Friday, January 31, 2020

Epiphany 4 A - Matthew 5:1-12

Matthew 5:1-12
Those of us who have been forever contaminated by close contact to Monty Python’s movie “Life of Brian” are no longer able to listen to or read these verses without thinking of the line “blessed are the cheese makers.” I’ll risk an explanation for those of you who are still pure of heart as long as you agree to never ever watch the movie. (Except for the clip I’ve posted on today’s blog, of course)  In the movie those who are on the edge of the large crowd are having trouble hearing Jesus so one of them asks, “What was that?” The response is, “I think it was blessed are the cheese makers” which in turn prompts the response, “What’s so special about the cheese makers?” I don’t think many outside the church are offended by Life of Brian and probably laugh during it unless they find British humor too British. But I bet a good number of Christians think a movie that makes fun of the sacred story nothing short of blasphemy. So is it? I don’t think so and here’s the point. Satire cannot exist in a vacuum. The reason Monty Python is able to play games with these powerful words of Jesus is because those who follow Jesus have failed to live them. The movie is not a satire of Jesus but of us. To quote another British comedic saying, “It’s a fair cop.”

Thursday, January 30, 2020

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 do not have a place in the tent on the hill. Doing what is right and speaking the truth from the heart, walking the blameless way, is produced by proximity to the One 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 a suffering death made the hill where the wicked had their way, holy. There is a transformation then which takes place when one consistently sees 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, 2020

Epiphany 4 A - Micah 6:1-8

The controversy God has with the people of Micah’s time is that they prefer ritual righteousness to righteous acts, though truth to be told they’re wearied by rituals as well. God takes Israel to court to work out a settlement to renew the covenant and get Israel back on a payment plan. The surprise is that the sacrifice for the sin of the soul will not be more of the same, thousands of rams, ten thousands of rivers of oil, or God forbid, the first born fruit of one’s body. Instead the righteous rituals of the new deal will be to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. The difference is ritual righteousness; sacrifices that take the place of or pay the penalty for the sin of the soul can be and are often superficial. Offering at the altar might cost the pocketbook and take some time but ultimately nothing has to change. You pay the fine, take the points on your driver’s license and still ignore the speed limit. But if the sacrifice for the sin of soul is to do justice the soul that oppresses is healed. If it is to love kindness the soul that is mean is mended. If it is to walk humbly with God the arrogant soul far from the Lord is restored to a right relationship. That doesn’t mean the sin sick soul can’t turn Micah 6:8 into a slogan and stamp it on t-shirts and hats and posters and coffee mugs and bumper stickers and like wearing a WWJD bracelet feel good about taking stand while not doing a damn thing to do what God demands and make a difference in this world. Truth is this remedy for the sin of the soul is a cure but few are willing to swallow the pill for fear it will mean a significant lifestyle change, which of course it will, but that’s the whole point isn’t it?

Friday, January 24, 2020

Epiphany 3 A - Matthew 4:12-23

Matthew 4:12-23
I don’t want to burst any Bible balloons but Matthew’s call of the disciples is quite different from the Gospel of John. I’m guessing most people don’t notice week to week the discrepancies that crop up in the scriptures but surely this week someone in the pew will listen to the preacher read the Gospel according to Saint Matthew the fourth chapter and remembering last week’s Gospel according to Saint John the first chapter raise an objection. They can’t both be right, can they? In the past I would have suggested they were two different and unrelated accounts of the same story and we shouldn’t make them do what they didn’t intend to do, namely agree. Matthew written before John didn’t read John and John written after Matthew thought there was more to say. But what if – and here I apologize to all my New Testament seminary professors unless my “what if” is original and makes sense in which case I want credit – what if John’s story written last comes first and Matthew recounts a calling of Andrew and Simon (called Peter) who’ve known Jesus for some time? So this is the timeline. Last week’s Gospel comes first. Andrew, a disciple of John the Baptist, follows Jesus to where he is staying bringing his brother Simon who Jesus renames Peter. There is “not recorded time” when Andrew and Peter keep fishing dividing their time between John and Jesus. And then when John is arrested the Jesus in Matthew comes calling and says “follow me” which they do because the one who invites them is known to them. That makes more sense to me than two fishermen leaving their nets to follow a perfect stranger. That’s how it is with us, isn’t it? We risk the following, just like they did, but only because we know the one who invites us. They didn’t know where he would lead them or even what fishing for people meant but in the unrecorded time between Andrew’s inviting and Simon’s renaming they had come to know that the only place they wanted to be was with Jesus.   

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Epiphany 3 A - 1 Corinthians 1:10-18

1 Corinthians 1:10-18
Okay, so I got ahead of myself last week and skipped over Paul’s introductory remarks about sanctified saints enriched in speech and knowledge to get to the conflict I knew was coming. It is amazing how many Spirit filled, stockings stuffed with manifest gifts, Bible believing Christians who know the Corinthian correspondence chapter and verse miss Paul’s point altogether. On the other hand I remember when the wind of the Spirit rocked my world and set me on fire for the Lord. I scorched more than a few friends and neighbors with my new found personal relationship with Jesus piety. There’s nothing worse than a reformed sinner who only remembers the moment of conversion and forgets how many conversions it took to get one to finally stick. But then the Corinthians are not so much reformed back-sliders as they are religious junkies who revel in the novelty of ecstatic speech and hedonistic excess justified by grace gone wild. And even though Chloe’s people report some follow Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas or Christ, truth is the Corinthians are following their own desires. Preferring the tongues of angels they neglect the language of love and empty the cross of its power because they trust their own wisdom and manufacture whatever truth suits their fancy. This is the week of prayer for Christian unity and yet divisions in Christendom continue to be common as those destined to spend significant time together in eternity can’t seem to set aside the petty differences of the present to be the one in Christ people, by the grace of God, they were meant to be. Instead the church puffed up with pride, thinking its primary purpose is to be the sole gate keeper to heavenly bliss, has finally reaped the reward of its arrogance and become irrelevant to those who know what legitimate love looks like without any help from the church, thank you very much. If those inside the church can’t get along with each other why would anyone outside the church want to “come and see”? We spend a lot of time and effort defining ourselves by what divides us. I belong to Luther. I belong to Calvin. I belong to Wesley. I belong to Rome. I belong to Canterbury. And yes, I belong to Christ. But the foolish message of the cross is that in Christ we belong to each other.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

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

Psalm 27:1, 4-9
The confidence celebrated in Psalm 27 is not due to the absence of things of which one might rightly be afraid. In fact the psalmist anticipates a day of trouble and even now is surrounded by enemies. So this is not a “you’ve got to accentuate the positive eliminate the negative” sort of psalm. That denial of true trouble cannot long withstand the onslaught of all that destroys hope and robs us of well being. But I believe it to be true that songs sung and music made in the midst of trouble, even through clenched teeth and weeping eye, diminish the darkness and encourage confidence, for in the light and salvation of the Lord we see the sanctuary of hope and gaze upon the beauty of peace that is the face of Christ. One my favorite songs of the monastic community in Taize, France is Nada te turbe. “Nothing can trouble. Nothing can frighten. Those who seek God will never go wanting. God alone fills us.” It is the way of faith to remember when in the past God our helper lifted our head above all that troubled, all which frightened, so that when we experience difficult days in the present we can by memory sing the song that anticipates the time of rejoicing.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Epiphany 3 A - Isaiah 9:1-4

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 the 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. 

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Epiphany 2 A - John 1:29-42

How is “Rabbi, where are you staying?” an answer to “What are you looking for?” unless of course what the two disciples are looking for is a place to stay. In that case “Come and see” is exactly what they want to hear and before you know it at least one of the two disciples of John the Baptist, namely Andrew, has moved in with Jesus and found a spot on the couch for his brother Peter as well. Six chapters later Andrew will find a boy whose mother packed him a sack lunch and bring him to Jesus and Jesus will turn the boy’s five small barley loaves and two sardines into a feast for more than 5000. That’s what happens when “Where are you staying?” is really “Can we come with you?” and “Come and see” is really “Follow me.” It’s not any different today, although the Gospel makes everything except the crucifixion sound easier than it really was. Andrew leaves the familiar to follow the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world and Simon, whose name means “to hear”, listens to his brother without any evidence that what Andrew is saying is true and subsequently becomes Peter “the “rock” on whose confession the church is built, though that will get him crucified just like the Christ he confesses. I do not believe God orchestrates all the details of our lives but like the two disciples of John I do believe God can be found in the timing of chance encounters and overheard conversations that lead those of us who have found a dwelling place in the Christ to step out of our comfort zone and for a moment be Andrew inviting those who God has put in our path to “Come and see.”

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Epiphany 2 A - 1 Corinthians 1:1-9

1 Corinthians 1:1-9
It is a lovely beginning for a difficult letter to the Corinthian church. They are not lacking in any spiritual gift but they are puffed up with pride and like noisy gongs and clanging cymbals are guilty of neglecting the greatest gift of love. But that comes later. Here in the beginning of the letter Paul calls the Corinthians sanctified saints, together with all those in every place who call on the name of Christ, so that enriched in speech and knowledge by the grace of God they might be blameless on the day of Jesus Christ. Of course in the verses that follow this introduction Paul gets down to business and names the divisions reported to him by Chloe’s household appealing to them in the name of Jesus to agree with one another. We should not be surprised by divisions in the church twenty one centuries later given that they existed in the beginning and at least some of those who neglected the law of love had a personal relationship with the real Jesus. Maybe we should be surprised, and certainly grateful, when we who are church play nice and actually enjoy being together and more to the point live the hope of our calling where the confession of our faith is conveyed by the character of our communities.  

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Epiphany 2 A - Psalm 40:1-11

Psalm 40:1-11
I don’t mean to question the psalmist’s recollection but most people don’t wait patiently while sinking in a slimy pit. Of course when one has been rescued and is standing on a rock with a new song to sing the days of desperation might be remembered as patient waiting rather than a daily struggle to hold on to hope. But then maybe the psalmist’s patient waiting is not meant to be in the style of Norwegian stoicism or the British stiff upper lip. No, the psalmist’s cry from the mud and mire was loud and long enough for the Lord to finally hear. If that is true than patient waiting is not silent but is making the Lord your trust even when there is no end in sight and you can’t sink any lower in the pit of circumstances that have conspired against you. Patient waiting means continually crying out until the Lord’s ear is inclined in your direction. And when at last one is rescued the crying out in desperate days becomes a new song of salvation and we tell the glad news of deliverance for the sake of those who are still waiting for a firm place to stand.

Monday, January 13, 2020

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, 2020

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.” 

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

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

“I truly understand that God shows no partiality…” I don’t think we can truly understand the magnitude of that statement. Everything Peter had been taught about God would have led him to believe the opposite. God is very particular about who is acceptable and punishes those who are not, showing partiality to one people, out of all the people in the world, as a treasured possession. “I will be your God and you will be my people. You don’t get any more partial that that. Even Jesus came only for the lost sheep of the house of Israel, or so Peter heard him say on more than one occasion.  But all that changes when Peter is led by the Spirit to the house of a Roman centurion named Cornelius and sees the Spirit fall upon the Gentiles in the same way it fell upon the disciples the day of Pentecost. And so Peter, who was pleased to be one to whom God was partial, enters the house of Cornelius and eats and drinks with “goyim” and that is definitely 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.

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

The Baptism of Our Lord Year A - Psalm 29

You might want to “ascribe to the Lord” from a distance when the Lord’s voice breaks cedars and makes oaks whirl while the wilderness shakes and the land of Lebanon skips like a calf. It does seem odd that after a good number of verses detailing natural disasters brought about by the Lord’s loud voice the same Lord is asked to bless the people with peace. On the other hand I’ve been known to head outside to experience a Texas size thunderstorm for the sheer thrill of it. But maybe the psalmist doesn’t head for the storm shelter because the Lord is the one who makes the sky light up like the fourth of July while the wind whips up a “Somewhere over the Rainbow” tornado and being familiar with the source of the storm makes the fearsome display of natural firepower less frightening. Or it could just be poetry, like Earth and All Stars (ELW 731) and the psalmist was just taking literary liberty with some lovely language about the Lord’s voice making the Weather Channel’s top ten list.

Monday, January 6, 2020

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

Isaiah 42:1-9
It is a vision offered to people whose strength like a bruised reed was close to breaking, whose hope like a dimly burning wick was all but quenched. Sitting in the darkness of captivity they might have preferred a servant with a little more chutzpah. Instead the chosen servant, in whom the Lord’s soul delights, will quietly bring forth justice by revealing the Lord’s righteousness, opening eyes blind to the new thing now declared which is freedom for those held prisoner to sorrow and suffering. It is declared before it springs forth as former things are coming to pass so that those who grow faint and are nearly crushed will trust again that even in the deepest darkness there is a light that shines in the heart that hopes in the Lord. They didn’t have too long to wait before this word was literally true for them and released from the dungeon of Babylon they returned unto Zion with singing. The One who we identify with this “servant song” will still take a few centuries to spring forth but in the end will accomplish more than the captives could have ever imagined for Jesus growing faint, crushed by the weight of the cross, cries out with a loud voice, “It is finished” and so it is. Then what are we waiting for if Isaiah’s vision has been fulfilled? Could it be that we are the ones called in righteousness that God is waiting on to be a light to the nations, sight for the blind, release for the prisoners, to faithfully bring forth justice in the earth? Talk about chutzpah.