Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Seeing A Great Light

First of all, to the wonderful folks who follow this blog, I apologize for not having been writing lately. The holidays have been beating up on me pretty good and between snow storms and church activities I've been focused elsewhere.

So.....this week is the 4th Sunday of Advent.  And the scriptures I'm using are Isaiah 9:2-7 and John 1:1-9.  Both of these passages have to do with light.  Not just light, but Light.....LIGHT....the LIGHT.
At our Quest Service last Sunday evening, we turned off all the lights and began asking the question, "what do you think about when you think of darkness?"  Interestingly, no one said "sin."  Then answers were things like "confusion," "fear," and "stumbling."  These things, in fact, give flesh to the ideas of "those who walk in darkness have seen a great light."

The things that cause use to 'mess up' in our lives are most frequently things like confusion and fear.  When we 'walk in fear' we are likely to then engage in the sins or the 'messed upness' of bigotry or disobedience or violence or oppression of people we think aren't enough like us.

Look at how Isaiah lays this out:

"The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness-on them light has shined."

Now look what happens because of this:

"For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian."  The "day of Midian" is a reference to Gideon and the defeat of the Midianites by the army he lead.  So oppression will end.

"For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire."  This is an end to violence; particularly military violence.  There's going to be this huge bonfire, says Isaiah, and all the uniforms ("garments rolled in blood") and the marching boots...in to the fire they'll go.  The Third Reich burned books to kill ideas; the coming of the Messiah will mean the burning of the signs of violence because they're no longer needed.  All those folks; privates to generals rolling their uniforms, medals and all, into a bundle around their combat boots and chunking them into the fire.

Why?  Because the Light has come on!  And in that Light, they-and we-see clearly.  No more running into walls in the darkness.  No more stumbling toward the bathroom at 2 a.m. in the dark cause the power is out and nearly landing in the toilet.  The Light is on and we can see.

"In Him was Life, and that Life was the Light of all people.  And the Light shines on in the darkness and the darkness can never conquer it."

The life of Jesus and the life given in His death and resurrection join together to give us a Great Light.  Now we can see, we can See, we can really, really SEE.  And the darkness cannot ever put that Light out.  It's here to stay.  Forever.  Til the time described in Revelation when heaven and earth are joined and there is not need of any other light because the Light makes a home among God's people.

What do we do with that?  According to Isaiah, there's pretty much only one thing we can do:

"Arise, shine, for thy light has come; and the Glory of the Lord is risen upon thee." (Isaiah 60:1)

Shalom and Merry Christmas

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Rebuilding

The scripture that I'm going to focus on primarily this week is Ezra 4.  Last Sunday we looked at the account of how in Ezra 1 Cyrus the Great gave the exiles the chance to go home to Jerusalem and to rebuild the Temple there.  He gave them financial assistance as well.

When they got there, however, they encountered some difficulties.  There were folks there that did not want the Temple rebuilt and who had reactions toward the returning exiles.  Now the truth is....if I'm going to be faithful to the scriptures and honest with you.....that part of these difficulties were the exiles own fault.  We're going to talk about that-and I'll preach on it-next week.

But right now, what I'd like to focus on is the issue of trying to rebuild.  It seems to me that one of the ways to make this story our own, and to let it have something to say to us, is to focus on what we do when we feel we're being lead, or called, to rebuild our own lives.

Right there, there is an issue.  In a discussion during last night's Prayer Meeting one of the folks said, 'I don't have a lot of gutter level experience to rebuild from.' And they were right.  They were also right in saying that their struggles were mostly internal.  So one issue is to make sure that when we talk about "rebuilding" that we don't limit it to folks who have done dramatic or drastic things, or who have been severely traumatized.  These folks have rebuilding issues....big ones.....but so do many others.  The spouse who must rebuild their life after the death of a husband or wife.  The parents who must rebuild after the loss of a child....or even after the children all finally leave home.  The individual who has had an experience that challenges the way they view the world.  The person who has been diagnosed with a serious, or perhaps terminal, illness.  All of these are going to face the challenges of having to rebuild.  To rebuild their image of themselves; their way of dealing with the world around them; their relationship with others; their relationship with God.

We can, however, learn some things from folks who have to make the really big, dramatic rebuilding moves because they highlight some of the difficulties for us in a way that the more subtle types of rebuilding may not.  It's not that the issues aren't there; it's that they're a little more under the surface perhaps.

So the exiles have gone back to Jerusalem and are beginning to rebuild.  Some folks who were left behind when the exile took place come and offer to help [warning: this is one of the things we'll talk about next week]. and the exiles said No.  What this resulted in was a letter to King Artaxerxes saying that the building should be stopped and that if the Temple and city walls were rebuilt that the King would have trouble collecting his taxes from these former exiles.  You can find the letter in Ezra 4:11-16.   It is a study in smarmy, kiss up letter writing.  It reminds me of Eddy Haskell from the old "Leave It To Beaver" show in its manipulative, slick quality.

But that's not even the point.....the point is that whenever we go to rebuild, we will encounter obstacles.  If someone wants to find something in our past....or to make a disparaging remark about the changes in us....or to just interfere....that's easy to do.  The lesson from this passage is that the exiles continued to try to build.  And when challenged, they pointed the King (Darius at this point) back to Cyrus' edict regarding the rebuilding of the Temple.

God has called us "Beloved."   With all our flaws, with all our sins, with all our illnesses, losses and failures.  That "edict" is the only word about us that matters.  We move forward and rebuild in our lives on the power of that edict.  You are Beloved.....and you can go forward.

Shalom

Friday, November 1, 2013

Forgiveness As A Daily Spiritual Discipline

Today I fly out of Dallas where I have been presenting a workshop on "Radical Forgiveness" at the Chin Baptist Churches USA Minister's Retreat.  The Chin community have been the victims of tremendous oppression under the military misrule in Burma.  (I would send you for more information about this to the Physicians for Human Rights report at www.lifeunderthejunta.org website) Yet, these clergy, many of them direct victims of these crimes against humanity, wanted to talk about how we can live out our Christian call to forgiveness.

What was even more remarkable to me was the way in which the Chin clergy spoke so openly and honestly about the ways that forgiveness needs to operate within their local congregations.  One of the places that there was significant agreement was that unless we are practicing forgiveness in the daily actions of our lives....for the small resentments that come up....we will not be equipped to deal with the big needs, the big times that call for great grace and forgiveness.

It was humbling to be here.  I was welcomed with warmth.  The pastors listened to my presentation in English, and when necessary, translated back and forth in their dialect so that we were able to carry on a lively conversation about this topic.  But we quickly moved to a larger topic...one of which I think forgiveness is a piece.....which is "reconciliation."  Once again, these pastors were very open about the struggles in their congregations to deal with reconciliation as it impacted the daily lives of those they serve.

I find myself, as I pack to go home, extremely grateful for this experience...for a large number of reasons.  The first of them is a renewed awareness that each of us as pastors and as Christians struggle to live out our understanding of what Jesus is calling us to do and be in our world.  The challenges take on, perhaps, a different flavor from culture to culture, but at heart, they are the same.  How do we love our neighbor...and our enemy.  How do we speak for those who have no voice.  How do we help to heal the wounds of those around us.

I met men and women of tremendous courage this weekend.  They are heroes of the faith.  I will be a long time processing my experience with them.  But I wanted to take time before I fly away to note their courage and their hospitality and just to say "Thank You" to these brothers and sisters in Christ.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Prayers From The Belly Of The Beast

Our OT Lesson this week is the first chapter of the book of Jonah.  Jonah was a prophet who is mentioned for one of his oracles in 2 Kings14 :25.

Nineveh was the flourishing capitol city of the Assyrian Empire.  The Assyrians had a reputation for brutality almost unmatched in the ancient world.  The seem to have been not only masters of brutality and torture, but were extremely vocal in their bragging about the grisly deaths they inflicted on their enemies.  Their statues and carvings often portrayed these.

Now there seem to be at least two ways that a prophet might speak.  One is an oracle.  You didn't have to speak it directly to the one involved.  The prophet Nahum's entire book is an oracle concerning the judgment of God on the city of Nineveh.  But the other way is to speak the word of the Lord directly to the person or persons involved.  When this happens, the one spoken to has an opportunity for repentance and escape from whatever the consequences of the judgment involved were.  Nathan's word to David about Bathsheba is an example of this.

So...when in the opening verse of Jonah God says, "Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it, for their wickedness has come up before me," Jonah knows EXACTLY what is going on....after all, he's a prophet....this is what he does.

Jonah is no dummy.  He knows that when God sends a prophet to warn a people that there is a chance that those people will be spared if they repent.  And Jonah does not want Nineveh to repent.  Forgiveness for Nineveh is not on Jonah's 'bucket list;'  in fact it would give him great joy to see them wind up frying in a firestorm of sulfur.  Besides, going to speak to Nineveh is dangerous.  There is no guarantee that this word will be well received.  It would be like being sent by God to speak God's judgment to Berlin during the 3rd Reich, or to the Than Shwe in Burma, or Charles Taylor in Liberia.  One's life would be at risk for speaking...and even worse, in Jonah's eyes, there might be repentance....God might forgive.

It is no wonder that Jonah's next move is to run like a scalded cat in the exact opposite direction of Nineveh.  He heads for Tarshish-a western seaport in Spain at the outer edge of the then known world.  There was no way Jonah was going to let God have the chance to pardon that rotten, stinking mass of humanity if he had anything to do with it....so off he went.  Then, when the storm comes up, and the sailors ask Jonah what to do with him, he would rather commit "suicide by sailor" than go do what God has asked.  So they throw him overboard and he winds up in the belly of this beast of the sea.

We need to be very careful with this story.  If we're not, it disintegrates into a cute story about a big fish that we use for VBS skits about how we should always do what God tells us to.  In fact, for many of us, this is still the lesson we carry-if we carry any lesson at all-away from this story.  When I asked my grown daughter, Kara (a solid lay theologian in her own right), about her thoughts on this story, her interpretation was that she'd always seen it as "God's gonna have you do what Go's gonna have you do as soon as your tantrum is over."  This, unfortunately makes Jonah look like a child sent to his room until he quit tantruming about eating his broccoli and agreed to clean his plate.

This is, in fact, a multilayered story about obedience to God' and about the demands of faith in regard to love of enemy and forgiveness of those who have caused us great pain and harm, who have wounded us most deeply.  And, I would posit, it is also a story about where we wind up when we refuse those possibilities.

The sea, you may remember, was for people of Jonah's day, the place of Chaos.  Demons dwelt there, and monsters.  Is it possible that to refuse the opportunity for forgiveness to our enemies that we are choosing to plunge our self into chaos?  Does our clinging to our rage and our desires for revenge mean that we come to live in the 'belly of the beast' where our own healing cannot take place?

Please do not get me wrong.  By "forgiveness" I do not mean patting people on the head and saying, "there, there, it's okay...you've done horrible things that hurt incredible numbers of people...but it doesn't matter."  Forgiveness is the end point of a process that begins with speaking the truth about what has been done to us, or others, and holding people accountable for their actions.  We are only able to truly offer it when we have looked at our own wounds and cried out for justice.  And, finally, like any gift (and forgiveness is a gift), it has to be picked up.  I can offer my forgiveness, but you do not have to receive it.  However, by offering it, I free myself from being chained to you by my rage and revenge.  I free myself to work on healing my wounds and moving on with my life without dragging you behind me like a weight.

Forgiveness is also one of the ways in which we participate in God's work of redeeming this world and hugging it back to God's self.  We join Christ on the cross as he says, "Father forgive them," and participate in Jesus' work as our lives become conduits for the mercy we have been shown in our own lives, about our own sins, to flow out to others through us.

The story of Jonah, when viewed this way, is a very human picture of the struggle to live a life not shackled to the wounds and traumas of the past...fantasizing about revenge, and waiting for God to destroy those who have hurt us.  It may be worth remembering that when scripture says, "vengeance is mine, says the Lord," it's talking about an option that God appears to have traded in on the possibility of redeeming the world through the sacrifice of His own Son.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Suffering And Job's Friends

We've been taking a look at Job for the last couple of weeks.  And in the last day or so I have been gaining a deeper sympathy for Job's friends.  Not for their legalism and their insistence that Job must have done something wrong; but for the fact that they said really stupid things with good intentions.

In the course of pastoral ministry you encounter many people who are struggling and suffering.  Some are members of the congregation; some are connected but not members; others are total strangers that you meet once when they come to the church's door seeking help and are never seen again.  Others are "frequent fliers"-folks who show up for help on a regular basis seeking assistance with food, rent, or whatever else.

Sometimes we do a fantastic job of helping folks.  And at First Baptist Gaithersburg the folks work really hard to make that happen.  But sometimes, either out of fatigue or stupidity or misinterpretation I have been known to open my mouth and stick my foot waaayyyyyy in there.  Right up to the knee cap.  It isn't pretty; and sometimes it damages things and people we care about.  Just like Job's friends.

When this happens I'm reminded of the wisdom of the 12 Step programs where we are told to 'when we are wrong, promptly admit it' and to 'make amends whenever possible except when to do so would cause harm to them (the one we've injured) or others.'  I kind of thing this is what is being pointed at when God instructs Job's three friends to go to Job and have him make a sacrifice on their behalf.  They also leave him a gift.  There is a healing that takes place here relationally between Job and his friends.  Job, by the way, both makes the sacrifice and accepts the gifts.

The transformation at the end of Job is offered not only to Job, but to his friends as well.  Maybe putting ourselves in there place can be transformative to us as well.

Shalom

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Where To Draw The Line

This week's scriptures; which are Daniel 3 and Luke 16:1-13, raise some really interesting questions.

Jesus' parable seems to praise a dishonest man.  It has made the groups I've discussed it with very uncomfortable.  Everybody casts about to find a way of looking at this story that will make it okay.  One way that some folks have done it is to define the money that the 'dishonest manager' gives back as his commission (assuming of course that he worked on commission-which wasn't unusual).

On the other hand, I like to think of this as one of those stories, popular in most cultures, of crafty guys who get the better of other crafty guys.  I think Jesus' audience would have found it hilariously funny.....kind of like watching the movie The Sting, except funnier.  The rich man is put into a position where folks are going to look at him (because of his 'generosity' created by the manager's behavior) as a hero.  His level of "honor" (a huge thing in this culture) is going to go WAY up.  He's totally boxed in.  He's been had.  Now, to admit that he's been had will drop his honor level; and if he goes back on the new terms of debt that the manager has arranged, he'll be lucky to escape with his life....not to mention that he'll be thought of as a rotten guy and a spoiled sport to boot. 

It's almost like Jesus is saying, "These are the games the world plays.  If you're gonna live in the world, you better know what the games are and how to play them."  Do I think there are ethical limits?  Of course.  This is what Jesus was driving at when He told us to be "wise as serpents and innocent as doves."  There is a line; and each of us needs to find it.

The story in Daniel of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego is about drawing one of those lines.

Remember that Daniel is, in part, a "handbook" for young Jewish men about how to survive in exile, in Babylon.  These three have done more than survive.  They have risen in the ranks.  This is apparently part of what draws the ire of the Chaldeans who brought word of their refusal to bow down and worship the Golden Image.  These foreigners were successful.  Maybe they'd even gotten promoted over these 'home town boys.'

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refuse to bow down.  Live or die, they say, it ain't gonna happen.  Whether their God saves them or not (look at verses 16-18), they just aren't going to do it.

When we put these two passages together, we can get a picture of a freedom we have to be "in the world, but not of it."  We make our livings in the world.  But when we are called on to "bow down" to some "image" of the gods of this world; that's where we are called on to draw the line.

I can't tell you what your line should be.  I can certainly make a case for not "bowing" to the extreme examples.  But each of us faces in our life questions about who we will serve.  For example, many of my Quaker friends and family refuse to serve in the military.  They believe that God has called them to a life of non-violence, and that to engage in military violence is to "bow" before the gods of nationalism, violence, and hatred.  In fact, the Anabaptist tradition from which we come (Quakers, Mennonites, Baptists, etc.) has generally opposed violence in any form.  However, some Baptists have felt differently.

Where ever we are, whatever we chose, however we draw that line....the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abendnego tells us that we will not be alone.  There was Someone....the Great Someone....in the furnace with them.  Now this does not mean we will always be rescued.  Believers have died for where they drew the line in every generation.  Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were clear, 'if our God rescues us-fine.  If our God does not rescue us....we still will not bow down.

The challenge for us is being attentive to the times we are being asked to "bow down" and to find the courage to say, "No."

Friday, August 30, 2013

Missing The Party

I had a great vacation.  It's also great to be back home and in the office and pulpit.  I am grateful for the chance to be part of the First Baptist Church at Gaithersburg family for this time as their Interim; and I missed it while I was away.

One of the things that happened while I was away was that I realized how much time I spend on things....many of them good things, needed things.....that can easily become obsessive lures away from what God wants to give me, or use me to do.

In the New Testament lesson for this week (Luke 14:15-24) a man throws a party.  Now he's already sent out the first invitation.....in the Middle East in Jesus' day an invitation would go out and food would be prepared based on who said yes.....and then, when the food is ready the host sends his servant out to let folks know that it's time to come to the party.  Now the excuses start.  And they aren't even good excuses.  In fact, if you look at them in the context of time and place, they are insulting excuses that may have indicated that the guests had decided they weren't happy with who else had been invited and so they weren't going to come.

Now the story ends with the host sending his servant out to bring in the poor and the broken and the outcast so that the food will  be eaten.  Such generosity would have shamed the guests who attempted to shame the host by not showing; would have demonstrated the host's generosity; and would have raised his status.

But what struck me was the question: "how often does God invite me to the party of 'today' for me to just find an excuse to be doing something else?"  I am shocked by how often this seems to happen.  It's not that the things I spend time with are bad (okay, most of them aren't bad); it's that they've become priorities that block my listening for God's invitation to do/see/encounter something new and sacred.  I become so obsessed that I decide that what I'm doing is more important than God's invitation.  Does this ever happen to you?

What taught me this was going hiking right off the Blue Ridge Parkway.  A friend had told me where to find a beautiful waterfall (the trail is right at mile marker 117 by the way).  I got down into the woods and was awestruck by the calm and beauty of the place.  I ate lunch in peace and found a quiet, sacred time there.  Two butterflies came and lit on my boots; fluttered away; then returned....it was a deeply holy moment.  Had my friends not pushed me to take vacation time; and my other friend not said, "you really need to see these falls," (both of which I read as God's invitation to the party of the present moment) and had I not chosen to say, "yes," I would have missed this particular party....and it would never come again.

Learning to be still and listen for that invitation is one of my growing edges.  It may be one of yours as well.  Let's pray that we both grow in our capacity to do this.

Shalom,
Stephen

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Taking Sabbath

Just wanted to let folks know that I haven't disappeared.  I'm taking vacation time and doing a bit of "practicing what I preach" about Sabbath.

Things at First Baptist Gaithersburg are wonderful and the Fall looks like it's going to be very exciting.  So I'm taking some time to refuel and get down into the mountains of NC for a bit breath some mountain air.

The Rev. Cynthia Brasington will be filling the pulpit this week; and I'll be back on the 25th.

Have a great rest of your summer and we'll be back writing in a week or so.

Shalom,
Stephen

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

What's In A Name

The Old Testament lesson for this week is Daniel 1.  There are a lot of things that could be said about this book....and even more things that we don't know.  I had lunch with a Rabbi today who was telling me just how much we don't know about this book.

But part of what we think we do know is that one of the goals of this book was to help young Jewish boys deal with how to maintain their Jewish identity in the face of the pressures of the Hellenistic culture that came with the rule of Alexander, Antiochus, and others.  It raises the question of how much should we compromise to function in the world.  How do we maintain our identity in the face of a culture that wants to replace our identity with one based on its values and beliefs?

When Daniel and his three friends arrived in the court of Nebuchadnezzar they had perfectly good Jewish names: Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, Azariah.  They meant: God is my judge, YWH is great, Who is like God, and The Lord has helped.  There names were an indication of, and a reflection of, their faith.

But upon arriving at the court, they were given new names: Belteshazzar, Shadrack, Meshack, and Abendnego....names that incorporated references to Babylonian dieties Bel, Marduke, and Nabu.  The idea is clear: these conquered people will be taught to answer to names that the Empire gives them.  It is not, for many of us, a far reach to remembering the scene from Roots in which Kunta Kinte is tortured until he announces that his name is "Toby."  The overseer says, "When the master gives you something, you take it.  He gave you a name. It's a nice name.  I want to hear you say it. It's Toby, and it's going to be yours until the day you die."

Empires always want us to believe that they name us.  They want to name us as numbers, consumers, whatever.  The question of Daniel and of our own faith today is which name will we claim; what identity will we hold to; and how will we express it in the midst of a culture that does not acknowledge our name.

How each of us does this is one of the burning questions that our lives seek to answer.  Daniel and his friends draw a line in the sand about final allegiance that centered on dietary laws, worship, and prayer.  Where do we draw our lines.  When we come up out of the Baptismal Waters we acknowledge an new identity, a new name: Christian.  How will we answer to it?  How will we express it? 

On Sunday we will dedicate a baby at First Baptist Gaithersburg.  His parents are from Ghana.  He has a first name and a last....but it is his middle name that makes me smile.  His middle name is Delali, and it means "God is alive."  What a name to carry into the world!

Monday, July 22, 2013

Wrestling With The Intimacy Of God

It's Monday evening and I'm already blogging about this coming Sunday's scripture.  I'm surprised, frankly.  I'm not blogging because I've got great breakthroughs in my understanding; in fact, just the opposite.  I'm hoping that by blogging early, I'll jump start my mental processes-and maybe that some of you will get into the conversation with me and push me in new directions.

The scripture for Sunday....the OT passage, is Hosea 1:1-11.  And it's a rough passage.

The first thing you'll notice if you take a look at the book of Hosea is that it breaks down into two basic parts: first is the story of the marriage of Hosea to Gomer.  It's a disaster from the beginning; yet Hosea is going to maintain that this marriage gave him a window into the heart of God (more about that in a minute).  The second part is oracles regarding what's going to happen with Israel and why God has a case against God's people.

The truth is that God's people had begun to pick up some of the habits of their Canaanite neighbors-specifically making sacrifices to Baal, a fertility god.  They didn't abandon YWH altogether, they just kind of 'mixed some stuff in' (and if you're thinking "wow, this sounds an awful lot like Christians in our day just adding a bit of 'the American dream,' 'a little consumerism,' and some 'my country right or wrong' to their own worship, then you're pretty on target, I think, with the kind of thing that Hosea was so concerned about.

In the course of Hosea's 'look into the heart of God' he will compare God to a jilted husband and an abandoned, dishonored parent.......with all the rage, pathos, and tenderness that this includes.  The book of Hosea is a love story par excellence....but if you're looking for a scriptural version of Pretty Woman, forget it.  This is harsh and hard, tender and sad....there is nothing soft and fluffy about it.

A lot of commentators and preachers slide by all of this by going, "well....it's just the OT."  But one of the things we need to understand is that the image of God as Father....or even as parent (Hosea also uses 'mother imagery') is very rare in the OT.  God is referred to as Israel's father 8 times; as the father of certain individuals (such as David) 6 times; and indirect images of father are used another 9 times.  Yet Jesus refers to God as Father 65 times in the Synoptic Gospels, and over 100 times in the  Gospel according to John.  What this indicates to me, is that Jesus, who was a student of Torah and the prophets, took this image and made it central to His own understanding of God's relationship to us.  This is in addition to Jesus' 'wedding images' and the Revelation description of Jerusalem as a bride.  There is a strong case we can make for paying close attention to these descriptions and to what they tell us about God and about what Jesus' atoning work looks like.

I have a lot of commentaries and research to go through before Sunday's sermon.  A lot of praying for wisdom.  A lot of struggling with what this means.  But the one thing I am sure that Hosea tells us about God is that God is a lover who refuses to let go.  God will not abandon us; nor the covenant that God made with us.  Hosea will buy Gomer back after she has sold herself into slavery...just as God came in Jesus to buy us back from the slavery we sold ourselves into.

Out of this intimate relationship, when Jesus' disciples ask Him how to talk to God, Jesus said, "say, 'Father.....'

Friday, July 19, 2013

Part Of The Journey; Or Part Of The Road

About 3 years ago, Rev. Abby Thornton preached a sermon on salt.  It was really impressive.  She walked us through the role of salt in 1st century Palestine, and helped us see some of the possible meanings of Jesus' remarks in Matthew 5 (our NT scripture this week is Matt 5:1-16). 

One of the things that really struck me was how salt was mixed with manure to form a fuel for ovens.  When the fuel burned up, the crispy remains were thrown into the road to serve as a kind of gravel for the path.  Now with all the other things that are clear about how salt was used in addition to fuel: as a part of a fertilizer mix; as a disinfectant; as a preservative; as part of ritual sacrifice (some salt was always part of whatever sacrifice was made at the Temple; and as an ingredient in the pledging of a covenant (a covenant sealed with salt could not be broken).....when it loses its 'saltiness' it becomes part of the road.

So I'm playing with this idea, and I stop to do a little reading in a book I'm working my way through by Fred Craddock.  I'm reading his chapter on 'how to end a sermon' in which he says that the preacher should always know in the beginning of his or her writing how they're going to end their sermon.  Now I'm not sure I totally agree....but it's a good point in general.  You don't want to have preached a great sermon, only to have it fizzle because you can't figure out how to stop and end it.

So I asked myself how I would want to end this week's sermon.  Now this week is a hard week to preach because we're facing some financial challenges; challenges that we need to address.  But we need to address them in the light of who we are called to be and what we are called to do as the Body of Christ.  Though we should be utilizing 'good business' practice; we're not a business.  Cash is not our bottom line.  Though good stewardship means making sure that bills are paid and payroll is met; these are means to an end, not the end in itself.

The "business" of the Church is the sharing of Christ's love and the building up of Christ's Kingdom by seeking to imitate His life and follow His teaching.  It is the inviting of others to join us on this journey of relationship with Jesus.  These are the ways that we become salt.  We make the world a palatable place; we are fuel for the love of God moving out in healing ways...and are sometimes the 'antiseptic' in the healing; and (this is my favorite) we, as the Body of Christ, are the sign of God's covenant with creation that cannot be broken.  These are the tasks of Church-with a capitol "C."

If we lose our 'saltiness' we will simply be part of the road that gets marched on as the Kingdom moves on by.  We will be marchers, pilgrims, followers of Jesus....or we'll be part of the road.  The fact that God has used the organized church (little 'c') in the past does not mean it is protected from being part of the road if it looses it's saltiness.  There is this dramatic scene in the book of Ezekiel in which Ezekiel watches as the Spirit of God leaves the Temple because Israel has failed to be faithful.  Do we think we're any better?

This isn't about whether God loves us....God loves us and will keep loving us and calling us back to repent and serve.  God continued to love and call Israel.  But God's will is going to get done.  God's purpose will not be thwarted finally.

We will be pilgrims following Jesus on the road.....or we'll be part of the path.

Monday, July 8, 2013

The Alternative Vision Of Faith At Vacation Bible School

Vacation Bible School started yesterday evening at First Baptist Church Gaithersburg with 52 students and 39 staff and helpers.  It is great watching the kids learning and growing and moving toward the time when they will make for themselves a personal commitment to following Jesus.  Part of what they are doing is learning about missions and engaging in missions themselves by being involved in a program called Penny Power.  By collecting pennies they will contribute to a mission project locally that serves other children who are in need.  Learning that missions is also expressed at home is a great thing.  Plus, they have the example of the youth and their chaparones who just returned from Impact-a mission trip in Wise, VA that they followed with a choir tour (many of these youth are assisting this week with VBS).  It's a lively place right now for our youth and children.

The Bible verse that the kids are focusing on this week comes from 2 Timothy 1:7: "For God has not given us a spirit of fearfulness; but one of power, love, and sound judgement."

Now whatever you may think about the source and history of this particular letter...or even its theology (all of these are argued by scholars at great length)...this particular verse is a great one for our kids to be learning.

Why is that?

If you stop and think about it, ask yourself: how much of our current life and culture is based upon fear?  Fear of terror attack (which allows politicians on both sides to ramp up military spending and break down basic rights); fear of not being accepted cause we're not attractive enough, smart enough, intelligent enough (this fear is underneath nearly all of the consumerism that plagues our culture and makes perpetual debt part of so many lives); and fear of death (which allows companies to focus on things other than cures for illnesses, to charge huge amounts for tests that often are not needed, and to act as though medical care is a right reserved for the wealthy).

Now I know, as well as you do, that the kids at VBS are probably not thinking about ANY of these things (and frankly, I HOPE their not).  But we are laying the groundwork for the Alternative Vision of our faith.  From the writers of Genesis and the Exodus; through the work of the prophets preaching to people in exile; to the life and teaching of Jesus and the triumph of His resurrection.....we hold an alternative vision about the way the world works.  It is NOT based on fear.  It is not based on military might.  It is not based on wealth. [If you don't think I'm correct, you can find in both the OT and the teachings of Jesus very clear examples of this alternative vision as what God desires for God's people...it's worth the effort to explore this].

What we're doing in VBS, and what the kids are reminding us of, is the truth of that vision.  God did not call us to be afraid.  God has called us to trust in God's power, to live in neighborliness and love, and to use sound judgement in making decisions about how to live in a world that does not acknowledge these things as true.

When the bills pile up; when the terror alert level rises; when the politicians scream; and the toothpaste ads tell us that our teeth aren't bright enough.....we could do much worse than be reminded that God has not given us a spirit of fearfulness; but one of power, love, and sound judgement.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

A River, Some Dirt, And A T-Shirt

If you go to 2Kings 5:1-19 you'll find the story of a gentile named Naaman who was cured of his leprosy by the prophet Elisha.  It's a marvelous story, rich in meaning....and I mean really, really rich.  I could preach 2 or 3 sermons on this passage without having to stretch at all.

But what I'd like to talk about right now is the fact that when he was cured, Naaman decided to worship the God of Israel.  Though he balked at first, he had washed himself in Israel's river Jordan; he had obeyed the directions of Israel's prophet; and he had been lead to this prophet by an Israelite slave girl taken in a raid.....so you can see how Naaman would become very enamoured of the land and God of Israel.  Believing that Israel's God was limited to the land of Israel (not an unusual belief in that time), Naaman asked for two mule loads of dirt that he could take back home to build an alter with-or on-so that he could keep his pledge to now worship only the God of Israel.

This sounds strange to us.  But I got to thinking about the reminders that we need of the times and places where we have been touched by holiness.  As I mentioned in my last blog, I spent 3 1/2 days with our church's youth in Wise, VA on an Impact mission doing housing repair.  It was wonderful; and the kids were fantastic.  I returned with an Impact T-shirt and cap (these were free) and an Impact coffee mug (this one I bought).  They have no magic quality; I do not expect them to bring me any closer to God.  But they are a reminder, a symbol for me of a particular time and experience that DID bring me closer to God.  And in remembering that time, I am motivated to pray and to think about the things that I found out about myself, our youth, and the holiness of God to be found in serving others.

Naaman went down into the Jordon river and washed.  He came out cleansed from his leprosy, and with a new identity.  Now he was Naaman, worshiper of Israel's God.  He took away a reminder of that fact on his mules when he went home.

You and I went down into the waters of baptism.  In that symbolic act our sins were washed away and we were given a new identity as members of God's family.  But we did not have to go get a T-shirt, or load a mule with dirt from beside the river.  Jesus left us with a sign and symbol of both our identity and of His ongoing nurture of our lives of faith.  This Sunday the First Baptist congregation with celebrate Communion.  It is our reminder of the presence of the Holy in our lives.  A Presence that does not leave us and is not limited by time or space, by life nor death. 

I hope you'll be able to join us.

Shalom,
Stephen

Friday, June 28, 2013

Fit To Follow

I spent the first part of this week with the First Baptist Church Gaithersburg youth group at Impact Virginia in Wise, VA.  It was such a wonderful experience for me....these young people are amazing....the adult who came with them are amazing.  Four of the young people from FBCG were on the construction team I was assigned to.  Watching them work; the energy they brought to the task; the way they teamed with other youth to get the job done made me proud to be associated with them.  And it all fit with this week's scripture about not looking back once you've put your hand to the plow (Luke 9:51-62).  These youth are excited about the idea of following Jesus into places that call for commitment and energy and effort.  It was exciting to see them live that out.

The scripture passage (especially when you add the verses 46-50 right before) are about the demands of following Jesus:

  1. We have to give up our old ideas about greatness and power (46-48)
  2. We have to give up the idea that being 'one of us' is a requirement for following-Jesus points to the idea that there may be a whole boatload of folks doing His will that we know nothing about, or who aren't part of our 'group' (49-50)
  3. We have to give up our ideas about revenge and judgment toward those who don't accept us (51-56)
  4. We have to give up some of the things that give us security (57-58)
  5. Even the good demands of society may need to take a back seat to the claims of Jesus (59-60)
  6. We have to commit to moving forward....the past needs to become the past.  We've put our hand to the plow, and looking back just messes up the straight line we're trying to plow in.  We keep our eyes ahead; on the kingdom, on the cross, on Jesus as we follow Him up the road.
Following Jesus is an activity, not a theological affirmation.  It is a relationship, an identity, a commitment to putting one foot in front of the other-even when we can sometimes hardly see Jesus there in front through the fog caused by our own limitations.

This is the kind of Jesus I see these young people wanting to follow; one who calls them out into the world to serve, who makes demands for commitment, who challenges them to reach beyond their comfort zone.  At least this is what I saw this past week....and it warmed my heart.

We'll talk about it more on Sunday.  Hope to see you then.
Shalom,
Stephen


Friday, June 21, 2013

The Healing Of One Single Man

The story that makes up our New Testament lesson for Sunday is another one of those that many of us grew up on in Sunday School.  In Luke 8:26-39 we have the story of Jesus crossing the Sea of Galilee into the "country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee."  This means that Jesus is going into Gentile territory.  Now Jesus may have just wanted to get out from under the watchful eye of Herod for a little bit; or the storm that he stilled in verses 22-25 may have blown the boat close to this region....we really don't know.
 
What is peculiar is that Jesus lands here, heals one man, then leaves.  That's it.  The next verse after this account is "Now when Jesus returned...." (v.40)  Isn't that strange.  For one man, Jesus land in Gentile country, heals him, the sails home to Galilee.   One man.  One naked, crazy, self destructive, lonely, frightened, gentile man.

When I was growing up....in Jr. Hi and High School....it was popular for speakers to tell us that we needed to remember that "if you had been the only person in the world, Jesus would have come to save you."  I heard it a lot.  And frankly, it seemed kind of trite and contrived.  But this story kind of makes me think again about that comment.  This man didn't seek Jesus out, he wasn't in his right mind, he couldn't even respond to Jesus' question about what his name was-answering with a description of his condition.  Yet he was the only one that Jesus heals.  Why?  I don't know.  I just know that Jesus healed him. 

When I am feeling alone and frightened, isolated and not in my 'right mind'; when I think that life has taken me, or I have chosen to go, into places that Jesus would never think of wandering into; when I feel like I'm not worth God's time-or anyone else's for that matter; I need to hear this story again.  This is one of those "Old, old stories" that I need to hear.  Maybe you do too.

Shalom,
Stephen

Friday, June 14, 2013

Willing To Be Plowed

One of the things that I find most interesting about the parables of Jesus is that they can be viewed from so many angles. 

It used to be that scholars thought that a parable had only one point to make.  There was, for them, one single, sharp point that Jesus was trying to teach....and that was it.  Things have changed; now theologians and scholars have caught up with the rest of us and realize that a parable is like a jewel with many facets.  When held up in the light, there are a multitude of things that one can learn about what Jesus was trying to share with His listeners.

One of these struck home to me this week as I was studying the account of the Parable of the Sower found in Luke 8:4-8.  Because this parable is found in all three of the Synoptic Gospels, we can pretty well bet that the early Church thought it was important.

Anyway, in my reading I discovered that nearly everyone kept some kind of garden or crop growing.  In our day we think of a small number of folks who grow the largest amount of food.  But it was not so in 1st century Palestine.  So the "sower" could have been almost anyone.  Another thing that I found interesting about this parable is that you and I (as listeners to the parable) are referred to by Jesus as both "seed" and "soil" in His explanation of the parable.

Finally, though, the thing I'd like to focus on here is the fact that often seeds were sown, and then plowed.  This is why seed could be described as falling on rocks, hard packed dirt, or among weeds.  The seeds were sown and then the ground was plowed, turning the soil and burying the seed.  Now if you and I take the view for a moment that we are "soil," then the question comes up (at least in my mind) "are we willing to be plowed?  Are we willing to have our lives turned over and over by God's processes and God's working so that God's word can take root in our lives?"  Or do we insist that things remain the same; that the boat isn't rocked; and continue to expect that God will work in us?

It isn't, by the way, that God won't work in us.  But it's that God's ability to work in my (our) life is impacted my the willingness to let God break up the 'hard packed' and 'rocky' areas....softening them to make them workable and 'weeding' the places where life's cares have taken over and choke out what is truly important.

This is a challenge to become open and vulnerable to transforming nature of God's activity in our lives.  It is a very, very scary challenge.  It rates for me right up there with my fear of jumping out of airplanes (never gonna happen), and scuba diving (might happen-but the one time I tried was terrifying).  Plus, it calls for a kind of spiritual discipline that most of us find difficult....one in which we are more receptive than active....listening for guidance and being willing to be changed.

I hope perhaps you'll be able to join us Sunday as we continue to explore this parable.

Shalom,
Stephen

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

God's Gumbo

Last Sunday night at our Quest worship service I used an image on the screen that said, "Jesus Wants Your Flavor In God's Gumbo."  I kind of like that.  I sorta stole it from one of my favorite Lutheran ministers, Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber.  Nadia grew up in a very strict fundamentalist church (not Lutheran...not Baptist either); and I was moved when she said, talking to a group of youth in New Orleans a while back, that, "they didn't want my flavor in their gumbo."  I found it sad, in part, because I grew up in a Southern Baptist church where, though I wouldn't have put it that way, I felt very much that way.  My questions, my need to challenge, my political leanings made me one of those who never quite fit it there.

I wish I could tell you that things have changed; that people no longer look at Christians and think "they're against......"  But I can't.  I wish I could tell you that Nadia's tattoos, or my politics, or someone else's style of dress, or their color or ethnicity doesn't alienate some folks from others in some churches.  Sadly, these are still part of the battles we're fighting.

This Sunday is 'Multicultural Sunday' at First Baptist Gaithersburg.  We'll be celebrating the rich diversity of this congregation.  We'll be how glad we are to have such a broad representation of racial, ethnic and cultural backgrounds represented each Sunday in worship-and in the ongoing life of this congregation.

But more than this, we are celebrating a commitment to deepening our community as the Body of Christ: our commitment to learning from each other as we explore the ways in which different folks read scripture based on their experiences; our commitment to reaching out to persons who are new to this country and this community; and our commitment to the truth that Jesus welcomes EVERYONE into His Father's house.

I hope you'll be able to join us on Sunday as we celebrate.  And no matter what, remember

JESUS WANTS YOUR FLAVOR IN GOD'S GUMBO!

Shalom,
Stephen

Friday, May 31, 2013

The Man By The Side Of The Road

This Sunday morning's scripture at First Baptist Gaithersburg is the parable Jesus told that has taken on the name of "The Good Samaritan."  You can find it in Luke 10:25-42.  There are a whole lot of things we can 'get' from this parable,  but I'd like to focus on just one for the blog today:  the man by the side of the road was naked.

Now before you go looking all weird at me, let me make my point.  He had been attacked by robbers who beat him up and left him near dead and who then stole all his clothes.  This means that there was no way for those who passed by him on the road; the priest, the Levite, or the Samaritan to have any idea who he was, what ethnic group he was part of, or what economic class he came from.  He couldn't even talk so his accent or language couldn't give him away.  He was simply a man in need.  Apparently, to Jesus, that's all we need to know when Jesus tells us to "go and do likewise."

Three additional quick 'bullet points':

  • How much does this man remind you of Jesus' saying, "I was hungry and you feed me, naked and you clothed me, homeless and you took me in......as you did to the least of these, you did it to me"?
  • Tie that awareness to the fact that Jesus would, not to distant from the telling of this parable, be stripped, beaten, and left to die on a cross on the side of the road.  The meaning of this man in the parable takes on great importance.
  • Finally, it may be worth noticing that while the wine and oil that the Samaritan used on the stranger's wounds was part of a 1st century 'first aid kit', they are also elements of the daily temple sacrifice.  Jesus telling about them is, I think, another way of pointing out that regardless of what our gifts and sacrifices are in church, unless they are repeated in our daily lives as we come across the wounded and hurting, they will mean nothing.
It may be that we've focused so much on the Samaritan (and there is a bunch of stuff to focus on) that we miss that the most important person in this story is the man on the side of the road.  For it is in him, both in the parable and in our lives today that we meet and help or ignore Jesus.

Hope to see you Sunday.
Shalom

Friday, May 17, 2013

Pentecost Every Day?

I have spent this week in Nashville, TN at the Festival of Homiletics.  It has been a mind boggling experience to be surrounded by so many people committed to improving the way we preach the Gospel.  From as far away as Australia and as close as down the block from where we're meeting they've come.  And then there are the ones who are leading the workshops, giving the lectures, and preaching in our worship services.....incredible.  They are incredible both for the quality of their preaching, and for the vulnerability with which they share their own struggles with this task of finding the words again and again and again to hopefully draw folks toward the Kingdom.

Some of the things they've said to us are, frankly, scary.  We look at one another during the lunch breaks and go, "could I do that? could I preach that way to my congregation?"  I'm pretty lucky...I serve a congregation that has been, so far, very open to different ways of approaching things.  But I did have one truly frightening moment.

My frightening moment occurred in a conversation with Rev. Grace Imathiu, a United Methodist pastor from Kenya now serving a church in the United States.  I was telling her about First Baptist Church Gaithersburg and its great multi-cultural composition.  She looked at me and said, "How exciting and scary.....Pentecost every day."  The more I thought about that, the scarier it got.  Pentecost every day.......Pentecost every day.......Pentecost every day?!?!?

What on earth would that look like?  I imagine that even the disciples might have gotten anxious at the idea.  That kind of stuff draws attention.  And attention draws the authorities.  They didn't need to be back under the eye of the Romans again.  So some folks got to hear the good news in their own language...and they'd never spoken those languages before....what would Spirit have them doing next? Pentecost every day?

I've been turning that over and over ever since Grace said those words to me.  Pentecost every day.  What I do know is that it's scary in the same way that going rock climbing for the first time, or down a zip line, or following Jesus.....you know that once you do it, things-and you-won't be the same again...ever.  Pentecost every day.

What would it look like at FBCG?  If being multi-cultural turned into Pentecost every day?  Who would hear the good news?  What languages would the Spirit teach us to speak?  Would they think we were nuts too?  I haven't got an answer yet.  I may not have a complete answer by Sunday either....probably won't.  But I'm going to keep living with this exciting, scary idea: "Pentecost every day" until something breaks open in me.  I'm going to keep praying about it.  I hope you'll be praying about it too....and come Sunday, maybe we can fashion part of an answer together.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Disturbingly Ignored Ascension

This is Ascension Sunday.  The scripture is Acts 1:  3-11.

It's a really strong temptation to preach a Mother's Day sermon and avoid the Ascension all together.  And while my sermon title is "Not A Mother's Day Text," you'll have to come to church to find out what that is all about.

The Gospels don't say much about the Ascension.  I mean really not much.  Mark only gives it one verse-the same with Luke in his Gospel.  And if you think some folks have trouble with the idea of bodily resurrection (something which, by the way, I believe is critical to our faith), they turn absolutely green around this 'ascended into heaven in a cloud' stuff.

The Ascension raises a lot of issues.  First of all, if you believe in a bodily resurrection, where did the body go?  Well, the Ascension takes care of 'disposal of the body,' but is that all it's about?  Is the only thing this is good for is getting rid of a body that we don't know what to do with?  I don't think so.  In fact, it is possible to look at the Ascension as the hinge on which Luke's total picture of the life of Jesus and the growth of the Church swings.  It is the move into a new phase of God's work in the New Creation.

Think of it like this......

When I was a young father and my children were learning to ride a bicycle, there was a 'process' to that learning.  I would run along beside the bike, holding onto the back of the seat so that they could learn balance and peddling without falling down.  Then, I would let go and just run along side so that I could help them stabilize if they needed me.  Now while this isn't a perfect image, it tells us a little bit about what is going on.  When Jesus was among humanity in a physical body, He was God's hand 'on the bicycle' so to speak.  Teaching, healing, demonstrating what the Kingdom looks like in how He related to those around Him.  The Ascension is both the 'letting go' and preparation for the coming of the Holy Spirit....which is how God' runs along side the bicycle.'  The image, of course, breaks down in that God in the Spirit empowers our work for the New Creation; and there is never a time when God leaves us to go riding off on our own.....but you get sorta where I'm going with this.

Our task as the Church is to work toward the New Creation, the Kingdom of God, becoming reality.  Scripture tells us in a multitude of places and ways-from Genesis to Revelation-that we are partners with God, called to help in the process of setting right the things in our world that have gone horribly wrong.  Some of those things: particularly sin and death; were things that there was no way for us to deal with-we were, and are, powerless over them.  Jesus dealt with them on the cross.  There are other things: injustice, hunger, violence, etc. that we ARE not only capable of dealing with, but commanded to deal with....this is our call as Church...as the Body of Christ.  Jesus spent His earthly life teaching us how to do so.

So....having conquered sin and death, it isn't that Jesus goes away to wait until He can snatch us up to heaven when we die (though we are promised that we will be with Him when that time comes), it's that God moves now to empower us to do our part in the drama of unfolding the New Creation that will finally culminate in the coming of the Kingdom.

What happens when we look at the Ascension, and our relationship to it, in this way?  I hope you'll join us Sunday when we try to explore a little what this all has to do with you and me in the here and now.

Shalom,
Stephen

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Following The Verbs In The Biblical Story

I have been spending some time this week listening to the Beecher Lectures at Yale University of Rev. Dr. Anna Carter Florence.  They are amazing.  Dr. Florence's background is in theatre and she brings some great insights from theatre into bible study and preparing to preach.

One of her ideas is to take a passage and to focus on the verbs.  Focusing on the various actions in the passage rescues us from getting bogged down in the archaic or the strange and missing what is going on.  The fact that she suggests doing this after looking at the scholarly work around the passage is a good protection against simply reading our current culture into the passage.

When we've lifted out the verbs, she suggests noting which ones grab us...move us in some way.

I was doing this as I prepared for this Sunday's sermon on John 5:1-18, which is the story of the man who had been sick for 38 years and Jesus heals him at the Pool of Bethzatha.  It seems that there is a believe that an angel occasionally comes down and stirs the water.  When this happens, the first one into the water is healed.

In response to Jesus asking him if he wishes to be healed, the man says, "I have no one to help me.  And while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me."

I turned the story this way and that.  I looked a bunch of verbs.  I went over this story using this model with the wonderful Bible Study group that meets as part of the Wednesday night Prayer Meeting at First Baptist Church Gaithersburg.  They came up with a lot of great stuff.....all of which gave me new facets of the story to look at.

Then, a particular verb phrase reached up from the text and grabbed me by the collar.  It was making my way from the quote above.  Think for a minute about what it looks like for a man so sick that he can't get to the pool to be trying to "make my way."  Does he hobble?  Drag himself? Crawl?  What does it do to someone to do this for 38 years?  Couple that with "I have no one to help me."  I have no one, 38 years of lonely, hobbling life at the pool.  What does that do?

When we use these verbs to climb into the story the text is telling, it draws us into the story underneath that story....in this case, the 38 year story of life at the pool.

What happens when we let this passage challenge the way we look at the man begging on the street corner?  When we let it challenge the way we do ministry and mission in our church?  When we let it challenge our view of what Jesus, and hence God, is up to in our world?

Try following the verbs the next time you're reading scripture in your devotional time.  Let Spirit use them to open you to something new.

Hope to see you Sunday.

Shalom

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Beginning Thoughts on New Commandments

In the Gospel lesson for this week Jesus does something interesting.  All along, up to this point, He's been telling stories about what the Kingdom of God, the New Creation looks like.  Now, in His final time with the disciples, He cuts right to the chase: "I'm giving you a new commandment; and your following it is how folks will know that you're My disciples-love one another like I have loved you." (John 13:34-35)  Then, over in John 15:12, He's going to say it again, "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you."  This time, He makes the point that He is about to lay down His life for them.

Love, the way Jesus lived it, is a difficult thing.  It sacrifices, it heals, it lifts up.  Following Jesus in love is clearly an action verb.  Peter, in our passage from Acts 11:1-18 is going to find out just how difficult that following is.  That following is going to cause him to go and eat at the home of a gentile Roman soldier (think of a  black South African taking the Gospel to a white politician during apartheid and you'll get a little of the flavor of what's happening here...add to that the fact that not eating with gentiles was one of the ways the Jews maintained their identity and you'll get an even fuller picture).

I'm not sure when Jesus told Peter to "feed my sheep" that Peter imagined that this was what He had in mind.  But it was.  Jesus' commandment to us to love is a commandment to reach beyond....to go where we're afraid to go.....to embrace even our enemies.

I am struck so often lately by how much time we, as Christians, spend fighting about what people believe intellectually.....as though Jesus had said, "a new commandment I give to you; believe this list of stuff."  But what we're called to as Jesus people is to a way of relating to each other.  How different would our world be if we took that seriously?

More to come on Sunday.  Hope to see you then.

Shalom,
Stephen

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Do-Over

This has been a week of pain and grieving for many.  The tragic bombing at the Boston Marathon has left us reminded of how fragile our sense of security really is.

Two articles have also moved me this week.  You may find them here:

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/18/opinion/a-senate-in-the-gun-lobbys-grip.html

and here:

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/15/opinion/hunger-striking-at-guantanamo-bay.html

Where ever you land on the political spectrum in regard to these issues, as Christians called to be a healing force in a broken world they are a grim reminder.

And smack in the middle of this is our passage for this week.  It is John 21:1-19.  Jesus is going to ask Peter three times if he loves Him....no escaping that Jesus is reminding him of the three times that Peter denied Jesus.  But remarkably, Jesus does not berate or scold or express anger at Peter.  What He does is give Peter a task to do:  "feed my sheep."  Then Jesus gives Peter a warning.  He tells Peter that if he does follow through on the task he's been given, it will cost him his life.

When we were kids getting a "do-over" meant we got to try again.  The mistake or miss or failure wasn't counted against us.  Jesus is giving Peter a "do-over."  But it comes with a price.  Jesus' grace to us is free.  But if we take up the task that He gives us, we need to be prepared to sacrifice, to change, to give ourselves to see it through.

Many of us have come to Jesus with histories that we're not very proud of.  Acts of betrayal, unkindness, addiction, cruelty.....therapists and pastors hear the stories of them all the time.  Jesus meets us with open arms of graceful forgiveness.  We remember that Paul says that, "if anyone is in Christ, they are a new creature."  But I can almost promise you that somewhere in the new life that you've been given, you will be faced with the "do-over moment": the moment when you are confronted with the same issue where you failed before.  Now, in Christ, we are offered the opportunity to live out that moment in a new and different way.  It may not be with the person we betrayed before....but it will be an opportunity for fidelity that is challenging in a similar way.  Jesus offers us these opportunities for healing and for the healing of our world.  They are part of the mission to which we are called as Christ's Body.  In each act of faithfulness, of kindness, of living as God's people our world heals just a little and the Kingdom comes a little closer.

One way to think about this is to remember the new stained glass window that was put in at First Baptist Gaithersburg this week.  Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of separate pieces of glass went into this beautiful picture.  The light comes through them all and those of us who see it are blessed with the artistry of this work.  Each of us is like one of those pieces.  Held together by our call to be Christ's Body, the Light of God's Love for the world shines through us in a way that we take on the darkness of moments like Boston, or Sandy Hook, or Gitmo.  Being available for God's light to shine through us is part of our do-over.

Hope to see you Sunday.....the window really is absolutely beautiful.

Shalom,
Stephen

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

When Tears Are Our Food

Some time ago I stumbled across a photograph that has etched itself into my mind.  A copy of it is tacked to the wall in my therapy office.  I may have blogged about this picture before (I'm not sure), but I'm going to blog about it again today.  You can find a copy of the picture here:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/catherinetodd/3326323876/

This picture totally changed the way that I read Psalm 42; especially the first verses, in which the psalmist says, "As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you O God.  My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.  When shall I come and behold the face of God?  My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me continually, 'Where is your God?'"

The image of the burning forest in the background gives new meaning to "as a deer longs for flowing streams" as they take refuge from the fire in the water of the river bottom.  This was not a psalm written for a cool summer day when one wants to dip your toes in the water and cool off a bit (though there's nothing wrong with that, or with the thought that sometimes our journey with God is like the description in Psalm 23 where we are lead by still waters).  This is a Psalm for crisis; for the days when our "tears have become my food day and night;" for a time of deep longing and anguished desperation.  It is a cry of memory and hope in the midst of isolation and pain.

When I look at John 20:25 (part of the scripture for this Sunday) and hear Thomas saying, "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe," I hear that kind of anguish.

Think about it.  The disciples have seen Jesus. Thomas hasn't.  All he knows is that Judas betrayed him, Peter denied him, all of them deserted him, and everything he bet his life on has been shattered.
Thomas' response isn't all that different from that of the disciples on Easter morning.  Thomas' remark is a cry of pain.

I find very interesting John 20:26 which says, "A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them" [emphasis mine].  Even with everything that Thomas is going through, he is still hanging out with the disciples....and they are hanging out with him.  There is a community there that does not desert Thomas.  They have made room for his anguish.  He has made room for their care.

Can we celebrate and be thankful for those who were steadfast in their faithfulness to us when tears were our food?  Are we, as communities of faith, places that do that for the lonely, desperate ones?  Are our churches deep river beds where people can come for safety and refuge from the 'wildfires' of their lives?

Because that community was present, Thomas was there when Jesus showed up later.  That should tell us something about holding on to people, keeping the conversation going, sitting with the hurting until Jesus shows up.

We'll explore this some more on Sunday.  Hope you can join us.

Shalom,
Stephen

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Jesus On The Loose

This Sunday, April 7, I will not be preaching.  Instead, I will be joining the congregation of 1st Baptist Gaithersburg in listening to the choir perform the musical The Power of the Cross.  Now I do have the honor of being one of the narrators for this musical, but I'm most excited about the musical performance because I've been so impressed by the musicians at FBCG and their director Lonnie Brown.

Not preparing a sermon has given me some freedom to take a kind of "wide angle lens" approach to the post-resurrection activities of Jesus; and the primary think I see is that you just can't predict what the Risen Christ is going to do next.  Just take a look at the numerous accounts of Jesus showing up: in a locked room full of terrified disciples; on the road to Emmaus outside of Jerusalem; a return to the locked room to talk with Thomas; a seaside breakfast with Peter and others; and some other-not specified-times we're told he spend with the disciples.  But there isn't a pattern that tells us what will happen next.

I think this is wonderful.  It is a foretaste of the scriptural promise that "the Spirit blows where it wants to."  It is also a warning of sorts....in a mostly good way.  It warns us not to try to pigeon-hole where we think Jesus can, will, or should show up in the lives of the people around us.  Jesus goes where He wants to, to who He wants to.  We don't get to determine any of it. (Which, by the way, is a pretty good thing when we remember that for many of us there were those who doubted that Jesus would want anything to do with us).

I used to work in a prison in a southern state.  There was an inmate-we'll call him "Red"-who was doing life there.  Red was, to put it mildly, a hard man.  I heard another inmate describing a fight that had occurred on the yard some years back.  Red had been attacked by a group of other inmates armed with shivs.  He'd been stabbed multiple times.  Red was the one who walked away. He was a hard, tough man. Word went out, you don't mess with Red.

Then, and I never got the whole story of just how, Red met Jesus.  Red didn't cease to be a tough man. He still wasn't someone you wanted to push.  But Red's attitude about others changed. They ceased to be people you either fought or ignored.  I met Red because he brought another inmate to me who had a substance abuse problem.  His friend wasn't a Christian....that didn't matter.....Red was, and to him, that meant getting his friend some help.

Few people looking at Red when he first came into prison would have thought of him as a candidate for conversion, much less discipleship.  But Jesus didn't ask any of them.  Jesus just showed up in Red's life; because Jesus goes where He wants to.  Jesus showed up in my life for the same reason-and I hope in yours.

This may wind up being fodder for my Ascension Sunday sermon, but I think that one of the reasons for the Ascension was that Jesus didn't want folks trying to nail Him down to one place.  The Spirit that was coming needed to be clearly defined as free to go where It wills.

Can we open our eyes to see the possibilities for where Jesus might show up next?

Shalom,
Stephen

Thursday, March 28, 2013

What Shall We Do With A Risen Savior?

The two scriptures that will be guiding our work this Sunday are two separate accounts of the Resurrection of Jesus.  John 20:1-18 and Luke 24:1-12.

Every now and then I will still hear someone say something like, "if you look at the accounts of the resurrection they are so different; so it must not have really happened or they'd be telling the same story."  My answer to this is to remind them that even in things that happen around us today (say a car wreck at their neighborhood intersection) there will be multiple accounts of what happened.  A person on one corner will see one thing; the person on the opposite corner will see another; one may notice a dog running across the road, while the other sees a man in a blue shirt stepping into the crosswalk.  But NOBODY would go into Court and claim, "Your Honor, I would like to contend that this accident did not, in fact occur; this is proven by the multiple accounts of the event."  They may argue the details, but all will agree that the collision occurred.

What we get in the various Gospel accounts is discussion of details.  Who arrived first?  Who did they tell?  What, exactly, did they see?  What NONE of these accounts say is, "well, it's possible that there was maybe an empty tomb, but we're not sure."  In fact, John's account makes it clear that even when the disciples didn't believe, Peter and John (the "disciple Jesus loved") raced to the tomb and discovered that it really was empty....just like they'd been told.

Which leaves us with the major question: What shall we do with a risen Savior?. 

I am old enough to remember the murders of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Bobby Kennedy all taking place within a very short time.  A whole generation of us was impacted by these loses following so close on one another.  Some became cynical that any change could take place, believing that whoever tried would eventually be killed.  Others looked around for a new leader in hopes that they would be the one who could make something lasting happen.

These were the same kinds of responses that people had in 1st century Israel when leaders who wished to overthrow Rome were crucified.....and there were plenty of them crucified.  Some gave up, some went looking for a new leader-hoping that he would be the promised one.

But with the Resurrection, we are given a whole bunch of new questions.  God has raised Jesus from the dead.  This means that God has vindicated Jesus' mission-which included teach a whole lot of very radical stuff about how we're supposed to be living with each other.  God has vindicated Jesus' forgiveness of sins.....a move which meant that Jesus was saying that the things the Temple was once supposed to be doing were now taking place in Him.  And finally, God was announcing that Jesus was correct; the Kingdom of God was beginning then and there. 

Think of the empty tomb as the starting line for a very long race....one that will last until Jesus returns to "make all things new" and creation is restored.  If the resurrection is true, then that would mean that you and I are called to run that race.  Because Jesus has conquered sin and death and announced the Kingdom in the here and now, we, and all followers have been given the task of helping to construct the parts of that Kingdom that are within our ability.

Having a Risen Savior instead of a "Fallen Hero" challenges us in all kinds of ways.  I hope you'll be able to join us Sunday as we explore some more of them.

Shalom,
Stephen

Thursday, March 21, 2013

On A Collison Course With Empire

This week's scripture passage is Luke's account of what is often referred to as the "Triumphal Entry" into Jerusalem.  You'll find it in Luke 19:28-44.

My thoughts about this passage have been impacted today by the news of the death of Gordon Crosby, founder of Church of the Savior in Washington, D.C.  Crosby was 95.  In his article in the Associated Baptist Press News about Crosby's death, Robert Dilday described him this way:

"he [Crosby] told the Washington Post, “feeling that denomination and race were artificial constructs and that people should live in regular life as they would in war — willing to lay down their lives for their neighbors, viewing their faith as an urgent tool to change the world.”   Cosby interpreted the call to discipleship as an integration of two journeys: an inward journey of growth in love of God, self and others, and an outward journey to mend creation."

You might ask what Crosby has to do with my thoughts about Palm Sunday.  I believe that Jesus set up a vivid comparison-a visual object lesson-between His God-given vision of the New Creation and that of Empire as represented by Rome and its representative in Pontius Pilate.  As Pilate was riding his war horse in one gate, followed by legions of soldiers to keep the peace during Passover; Jesus was riding in the opposite gate on a donkey-symbol of a ruler who comes in peace.

People in Jesus' day responded to Empire in basically one of 3 ways: they colluded with it (Herodians, Sadducees, and religious leaders like the High Priests); they tried to overthrow it violently (the Zealots and other revolutionaries); or they distanced from it by trying to keep religious purity and thus bring in the Messiah (Essenes and Pharisees in less or more extreme ways).  Jesus offered an Alternative Vision based on God's love and forgiveness and God's call for Israel to be redemptive community.  His weeping over Jerusalem as He rode down from the Mount of Olives was a recognition that they either didn't understand his vision, or chose to reject it.

Gordon Crosby understood the vision.  He understood that we are always at war with Empire (exploitation by the most powerful in any given situation of the vulnerable-in government, industry, church or family life).  He believed that if we understood ourselves as being in combat (Paul says "we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places") and saw our faith "as an urgent tool to change the world" that incredible things could happen.  He saw us as being called to prepare for that combat by the journey inward/journey outward noted above.  His life and work reflected that understanding.

Our world continues to struggle with the collision between New Creation and Empire.  We continue to make choices as to how we will respond.  Jesus calls us to an Alternate Vision that stretches all the way back to God's covenant with Abraham.  May we, like Gordon Crosby, catch a sense of our place in that vision.

Shalom



Thursday, March 14, 2013

Extravagant Gratitude

This will be my first Sunday preaching at 1st Baptist Gaithersburg.  I'm excited...and nervous...and happy....and all those things you'd expect.

A really good thing that happened yesterday evening was that the Bible study group that meets on Wednesday evenings agreed to use the time to explore the passages for the upcoming Sunday as a regular format for a while.   Those of you who've followed this blog and my Interim work know that this is one of the ways that I get the kind of dialogue going that helps me preach sermons focused on the needs and questions of the congregation.  The other part of that dialogue is this blog (so please, all responses and conversation are welcome).

So what we found last night, as we looked at John 12:1-8 is that this is a story that, in one form or another, shows up in all four Gospels.  Each writer (Matthew pretty much copies Mark to the letter) retells a story that was clearly part of the oral tradition about Jesus in a way particular to what they want to focus on with the community to which they are writing.  But....and I think this is extremely important.....the core of the story remains faithful to the oral tradition.

One of the things that struck me was that in the account found in Mark and Matthew, the dinner party occurs at the home of "Simon the Leper."  This should suprise us.  Lepers didn't live in their homes.  They were forced to be outside the city and had to cry out, "Unclean, Unclean" when they walked through town so that others were protected from them.

So, for this party to be taking place in Simon's home, means that he has been healed from his leperosy.  Suddenly, the story takes on a much deeper meaning.  Here is Simon, throwing a party in his home for Jesus who healed him.  In a burst of gratitude, moved beyond words, one of the women in Simon's household: wife, daughter, sister...anoints Jesus.

John has the story taking place in the home of Lazarus who Jesus has raised from the dead; and the one doing the anointing is Lazarus' sister Mary.  Luke has the party in the home of a Pharisee and the woman is someone with a bad reputation.  But in each case the motivaton for the anointing is a response of extravagant gratitude.  These people have hit bottom.  They've known loss and grief and shame and despair.....and Jesus has healed and forgiven and restored.  Their impulse is one that doesn't think about the cost of the perfumed oil; it just acts in joyful gratitude.

How much of our lives are spent that way?  Can we remember times when Jesus reached out to us when we had hit bottom?  Are our lives ones of extravagant gratitude for what He has done?

Hope to see some of you on Sunday.

Shalom

Thursday, March 7, 2013

A New Opportunity

I am very excited and grateful to have been called as Interim Pastor of First Baptist Church of Gaithersburg.  My first day in the office will be March 12 and my first Sunday in the pulpit will be March 17.

I'm particularly grateful to Rev. Gary Long, the outgoing pastor at FBCG for the effort that he is putting into making sure that this transition is a smooth and healthy one.  He's already helped me find the resturant where I can get the best grits (I grew up in S.C., I need my grits), and we've had preliminary conversations about things like pastor care issues....conversations that we'll drill deeper on during my first week.  Every Interim should have this kind of transition into their work....Thanks Gary.

From the Committee that recommended me to the Deacons, to Deacon Chair Jamie Marks, to Minister of Music Lonnie Browd, to Office Administrator Kathy Lynn Grohs, to the multitude of folks who've welcomed me on FBCG's Facebook page.....I couldn't wish for a warmer reception.  I haven't started work yet, and I've already been blessed.

In part, all of the above is to say that I'll be doing more 'sermon prep' kinds of blogging again on this site.  I look forward to that; it's the kind of blogging I enjoy the most as I imagine congregation members or others who are interested in exploring the upcoming scriptures 'tuning in' to dig down a little deeper with me and be part of the process of creating a sermon.  I'm hoping that more folks will join the conversation with comments, thoughts, disagreements, etc. as we move forward.

Please keep me in your prayers as this next ministry opportunity unfolds.

Shalom,
Stephen

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Prodigals At Lent

I'm not preaching anywhere this week, but the Gospel passage for this week is one that I've lived with and wrestled with pretty steadily for the last 20+ years.  It is Luke 15:1-32; a series of parables that Luke tells us Jesus told in response to the accusation by the Pharisees and scribes that, "this fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them."  The most famous of these parables is the one most often referred to as the "Prodigal Son" (though a clear reading of the parable shows that both sons were 'prodigal' in their own way).

The youngest son was the most obvious.  His request for his inheritance was, in that culture, the same as saying to his father, "I can't wait for you to die; give me my share now."  His selling off of that inheritance damaged both family and those who worked the land that he sold off...many others depended on that land for their living.  No wonder the younger son left in such a hurry!

The older son's disrespect was not so obvious.  It showed in his silence.  It would have been his task as eldest son to attempt some reconciliation between his father and his brother.....but he does nothing.  His father divides the inheritance between them both....but he says nothing, simply takes.  And when his brother comes home, he describes his brother's time away as having been spent on prostitutes (something the story never says) and derides his father for letting him come back.  Furthermore, when his father throws a party for his brother, he refuses to come in and help host that party.....thus shaming his father publicly before all of those who had been invited to the celebration.

Before continuing to focus on these brothers (it is Lent and such a focus is appropriate) the point needs to be made about the incredible grace of the father in this parable.  I have come to believe, over these past 20 so years of studying this parable, that it represents Jesus' clearest expression of the Gospel (it is often referred to as 'the Gospel within the Gospel'); and Jesus' description of God's action and Jesus' role in what is often called Atonement (the way the gulf between us and God is bridged).  In this parable we are not shown a penalty being paid to an angry God who cannot stand to be around our sinfulness.  What we're shown is a loving God (in the image of the father) running toward us...even in our ragged, dirty state.....throwing arms around us, and shielding us with God's own body (in Jesus) from the consequences of our sinfulness (in the parable, the villagers who would have lined the road to jeer and taunt and enact a ceremony which would have cut the youngest son off forever from the village).  If we want to see the Face of God we need look no further than the picture Jesus draws of the father running down the road to embrace his son.

Lent, however, calls us to look at ourselves.  And we are most clearly reflected in the brothers in this story.  It is easy (for some of us) to see ourselves reflected in the younger brother.  Our journey away from faith and ethical living and our return to God's embrace are drawn in such a way that we can see ourselves clearly there.  It is much harder for many of us to own up to our role as elder brother...self rightous in our responses, angry at God's grace toward the ones who have broken covenant with family and community......we want to see retribution, not restoration.

What may be hardest of all is to acknowledge that we aren't one or the other-we are both.  We have accepted God's grace for ourselves.  We have rejoiced to see the Father running toward us, arms open wide.  We sing and pray and witness to how God put God's own self between us and the consequences of our sins.  But how often are we less that excited about those who turn, or return, to faith in ways that we don't like?  Whose 'trip to the far country' has included things that we find difficult to deal with?  Are we less graceful to them than God was to us?

As Christians we are called to help host the party for all of God's creation as it is being redeemed, reconciled, and welcomed home (look at God's words in Isaiah about Israel's role in this).  What does it look like to those outside our faith (the villagers in the parable) as they watch us shame our God by refusing to come in to the party because our brothers and sisters who are coming home from the 'far country' don't meet some requirement that we-not God have set up for their return.

"This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them."  And if we're going to follow "this fellow," we need to be willing to do so as well.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Of Lent and Mortality and Marathons

It's been a rough winter.  You may have figured that out by the fact that I haven't posted in almost a month....and I apologize for that.  Let me tell you a little about what has happened....and what I think it has to do with Lent.

On Dec. 28, while out for our anniversary dinner with my wife, I began to cough.  I thought to myself, "this can't be the flu, I had a flu shot this year."  But, like many folks this year, I discovered that my flu shot didn't quite give me the protection it was meant to.  The flu hit hard.  It was followed by a major bout with bronchitis which lasted for weeks and was, in some ways, worse than the flu.  Following that I had a difficult case of tonsillitus.  It was as if all the germs that I've held at bay (I'm usually pretty healthy) got together and said, "Ah ha! he's been sick.  We'll all attack at once while his immune system is down."

This would have been difficult enough except for the fact that in January I turned 60.  Sixty. Thirty-eight years ago my mother turned sixty, was diagnosed with cancer, and died before her next birthday.  You can imagine that being sick and turning the age that she was when she died was a bit of a wake-up call to my own mortality.....sort of a private version of "remember thou art dust; from dust you came and to dust you will return."

Being reminded of my mortality....my humanness....my age.....I did what I've always done when I need to buck myself up in the face of such matters.....I went to the gym.  I know, I know (you can see it coming-I didn't).  It was dismal.  It felt like I was starting over....which at one level, I was.

On top of this, I decided that I was going to reach into my "bucket list" and pull up something to challenge me on this 60th year.......I was/am going to run a marathon.  Those of you who know me well.....we'll wait til you quit laughing before we go on........know that I am not a runner.  I've always stayed in shape, but running has never been something I particularly enjoyed.  Then why do it?  The closest thing to an answer I can come up with is 'because I will never be able to fight for a world title at my age; and I can't go climb some major moutain peak....but I can run a marathon if I put my mind to it.'

The real reason is that I said to myself, "my mother turned 60 and died; I'm going to turn 60 and run a marathon."  I want to do something that affirms that I am alive and capable of some new challenge.

What's this got to do with Lent?  Why isn't this just some bit of weirdness brought on by getting old and having a mother who died young (okay, I'll admit that's there as well).

When I talked to my friends who do run-one of whom does the ultra-marathon thing-they told me three things:  1) go find a program that starts you from 'can't run' and takes you to 'finished marathon';  2) tell people you're going to do this and pick a marathon to sign up for; and 3) remember that your goal is to finish....nothing else.

I went and found a program.  It has me starting out with a 30 minute run and....listen carefully....says that the goal of this time is to teach the muscles how to run, to burn into them the muscle memory of running.  Whatever Lenten discipline we've taken on, the early part of that discipline is the building of the habit.  Burning the memory into soul and psyche so that we miss that discipline when it's not there in the future and that the spiritual 'muscles' learn how to engage in the discipline of prayer, or forgiveness, or acts of compassion and charity.

When we take our ashes and share with others what spiritual discipline we are taking on, we commit ourselves to that effort in a way that is different than if we hug that commitment to us and do not share it with others.  Trust me, having shared that I'm going to run a marathon in October with you here and with others will be a motivator for me to do the work to get there (like the run I need to make tonight).

Finally, the goal is to finish.  St. Paul said, "I have fought the good fight; I have run the race; I have finished my course."  The goal is not sainthood....or to be able to set some record for the marathon....it is to finish..  The goal is to keep putting one foot in front of the other, to not let the little failures or slack days defeat us, and to finish.

The old saying that "life is a marathon, not a sprint" is true.  Few of us are capable of running the whole way......it's okay to walk sometimes......just finish.  Some days we're lazy and don't run like we ought to, or pray like we ought to, or live in charity with our neighbor like we ought to......don't let that become habit.....get up tomorrow and go run....or pray.....or act with compassion.  Because the goal is to finish.  The goal is to grow.  The only thing that will defeat us is to quit.

Prayer becomes habit.  Running becomes habit.  Compassion becomes habit.  Living til we die becomes habit.  Sometimes all it takes to get us started is the reminder that all we have is today...then to dust we will return....to give us the boot in the rear we need to say, "I will do this....one step, one day at a time."

Hope your Lenten experience is a good one.

Shalom

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Our Journey Isn't Complete Either

I was moved as I watched President Obama's inaugural speech.  The recurring phrase "our journey is not complete until...." was one of the things that moved me the most.  But I have some response as well.

While I agree with all of the points that he made in this portion of his speech, I wish that he had said more.  I wish that the president had gone on to say:
  • Our journey is not complete until Gitmo is shut down as I promised 4 years ago
  • Our journey is not complete until sending prisoners to other countries to be tortured is a thing of the past; and secret prisons are truly and demonstratively gone
  • Our journey is not complete until we not only make sure that the dangerously mentally ill are barred from getting fireams, but they are also provided with the mental health care that they need
  • Our journey is not complete until the homeless (like the ones that Broadneck provided shelter to last week) have adequate health care available to them
I could go on.....but I think you get my point.  I'm looking toward another 'inauguration speech'; made by Jesus in Luke 4:14-21.  It is the proclaimation that He has come to "bring good news to the oppressed, bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."  He is reading from Isaiah 61 about the task that Isaiah says that God is calling Israel to.  Jesus is taking that task on Himself.  He is proclaiming the coming of the Year of Jubilee-in which property went back to its original owners, bonded slaves were set free, debts were forgiven.

Obviously Jesus lived out a great deal of this in His lifetime.  And, He directed us to pray, Thy kingdom come and Th will be done on earth as it is in heaven."  If Jesus is the clearest picture of what God is like, then these things....freedom for the captive, recovery of sight to the blind, good news to the oppressed, etc.....are God's desire for our world now.  They are part of that "Thy will be done on earth" stuff.  It isn't a case of "one day all this will be taken care of in heaven, but right now let's just be religous"....it's "one earth as it is in heaven."  And if we are truly the Body of Christ, then these are the things we're supposed to be concerned about as well.

Being friends with Jesus, following Him, means letting the things that were important to Him be important to us as well.  That's hard.  The disciples found it hard to wrap their heads around (Mark's gospel makes this abundantly clear); and we (okay...I) find it hard as well. 

But times like last week's Winter Relief at Broadneck Baptist bring home to me home much of a flesh and blood, here and now, call this is.  My work with offenders reminds me how hard this task is.  My personal  difficulties in reaching out to certain people make me acutely aware of how much change we are called to make within ourselves.

Our journey....yours and mine....is not complete until these things are accomplished or the Kingdom comes while we're trying.