Wednesday, July 21, 2010

You're Asking For It...

The lyrics of a song by one of my favorite musical artists, Bebo Norman, rang in my head as I read our texts for this week (as well-written songs often do when I read scripture!). In his song "Pull Me Out," Norman asks God a simple question about what is going on, then follows that question up by singing the following line about the way he perceives God's reaction to his question: "And what about the way I said that made you turn around and shake your head like I don't even know what I'm asking for?"

Our scripture lessons for this week (Hosea 1:2-10, Psalm 85, and Luke 11:1-13) all involve the act of asking--requests, demands, questions. But when it comes to asking, how often do we make God turn around and shake God's head like we don't even know what we're asking for?

Somehow, I think we inspire this reaction in God at least once a week in our congregation, in that moment where voices join together out of the quiet following our sharing of joys and concerns to pray together a variation on those words that Jesus taught his disciples when they boldly asked him, "Lord, teach us to pray." The disciples likely had no idea what they were asking for...they thought they were doing what any good disciples did, what John's disciples did when they asked him for a form of prayer that could be uniquely theirs and identify them as their Master's followers. They thought they were following disciple protocol...and maybe, as a bonus, if Jesus taught them to pray, they could be as connected to God as Jesus was in those frequent moments when he communed with the Almighty.

In Luke's rendition of this teachable moment, Jesus gives the disciples an even more stripped down prayer than the one the disciples are given in a similar scene in Matthew (a text that is closer to what we actually pray when we say the Lord's Prayer together--see Matthew 6:9-13). Yet these few simple lines are stunning in their asking. First, look at how Jesus tells them to approach the Creator of the Universe--they are to call him Abba. This is not the formal "Father" of what we pray, but the informal, intimate name of "Daddy." Then they are to ask of him five things--five things that, if granted, could completely change the world. It's interesting how little this prayer has in common with many of the things we offer up for prayer during our joys and concerns time--it's a prayer that focuses much less on our local and individual needs of healing and strength and comfort and offering thanks, and more on God acting to transform the entire cosmos. Hallow your name, God--reveal Yourself in the fullness of who You are. Your kingdom come--make this earth reflect Your nature and Your priorities. Give us this day our daily bread--each and every one of us relies upon you. Forgive us as we forgive others...let your forgiveness and ours mirror one another. And don't let us be tempted by anything that would take our eyes off of you.

What are we asking for here? It's kind of insane, actually. We're asking for a whole new where God is seen to be who God is, in all God's holiness and intimacy, in all God's judgment and mercy. We're asking not for the ways of our own kingdoms, but of God's. We're asking for bread to be provided for all people, regardless of the cost. We're asking not just for God's forgiveness, but that we might set the standard of gracious forgiveness, being as forgiving of others as we hope God will be of us. We're asking to have our backs turned on the things that turn us from God and our lives wholly refocused on this One.

Congregations around the world say these words together each week just falling unconsciously into their rhythm, into their comfort, into the beauty of voices joined into one...but do we even know what we're asking for? Furthermore, if we really believed God would respond to what we ask, would we be so quick to do so?

Asking is central to what we do when we worship God--we ask for guidance, ask for God's blessing, ask for healing, ask for wisdom, ask for courage to be God's people. But if Jesus' response to the disciples' inquiry is any indication, we'd better be careful what we're asking for...because if we serve a faithful God, we just might get it.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Sermon Not Being Preached This Week

Well, since this week is Music and Arts Camp at Broadneck, our sermon on Sunday will be offered not by me, but by 30 elementary schoolers. They have spent this week learning what it means to embody God's love for others in the way Jesus embodied God's love as he lived with us. It is going to be an amazing morning as we hear these kids proclaim in word and song this worldwide premier of "Becoming Christmas," a musical drama written by two members of our congregation. I hope as many of you who are able will be with us!

The good and bad news about this is that we won't get to deal with the appointed lectionary texts for this week--including the Gospel text of the story of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42)--in worship for another three years. It's a brief enough episode that I'll just paste the text here(from the NRSV):

Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home.She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me." But the Lord answered her, "Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her."

The good news about not having to preach on this is that I get to avoid a text that has always rubbed me a bit. I think it has bothered me because of the way I typically hear it presented: that it's a story about choosing one sister's way or the other's. Either you're a Mary or you're a Martha--one who sits at the Lord's feet or one who slaves away in the kitchen, a be-er or a do-er. This bothers me as one who feels like she's not, actually, Mary or Martha. Rather, it's more like Mary and Martha are at war within me. Part of me is compelled to cook as many casseroles as possible, while another part hungers simply for the chance to be as near to Jesus as I can be. Part of me wants to busy myself filling glasses or fetching water or doing something productive to serve Jesus, while another part thirsts just to hear what he is saying. By not having to listen to Mary and Martha's tale this year, each of us participating in the sermon can avoid having to confront the Mary and Martha demons at war within us. We can avoid the guilt trip over how much time we spend doing for God rather than simply being with God, avoid dealing with our anger over how everyone else seems content to sit on their rear ends while we're slaving away, avoid the reminder of how people get mad at us when we choose to abide with Jesus rather than keep up the pace of things that need to be done...the list goes on and on.

But the bad news about not preaching this passage is that I thought about it in a new way this week--from an angle that might actually give me a way to preach the story that I could live with it. It's intriguing to consider the words which begin our pericope (that's a fancy biblical word for "a short episode or story"--save it for your next Scrabble game). The crucial words in the story could very possibly be "now as they went on their way." I am fairly sure I've always heard this story talked about in isolation, as an episode from Jesus' life that is not really connected with anything else going on in Luke's narrative. But Luke, ever the orderly historian, obviously wants us to connect what is happening in this pericope to what has happened just prior.

What has just happened? The things that we've been learning about over the past few weeks in our lessons. Jesus has set his face towards Jerusalem and laid out some of the cost of following him on this newly-directed journey: having no home, leaving behind family, not looking back. He has commissioned 70 to go into all the villages and towns where he will go carrying nothing with them, relying on random hospitality and carrying nothing but open hands, seeing the Kingdom of God draw near. Then we witness, just prior to this episode, the encounter of Jesus with a lawyer who wants to know how to inherit eternal life--then gets instead a story about what it is to be and have a neighbor. What do these stories that precede Mary and Martha's moment in the sun have in common? Well, they're all about discipleship that looks a little reckless and insane. They're all about our utter dependence on God. They're all about a Gospel that will challenge our habits and practices and standard beliefs and reorient us towards things and ways that are radically unfamiliar.

So how does this shed light on Mary and Martha's dinner party with Jesus? This is the sermon that is not being preached this week. I think, however, that reading about Mary's act of boldness to sit at Jesus' feet as a disciple (a place no woman of repute would EVER be found) and Martha's busy hideout in the kitchen in light of this context might have the power to give the story a slightly different spin. It might become a story that challenges us, again, to let go of the familiar-- the busy kitchen work we hold on to rather than taking the risk of emptying our hands enough to draw near to Jesus . It might become a story that reminds us of how at God's mercy we really are--Jesus could have sent Mary away to help Martha, leaving her humiliated, and no one else would have thought a thing of it...but he let her stay. It might become a story that challenges us to think about the busy things we hide behind and fill our lives with to drown out Jesus' beckoning of us towards the one thing that matters, this Kingdom that is coming near to us.

Thank goodness the kids are preaching this week, so these are questions I get to sit with for another three years before I have to speak about them! May we all find courage to sit with such challenging questions of discipleship just as Mary sat at the feet of Jesus, knowing that in pursuing hard questions we are pursuing the one thing Jesus desires for us.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

A Tale of Two Neighborhoods

Greetings, Broadneck Blogosphere! It's a joy to be coming alongside of you in this conversation around our worship scriptures, and a joy to gather with many of you each week as we explore God's oh-so-simple-but-so-bafflingly-complicated Word for our lives together in community. I believe that every time we authentically seek to encounter God's Word, we cannot help but be formed and transformed by engage this blog with hope, yet proceed with a proper dose of holy caution:)

Our main scriptures for consideration this week are Amos 7:7-17 and Luke 10:25-37. At first glance, it's hard to imagine two more divergent passages to bring into conversation with one another. The latter, after all, is a passage--the story of the Good Samaritan--so culturally well-known that many states have laws named after it to protect the rights of those who stop to aid stranded motorists. It's one of the handful of biblical stories where even marginal churchgoers could provide you with its high points without the benefit of a text in front of them. The former, meanwhile, is an obscure episode from a prophet so unknown that his words are included in a measly 5 of the 156 weeks of the Revised Common Lectionary (and only on two occasions--this week and next!--is it the primary text rather than an "alternate"). Ask even the most fervent churchgoer to tell you something about Amos, and most would give you a blank stare. Apart from Jonah and his whale, the so-called "Minor Prophets" (the technical name for those whose writings are found between the Old Testament books of Hosea and Malachi) seem aptly named...their writings, filled with archaic language of judgment and doom, are so minor as to not merit much of our attention, in church or in culture.

So why not ditch Amos (and the cavalcade of Minor Prophets we'll encounter over the next few weeks) and just focus on Luke? Well, there are a couple of strong reasons to keep Amos' words in play.

First, this may seem obvious, but the Old Testament prophets did not just speak to societies past; their words, though set in a particular context, still ring true today, because it is the role of the prophet to direct the hearer's attention to the bigger picture. As Craig Smith and Mark Buckley explain in their intro to The Inclusive Hebrew Scriptures, "prophets revive our capacity to feel and draw our attention to what we would rather not see." Prophets, with their sometimes uncomfortable rhetoric, speak to our hardened hearts and reveal our well-cultivated blind spots. Amos does this so beautifully but painfully in today's passage. The kindgom of Israel, which everyone thought was doing SO well, is in actuality a kingdom that has fallen out of step with the plumb line God intended for its design, becoming a curse to its neighbors rather than the blessing to all nations it was intended to be. Such words are painful, but the sort of truth-speaking that is needed even when it causes us to lash back like Amaziah in hopes that these are words we can ignore.

Second, I think we should hold on to Amos because his message is not as far from Luke's as it may seem. Sure, Amos speaks of judgment while Jesus tells a tale of mercy; Amos speaks in strange, almost indecipherable metaphor, while Jesus speaks of people and places with whom the inquisitive lawyer would have been intimately familiar. But in reality, Amos and Luke are both speaking of matters very close to home: matters of what it means to live by the first law given God's people, the declaration that we are to love the Lord our God and love our neighbor as ourselves. Luke and Amos, though separated by time, context, and popularity, together give us a tale of two neighborhoods--one headed for disaster because of its failure to live by God's standards of justice and faithfulness, and one for whom there is still hope if they can realize their neighborhood is far bigger than they'd ever imagined. Both are stories intended to reform, form, and transform their hearers by revealing the heart of God--a heart that seeks to see the divided people God created learn to live in fellowship with one another and their Maker.

These two tales are ones we in the church need to matter how familiar or unfamiliar they are, no matter how uncomfortable they make us. I hope you'll join us Sunday as we continue the conversation!


Thursday, July 1, 2010

Pride and Prejudice

This week’s scriptures are 2 Kings 5:1-14, Luke 10:1-11, 16-20 and Galatians 6:1-6.

In these passages, I was struck by the acts of pride and the warnings against pride. In 2 Kings, Naaman gets all full of himself when Elisha doesn’t come out to greet and heal him. Instead Elisha sends instructions via messenger to wash in the River Jordan seven times. Naaman goes off on a rant and has to be reined in by his servants. They point out to him that the task (washing seven times in the river) is so easy that he would be remiss not to try it. Because they are only servants, they can not be forceful in pointing out Naaman’s prideful reaction, but they do get him to reconsider. And they are right—it works. If Naaman’s pride carried the day, he would have gone away uncured. Instead he is cured and accepts God as the only God.

In the Luke passage, the seventy go out in the name of Jesus to heal the sick and spread the good news. They “return with joy, saying, ‘Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!’” Like kids they puff out their chests saying “Look what I can do!” But Jesus calms them down, telling them that they have great powers now, but that they should not “rejoice” in this. Rather they should rejoice in the promise of a heavenly welcome. Jesus wants them to do the work of God not because having awesome powers over sprits and demons is so cool, but because it is what you do when you are blessed by God.

Finally, Paul in Galatians 6 warns against thinking too highly of one’s self. A person should not “think they are something” or compare themselves to their neighbors. Instead, each person should look to their own tasks and take pride from a job well done. When helping a person who has sinned, help them gently. Putting yourself above others does not help the sinner to heal or the Church to grow stronger.

It’s interesting how in all of the passages pride was tied up with receiving help or helping others. Its easy to see how pride could get in your way when you are the one who needs help, but how often do we ask ourselves if we are getting a little too prideful about the act of helping others? Now notice how in all of the passages, overcoming pride or moving beyond an initially prideful reaction moves people closer to God. Sometimes it is hard to find God in the midst of our own hang-ups and self-importance. And sometimes we need someone else to point out our assumptions and help us get back on track. What strikes me is that the person who calls us on our behavior isn’t always who we expect it to be. It might be a great or wise leader…or it could be a couple of servants.

Next week, Abby Thornton, the new pastor at Broadneck, will start blogging here. To learn more about Abby visit our web page:
Please join me in welcoming Abby!

With love and hope,