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,


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 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.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

A Really Good Question

Our Lectionary Texts this week are Isaiah 1:1, 10-20, Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16, and Luke 12:32-40.

When I read the Lectionary Texts to begin preparing for each week, the first thing I do is read each text in several different translations. I'll usually read several more traditional translations--NRSV, NIV, NASB--and then read The Message, a modern paraphrase of scripture that we use from time to time in worship at Broadneck. As I was reading the Isaiah passage, I was struck by Eugene Peterson's interpretation of verses 11-12: "Why this frenzy...? Whoever gave you the idea of acting like this, running here and there, doing this and that--all this sheer commotion in the place provided for worship?"

Our passages this week all challenge what I think has become a common cultural assumption in the church: that the busier we are doing good things for God--the more frantic our activity cramming in every possible holy thing that we can--the better disciples we are. After all, there is so much to be done, all the time; how will it ever happen if we're not running here and there, doing this and that? Like those addressed in Isaiah, we're not often running around filling our lives with horrible things; often our lives are filled with good things we need to be doing. Most of us like our lives to be full with activity, and we're afraid that if we slow down, we won't know what to do with ourselves, and everything will fall between the cracks--and we may fall as well.

In Luke, however, Jesus says something really interesting as Jesus addresses this fear: "Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom." Huh. This sounds like the opposite of frenetic activity to letting go of our grasping frenzy, it seems, we bring joy to a God who wants to give us good gifts. We become free enough from crazy activity to engage in intentional activity--being generous of our time with others, not neglecting those it is easy to sweep past in a rush, hearing God when God places a crazy call upon our lives to journey to a place we do not know and cannot see.

Summer is often seen as a slower time, but it seems like this summer the frenzy has not slowed--every person I have talked to this week about the summer has expressed to me wonder at where the time has gone, at how they haven't had the chance to do all the different things they were going to do in this time of more leisurely pace. The world is in a frenzy; but who told us this was a good idea? Certainly not God, our readings seem to indicate.

"Why this frenzy?" That's a really good question for each of us to consider as we continue to follow Jesus on the road of discipleship--Jesus who found time in his journey to consider the questions and needs of each person he met, who always moved with purpose and focus but never, it seemed, in hurry or empty habit. What drives our frenzy...and what would it take for us to not be afraid, believing God wants to give us a kingdom that we don't have to scurry towards desperately, but that is already unfolding among us?

Sunday, August 1, 2010

With Bands of Love

Well, we didn't get a blog up this week due to the fact that I was in the deep mountains of West Virginia beyond even the reach of the World Wide Web, and the sermon did not get recorded this week due to the fact that I completely neglected to push the record button. Let's just say this has not been a good week for me and technology (though it was an amazing week of serving alongside of some exceptional people in West Virginia)!

So, in lieu of these things, here is today's sermon in print form. No matter how far my human words fall short of the beauty of God's words within this passage, Hosea's poetry is too beautiful not to put something out there about it.

So happy reading to those who were not with us in worship today, and may you go forth into this week surrounded by the remarkable love of God...when I truly think about it, it's a love that never fails to baffle my mind. May the images of this passage baffle your mind as well, and turn your heart towards the One who is always turned towards you.


With Bands of Love
August 1, 2010
Hosea 11:1-11 (with Luke 12:13-21, Colossians 3:1-11)

One of the more amazing aspects of our West Virginia mission trip this past week was the fact that it was truly intergenerational. Now, I’ve been on a lot of mission trips before, but it’s always been with teenagers and a few chaperones, or a group of all college students, or a team made up solely of adults. West Virginia, however, was one of those rare experiences where people from age 2 to well into their 70s were working and living side by side. There were whole generations of families: a grandfather brought his two elementary-aged grandsons, sets of adult siblings with young children enjoying cousins from different parts of the country, parents embracing a rare week with college students. The intergenerational beauty went beyond biological ties, too: An older member of the group looked up a child in the community she’d taught the summer he was in third grade, only to learn upon this trip that he’d enlisted in the army. A child brought along a toy frog from a story Jolly told last summer that had stuck with him all year, running up to Jolly to show it to him the first night.

We live in a society where we are often compartmentalized by age or life stage—even much church programming is age-based. It’s hard to be intergenerational nowadays, and I’m grateful to pastor a church that is intentional about making relationships across age groups a priority. Yet this trip went beyond intergenerational programming to provide an opportunity for generations to share life, not just for an hour but over an extended stretch. A byproduct of this was that, by being in community with the different generations, I got to witness moments, particularly between parents and children, that I would not have been privy to otherwise. I got the holy and…well…prayerful privilege of being in the backseat while a learners permit-holding teenager had the new experience of interstate driving, the parent offering steady guidance to prepare the child for the day when they would not be riding shot gun to talk them through it. I sat between two parents at breakfast reflecting on shifting relationships young adult children charting their independence from the family household. Every word they spoke of their children, both of concern and of pride, was spoken with resonating love, and to be part of moments like these resonated with the holy. After all, how often do we get a real, unfiltered glimpse of someone else’s heart in relation to those they care about most? How often do we get to listen in and observe parents working out their love for their children, seeking ways to strengthen the relationship that are compassionate, authentic, and form their children in the right ways?

The eleventh chapter of Hosea grants us a rare opportunity to glimpse the heart of a parent renegotiating relationship with a growing child. It may not seem all that rare to us to catch a glimpse of God as Parent. After all, the teachings of Jesus have made God as Parent a common image or metaphor. Each week we use such language in corporate prayer and personal relationship with God. Yet the hearers of Hosea’s day didn’t have this privilege. Imagery of God as Mother or Father is used barely a dozen times in the Old Testament--it was far too intimate a distinction for a God defined as holy and set-apart. Old Testament depictions of God rarely get up close and personal; we don’t get many unplugged looks into God’s heart. Yet in this section of Hosea, we get a look at the heart of God that is more direct and raw than any encountered before.

Hosea gives us this rare picture of God’s soul by taking a trip through the family photo album, so to speak. Yet the scrapbook pictures Hosea lays out for us are odd—this is not the scrapbook one would usually show the company. It’s a collection of the most personal and private moments of the family life. Beyond this, the album is odd in another way: it’s not full of pictures of the children growing up, but full of pictures of the parent. This scrapbook is not all about Israel; it is about God. We sit with God in this passage flipping through the scrapbook because God, somehow, needs to take this journey to remember.

We open the cover to the first page, and there’s a shot of God’s face, beaming, the proudest new parent you’ll ever see. You can’t quite make out the squirmy bundle filling God’s arms in this picture, but you can tell it is the thing God has most longed after. God had yearned for a child to share God’s life with, and the day had finally come to make the long journey to Egypt to complete the adoption of the child God loved and had chosen—a child trapped in a horrible life of slavery. With uncontainable love, God had made a very intentional choice to bring home this vulnerable baby to share fully in God’s life and all that God has. A friend once told me the story of the day she brought her adopted daughter home from Central America. It had taken years of saving money, applications, prayerfully discerning the child she felt called to mother, and hoping against hope for this a child to be granted to her. As she stepped off a plane with her new five-month-old in her arms, she said, “My eyes sparkled as if I had pulled off this great thing I thought I would never achieve, that was almost too wonderful to believe—even though I was a single mom, I had a child of my own, and I could not wait to share my life with her.” That look—that’s the one sparkling in God’s eyes here.

Turn the page from this first beautiful moment, and there’s a picture of God intensely focused on the child, calling it over and over by the name God carefully selected—Israel—until at last the child recognizes its name for the first time, responding to the Parent’s voice. Turn another page, and there’s God laughing and shaking God’s head while spooning food into the baby’s mouth, undeterred by the sweet potatoes and rice cereal being sprayed back across God’s face. There’s a soft shot of the baby’s delicate cheek pressed against God’s more weathered one, both faces indescribably content. Flip another page, and now you see God’s index fingers, stretched inwards towards each other with tiny fists wrapped around them, a child nearly ready to walk wobbling unsteadily between the hands it trusted.

Hosea gives us all these beautiful pictures of God—a family scrapbook of tenderness, a side of God’s private, most intimate life rarely seen. But then comes a slew pictures most of us would choose to leave out of our family albums. There’s one of God’s hands cupped around God’s mouth—screaming, trying in vain to get Israel to listen to God’s voice above the many other voices now falsely calling their name, gasping with hoarseness as Israel wanders farther and farther out of earshot. Then one of God standing alone in the grass where God had first taught Israel to walk, squinting toward the horizon seeking the child who used its new skill not to walk with God, but to wander back towards the place God had gone to all that trouble to rescue them from in the first place. You’re almost afraid to flip the page, because the next picture shows a devastating look of resignation on God’s face. This shot captures the moment where God sees the writing on the wall, what the unavoidable consequences of Israel’s choices are going to be.

At last we come to a blank page in the scrapbook: what is God going to do next? In a way, our passage brings us to the moment where God sits, album in lap as God is jostled from the once-beautiful past back to the difficult present. God has to decide what the next page is going to be. Now, God was not born yesterday. God has seen this story unfold before. God has even written books on how this—God is a renowned, published parenting expert! The next step was laid out pretty clearly in Deuteronomy 21: If a parent has a stubborn and rebellious child, who will not obey the voice of her father or the voice of his mother, and, though they chastise the child, will not give heed to them, then the father and mother shall take hold of the child and bring him or her out to the elders of the city at the gate of the place where they live, and they shall say to the elders of the city, "This our child is stubborn and rebellious and will not obey our voice.” Then all the men of the city shall stone the child to death with stones; so you shall purge the evil from your midst; and all Israel shall hear, and fear. Israel’s fate has already been determined: they should be destroyed. All the pieces are in place for this to happen: Assyria is ready to trample Israel, poised with soldiers’ weapons trained on the child’s heart. There’s even precedent in place for allowing such destruction to happen: Israel will meet the fate of Admah and Zeboiim, two of the places decimated along with Sodom and Gomorrah.

But then, just before completing the script that already seems to have been written for God and God’s child, God has a moment. God experiences a gut check of sorts—God remembers…that God is God. God remembers who God is at God’s core, before the rules, beyond the ways we humans can conceive of God or expect God to behave. God remembers the part of God that God cannot deny—that core of passionate, insane, never-letting-go love that caused a God who could have had anything to go looking for a child to call God’s own in the first place. God remembers the love that set this whole story into motion and realizes the thing that is truest about God’s self, that God really needs God’s children to know.

So God pulls out a pen and begins to spell out for God’s beloved what most needs to be understood, crafting the most unexpected of love letters: “How could I ever give you up,” God writes painstakingly, “you who I’ve chosen and loved? How could I ever let you go? I cannot—just the thought of it turns me inside out, ties my heart in knots, churns my stomach within me. If I did such a thing, I would cease to be who I am—and I’m not like anyone who has ever loved before. I will not let you go—I cannot! So this story isn’t going to end the way you thought it would—it’s not going to end the way I thought, once, that it might—in fact, this story is not going to end at all. You’re not going to grow up and leave the nest, we’re not going to grow apart, you’re not going to become independent and move away from me. I can’t hold you like I did when you’re a baby anymore—we can’t go back to that—and I can’t take away the consequences of your bad choices—you’re going to suffer a lot. But we can go forward together, and in fact we must; and a day is coming, very soon, where we will. My love will pursue you like a lion, my persistent presence will startle you like a roar. It will be enough to call you back to me not just for a moment, but in a way that will last—it will bring us home to one another, to the place we most deeply belong.”

It can be odd to think of God in this deeply personal way; it can feel almost wrong, in some senses, because God, as God pointed out, is so much more than a human—so much bigger than our imaginations. But through this prophetic word, God chooses to be surprisingly different than we’d have a right to expect. Rather than leading by the letter of the law, by actions that are practical, or by well-tested standards, God leads God’s children with cords of kindness and bands of love. God chooses to continue the story, to continue the relationship, to refuse to let it ever end. Sometimes the story will be continued difficult ways: like in the parable we read from Luke this morning, where God addresses God’s misguided child with a lion’s roar--the only parable in the New Testament where God directly speaks, another rare glimpse of God’s heart calling out to the beloved who is wandering and misled. God goes to the uncomfortable length of sending God’s only begotten child, the very love of God’s heart, just to show again that God is among us, refusing to let us go. After all of this, God clothes God’s fallen children with new selves, with chances for life and love beyond beyond the worst mistakes. God shows, time and time again, that God cannot give us up, will not give us up, will go to any length—through discipline and through grace, which often end up being the same thing—to show God’s love to God’s children, and to give them the chance to return.

There is no volume of pictures and no collection of stories that can help us understand the fierceness of such a love; but thanks be to God for being such a passionate Parent. Thanks be to God for never losing sight of God’s heart, one filled with love for us that pursues and leads us every day. Thanks be to God for a love that surpasses even our human bonds of love for one another, that teaches us anew the lengths to which love will and must go. Thanks be to God for this indescribable gift—the gift of a love and a heart that never ends.