Worship Message Texts

I concluded my final interim pastorate in March 2016, so I am no longer preaching on a regular basis. I am available for pulpit supply and these sermon scripts and videos give a picture of my approach. For pulpit supply, I am happy to write new sermons targeted at specific concerns or needs of congregations, otherwise I will rework previous sermons based on the texts of the Revised Common Lectionary for that Sunday.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Can You Imagine a Castle on a Cloud?

Reflections for Easter Sunday
Isaiah 65:17-25; John 20:11-18
March 27, 2016
© 2016

If you had the power to fix whatever you think is wrong with the world, what would your new world look like? Artists often express these dreams with great eloquence.
Candy and I saw the Les Miserables movie at Christmas 2012, having seen the stage play years ago in Philadelphia. Young Cosette’s song Castle on a Cloud is her dream of escaping abusive servitude and drudgery. In the church I served in New Jersey, it was sung by the school choir at the funeral for a girl killed in an auto accident on her 13th birthday.
There is a castle on a cloud,
I like to go there in my sleep,
Aren't any floors for me to sweep,
Not in my castle on a cloud.
There is a room that's full of toys,
There are a hundred boys and girls,
Nobody shouts or talks too loud,
Not in my castle on a cloud.
There is a lady all in white,
Holds me and sings a lullaby,
She's nice to see and she's soft to touch,
She says “Cosette, I love you very much.”
I know a place where no one's lost,
I know a place where no one cries,
Crying at all is not allowed,
Not in my castle on a cloud.
John Lennon’s Imagine has become the anthem of a generation and identifies religion, nationalism, personal property and the expectation of life after death as the sources of injustice and suffering that need to be abolished. All of this is packaged as a winsome, lyrical invitation to dream.
Imagine there's no heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people living for today
Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people living life in peace
You, you may say
I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one
I hope some day you'll join us
And the world will be as one
Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people sharing all the world
You, you may say
I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one
I hope some day you'll join us
And the world will live as one
Isaiah 65:17-25 envisions God’s renewed world. This vision of hope answered the disappointments that came when the people of Judah returned from captivity in Babylon and realized that it did not inaugurate the ideal world. Through the prophet, God promised a new heaven and a new earth, which is echoed again in Revelation 21:1. In a time when life was short and any hint of personal, eternal life was vague at best, the defeat of death was longevity measured by centuries and the age of trees. No longer would people work to enrich others but would enjoy the fruits of their own labors. The end of suffering and weeping is also echoed in Revelation 7:17. God will not only protect but rejoice and delight in all who live on God’s holy mountain.

For centuries people have concocted all sorts of silly speculations about Mary Magdalene, though what the New Testament tells us about her seems more than fascinating enough to me. She is the main character in the account of Jesus’ resurrection in John 20. She, probably with a few other women, was the first to arrive at the empty tomb at dawn. She ran to tell Peter and probably John that Jesus had been taken out of the tomb. Peter and John ran to the tomb but returned to the others without seeing Jesus. Verses 11-18 report that …
… Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”14When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means MY Teacher).17Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”18Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
Mary’s experience with the risen Jesus was intensely personal. Whether the other women were there at that moment, John focused on the personal encounter between Mary and Jesus. Mary recognized Jesus when he spoke her name, and she called him “my teacher.” Emotionally overwhelmed, she clung to him, not wanting to let him out of her grasp ever again. He said, “Don’t hold onto me.” Something bigger was coming. He said, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, my God and your God,” bringing together the personal and the cosmic.
Mary ran to proclaim, to preach to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord!” Thus, as the first eye witness to proclaim having seen the risen Jesus, she is called the first apostle and the apostle to the apostles. Legend has it that she once had an audience with the Emperor Tiberius and told how she met the risen Jesus. The Emperor replied that no one could come back to life after a Roman crucifixion any more that the egg on the table could turn red. The story is that the egg on the Emperor’s table instantly turned red, and so many Eastern orthodox icons of Mary Magdalene show her holding a red egg.
The risen Jesus invites us to join him in God’s future that is at once personal and cosmic, immediate and eternal.
I may have told you before of hearing Fr. Thomas Hopko speak on the spiritual life when he was Dean of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary in New York. He said that when he was a boy, his mother told him, “If you want to grow as a Christian, read your Bible, say your prayers, and go to church.” Then he said to us, “Now I am the dean of a seminary training people for a lifetime of ministry, and I tell them to read their Bibles, say their prayers and go to church.” As simplistic as it may seem, Jesus meets us in the pages of Scripture, in the quiet conversation of prayer and in the community of God’s people of faith.
Jesus also calls us out of ourselves to be his partners in his redemptive repair of this broken world. He invites us bringing join him in the world of struggling people he is loving and transforming, into his cosmic redemption of all humanity and all creation. Here in Albany, TX, I have observed this in those who volunteer with Vittles by Vehicle, Closet Angels, Neighbors in Need, the Food Pantry. By look into the faces of the hurting, wounded people around us, they do much more than extend the love of Jesus to them, they join Jesus in his redemptive mission for all people in all times and all places. Beyond that, they see Christ looking back at them and smiling at them through their tears.

What is in Your Heart Comes Out

A Good Friday Meditation
Psalm 22:1-15; Mark 15:33-41
March 23, 2016
© 2016

In over 40 years as a pastor, I have been with a lot of people while they were dying, sometimes even at the moment of their passing. Christopher was 35 years old and dying of brain cancer. He had agreed with his parents that when hospice told them his last day had come, they were to invite me and the young adult group from church to be with them. He had been a runner in his healthier years and asked his parent to play a song called “He Finished the Race” when they could tell he would be breathing his last, which they did. Sad? Of course! But this was a most holy moment. What was in his heart came out. Sometimes what comes out as someone dies is angry cursing, but sometimes sweet peace comes out even in pain. It all depends on what was already in the heart.
Mark 15:33-41 reports what came out of Jesus’ mouth from his heart as he breathed his last. It had different effects on those who were there to witness it.
When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. 34At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 35When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “Listen, he is calling for Elijah.” 36And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.” 37Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. 38And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. 39Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”
40There were also women looking on from a distance; among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. 41These used to follow him and provided for him when he was in Galilee; and there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem.
The bystanders misunderstood and thought Jesus was calling the prophet Elijah to rescue him. They mocked his words as foolish.
The centurion recognized Jesus was God’s Son in the loud cry of his last breath.
I believe we know a lot of what Jesus said from the cross because the women witnessed it and reported it. They recognized that even their presence couldn’t relieve the acute abandonment Jesus felt in those three dark hours.
We typically think of Psalm 22 as prophesying the details of Jesus’ crucifixion. That certainly makes sense, but I think that by Jesus’ quoting Psalm 22 from the cross we can see deep into his heart. This is not the only Scripture or Psalm Jesus quoted during his ordeal. Jesus’ heart was so full of Scripture that he could draw on it for spiritual sustenance each step of the way, even in the three hour darkness of being abandoned by his Heavenly Father.
Psalm 22 gave Jesus an honest, intense way to respond to the pain of his abandonment. He didn’t have to pretty it up with pious words. He could draw on Scripture to express his most excruciating pain. He didn’t have to struggle to compose appropriate words. He could draw on the words of Scripture already in his heart.
That same Psalm also gave him a way to hang onto trusting his Heavenly Father in the face of feeling total abandonment and alienation. It gave him a way to appeal to his Heavenly Father in his moment of extremity.
Sometimes when we are at the extremities of our lives, feeling abandoned by friends, family and even God, we are afraid to express our emotions honestly. If we will fill our hearts with Scripture, especially the Psalms, we can receive from God honest words to express our pain and struggle to trust, knowing that since they come from Scripture, they are acceptable to God. I would also say that by filling our hearts with Scripture, we supply the Holy Spirit with raw material to bring into our minds and out of our mouths for every circumstance of life from deepest grief to most exalted joy.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

God Meets Us in the Spaces Between … Humiliation and Exaltation

Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 19:29-44
March 20, 2016 – Palm Sunday
© 2016

Palm Sunday is a bitter-sweet day in the liturgical calendar. We want to welcome Jesus with cheers and not think too much about what’s coming on Friday. Those who don’t have a Maundy Thursday or Good Friday experience jump from “Hosanna!” to “He is risen!” without the Last Supper, praying in the Garden, trial and crucifixion. The seemingly anonymous overseers of the liturgical calendar have tried to remedy this by inserting Passion Sunday to focus on the events around Jesus’ crucifixion either the fifth or sixth Sundays in Lent. Few churches want to give up Palm Sunday festivities on the sixth Sunday, and observing crucifixion on the fifth Sunday, a week before Palm Sunday, is disturbingly out of rhythm.  
I have heard plenty of Palm Sunday sermons about fickle people who shouted “Hosanna!” on Palm Sunday and “Crucify!” on Good Friday. Unique among the Gospels, Luke is clear that these were two different groups. Vocabulary that is apparent throughout Luke becomes blatant from Palm Sunday through Good Friday. Luke calls those who welcomed Jesus on Palm Sunday “the people” or “the disciples,” meaning all of his followers not just the Twelve. And Luke calls the mob that cried for his crucifixion “the crowd.” Our English translations don’t always make this as clear as it is in Greek.
While John 12:12 emphasized that pilgrims who had come to Jerusalem for Passover went out to greet Jesus on Palm Sunday, Luke emphasized those who had followed Jesus from Galilee and witnessed his deeds of power shouted praises as they approached Jerusalem. This is not a conflict but the bitter-sweet way Luke 19:29-44 sets the stage for Jesus’ response as he came around the Mount of Olives for a panoramic view of Jerusalem.
Jesus’ Triumphal Entry concludes the transition we have been watching through Lent from Jesus’ ministry in Galilee to his destiny with the cross in Jerusalem. In this space, Jesus was teaching on the go and had become increasingly pointed, foreshadowing the climatic confrontation with the Temple leadership in Jerusalem.
When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, 30saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here.31If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’”32So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. 33As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?”34They said, “The Lord needs it.”35Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it.36As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road.37As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, 38saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” 39Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.”40He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”
41As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, 42saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.43Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side.44They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.”
For Luke, the bitter-sweet of Palm Sunday was not fickle people but that Jesus’ disciples enthusiastically shouted his praises, oblivious to his weeping over Jerusalem. Contemplating this incongruity opens a vista into our spaces between humiliation and exaltation, where we can listen for the voice of God to identify our growth zones.
Matthew 21:5 quotes Zechariah 9:9 to specify that Jesus purposely chose to ride a donkey as a sign of humiliation. Jesus presented himself, not as a conquering hero on a white horse but as a servant riding a beast of burden.
In the midst of the exhilarating exaltation of the cheers of his disciples, Jesus was insulted by the Pharisees. Even deeper, his humiliation was knowing that he would not be recognized by the Temple leaders in Jerusalem. He wept for the fate of Jerusalem. If only they recognized him!
In that space between humiliation and exaltation, Jesus yearned for the people of Jerusalem, and I believe for us to identify where we are growing in the things that make for peace: faith and harmony with God.
Philippians 2:5-11 is clearly a hymn of the New Testament Church. Scholars speculate whether Paul inserted a known hymn to make his point or whether he composed it himself. I’m inclined to think Paul used something the Philippian church already sang in worship, but I don’t think it matters. But recognizing how Paul introduced this exquisitely theological praise is critical. “Let this same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” Paul is purposely practical!
Jesus leads the way for us through humiliation to exaltation. When you think you deserve some respect or appreciation, remember you are following the one who emptied himself of divine prerogatives to ride a donkey to the cross, weeping, not for himself but for people who couldn’t recognize the things that made for peace.
In your spaces between humiliation and exaltation, how can you listen for the voice of God to identify your growth zones? We may squirm, but these are not deficiencies as much as the zones where the Holy Spirit is encouraging us to grow. Do you feel your hackles coming up when someone challenges you? Maybe it’s when you’re sure you’re right and someone else tells you that they’re sure you’re wrong. Maybe it when you’ve made a decision that affects other people and someone questions your right or authority to make that decision. Behind the noise of your own heart, can you hear the whisper of Jesus saying, “Here is where you are growing now”?
Much has been made of Pope Francis being the first Latin American Pope, the first Jesuit Pope and the first Pope to choose the name Francis. Francis of Assisi never aspired to be a parish priest or bishop, much less a Pope. In fact, he clashed with Popes. Yet in 1208 Pope Innocent III had a dream of the Church sliding off its foundations, stopped by the little monk, Francis. I have seen Giotto’s fresco of that dream in the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi, Italy. Francis refused to be called the leader of the Friars Minor, “Little Brothers.” We know them as the Franciscans. Francis would have been horrified to have something named after him. He even refused to be the leader of the band of 12 brothers with whom he lived and served. Though others recorded some of Francis’ sermons, teachings and prayers (some of which are more legendary than historical), he never wrote with the idea of leaving a legacy. Nevertheless, Francis is one of the most influential Christian since the apostolic age. While claimed by Roman Catholics, Protestants and even non-Christians love Francis. Legend has it that in 1219, during the 5th Crusade, Francis crossed enemy lines for an audience with the Sultan of Egypt who is reported to have said, “If more Christian were like Francis, I would consider becoming one.”
For centuries the Jesuits and Franciscans have been rivals, making Pope Francis’ choice of that name extraordinary. Francis of Assisi shows us the journey through humiliation to exaltation.
From Luke’s bitter-sweet account of Palm Sunday, as you join the cheers of the multitude of Jesus’ disciples, can you also watch Jesus weeping and hear him whisper, “These things make for peace. You are growing here.”

Saturday, March 12, 2016

God Meets Us in the Spaces Between … Then and There, Here and Now

Isaiah 43:16-21; John 12:1-8
March 13, 2016
© 2016

My friend Caela is a pastor in Kansas. She and her husband David have two boys. While watching his Mom read the news on the internet, then three year old Maitland said, “Oh, I see the Pope! Pope Francis. He is a pastor, just like my Mama.” Of course, he is too young to grasp the many layers of irony that make us laugh at his observation. Yet, making the connection between a married, woman Protestant pastor and the Pope surrounded by centuries of tradition and trappings is something of a metaphor for living between the then and there, here and now.
We all know that as an interim pastor I will be with you for a brief but important time. Candy and I are also aware of living between our then and there, here and now. We’ve begun checking off the lists of what we need to do for the next steps of our journey. During Holy Week Candy will be with our son David’s family in Milwaukee and hopes to see her Dad to dovetail our plans together.
Today’s Scripture is about emerging from the past so we can embrace the future. It can help us listen for God in the spaces between then and there, here and now.
Providing pastoral leadership and care while the Search and Call Committee looks for another pastor is only part of the ministry of an interim pastor. Equally important is creating a space between pastors that insulates the new pastor from comparisons with the previous pastor. In my time with you, I hope I am helping you listen for God in between pastors.
Isaiah 40-55 was pointedly applicable to Judah’s Babylonian Exile and prepared them to return to their homeland. 43:16-17 recalls God opening the Sea (of Reeds) so they could escape Egyptian slavery on dry ground. But when they were captives in Babylon, a desert rather than a sea was the barrier they would have to cross to get to freedom. Instead of dry land through the sea, God would make a river in the desert; instead of a pursuing army, God would use a pagan King to launch and finance their return to the Promised Land.
The prophet asked Judah, “Do you not perceive the new thing God is doing through you?” Seen from a New Testament perspective, Judah’s return from Babylon was far greater than the Exodus from Egypt, as it set in motion the coming of the Messiah. On a congregational scale, I am convinced God is saying to this congregation, “In your space between pastors, the future I have awaiting you will far exceed the best of your past. I’m about to do a new thing. Can you not perceive it?”
What new thing can you see God doing around you?

Lent, also, is a space between then and there, here and now. We look back at our spiritual struggles and wandering, and we look ahead to redemption and resurrection. Lent is an annual reminder that we are neither chained to our past nor fully living our future. In Luke’s Gospel, we’ve been following Jesus through the spaces between his Galilean ministry and his redemptive mission at the cross. Today we jump to John 12:1-8 for a poignant, personal glimpse into one of those spaces. All four Gospels record a woman anointing Jesus. Scholars love to debate the identity of the women and the exact occasions of the anointings. That could be another fun Bible study, but too detailed for a sermon. I will tell you this much. I believe Luke 7 was a different woman much earlier in Jesus’ ministry. Matthew 26 and Mark 14 are almost certainly reporting the same incident. While I can’t prove it, I suspect John 12 is the same woman and incident as Matthew and Mark, that John has told in his own way of making the dramatic transition to the events of Holy Week.
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5“Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” 6(He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) 7Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
The dinner for Jesus at Bethany seemed to be out of gratitude for the raising of Lazarus. Though unlikely that Mary bought the perfume thinking of Jesus’ burial, he pointedly turned it into a stark precursor of his death.
When Jesus quoted Deuteronomy 15:11 about always having the poor, both the context of that verse and his own life, preclude using it to rationalize withholding generosity from the poor. By saying “you do not always have me,” he focused this occasion on his coming death.
For Mary to anoint and let her hair down in public to wipe the feet of a man who was not her husband was scandalous intimacy. I believe I hear the voice of God in the spaces between the past and the future inviting us to a similarly close relationship with Jesus.
In Isaiah 43:21, God called Judah “the people I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.” Each time we see Mary of Bethany, she is an icon of deep closeness with Jesus: the dinner in Luke 10:38-42, the death of her brother Lazarus in John 11:28-33 and the anointing we read today.
Paul wrote in Philippians 3:10-11 that he wanted “to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” He wasn’t thinking of a seminary degree. He wanted to be so absorbed in Jesus that he could live every day by the power of Jesus’s resurrection.
Paul also knew that for Jesus’ resurrection to be his daily reality, not just a past event or future hope, he would also share the fellowship of his suffering. To be with Jesus in the spaces between then and there, here and now is to be with him wherever people suffer as you journey toward the future with hope.

Friday, March 4, 2016

God Meets Us in the Spaces Between … Previous and Next

Genesis 15:1-12; Luke 13:31-35
March 6, 2016
© 2016

Listen to this quote and think about who might have written it and when. “Our earth is degenerate in the latter days. There are signs that the world is speedily coming to an end. Bribery and corruption are common. Children no longer obey their parents. Everyone wants to write a book, and the end of the world is evidently approaching.” Does this sound like some Christian doomsday prophecy preachers? Every few years another one writes a book. Or maybe a commentary on our current election cycle. We know that Socrates and others made similar observations about the impending collapse of Greek and Roman culture over 2,000 years ago. This was quoted from an Assyrian clay tablet dated to 2800 BCE, 4800 years ago – closer to Abraham than to us. (Chicago Tribune December 9, 2012 quoted by Christian Century, January 9, 2013, p. 9)
Rather than dismissing our present anxieties by comparing them to ancient anxieties, I want to ask, how can we keep believing God has a redemptive plan when generation after generation sees so much doom?
Whom do you trust when the dark spaces in life seem interminable?
What do you hear when you listen for God in the dark, interminable spaces of life? Many spiritual giants through the generations have faced what St. John of the Cross called the dark night of the soul. I expect some of you have had experiences you think of in the same way.
When you heard the story in Genesis 15, did you think, “That’s strange?” At that time, when two nomadic chieftains made a treaty, they each brought an animal which they cut in two and holding bloody hands walked between the halves of the animals before offering half of each animal as a sacrifice to each of their patron gods. When our English translations of the Hebrew Scriptures say “made a covenant,” the literal translation would usually be “cut a covenant.”
In the Bible fire and smoke are often signs of God’s presence. Here the smoking fire pot and flaming torch that pass between the halves of the animals signify that God alone is responsible for keeping the covenant with Abram.
Though Abram does nothing to show he was responsible for the covenant, verse 6 says, “He believed the Lord and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.” This may be the most important single line in the entire Bible.
About 1400 years after Abram, the prophet Habakkuk (2:4) made it the core of God’s expectations of all people, “The righteous will live by their faith.” The New Testament traces the Gospel to this seed in Romans 1:17; 4:3; Galatians 3:6,11; Hebrews 10:38; James 2:23.
The usual English translations say Abram “believed the Lord.” We tend to use “believe” to mean agreeing that something is true. So we speak of believing in God as meaning we believe God is real. But Genesis makes an entirely different point that could probably be better translated “Abram trusted the Lord, and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.”
Abram trusted God’s covenant promise of descendants and land, even though both seemed impossible. Abram and Sari were well beyond childbearing years. They were landless nomads among hostile people who were not about to give them any land. The rest of Genesis records how Abram and his immediate descendants repeatedly do things that seem to interfere with the covenant, but God fulfills it anyway with Isaac’s birth, and five centuries later Joshua led Israel into the Promised Land.
God reminded Abram that God brought him out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give him the land where he was then an alien (v. 7). He had to live in the space between Ur and Canaan. The Ten Commandments open (Exodus 20:2) with God reminding Israel that God had brought them out of Egypt and slavery to bring them into the Promised Land and freedom. For 40 years in the wilderness they lived in the space between Egypt and Canaan, between slavery and freedom.
Hebrews 11:9-11 explains that Abraham could live in this in between space by looking forward to a city with foundations whose architect and builder is God.
During Lent we follow Jesus in the space between his ministry in Galilee and his crucifixion in Jerusalem. Luke 13:31-35 comes as Jesus had been going through one town and village after another, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem.
At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.”32He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.33Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’34Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 35See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”
We compare a destructive person in charge of something vulnerable to a fox in the hen house. Jesus gives the fox and the hen a surprising, distinctly Hebrew twist. To call someone a fox was not so much about their cunning but a contemptuous way of saying they were unimportant and insignificant. So Jesus was saying that Herod, whose interest was immediate power was not significant enough to keep him from his long-term mission in Jerusalem.
Then Jesus compared himself to a hen gathering her brood to protect them, but the chicks of Jerusalem insisted on exposing themselves to danger. Like prophets before him, Jesus did not waver from going to Jerusalem and the cross. What seemed like defeat was the path to ultimate victory. Herod the fox lost, and Jesus the hen won.
Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem (vv. 34-35) was inner anguished musing, not a speech to an audience. He quoted Psalm 118:26, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord” connecting Israel’s ancient hope with his Triumphal Entry and his redemptive passion. In this space with Jesus, God’s redemptive plan for all humanity was suspended between anticipation and fulfillment.
What do we hear when we listen for God in the interminable, dark spaces of life?
God says, “Trust me, however dark or long the space.”

Some time ago I watched a program on Public TV about Chinese Jade. One piece was about 4-5 feet high and 2-3 feet in diameter. It was intricately carved with scenes of people in nature in elegant details that were visible not only on the outside but through a latticework of passages and windows that went all the way through. The history of this piece was that when it was found the Emperor commissioned the premiere jade carver in China to create a work suitable for the Imperial Palace. The carver began his work, and when his son was old enough he taught him not only jade carving but also the design for this special piece. The jade carver and his son also taught his grandson. Eventually the original jade carver died, but his son and grandson passed both the skills and vision for this very special piece of jade to his great-grandson. Shortly before the original jade carver’s grandson died, he and the great-grandson presented the finished carving to the great-grandson of the Emperor who had commissioned the work. He received it with great pomp and gratitude, exclaiming, “This is exactly what we in the Palace have been expecting for four generations!”

Saturday, February 27, 2016

God Meets Us in the Spaces Between … Ambition and Vulnerability

Isaiah 55:1-9; Luke 13:1-9
February 28, 2016
© 2016

As a young adult Candy’s Mother wandered from the faith and church of her parents. She described those years as wild and wayward. The she contracted tuberculosis and had a long recovery in a sanitarium. She credited her bout with tuberculosis with bringing her back to a close relationship with God. Now, I don’t think God specifically steered some TB bacteria her way. Her less wayward sisters also contracted tuberculosis. Rather, I would suggest that God had been graciously calling to her all along, and during her recovery in the sanitarium she was ready and quiet enough to listen.
Whether you are grimacing or smiling, you have certainly had occasion to ask why something particularly bad has happened to you or to someone you know. We’ve all said, “They didn’t deserve that,” or asked, “What did I do to deserve that?” When my friend Wes Kennedy was going through all the procedures following a cancer diagnosis, intending sympathy, his doctor asked, “Do you ever wonder, why me?” To which Wes responded, “Why not me? I don’t expect to be exempt from the realities of life.”
In the spaces that bad things open up in our lives, be ready to listen attentively for God’s call to renewal.
As I’ve already said, during Lent we are journeying with Jesus to the cross. In Luke 11-12, Jesus’ teaching to the people on his path had become increasingly confrontational. In Luke 13:1-9 he was not yet in Jerusalem, but it was on his mind as he headed there and was brought gossip from Jerusalem.
At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
6Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. 7So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ 8He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. 9If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”
The first thing to notice is that Jesus asserted that the tragedies were not punishment or even natural consequences for the behavior of their victims. We can’t be sure of the specific events Jesus was speaking about, but some things did happen that could have connected.
Galileans were not too welcome in Jerusalem. Many rebel movements started in Galilee, so the Romans were suspicious that Galileans in Jerusalem were fomenting insurrection. Their fellow Jews considered them to be uncouth and impious, not really worthy of bringing a pure sacrifice to the Temple. On more than one occasion Pilate was known to send soldiers into the Temple to assassinate any he thought might be using piety as a cover for conspiracy. The Jerusalem Jews might suggest that because the Galileans were ritually impure, God allowed the Romans to kill them before they got to the altar. Maybe these deserved it.
Pilate wanted to build a Roman style water works in Jerusalem, and he confiscated some of the Temple offerings to pay for it. The Jews he hired to build it were considered wicked traitors. We don’t know if the tower that fell was part of that project or if those killed were working on it, but the Pool of Siloam was a water source for Pilate’s project. Gossip may have been that God purposely pushed the tower on them.
While Jesus specified that neither Pilate’s human cruelty nor the accidental collapse of the tower were God’s punishment, he said in them God’s urgent invitation to repent could be heard. Recognize that life is uncertain, and God is calling. Don’t miss your opportunity to reply.
That is the point of the parable of the fig tree. Like the gardener, God is giving you an opportunity to be fruitful, but it is limited. The time will come for the ax and saw, and the opportunity may be missed. I doubt Jesus had this in mind, but the gardener’s cultivating and spreading of manure can also be a parable for us about life’s difficult times. These spaces stir up our lives and dump stink on us, but those may be the triggers for our spiritual vigor.
Scholars debate exactly how, who and when the book of Isaiah came to be what we know. Exploring that could be a fun Bible study, but they all agree that Isaiah 55 comes from the section written for Judah when they were in Exile in Babylon. It is God’s word of hope in the darkest space of their history.
In vv. 2-3, God calls, “Listen to me, and I will lead you to joyful, vivacious bounty. The dark space is temporary.”
In vv. 6-7, God calls, “This is the time of opportunity. I am near right now. Turn to me and receive my mercy.”
In vv. 1-2, 4-5, God calls, “I want you to flourish, to be so conspicuously inviting that you attract all people to me.”
The ancient examples of Israel’s history match Jesus’ commentary on tragedies of his time. Tragic events in our time teach us to listen for God’s voice, turn to God, be nourished by God. In the spaces that bad things open up in our lives, we may be ready to listen attentively for God’s call to renewal.
I hope you do not think of my time with you as your interim pastor as God’s punishment. I know that the interim between pastors is a time of uncertainty. It is often a time of anxiety in which seeing God’s bounty can be difficult. As an act of faith, I encourage you to pray and step up your giving and involvement, building hope and expectation for the ministry bounty God has waiting. Holding back with a “wait and see” attitude, is to spend for that which does not satisfy. Instead, use God’s resources to buy into God’s bounty.
Lent reminds us that our journey with Jesus is not always a level, smooth path. Ignatius of Loyola imagined it as a rhythm of consolations and desolations. (Spiritual Exercises, 313-327) Of the 150 Psalms, ⅔ are laments or complaints. Passing through the dark spaces does not mean we have lost our way. When we know we are vulnerable, we are more inclined to listen for the voice of God and depend on the mercy of Christ and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Whether the challenge is health, career, family, financial or relational, listen for the voice of God.

The recent political posturing of the presidential campaign reminds us that many things over which we have no personal control can plunge us into uncertain spaces. Though not nearly as extreme as Judah’s Exile in Babylon, the prescription is the same. Informed by Scripture and attuned to the Holy Spirit, listen for the voice of God – not about how to vote but about how to respond to God’s invitation to spiritual renewal for you and your church. How to become a flourishing community of hope so attractive, people trapped in their dark spaces with flock to Jesus because you embody God’s bounty.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

God Meets Us in the Spaces between … Purpose and Proof

Romans 10:8b-13; Luke 4:1-13
February 14, 2016
© 2016

Lent is a 40 day space between recognizing Jesus as God among us after Epiphany and rejoicing in his resurrection on Easter. We seek spiritual renewal and listen for God with greater attentiveness. What is God saying in the spaces?
Personally we are always living in the spaces between stages of family life (marriage, birth of children, school age, adolescence, adulthood, empty nest, children-in-law, grandchildren). Stages of career and job. Stages preparing for the prime of life and declining from our prime. The spaces of interruptions longer than times of stability.
In this interim time, this congregation is in the space between pastors, the familiar and the unknown. The space between ministry as we’ve done it and as we will do it. This is not like hiring a CEO or manager. It is a process of patient spiritual discernment.
Jesus’ testing warns us not to take shortcuts on our journeys as his disciples.
Luke 4:1-13 tells how Jesus was tested by the devil in the space between his baptism and starting his ministry. The Holy Spirit descended on him at his baptism so he could begin.
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness,2where for forty days he was tested by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. 3The devil said to him, “Since you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”4Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’”5Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please.7If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” 8Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” 9Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “Since you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, 10for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’11and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” 12Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 13When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.
The 40 days of Lent are modeled after Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness. Sundays are not counted, and call us back to resurrection joy. The 40 days of Lent also remind us that Moses was on Mt. Sinai for 40 days receiving the Law, and the Israelites were 40 years in the wilderness.
You may have noticed I said Jesus was “tested” not “tempted.” The word can mean “tempt” but much more often means “test.” The devil was not trying to trick Jesus into a sin but testing to expose him as disqualified for his redemptive ministry. I also said “since you are the Son of God” not “if you are.” The devil was not trying to get Jesus to prove he was the Son of God. He knew that. He was testing for what he would do as the Son of God. Luke used the Greek word diabolos from which we get devil. Job uses the Hebrew word hasatan from which we get Satan. The idea was a prosecuting attorney bringing accusations. That is what the devil was doing here. Testing to get Jesus to take a shortcut on his mission.
Jesus’ testing warns us not to take shortcuts on our journeys as his disciples.
Neither Matthew nor Luke report what happened during Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness, but they do describe these 3 tests that kept coming, which prepares us for the tests we expect.
To turn a stone to bread was not just about satisfying Jesus’ immediate hunger but an attempt to get Jesus to use his power as a magic shortcut to his ministry of meeting human needs, such as hunger. All of the Gospels show that Jesus typically hid his miracles and met a need rather than proved a point. Instead of a magic shortcut to address the needs of people today, Jesus calls us to lifelong justice and compassionate generosity as his disciples.
Though Jesus knew that God is sovereign over the universe, he did not dispute the devil’s claim to the glory and authority of the kingdoms of the world. He refused the shortcut offered by the devil. To worship was not just to kneel and say some worship words, it would have been to adopt the devil’s means of maintaining worldly glory and authority: the force and violence of political and military power. As we read in Romans 10, renouncing worldly power may feel weak, but God assures us that “no one who believes in him will be put to shame.”
Central to Jesus’ mission was forming a band of disciples through whom the Holy Spirit would build the Church. The devil suggests the shortcut of a spectacular leap from the Temple pinnacle that would surely attract a crowd. Jesus knew the difference between testing God and trusting God. He refused the shortcut of instant results and stayed with the long term plan of making disciples. While they may be legitimate tools, multi-media worship with contemporary music, wiz bang advertising and electrifying preaching are not shortcuts to evangelism and church growth that build disciples. As we read in Romans 10, God’s long-range plan is for us to confess with our mouths that Jesus is Lord. Word of mouth may seem slower than mass media, but it is God’s solid way.
Jesus’ testing warns us not to take shortcuts on our journeys as his disciples.
If we are listening for the voice of God in the space of Jesus’ test between his baptism and ministry, what can we hear that will help us avoid shortcuts on our journeys as his disciples?
Jesus’ answer to each test was a word from Scripture – all three of them from Deuteronomy 6, 8. Maybe you feel you don’t know enough Scripture. Count on God to give you what you need to recognize a shortcut and choose the path of discipleship. But don’t be complacent. Commit to a lifetime of continuous learning the Bible, not just the information but get so saturated with it that it changes you and becomes you. I love Abba Poeman’s image. A stone is hard and water is soft, but a stone can be shaped by repeatedly dripping water on it. Our hearts are hard and scripture is soft but by repeatedly exposing our hearts to God’s Word, they are shaped to match the heart of Jesus.
The Holy Spirit descended on Jesus at his baptism. He was full of the Holy Spirit when he went to the wilderness to be tested. After the testing, he was filled with the power of the Holy Spirit when he returned to Galilee to start his ministry. Sensitivity to the nudges of the Holy Spirit will steer us away from shortcuts. Openness to the gifts and power of the Holy Spirit will give us the ability and fortitude for the journey of discipleship.
When we refuse the devil’s shortcuts, we are committing to the path of patience. Instant maturity is an oxymoron, but just getting older doesn’t necessarily produce maturity. That requires awareness and discipline. Lent is an opportunity to awaken our awareness of God and renew our spiritual discipline: Bible, prayer and worship with God’s people. Whatever you have chosen for a Lenten discipline, the persistence it requires is certainly less than Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness. Like training camp for athletes, those 40 days were preparation for Jesus’ ministry. Our Lenten disciplines are not an end or goal in themselves but are preparation for ministry of meeting human need, building an outpost of the reign of God as a congregation, inviting people to become Jesus’ disciples by word of mouth.
Jesus’ testing warns us not to take shortcuts on our journeys as his disciples.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Prayer Unveils God’s Glory

2 Corinthians 3:12-18; Luke 9:28-36
February 7, 2016
© 2016

Twenty some years ago Candy and I lived in the L’Arche Daybreak community in Richmond Hill, Ontario for four months. I worked in the Woodery where I got to know Dave. Though he could not read, he was able to operate a couple of the power tools. He was constantly frustrated by his life struggles. Shortly after coming we attended community worship in which Dave helped Father Henri Nouwen celebrate communion. When Dave put on the alb, his face lit up. He treated the bread and wine with reverent care. He knew he was handling the holy. He was beaming as he served us. After worship I said to Candy, “That must have been something of what Moses looked like after he had been with God.”
At first Moses was unaware of the supernatural glow on his face. Paul wrote of Moses’ glow in 2 Corinthians 3:18 that as we see the reflected glory of God, we are being transformed from one degree of glory to another. When we have been close to God, we can expect God’s glory to radiate from us, just as it did from Dave.
Prayer lifts the veil on God’s glory, so we may be transformed from one degree of glory to another.
Luke’s emphasis on Jesus’ praying is the context for the Transfiguration in Luke 9:28-36. But it started in verse 18, when Jesus was praying and asked his disciples about who he was. When Peter answered that he was “The Messiah of God,” Jesus told them he would suffer and die and rise again. Then he said that anyone who wanted to be his disciple would have to take up a cross and follow him, and that some of them would not die before seeing the Kingdom of God.
Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray.29And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.30Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him.31They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.32Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him.33Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” —not knowing what he said.34While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud.35Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”36When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
The Transfiguration was a crucial turning point in Jesus’ ministry. From here forward everything took him to the cross. Just as at his baptism when he started his ministry, now as he headed to the cross, the voice of the Father affirms him as the Son with the Father’s blessing.
Luke told the Transfiguration with words and images that recall Israel’s Exodus from Egypt under Moses.
Moses received the Law on Mount Sinai. Elijah met God on Mount Horeb. Jesus will return to the Mount of Olives, and was Transfigured on “The Mountain.”
The cloud of God’s glory covered Mt. Sinai. Jesus will return in the clouds, and a cloud overshadowed the Mount of Transfiguration.
For 40 years in the wilderness the Israelites lived in shelters as Peter proposed for Jesus, Moses and Elijah.
The Exodus was the great redemptive event of Israel’s history, and the word for “departure” that Moses and Elijah spoke about to Jesus is “exodus.” The “exodus” Jesus was to accomplish at Jerusalem was the great redemptive event for all humanity: his death and resurrection.
Prayer lifts the veil on God’s glory, so we may be transformed from one degree of glory to another.
Jesus’ prayers mark the beginning of two parallel sections meant to be seen together. In verses 18-27 the order is: he was identified as Messiah, he foretold his suffering and ended with coming back in glory. The order reversed in verses 28-36 for the Transfiguration. His glory was revealed while he was praying, he spoke with Moses and Elijah of his departure, and the voice of the Father identified him as the Chosen Son.
Luke wanted us to be sure we knew Jesus was praying at this momentous turning point in his ministry. Since our prayers tend to be asking God to do something for us, we may assume Jesus was asking the Father for something: revelation of his glory, confirmation of his identity and mission, strength for the ordeal ahead, maybe even a precursor to his prayer in the Garden to let this cup pass from him. While these things might have been included, I think Jesus’ conversation with Moses and Elijah about “his departure that he was about to accomplish” points in a different direction. I think Jesus was having a conversation with the Father about the significance of his death and resurrection and what it would bring to people, which continued with Moses and Elijah who had anticipated that redemption in their times and could now see it far more clearly and full of glory.
God does not need our prayers to be informed and instructed about what to do. That is not to say we shouldn’t ask God to act, but if that is most or all of our prayer life, we will miss out on God’s glory. But if our prayers are a conversation with God in which we do most of the listening, glory will shine through on us and we will glow. The seventeenth century Russian mystic Dimitri of Rostov (1651-1709) defined prayer in a way I think gives us insight into Jesus’ praying at his Transfiguration. “To pray means to stand before God with the mind, mentally to gaze unswervingly at [God], and to converse with [God] in reverent fear and hope.” (The Art of Prayer, Igumen Chariton, Faber and Faber, Boston, 1936 Russian, 1966 English; p. 50)
Prayer lifts the veil on God’s glory, so we may be transformed from one degree of glory to another.
Even if only for the moment, Dave was transformed from his frustrating disability to a degree of glory when he distributed the communion bread and wine. We may not glow like Moses, but as our praying brings us into God’s presence, we will be transformed from one degree of glory to another. Like Moses, we may not notice it ourselves, but others will know when we have been with God.
The departures of Moses and Elijah from this life were singularly attended by God. God buried Moses outside Canaan. God took Elijah by a whirlwind. Death is under God’s sovereign control and points to Jesus’ resurrection.
Though I thought of Moses when I saw the radiance on Dave’s face at communion, I can’t say I’ve seen the supernatural glow of Moses. However, I have been with many people as they are dying and believe some of them have seen the glory of God absorbing them. The account of the 4th century Desert Father, Abba Sisoes rings true.
When Abba Sisoes was at the point of death, while the [Brothers] were sitting beside him, his face shone like the sun. He said to them, “Look, Abba Anthony is coming.” A little later he said, “Look, the choir of prophets is coming.” Again his countenance shown with brightness and he said, “Look the choir of apostles is coming.” His countenance increased in brightness and lo, he spoke with someone. Then the old men asked him, “With whom are you speaking, [Abba]?” He said, Look, the angels are coming to fetch me. … Once more his countenance suddenly became like the sun and they were all filled with fear. He said to them, “Look, the Lord is coming and he’s saying, ‘Bring me the vessel from the desert.’” Then there was a flash of lightning and all the house was filled with a sweet [fragrance]. (The Sayings of the Desert Fathers; tr. Benedicta Ward, SLG; Cistertian Publications,1975; p. 215)