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? 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 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 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.