Thursday, January 30, 2014

Epiphany 4 A - 1 Corinthians 1:18-31

1 Corinthians 1:18-31
I've spent significant time, energy and resources learning the proper way to talk about this foolish message. It seems ironic to me that maybe a good bit of theology or God talk (theos=God logos=word) is about making the foolish message sound wise. By that I mean (you see how it happens) religious professionals (or is that the professionally religious) carefully define this foolishness so as to fit it into an orthodox box, lest we sound silly and stray into heresy. Don’t get me wrong, how we talk about God matters, but the cross is not a theological construct. It is a sadistic instrument of torture conceived by the wise and powerful human mind. And in Jesus God decided foolishly in weakness to die on one. I think I’ll stop and stay with that thought for awhile before dressing up the ugliness of the cross in carefully constructed theologizing. 

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Epiphany 4 A - Psalm 15

Psalm 15
These are not requirements for entering the tent of the Lord but a description of what happens to those who abide there. Ones who slander and do evil to friends, despising their neighbors, who charge for favors and take bribes to pervert justice, prefer mansions in the valley to the tent on the hill. Doing what is right and speaking the truth from the heart, walking the blameless way, is produced by one’s proximity to the Lord who pitches the tent in the first place. It is not a heavenly hill, but it is none-the-less a “hill far away”. The One who really was blameless stood by his oath to save and in His suffering death made the hill where the wicked had their way, holy. There is a transformation which takes place when we consistently see the sunrise from that Holy Hill and days are spent not in pursuing selfish desire but sacrificial love, as in standing by an oath, even when it hurts. 

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Epiphany 4 A - Micah 6:1-8

Micah 6:1-8
It is one thing to be told what the Lord requires and quite another to do it. And even though there is no middle ground with a requirement we still try to live there. I’ll work for justice but only for the worthy. I’ll love mercy but not too much lest the guilty go free. I’ll walk humbly with the Lord for an hour a week; isn’t that enough exercise? And like the people of Micah’s time we substitute superficial acts of sacrifice or piety for a real relationship with the One who tells us what is good.  Doing justice, loving mercy, walking humbly with God is good. Good for others. Good for us. Good for God. In the sacrifice of justice, mercy and humility God is pleased and the reign of God is continually coming as the will of God is done. That is why the prophets speaking for God imaged the future day of peace in poetic language; so that we would long for it so desperately we would work for it in the here and now. Not that lambs trust lions well enough to lie down with them just yet but that we would trust God enough to live the dream of the future before it is fully realized. So you know what to do. Just do it.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Epiphany 3 A - Matthew 4:12-23

Matthew 4:12-23
I understand the sentimental attachment Christians have to this call story but truthfully it is not a positive metaphor for evangelism. Fishers of people might be quite happy with the idea that God uses them to catch people for Christ but being caught by those who “fish for people” means the “fished” are ensnared in a net or deceived by a lure or hooked by bait none of which paints the process of conversion in a positive light. More than that there is no life for the fish once caught as living outside their watery world is not an option. Granted I might be overthinking the metaphor. Maybe what Jesus was saying to those fisher folk stripped down and sweating is that getting people to accept Jesus as “God with us” is not that different from sweating over nets and dragging one’s livelihood from the Sea of Galilee. Which means we do what we can do with what we’ve been given. There will be those who object to any effort we make as a violation of their territorial waters of secularism or outright unbelief but truth is we have no reason or right to fish in those waters anyway. What we can and must do is fish every day in daily waters calm or stormy. But not with net or lure or bait but with all our heart, mind and soul so that those who object to the arrogance of the church are won over by the humility of Christianity. We love others so that others will love Christ even though we have all learned the language of love as a foreign tongue.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Epiphany 3 A - 1 Corinthians 1:10-18

1 Corinthians 1:10-18
This is the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in case you didn't know. It wasn't on my radar either but then I read what I wrote on this text three years ago and there it was in black and white. I suppose with all the other things that occupy the beginning of a new year we might be forgiven for not remembering that the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity always begins with the Feast of the Confession of St. Peter and concludes with the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul (January 18-25). Unless of course you live in the Southern Hemisphere in which case it’s celebrated at Pentecost. (Probably a concession for the sake of unity) Truth is Christians live pretty well with each other as neighbors (as long as they mow their lawn and keep their dogs quiet) or when they meet on the street (unless they are driving in traffic) or at Starbucks (unless they take forever to order a latte) or at sporting events (as long as they support the same team) but come Sunday believers circle the wagons and hunker down behind doctrinal divisions or styles of worship or any number of rules, real or imagined, that make the letter to the Corinthians as relevant today as it was when it was penned. We learn the language of love as a foreign tongue. (1 Corinthians 13:1) The sad truth is the church was never one and even those who knew Jesus face to face failed to live fully into the dream that God had for humanity. So why does anyone bother setting aside one week (observed at two different times) to pray for something that has never been realized? Well, maybe the prayer is not that we would be unified but that we would recognize we already are. I happen to follow Luther (but not exclusively, I hope) whose explanation to "Thy will be done" might be helpful. “The good and gracious will of God is done indeed without our prayer; but we pray in this petition that it may be done among us also.” Jesus prayed that we might be one even as He was one with the One he knew as Father. (John 17:21) So maybe the prayer of Christian unity is that we would live what we already are. Crazy, huh?

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Epiphany 3 A - Psalm 27:1, 4-9

Psalm 27:1, 4-9
I don’t know about you but I can think of more than “one thing” to ask of the Lord and even when I’m all “pastored up” I’m not sure I want to “dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life.” Of course we tend to think these passages refer to the house of the Lord in heaven but that is not quite true to the text. David longs for the comfort of the sanctuary where the “man after God’s own heart” (Acts 13:22) can find sanctuary and be “hidden” from the real life enemies that surround him. But let me take some liberty with the text as well and say we might be too good at hiding in the sanctuary and an isolated life that longs to gaze forever on the beauty of the Lord doesn't help a single soul. On the other hand if the song of the sanctuary is sung fearlessly outside the sanctuary so that the “enemies” hear it in the same way the singer does there may come a time when the light and salvation of the Lord is shelter for everyone.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land! And so I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!” (Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. - 3 April 1968, Memphis, Tennessee)

Isaiah 9:1-4
Isaiah 9:1-4 is a timely text for a day that remembers the light that dawned in this country when the voice of a twentieth century prophet, Martin Luther King Jr., cried out to lift the yoke of burden from the shoulder of African Americans and break the rod of oppression that kept them enslaved to systems that denied them basic civil rights. I hope that no matter where we stand on the political spectrum we can agree that denying people equal access to seats on a bus or at a lunch counter or the right to vote or what school one can attend based on the color of one’s skin violates the very principles upon which this country was founded. And therefore no matter what we think of Dr. King I hope we can acknowledge he was a man of great courage and conviction whose commitment to justice changed our country for the better. But of course that’s not what Isaiah had in mind when he penned this prophecy as the “he” who brought the land of Zebulun and Naphtali into contempt was the same “he” who would later make glorious their way to the sea. What seems ironic to me, in light of my introductory remarks, is why these two tribes were brought into contempt in the first place. When the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali were given the prettiest land in Palestine they didn't obey God’s command and kill the resident Canaanites but lived among them, which meant at some point a Zebulun Romeo fell in love with a Canaanite Juliet and that was not kosher. Of course that’s not the reason the Assyrians brought anguish to these two lands, that happens much later, but it would seem that the very thing that Dr. King preached about having “been to the mountaintop” is at odds with God’s demand for racial purity in the conquest of the original Promised Land. But then the prophet who penned the prophecy could not fully foresee the future that was being promised. The great light that would shine over deep darkness did not come from Jerusalem but from the land corrupted by Romeo and Juliet’s romance. The “he” that would make glorious the way of the sea would lift the yoke of burden and break the rod of the oppressor not by ethnic cleansing but by bearing the anguish of the cross on his shoulders and banishing the deep darkness of death with the light of resurrection dawn. So maybe it is a timely text for a twentieth century prophet who knew himself to be a sinner but by the grace of God a saint as well, a man who like most prophetic voices resisted the call at first but once claimed by the vision did not withdraw even when he knew it would lead to his death. 

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Epiphany 2 A - John 1:29-42

When Jesus asks John’s disciples “What are you looking for?” they answered by asking Jesus “where are you staying?” It doesn't make a lot of sense unless it was the only way they could avoid admitting they didn't really know what they were looking for. But Jesus knows exactly what they are looking for and where they will find it. “Come and see” invites them into a relationship that will change their lives forever. And it all happened around four in the afternoon. Imagine that. Lifelong Lutherans generally don’t identify a day when they were “saved” let alone a specific hour in the afternoon. Not that we don’t experience moments of spiritual renewal or refreshment. But to be baptized into faith before we could walk let alone “come and see” means we grow into our faith as a gift that is familiar and yet always new. We are continually invited into a life of “come and see” and like Andrew share with others the truth we have come to know. “We have found the Messiah.” Although if Andrew were a Lutheran he would have told his brother, “The Messiah found us.” Which truthfully is what happened that day around four in the afternoon.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Epiphany 2 A - 1 Corinthians 1:1-9

1 Corinthians 1:1-9
The opening verses to the Corinthian correspondence follow the Pauline pattern of over the top thanks for the faithful (the Galatian letter being the exception) before getting down to the heart of the matter. “I hear there are quarrels among you…” (1:11) While Paul might not have always “given thanks” for his brothers and sisters in Corinth he did have affection for them and hoped that they might live more fully into the gifts God had given them. To our great benefit his struggle with those puffed up with pride produced “Love is patient and kind…” which is as good a prose as has ever been penned. The foundation upon which 1 Corinthians 13 “love is” depends is the faithfulness of God who called the Corinthians into fellowship (1:9) and enriched them with gifts so that they might be a blessing to each other and subsequently the world. We might lament of all the ways in which the church has not lived out the grace of its calling but I think a better approach is to marvel at the ways the church works despite its being led by and inhabited by less than perfect humans. So we should not be surprised that the Corinthians coveted the gifts without giving credit to the giver. Or that the Galatians gave up the radical freedom of the Gospel for the familiar security of the law. We should be surprised that despite our failings we will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ, which might mean we try harder in the here and now to live into our inheritance.  

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Epiphany 2 A - Psalm 40:1-11

Psalm 40:1-11
Waiting for the Lord is only remembered as a “waiting patiently” process when feet are finally planted firmly and the new song is sung. When one is stuck in the miry bog or languishing in the desolate pit the only song you sing is a lament and the prayers that are cried ask for an answer yesterday. Not that we are unable to wait with faith and trust and hope; it’s just that “I waited patiently for the Lord” might make waiting patiently seem to be the only faithful response to being stuck. So while those who are on the other side of being stuck are right to proclaim the glad news of deliverance with songs of praise it would be more helpful to those who still languish in bogs of depression and doubt if our songs of saving help were sung in harmony with the laments they still sing. I’m not saying that we can’t count on God’s deliverance but I’ve come to believe if you can’t get there with me or I can’t get there with you God’s faithfulness means we are given to each other so that the place of desolation, or for that matter the place of deliverance, is not so lonely. 

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Epiphany 2 A - Isaiah 49:1-7

Isaiah 49:1-7
“You are my servant” is a dialogue between the “Holy One” and the “polished arrow” who wonders aloud if it was all for nothing. “I have labored in vain…” The one hidden away in the quiver is only as good as the One who draws the bow which is why the arrow expresses confidence in the archer. “My cause is with the Lord…” Even so the plan for vindication before kneeling kings and prostrated princes would not be without pain. God does not work outside the boundaries of our human experience and chooses to use what is weak to shame the strong and what is foolish to confound the wise. (1 Corinthians 1:27) That is not to say God’s way of working does not have real life human consequences and for no fault of their own the lives of the “deeply despised” lit up the night skies of Auschwitz; but then that is why God was nailed to wood and died screaming like a wounded animal. You want pretty? Go somewhere else. God does not offer solutions to human savagery that deny human free will to act in ways that are less than human. In the end humans are responsible for what happens in this world. Salvation is revealed when you and I recognize it is not too light a thing for us to be servants who make a choice for a different world. It might mean crucifixion. No. It will certainly mean crucifixion. But then in the dialogue between what is and what will be crucifixion always anticipates resurrection. “Is it too light a thing that you should be my servant…” 

Friday, January 10, 2014

The Baptism of Our Lord Year A - Matthew 3:13-17

Matthew 3:13-17
Matthew’s version of Jesus’ baptism has more dialogue than Mark or Luke but all three end in the same way. God declares Jesus the beloved Son with something like a dove coming out of heaven to “alight” on him after which Jesus is driven (Mark) or led (Matthew, Luke) into the wilderness to be tested, tried and/or tempted for forty days. The point is not to be missed. Jesus baptism is followed by forty days of fasting followed by three temptations that target the very words that sustained Jesus through the forty days. “You are my beloved Son.” Our baptisms are intended to give us the same confidence so that like Jesus being tempted after suffering solitary silence in the wilderness we might declare, “I am baptized!” as a statement of defiance against all that would make us believe we are less than loved. It doesn't mean all will go well with us in our everyday but rather that we might claim the promise of the future; “Do not fear. I have called you by name. You are mine.” (Isaiah 43:1) in the present. “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33) The promise of God that operates outside of human institutions allows those of us who were baptized before our ability to remember to none-the-less name the day we were saved as the moment when the Spirit of God alighted upon us and declared us beloved. But that is only because In the end “I am baptized” is not about our decision but rather God’s declaration, “You are my beloved.” 

Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Baptism of Our Lord Year A - Acts 10:34-43

Acts 10:34-43
“I truly understand that God shows no partiality…” I don’t think we can fully comprehend the magnitude of this statement. Everything Peter had been taught about God would have led him to believe the opposite. God is very particular and shows partiality to one nation as a treasured possession out of all the nations of the world. “I will be your God and you will be my people.” (Exodus 6:7) You don’t get any more partial than that. And more to the point Peter heard Jesus say he came only for the lost sheep of the house of Israel, (Matthew 15:24). But all that changes when Peter dreaming on the roof of his house is instructed to eat things formerly forbidden. His dream translates to a Spirit led field trip to the house of a Roman centurion named Cornelius where the Spirit falls upon the Gentiles in the same way it fell upon the disciples on the day of Pentecost. And so Peter, who no doubt was pleased to be the one to whom God was partial, (You are the Rock upon whom I will build my church – Matthew 16:18) enters the house of Cornelius and eats and drinks with “goyim” and that is certainly not kosher. I wonder what sacred cows we would give up if like Peter we came to a new understanding and the God we thought we knew by living inside our religious box told us to eat and drink with those who color outside the lines because God is not as partial as we are. It might not be pretty but I think it might just be the picture God intended to paint.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Baptism of Our Lord Year A - Psalm 29

Psalm 29
Psalm 29 has ten verses of environmental mayhem leading to an eleventh verse that blesses people with peace. It might not be such a positive image in light of the large scale disasters of 2013. Typhoon Haiyan (Philippines) and Phailin (India), hurricanes Manuel and Ingrid (Mexico), earthquakes in the Philippines, China and the Solomon Islands, tornadoes in Texas and Oklahoma City. Some estimate over 20,000 lives loved were lost in these events alone. Ascribing glory to God through the image of what we see as natural disasters (so called acts of God) may make poetic sense but theologically might cause us to question how the whisper of peace can proceed from a voice that breaks the cedars and makes the solid ground skip like a calf. But if the peace that blesses God’s people is the recognition that “God is bigger than the boogie man” (Veggie Tales) than the peace that stills the storms of 2013, and every year for that matter, is that God is the eye in the center of every storm, which I’m told is a place of calm, or in other words, peace.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Baptism of Our Lord Year A - Isaiah 42:1-9

Isaiah 42:1-9
This is the Word for all who languish in solitary prisons real or imagined, who faint from sorrow and suffering, whose light in life flickers and grows dim. This is also the Word that comes as a light to expose the thoughts and ways and deeds that conspire to blind people to the truth and shroud the world in darkness. This Word is as gentle as a whisper, as soft as a mother’s caress, as persistent as a deep desire and as compelling as a well told tale. It stirs hearts and animates lives to action as it fills imaginations with hopes and dreams of all that is good and right and beautiful and true. But it is a Word that has to be heard to be believed which means we have to be stilled to hear it and humbled to accept it. The trouble is we tend to buy into the lottery ticket life where all that glitters really is gold and our luck is about to change even if the ship we were counting on to come in just sank in the harbor. But what if we were to give up on the world’s way of winning and live more fully into the light of the life that God desires. If the Word does not break our bruised reed we should not be so ready to break bones with sticks and stones. If the Word does not quench our dimly burning wick we should not be so quick to extinguish the flickering faith of others. If the Word does not shout in the streets we might accomplish more by speaking our conviction with gentleness and respect. (1 Peter 3:15) If the Word is persistent and does not grow faint then we should not be crushed by disappointment or detours. In the end God will make all things new and the brightest and best dreams will come true so we, like the Word, speak of the new things that will spring forth and declare with confident hope what will be before it is.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Christmas 2 A - John 1:1-18

John 1:1-18
This is John’s Christmas story, minus the manger, Mary and Joseph, angels singing, shepherds adoring, magi gifting or even the baby Jesus for that matter. You can tell from the very first verse that John’s Jesus is painted with bigger brushstrokes than the Jesus in Matthew, Mark & Luke. It’s called a “Christology from above” which means a word about Jesus that is focused more on his divinity than his humanity. (Calvary member Dr. Bob Machos calls it the magic Jesus.) That’s true throughout John, even at the end when he lays his life down and picks it up again with no help from anyone, thank you very much. In some ways this picture of Jesus as the “In the Beginning Forever Word” is far removed from the Christ whose cry of dereliction from the cross is proof the divine has fully entered the human condition and therefore is more than able to sympathize with our weakness. (Hebrews 4:15) John’s Jesus is always one step ahead of the opposition and clearly in control except for one brief moment midway through the Gospel when his friend Lazarus dies. Then the true light that banishes darkness, the Word made flesh full of grace and truth and the unchanging glory of the great I AM steps out from behind the smoke and mirrors and in two words the “In the Beginning Forever Word” becomes very human. “Jesus wept.” It might be that this is Jesus at his most divine as well, at least I like to think so. Now that would be magic.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Christmas 2 A - Ephesians 1:3-14

Ephesians 1:3-14
If we were to embody the over-the-top “praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” language of these passages we would be different people. By that I mean we would be more generous, more forgiving, more loving, more Christ-like to ourselves and as a result to others. Truth is all of our less than loving behavior towards others comes from a less than loving acceptance of ourselves. Our inability to love who we are comes from the belief that we are less than worthy of being loved or on the flip side a belief that we are more than worthy of being loved, which in a strange way is really the same thing. I know I’m oversimplifying things but I don’t think I’m breaking new ground in the thought that those who know and believe and accept that they are loved “lavishly” (1:8) period-end-of-sentence love in the same way. But then we know too much about ourselves, even if we are well schooled in the discipline of denial, to believe a perfect Being could tolerate “sinners” such as ourselves. But what if we were to accept that the God who exists beyond time and space is not that different from the very best parent among us who is inextricably connected to the child of their desire and could no more condemn them to hell on earth or beyond than we could and grieves every moment of separation? And more than that, that God, who in good pleasure loves lavishly, depends on the effects of such radical acceptance to transform self-centered individuals into those who live for the praise of God’s glory. Of course that’s the kind of love that got Christ crucified but then maybe lavish love takes crucifixion as a given.  

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Christmas 2 A - Psalm 147:12-20

Psalm 147:12-20
I don’t mean to dispute the accuracy of the scriptures but according to “the weather in most of Israel is not extreme by any standard, so that the Israeli winter is at best what New Yorkers would call autumn. That means temperatures between 41° and 65° in Tel Aviv. However, Jerusalem can get as low as 34° at night. Brrrrrr! Who can withstand such an icy blast? Of course winter like autumn may be due to global warming and 3000 years ago Jerusalem was a ski resort. Or maybe snow like wool happened so rarely that the people of Jerusalem were like Texans who having never lived through a real winter that lasts from November to April think of snow as a novelty. (Unless it stays around for more than a day, of course) It does seem an odd reference for a warm climate unless we put it in the context of verses two and three; “The Lord builds up Jerusalem and gathers the exiles of Israel. He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.” It can get very cold in Babylon and a tiny nation held captive might doubt their favored nation status. But if God controls the weather, even in Babylon, hurling hail like pebbles and stirring up breezes to make waters flow then they are not a small people to be pitied but God’s own people who alone are the keepers of God’s statutes and judgments. It is true for us as well who experience times of doubt, when brokenhearted we are held captive by circumstance and wonder when we will experience peace within our personal borders or be satisfied again with the finest of wheat. The word of encouragement to the exiles returned is a word of encouragement for us to whom the word of God has been revealed, not in an icy blast but in an infant’s cry, not in hail hurled like pebbles but in the child grown to be the Christ crucified and risen.