Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Living Tongues of Flame

This weeks scriptures are Genesis 11:1-9 and Acts 2:1-12.

The comparison of images in these two passages is startling. In the Genesis story of the Tower of Babel, they make bricks. Hard, solid, unchangable. Their goal is a kind of emotional/spiritual/social safety. They will "make a name for themselves" and will "not be scattered." And to meet this goal they will make something so solid, so long lasting, that it will provide focus and security.

God's response is to scatter them. Now, we have to be clear that this story is a theo/political one. It is a story written against urban living (as opposed to nomadic) and against the technology of the day (firing brick and the art of building great buildings). The truth is that we are all on the side of technology and urban life (even the most 'back to the earth' of us would not go for the kind of nomadic lifestyle that the proponents of this story were advocating).

But beyond this, what does this story have to say to us? Perhaps the answer can be found in the reasons that they wanted to build the tower. It was a desire for security based in the self and in image. Though these are not necessarily bad things, in their place, as foundations for life they leave a great deal to be desired.

Now turn to the images of the story from Acts. In the first place, these were not secure people. These were the same people who had recently deserted Jesus. They were still struggling with the meaning of their sightings of the risen Christ: what did they mean? Was this a ghost? What were they supposed to do?

These were not great and powerful men and women who could decide to build a tower. They came from the poor, the working class, the formerly outcast. But they had gathered in obedience to what Jesus had told them, to wait for the Spirit that He promised would come.

And when the Spirit came, it did not come as something solid....something one could grasp and came as flame and wind. It did not come as something they called, or controlled. And when it came, it changed everything.

So much of our lives are spent in search of security. We want something tangible to hold on to. We want to not 'be scattered' and to 'make a name for ourselves.' We live out of a fear that what we do won't matter. As a man on the back side of middle age, it's often scary when I look at my life and ask "what did it all mean? What's it all about?" And philosophys and church doctrines that offer quick answers and firm securities are a great draw to many.

What God offers at Pentecost is flame. It is the same flame that guided the Children of Israel on their wilderness journey to the Promised Land. And now it is being offered to Jesus' disciples....and to us. It will posess us. It will call us to speak to people that we could not ever imagine speaking to before . It will create bridges across barriers. We will have a name for ourselves; and that name will be 'redeemed', 'christian', 'brother and sister to all Christ loves.' And we will not be scattered. For everywhere we look, there will be others....and we will find them in suprising places.

We have been offered flame. Will we accept?

See you Sunday.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Jesus the Revealer- Part 4- God as Teacher/Protector

Good morning, everyone! Jeremy here, writing from San Francisco (which means I will miss the sermon on Sunday, sadly). I'm looking out of our cousin's house at the mountains and the beautiful, varied landscape, which I think is influencing my view of this week's gospel passages, John 17:6-19. This is the last part of the series of meditations on what Jesus reveals about God in the book of John.

Throughout this passage, two main themes jump out at me - one of which is easier to deal with, the other is more of a balancing act maybe (i.e. Jeremy has questions - surprise!). The first theme I felt drawn to talk about is God as teacher. Those of you who know me probably know that I ask lots of questions and am generally pretty cautious about what I accept to be true or useful (well, I suppose they might describe me as being a skeptic). I want to learn all I can about something before I make a decision, so I ask a lot of questions. Which, oddly enough, can be pretty darn annoying.

A major part of this desire of mine is rooted in my belief that we live our finite lives in this existence in order to learn, and that we each need to learn different things and in different ways to reach our potential. There are many choices we can make in order to do so, too - some of which are fairly horrible (more on that in a minute). Jesus talks about how much he has taught the disciples and that it is from God - in other words, referencing content and source. As a teacher myself (formally and informally) and as a relentless questioner, these are two things that matter the most to me in connecting the reliable information with the learner's experience. Just as Jesus was teaching the disciples about God and God's kingdom and making connections, God continues to teach me as I sit here and look at the mountains (or as I watched with wonder and a bit of fear as we crossed the US at 35,000 feet). These are the "easier" lessons, perhaps. The painful lessons are there, too. Jesus even references the one doomed to help fulfill the scriptures, though I believe that Judas had choices on how this was to come about and how it was to affect him - and that these were lessons he needed to learn in this life in preparation for the next.

The second issue here is God as protector, and this one bothers me a bit. You might say, who doesn't like/want to be protected? Well, I certainly felt protected as we flew over to California! What bothers me is the stress on dividing the disciples and the world as a method of protection here. In fact, the same phrase is repeated nearly back to back in this passage - they are not of the world just as I am not of the world. Us and them. This passage is used in some churches and sermons to create/enlarge a separation between believers and unbelievers (which is a nearly useless distinction, in my view - who doesn't have moments of unbelief?). But yet we are to be in the world, too, as Jesus demonstrated time and time again by breaking social rules dividing the outside and the inside. The table is always open and everyone is invited, as Stephen says. So, what's up with the binary emphasis here? By repeating the same phrase, it seems to indicate a higher level of importance to this part of the text. Is this a way of God protecting or shielding us a bit as we learn? How do we balance these seemingly conflicting messages of being in the world and yet apart?

I'm sure Stephen will hash this all out on Sunday! 'Cause there's only one answer, right? The answer to life, the universe, and everything is 42. Piece o' cake.

Peace to you all,


Thursday, May 14, 2009

Jesus the Revealer- Part 3- God Commands Us to Love

This week we are focusing on John 15: 9-17 and 1 Corinthians 13. The theme that connects these passages is Love.

Most people know 1 Corinthians 13 and are probably most familiar with versus 4-7. They start: "Love is patient, love is kind." You've heard it before, most likely at weddings. In fact, I am going to my friend from college's wedding in 3 weeks and I am doing a reading during the ceremony. You can guess what I'm reading: 1 Corinthians 13. So that one seems pretty straight forward. But what about the passage from John and why are they together this week? What are we supposed to get other than the overarching theme of love from this combination.

John 15:9-17 has Jesus telling His disciples how He is loved by God and how they are loved by Jesus. They are supposed to serve and obey to keep His love. There is a lot of talk about commands: following commands as part of "remaining in his love," loving each other as a command, and doing Jesus' commands as an act of friendship. Following this command talk, Jesus says that despite this the disciples are his friends, and not his servants. Huh? I have a hard time rectifying all these commands with the title of friend. We usually don't think of friends as those who boss us around and say the only way I'm going to love you is if you listen to me and do as I say. That sounds a lot more authoritarian than friendly.

Setting that aside for a moment, what the passage from John doesn't have is what it means to love, what love is. Combined with 1 Corinthians 13, however, we get a better idea of love. Maybe the way love is described here is how Jesus loved his disciples> This was the good example He set so that when he said, "love each other," they knew what he meant. But why then the command to love? Maybe a hint is in 1 Corinthians 13: 12, "Then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known." Maybe Jesus knew something about the disciples (and by extension, us). Maybe He knew them fully, and knew that a commandment would get their attention, more than say, a recommendation. Maybe in being authoritative, He was giving them what they needed.

Just an idea...

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Jesus the Revealer- Part 2- God as the Gardener

This week we are focusing on John 15:1-8. In this passage, Jesus tells us how God is a Divine Gardener. In doing so, Jesus (and John) tell us about the true nature of God and His Son. Bill Lively and I discussed this passage at the Bible Study Brunch a few weeks ago. Below are some of our thoughts.

Jesus says that is God is the Gardener, He himself is the vine, and all of us are the branches. Branches that do not bear fruit are cut off and burned. Those branches that bear fruit will be pruned by the gardener. This is to help them be more fruitful. As Bill and I discussed it, the vine (or trunk) is a necessary part of the plant, while the branches are not necessary, but secondary. This is why they can be cut or trimmed.

This passage makes it seem like God is a caring, but somewhat ruthless, gardener. He is operating for the good of the whole plant, to make it stronger and more fruitful. He is not too worried, at least here, about those branches that need to be cut. Some individuals might not make it. If this seems harsh, look back at Isaiah 5 and Psalm 80. These two passages also talk about vines, gardens and God our gardener. Here, though, God is even more harsh. He seems to not make any allowances for the people of Israel (who are the subject of these passages) and all will be punished. In John at least, there is a chance that those people who "remain in the vine" will bear fruit and not be separated from Jesus or God.

But still, there is this issue of pruning. Even those branches who do bear fruit are pruned. While some people might want to look at what is the fruit, I am particularly interested in the pruning. Maybe this is because I'm not in charge of it, God is. I am in charge of my own actions, how I treat others...I am in charge of things I do to bear fruit. But this pruning is not under my control. It is out of my hands and I don't really have a say in how, when, or where the gardener might decide to use His pruning shears. So what does it mean to be pruned? I think I can feel it when I am humbled or awe. Someone is pointing out to me that I'm not the center of the universe. When do you feel "pruned"?

Peace and Love,