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