Friday, March 24, 2017

identity and calling

WORD: 1 Samuel 16

1The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and set out; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.” 2Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears of it, he will kill me.” And the Lord said, “Take a heifer with you, and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’ 3Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do; and you shall anoint for me the one whom I name to you.” 4Samuel did what the Lord commanded, and came to Bethlehem. The elders of the city came to meet him trembling, and said, “Do you come peaceably?” 5He said, “Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord; sanctify yourselves and come with me to the sacrifice.” And he sanctified Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.
6When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.” 7But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” 8Then Jesse called Abinadab, and made him pass before Samuel. He said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” 9Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” 10Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, and Samuel said to Jesse, “The Lord has not chosen any of these.” 11Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” And he said, “There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.” And Samuel said to Jesse, “Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here.” 12He sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. The Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.” 13Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward. Samuel then set out and went to Ramah.


The covenant with God was not enough for the people.  They wanted a King.  They didn't know what they were asking for.  The Covenant with God was a binding relationship and promise made by God to the people.  This covenant gave them their identity as God's chosen people. 
Kingship entails responsibility to represent God.  The King idea was not Gods.  It was the people of Israel's complaint for a King, despite God's warnings.  Kings will take your sons and daughters, raise taxes, start wars.  God gives them a King.  King Saul, first of Israel's Kings, lost favor with God.  Saul's hubris, self-determination, and the misuse of power compel God to turn away from him.  He did not represent God's interests.  God is determined to replace Saul with a new King, from Bethlehem. 
Samuel the prophet/judge is sent to the household of Jesse, grandson of Ruth and Boaz, from the family of Judah, son of Jacob (Israel).  A procession of sons is brought before Samuel, God's representative. We are told God does not choose people based on outward appearance or stature, but God looks on the heart.  When all the sons of Jesse are rejected, the last son, the forgotten shepherd boy David is brought in.  He is young, ruddy, and handsome.  God chooses David to become King.  Unexpected.  The last son becomes the first.  Not unlike the story of Jacob or Joseph (Genesis 26-50).  God chooses what is foolish to shame the wise; the weak to shame the strong. 


In God's Kingdom, the last and the least become first. This pattern is critical in understanding the mission of God.  God chooses the weak, the small, the despised, the last, the least, the losers, the bottom, the desperate, the hungry, the humble shepherd to represent God's interests in the world.  Those who sit on thrones in halls of power in fancy clothes with rich foods and comfortable beds are not chosen by this God.  God empowers the powerless. God lifts up the lowly.  And the mighty are cast down from their thrones.  This theme, beginning with David, becomes the story of Jesus, a humble servant, carpenter's son, rabbi to fishermen and tax collectors. In Baptism, we are chosen and anointed to serve.  We are invited into the family of God and challenged to build the Kingdom.  We are given a new identity as sons and daughter of God.  We are called to a new obedience to represent God's interests in the world.  Jesus reveals to us God's interests, God's desire, God's hope and intentions for human kind.  He teaches us what God wants us to become and do.   He inspires us with His Spirit and words. 
We elect representatives in this country to represent our interests in the halls of power and to use the authority given them by their constituents to enact and enforce laws for the common good.  When those people fail to represent us, they are defeated in future election. 
What happens when we fail to represent God's interests in the world?  Can we be replaced?  Though our covenant identity as children of God never ends, we have responsibility to uphold as God's chosen ones.  Not to preserve ourselves, but to bless others.  That is the role of God's children--to be a blessing to others, a light to the nations, a feast of rich food, a well in the desert.  When we don't, God empowers others in our place.  Sometimes, God's people forget that we get to be part of God's kingdom-building work.  That we're charged to live as humble servants.  We are invited and challenged to embrace both our identity and calling; our relationship and role as God's  representatives. 


 Father,  in Holy Baptism, we were anointed and chosen, identified as beloved children of God and sent to bless the world.  Claim us.  Empower us.  Send us.  When we fail, forgive us and give us another chance to represent you.  In the name of Jesus. Amen.   

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Casting stones

WORD: Gospel of John 8
While Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, they said to him, ‘Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?’ They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, ‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’ And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground.* When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightened up and said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ She said, ‘No one, sir.’* And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.’

This confrontation occurs in the Jerusalem temple, where Jesus is teaching people. Religious leaders bring a woman before Jesus. They accuse her of a serious crime, adultery.  The scribes and Pharisees are under no obligation to ask Jesus what he thinks about the law.  They bring this case to him in order "to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him."  Presumably, they thought he would be merciful and, therefore, break the law of Moses that commands the stoning of adulterers.  That these religious leaders catch her in the very act of adultery is creepy.  How did they do this?  Why is there no male counterpart?  Who were they protecting?  It betrays patriarchy and their misogyny.  If this was a sex crime, how likely was it that she was the offender and a man was the victim?  Possible, perhaps. But highly unlikely.  And so, here is the rub. She could be punished for a sex act, while the man involved  is not.  Though the law prescribes punishment for both parties.  It betrays the sexism among the male religious leaders, doesn't it?  Jesus catches them in the act, too.  Hypocrites.  Self-protecting liars. Condemning a woman for sex is like condemning gay people and ignoring rape victims.      
Jesus writes something on the ground.  We don't know what he writes or why. But he answers their inquiry by encouraging the one who is without sin to cast the first stone.  The elders are the first to leave. They would know better than the youth how hard it is to keep the law. Jesus speaks with her.  "Woman, where are they?  Has no one condemned you?"  And then he releases her, frees her, refuses to condemn her.  "Go, and sin no more," he says to her.  What if he writes his mother Mary's name?  A woman who was, perhaps, accused of adultery because she was pregnant outside of marriage.  Maybe he writes Joseph's name, the husband and father who ultimately protected them both.   

We cannot follow and obey God's law.  The very clothes I'm wearing condemn me.  (Cotton/poly blend).  The food I eat condemns me (Bacon). There are 613 law in the Torah.  We do not get to choose which ones to obey and which ones don't apply to us.  We don't get to apply certain laws to condemn certain people, but ignore the ones in which we stand guilty. 
It is easy and tempting to cast stones.  We do it to protect ourselves, to defect our own guilt.  The pointing of fingers is the political strategy employed by many people in public office. We hide our sins behind our accusations of others, our judgments of others' actions and words.  How have you cast stones or accused others?  We find it too easy to see the bad behaviors in others, while ignoring our own offensive attitude, actions, and words. 
The good new is that Jesus did not come to condemn the world, but to free us from sin.  Forgiveness and mercy make it possible for this condemned woman to walk away.  She was saved by Jesus' teaching--let he who is without sin cast the first stone.  In other words, if you are obedient enough to escape the judgment of the law, in its totality, then you are able to judge someone else's sin.  Otherwise, you do not.  No one is above the law.  And under it, all of us fail.  But thank God our story is more than our moral failures and sins of omission.  Jesus sees her as a woman, not an adulterer.  She is not what her accusers said about her.  We are not what we do or fail to do.  I am a son, a father, a husband, a pastor/teacher.  We are different things to different people.  And I am these things, even when I fail to meet expectations.  To God, we are beloved children more valuable than our failures, faults, and fears.  We are not condemned.  We are set free!  Thank God.

For those who have been found guilty, condemned, and face punishment.  For their accusers and for victims of sexual crimes.  That your patience and forgiveness might give them peace and set them free.  Amen.        

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Samaritan woman at the well: What she teaches us.

This week, the 3rd Sunday in Lent, we heard a story from the gospel of John, the fourth chapter.  It is an encounter narrative.  Jesus meets a Samaritan woman at Jacob's well.  There is a conversation that reveals prejudice and resistance.  It also reveals an inner thirst for truth and grace that is both heartbreaking and inspiring at the same time. So, here is what I heard in this story.  Please feel free to read the story here:

1.  Jesus is thirsty and tired from a wilderness journey.  John has no trouble reminding us that Jesus is human, experiencing physical discomfort.  In other words, he is like us and with us.  He can empathize with our vulnerabilities, because he shares them.  All of us have needs. When was the last time you were tired or thirsty or hungry?  Who supported you? 

2.  The woman has no name.  In Judaism, she is invisible, untouchable, and unworthy of a gift from God.  She is thrice an outcast; a woman, ethnically and religiously Samaritan.  The text betrays the bigotry, misogyny, and religious rivalry that existed between peoples.  She is quick to point these things out to Jesus.  I believe she is hiding at midday.  Unlike the Pharisee, Nicodemus, who seeks out Jesus at night (In John chapter 3), she is hoping to be left alone in the light of day.  If the well was occupied in the morning, before the heat of the day and in order to obtain the day's ration of water, then her midday trip to the well may be seen as avoidance. She has no name.  She is invisible, untouchable.  She, like Nicodemus, has something to hide.   He was hiding his interest in Jesus' teachings, his feelings of incompetency and concern for him. He was embarrassed to confess his ignorance, because he was a Pharisee--a respected and educated teacher.  What was she hiding? Who's invisible in our world?  What does shame do to people?  Who has no name? 

3.  Despite her best efforts to deflect him, she cannot dissuade Jesus from offering himself to her.  Jesus ignores the conventional mores and rules about men and women, Jew and Samaritan.  He does so in private.  This is dangerous boundary crossing for Jesus.  She could make an accusation.  She could damage his reputation.  He doesn't care.  Somehow he knows that she needs what he can give.  What boundaries did Jesus cross to meet you?  What boundaries might you cross to meet someone on their journey?

4.  Jesus uses the well and the water as an analogy for his ministry/teaching.  I think the deep well represents the depth of human struggle and suffering that the woman has gone through.  The water is Jesus' life-giving relief---forgiveness, peace, mercy, and love that he offers us.  What is the well in your life?          

5.  She is interested in the living water he offers.  And then he reveals what she's hiding.  He tells her to go and get her husband.  Somehow he knew.  She has had 5 husbands and the man she is living with now is not her husband.  Her well is bad relationships with men.  This woman has been misdiagnosed unfairly by interpreters, suggesting that she is a whore, a harlot, fast and loose with the men.  More likely, she was victim to male domination and abuse.  Nevertheless, this was a source of shame for her.  Deep shame.  She was hiding at noon from gossipers, slanderers, and those who have rejected her.  And Jesus caught her.

6.  Jesus' offer of living water was really his way of saying that he was there to wash away her shame, her pain, her sadness, her weariness, her anger and resentment.  He was there to wash it away.  As he is there for us.  What would you like Jesus to wash away from your story? 

7.  She runs away, leaving her bucket behind.  Not in fear, but with hope.  Something has changed for her in this encounter with this jewish man.  She tells others, "He told me everything I have ever done."  This is an exaggeration of their conversation, but what she means by it is so clear:  Jesus saw her, heard her, knew her.  Jesus exposed her shame and her pain, not to cause more of it, but to heal her. 

8.  Lots of people are walking around trying to fill their empty buckets.  They're going to all kinds of wells---religion, relationships, online retailers, trying to cover the shame and quench the thirst.  And its never enough.  We can't fill our own buckets.  We can't heal ourselves.  We can't fix what's broken in our relationships.  We can't set right the wrong that has been done to us or by us.  No matter how hard we try.  And some are trying hard to look like they've got their shit together.  Don't believe them.  They don't. 

9.  Jesus offers himself.  He is not demanding or coercive.  He wants nothing, but our acknowledgment that he is in this with us too.  Living in our tired, thirsty bodies.  And he wants us to take what he's giving. Living water. 

10.  Jesus says, "God is Spirit."  We cannot control, contain, or avoid God.  It's like trying to control, contain,  or avoid the wind. Religion attempts to do this when it is meant to draw us into the flow, blow us away, breathe life into our bodies, send us out with abandon and the wind of free speech telling others what God has done.  He sees me and loves me anyway.


Thursday, March 16, 2017

Invitation/Challenge Matrix

Jesus was a 1st century itinerant rabbi.  But his practice depended on students.  What is a teacher with no students, no followers?  They were called disciples, learners.  And he taught them.
 How did Jesus teach?  This is as important to us as what he taught.  Content and methods both matter.  Jesus invited people into a relationship with him in which they were welcomed as sons and daughters of God Jesus also challenged them to live into that identity as faithful practitioners and responsible stewards of the gifts they received.  His practice was highly invitational--consistently welcoming,  patient, gracious, and loving. "Come to me all y uwho are heavily burdened and I will give you rest."  Matthew 11:25.   And it was highly challenging; "If anyone wants to become my follower he (she) must deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me." Mark 8:34.  We might say that High Invitation/High Challenge was Jesus' method of delivery. 
When we think about creating a culture or environment in which people will grow, evolve, and mature in their spiritual lives we notice that Rabbi Jesus creates a culture that is highly invitational and highly challenging for his followers.  In the Gospels, he invites fishermen to follow him and learn to "fish for people".  In John's gospel he invites potential followers to "come and see" where he is abiding and what he is doing.  In both circumstances, he meets people of peace (those who are ready for a life-change, are eager to learn, are already experiencing challenges that require them to learn/change.)  We'll discuss what makes a person of peace a potential learner/disciple next time. 
Jesus invites them to follow him.  They immediately do so.  Then he begins to act.  He heals sick people, drives out unclean spirits, feeds hungry crowds, touches lepers, talks to gentiles and women, and forgives sins.  He lets them observe and listen to him.  He gives them access to his life, his words and his work.  But eventually, he will send them out to do exactly what he was doing.  He challenges them to imitate him.  Jesus taught his followers to know what he knows, see what he sees, and do what he does.  He did so in the context of a relationship, the rabbi/disciple relationship.  They were on a journey together. Apprenticeship occurred in the context of their daily lives, as it does for us.

Many churches are High Invitation/Low Challenge cultures---leaders, pastors, staff do all of the work.  And the people are largely left to comfortable consumption of religious goods and services.  In order to keep everyone happy and to attract more and more consumers, leaders have to continue to perform and produce high quality stuff for the people.  Excellence is the mark of a consumer church, driven by the demands of consumers. 
When there is low invitation/low challenge life is boring, apathetic, and uninspiring.  Organizations in this place are dying.  This culture can change by becoming more invitational and more welcoming.  But you have to create a reason to invite and welcome.  The church should always have one reason:  The message of radically inclusive, irresistible love demonstrated by Jesus. 
When there is low invitation and high challenge, life is stressful.  Some families and a lot of work/career life is like this.  I suspect many middle class, working American families live in this space; it's discouraging.  Undervalued, unappreciated, and overworked.  Working to please someone else, to be productive, and to complete hard tasks.  Anxiety and depression are symptoms of life in this culture. 

Jesus calibrated a high invitation/high challenge culture.  Identity affirmation, patience, worth and value, compassion, forgiveness, and  welcome all characterized Jesus' invitational life.  He gave time to people.  A lot of time.  One- on- one time.  He listened. Because he was building authentic love relationships with people.  He wanted them to know that they belonged to the creator, the Father, the author and giver of life. He wanted them to know that they had gifts given to them by the Holy Spirit.  He wanted them to know that they had a calling, a mission, a purpose to live. He empowered them to stand up, to have courage, and to do what was right.   
He challenged people to confront their insecurities, their incompetency, and their prejudices.  A confrontation with one's self is scary.  When you look in the mirror, who do you see?  Is it who you want to see, to be?  There will be things Jesus challenges us to do.  We may not know how to do them yet.  Jesus is challenging me to feed hungry people by managing a farm in Elizabethtown. 
So, we will learn to hear and accept invitation and challenge; We will learn to give invitation and challenge to others.   
Some other language for invitation and challenge that we will use:  Gospel/Law;  Relationship/Responsibilities;  Promise/Command; Gift/Task; Identity/Calling;  Covenant/Kingdom.       
 Why do you think this method is effective?  Where have you experienced each of these four quadrants?  What questions emerge for you?        

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Gospel of Mark chapter 1

Mark 1. 

The beginning of the good news* of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.*
 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,*
‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,*
   who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
   “Prepare the way of the Lord,
   make his paths straight” ’,
John the baptizer appeared* in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with* water; but he will baptize you with* the Holy Spirit.’
 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved;* with you I am well pleased.’
 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news* of God,* and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near;* repent, and believe in the good news.’*

 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.
 They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.’ But Jesus rebuked him, saying, ‘Be silent, and come out of him!’ And the unclean spirit, throwing him into convulsions and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He* commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.’ At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.
 As soon as they* left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.
 That evening, at sunset, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.
 In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, ‘Everyone is searching for you.’ He answered, ‘Let us go on to the neighbouring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.’ And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.
 A leper* came to him begging him, and kneeling* he said to him, ‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’ Moved with pity,* Jesus* stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’ Immediately the leprosy* left him, and he was made clean. After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, saying to him, ‘See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.’ But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus* could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.

Questions for reflection:

What do we learn about Jesus through his words?  Through his actions?
What do others think about Jesus? 
What is the relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist?  Between Jesus and Satan?  Between Jesus and the fishermen?  Between Jesus and a man with an unclean spirit?  Between Jesus and a leper?
What is Jesus' purpose or mission?
Why do people follow him? 
How does Jesus invite?  How does he challenge?