This week's text is Isaiah 12:1-6
There's an interesting turn in the beginning of this text where the prophet recognizes that God was angry with the him and yet God turned away from anger and instead comforted the prophet. When the prophet was interpreting God's anger and/or compassion, the people were in the thick of determining a political alliance. They were in danger of exile to Assyria and the people needed an ally. Would they choose Egypt? Would they choose another nearby power? Or would they look to God for salvation?
What does it mean to accept God as an ally? Or to make God an ally? How does one create an alliance with God? And is this alliance with God one of many alliances we have? In other words, do we have an alliance with God that is secondary to other alliances? Or perhaps our alliance with God is primary but do we have other alliances as backup?
The prophet has accepted an alliance with God it seems. And believes that the people will "draw water from the wells of salvation with joy." It's this image that I'm most drawn to. Drawing, drinking, being refreshed from the wells of salvation.
When humans are afraid of a force that is poised to overtake them, like the prophet and Israel were of Assyria, the image of being refreshed with water provides a tremendous respite for their fear. And refreshed by salvation, well that sounds like fear is assuaged. It gets better when we realize the word for well that is used here is more accurately interpreted as fountain.
A fountain is moving water. A fountain, as Marcus Hong described is a "gift" whereas humans must dig a well. I like the distinction for sure. The waters of salvation are a gift. And the moving water in the the Christmas story is the waters of childbirth.
Not to get too off track here but my husband is always asking me when I'm going to give the sermon where I explain that if there was a little drummer boy at Jesus' birth, Mary most certainly would have said, "someone take away that kid's drum!"
Water flowed from Mary and from this fountain came Jesus. Ten fingers and ten toes. Two eyes and two ears and one nose. Heart that loves, lungs that breathe. Hands that healed and legs that walked in and out of people's lives. This vulnerable package of salvation was wrapped in the flowing waters of childbirth. Incarnation came from the waters of childbirth. The fountain flowed and we receive this gift with joy.
What does it mean for us to draw this tiny, vulnerable baby from the fountain of childbirth? What is this salvation that we hold in our arms when we treasure the Christ child? And by drawing this salvation from the fountain, how do we see ourselves being in an alliance with God? God is not angry anymore. God has shown compassion. God has chosen aligned with us humans. Have we aligned ourselves with God?
This week's text is Luke 1:68-79.
It's hard to talk about peace this week when three gunmen opened fire in a center that helps people with developmental disabilities killing 14 and injuring several more. It's hard to quote that God "has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered God's holy covenant, the oath that God swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear."
It's hard on a day like today, a day where there has been more shootings in our country than there have been days in this year, to stand on this assertion that God has remembered a covenant to our ancestors in faith by granting that we be rescued from our enemies. It may be hard to know exactly who our enemies are but it's clear we are not without enemy, right? I mean... right? Do we think of people as enemies or are ideals, principles, systems our enemies? I'm not sure on a day like today.
It's hard on this Wednesday, day 4 of Advent to imagine serving God without fear when fear has been the driving force between any news story for several weeks. And not unreasonable fear - the world has become so unsafe. From our neighbors near and far - I say near and far because let's be honest we don't really know our near neighbors and we think we know our far neighbors. Serve God without fear?
What was Zechariah thinking saying something like this in response to the birth of his son, John? Was it that elated joy that new father's experience when they see a gooey little person enter the world and they realize the weight of responsibility that they never thought possible while at the same time feeling more joy and love than they ever thought possible? Maybe that's what was happening - maybe Zechariah was a typical father, having experienced a miracle and he extrapolated the faithfulness of God in this miraculous act of childbirth.
Furthermore, Zechariah (and every parent I know) looks at their sleeping newborn who still looks a little alien but somehow has their nose and their partner's mouth. Parents look on their children and can either give into tremendous fear of having to raise their children amidst the many enemies, known and unknown or they dig deep and find their footing with trust in God and God's promises.
Yep, that's what I hear - Zechariah with tears in his eyes and a lump in his throat working out fear of a world that is unknown and unsafe. Zechariah and Elizabeth just brought a new baby into the world - and they were people of faith. People of deep faith, deep faith given to them generation after generation. God was faithful. God will be faithful. And you, they say to John, "you will be a witness to this faithfulness." You just wait and see.
Dear God of Zechariah and Elizabeth, I don't know if I have their kind of faith in my world of enemies today. But I'm so deeply grateful for their story. Help me to witness to this tender mercy of yours. When the sun comes up, remind me that you bring light to darkness every day. Guide my feet into the way of peace. Amen.
Read this week's text Mark 9:30-37 here.
This coming Sunday is our version of "Rally Day" - the start of the program year at our church. We call it "Expo" Sunday and we highlight all the different ministry teams that contribute to the worship and work of our congregation.
With the start of the program year, I'm drawn to the conversation the disciples were having about "who is the greatest" which I think was more a conversation about "who is going to take over when Jesus dies?" After all, that's what Jesus was trying to explain to them. And although the text says they "didn't understand," it sure seems like they were trying or at least creating a contingency plan.
What are we going to do when what we are doing falls apart?
Along with figuring out who is going to be in charge, were the disciples also working on their business plan? Were they figuring out their organizational chart? If Pete is CEO, then who will be CFO. And we need someone to cover HR. Do we need a lawyer on retainer? Who will cover the day to day needs, like what we eat and where we will sleep?
How many decisions had Jesus made for them? How reliant were they on Jesus for their mission? Did they know where they were headed next? Had they ever created their plans together - as a team?
Now the rub for me this Sunday - or the challenge I should say - is that I'm thinking that my sermon is going to be a discussion with the children. So, how do I ask the question of "who is the greatest" to the children of our church? How do I have a discussion about planning the work and worship of our mission with the youngest among us?
Here's what I'd like to know from a child's or youth's perspective:
What other questions would you ask children or youth in your church to get them talking about what they see as the work and worship of church?
The Mark text tell us to "take up our cross." I preached the Matthew version of this text last year. Afterwards, I had several conversations with folks who essentially asked, "But really, what does it mean to take up my cross?"
This year in tackling the same words from a different gospel, I'm reminded of the quote from the missionary Jim Eliot, "He is no fool who would choose to lose a thing he cannot keep to buy a thing he could never lose." Twila Paris wrote a song inspired by that quote (an oldy from the 1990's) entitled "He is no fool." In this song, she weaves the stories of the missionary Jim Elliot who was killed by the people to whom he felt called to bring the gospel and the story of Eric Liddell, the runner who refused to run on the Sabbath. Eric's story is recounted in the movie Chariots of Fire.
Both of these stories seem extreme perhaps in answer to "what does it mean to take up my cross?" However, they are examples of people who were clear in their own ethic, their convictions and their priorities. Their crosses were both counter cultural and driven by their faith.
In contrast to last week's text where Jesus is challenged to let go of his convictions - in particular the Jewish understand of cleanliness and belonging - here we are challenged to hold onto what is most important. So then, what is most important?
I remember the scene from City Slickers (again an oldy from the 1990's) where three men from the city go on an adventure vacation to move cattle out west. Billy Crystal plays a man named Mitch. There is a scene where Mitch is talking to a cowboy named Curly about the meaning of life. Curly says the meaning of life is "one thing. If you stick to it, everything else falls into place." Mitch asks, "Yea, but what's the one thing?" Curly says, "that's what you have to find out." Here's the clip.
I'm wondering if to take up one's cross is similar to finding that one thing. Jesus had a specific task, a specific calling, a unique calling. But so do we, don't we? We have specific gifts; we live in specific circumstances. What are those circumstances and gifts telling us about our "one thing" or our "cross?" How do the gifts that God has given us and our current circumstances guide us into the choices we make? What are we living our lives for? What are the most important things that drive us?
In any congregation, there is the potential of a missionary like Jim Elliot or a runner like Eric Liddell. And most importantly, there are pews full of people asking the same question as Mitch, "what's the meaning of life?"
So, how did this woman get into the house where Jesus was staying? The text begins by saying that Jesus didn't want anyone to know where he was. He was never given a moment to himself. And here he has entered someone's home and a woman bows at his feet - and a Gentile woman. So again, how did she get there? Who let her in? Where were the body guards? Where was the bouncer?
I believe she belonged in the scene. She didn't sneak in. In other words, someone, presumably a Jewish male knew her. Maybe she was a servant or part of the kitchen help. Maybe not, maybe she was a friend of the home owner, a guest. Maybe the homeowner was more open and welcoming than Jesus was.
Now, Jesus seems to be ok with this woman being in the room but he is not ok giving her the resources that are meant for the children of Israel. Resources are limited. Resources are earmarked. Resources are earned.
Is Jesus saying that God's resources have an end? God's resources are limited? Are not for everyone? This woman understands resources differently than Jesus and she explains it to him. "You see, there are crumbs that go unused. And crumbs are actually enough. The resources here are enough." Maybe Jesus knew that but he didn't believe the resources were for everyone. The resources are for the favored people of Israel.
Favored. Favoritism is not a new thing. Favoritism is played out in so many ways in our culture. We place value in myriad ways. We judge by our bodies, our minds, our social ability, our education, our age, the color of our skin, our gender, our sexual preference, the color of our hair, our size, our stature, our salary, the size of our homes, the size of our backyards, the size of our 401K, the success of our children, whether we have children or not, whether we talk too much or too little, whether we share too much or too little. There are hundreds of ways we calculate worth and somehow we too act as if resources are earmarked. Resources are limited. Resources are earned.
We withhold resources, we save them and hoard them and scrutinize how we will spend them. (And by scrutinize I mean we choose to buy coffee at Starbucks rather than pay off debt or sponsor an orphan halfway around the world.)
Listen, I'm preaching to myself as much as anyone who is still reading. James writes, "Do you, with your acts of favoritism truly believe in the Lord Jesus Christ?" Favoritism is not new. We play favorites, Jame's audience played favorites, Jesus played favorites - that is until that woman welcomed him into a relationship with her where crumbs are enough. I went digging a little bit and found these gems - two videos by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, an author and spiritual leader. He lives in an intentional community, a house of hospitality in North Carolina.
I'm not sure where I'm headed this week with these texts but I'm going to continue reading about favoritism. I'm going to consider those who are in the room but considered less valuable. And I'm going to think about crumbs and giving them away.
Read this week's lectionary text from the Hebrew scriptures here.
In a contemporary context, I imagine Solomon as a world leader sitting in a private office in a private airplane as he travels to the next city where he has business. His mother approaches with a question, he clears the cabin and asks her to have a seat beside him.
Solomon, she asks, why don't you let Adonijah have Abishag as a wife?
Was his mother unaware that taking the former king's concubine was one way to claim the throne? Was she trying to make peace among these half brothers? So again in a contemporary context, perhaps the mom asks, "Solomon, your father's mistress is hanging around the house and I'm wondering if you could suggest she try your brother's house?" The contemporary context is a reality show waiting to happen.
There is sex and trading partners. There is actual power and presumptive power. There are moms and stepmoms and half brothers. And it ends with a homicide.
There is not a lot of trust or transparency in Solomon's world and there is not a lot of trust and transparency in our world either. Who are the trustworthy companions for our world leaders? Do we believe that there are advisers to our world leaders who don't from time to time request favors? Even the world leaders' mothers? I'd say especially the world leaders' mothers. I apologize for my cynicism, especially since we've got a long time to go in this season of politics!
For me this text is presenting the opportunity to talk about trust and transparency. We see in the text that trust and transparency are not present. But how about us? How about in our churches? How about in our families?
My brother in law described trust as "listening to the other without thinking about what you will say next." I was taken aback a bit because I thought - well, that's what I call listening. But he was taking it one step further. I can trust you if I know you're really listening to me. I can trust you if I know that for the part of the conversation where I am talking, you are putting me first. How are we at trust in our relationships and in our churches?
And transparency? Leaders and leadership teams talk about being transparent with congregations but as the pastor of a small church, communication is often one of the hardest tasks. I don't think it's difficult because people are wanting to be opague; I think it's difficult because one, church is run by volunteers and two, people in churches need a lot more information than we often think to give. Transparency is about over communicating. Transparency is showing the why of the what, the who around the why.
What was Bathsheba really asking for? What was Adonijah really asking for? What was Solomon so afraid of? What did Abishag want (oh wait, don't be ridiculous, why would we ask the concubine what she wanted)? The story lacks transparency.
Trust and transparency. Might our churches have more of both.
Read this week's text, Ecclesiastes 1:1-11, 3:1-17
I'm struck by the tension between the words from chapter one - everything is vanity, nothing is new under the sun and chapter three - there is time for everything, the world contains every possible activity and emotion known to humankind. There doesn't have to be tension, of course. The entire course of humankind can be both comprehensive and nothing but vanity but it doesn't seem so to me. At least today that is.
I've been helping a woman die for the past couple weeks. She has finally entered hospice care after more than two decades of fighting a heart condition. She's 51 years old. Her 17 year old daughter said to her a week ago, "Mom, I hope you know it's ok if you let go." Her friends and family have been visiting, one at a time, remembering moments of life - those moments mentioned in Ecclesiastes 3 - moments of laughter and moments of tears, moments of building things and moments of tearing things down, moments of love and hate and speaking and silence. How do you let go of all of that?
Our lives are actually so very precious, every small or large moment of it. This rather vain and I would add mundane human life is - well, it leaves me speechless at times. I feel the writer of Ecclesiastes was writing from a position of incredible privilege - of wealth and power, with health and time in his favor. It's only when we are privileged enough to take life for granted that we lose sight of the preciousness of it all.
Is life vain or is it valuable?
Is life a worthless endeavor or is it worth every precious moment?
The writer of Ecclesiastes could use a dose of Zen Buddhism and a lesson in living in the present. We could all use a lesson in living in the present.
What season from that list in chapter 3 are you in today? Not tomorrow or yesterday but today - what is today for you? Are your sowing or reaping? Mourning or dancing? Tearing or sowing? What is your present moment filled with?
What value do you place on it? Or do you agree with the sentiment of chapter one, that this present moment for you holds nothing new under the sun? Is this present moment like the wind, coming and going?
I dare say if we spend any time in the present moment, we find tremendous newness. We may find it to be like the wind in its coming and going but the wind feels really wonderful against our faces. This day may run into all the others but it still has to go through us. I wonder if what the writer considers vanity is that he or she missed out on so many present moments trying to find meaning in them.
Preaching Ideas -
Eating a Raising Meditation - Have you heard of this? This simple meditation allows a person to savor every aspect of a single raisin. I think this would be a fantastic exercise to do during worship.
The Precious Present By Spencer Johnson. This book may be a helpful illustration. It's simple, a parable of sorts. And I know Eckert Tolle has a book called Here and Now - but years ago Henri Nouwen wrote one with the same title. I commend it to you for devotional reading. Here and Now: Living in the Spirit
The text this week is Proverbs 8:1-11, 22-36
Wisdom here is personified as a woman who calls out – at the crossroads, at the city gates. She yells to whoever will listen it seems – learn prudence, find intelligence. Be seekers of righteousness, of right living.
Last week, I had a short set of slides to show my congregation of how Sophia has been artistically interpreted over time. Here are some of the renditions of Sophia that caught my eye.
And it seems this same Lady Wisdom was calling this righteousness at the beginning of creation – telling the mighty waters of the ocean where its limits were (v. 29) The image of assigning the ocean its limit is one of my favorites in all of scripture. I live only an hour from the shores of NJ. The “psshh” of the water as it hits the sand and the sound of it being drawn away by the undertow has a calming affect on my breathing and my heartrate. To imagine Wisdom personified standing beside the Creator, instructing how the waters should be gathered, where they should begin and where it should end. Was it wisdom who instructed the ocean to make that sound that I love so?
We're not a culture that likes to be given limits. In spending, in eating, in time spent binge watching netflix. We enjoy excess; perhaps what we really enjoy is the lack of limitation, the freedom to do as we please for no reason other than we can.
Wisdom seems to be the person who draws limits in our lives. She defines righteousness. She does it at the crossroads of our lives and at the places where things come and go (the gate).
Last week, I began the series by suggesting that Lady Wisdom “get a seat” at the table of our mind. When we are seeking the right path, she wants a say. And personifying her like this helps us imagine her pulling up a seat beside the others who already get a say in our lives. I suggested a table that looks like this -
I'm challenged by this idea that Wisdom asserts herself - calling to us from the crossroads and at the place of coming and going in our life. Last week, I was suggesting we need to be intentional about Sophia getting a seat at the table, having a say. This week I'm wondering if Sophia is speaking freely but our job is to look at the right areas of our lives - the crossroads or the comings and goings of our lives, the transitions.
Read Proverbs 1:1-7
These proverbs are meant to instruct, to offer insight that is righteous and just, full of integrity. These proverbs allow one to grow into wisdom. These proverbs help us understand puzzles, riddles, games.
Wisdom is something we grow into and the fear of the Lord is the first step of that growth. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. The fear or awe or recognition that wisdom is the process that figures out enigmas, riddles, puzzles.
The fear of the Lord is having the humility to respect the puzzle. The fear of the Lord is to lack the arrogance that may approach this riddle with contempt or maybe just a little too much confidence. The fear of the Lord is the first thing we must have in order to hold the riddle at the appropriate length in order to see the riddle laid before us.
I'm reminded that Paul used the same word in 1 Corinthians 13, specifically verse 12 that says, “for now I see in a mirror, as if life were a riddle. But then face to face, now I know in part, then I will know fully, even as I am fully known.” The word that is translated as riddle is actually the word for enigma - a puzzling or inexplicable situation or occurrence.
I don't know if I ever go a day without some puzzling or inexplicable situation or occurrence. Do you? Particularly for those of us who have chosen life in community, we see an exponential amount of puzzling occurrences in our communities of faith.
Step one -fear of the Lord. An appropriate amount of humility to begin the working out of the puzzle. That's step one. Wisdom is not found at once. Wisdom is something that begins and continues to unfold.
Creative worship idea – Put a piece of a puzzle on the cover of your bulletin. Encourage the congregation to write down a riddle that they are currently praying about. What issue or occurrence in their life is puzzling and for which they need wisdom. Cut out the puzzle piece and put it somewhere they will see it throughout the week to remind them to insert God into their search for the answer to this puzzle.
The miracle of Pentecost, the miracle of the Holy Spirit is an issue of relationship with someone who is different. The gift of Pentecost is not the melting of cultures into one culture. It is the ability to hear another, to traverse the divide of differences.
America has adopted the melting pot as an image of what happens with our cultures. I'm a great example of a melted American. My heritage is English, Irish, Scottish, and German. And America has so melted my native backgrounds that I don't really have them anymore. There is a real critique to this melting pot imagine. I lament that my heritage has melted. I'm happy to be an American mutt but when I see and experience other cultures... particularly now in this new wave of immigration, I envy culture a little bit... the beauty of language, the flavors of cuisine, the connection to heritage. And the critique is not just my own – we as a culture have begun to question whether we want more of a salad bowl image instead of a melting pot.
A salad bowl has diversity in it but each part maintains its integrity. Does that make sense? There's something to be said about allowing cultures to maintain integrity while also becoming part of something larger together.
Language isn't the only differences we struggle with. What about our cultural differences or preferences in cuisine? What did you have for dinner last night? How about our political differences? Or the differences in our worldview based on age? Or Gender? Or sexual preference? How about this... are you a night owl or a morning person?
The miracle of Pentecost, the miracle of the Holy Spirit is an issue of relationship with someone who is different. Diversity is incredibly hard. God gave us the Holy Spirit to maintain relationship amidst diversity. The spark of God within us allows us to keep our differences but stay together. How are you seeing this miracle played out in your life these days?
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