Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Lent 1 A - Genesis 2:15 - 3:21

However you read this story, as literal truth or origin myth, it is spot on about humanity’s fatal flaw. Living in paradise the first humans were not satisfied. The serpent gave voice to the doubts already in their minds about the One who walked and talked with them but withheld one thing from them. It was their lust for the fruit, a delight to the eye and desirable for knowledge, that led them to roll the dice and bet paradise they’d gain more than they would lose. Of we course we know they lost everything except the One who walked with them in the first place. Even though the ultimate consequence of their disobedience is death, God clothes them to cover their shame and protect them from the harsh reality of life outside the walls of paradise. That’s the grace in this story for them and for us.  Despite our rebellious nature, our own lusting after power or possessions, or our devaluation of self through destructive behaviors or relationships, the One we have offended bears the offense of the cross, clothing us in righteousness, so that in our final end we return to that perfect beginning.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Transfiguration Year A - Matthew 17:1-9

Matthew 17:1-9
It’s only been six days since Jesus rebuked Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!” for not understanding picking up the cross as the purpose of Jesus’ life and the only way for disciples to follow. Now blinded by the light Peter wants to stay put and dwell permanently on the mountaintop. It’s the voice, “LISTEN TO HIM” that shuts Peter up and overcome by fear he and his companions faint dead away. It takes the touch and voice of Jesus, “get up and do not be afraid” to wake them and then sworn to secrecy they descend to the less frightening and more familiar places on the plain. It’s a strange story but then that’s the nature of a theophany. The recognizable transfigured into the mysterious as the Jesus who ate and drank with disciples in the valley glows like a nuclear reactor on the mountain top while talking to the long gone law giver and end time prophet about God knows what. So we who are comfortable with “What a friend we have in Jesus” also sing “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise” and hold the two in tension. The familiar and friendly Jesus is the One who in the beginning was the Word and in the end will be judge and jury of all. It may be that in our end, when we come face to face with that terrifying reality, we will faint dead away, but then I’m trusting that the Lord Jesus will touch us and “Get up and do not be afraid” will be the only Word we hear.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Transfiguration Year A - 2 Peter 1:16-21

2 Peter 1:16-21
It is a testimony to the conviction of the first disciples that anyone believed what surely must have seemed less of a cleverly devised myth and more just outright nonsense. But people did believe the eyewitness testimony of these Galilean fishermen and then with equal passion proclaimed the crucified and resurrected Jewish peasant preacher Jesus, who they had never seen, to be the Beloved of God and Savior of the world. Whenever we are tempted to despair of the statistical decline of the church we would do well to pay attention to the lamp of their prophetic message which still shines in the darkness of our time; not because we fear some future final judgment but because we are convinced that the same word that captured the imagination of first century people is equally relevant in our own. Perhaps the church grew complacent for a time, satisfied with the status quo, but the prophetic word is always present and just waiting for those who believe to give it voice. So let us pray that the day will dawn and the morning star will rise in our hearts as it did in the disciples and moved by the Holy Spirit we will make known the power and coming of our Lord Jesus.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Transfiguration Year A - Psalm 2

Psalm 2
Let me start by kissing the Lord’s feet and acknowledge that God is God and I am not, so if God wants to speak with wrath and fury to break the nations and smash the people to pieces that is God’s prerogative. But I have some trouble with this text where God laughs at and then with terrifying fury uses his servant to destroy kings who exalt themselves. That’s because people without power perish right along with princes and the king God set on Zion’s hill broke a long list of nations with an iron rod and spared no one, not even women and children. And secondly it would appear the trembling foot kissers taking happy refuge in the Lord are only doing so to avoid being destroyed themselves, for God’s wrath is quickly kindled if proper respect is not shown. So what do we do with the second psalm? We can say there is truth in these words and there are good reasons to destroy rulers of the earth who exalt themselves. But when it comes to the nature of God this is not the truest word. The truest word about God’s nature is that instead of kissing the Lord’s feet we nailed them to wood and “Father forgive them” was clearly not a second psalm response.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Transfiguration Year A - Exodus 24:12-18

Exodus 24:12-18
In some ways the ancient stories sound odd to modern ears. The glory of the Lord in thick clouds and a devouring fire on the top of the mountain sounds a lot like one of the lightning strikes I heard the other night and even though the closest one may have warranted an “Oh my God!” I understand lightning in scientific terms. The ancients saw God’s hand at work in the timing of what we know as naturally occurring phenomenon. But then we “moderns” often do the same thing by giving extra-ordinary meaning to everyday events as when instead of turning left we turn right and a chance encounter bears blessings. So I guess I’m okay with the children of Israel camped before the mountain giving glory to the Lord for what may well have been Mt. Sinai having a little volcanic hiccup and spewing some smoke. It’s Moses entering the cloud of mountain top devouring fire that defies explanation. He was a reluctant leader in the very beginning and even though barefoot he carried on a conversation with a burning bush he was always looking for a way out. Of course the Lord provided that through signs and wonders, not the least of which was the parting of the sea, but that’s not what Moses had in mind. In some ways God has worn down his reluctant leader so that when summoned to come up to the mountain and camp Moses obeys and does not complain. Maybe a faith that follows without complaining or seeking a way out has less to do with spiritual discipline and more to do with God wearing us down so that like Moses the way out is really the only way in.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Epiphany 7 A - Matthew 5:38-48

Nikolaï Gay (1831-1894)
These are dangerous words and those who attempt to practice them don’t last very long. Evil doers not resisted are free to do evil to those who fail to fight back. Giving away coat and cloak, going the extra mile, giving to everyone who begs or wants to borrow means the giver goes without. Loving your enemies and praying for those who persecute you means they win and you lose and no one wants to be a capital L loser. We’d much rather bring a world of hurt down on the head of those who mess with us and given the opportunity we utterly destroy our enemies and turn the table on those who persecute us making them rue the day they were born. We can always fall back on “saved by grace” and confess like the apostle Paul the good we would do we don’t and the evil we don’t want to do we do, although a more truthful confession is that loving enemies is the last “good” thing we’d ever want to do. Look at what being perfect and forgiving those who “know not what they do” got Jesus. If that’s what perfection leads to I want no part of it and if you are honest neither do you. So let’s resolve to be less than perfect and keep the practice of our faith safely inside the four walls of our sanctuaries and maybe a little charity on the side as long as it doesn’t cost too much and the people who benefit from our generosity are sufficiently grateful. I trust Jesus will understand, after all he’s got to live by his own words and I’m betting I can borrow a little slack and get a free pass on loving my enemies. If that’s a slap in Jesus’ face I’m sorry, but I trust he’ll turn the other cheek. That just sounds wrong doesn’t it? It even makes me uncomfortable and I wrote it, but that’s what we do when we fail to take these words seriously and put them into practice. We call that failure sin and sin is never more deceptive than when it is practiced by the pious who insulate the life of faith from life in the world, the world that Jesus died to save by a perfection that got him punished. So what do we do? Maybe perfection is a process and what I do today is the foundation for what I might do tomorrow and slowly but surely the life of faith has less to do with an hour on Sunday morning, as important as that is to many of us, and more to do with using the other waking hours of the days of our week to practice the perfection of mercy and kindness and love. God knows there are plenty of opportunities in a week to get it right. And all sarcasm aside we do always rely on saved by grace (without slapping Jesus in the face) because Jesus has a robe of righteousness he's dying to give us.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Epiphany 7 A - 1 Corinthians 10-11, 16-23

1 Corinthians 3:10-11,16-23
I am always grateful to God and not a little surprised when the foolish church works in wise ways. It is more often the case that God’s temple is adorned with the architecture of this world, jealously and envy, competition and pride, where each believes their way is the only way. Or in religious terms, the church embracing righteousness lives the law which is secondary at the expense of love which is primary. That being said, unconditional love can be an excuse for excess and the love that comes from God does not last long when consumed by indulgence. Which is why the foundation of faith is not in us or in human leaders or denominational loyalty but is built solely on the foundation of God in Christ becoming one with humanity easily deceived by self, wise in the ways of the world and enamored by futile thoughts. How is it we cannot get this right? How can we who know in our heart of hearts that we depend fully on God’s mercy for ourselves not extend it to others? It could be that we really don’t believe it for ourselves and run from God like the younger son in the parable of the prodigal or like the older brother stay home and work like a slave for that which already belongs to us. But when the party happens and everyone who is invited attends the wise church acts in foolish ways and the grace of God that created such an unlikely gathering makes the future appear in the present and the one thing we get right makes up for all the things we so often get wrong.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Epiphany 7 A - Psalm 119:33-40

Psalm 119:33-40
Teach me your decrees. Give me understanding. Direct me to delight in your commands that my heart might be turned from selfish gain and my eyes from worthless things. Fulfill your promise and take away the disgrace I dread. It would seem the psalmist has firsthand knowledge of the disgrace of selfish gain and worthless things as, perhaps, do we all. “All we like sheep have gone astray, each of us to our own way”  is how the prophet Isaiah describes the time before we came to our senses to see how far we had strayed and in all our longing how secure we might be, if only… That “if only” is the pivotal point of these verses but the whole point is that the psalmist is wholly dependent on God to teach, give, direct, turn, fulfill and take away. Which means the psalmist is wholly dependent on the Lord to turn the course of worthless wanderings into life preserving paths of righteousness. So what part do we play in all of this? The same part the psalmist plays which is to pray the longing of the heart to know and be known by God or to quote a Kris Kristofferson classic, “Lord, help me, Jesus…”

Monday, February 13, 2017

Leviticus 19:1-8
I confess that I am not a big fan of Leviticus. In my less than pious moments I wonder if the Levites wrote all those regulations just to pad their pensions for although they were the tribe that "had no land" they got most of the goods. And I question what seem to be arbitrary laws as I am highly suspicious of the tyranny of religious systems. On the other hand I cannot escape my Augustinian understanding of the depravity of the human creature because I know myself all too well. So what turns out to be saving grace for me in this lesson full of law is the refrain. “I am the Lord your God.” It is not a threat. It’s a promise. It is not conditional. It’s guaranteed. The grace that is found in the whole of scripture is God’s desire to be in relationship with humanity. And like all relationships of significance there are sacrifices made and a joining that calls for compromise. We who are less than perfect are made perfect in God and God who is more than perfect takes on imperfection for the sake of loving us. Martin Luther called it the great exchange. But the part of piety that we often miss entirely is the prominent feature of Leviticus. To be “holy” is all about how we care for others, especially the neighbor, ones in our employ, the poor, the alien, the deaf, the blind because our holiness is about how we care for others in the same way that God’s holiness has everything to do with how God cares for us. So serving the other is serving God and the refrain “I am the Lord your God” is just another way of God saying remember “I love you”.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Matthew 5:21-37
No one can escape this laundry list of sin but those who are angry with brothers and sisters can do so silently, whispering “You fool” under their breath. Those who fail to keep vows to the Lord keep it to themselves and the Lord isn't talking either. Those who look upon another with lust can do so without anyone being the wiser even the one being objectified. But those who carry the certificate of divorce, even when re-married, hear these words of Jesus differently. If Jesus knew the whole story, knew how painful and lonely and hurt I felt, and that I resisted divorce as long as I could because it was the wrong thing I never wanted to do but in the end was the only right thing I could do, what then, Jesus, would you still condemn me? The church throughout the centuries has used these words of Jesus to condemn women, but some men as well, to a life of cut off hands and plucked out eyes demanding they deny themselves rather than divorce the one who beats them every night, or day after day makes them feel stupid or dirty or inadequate or simply unnecessary. We can sanitize these words of Jesus and say he’s speaking in hyperbole. We can say he means what he says and we better get serious about sin or suffer the consequence. Or maybe the anger that destroys relationships, the lust that makes us less than human on both sides of the equation, the dishonesty of vows made and not kept and yes, the promise of the wedding day, so full of hope, so full of joy that ends under the cold hard light of the court is as much hell as anyone needs to know. So is there a day of judgment? Of course there is. And we’re all guilty for the way we have failed to live these words or tried to avoid them or worse, the ways in which we who claim the name of Christ have twisted them. Heaven help us. And of course heaven did, though for Jesus it was hell.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Epiphany 6 A - 1 Corinthians 3:1-9

I think it is worth noting that Paul never speaks critically of Apollos and since Paul never pulls his punches it must mean that Apollos did not encourage the Corinthians divided loyalty. According to Acts 18:24, Apollos was “an eloquent man, mighty in the scriptures” while Paul describes his own abilities as possessing neither wise nor persuasive words. Sadly those who plant and those who water often do not value each other’s roles and promote their position while devaluing the other. Congregations can also sow the seeds of clergy competition, feeding preacher’s egos with flattery and before you know it like the Corinthians divided loyalties have fanned the flames of jealously and quarreling. But when servant leaders working together recognize in each other the gift of unique abilities for shared mission and ministry the church is strengthened for the common purpose of blessing the world with the grace of God. That calls for a maturity of faith and the solid food of humility in the pulpit and the pew. That happens when both preacher and parishioner remember that “it is grace, nothing but grace, that we are allowed to live in community.” (D. Bonhoeffer Life Together)

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Epiphany 6 A - Psalm 119:1-8

Psalm 119:1-8
At first blush it looks like the psalmist believes the blessed walk according to the law in ways that are entirely blameless and that following the Lord’s ways means doing no wrong. But then verse four begins with an exclamation “Oh” that is really a lament. Oh, that my ways were steadfast. Oh, that I would not be put to shame. Oh, that I would consider your commands. Even the declaration, “I will obey” is followed by the plea, “do not utterly forsake me.” Now it may be that the psalmist really thought doing no wrong was within the ability of the blessed but my experience of those who claim to be blameless is that they’re just passing the buck. Even as those who walk in ways that bring shame live the lament “Oh!” in ways utterly forsaken. But if these first eight verses of psalm 119 begin where we are, lamenting “Oh” and praying “do not forsake me”, then we are walking the walk that seeks the Lord. And while seeking the Lord in honest lament and desperate plea is a blessing of sorts the real blessing is in the life of faith that follows; not a walk that does no wrong but an honest walk that depends fully on the blameless One not forsaking us.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Epiphany 6 A - Deuteronomy 30:15-20

Deuteronomy 30:15-20
“Choose life” (verse 19) seems an obvious choice and would be if death didn't wear all the cool clothes. By that I mean there must be something compelling about cursed ways of being that make them attractive otherwise we would all choose life and never engage in ways of living that promise more than they can deliver. But then these verses are not so much about personal piety as they are about a communal decision to enter a new reality according to the commandments, decrees, and ordinances of God. Of course the promise of prosperity to Israel was not good news to the people who possessed the land that the “choose life” people of Israel were about to enter and in fact the people of God choosing life meant death for every man, woman and child who were living in the land God swore to give to the ancestors of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Which means in the context of possessing the land choosing life for self was to choose death for others and choosing death for oneself meant choosing life for others. If we of the Christian tradition believe Jesus had any insight into what God meant by the commandments, decrees, and ordinances then “love God” and “love others” says it all. (Matthew 22:36-40) Maybe the children of Israel were okay with their decision to choose life for themselves and deal death for everyone else because they were desperate to get out of the desert but it seems to me that if choosing life for one’s self means death for everyone else the only God pleasing choice is life for others and death for self or in other words “we preach Christ crucified.” 

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Epiphany 5 A - Matthew 5:13-20

Matthew 5:13-20
Given my passion for all things culinary I like to think that Jesus uses the image of being salt to mean we are to flavor the world not overpower it. After all the purpose of salt is to enhance a dish and bring out the flavors that would otherwise be missed. In the same way light illuminates what is already there by creating a contrast making an image more interesting. We are to flavor the world and shine light upon what is already there. Salt of the earth and light of the world celebrates the human spirit which is able to overcome insurmountable obstacles and endure hardship and suffering with courage and fortitude. These things are not exclusive to the Christian church though for too long in our arrogance we have acted as if salt were the whole dish and light existed for itself. That does not mean there are not bitter dishes that cannot be salvaged or darkness in the human heart that no amount of light can banish. But the salt of the Gospel flavors the best qualities of being human and the light of the Gospel shines on what is noble and good. In the same way that salt without a dish to flavor it is useless and light with nothing to illuminate serves no purpose the fulfilling of the law and the prophets doesn't add to what is already there, it just makes it more visible and if you like, more appetizing.