past, or future? The passage seems to switch randomly between times, often not being clear enough on verb tense for translators to agree on whether the prophet was referencing something that had already happened, is presently happening, or will happen at some time in the future.
Check out this parallel with translations in the NRSV and the NIV: I highlighted what appear to be future verbs in purple (though these appear to just be kind of boldfaced here, I guess), and present verbs in orange. You can see that this is a bit of a mess:
As we enter this day of closing out the Christmas season and moving into the Epiphany season of celebrating the revelation of God in Christ, this conjunction of times and tenses brings up a series of interesting questions for people of faith, questions that can help shape our seeking and living in a new year. What has already happened in Christ, and what are we still waiting for? What has God already done, and what do we need to implore and watch for God yet to do? This passage from the Old Testament was at least partially fulfilled through Christ, yet anyone who observes our world knows that all nations of the earth are not yet praising in one accord the Lord. So how do we live in this strange meantime, caught somewhere between fullfillment and really full full-fillment? Are we to live waiting on things that are yet to come, or in light of what God has already shown? Can we live both ways? How do we live in the now while also living towards the not-yet? These are questions we need to visit again and again...because they go to the heart of the great tension of living in the upside-down kingdom of God that has already come among us in Christ, but that is seeking now to break in once again.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

It Makes Me Wonder...

This week we get two sets of lectionary texts: one for Christmas Eve, and one for the First Sunday in Christmastide. Our readings for Friday night are Isaiah 9:2-7, Titus 2:11-14, and Luke 2:1-20 and can be found here. Our readings for Sunday are Isaiah 63:7-9, Hebrews 2:10-18, and Matthew 2:13-23 and can be found here.

Our Gospel readings for Christmas Eve and the first Sunday in Christmas (that's right--Christmas is more than a day, it's a whole season! Ever heard of the 12 days of Christmas? December 25 to January 6=Christmastide...this celebration is by no means over) show us two very different sides of Jesus' birth: the way it is announced, and the way it is responded to and received. Both of these sides are peculiar...the only ones who get Jesus' birth announcement are some shepherds in a field and a few scholars who happened to be paying attention to the night sky. The only ones who recognize what is going on enough to respond are those shepherds and magi, as well as chronically insecure King Herod--and they react in vastly different ways.

A great observation was made in the title song to the musical "Jesus Christ, Superstar": If you'd come today you would have reached a whole nation, Israel in 4 BC had no mass communication. Maybe this is a silly thing to consider when reading a story as significant as the Christmas story, but it makes me wonder...
If Jesus were born today, in this age of mass communication even beyond what "Jesus Christ, Superstar" could have imagined, how would God have shared the good news? Would God have sent out one of the nice photo birth announcements like the one at right to everyone God knew...meaning, I guess, to everyone? Would God have posted pictures on Facebook, or notified all God's followers on Twitter using 140 characters or less? With new technologies available, would God have changed the way God announced this birth so that more people could find out quickly?


Part of me hopes not. Because, though it seems incredibly inefficient, part of what I love about the announcement of Jesus' birth is how intimate it is...how personal...how God is giving this gift to the whole world, but it is being unwrapped (or seen wrapped in its swaddling clothes, more accurately) by just a few witnesses whose testimony will become part of how God shares the good news of love and grace. After all, God could have unleashed those angels on all of Bethelehem...all of Israel, for that matter...but for some reason, God didn't: God chose a quiet way, a particular way, and God chose to involve other humans in the announcement. I think there must be something to that...enough to ponder for many future Christmases.


Then, I look at the contrasting reactions to the birth of the Christchild. On one hand we have the shepherds--the lowliest of society--trying to outrace each other to see who can get to the baby first. On the other hand we have a king--the most powerful of society--terrified by this new bundle of alleged joy, a bundle he fears could grow up to threaten his security and power. This baby is such a threat that Herod kills who knows how many innocents just to protect himself. I wonder how we would respond if we got news that this promised king was born among us this day...would we trip over each other trying to get to him with haste...or scurry to insulate ourselves from anything that might uproot our worlds...or, worse yet, would we fail to respond at all?


The questions of the first Christmas remain potent more than 2000 years later: the technologies have changed, but our God hasn't...and nor, it certainly seen, has human nature. Jesus comes again among us...silently...without much flash or dazzle...often unrecognized. Will we respond with joy or with fear? And will we be aware enough to respond at all?

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Lost in Translation (or, perhaps, Found)

Our Lectionary Texts for this final Sunday of Advent are Isaiah 7:10-16, Matthew 1:18-25, and Romans 1:1-7. Read them here as we prepare for our final days of preparation.


Here's the dilemma of this week's readings: I hate it when people take scripture out of context and try to bend it to whatever point they're trying to make. It's one of my pastoral pet peeves...always pay attention to the context, people. Though they have rich applications for life today and can still be faithful guides, these texts were originally written for specific communities in specific times, and we have to approach them always with this in mind.



So what do we do, then, when one biblical writer seems to misquote and take out of context another biblical writer? It makes me squirm a little...but that seems to be what Matthew is doing in quoting the now-famous and much-debated prophecy of Isaiah 7:14 within the narrative of his gospel.


Isaiah had a very specific context in mind when he offered this sign to Ahaz more than 700 years before the birth of Christ. The original Hebrew of this passage reads something like this: "Here, the young woman is pregnant, and is giving birth to a son. She will call his name Emmanuel, meaning 'God with us.' And before this child is three or four, these two kings you presently live in fear of will have been dethroned." Matthew, apparently drawing upon the Greek version of this passage which uses a word that could be translated "virgin" as well as "young woman," takes the liberty (prompted again by the Greek) of projecting this passage out of the present tense into the future, saying this virgin (now understood as Mary) "will give birth," and claims this son, too, will be called "Emmanuel"--even though the angel, clearly, had just told Joseph to name him not Emmanuel, but Jesus, or "God saves."


So what gives? Is Matthew being a bad interpreter of scripture? If so, Lord help us all.
But I don't think he is. Perhaps what Matthew is doing is reinterpreting Isaiah in light of God's new action...no one expected any further fulfillment to Isaiah's prophecy, you see. That Emmanuel had been born, the years had passed, and the kings had gone down just like Isaiah said they would. The prophecy was over. But here we see God doing something unexpected...that prophecy had been fulfilled, but perhaps it has not yet been full-filled, if you get what I mean. That child was named "God with us"; but here is a child who actually is "God with us." Now it's not just a young woman, but a virgin--the prophecy is taken a step further. And now it's not just two kings who will be deposed, but all the kingdoms of the world will be superceded by this baby who is himself a king, one introducing a new sort of kingdom that will have no end.


Perhaps what Matthew is doing here is not interpretive unfaithfulness; perhaps he is doing the most faithful thing an interpreter can do with a text: seeing the God who is lurking behind it and animating it, and imagining how God might, again and again, do a new thing that no one expects. It's having the imagination to dream of new ways that God's promises might be even fuller in the future than they were in the past. I really like how commentator Fred Gaiser described such imaginative dream work:


"It takes a daring reinterpretation to make this one work. The word of God is not a simple prediction that will "come true" in a latter day or an equation to be solved to get one final answer-it is a living word that kills and makes alive in every generation, always needing to be proclaimed anew, always carrying both continuity and surprise: continuity in God's steadfast love and mercy, which never change; surprise in God's enduring penchant to do a new thing (Isaiah 43:19), which always stirs things up. And now, says Matthew, Jesus is that unexpected new thing: Jesus is Immanuel, God with us, even if they didn't get his name right. The details are not the point; the promise is."



Are we free to dream about the story of God in this way? Or does Matthew need to go back to school and take another class on proper biblical interpretation?
Thoughts on this one welcomed...

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Apparently, Spring is Coming

Our Lectionary texts for this Third Week of Advent are Isaiah 35:1-10, Luke 1:46-55 (we get this second gospel text in place of a Psalm, because Mary's song reads very much like one!), and Matthew 11:2-11. Read them here, along with a reading from James that, though fabulous, won't be among our readings this week.

When February rolls around, some people look towards the infamous groundhog to find out if winter is finally over. For me, as a child February's progression meant that, every time I walked out the back door of my family's home, I would peer into the mulchy bed to the right of the steps, straining to see the first glimmer of purple. Usually, right around my birthday at the beginning of March, it would suddenly appear: sometimes poking up through snow, sometimes responding to a burst of warm air, a single crocus--the first visible sign that, apparently, spring was coming...and coming soon.


Isaiah tells us that the crocus' time has come: this crocus strains not through mulch or through ice but through the harsh wilderness landscape of the desert--a rocky land where nothing blooms. Yet here we find not just a single crocus, but crocus(crocuses? croci? Not sure on the plural...) that "blossom abundantly," signaling the unlikely dawn of a new season. It's a day when everything from the physical environment to the human heart will be miraculously transformed, where it's impossible to get lost even if you left your GPS at home--and all because God is here, a God who has been as absent to the people during exile as water is to the desert.

Mary sings of the crocus, too--of another glimpse of what it looks like to be able to say with confidence, "Here is your God." Mary sings of a social order transformed, of oppressed people put on an even playing field, of economic justice, of promises fulfilled--all because of this unexpected baby beginning to kick in her womb, the first signs of a new season in her life and the life of her people.


In prison, however, it's hard to see a crocus--or anything--growing outside of the dark concrete walls. In his cell, John is filled not with song but with one piercing question, the question of one who thought they'd seen spring beginning to dawn but who now can't see a sign of any blessed thing breaking through the ground: "Are you the one who is to come, or should we be expecting someone else?" It is the question of one who has seen his shadow and scurried back into his hole, this life of being a prophet far more difficult than he'd imagined and whose dream Messiah has turned out to be a little slower than his heart had hoped. Nothing was turning out like John had imagined...so would the crocus ever bloom? Would spring ever come?


It's cold as all get out in Annapolis this week...the time for crocuses to bloom could not feel farther away. But hang in there, friends. If we believe these promises of God...then apparently, spring is coming. And as we ask our heartbreaking questions of that promising God, we might begin to see glimpses of budding miracles of truth: the blind can see, the lame can dance, and the most helpless among us learn God is on their side.


A Parting Poem to reflect on:

"Waiting for It," by R.S. Thomas

Now
in the small hours
of belief the one eloquence
to master is that
of the bowed head, the bent
knee, waiting, as at the end
of a hard winter
for one flower to open
on the mind’s tree of thorns.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

John the Baptist's Time in the Spotlight


Our scripture texts for this Second Sunday of Advent are a motley crew of beauty and bizareness: Isaiah 11:1-10, Romans 15:4-13, and Matthew 3:1-12. Click here to give them a read.

The picture at right is too good not to use, and I figured I probably could not get away with using it as the bulletin cover this week, SO...meet Lego John the Baptist. As I was searching for a picture of John the Baptist to use on our blog this week this was not the picture I was expecting to come across...but then again, when is John the Baptist ever what we expect? He shows up at the beginning of all four gospels, preparing the way for Jesus...and he shows up in the lectionary for the Second Sunday of Advent every single year...he is Advent's prophet. Yet he always catches me a little off guard and makes me wonder, what is it with this guy? What makes him so significant that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all give him serious face time...that Luke gives us as many details about his conception and birth as he does about Jesus'? What makes this season of Advent a particularly poignant opportunity to pay attention to such an odd character? Why is he the right prophet for this season of preparation? What makes this the right time, to continue our theme, for John to show up and disrupt our lives with his cry of, "Repent, for the kingdom of God is near"?

Beyond this plethora of questions about John the Baptist, the other question I had rolling around in my head as I read our texts for this week had to do with all the tree imagery found in these passages. In this season where we put up trees in our homes as a means of preparation, these passages speak of a shoot coming out of a stump, of a root rising to rule over all people...such images of growth and new life are rich in Isaiah and Romans. In Matthew, however, we hear of an axe prepared to chop trees down at their roots, leaving those that don't bear fruit as decimated stump. We hear of cut-down castoffs added as fuel to the fire by a sort of Lumberjack Lord. How do these seemingly contrasting images, powerful in their rich detail, hold together? When we put them side by side, what kind of forest can we make out from these trees?
Good questions for us to ponder as we head into this Sunday...

Friday, November 26, 2010

What Time Is It?


Our lections this week are Isaiah 2:1-5, Romans 13:11-14, and Matthew 24:36-44. Check them out here as we begin a new season and a new lectionary year together with a new Gospel writer (welcome, Matthew!) who will be our companion, with the exception of a little relief pitching from John on occasion, from now until next November.


You might notice that the blog is showing up a couple of days later than usual this week (or maybe, lost in a turkey coma, you didn't notice this at all!). This is not because of the holiday per se--it's because I've had a hard time shifting gears! How can we do Christ the King, Thanksgiving, and move to Advent all in the same weekend? It's been hard for me to figure out what time it is when it seems like so many different times of such rich significance are overlapping and intersecting, catching us breathless in their dizzy swirl.


My family is working to put up their Christmas decorations today and tomorrow in these post-Thanksgiving days at home, which makes me feel like perhaps this Sunday is time to start talking about angels and the manger and shepherds and the like. But on the first Sunday of the Advent season--our four weeks of preparing for the coming of Christ into our world once again--our lectionary texts don't lend themselves to stables and sheep. Rather, on the first Sunday of Advent our texts are apocalyptic in nature--pointing us to visions not of Christ's humble first coming, but of some future time where Christ will break again into our world to make all things new and inaugurate a new day.


Isaiah's image of this day, perhaps, is one we can get behind--a vision of peace, of humanity in unity, of people "walking in the light of the Lord"--an apt vision for this season where lights appear all around us to cut through winter's growing darkness. Matthew's, however, is a little more troubling. I laughed out loud at the response of one of my favorite lectionary websites, http://www.thehardestquestion.org/, to the seemingly anachronistic selection of this passage: "Nothing raises my holiday spirits like the anticipated threat of Jesus kidnapping someone at work and then breaking into my house and robbing me. And the fun part is, it will all be a surprise! Yeah!" This passage doesn't seem to fit with our warm fuzzy desires to go ahead and start singing "Joy to the World" since we've been hearing it in stores for weeks now; rather, it brings to mind images of how this passage has been interpreted (not correctly, in my opinion) in the Left Behind books to instill fear in people and lead them to "get right with God or get left," and led others (in direct violation of what Jesus is saying here, actually) to think they can interpret the signs of the times to say exactly when "the rapture" is going to happen--something Jesus says that not even he can do.


I think all of these things weave together, somehow, to disorient us and reorient us as we move into this season. We think we know what time it is--time to think about the baby Jesus in the manger, time to sing carols around the fire--but our scripture invites us into a different time altogether--a time of waiting and not knowing, a time that doesn't look like anything we've seen before, a time that is not to be feared but to be anticipated with great expectation and attentiveness--because in the midst of our spinning time, God is about to break into our world again and do something new. Join us as we enter into this season this Sunday and consider what time it is in our lives, in our world, and for our God who was before time, who dwells among us in this present moment, and who is to come again.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

If I Was the King...


And just like that, our last Sunday of Ordinary Time is here--a Sunday known in the Christian world as either Christ the King or Reign of Christ Sunday...a Sunday that bridges us from these many weeks of following Jesus' long journey to Jerusalem to the new "looking forward" that will take place the following week as we begin the Advent season. It's a whirlwind of time, just as we talked about last week, and the readings are powerful: Jeremiah 23:1-6, Luke 1:68-79 (in place of Psalm), Colossians 1:13-20, and Luke 23:33-43. Read them all consecutively and the impact is pretty powerful...you can do so, as always, here.



One of the many things I love about worship at Broadneck is that I get to do a Children's Sermon every Sunday. I love this for lots of reasons, but I love it because, in thinking about how to make these texts accessible to our kids, I find entry points and insights into the texts that I might not have found otherwise. As I've been thinking about our children's sermon for Christ the King Sunday, I've been considering posing to the kids this [admittedly dangerous, but which ones posed to kids aren't?] question: "If you could be king/queen for a day, what would you do?"


I can only imagine how our kids will answer this question...knowing them, I can guess three things: their answers will be honest, they will be creative, and they will be likely not what we expect.


In our Old Testament lesson for this week, God announces, "The days are coming..." and then begins to outline what it will look like on the day when God raises up a ruler to reign over God's people the way God would reign over them. God's people have known some REALLY BAD rulers (imagine that...human rulers who fall short?), some of whom claimed to have been sent by God...so I could see how Jeremiah's prophecy could elicit some skepticism. But as God begins to describe this "righteous Branch," the ruler sounds like no one they have experienced before: one who deals wisely, who acts justly and does what is right, one who actually brings about safety for the people and brings them together. In describing what will happen in the day God's ruler takes the throne, the answer God gives, like the one I anticipate from our kids, is honest, speaking the heart of God's hopes and dreams.

In our Epistle lesson, we hear what things look like on the day when God has "transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son" (Colossians 1:13). Consider this description of Christ's reign offered by Eugene Peterson in The Message:
"We look at this Son and see the God who cannot be seen. We look at this Son and see God's original purpose in everything created. For everything, absolutely everything, above and below, visible and invisible, rank after rank after rank of angels—everything got started in him and finds its purpose in him. He was there before any of it came into existence and holds it all together right up to this moment. And when it comes to the church, he organizes and holds it together, like a head does a body. He was supreme in the beginning and—leading the resurrection parade—he is supreme in the end. From beginning to end he's there, towering far above everything, everyone. So spacious is he, so roomy, that everything of God finds its proper place in him without crowding. Not only that, but all the broken and dislocated pieces of the universe—people and things, animals and atoms—get properly fixed and fit together in vibrant harmonies."
What does it look like when Christ, as the image of God, is Ruler over all things? All things find their beginning...all things find their place...all things are brought together in wholeness. Certainly sounds creative to me...quite literally.



Finally, in Luke we get a picture of that day--literally--when Christ was revealed as king. He was revealed not in a coronation, but in a humiliation--mocked by the leaders of his day, silently undefended by the crowds and his friends, his lordship genuinely realized only by a powerless criminal who hung on a cross beside him. In his day of being "raised up" as king, Christ forgave his mockers and abusers and welcomed a criminal into God's paradise. Christ the King chose not to save himself, but to give himself up freely. What kind of king is this? I can tell you one thing...it's certainly not what we would have expected.

Honesty...creativity...unexpectedness...all of these things grip us and shred our perceptions on this day as we see what it might really look like to call Christ the King and to accept the Reign of Christ in our world and, even more frighteningly, in our lives. Join us on Sunday as, appropriately enough, our kids will lead us to consider...what would we do if we had the chance to be king? And what did Christ do when Christ actually did?

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Spinning in the Vortex

Our Lectionary Readings for this Sunday, which is technically our last Sunday of Ordinary Time (!), are Isaiah 65:17-25, 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13, and Luke 21:1-19. You can read them here (though you'll notice that I added four verses to the beginning of the Luke reading...not because I didn't think there were enough verses there, but because I think they are somehow important to understanding what Jesus is talking about here! But more on that later).

So as I was reading our texts for this week, an image came to mind. It was the image of those spiral vortex things that always used to be around the checkout areas of restaurants when I was a kid--those big, yellow plastic funnel contraptions you could drop a penny into and watch it spin its way to the bottom (see picture at right if you have no idea what I'm talking about). I was fascinated by these things--how the coin would spin slowly at first, then faster and faster and faster as it moved towards the narrow part of the funnel until it became a noisy whirring blur and finally dropped to the bottom, where it became still.

Why is this the image that came to mind here? Well, see if you can follow this logic: I like to think of the church year is a cycle, a spiral of sorts. We move through this long, long season called Ordinary Time from early summer to late fall, five to six full months of time to meander through a gospel (in this year's case, the Gospel of Luke) and dawdle about in some Old Testament stories (in this year's case, those fun guys called the Prophets). This is where we've been since I arrived at Broadneck in June on the second Sunday of Ordinary Time--just moving through these stories at a steady pace, but really without an end in sight. We're with Jesus on his long road to Jerusalem, and with the Israelites on their long road into exile, so to speak...a journey that is far more tortoise than hare, that's like the endless time the coin rolls around the top of the funnel before it drops, time that tests both our endurance and our gnat-like twenty-first century attention spans.

Now, however, suddenly we've hit that narrow end: we are spinning rapidly, rapidly, rapidly towards our final Sunday of this Church year (Christ the King Sunday next week), and then beginning a new Church year with the first Sunday of Advent the following Sunday. We're spinning so fast that, in this week's lections, it is almost like we've lost track of where we are--for this week's readings, in many senses, seek to keep us not in our present Ordinary Time for one more week, but to launch us prematurely into some sort of Extraordinary Time. In the Old Testament reading, we suddenly encounter a new heaven and a new earth that God is creating, where it seems that the Book of Revelation is suddenly thrust back into Isaiah's prophecy. In the New Testament readings, people are looking ahead to things to come, spinning rapidly and sometimes acting foolishly out of their hopes of God finally putting all things under the reign of Christ. The themes that will emerge in the coming weeks--Christ's kingdom beginning to be established on earth, God breaking into human history to do something new--seem to be bursting in upon us a little early this week...like that coin spinning down the spiral, we are being launched out of this slow journey we've been on into something new altogether, something disorienting in its difference.

As we encounter these texts this week, however, here's a question to ponder, one that has been on my mind this week that can perhaps help us think around how these texts that seem to speak of future other worlds might ground us in our present realities: when we dream about, talk about, and consider the new future God is working to bring about among us--what is our role in that process as God's people, and what rests in God's hands alone? How can we be faithful and passionate participants in God's future without trying to become the god of that future? It could be an interesting exercise to read these texts this week with these questions in mind...questions that, maybe at least a little, can slow down the rapidly spinning spiral and help offer some perspective on the journey.

In the meantime...I love the irony of the fact that, in the midst of this spinning coin imagery, our Gospel text opens with the reading about the widow giving her two coins. Somehow I think this could be part of the grounding we need to dive into these texts faithfully this week...

See you Sunday for a time that promises to be anything but ordinary!


Sidenote: not familiar with the seasons of the church year? Check out the diagram below for a refresher on this worship cycle in which we as Christians dwell...


Tuesday, November 9, 2010

BBC Blog, Special "Dreams" Edition

Hello Friends!

Our usual Wednesday lectionary blog will still be coming your way tomorrow...but as a follow up to our Dreams Session on October 24, I wanted to share with you some "word pictures" you painted of our church's present and possible future.

These images were created by Wordle--a site where you can enter text and these "word clouds" will be created with the words that show up the most being largest in font. Check out our word pictures--which words jump out at you? What emerges from these pictures for you about who we are at Broadneck and who we might be called to be in the future?

Feel free to comment on this blog, to comment to one another at church, and check out the bulletin board with more feedback from our Dreams Session coming soon to a Broadneck Baptist Church near you! Keep dreaming, friends, and if you didn't make our session on the 24th, there's still time for you to answer the question: "I dream of a Broadneck Baptist Church where _________." What are God's dreams for us? Let's seek them out together!

Broadneck Baptist Church 2010

A Vision of Broadneck Baptist Church 2015

"I Dream of a Broadneck Baptist Church where..."


Possible Priorities emerging from our Ministry Groups:

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

For All the Saints...


In honor of All Saints' Sunday, we are going partially off lectionary this week. Our Old Testament reading will be Genesis 35:16-21 and our Epistle reading will be 1 Peter 2:4-10; our Gospel Reading is the appointed lectionary text for this special day, Luke 6:20-31.

So, what are Baptists doing talking about saints? All Saints' Day (which technically is November 1, but is celebrated in most traditions on the first Sunday in November) is not a day that has gotten a lot of attention in Baptist circles. In fact, though I've been in a couple of churches that light candles on this day to remember those who have died or maybe sing a few verses of the hymn for which this blog post is named, I don't know that I have ever heard a sermon geared towards this particular day of remembrance, reflection, and celebration in the life of the church. Perhaps this is because the exact meaning of All Saints' is a little ambiguous. This day was originally made part of the life of the early church to remember all the unnamed martyrs who had died for their faith in Christ. Over time, the day expanded to a time to remember all those who have been part of the community of faith but have now passed on to be part of the heavenly "communion of saints" of which many Christian creeds speak.

It is a day, however, that I think has power us in this particular day on several levels, which is why it is a day we will embrace in our worship on Sunday. First, loss is an unavoidable and, in many senses, integral part of human existence. Precious people have been part of our lives on this earth who walk this soil no longer, and their absence radically alters the way we move through this world. How do we find hope and meaning amidst such loss as people who believe in a Christ who even the grave could not keep away from us?

Second, we are not the first generation of Christ-followers to walk this earth, nor (hopefully) will we be the last. We are part of a "communion of saints," a "cloud of witnesses" that was begun long before we took our first breath, that extends beyond our church buildings and communities, beyond even this earth through time and space. We are part of a family that is bigger than we can get our brains around...and this reality should affect how we understand ourselves as a congregation in this day and time.

And third, as we are seeking to live on this earth, we are not having to completely reinvent the wheel. We should and can gain wisdom from those who have gone before us, those who have struggled to live faithfully and in the process become for us models of faith.

In light of these observations about this day, it is interesting that one of the traditional readings for All Saints' Day is the Beatitudes. Since we are spending this year in Luke's gospel, Luke's rendition of the Beatitudes is the one we are given this week rather than Matthew's more well known account. Whereas in Matthew Jesus delivered his description of the blessed life from a mountaintop, here in Luke Jesus preaches on a plain, among the people right where they live. Whereas Matthew's Beatitudes are lengthier, more poetic, and in some senses more "spiritual," Luke's beatitudes are harsh in their contrast and almost uncomfortably direct. A life of holiness--of being a saint blessed in the eyes of God--does not sound like a comfortable one, nor a glamorous one. Rather, it is an uncomfortably embodied one--a life of being poor, hungry, grieved, excluded, hated, and defamed. Such a list of what blessed life on earth could entail should not make us hurry to be among the "saints", for to live a life blessed in the eyes of God is to live on the margins among hardship.

Yet is this not what it is to be a saint, at least in the biblical definition? To be "in Christ," as Paul so often described the saints, is to share in Christ's life and death as well as in Christ's resurrection--to discover that the life we live on this earth will be a trail fraught with hardship, just as Christ's was. Who have the saints been who have modeled such faithful living "in Christ" for us? How could connecting our journeys with theirs help us find a bit more of the blessedness of which Jesus spoke, help us (in the words of Ephesians 3) "have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God?" Join us on Sunday as we celebrate this unique day together and consider its power to shape our lives as a community of faith living among a communion of saints.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

An Interpretive Field Day...or Obstacle Course.


Wow, wow, wow to our readings this week. SO many interpretive choices that we must wrestle with as we read them, things that can both trouble us deeply and lead us to laugh out loud (which I actually did when I learned something new about the Luke reading this week!).

Our readings this week are Psalm 32, 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12 and Luke 19:1-10. Read them here...though you may want to go to this site and look up Psalm 32 in its entirety (since we'll be dealing with the whole prayer in worship on Sunday) and look up 2 Thess 1:1-12 in its entirety including the verses the lectionary omits since we'll be addressing that interpretive choice below.

I'll briefly address issues around the 2 Thessalonians reading (though we likely won't be spending much time on this text on Sunday) since a curious tension in these verses was pointed out at Bible Study this past Saturday as something people would like probed a little more fully. In a classic move by those who assembled the Revised Common Lectionary that we (and churches around the world) use to outline our scripture readings each week, the middle portion of the opening greeting and thanksgiving of 2 Thessalonians is cut out of our suggested reading this week. When one looks up these verses, it is no wonder: 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10 includes some of the most vitriolic language in the New Testament--language that sounds much more like the Old Testament God of vengeance than the New Testament God of grace. How do we deal with this omitted text that's at the heart of our passage?

I did some reading, and it seems there are several interpretive approaches we could take to these verses. One interpretation suggests that linking Jesus to such a final and fiery judgment was a way for the writer to help establish Jesus' full divinity--linking Jesus in the Thessalonians' minds to the images they had of God as final arbiter and judge of humanity and giving Jesus full power and authority over all things. Another suggests that this is in line with an ancient letter writing technique of gaining affinity with your audience by identifying with them in their situation--by going off against those who had been the root of the Thessalonians' suffering, the author could find solidarity with them in the midst of their struggle. Another way to encounter these words is to put them in context of the wider book--a book that addressed the fact that many in Thessalonica believed that the last days were already here and were now just sitting around on their rear ends, convinced the end was at any moment. Here the writer is from the beginning setting up the fact that redemption is still to come--and hence the Thessalonians need to keep living toward that not-yet future with faithfulness and expectation. Finally, it's possible that the writer is just furious about what the Thessalonians have had to go through and is letting some of that rage run unchecked before finally reeling it back in and returning to a more "proper" voice of thanksgiving in verses 11-12.

Are those enough interpretive choices for you? Phew. And I'm sure there are tons others I have not even thought of or encountered. For those of you interested in wrestling with this more, I'd recommend reading 2 Thessalonians all the way through (it's a short book)...I think context here is really important, as always--but perhaps even moreso than usual!

There are some really interesting interpretive choices to be made in Psalm 32 and especially in the Luke passage as well...but looking at how long this blog already is, those will have to wait for Sunday or some other time. Here's a teaser, though: who would have believed that there would be something new to learn about the Zacchaeus story after a whole lifetime of doing the story in Vacation Bible School EVERY YEAR that startled me so much I laughed out loud? But...you don't usually read the text in the Greek for Bible School, do you?
Stay tuned on Sunday as we continue this adventure of working to interpret scripture together! In the meantime, I would love to hear your thoughts and comments on the 2 Thessalonians passage...or any of the others, for that matter! Comment away!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Speaking Our Souls

Our scriptures for this week are Psalm 84, 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18, and Luke 18:9-14. Give them a read (though be sure to look up and read all of Psalm 84, not just the 7 verses here--why the lectionary refuses to include full prayers, I do not know!) here.

Psalm 84 is a beautiful prayer--melodic, hopeful, full of emotion and joy and authenticity. But as I've begun living in it and studying it this week within the broader context of the book of Psalms, an interesting tension has bubbled to the surface for me. When considered in its content, Psalm 84 sounds like it belongs with the Song of Ascents--that is, among the 15 prayers found in Psalms 120-134 that are the cries of pilgrims going up to Jerusalem for festivals, travelling long distances until they finally come into view of the Temple at the top of the Mount...the place where the God and community they long for can at last be found.

Yet this is not where Psalm 84 is found contextually--rather, it is embedded among a group of prayers anticipating and dealing with the reality of exile, with impending separation from home and the Temple where God's presence can be felt most fully. The prayers on either side of it are cries of lament over gathering enemies, cries not of God's beauty but asking God to relent in God's anger.

How is our reading--and praying--of Psalm 84 enriched when we read it in a broader context? When we realize that the Psalmist was likely not actually seeing the Temple, but rather tasting the bittersweet fullness of perpetual longing and fainting spoken of in verse 2? What must it have taken for the Psalmist to keep praying his or her deepest longings even as it looked like there was little possibility of these dreams becoming reality in his or her lifetime? Why would the Psalmist persist in praying such impossible longings, persist in speaking his or her soul in such a deep way?

Before we get together on Sunday, try praying Psalm 84...pray it with the fullness of your heart, and see what happens. Which words or images reach your soul? What deep longings does it stir in you?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

A REALLY Long Prayer

Our lectionary texts this week are Psalm 119:97-104, 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5, and Luke 18:1-8. It's likely that none of these are super familiar passages...so be sure to read them for yourself by clicking here.

Prayer is the topic that has been on my mind this week more than usual. In part this has been brought on by watching, along with the world, the amazing rescue of the Chilean miners unfolding the past two days. As they emerged from the underground cavern where they had been trapped for the past 69 days, the first thing several of the miners did was drop to their knees in prayer. The return of the men to safety at the surface also set off a variety of religious commentaries about the power of prayer and the role it played in the rescue--a particularly interesting article reflecting on this was published here.

Prayer has also been on my mind because we are going to spend the next three weeks in worship talking about prayer together--about who we're praying to, what we're praying for, where we're praying from--asking hard questions about prayer and looking to scripture for sometimes hard guidance on this journey of being in relationship and dialogue with God. Our conversation is going to be guided by two of the most powerful resources we have for thinking about prayer--Jesus' own teaching, and the Psalms, which have long been called "the prayer book of the Bible."

Our first Psalm is a doozy--at 176 verses, Psalm 119 is the longest chapter in the Bible by a landslide. It goes on for pages. It's full of big, crazy words and ideas--the ones contained in the jumble of an image above. So you can imagine my chagrin when everything I read about the section of the Psalm we're looking at on Sunday--verses 97 to 104--said that to really get this Psalm, you need to read the whole thing. Not just that, but you need to pray the whole thing, internalizing its words as your own.

176 verses? Really?

But I did it. I read the whole thing, jotting down notes of my reactions and observations along the way. It was interesting to watch myself evolve as the prayer moved. For the first 20 verses or so, I felt annoyed at whoever penned this prayer; it is so redundant. Couldn't he have said all of this in 30 verses or so?

But as I continued to read, continued to pray, I found myself getting caught up in the surging current of this prayer, awash in its sometimes grandiose poetry. I found myself riding the ups and downs of the roller coaster the pray-er was on, soaring with unpredictable speed from begging to proclaiming to almost laughing outloud with delight to pleading to declaring with utter confidence. I found myself amazed at how this pray-er, no matter his or her emotion at the time, prayed with this utter, almost ridiculous boldness and confidence. I felt at times like I was eavesdropping on a conversation so intimate it should not be overheard even in snippets, let alone word to word by someone else.

But most of all...I found myself desperately wanting to know a God that you could talk to like this. I found myself yearning to know the psalmist's God, and to know that God in such fullness, with such depth and intimacy and realness and authenticity. I found myself wishing I could pour out 176 verses that reflected such knowledge and experience of God, that painted such a beautiful picture of who God is.

So as we prepare for Sunday...take this challenge. Read Psalm 119. The whole thing. Let its long, crazy stream of words wash over you. Pay attention to how they affect you. And think about the kind of God that they point to...is this the God you pray to? And what would it look like for you to pray to such a God with your whole heart?

Join us on Sunday morning and we can compare notes:)

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

A Week of Looking Back instead of Looking Forward

This week's blog is going to be a little different! Since I am going to be away this Sunday, we will be welcoming a guest preacher to the pulpit, John Roberts, Pastor Emeritus of Woodbrook Baptist Church in Baltimore. Since John is going off lectionary this week (look forward to his sermon based on 2 Kings 2:1-14 and Matthew 4:18-22!), it seemed silly for me to blog on the lectionary passages...so instead, I wanted to offer some reflections on the powerful experience many of us at Broadneck and around the world shared in worship this past Sunday.


Since the 1930s and 1940s, World Communion Sunday has been celebrated by many Christian traditions across the globe on the first Sunday of October. It is a day when congregations of varied denominations, geographical locations, and backgrounds all agree to come to the Lord's Table as a symbol of our unity in Christ, of the one bread and one cup that we all share and that makes of us one body.


On Sunday, our usual circle of participants gathered at the front of the sanctuary to pass the bread and the cup to one another, to join hands and sing of God's Amazing Grace. But on this particular Sunday, thanks to the creativity of our Worship Ministry Group, our circle was much larger than our eyes could see. At the same moment (11:00 AM EST) that we were gathering to share the supper, a congregation in England to which some of our members have a connection and a congregation in the Czech Republic where some of our members are currently living and serving in ministry each gathered to break bread at the same time that we did, to pray prayers that members of our different churches had written, and to pray by name for those in the other churches gathered to worship.


Communion, on this day, took on a much broader scope: we were literally in communion with Christians from multiple other nations whose faces we may never see but who we are bound to as brothers and sisters in Christ. The opportunity to take the prayers that people in England and Prague had written and lay them beside prayers written here in Maryland, creating a liturgy together and knowing that each of our churches would be offering these prayers for our world and one another in unison, was one of the most humbling things I have ever done. How much bigger than all of us is the mission and love of this God that we serve!


The responses I received from the congregations in England and Prague about their experiences of this communion were so moving that I asked their permission to share them with you. Take a look at what happened in other places this Sunday:


“We loved being ‘with you’. Our main worship service is in the morning but an evening (6:30) more intimate affair does happen some weeks. This was re-scheduled for us today so we could meet at 11am EST (4pm here). Twenty of our folk gathered and during the liturgy, as a body, we read out the names of those listed from Maryland and Prague and the other places. St Cleers has many links with churches and smaller Christian communities around the world and your initiative has sparked a discussion here about their organising a ‘World Communion’ service some time. So thank you for making the first move and for thinking of us when putting together this partnership.” -Brian Pearson, Somerset, England



"Almost all our students joined us in the service. Our time of Silent Prayer was one of many voiced prayers in Russian, French, Lithuanian etc. We shared a loaf and drank tea. The students added chocolate candy. Conversation continued for over an hour. So lovely international worship. The time was precious. Our students really got into the prayer time and prayed in many languages for much longer than the three short litany prayers. They prayed for our church in particular. I know you are praying for them. Please continue." -Nancy Lively, Prague


On a week when we were reminded by Jesus that the faith we have is not so small after all, what a beautiful thing to be reminded of this larger story and community to which we are connected. May that connection--and the meal that we shared--nourish and sustain us for the work God has yet to call each of us to do!



Thursday, September 30, 2010

Increase Our Faith

Our Lectionary readings being focused on this week are Luke 17:5-10 and 2 Timothy 1:1-14. To read these two intriguing passages about faith and how we live it, click here.

There was a fascinating editorial in the Washington Post this past week that began with a compelling question: "What would you do if you got the chance to talk to the most powerful person on the planet?" Though this editorial was about the chance to talk to and ask questions of the President of the United States, the gospels are full of encounters that truly answer these questions: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John brim over with anecdotes of moments in time where people were face to face with Jesus and got to ask for or about what they wondered, wanted, needed.

I am completely intrigued by the things people chose to ask Jesus in the gospels.

Sometimes people asked questions to figure out who this Jesus guy is: the demons asked, "Have you come to destroy us?" John the Baptist's disciples asked, "Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?" Pilate asked in a moment of truth, "Are you the king of the Jews?"

People who met Jesus along the road asked for things that they needed. "My daughter has just died. But come put your hand on her, and she will live." "Lord, have mercy on my son, he has seizures and is suffering greatly." "Sir, give me this water so that I won't get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water." "Lord, I believe; help my unbelief."
But perhaps the questions we should pay attention to most are the ones asked by Jesus' disciples...the ones who saw the most of what Jesus did, who travelled with him constantly, who heard the fullest spectrum of his teaching and had the best chance of actually figuring out what Jesus was talking about and what was important to know. Many of the things the disciples asked , when you look at them closely, were kind of cowardly and dense, especially in light of all Jesus had taught them. Take, for example, James and John's request: "Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory." Or their shout in the middle of the storm on the lake: "Teacher, don't you care that we drown?"
Occasionally, however, the disciples hit on something good. For example, "Lord, teach us to pray" was a pretty good request--how else would we have the beautiful prayer we offer each week in worship? And it would seem, at first glance, that the disciples' request of "Increase our faith" in today's gospel passage is a holy and honorable request as well...after all, who doesn't want and need more faith, and why would Jesus not want them to have more faith?
But Jesus responds as sharply to this request as he does to some of the disciples' sillier ones. What's silly about wanting more faith? What's so bad about such a request? This seems to be the question this text is asking us, and this is the question that will pursue us into Sunday. Be with us as we ask this question of Jesus together.


Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Way It Is

This week's lectionary passages are Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15; 1 Timothy 6:6-15; and Luke 16:19-31. You can read these passages (which include two REALLY great, detailed, colorful stories!) here.

I think in terms of song. I can't help it; somehow this is the way my brain is wired. A word, a phrase, a story, an image, an experience--all of these can start a song playing in my head like a CD on relentless repeat at any given moment. As I've been sitting with these passages this week, the same song has been streaming through the waves of my mental radio station again and again: Bruce Hornsby's 1985 classic, "The Way It Is." (Fun Fact: Bruce (yes, I like to think that we're on a first name basis) graduated from my high school, and legend has it that my French teacher once called him out in front of the class and told him he was going to end up homeless on the street if he didn't do his homework. I have no idea if this is truth or myth, but I love the visual) In the
lyrics, Bruce sings about the gap between the haves and have-nots that persists in our society, the racial and economic divides that persist across the generations--things you don't often hear sung about in a thoughtful way on pop radio. Amidst a telling of these stories that could be discouraging, however, Bruce offers a challenge in the chorus: he follows the usual argument of "That's just the way it is/Some things will never change/That's just the way it is" with a plea to the hearer to think differently: "Ha, but don't you believe them".

I think this chorus would have been on replay in the heads of both Jeremiah and Jesus in the places where we meet them today, had Bruce composed his song 2000 (or, in the case of Jeremiah, 2600) years earlier. Take Jeremiah--he had been proclaiming doom for Judah for years now—decades even!—telling the people that Judah was going to be captured by her enemies and that if they did not repent, there was no way they could avoid it. Now, finally, it has become apparent that Jeremiah’s prophecies are about to be fulfilled—the Babylonian armies have the city surrounded and under siege, the people of Jerusalem slowly starving to death and watching the world they’ve built for themselves be dismantled brick by brick…quite literally. Now even the people of Jerusalem realize there is no way to escape—this is just the way it is. The Temple, the City, and the people are about to be destroyed.

Suddenly, however, Jeremiah changes his tune—this city is going to fall, this fact will not change; but that will also not be true forever. In a prophetic act of buying a worthless piece of land in a country that was about to be owned by the enemy, Jeremiah makes one of the first truly hopeful proclamations of his ministry—his act of “don’t you believe them.” Jerusalem will be destroyed…but not forever. Houses will be built and fields will be planted again in this land.

Jesus, too, tells a tale of “don’t you believe them.” It is a tale that starts by speaking of the status quo: of a descriptively painted gap between the haves (the unnamed rich man) and the have-nots (the poor man, Lazarus)—a gap between wealth and poverty that has always been true in most every human society. “That’s just the way it is,” we could say in response to this story that we see played out every day in our own communities; “Some things will never change.” But Jesus then tells another story: a story of the kingdom of God, where “the way it is” is turned upside down, where the poor and forgotten are comforted at the bosom of Abraham and those who were prideful are left in despair, their lives no longer a bounty of everything that they ever wanted; now, the only things the rich man truly wants are beyond his reach. This is the case, Father Abraham makes clear in this story, because the rich man failed to believe there was another way—he failed to hear the words of Moses and the prophets, failed to be changed and transformed by the story of the society God was looking to build among God’s people.



There is so much detail in these stories, so much to unpack and unravel; but most of all, they are stories of reversals…that show us “the way it is”—or the way it seems to be—and then encourage us, through visions of different possible futures, to believe that this will not always be so…that God is envisioning and working to build a different kingdom, and that God begins to build that kingdom through the things we decide to believe, the things we place our trust in, the choices we make in things as everyday as real estate transactions and how we share our wealth.



So much in these stories…so much. But join us on Sunday as we dive into them together…and if there’s a song rolling through your head as we do, then that’s perfectly okay.




Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Rolling with the Punches


Our lectionary passages for this week are Jeremiah 8:18-9:1, Luke 16:1-13, and 1 Timothy 2:1-7. Give them a read through here...and you may need to read them several times, particularly that Luke passage!

Our passages this week fall on our ears with both cultural familiarity and abrupt strangeness. At least some of the words of Jeremiah's lament will likely call to mind the lyrics of a familiar spiritual, the song of a balm in Gilead that can heal the sin-sick soul. That song, based on the part of this passage alluding to a nearby region (see picture above) whose trees produced a well-known soothing ointment, was penned as a song meant to offer encouragement and hope even in the darkest of days. Jeremiah's song, however familiar some of the lyrics may be, diverges from the spiritual, though, in that it is sheer lament. There are no glimmers of hope in this passage (though those do come other places in Jeremiah's message); here, all there can be are tears. There's no hope of healing...just grief of the most raw and heart-rending form...a surprising turn from the hopefulness intoned in the spiritual.

The final line of our Gospel reading for this week will probably sound familiar to even casual churchgoers as well: “You cannot serve both God and wealth.” But the parable that precedes the passage will likely be quite unfamiliar…in fact, I am fairly certain I’ve never heard a sermon preached on this parable. Probably because this parable is not nearly as straightforward as the “either-or” of serving God and money…it is convoluted enough to put fear in the heart of anyone who would dare try to interpret it, and to humble anyone who would try to simplify it. It involves a master who may be construed as either a jerk or merciful, a manager who’s either crooked or commendable, Jesus telling his disciples to make friends by means of dishonest wealth while also telling them that whoever is dishonest in a very little will be dishonest also in much. What kind of parable is this? It comes directly on the heels of the parable of the prodigal son, which I think may be a key for us; but it also feels scattered, not nearly as neat and tidy as Jesus’ last line would make it seem.

The readings sound familiar at first…then send us to these unfamiliar places, places that grate on what we expect to find in these lines. In that tension between the familiar and unfamiliar is likely where meaning for our lives can be found…lives where, like Jeremiah and his people and Jesus and his people (and even Paul and Timothy and their people, in our epistle) we have to learn to roll with punches that are not always familiar or predictable…how to continue to live and to lead in a world that is not neat and tidy. Stay tuned on Sunday as we do our best to work through these questions and conflicts together.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Lost Lambs and Loose Change


Our Lectionary readings for this week are Luke 15:1-10 and 1 Timothy 1:12-17. Jeremiah 4 is also an appointed reading for the day, but due to the special nature of our worship on Sunday (celebrating Broadneck's 28th anniversary--Happy Birthday to us!), we will be focusing in our time together on the New Testament texts, and I will do the same here. To read all of this week's lections, click here.

I'm blogging on Thursday instead of Wednesday this week because there are so many amazing possibilities for these great stories from the Gospel of Luke that it has been hard for me to decide what to write about and what aspect of the stories to explore. This is what I love about Jesus' parables--one commentator I was reading this week described them as more akin to riddles than anything, because every time you read them something else strikes you, and you realize perhaps the story is not as simple and straightforward as you thought--even if it's a story, like these stories of a lost lamb and a lost coin, that can be told using a single (albeit run-on) sentence in the original Greek!

But wait...are these stories really about lost lambs and loose change? Yes...to an extent. They are stories that would not have been set in motion had that one lamb out of the 100 not wandered off, and that one coin out of the 10 not rolled away.

But perhaps this story is just as much about a reckless shepherd and an exuberant woman. Two things caught me in this read through of these familiar parables, things I hadn't really caught before, that indicated that just focusing on the coin and the lamb might miss the point.

The first indicator is the presumptive question with which Jesus starts his storytelling: "Which of you," Jesus begins, "having 100 sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the 99 in the wilderness and go after the one lost until he finds it?" Maybe the better question, Jesus, would be, "Which of you actually does something like that?" You see, when I had visualized this story before, I had envisioned the shepherd leaving his 99 safely in a nice fenced in field somewhere, or perhaps in a barn-type area; I had never before noticed the word "wilderness" in this description. The wilderness, in biblical language, represented a place of danger, a place of great peril and risk; it would not be leaving the 99 cared for or secure, but totally exposed--this is how committed the shepherd is to finding the lost sheep even if, in such a wild area, the likelyhood that the sheep has even survived its roaming is slim indeed. What kind of shepherd is this--who would take such a reckless risk, just for one sheep? And this is the shepherd the hearers of the story are asked to identify with?
The second indicator is how both of the stories end: with the shepherd/woman calling their friends and neighbors and inviting them to rejoice with them because they've found what they lost. Now, I always pictured (anachronistically) the shepherd or woman picking up the phone and calling their friends to say, "Guess what I found?" so they would have someone to celebrate with them. That makes sense; that might be something we could picture ourselves doing. But to Jesus' audience, that's not what the word "rejoice" would indicate at all; in biblical language, "rejoice with me" would be equivalent to "come have a feast and celebrate with me"--it would be inviting a neighbor to a party you are throwing!

So...let me get this straight...the woman finds one lost coin of only ten that she has, then probably spends more than that coin was worth on a party to celebrate the coin being found? What kind of woman is this, whose joy leads her to do something so illogical?

Most of us are aware enough to realize that it's crazy for God to seek us out--to pursue one lost sheep that is prone to wander, to sweep the house for one small coin that's not worth all that much in the grand scheme of things...but this is a message we still need to hear again and again. To take the parable from this other angle, however...what does it mean that, in telling these stories, Jesus asks his hearers to identify not just with lamb and coin, but with shepherd and sweeping woman--with the people understood in these parables as representing God? What does it mean that Jesus invites us, apparently, to put ourselves in the sandals of the shepherd recklessly, relentlessly seeking that one lost sheep...to put ourselves in the bare feet of the woman jumping up and down and the discovery of one coin that she will the promptly spend in an exuberant celebration of its return?
These stories are riddles I'll be unpacking for a while. But join us this Sunday as we share the stories of our lives as lost lambs and loose change who have found a place at Broadneck, and explore together our calling to be reckless seekers and exuberant finders as participants in God's community.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Some Thoughts for our Laboring Lives

Our lectionary texts this week are Jeremiah 18:1-12, Philemon 1-21 (that would be verses 1-21--Philemon has only one chapter, so do not fear!), and Luke 14:25-33. To read through the texts, click here.

One of the most beautiful sentences I heard out of the Broadneck Worship Ministry Group in my first days as pastor went something like this: "Our worship is based on the liturgical calendar, not the secular one." If the church year--a beautiful cycle of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost, followed by the long green season of Ordinary Time in which we now find ourselves--was the basis for our worship life as a congregation, I was freed from any obligation to preach a Mother's Day sermon or a Fourth of July Sermon or anything of that sort. I could certainly preach with them in mind if I felt so led and the lectionary texts tied into them, but I didn't have to.

But Labor Day, it seems, holds some poignant theological possibilities for preaching. I'm not sure if this will be the year to preach any of them...but I love the idea that Labor Day was founded as a shot at reconciliation between warring parties (see this account of the history of Labor Day if you're a history buff interested by such things!). I can't get past the fact that God seems really concerned with human labor--God did make the need to work and till the soil a consequence of the Fall (see Genesis 3), but God spent many of the following years of the people's histories helping them to figure out how to live faithfully even in their labor. Many of Leviticus' laws had to deal with regulations around work; one of the Ten Commandments (that of Sabbath observance) was intended to carve out space for all people to be free from labor at least one day a week; and many of Jesus' parables had to deal with people engaging various venues of work--those tending vineyards, farmers, merchants, real estate transactions, etc.

A recent article I read cited a survey saying 90 percent of churchgoers interviewed had never heard a sermon relating scripture to work. This is an insane number to me, and an indication that maybe they've never been in a church on this Sunday in Year C, when all three of the texts speak to labor issues in some way(I do wonder, sometimes, what calendar those folks who put the lectionary together were paying attention to) and use the imagery of various occupations to help us gain a deeper understanding of God's work and our work in the world.

Philemon's connection to labor is obvious--here, a man who has owned a slave to assist with his labor is asked to rethink his relationship with the slave, Onesimus, in light of each of their relationships with Christ. God's work in Christ has so reshaped things that they cannot continue to relate to each other professionally or personally in the hierarchical way they had before.

In Luke, discipleship is depicted as a sort of job, and compared to the jobs of a builder and being one leading troops into battle...it is not a job one can take on part time or without thinking of one's commitment to this particular labor. And it's a job that, rather than making money, will require you to give up all your possessions. That posting would get lots of replies on Craigslist, I am sure!

Then, interestingly, in Jeremiah God chooses to draw a vivid parallel between God's self and a particular type of laborer common in biblical days--a potter. This is the kind of labor God engages in--the work of one trying to shape clay into pots, but finding some pretty tremendous obstacles along the way. What can we glean from God's example?

Labor Day may not be a church holiday; but it is a subject that should concern us as people of faith. Let's join together this week and consider the kind of labor God has chosen to undertake, and how God's words about and examples of faithful labor can help us know how to be at work with God in the world when we head back to the real world of work on Tuesday.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Finding Faith in the Midst of it All

Our lectionary texts this week are Jeremiah 2:4-13, Luke 14:1, 7-14, and Hebrews 13:1-8 and 15-16. To give them a read-through, check out this Lectionary Website.

Sometimes when you read scripture, you can tell it is the product of a radically different time; it might talk about kings when you live in a democracy, or use agricultural images whne you live in an urban area, leaving you wondering how you can connect with a narrative that comes from another culture. Othertimes, however, scripture comes to us in ways that sound eerily familiar. As I read our passages for this week, I was struck by the way that the forms of these passages sounded, at times, like they could have been plucked out of scenes from our everyday lives.

Jeremiah's words (well, actually, God's words) take the form of a lawsuit--they could be a Prosecutor's opening address to a jury straight from an episode of Law and Order. God has a great flair for the dramatic; after beginning with an introductory summons (v. 4) that names the "house of Jacob" and "all the families of Israel" as the defendants, God launches right in with a series of rhetorical questions interspersed with evidence of grave offenses. Occasionally God even directs God's language to the jury: "Can you believe this? Have you ever seen anyone with the gaul to do such things?" A judge would probably object to some of God's language as inflammatory, but God is both Prosecutor and Judge in this trial, launching a full investigation into what has happened with God's people, reaching an irrefutable conclusion of the charges that must be leveled: the people have forsaken the Lord and dug out cisterns that will not hold water. The implications of these charges, as we will see as they unfold in the remainder of the book, are grave indeed.

Luke uses an even more familiar setting to frame his narrative: a meal complete with a lesson in table manners. Anyone who has ever been to a fancy dinner at an important person's house can almost feel the tension in the scene: people jostling in a way they hope others won't notice for the best seats at the table. One brazen person at the table--Jesus--has the gaul to point out the bad table manners of the others, even though, according to Greco-Roman Emily Post, what the people were doing was totally acceptable and even encouraged. Jesus, however, wants to insert another standard of etiquitte--of behavior that reflects the upside-down, non-status seeking values of the Kingdom of God.

In Hebrews, we get a scene that unfolded all over the country the past couple of weeks--it is reminiscent of a parent rolling down the window as they prepare to drive off and leave their firstborn at college, calling out the last minute instructions of the things they really need to know. For 12 chapters Hebrews has been laying out systematic theology for the people; but now the author shifts to the practical things that should be part of the people's lives as a result of their formation. If you're going to survive as the people I've shaped you to be, the author writes, here are the things I hope and pray you will remember to do--that are a byproduct of your careful upbringing.

I love how close to home each of these passages feels in their forms--how linked they are to everyday things like meals and parental instructions, like navigating social settings and entering into legal proceedings. The form of these passages, rooted in everyday life, point us also to their content--for each will teach us about the struggle to live faith in the midst of everyday life. They are passages that speak into the midst of lives that don't stop to give us time to be spiritual and Christian but require us to live and move and respond and pause to ask questions that link us back to God and one another right in the midst of it all.

How do we hold onto faithful living in the midst of it all? Tune in this Sunday as, with the help of Jeremiah and Luke and Hebrews, we ask this question together.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Buckle Your Seatbelts…

I'm posting this on behalf of Abby, who's internet access might be a bit flaky this week. Enjoy! - Jeremy



This week’s Lectionary Texts are Jeremiah 1:4-10, Luke 13:10-17, and Hebrews 12:18-29.

As we come to the end of what I am unofficially terming “The Summer of the Prophets,” our travels are slowing down and more of us are remaining in one place for longer stretches as we get back to our school year routines (a pattern that seems to hold true even for those of us whose lives are no longer dictated by the academic calendar as students or parents of students or teachers!). The Lectionary follows suit, whether by plan or by chance. Rather than jumping to a new prophet every couple of weeks as we have all summer (a couple weeks with Elijah, a couple with Elisha, two with Amos, two with Hosea, two with Isaiah), our next NINE Sundays of Old Testament lessons will remain with one prophet: good old Jeremiah (or young Jeremiah, when we meet him this week).

Jeremiah, we will find, can be a tough prophet to sit with for one week, let alone nine. His book is amazing, his prophecy words we need to hear; but Jeremiah’s prophecy contains words that are not always easy to hear. One of my favorite authors, Kathleen Norris, speaks well in her book The Cloister Walk of her difficulty in hearing the book of Jeremiah read continuously in its entirely over the course of several weeks of morning worship at a monastery:

“One day, not long after we’d begun to read Jeremiah, and it was dawning on us that we had a long, rough road ahead, a monk said to me he was glad to be reading Jeremiah in the morning, and not at evening prayer, when there are likely to be more guests. ‘The monks can take it,’ he said, ‘but most people have no idea what’s in the Bible, and they come unglued.’ Coming unglued came to seem the point of listening to Jeremiah. Hearing Jeremiah’s words every morning, I soon felt challenged to reflect on the upheavals in my own society, and in my life. A prophet’s task is to reveal the fault lines hidden beneath the comfortable surface of the worlds we invent for ourselves, the little lies and delusions of control and security that get us through the day. And Jeremiah does this better than anyone.” (Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk. New York: Penguin Books, 1996, p. 34)

Coming unglued…that doesn’t sound pleasant. But sometimes, it seems, the glue of our old ways, molds, plans, and perceptions needs to be loosened before a new call can unfold. Our first encounter with Jeremiah this week gives us a window into the sacred moment of call where Jeremiah’s life as he knew it began to come unglued so that God, through him, could address the needs of a world that is crumbling. Jeremiah’s life is given a new calling, a commission that will bring both judgment and hope not just to Jeremiah’s own people, but to the nations of the world.

Our Gospel and Epistle texts dovetail with this unsettling theme of coming unglued for the sake of new possibility. When Jesus heals a woman who has been bent over for 18 years, not only do the paralyzed bones of her body come unglued from their crippled state when they hear the call of Jesus’ voice, but the Temple authorities come unglued as this Rabbi issues a call that breaks all their carefully planned rules and ideas of propriety. Likewise, the letter to the Hebrews reminds us that we no longer operate under the tangibles of the Old Covenant and its regulations, but in the realm of a Spirit who is creating a New Covenant in ways that are often unpredictable and untamed. As Eugene Peterson’s The Message puts the last verse of the reading, “God is not an indifferent bystander. [God’s] actively cleaning house, torching all that needs to burn, and won’t quit until it’s all cleansed. God himself is Fire!”

Friends, if we are going to spend 9 weeks not just with Jeremiah but with this sort of God, we’d best buckle our seatbelts…for who knows where such a God’s call will take us?

May peace be with you on this unsettling journey,

Abby

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

A Stressed Out Savior

Our lectionary texts for this week are Isaiah 5:1-7, Luke 12:49-56, and Hebrews 11:29-12:2.

Throughout my life, I've pictured Jesus as many things.

I've pictured Jesus as a baby in a manger, wrapped in swaddling clothes, crying when the hay pokes him in the eye, inspiring wide-eyed looks in the eyes of new parents who don't know what to do with their tiny bundle of joy.

I've pictured Jesus as infinitely patient, his hands always willing to reach out and touch one in need of healing, enduring gracefully as crowds press in on him so forcefully he can barely move.

I've pictured Jesus as an abundant provider, breaking 5 loaves and 2 fish into a feast sufficient for thousands and offering bread and cup even to a friend he knew would betray him.

I've pictured Jesus as a wise storyteller, crosslegged on hillsides imparting deep truths peppered with images from everyday life.

I've pictured Jesus in physical agony, his breath slipping away as his figure slumps down on a cross.

But I must confess...I don't think I've ever pictured Jesus as stressed out.

Yet this is the Jesus we get in this week's Gospel text, where Jesus says, "I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!"

A few chapters ago in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus set his face towards Jerusalem, knowing that the city where both his people and his adversaries lie is where he must go. He begins to walk the road steadily, resolutely--a road that can only lead to his death when he confronts the powers that be with his radical message. Yet along the way, we get little indication that Jesus is stressed out about this inevitable end to his earthly days. When I'm stressed out, I make time for no one and no thing beyond the "must dos" on the list most days. But along the journey, Jesus has taken time to tell stories to inquisitive minds about good Samaritans and persistent friends; he has spent time in the homes of friends, encouraging them to slow down and focus on the one thing needed; he has even given lovely speeches about considering the lillies of the field, and about not storing up frantically in barns but sharing freely with one another.

Yet here, the intensity of this mission Jesus is pursuing and the hard truth of where he is headed seem at last to be sinking in; and Jesus starts showing signs of stress. The disciples he has worked so hard to prepare to take up his mantle of leadership are just ambling along the road behind him like they're out for a summer stroll. Jesus came to set things on fire, but barely a smoldering ember can be seen among a people who seem to still be asleep to Jesus' message. Jesus' fan club is tagging along after him but totally missing the gravity of what he is about, the importance of his mission and the important role they will be called to take up in carrying it on beyond his imminent departure.

Jesus is stressed out; and Jesus has every right to be. Here he is, about to give his life for these people...about to lay down all that he is...but will it make a difference at all? Will anyone be ready to step up to the plate and continue this passionate pursuit of the Kingdom of God?

For any of us who have ever wondered if what we're doing matters at all...it looks like Jesus wondered, too.

How should we take this new view of our Savior? How should it impact and shape our lives? And if these are the things Jesus really worried about...doesn't it seem they should be things we worry about, too?

It's certainly food for thought on this hot summer evening. May the fires Jesus came to light be stoked in us even now.