Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Doing The Work Of Christmas

Perhaps the best way to begin this blog post, as well as the New Year, is with the words of the poem The Work of Christmas by Howard Thurman:

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:

To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers,
To make music in the heart.

The Gospel According to Mark opens with, "The beginning of the gospel of Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God."

That sounds all nice and flowery.  We're apt to just pass over it on our way to listening to Mark's description of John the Baptist and his fiery preaching.  But if we look closer; if we examine the context into which Mark drops this sentence; we will see it for the bombshell that it is.

The word "gospel" is a 'Mark word.'  Matthew only uses it 4 times; and Luke and John don't use it at all.  "Gospel" is an ancient term associated with the announcement of military victory on the battlefield or the ascension of a new political ruler. "Son of God" was a phrase associated with the Cult of the Emperors in which the Caesars saw themselves as gods or 'sons of god.'  And the Messiah was the one who would, in the minds of the Jewish people, set everything to right: bringing in justice, overthrowing oppression, healing the sick and the wounded.

Luke, on the other hand, will flesh out that definition when Jesus quotes Isaiah in his first sermon back home in Nazareth saying, "the Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."

For Mark (as well as the other Gospel writers-but particularly for Mark) this reign was immediate.  It began in the "right now" which is why paths had to be made straight and the cry needed to go up in the wilderness to prepare the way.

Mark's world was filled with the demonic influences which were both spiritual and political in nature.  The announcement was that Jesus, the Messiah had conquered them all.  

That claim must have sounded unbelievable to many who heard Mark's Gospel read in the house churches of Rome.  It still may be.

I read the writing of folks on both sides of the discussion about police brutality toward black males and of violence toward police officers.  I watch disasters-natural and man made-on the news.  Each year brings a new epidemic. A woman with major mental illness comes into the church office and deep in the 'word salad' of her speech is a story of pain and suffering. Our church's food distribution meets a record number of needs the week between Christmas and New Years.

It would be easy to skip over all of this and look for the Second Coming.  Sing "The King Is Coming....praise God, He's coming for me," and wait.  And if we said anything at all about the world around us, to speak judgement about behaviors that we don't like....engaged in by people we don't know....who we don't expect to make it in to heaven anyway.

But that is not the Gospel.  The Good News is....hard as it may be to spot or to believe some days.....that Jesus is King.....Here.....Now....in This Time And Place.......and that the work of Christmas and the service to the King is our job in the present:

To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers,
To make music in the heart.

This is the work of Christmas.  This is the work of the Church.  This is the work of the Kingdom. Let's get on with it.

Shalom

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Christmas Eve And Vulnerable Love







I don't often robe for worship.  There are some reasons for that, but they are for another time.  But this Christmas Eve I will be wearing my robe and the stole in the picture above.  The stole was a gift from Commonwealth Baptist Church in Alexandria, VA when I was their Interim Pastor and I like it so much that it almost makes me want to robe every Sunday.

As I was thinking about Christmas Eve I was thinking about how, on this night, we surround ourselves with tangible symbols of the Vulnerable Love that was made manifest in the birth of Jesus.

There is, of course, the Manger and the Baby.  This tiny life that God put on and the way it came into the world; not as a prince or a person of power, but as one who was born in solidarity with everyone in every time and place whose birth was without the normal care given to a newborn and its mother. 

The mythological figure Hercules would spring forth, full grown, from Zeus' brow.  This baby would be a refugee, fleeing in the arms of his parents from the murderous intentions of a paranoid pathological narcissist whose name was Herod.  Every time we see fleeing refugees, we should place Joseph, Mary, and Jesus in the middle of them.  Perhaps we would see it differently.

Then there are the candles.  Here at Heritage there will be hundreds of them.  Light from flame is a fragile thing.  It can be snuffed in an instant, blown out by a breeze.  Yet John says, "in Him was life and that life was the light of the world."

And then I looked at my stole.  There is a rainbow there.  It reminds me of the story of Noah and how God placed God's bow in the clouds.  That sounds so quaint that we forget that the image is of God hanging up God's war gear.  God is declaring that God will never again go to war against humanity.  To give up that option is to become vulnerable.  It is to perpetually opt for some other way of dealing with humankind's failures and disobedience.  Right next to that rainbow is a cross.  That cross is the outcome of giving up warfare with humankind.  It is, and Nadia Bolz-Weber has said, 'God saying I'd rather die than be in the sin accounting business.'  It is God saying, 'I would rather sacrifice Myself that go to war with you.'

When I was 12 or 13, a minister (I believe it was Tom Neely) told our Sunday School class that the first thing the baby Jesus felt was the rough wood of the manger, and the last thing the man Jesus felt was the rough wood of the cross. 

One way to look at the whole of scripture is to see it as Israel and the NT writers who follow trying to come to terms with understanding this Vulnerable Love.  A love that remains vulnerable as it commits to Abraham, journeys on the Exodus, speaks through the prophets, and lays in a manger.

It is also a Vulnerable Love that calls us to join God in vulnerably loving even as Jesus loved.  That is why we'll all light candles off the Christ Candle and go out singing.  We're symbolizing OUR commitment to become light in the darkness.  Vulnerable Love makes us partners in the reconciliation of creation to God's self.  This is why Paul will tell us in 2 Corinthians 5:18 that "we have been given this ministry of reconciliation."

Christmas Eve, when we see it rightly, is the opening chapter of the Vulnerable Love saga of Emmanuel, God with us.  It is the Joy of the universe singing through angels of this awesome gift.  It is the invitation to even the shepherds to come and see the great wonder of this Vulnerable Love putting on the skin of a baby.  And it is the invitation for us to light our lives off of the Light of the World and become, as sons and daughters of God, light in the darkness in His name.

Vulnerable Love has come.  The baby is born.  Emmanuel has arrived.  Thanks be to God.

Shalom and Merry Christmas

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

I Get Tired Of Writing Laments


 Driving in to work yesterday morning I heard the news that the school in Peshawar, Pakistan had been attacked by the Taliban.  They killed more than 130 children.  They burned a teacher in front of the students in a classroom.

Early on I had some thoughts and feelings that I could wrap words around.  I tweeted a few of them; called one family member, texted another.  As the day went on though, I got more and more incapable of words.  Tears, yes....words, no.  Speaking about this is still difficult, but I'm able to write-and need to write so as to begin processing what this is doing in me.

Sometimes it feels as though we're living in the baptism scene from the Godfather; the one where even as his child is being baptized, and Michael Corleone is answering the questions about his beliefs: "do you renounce Satan and all his works?" "I do renounce them"; dons of the  five families are being murdered on his order.

On Sunday I listened as former Vice President Dick Cheney responded to a question about the 25% of those subjected to "Enhanced Interrogation Techniques" who were innocent and/or there because of mistaken identity, "I have no problem as long as we achieve our objective,"  he said.  Among the techniques used against at least one prisoner was "forced rectal feeding" with no medical justification.

Sunday was also the 2nd Anniversary of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary school.  26 persons were killed.

Next week is Christmas.

Do we give in to despair?  Do we subject ourselves to a painful disequilibrium by trying to make sense of this spinning chaos?  Do we go numb in self defense?  What does my faith say to me about this?  Why isn't God doing something?  And if God IS doing something, why is God so damned slow about it?

Personally, I want God to kick some ass.  I want to scream, "What are you doing?  Don't you see that Evil is winning?  People are murdering in the name of their god and torturing in the name of democracy.  Don't just sit there."  My anger is a temporary protection against the overwhelming sadness of this day. It is a defense that does not work for long.

Two things give me some Hope.  The first is remembering that in the face of fragile, suffering innocence; God chose to become a fragile, suffering innocent.  This is the same God who declares that He will have the last word, that evil will be overcome and all will be made whole.  Creation will be redeemed.  Part of me doesn't like this.  Like I said, I want God to bust some things up.  But there is a strength in this vulnerability and it comforts me.

The second thing has been re-reading a portion of Tom Long's What Shall We Say? Evil, Suffering, and the Crisis of Faith.  Long talks about the parable of the yeast in the dough.  I want to quote him at some length:

"We think of yeast as a good thing, something that makes bread rise, but not so in the ancient world.  In the Bible, yeast is never a good thing; it is a corrupting agent...she [the woman] doesn't just mix the yeast, she 'encripts' it; she smuggles the yeast into the flour, and the yeast pervades and affects everything.  In short, the kingdom is a stealth operation.  A person with no conventional power takes a corrupting agent and smuggles it into the flour, changing everything.  God's power, the parable states, is like this."

The world is what it is.  Luther said, "and lo this world with devil's filled; should threaten to undo us."  But this 'baker woman God' has snuck the yeast of Jesus and the Kingdom into the dough.  You and I, as the Body of Christ, are at least part of the 'yeast' that God has 'snuck' into the world.  We represent an alternative, 'corrupting' vision to a world in which children are murdered, women are beheaded and prisoners are tortured.  Where commercialism is more important that feeding the hungry.

In the middle of this chaos, this Evil, God 'snuck' into the world through the vulnerability of a baby.  God kneads that yeast of the kingdom into the dough of creation through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus; and God goes on kneading through our lives.

That's where it feels like it breaks down.  We're so caught up with approving next year's budget and worrying about stuff that doesn't matter, instead of being yeast.  We need to get serious about 'corrupting' this world; about being leaven.  We need to turn outward to permeate the world with God's vulnerable love.  We need to be reminded that all those things (budgets, committees, even the neighborhood carol sing) are useless if they are not in the service of the 'yeast' of the Kingdom of God.

It doesn't mean we stop grieving.  Rachel is always weeping for her children.  The fact that I find Hope in these two things above doesn't mean that I don't weep for the dead, or mourn for the oppressed.  It does mean that even through my tears I will proclaim that, "the Light shines on in the darkness, and the darkness can NEVER conquer it."

Shalom




Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Radical Song Of A Oppressed Peasant Girl

"He has brought down the powerful from
    their thrones,
 and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
    and sent the rich away empty."

If we heard these words being sung from a stage by Joan Baez, we might take them to be the manifesto of an economic and political revolution.....and in fact they are.

But they're being sung by a little nothin-from-nothin girl from a little backwater town in Palestine to her pregnant cousin.  They are a bright, fierce claim about what God is up to.  Mary's sense of God's revolution has been flavored by what she learned as a little girl.

I asked myself, when I was reading the account in Luke 1:46-55, where this 13 or 14 year old girl found the words that she sang to her cousin.  And then I remembered that at her age I could sing a lot of Baez; a lot of Peter, Paul and Mary; a lot of protest folk music that spoke to many of the same issues.  I knew I wanted the world to change.  I had no idea how hard it would be.

 Mary knew the words to her song from childhood....many of them are from the song of Hannah from 1 Samuel 2.  She would have memorized them and maybe even sung them under her breath as Roman soldiers tramped by the house behind a chariot and driver.  Mary is young, rebellious, idealistic, and naive.... So of course she says yes when the angel Gabriel comes to her. And of course her song to Elizabeth is the song of Hannah.

She has no idea what it will cost her.  But she will. Her first warning will come when they take the baby to the temple.  There Simeon will echo what Mary sung saying, "This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel, at to be sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed-and a sword will pierce your own soul too."

Mary has no idea what this will translate to in terms of her son's behavior.  And when she does, she'll come with Jesus' brothers to drag him home, cause they think he's crazy. When she does, she'll be watching her son in agony dying on a cross. It won't be to the resurrection that she really, really gets it....if she ever does.

Who ever understands when they get married, enlist in the military, make a declaration of faith?  Who ever really understands the journey at the beginning of the road.

Still...Mary was right to say yes.  Just as we are.  Yes, even though we do not know where the journey will lead.  Yes, even though Jesus will turn worlds upside down-including our own.  Yes, even if our own souls are pierced.  We may never, in this life, fully grasp what it means to say yes to Jesus.  That's okay.  We've given ourselves to something larger that we can even imagine:  the redemption of all creation.  We've signed on for our part of that journey.  Our own redemption is just the beginning; we will become "laborers together with God."

Advent is the announcement of a raw and powerful coming.  Of the entry of God's own self into the 'setting things right' in our world.  It begins with the words "let it be with me as you've said;" and, one day, it will end with the words of final consummation of this great redemptive enterprise of our God.

Until then, when Jesus calls, let us say with Mary, "let it be with me according to your word."

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Annunciation

I am allergic to bee stings
and hornets terrify me,
Attacking with the least provocation and sending off an odor
that brings the whole nest
swarming in a protecting, stinging gray cloud.
No talk, no reason,
I fear being covered in them
Unable to breath.


Is that what life was like
for the young girl
who kept her head down and her eyes averted
whenever a Roman soldier passed?
" listen to your mother girl, don't draw attention. Go, do what you need to, then come straight home."

Then
this angel
hovering like a hummingbird in a world of hornets.
Blessed? Really? My momma's gonna love this.....let it be.

And then the angel was gone
leaving her to deal
The world still full of hornets
No wonder the song she sings to her cousin
is about reversal
and justice
And a world of hornets robbed of their sting

And when the hornets
stung her son to death as he hung breathless on their nest
Did the song still stir in her heart?
Or did the bile of rage and grief leave her too
choked to breath

What's it like
in a world of hornets
When a hummingbird comes to call

Friday, December 5, 2014

Joseph: Patron Saint of Fidelity

Our Minister of Music and Worship, Ralph Manuel, ended choir practice this week by pointing out the incredible faith of Joseph. Here, he reminded us, is this ordinary working man, a carpenter, not a religious professional like Zachariah, who has the faith to listen to his dream and take Mary as his wife even though she's pregnant by someone other than himself.

In an age of easy divorce and sliding partners, I think Joseph has a lot to teach us as Christians. He is, in my mind, the patron saint of marital fidelity.

Yes, I believe that there are times when divorce is a sad, but appropriate, response to the situation in a marriage. Patterns of repetitive violence (from either spouse), a refusal to get help for a mental illness that triggers behaviors that put family members in danger; these are some of the kinds of things that might make it unavoidable. But we need to ask ourselves as Christians (and particularly as progressive or moderate Baptist Christians) whether we have abdicated our responsibility to both teach fidelity in marriage and to provide quality pastoral care to families in trouble.

In my work as a pastor and a therapist I have seen some incredible examples of fidelity. Spouses who have lived out their love faithfully while there loved one has dealt with debt, mental illness, physical infirmity, incarceration, addiction, dementia. I am moved deeply as I watch these people remain faithful to the promises they made to stick by, and stick with, their spouse, come what may.

These examples of fidelity have come in all flavors, shapes, and sizes. Some have been together a long time. Another incredible couple I think of had only been married two years when disease struck. Some of these couples have been gay, many have been straight. They have been white and black, Asian and Hispanic, and mixed marriages. Their faiths have been Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and unsure. They all have much to teach us if we let them.

Perhaps this Advent season Joseph might be our guide into an exploration of risky, healthy fidelity. Think of the questions his staying raises: he had every justification for leaving, his culture and faith would have supported the divorce the same way our culture does in cases of sexual unfaithfulness. No one would have blamed him.  And yet he stayed.

Maybe in our exploration and discussions we can begin to reclaim fidelity as a virtue and offer support for healthy marriages and healing for wounded ones...regardless of our views about the appropriateness of the union. What if Fidelity became our watchword in the marriage debates? What might Joseph teach us?

Hope to see you Sunday.
Shalom,

Stephen

Monday, November 24, 2014

Waiting In Longing And Hope

This Sunday begins the season of Advent.  Advent, for those who don't know, is the four Sundays prior to Christmas Eve.  It is a season of preparation for the coming of the Messiah.  This includes not only celebrating Jesus' birth at Christmas, but receiving the risen Christ and awaiting Christ's coming again in final victory.

This may give you a sense why it is so much easier to ignore this particular season; or to pass over it lightly.  If we think too hard about it it makes us focus on three things that we often, as 21st century Christians, don't want to deal with:  1) Jesus' resurrection; 2) the idea of a Coming Kingdom; and (where I want to focus today...don't worry, we'll get to the other two soon enough) the depth of our own need and longing for a Savior.

Two things I need to make really, really clear: the first is that by "Savior" I do not just mean someone who washes away my sins and snatches my soul to heaven when I die.  While I do need my sins washed away (on a almost daily basis), and I do believe in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come; when this is the singular focus of the Christian message, Jesus' message is corrupted and much we are called to do in His name is blunted and treated like an "add on," like sprinkles or other toppings on an ice cream cone.....available if we want them, but not essential.  I, on the other hand, believe that the real "ice cream cone" of what it means to follow Jesus is contained in His teachings about justice for the marginalized, mercy for those who don't deserve it, and welcoming the stranger who is broken, alone,and dying.

That being said, it seems to me that the third thing in my list above is an essential ingredient if I'm to truly celebrate Advent; and that is the depth of my need and my longing.  As a human being, my life is broken.  The world around me is in shambles.  There is nothing I can do to fix that.  My best efforts are, finally, minimal band-aids to a bleeding open wound.



So Advent is a time of incredible longing.  It is the time when we admit the deep needs of our lives and how desperately we need for God to “tear open the heavens and come down” (Isaiah 64:1).   It is the first time in the liturgical year when we admit to the great gulf that separates us from God and from what we were created to be.....and our absolute inability to do anything about it on our own.

Much of western culture wants nothing to do with that realization; not does it want us to have anything to do with it.  If we had such a realization, it would upset the apple cart of all that our society has been built on. For example, the commercialism of the holidays teaches us to stifle that longing with ‘retail therapy.’  It wants us to believe that if we buy the right gift (or better yet, if the right gift is bought for us) that all will be well....we'll have a 'hallmark moment' Christmas and we won't have to deal with anything painful or difficult.  So we swallow our longing, deny our need, and bravely steer toward the mall.

But what if there was a place where you didn’t have to stifle it? What if there was a place where people voiced, and celebrated their need and waited in hopeful longing for it to be met? It is in the Christian community of faith that we find a place at Advent to let the voice of our anguish and our longing be heard.  To voice the Hope that One is coming who will, finally, put life to rights and inaugurate a new heaven and a new earth.

Advent is a Big Deal because here we claim all of that....not just for a couple of days between the eggnog and the fruitcake....but for four weeks while we voice the deepest cry of our hearts.

Shalom

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Remarkable Moses

As we've been working our way through the study of the Exodus journey I continue to be amazed by the relationship that God and Moses have with one another.  It is intimate, scrappy, often contentious, tender, difficult, confusing.....to be honest, it reminds me of two lovers-a long time married couple; which, in fact, I guess it is.

Regardless of which of the accounts contained in books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers or Deuteronomy you read, the deep intimacy between God and Moses comes through.  It is an intimacy marked by how vulnerable God makes God's self to Moses (Moses frequently argues with God and God sometimes alters plans or changes God's mind); but also by the limitations that God puts on the relationship (see below).

Moses is an unlikely person for God to call by all of our standards.  .  He's part of an underclass of forced laborers who'd been adopted by one of the daughters of a Pharaoh. He's a fugitive who killed a man in a fit of rage.  He may have had a speech impediment.  And on it goes.

Though God and Moses are described in Exodus 33:11 as speaking "face to face as one speaks to a friend," when Moses asks God to "show me your glory," God refuses, saying, "you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live."  The indication in the Hebrew is that Moses wanted to know more about God and what God was doing, where things were going, than was permissible (the word can mean 'be out in front of').

Finally, on Mount Pisgah, Moses is shown the Promised Land but denied entry.  Yet, in a moment that can be read as incredibly tender, God shows Moses all this and then kisses him (Moses is said to die "by the mouth of the Lord") and he dies.  God then carries Moses down into the glen and buries God's friend there in a place no one knows so that no one can build a 'Cult of Moses' around him.

We're told in Deuteronomy 34:10 that "Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face."

God gave Moses intimacy, friendship, the ability to affect God's decisions....all of these things. It was only when Moses wanted control (the whole 'tell me your name discussion at the burning bush), advanced knowledge, power of his own (the story of Moses striking the rock instead of speaking to it) rather than commanding on God's behalf, or a final certainty (entering the Promised Land with the Hebrews) that God drew a line.

When I look at this I have to ask myself 'how often do I ask for these things: power, certainty, control....when what God offers me is intimacy, friendship, and the privilege to affect, through prayer, what God does?'  God's answer to my request for power, certainty, etc. is the same as the one God gave to Moses.....it is a resounding 'No."  And every time I reach for it, I fall into sin.

Yet God continues to hold out to each of us a relationship of tender, intimate, friendship.  A relationship so scary, so risky, so dangerous that most of us (myself included) can only grasp it in very small doses. One could even make the case that what God offers us in Christ is a relationship like Moses'; while we in our focus on 'prosperity gospels' and what happens after we die protects us from the dangerous intimacy of those who are "given the power to become children of God."

We'll talk more on Sunday.  Hope to see you then.

Shalom

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

In Praise Of "Third Way" Congregations

We've heard a lot lately about "Third Way" congregations.  Most of it has centered around the issue of homosexuality and the decision by some churches to stay engaged with one another in spite of their disagreements about, and struggle with, the guidance of scripture about this issue. They have chosen to love one another even when they radically disagree.

It is obvious that I applaud such an approach.  I find it in keeping with both the teachings of Jesus and the guidance of Paul to the early churches to whom he wrote.  "No one can say Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit."(Paul) The disciples said, 'We saw a man casting out demons in Your name and we told him to stop because he wasn't one of us.' And Jesus replied, 'don't do that, for he who is not against us is for us.' (Mark)  These churches make the only 'litmus test' our desire to claim "Jesus is Lord," and refuse to claim the authority to deny that another's desire to follow Jesus is somehow false.

There is, however, more at stake in the "Third Way" congregation debate than the question of homosexuality. That is simply the newest question in a long historical debate.  A larger question is about who 'owns' scripture; and an even larger one about the requirements for faith and the nature of the church. 

Two place where we can see this lived out is in the Priesthood of All Believers and the experience of Base Communities in places like South America. Base communities (where the people read scripture together and sought to apply it to their own context) were often opposed by those in power because scripture, in the hands of the people, resulted in views of the meaning and demands of faith that ran counter to the narrative posed by the elite and the dominant. But this has always been the nature of the relationship between humankind, our God, and the 'text'-whether in the form of oral tradition or written text. The Word of the Lord always sets up a counter view of the way things are and how things should be.

The Priesthood of All Believers claims that it is both my right and my responsibility as a Christian to study scripture, wrestle with its meaning, pray for discernment, and arrive at my own understanding.  It also calls me to explore that understanding within the community of faith and to listen to those who might temper my understanding or call me to another view.  But nowhere is the final authority given to a group or individual to be able to tell me that I am wrong and that God is not speaking to me in my study and struggle.

Finally, it seems to me that each of us is on a journey that it both shared and deeply personal.  I can never totally know your journey.  Then how am I to 'read you out' of the community of faith because where you are makes you believe something different from me?


What is the picture that this approach paints of what Church looks like?  Might it be a place where people with wildly different views come together to praise Jesus as Lord and then sit down at the table together?  Could it be that it reflects that incredibly divergent group of people that Jesus chose for disciples?  Jesus started off calling people from all ends of the spectrum, both politically and theologically, male and female, rich and poor.  Maybe....just maybe....Jesus is still doing that.

Hope to see you Sunday,
Shalom

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Steadfast Faithful Lovng Kindness

There is a wonderful word in Hebrew that seems to defy definition.  There is no precise translation into our language.  That word is "Chesed."

It is a very important word because it is how God describes God's own Self in the encounter with Moses recorded in Exodus 34:1-10.  The power of this description is even greater because it is uttered by God after the event with the Golden Calf when the people in a moment of apostacy have abandoned their covenental relationship with the God that brought them out of Egypt and set up a fertility god, a Ba'al to worship.

This statement will occur multiple times in the OT in various forms.  It becomes creedal statement, a kind of "canon" according to Terence Fretheim about the nature of the God with Whom the Hebrew people are in relationship.  He also points to the fact that, in contrast to the first time the Covenant was given (the one Moses shattered when he approached the camp while the orgy of worship with the calf was going on), there is a shift in focus.  No longer is the focus on obedience earning God's favor as the conditional elements are removed; now the focus is on the divine mercy, forgiveness and patience.  It is as if God is saying, "you can't do this, you are incapable of meeting the conditions of our relationship; therefore I will take it upon myself."

Moses will echo this sentiment in verse 9 when he says that the people need God's intimate guiding presence exactly because they are such a "stiff-necked people."

This passage is careful not to have God saying, "there, there now, whatever you do is okay."  In fact verse 7 says that God does not "wholly acquite, reckoning the crime of fathers with sons and sons of sons, to the third generation and the fourth."  That is to say that behavior has consequences, even consequences that can be felt for generations afterward.  One example of this in human experience is the parent who forgives the dent in the car, but still takes the keys for a period of them.  Another, more powerful example would be reflected in the Peace and Reconciliation Hearings in South Africa.  Forgiveness is possible, but it is only possible through the admission of guilt, guilt that one is unable to rectify on one's own.

If we carry this understanding of God forward into the NT expression of God in Christ Jesus we see it coming to full bloom.  At one can find here a profound Atonement Theory that neither cheapens the gift of "steadfast faithful loving kindness," nor demands a "penalty" be paid to "satisfy God's rightous wrath."  It is an acknowledgement of the seriousness of sin and it's profound impact; our inability to deal by ourselves with our failure and sin; and God's faithful loving kindness that steadfastly forgives and redeems.

No wonder God says in verse 10, "Look, I am about to seal a covenant.  Before all your people I will do wonders that have not been created in all the earth an din all the nations, and all the people in whose midst you are shall see the Lord's doing, for fearsome is that which I do with you."

Such Chesed is, indeed, a fearsome and wonderful thing. 

Somehow we need to grasp, in our lives personally and congregationally; in our personal behaviors and our stewardship, that when we focus here, on this Chesed, this steadfast faithful loving kindness, this fearsome and wonderful God.....then everything else will fall into place.

Hope to see you Sunday.

Shalom,
Stephen

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Murmuring, Grumbling, And Looking Through A Pink Cloud

It is the nature of people to grumble.  It is particularly the nature of church people to grumble.  Much as we hate to admit it, it seems to be in our DNA.

If you have trouble with believing me, please take a look at these three passages of scripture: Exodus 16:1-8; Numbers 11:18-20; and Numbers 14:1-4.

In each of these cases it seems that the people have a very short memory.  They continue to say things like, "it would have been better to stay in Egypt and serve the Pharaoh;" or "remember how good the food was back in Egypt?  We never went hungry, we just hung around the cooking pot and ate whatever we wanted;" or even "let's pick a new leader and head back to Egypt."  Even though God has show remarkable power in freeing them; parting the sea; guiding them with a pillar of cloud and fire; and feeding them with manna....they still keep grumbling.

My friends in 12 Step programs have a phrase: "pink cloud thinking" that aptly describes this situation.  It's when, after the dust settles from whatever trouble your addiction (say drinking for example) has gotten you into, you begin to look back on the "good old days" when you could drink.  'Wasn't it great to sit with friends on the porch and pop open a cold one?' 'It always helped me to unwind after a long day at work.' 'My wife and I always enjoyed a good bottle of wine.'  These thoughts ignore the fact that one's friends no longer speak to you because of your drunken behavior; you've lost your job for showing up late and bombed out of your mind; and your wife left a year ago because she just couldn't take it any more.  Pink Cloud.

I'm going to suggest that this kind of grumbling has 3 basic sources; and three different responses from God.  The types are fear, petulance, and rebellion.

The first type is fear based.  When the Hebrews get out into the desert, they're scared.  They've lived all their lives as slaves.  They've never been out in the wilderness like this.  Moses responds by reassuring them that God will provide.  He doesn't 'go off' on them like he will at other times.  He, and God, both seem to understand this fear driven grumbling.  Those of us who have been parents know about how a scared child can behave in a way that looks like this.

The second type is a whiney petulance.  This attitude of being angry and annoyed when we don't get our own way.  There are almost always some kind of consequence for this type of grumbling and murmuring.  That's why Moses says (my paraphrase) "you want meat, God will give you meat; and you'll eat it til it's running out your nose (that's really Moses' phrase-not mine)" or "you'll eat it til your so sick of it you're vomiting and it's coming out every orifice." (That's my phrase, but it fits the description).  It's the kind of grumbling that draws that famous parental phrase, "don't make me have to come up there."

The third type of murmuring and grumbling leads to an active kind of rebellion.  In Numbers 14 the people not only refuse to enter the Promised Land, they start making plans to head back to Egypt.  At this point God says, "not one of them will go into Canaan."  This is the kind of rebellion that results in the parent following through on the threat and actually turning the car around.  No trip to Disney, no vacation, nothing.

C.S. Lewis said that there are basically two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, "Thy will be done" and those to whom God says, "Okay, your will be done."  Having God release us to our will is a terrible thing.

Coming from slavery/addiction/sin into freedom/salvation/redemption is not easy.  It's free. It's Grace.  But letting ourselves live in that freedom is hard.  That Pink Cloud follows close on our heels.  We forget the bricks without straw; we forget the failed marriages and the throwing up for hours; we forget the arrests and the shame. 

But.....there is always forgiveness.  God waits for us to repent/turn around. 

Follow the pillar of fire and cloud.  Not the pink cloud of denial and forgetfulness.

Hope to see you Sunday.
Shalom,

Stephen

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Crossing Over On Dry Land

This week we're looking at Exodus 14.  This is the account in Exodus of the crossing of the Red (or Reed) Sea by the Hebrew people with Pharaoh in hot pursuit.

This is, in fact, the event that I think most people think of when they hear the word "exodus."  And in their minds is a movie version of the event.  That's not a bad thing, it just leaves out a lot.

First of all, you gotta wonder about Pharaoh.  After choking on nats, and stepping on frogs, and drinking from a polluted Nile river....not to mention the death of the first born of EVERYTHING in the land; you'd think that Pharaoh had had enough.  But no.....he decides that he can't keep his economy going without these slaves who previously served him.  So he harnesses his chariots and masses his troops (think tanks and humvee if you want a more modern equivilent) and sets off after the Hebrews.  He thinks they're wandering aimlessly and have no idea what they're doing.

Then there are the people.  They look up and see Pharaoh's army kicking up a cloud of dust and say to Moses (in one of the snarkier moments of scripture) "Oh, so there weren't any graves in Egypt; you brought us out here to die."  To Moses' credit, instead of going off on them like he will sometimes in later parts of their journey, he realizes how terrified they are.  He says to them, "These folks....take a good look....cause they're going to be gone soon.  And you won't have to do anything; just stand over there and watch."

God, meanwhile, moves around to place God's Self in this pillar of fire and cloud, between the Hebrews and Pharaoh (there is a WHOLE bunch of sermons here about how God in Christ put God's own Self between us and death....and how God continues to put God's own Self between God's habiru and the oppressor.  But later.  Just put that in a corner of your brain and chew on it).  AND God parts the sea with a strong wind.
Facing out on the Pharaoh is the darkness; the light flashing from the pillar of cloud illuminates the parting of the sea.  The people pass over on dry land and watch as their enemies drown in the crushing water, their (for that day) high tech military machinery bogged in the mud.

All of this is God's action.  The only thing the Hebrew people had to do was walk.  They had to put one foot in front of the other and walk between those terrifying walls of water on either side. 

Following God to newness is often terrifying.  We know there is nothing we can do; the sea is at our back and Pharaoh is bearing down on us.  We hear a voice say, "you're problems will be gone.  Just go stand over there and watch what I do.  Then, when I tell you to...start walking."  But the path to newness is through the wall of water on either side.  It's something we've never seen before.  Like the old pray that pleads, "make a way where there is no way; and open doors that no one can shut," it's happened!  Our prayers have been answered.  But it looks NOTHING like we thought it would.  And the place we're going?!? Don't even think about how scary that idea is.

Many of you reading this know exactly what I'm talking about.  It happens to us over and over and over in smaller ways throughout our life; and in the great big way when we come to Jesus; and if we're in recovery from some addiction, it happens in a pretty large way when we go "made a decision to turn our lives over to the care of God as we understood God; asking only for knowledge of God's will and the power to carry it out."   Sometimes, the "power to carry it out" is simply the courage and ability to put one foot in front of the other and cross over on the dry land.  Trusting that the God who lead us, saved us from Pharaoh, and parted the water for us will not abandon us on the journey we're about to take.

Hope to see you Sunday.
Shalom,
Stephen

Monday, October 6, 2014

Lazy, You are Lazy......That's Why You Ask For Anything

This Sunday at Heritage we'll be looking at Exodus 5.  This is the account of Moses and Aarron's first encounter with Pharaoh and the Pharaoh's response.

For the purpose of this discussion, I would draw your attention to two verses here:

"But the king of Egypt said to them, 'Moses and Aaron, whay are you taking the people away from their work? Get to your labors!' Pharaoh continued, 'Now they are mor numerous than the people of the land and yet you want them to stop working!'" [Exodus 5:4-5]

and

"He said, 'You are lazy, lazy; that is why you say, 'Let us go and sacrifice to the Lord.' Go now, and work; for now straw shall be given you, but you shall still deliver the same number of bricks.'" [Exodus 5:17-18]

Pharaoh is no dummy.  His responses are the calculated replies of the despot and the strike breaker throughout history.

First of all, in his initial tirade Pharaoh acknowledges that his building projects, and perhaps even his economic program is dependent upon the Hebrews.  There are so many of them that if they stop working to go out into the desert, everything will come to a grinding halt.

Then he does two specific things:  he describes the problem as being the result of the short comings of the oppressed; 'you're just lazy, that's why you want to go sacrifice....you want to get out of work.'  Then Pharaoh issues the edict about not giving the people straw and making them gather their own.  This will cause a riff within the Hebrew people and set them over against Moses and Aarron. 

From a political standpoint these are very astute moves.  Pharaoh defines the Hebrews as 'lazy people just trying to get out of the work that holds the economic program together.'  Then, he creates an impossible situation sure to create conflict among them.  The Hebrew work foremen will be beaten when their crews do not produces the required bricks.  When they complain, Pharaoh will say, 'it's Moses and Aarron's fault for asking you to be able to take your lazy selves out into the desert to sacrifice to your God.'

As an initial foray into this passage, I would ask us all to reflect on the ways in which our own culture reflects this situation.  Are their people who work for little or no wages (undocumented or questionable aliens are often denied their money when they go to collect their pay and threatened with INS and deportation) who provide a large portion of the workforce that supports our economy?  What would happen if everyone who made $8 or less per hour didn't work for a week; what all would come to a grinding halt?  Think about the language that has been, and is still, used to describe the minority groups that work at menial jobs;  "lazy, dishonest, looking for a handout, breeding like rabbits."

Our answers shouldn't surprise us.  Empires if every kind: Egyptian, Roman, German......American? have always used these tactics.  The question is, are we part of an oppressive empire?  Or part of the liberating work of God that will lead all who cry out into freedom and Covenant with God?

To the degree that we participate in the language of Empire to aid oppression, we are part of that Empire.  It's a sobering question to ponder.

Hope to see you Sunday.
Shalom,
Stephen

Monday, September 29, 2014

God's Verbs: Seeing, Hearing, Knowing, Caring; From Exodus to Resurrection

I'm doing a little reorganizing in my writing/sermon preparation life.  As a general rule, I'm now going to try to start my week with this blog and end it with a congregation specific blog for Heritage folks.  Between the two will be two Bible studies: the Brown Bag Bible Study at lunch time on Mondays and the Wednesday Vesper Service Bible Study.  This process will provide me with some really good opportunity to both write about what I'm thinking and to process it that way; and to hear what others think and are asking about the passage(s) in question.

If you would like to follow the second blog, it will be titled Prelude To Sunday and you can find it at the new Heritage Baptist Church website

http://www.heritagebaptistannapolis.org/home.html

This week we begin a study of the book of Exodus that will carry us up to Advent.  The Exodus story became the primary story that shaped the identity of Israel.  Exodus language recurs all throughout scripture in both the Old and New Testaments.  One will have difficulty reading scripture and avoiding its presence.

At the end of Exodus 2, after having described the dire straits into which God's people have fallen, we're told that "God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them."  Interestingly, the same verb translated here as "took notice," is translated in 1:8 as "did not know" as in Pharaoh did not know Joseph.  It could also be translated "cared about."

When, in Exodus 3:7, God speaks to Moses out of the burning bush, God will say, "I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters.  Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians....." and v. 9, "The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them."

A paraphrase of these verses might read, "I have seen the oppression, I have heard the cries, I notice these things and I care about my people; so now I have come down to deliver them."

But that same paraphrase might also be read, "I have seen the oppression, I have heard the cries, I notice these things and I care about my people; so now I have come down to deliver them.

Both readings are true.  Both speak to a reality about the nature of God.  When no one else heard, or noticed, or cared....God did.  When no one else would, or could, come and liberate this people....God did.
The verbs, the action here, all belong to God;  to God who hears the cry of the oppressed; who sees the oppression, who cares about what is happening, who comes to set free the captive.

Every Pharaoh, every tyrant, every dictator, every oppressor needs to hear this story.  They may think that no one is watching, no one is listening, no one cares.....but God is, God does, and God will respond.  

We need to hear this too.  Every one of us who pays no attention to the cry of the oppressed:  to those Christians being murdered by religious radicals who shame the true followers of Islam with their behavior; to the cries of children being detained because they seek a better life across our border; to the silent screams of victims of sexual and domestic violence.....God is listening, God will come, God will liberate....."then will He say to them, 'I was hungry and you gave me food, I was naked and you clothed me, I was homeless and you took me in.  If you did [or failed to do it] to the least of these, you did it [or failed to do it] unto me."

The story of God's involvement, from Exodus to Resurrection is the story of God hearing our cries of pain and need and leading us our into new life:  from the slavery in Egypt, to the slavery of African slaves in the south, to the sex slaves in this country and around the world.....God hears.  And God will lead out has God has done in the past.

There is a frequently quoted 'rule' among those who deal with criminals that "the most reliable predictor of future behavior is past behavior."  According to this way of thought, drunks will drink, offenders will offend, and killers will kill.

What would happen if we applied that predictability to God:  God will see, God will hear, God will care, God will come, God will free, God will save, God will redeem, God will grant new life.

Those are God's verbs.   And they don't stop.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

My Love/Hate Affair With Old Testament Characters

Over the past few weeks at Heritage Baptist in Annapolis we've been looking at some of the stories of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs that come to us in the book of Genesis.  During this time I've discovered some things about myself....not all of them happy discoveries.

These characters put me on the defensive.  I had to admit this when I found that week after week I was having to re-create my sermon titles because my original ones were far to snarky.  A good example is this week's sermon on Joseph that I had originally titled Just Cause You Have The Coat Doesn't Mean You Have The Class. Really?!?  Now the original point I was going to be driving at was that Joseph, in his early life didn't have the maturity to understand the meaning of power that he was intuiting (or was hearing from God, take your pick...maybe it's both) he would one day have.  And that's a reasonable read on this passage.

What slapped me in the face though was my own attempt to distance from a character so like myself.  My own young adulthood arrogance (hopefully I'm mellowing with life's scars and experience) was so strong that one female friend (thank God she stayed around to become a friend) said that her first instinct when we met in a seminary class was to throw a shoe at me.  So here's Joseph, seeped in his own arrogance, pronouncing his dreams with a "Look....look....see what I'm going to be?!" kind of quality and strutting back and forth in his ornamental robe.  I want to grab him by his multi-colored lapels and shake him.  Because I know where he's headed.....not just because I already know the Bible story, but because I know my own story.  And it's really uncomfortable.

For Joseph it will take years spent as a slave and some time in prison before he gets his head on remotely straight.  And even after that, he will make a serious blunder in his desire to please the Pharoah that will set up the slavery of the Hebrew people years later.

So find a way to be honest with myself about how these characters (unfortunately Joseph is not the only one who reaches up from the Biblical page and grabs me by the tie) impact me....and to be honest about it from the pulpit.

The second task, it seems, is to bridge the gap between my experience of Joseph and the truth I believe to be present: which is that many in my congregation experience him the same way.  I will have, in Sunday's congregation,  friends who are in recovery from various addictions.  The phrase "hitting bottom" is a common one in 12 Step programs; and Joseph's need to "hit bottom" before he could become who God meant him to be will ring true with them.  But what about others? 

Tied closely to this is the fact that here at Heritage we are exploring the question what is God's dream for us at Heritage? as we move through my Interim here and the congregation goes through the transitional stage of preparing for the next phase of it's life.  Is there a warning for us as a congregation in this story?  Is it possible to become so focused on ourselves in the dream that we miss that it is God's dream of how we will be used to represent God in this time and place? 

These are some of the challenges this text is throwing out.....and it's only Tuesday.  Tomorrow night is our Wednesday night study of Sunday's scripture, and who knows what will come out of that.

The truth is that when I read a lot of scripture I feel like Luke Skywalker when Yoda sends him into the cave.  He battles Darth Vader there and cuts off his head.  Taking the helmet off the severed head he confronts his own face.  In depth Bible study is not for the faint of heart.  But here is also the good news....Good News.....Gospel:  In being willing to see myself in the Biblical story I also discover God's great love for the characters in the story; wounded, flawed, and scarred though they be.  I see that it is not my 'dream' that guides the universe, it is the 'dream' and hand of a loving God whose fidelity is definitive and whose will will not be thwarted.  I rest in this Grace and Power and risk being seen as I am; loved as I am; redeemed as I am.

We'll see where we're going by Sunday.  Perhaps you'll come and join us.

Shalom,
Stephen

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Living Into God's Dream For Us

I have come to the conclusion that I spend waaaay too much time thinking that things are about me.

That voice you hear in the background going, "No Duh!" is my wife.

But seriously; this struck me particularly in preparing for last Sunday when we looked at Jacob wrestling with God at Peniel.  It seems to me that the story makes no real sense, has no real life lesson for us, until we quit thinking about it as Jacob's story and focus on it as God's story

When we think of it as God's story of how God has pursued, and continues to pursue Jacob; as the story of God's maintaining God's fidelity in spite of Jacob's shortcomings and trickery; then the story becomes a lesson for us in the lengths to which God will go to be faithful to God's promises.  God will seek to find ways to reach us through the various relationships and experiences of our lives.  God will even jump us in the middle of the night.....but God will not force us.

Which brings us to this week and this week's scripture.  Revelation 22:1-5 is the rebuilding of the Garden from Genesis.  God brings creation to a new place.  There are trees with leaves for the healing of the nations.  Water, always a precious commodity, flows through the middle of the City of God....available to all.

This vision, given to John while in an altered state of consciousness on the Isle of Patmos, is the sharing of God's dream for creation; a dream that will finally come to fruition one day.

In the meantime, we are called to be seeking that "Thy kingdom come and Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven."  This means that we are called to be imitating that big Dream by living out the here and now Dream that God has for us in our particular time and place.  It is the story of God's Dream, God's Desire, God's Loving Fulfillment.....how will we live into it?

When I take the focus off of myself, and put it onto God's Story, God's Dream and how I can best connect to, and be part of, that Story, that Dream.....that is when I truly find myself.  For we were all made in the Image of God to be partners with God in the stewarding and redeeming of creation.  Apart from that we are not ourselves, not who we were meant to be.

So this week we'll start asking "What is God's Dream for Heritage Baptist?"  What part of God's Big Dream are we being called to make a reality in this time and place?  What is God showing each of us: individually and collectively about that Dream?  Am I willing to give my time to this Dream?  My money? My prayers?  My creativity?

I want to end by quoting part of a song that I heard years ago by Reuben Walton:

The dreams we share today O Lord
Are only a shadow of Your dreams for us
Only a shadow of Your dreams for us
If we but follow You

Shalom

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Stories Around a Graveside

Genesis 25:7-11 tells of the death and burial of Abraham.  Isaac and Ismael buried him.

Isn't that strange....these two half-brothers, standing beside the grave of their father.  I wonder what they said to each other.  Did either know much of the other's story of near death?

All we're told is that they buried their father and then went their separate ways.

I am convinced that they missed the opportunity to make some sense of peace between them.  Born out in the fact that their descendants are still fighting one another. And by the fact that in at least 3 following generations stories of feuding brothers and interfering mothers are part of the family story.

Those of us who do therapy observe that issues not resolved in one generation often carry over, in one form or another, to the next.  We will see this lived out in Isaac with his sons Jacob and Esau; and with Jacob and his sons, including Joseph.

This gives great power to the scriptural teachings that we need to live in peace and love with one another.  And it forces us to ask two really big questions:

1)  What unresolved issues are we dealing with now on the border of Texas; in Ferguson; in Iraq?

and

2)  What will be the future expressions of these issues if they are not resolved now?

As Christians I believe we are called to be part of the resolutions to these relational questions.  Each of them has racial and ethnic components as well as those of power and wealth and fear.  How do we believe that the God who "loved the world" and whose "perfect love casts out all fear" call us to work in this place and time?

Hopefully, this Sunday I'll be able to address a little of this.  Hope you can join us.

Shalom,
Stephen

Saturday, August 9, 2014

She Named Him "Jesus' Own"

This week a young mother gave birth.  Her child did not survive.  Suffering already from genetic difficulties, he was unable to deal with the stress of the birth process.

The nurses took him from his mother's arms; bathed him and dressed him in a white gown; and handed him to the pastor who baptized him-asking that God would welcome this little one into the Kingdom, healing all the hurts of this world, and allowing this beautiful boy to go from adventure to adventure in his new life.  The pastor then handed him back to his mother who laid him gently on her breast.  His name, in her native tongue, meant "Jesus' Own."

It seemed to me that all the aching, beautiful, loving, terrible sadness of the world was gathered in that moment.

Our world is like that baby; broken, sick, something in our DNA gives us what Francis Spufford calls HPTFTU (politely translated, 'the human propensity to [screw] things up').  From that hospital room; to Dupont Circle; to the Texas border; to Gaza and Iraq.....the terrible, terrorizing, sad brokenness of our world seems to reign supreme.

And yet God holds us like that mother held her baby; loving it even in death.  Baptizes us with Christ's love into the Kingdom.  And does what neither that baby's mother nor the one who baptized him could do:  breaths new life into death; healing into the brokenness; and wholeness into the tragic flaws.

We dare not pretend that the brokenness is not there.  The 'crimson stain' of sin in our world has marked it with neglect and terror; horror and violence.  Children starve and innocents are slain.  But we also claim that our world, like that tiny baby, is "Jesus' Own."  We live facing despair; we do not deny it.  But we face that despair under the Hope that is given us in the Cross.  For we are Jesus' Own.  All of creation is Jesus' Own.  The dying baby and his mother; the Muslim radicals and their victims (Muslim and otherwise); the children detained on the border and those who scream to send them back.....we ALL are Jesus' Own.

In that mother's face was reflected the infinite love of God.  It was a small portrait of the great love that holds and redeems you and me.  It was heartbreaking.  And hope filled.  Such a picture instills rage, and draws tears, and finally drives us to our knees.

We do not hope against despair because we know answers.  We hope against despair because we know love.

Shalom,
Stephen

Friday, August 1, 2014

The Story of Hagar: God Has No Throwaways

At Heritage Baptist we've been looking at "The Stories Jesus Knew" and will be spending a fair amount of time exploring the stories of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs as well as the Exodus over then next weeks.  Glad to have you along on that journey.

One of the most heart breaking stores in the OT can be found in two parts; first in Genesis 16, and then in Genesis 21:8-21.  It is the story of a slave girl named Hagar and her son Ishmael.  Many of you already know it, but a brief recap may help.

Sarah and Abraham were childless.  God had promised that they would have children, but it wasn't happening yet, so Sarah took matters into her own hands.  She offered Abraham her slave girl, Hagar.  'I will have children through her' was her comment to Abraham, and Abraham did as she suggested and Hagar became pregnant.

Now when Hagar became pregnant she became 'uppity' and "looked with contempt on her mistress."  Now scripture doesn't tell us that she said anything, or did anything......it was her look that got her into trouble.  So Sarah goes to Abraham and blames him for this.  He, in one of his less shining moments, said, "she's your slave, do what you want with her."  So Sarah treated Hagar so harshly that she ran away.  She ran away into the wilderness.  What kind of mistreatment does it take to make someone run away into the wilderness?

There, by a spring, the angel of the Lord finds her.  For the first time in this story someone speaks to Hagar and calls her by name.  This slave girl, whose name means "stranger" encounters an angel of the Lord; a privilege reserved for those God favors, and is spoken to.  Hagar names the place 'the well of one who sees and lives'.  For maybe the first time in her young life, Hagar has been seen.  More than this, if you look at Genesis 16:10 you will see that she is given the same promise that Abraham was given:  that her offspring, Ishmael, will produce so many descendants that they cannot be counted.

Hagar goes back; Ishmael is born; all is well for a while.  Then Isaac is born and Sarah is determined that, "the son of this slave woman will not be heir with my son Isaac."  Notice that she calls neither Hagar nor Ishmael by their names, only Isaac.  They are not people to her; they are things, means to an end that she has no need for any more; so now they must go.  So Abraham, in another not so shining moment, turns them out into the desert with a little bread and a skin of water.

When the water runs out, Hagar leaves Ishmael under a bush and goes off to weep at a distance so she won't have to watch her child die.  Again God intervenes.  God hears the cries of the slowly dying Ishmael (whose name means 'God hears') and shows Hagar a spring of water,  once again telling her that her descendants by Ishmael will be numerous and something about the kind of man he will be.

Hagar was nothing from nobody.....to anyone but God.  To Sarah she became, temporarily a means to an end; after that, something to be rid of.

Some of those reading this blog know what that's like.  To feel that no one knows you, sees you, thinks of you as a person.  You've been treated as a thing, a means to an end, a throwaway.  This story is your story.  It is also your story that God sees and God hears.  When the world says, "that's none of my business" about your situation, your pain; God says, "then I'll make it My business."

Even if this isn't your story, if you've ever met a 'Hagar' who has met the God who sees and hears you know what a wonderful thing that is.  But we cannot stop there.  Because you and I as the Body of Christ are called to see the 'Hagars' around us.  We aren't allow to just stop at isn't it wonderful what God did for me (or them) when they were oppressed and mistreated.  We have to develop eyes and ears.

Who are our Hagars?  One doesn't have to look far if ones eyes are open.  Do we see Hagar in children and adults around us who struggle with food insecurity?  Do we see then in the homeless on our streets?  Particularly now we need to ask if we see them in the children being held in detentions centers after having crossed the border to find safety from violence, poverty, and sexual exploitation in Central America.

We need to remember that when we say, "it's none of my business"; God says, "then I'm going to make it My business."  God hears their cries; God sees their oppression.  Do we?  When the story of Hagar is told in our day, where will we stand?  With Sarah saying, "they will not inherit with our children" or with the angel of the Lord who made it clear where God stands.

Shalom

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Amazing Covenant

This week I will get the pleasure of hearing Heritage's Associate Pastor, Skye Hallman preach in our ongoing sermon series on The Stories Jesus Knew.  She will be preaching on the call of Abram and beginning our journey with the Matriarchs and Patriarchs of the Israelite people.

I have always been struck by the account of the covenant that is found in Genesis 15.  God has promised Abram that he will have heirs.  Abram asks God how he can know that this will actually happen.  God has Abram bring a heifer, a goat, and a ram (all three years old), a turtledove, and a young pigeon.  Abram cuts the animals in two, "laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two."  Then Abram spends the next hours driving the vultures and other birds of prey away from the carcasses.

When the sun starts to set, "a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him" and God restates the promise made earlier.  Then "when the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces."  Now this, to me, is the amazing part.  See, the one who passes between the two halves of the animal(s) in this rite is essentially saying, "may I die like this animal if I fail to keep my end of the covenant."  God is putting God's self on the line in the promise being made to Abram when God's symbols (the torch and the smoking pot) pass between the animal halves.

God is doing something incredibly radical for Abram's time....and for ours.  God is committing God's self to the relationship with Abram and his descendants in a dramatically profound way.  We will see this smoking pot and flaming torch again as the pillar of fire and the cloud lead Moses and the Hebrews across the wilderness.  But even more, we will see this Covenant played out in the person of Jesus, God Incarnate, who would rather come and die that relinquish the relationship with humankind.

This is surely one of the stories Jesus knew.  As Jesus taught and lived, He could point back to this fact about the nature of God.  And as He grew in His understanding of Himself as the Son of Man, He could see this unfolding as the culmination of this ages long Covenant. 

When we're talking about the nature of God and how God does not change, perhaps we should focus more on the truths about God expressed in this Covenant that begins with Abram.  That truth is that God will not give up on us; will not abandon us; has committed God's self to us.....even to death on a cross.  And "nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus."  Because God has made a Covenant; and God always keeps God's word.

Shalom

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Stories Jesus Knew

Today I'm writing after this week's sermon instead of before it.  Partially because this week was so hard figuring out where the sermon was going.

To begin with, Rev. Skye Hallman, Heritage's wonderful Associate Pastor and I are beginning a sermon series today.  Somehow I got the task of getting us jump-started by talking about the first 12 chapters of Genesis before we move into more focused attention on various stories in the Old Testament (also known as the Hebrew Scriptures).

The idea is that by understanding the stories that were part of Jesus' life growing up we will better understand what Jesus was saying as He taught.  Jesus' teaching did not happen in a vacuum.  He was a Jewish man, raised in the period known as "2nd Temple" (after the destruction of the 1st temple and the building of the 2nd).  He lived in an occupied, oppressed country where the people struggled with what this meant in terms of God's attitude toward them and their relationship with God.

At about the age of 5, Jesus would have begun his education in the synagogue school.  The rabbi would very like have smeared honey on the slate where the letters of the Hebrew alphabet were carved and have him lick it off as a reminder that "the word of the Lord is sweet."  By the time he was 10, Jesus would have memorized much, if not all of the Torah.  I wonder which were his favorite stories.  Which of the accounts of Israel's history and the writings of the prophets moved him the most?

This morning as we took a brief, skimming journey through creation, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the Great Flood, and the Tower of Babel (and I do mean brief).....it seems two me that there were two major things that are clear in these stories that were hallmarks of Jesus' teaching....and are a continuation of the way that God has revealed God's character and the nature of God's relating to us:

The first is that God wants a deeply intimate relationship with humankind.  Our God, Israel's God, the God of the Torah and of the Genesis accounts is not some distant deity.  God comes as close to humanity as possible.  God wants to know us, to walk with us, to relate to us. 

The second thing is that even when we screw things up royally, God keeps the conversation going.  In fact, God will not let the conversation go.....God refuses to give up on us.

But God also will not let the conversation happen without being a part of it.  I think this is one of the lessons of the Tower of Babel.  This will be a two way dialogue between us and God.....not a "one way, I can do this myself" project.

Humanity, by the time we get through Genesis 12, has really messed things up.  The conversation, with the confusion of language at Babel, has gone quiet.  But God will not let it rest.  God is going to fix this broken creation, and God wants humankind as a partner in that effort.  Next week Skye will be preaching on the call of Abram (later Abraham).  God will call a partner.  Interestingly, God will always make it clear that God is doing most of the work.  God will make the barren Sara fertile.  God will make a people where there was no people.  What they, and we, will be called to do in response is to live in covenant fidelity.  And truth be told, we don't do that very well either.

And yet, God keeps the conversation going.  The Word of God is Sweet.  And it does for me what I cannot do for myself.  This week I saw, once again, a story about Dick and Rick Hoyt.  They are the father and son team that together have run more than 1000 races including 252 triathlons. Rick is disabled and his father, Dick, pushes his wheelchair, peddles the bicycle, and pulls the boat when they enter these events.

Paul reminds us that 'what I want to do, I cannot do.'  Like Rick Hoyt, I want to run life's race, to leap the chasm that separates me and God.  But I am 'handicapped by sin; disabled by my inability to do right.'  God pushes my wheelchair.....peddles my bike....tows my boat.  One day we will cross the finish line into the Kingdom.....I won't do it under my own steam, but I will do it because I have a God who loves me.  One who wants a deep, intimate relationship with me and who will not let the conversation go.

As the young Jesus learned the stories of Torah; memorizing them and letting them seep into his heart; I believe that he gradually became clearer and clearer as to Who he was, and what He was called to....until that day at the Jordan when it all became clear at His baptism.

I hope you'll take the time to read some of these OT stories for yourself, maybe join us in worship at Heritage, and think about how these stories will get played out in the way that Jesus teaches throughout His ministry.  Something to think about.

Shalom

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Who Would Jesus Touch

If the parables we've been looking at in Luke 15 are the answer to the question "who would Jesus eat with?" then the story in Matthew 8:1-4 that is the scripture for this week at Heritage Baptist asks (and answers) the question, "who would Jesus touch?"

Some version of this story is found in all three synoptic gospels.  There are even questions that go back and forth among theologians about 'how many lepers did Jesus heal?' because of the way that some of the stories have different numbers of lepers approaching Jesus at different times.  I think the numbers question is a bit ridiculous myself; I'm more concerned with what the fact that Jesus healed lepers teaches us about the nature of God and about our calling as followers of Christ.

In the Matthew account Jesus is coming down from the mountain where He has delivered a major teaching about God's desires for humankind that we commonly refer to as "The Sermon on the Mount."  He is surrounded by a crowd of people.  Suddenly, this crowdfest is disturbed by the sound of the shouting of the words, "Unclean! Unclean! Unclean!" as the leper made his way toward Jesus.  Lepers were required to shout this ahead of themselves so that others would not have to come in contact with them and risk contagion.  They were also required to wear torn clothing and to have their hair hanging in their face.  So this man must have made a sight as the crowd parted before him. Depending on the translation you're reading from, this man either 'knelt' or 'prostrated' himself before Jesus.  Both of these words are difficult for us.  They aren't words we use a lot; and so we miss the desperation that drives this man to his knees, drops him like a stone, in front of Jesus.

"If you want to, you can make me well."  What an anguished cry!  It is the cry of powerlessness to power.  It is a cry that, all too often in our world today, is ignored or treated with disgust.  It evokes discussions of the "deserving poor" or the "welfare cheat" or 1000 versions of rationalizations and justifications for ignoring need.

Jesus, on the other hand, does two amazing things: first He says, "I do want to," and then he reaches out and touches this leper.  In doing so, Jesus becomes unclean by Law and actually breaks the law by the action itself.  Then, Jesus sends the man to show himself to the priests; which was the prescribed way of proving that one had been healed.  The priests would examine him and then, all testing being okay, would allow for his return to the community.  Jesus not only physically heals this man, but He lays the groundwork for his restoration to the family and community that his illness has torn him away from.

How radically different this is from the kind of attitude described above.  And how clear it becomes that Jesus is concerned with not only physical healing, but the restoration and reconciliation of people to community.  Who would Jesus touch?  If we look seriously at scripture, the question literally becomes, "who wouldn't Jesus touch?"  Lepers, blind people, women (culturally inappropriate), women with bleeding disorders (really, really unclean and culturally inappropriate), dead people (culturally inappropriate, makes one unclean, something you really don't do if you're not family).  Jesus will touch Anybody, He'll eat with Anybody. He'll extend an intimacy that many people around him considered pornographic.....and what's more, He'll say This Is What God Is Like.

This is terribly good news for you and me.  It gives a palpable sense to the song that went, "while I was praying, somebody touched me....must have been the hand of the Lord."  You and I have been touched.  And touched in those places we did not believe that anyone, especially Jesus, could stand to touch us: the dead, diseased, broken places of our lives.

But this is also a challenge.  If we are to truly follow Jesus, if we are to be the Body of Christ in the world around us, what does this say about who we are to be willing to touch?  Not talk to from across the room; or send stuff to; but touch.  Who are we called to become intimately involved with?

Who are the lepers that surround you?  The ones shunned and avoided?  The ones who call out, "if you want to, you can make me well."??? What would touching them look like?  What would it cost us?  How would we work, not just for their immediate healing, but for their restoration and reconciliation to community?

In a political season many in the churches I have served have been grateful that I don't preach 'political sermons' in which I challenge them to take a stand for, or against, abortion, homosexuality, fair housing, poverty, human trafficing, Tea Party candidates, liberal candidates, etc.  I refuse to do that for a reason.  First of all because there is no way to make a case from the pulpit for any of these stances that does justice to the intricacy of the issue.  Second, I believe-because I believe in the Priesthood of All Believers-that each of us is called to search scripture, pray, and be guided by the Holy Spirit; while I am more that willing to personally share my beliefs about issues and join an individual's struggle with them in prayer and conversation, I do not believe edicts from the pulpit show the proper respect toward the truly painful and difficult struggles many people have with these issues.

This does NOT mean that these passages are not heavy and ripe with deep and powerful questions.  And it does not mean that our answers to these questions will not have powerful implications.....not just political ones, but implications about how we live our personal lives; how we spend our money; how we raise our children; and how we treat our neighbor.

We listen to Jesus.  We experience Him intimately.  We walk down from the mountain top.  And our world's lepers throw themselves in front of us....driven to their knees by their pain and suffering.  Looking at us they cry out, "You who call yourselves Jesus People, you who claim to imitate Him, you can heal me if you want to."  And we............

Sunday, June 29, 2014

My Friend A.T.

Sometime between 8:00 p.m. yesterday evening and 8:00 a.m. this morning, my friend A.T. died.  Another friend found him when he went by to pick him up for church.  Whether or not his death was intentional; was the result of an accidental overdose; or his body's final response to the chemicals poured into his body over the years.....we may never know.  What we do know is that his addiction finally killed him.

A.T. had burned nearly every bridge at his disposal-some more than once.  A substance abuse habit that spanned at least four decades had taught him every negative lesson that addiction can teach.  There are those, particularly among his family, who may breath a sigh of relief and say, "let's just move on."  But I would hate to have his passing go without some mark, some ripple in the water to give notice.

For this was not all there was to A.T.

A year, perhaps a little less, ago A.T. stepped into the water and I was privileged to say to him, "A.T., child of the Covenant, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Buried with Christ in baptism; raised to walk in newness of life."  That A.T.'s addiction cost him his life did not, and does not, make him any less redeemed by Christ's love.

For weeks after his baptism A.T. would great me before church with a huge grin and a hug.  The smile was no less beautiful because his teeth were new, and his hug was almost like that of a small boy in it's enthusiasm- despite his 50+ years.

Life continued to be hard for A.T.: emotionally, financially, and relationally.  The miracle he had expected in regards to his family was never realized.  They had been through too much.  They would continue to keep him at a distance.....watchful and waiting.  I think A.T. was disappointed that life did not get better; or at least get better quicker.  And his inner-addict stoked the fires of that disappointment.  None of this excuses A.T.'s multiple relapses....but perhaps they are more understandable in the light of all he was dealing with....and dealing with without any real adult years of sobriety to draw from.

The Apostle Paul talks about "this body of death" to which we are subject.  In A.T. that body of death was his addiction, and it finally took his life. 

But I do not believe that this is the last word for A.T.  I will claim, also with Paul, "what shall separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus."  A.T.'s addiction does not get the last word about A.T.  That word will be spoken, and is being spoken now....somewhere... by the Christ who redeemed A.T. and claimed him for His own.

I do not know if I will have the opportunity to be part of A.T.'s memorial service; or even if he will have one.  But I know what I would say....and I will say it now:

Merciful God, receive A.T. into your Kingdom.  A child of your own redeeming, may the wounds of this life be healed and may he come to final peace in your mercy.  May he come to know in the deepest part of himself Your great love and realize in ways he was never able to in this life that in Your goodness he was born, by your watchfulness he was kept all the day long.....and now in Your endless, boundless love and mercy may he be redeemed and made finally whole.

I trust that God's final word about A.T. will be love; and into that Love I release my friend.

Shalom A.T.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

One Lamb At A Time

I am exhausted!  Any of you who have ever worked with Vacation Bible School will know just how I feel.  Whew!  There's something about 70 children under the age of 12 that will wear you down to a nub in a heart beat.  But Skye Hallman and her faithful band of volunteers (including, don't forget, Ralph Manuel, Minister of Music) made it all come together.

Now I cheated a little and used the scripture for this week as one of the Bible stories that we dealt with in our Bible Story Time.   So this week's blog and this week's sermon have been strongly influence by the kids from Heritage Baptist Church in Annapolis.

The story is the first of three parables that Jesus tells in Luke 15.  It is about the shepherd that goes out in search of his lost sheep. 

To begin with, when Jesus asks the question, "if you have 100 sheep and you lose one, don't you leave the 99 and go after the single sheep?" it's a shocking question.  If you have 100 sheep you hire someone to look after them; and if they lose one, they jolly well pay for the loss; but you're not particularly concerned about that particular sheep.  Yet Jesus gives us a picture of God who is intimately connected to God's sheep and who cares about each individual who strays and is lost.

I have a friend who considers himself an agnostic.  He says to me, "I just find it impossible to believe in a God who is so intimately involved with each of us."  He's not the only one.  One the one hand, many of us believe in a God who cares for us individually and wants to "get us saved"; but have trouble dealing with issues of justice causes or global hunger.  On the other hand, some folks are very committed to the issues of global justice, but have trouble with the intimacy of God that they've been presented with....often because God has been presented as someone holding them under a magnifying glass to watch when they mess up so He can smack them for it.

Jesus gives us a different picture.  It is of a God who loves the whole 'flock'.....one lamb at a time.  A good who will bring justice (for sheep that sounds like the psalm about 'green pastures and still waters) one lamb at a time.  It is because God loves us each so much in our particularity, our individuality that God pursues mercy and justice in our lives and world; and this is why he calls us to work for these things a "laborers together with God" having "been given this ministry of reconciliation.

God isn't like Lucy Van Pelt from Peanuts who used to say, "I love humanity, it's people I can't stand."  God loves people....specific, individual, particular, peculiar people.  And because God loves us, God will bring in the Kingdom that will represent a new heaven and a new earth......one lamb at a time.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Stalked By A Parable

It seems that I am once again being "stalked" by Jesus' parable in Luke 15:11-32.

At my new Interim at Heritage Baptist in Annapolis, I chose this for the Father's Day text for my sermon.  And when I sat down to work on the sermon, the parable (like many of Jesus' stories) rose up to say, "I've got more to say to you than you've found here before."  Frankly, this is as it should be.  Reading, or listening to, Jesus over our lifespan should bring new understandings from the same stories.  But still.......from a personal point of view, it's sometimes as though a bear skin rug that you've gotten very used to just lying there suddenly got up and decided it wanted to challenge you to a wrestling match.

The parable I'm talking about here is the one commonly referred to as the "Prodigal Son."  For a long time I've thought that this is an inappropriate name for the parable.  There are two prodigals in this story.  The elder son is prodigal as well.  Twice in this story he fails in his socially prescribed role in that Palestinian culture as the elder son.  (I'll leave that for next week since I'm going to spend two weeks on this parable in sermons, but it is worth noting that this son fails as well).

The main figure in this story though is the Father.  Jesus creates a thinly veiled metaphor for God in this character and then has him do everything that his audience would not expect him to do.  He tolerates the behavior of both of his sons.  He divides his wealth between them prior to his death.  He allows the youngest to sell off the land and leave (this really bothers me at this reading, by the way).  He then spends his evenings pacing the porch looking down the road and longing for his son's return.  He runs out to meet him (no Palestinian patriarch runs anywhere).  He throws himself between the boy and the neighbors who would have lined the road to throw things and spit on him.  He gives him robe, sandals and ring that identify him as still his son.  Then he throws a party to make sure everyone knows that this boy is back in the community and should be accepted.  When the elder son refuses to help host the party (a social demand) and thereby insults the Father just as much as the youngest had, the Father goes out to reason with him.  And there the story ends.

One of the things that is easily missed because we are not that familiar with the cultural context of the story is the impact of all of these behaviors on the community.  Life in the ancient near eastern village was not lived in isolation.  The village was small, homes pushed together, surrounded by the land which (we gather from the story) was owned by the Father.  The villagers' livelihood depended on this land.  Land that the son sold off at yard sale rates for the quick cash to leave.

That the Father allowed this to take place is disturbing.  But so, for many of us who have struggled with the issues of evil and suffering, is the fact that God continues to allow them to take place.  Innocents are wounded everyday by random illness and/or the actions of others.  You can pick your own example.

The "sons and daughters" of God continue to refuse to acknowledge or welcome one another.  We label (and libel) one another so that we can claim our right as "good" people to reject the "other" and do them violence.  From nations to political parties to denominations to the kids at the lunch room table.....we do it over and over.  Why does God let us keep doing it?

I think the answer, or at least part of it, is found in the opening line, "there was a man who had two sons."  To have a creation that can live in relationship with it's creator; people "created in [God's] own image" demands Free Will.  There is no other way.  God does not want robots, or slaves, or zombies.  God wants children who live in relationship with God and with one another.  I did not expect this question to show up in this parable.  Then it did.  Suddenly the parable became so much wider and deeper.

God, it seems, will keep on giving us this freedom.  God will also keep on pacing the front porch looking down the road for us to come home.  And God will keep running down the road to meet us; throwing dignity to the wind.  And God will continue to let us refuse to welcome our brothers and sisters home.  Because, at least this side of the river, for "thy kingdom come and thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven" to take place means that we have got to do something.

What would it look like if we quit 'selling off' creation for the quick buck?  What would it look like if we quit refusing to acknowledge our brothers and sisters who are different from us?

What would it look like if we truly joined God as Father and ran down the road to meet the returning prodigal?  Helped throw the party; welcomed back to community; maybe even gave up one of our robes for the prodigal to wear.

For over 25 years this parable has stalked me through the days of my own journey.  This week it reached out to grab me again.  I hope it will grab you as well.

If you're out in Annapolis, please join us for worship at 10:30 at Heritage Baptist.  We'd love to see you.

Shalom