Thursday, March 31, 2011

Church is a Voluntary Family

Relationships with other people are an essential part of every person’s wellbeing.  Friendships, particularly close long-term friendships, have the power to help shape those who are involved in them in positive ways.  Many of my closest friends are women who were a year behind me in seminary.  Our shared calling, education, age, interests, and living in a dormitory setting – these helped to bring us all together.  It was our choice to develop our friendship with each other, and a continued choice to stay friends now that we have graduated.  This was an easy choice to make, but a choice nonetheless.

Families are also a source of important relationships that also can shape us in positive ways.  Yet, you do not choose your family.  I did not get to decide who my parents or siblings would be.  For good or ill, families that are biologically determined are not of our own choosing.  Sadly there are broken and abusive families in which some people have to choose to have limited or no relationship with family members for their own best health.  Even if we cannot biologically choose our families, how we live into those relationships is our choice. 

Church families are somewhere in between a biological family and a group of friends.  Like friendships, we choose to be a part of this group.  Like biological families, we do not choose the other members.  This makes for an interesting dynamic, and opportunities for great growth.  If we limit ourselves to only interacting with people of our own choosing, then we would lose out on all that we can learn from (and teach) many other people.  Yet, the freedom to join or leave a church is one that makes this a volunteer family - no one is forced to be here. 

Monday, March 28, 2011

Baking Fresh Bread

    “Usually the orthodox rabbis of Europe boasted distinguished rabbinical genealogies, but Rabbi Yechiel of Ostrowce was an exception. He was the son of a simple baker and he inherited some of the forthright qualities of a man of the people.
Photo: Donostia-San Sebastion 2016
     Once, when a number of rabbis had gathered at some festivity, each began to boast of his eminent rabbinical ancestors. When Rabbi Yechiel's turn came, he replied gravely, "In my family, I'm the first eminent ancestor."
     His colleagues were shocked by this piece of impudence, but said nothing. Immediately after, the rabbis began to expound Torah. Each one was asked to hold forth on a text culled from the sayings of one of his distinguished rabbinical ancestors.
     One after another the rabbis delivered their learned dissertations. At last it came time for Rabbi Yechiel to say something. He arose and said, "My masters, my father was a baker. He taught me that only fresh bread was appetizing and that I must avoid the stale. This can also apply to learning."
     And with that Rabbi Yechiel sat down.” (A Treasury of Jewish Folklore: Stories, Traditions, Legends, Humor, Wisdom and Folk Songs of the Jewish People Edited by Nathan Ausubel Copyright, 1948, Crown Publishers, Inc., New York, p51).

     Jesus was like Rabbi Yechiel. He had no immediate distinguished ancestors. True, you could trace his ancestry back to King David, but that was true of a lot of Israelites. When people who knew him looked at him, they saw him as the son of a carpenter. But when Jesus talked he spoke with such wisdom that he became respected as a Rabbi or teacher. Much of what he said was in the form of parables. Parables were short stories that used common everyday imagery and contained a deeper, hidden message. As Christians, we grew up hearing these parables, from church, Sunday School, or reading the bible. We are used to them, but when the first people heard Jesus tell his parables they were struck by them. Because of our different culture, we often do not know just how shocking the images are in the parables. Jesus was fresh bread to those who met him and heard him teach.

      Christians need to be fresh bread today. Our world has changed greatly in the past 2,000 years, but the gospel is still as relevant as ever.  One of the reasons why Christianity has been so successful around the world is because of its ability to adapt to new people and new places. Christianity isn’t limited to one language for worship or scripture, one type of music, one style of church architecture, one curriculum for teaching, one method of leadership, and so on.  Christianity adapts nonessentials so that the essential gospel is shared with as many people as possible.

     How can Christians be “fresh bread,” – interesting and relevant to the world today without compromising the gospel message of Christ? I’d like to hear your thoughts.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Make It Rain - A Sermon for Lent 3

Sermon for the 3rd Sunday of Lent, Year A, Exodus 17:1-7 and John 4:5-42

I haven’t been in the practice of having titles for my sermons, other than “Lent 3” but yesterday I had a rush of inspiration and decided to name my sermon “Make It Rain.” Now, I wasn’t meaning precipitation at every temperature – so I apologize for the snow last night.

Have you heard of the substance called dihydrogen monoxide? Sounds dangerous, doesn't it? It’s actually the chemical name for H2O…water. It is essential for all known life on Earth. Water is the most abundant compound on the surface of the Earth, almost 3/4 of the earth’s surface is water. Most of this water is located in the oceans. Human beings are made up of mostly water, depending upon our age and size we are anywhere from 55%-78% water!

Civilizations have historically flourished near rivers and other waterways. Mesopotamia was between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, Egypt was dependent upon the Nile, the capitals of four European countries are on the Danube, and Washington D.C. is on the bank of the Potomac.

Water is essential for civilization because of its many uses – drinking, cooking, sanitation, agriculture, travel and trade, power generation, fire extinguishing, and recreation. Most religions consider water to be a purifier and incorporate water into ritual washing. We Christians use it for Baptism.

So why all the water facts? Both the Old Testament and the Gospel readings speak of water and people asking for water. And coincidentally, last Tuesday, March 22, was World Water Day.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Friday Five: Spiritual Practices

Mary Beth, over at RevGals offers this Friday Five:

For today's Friday Five, please share with us five spiritual practices or disciplines from your experience. They can be ones that you have tried and kept up with, tried and NOT kept up with, ones that you flirt with at various times, or even practices that you have tried and found are definitely NOT your cup of tea. Let us know what's worked for you...and not.

Image: Austin Garrett Ward, Expressive Theology

1. Prayer - Prayer is a fundamental part of my spiritual life. Praying is both a communal (in church and small groups) and individual practice. Prayer is a means of expressing praise and thanksgiving to God for all wondrous things, and prayer is also a means of expressing frustration, fears, doubts, and concerns about the world, other people, and myself. Prayer is an opportunity to listen, reflect, and deepen my relationship with God. 
2. Reading - Reading scripture is important, but what is also very important is reading books that explain scripture. We don't naturally know the cultural contexts of these texts. I also read books about theology, spirituality, and history. I read lots of science fiction and fantasy, but not as a spiritual practice. :-)
3. Teaching/Being Taught - I teach by preaching, leading bible studies, and teaching adult education classes. I learn so much through teaching because I am taught by what I read for preparation, thinking through what I believe, and listening to other people's interpretation, experiences, and questions.
4. Silence - I am uncomfortable with silence and am easily distracted when I try contemplative prayer in a quiet room.
5. Walking - Walking alone in nature is a practice that is easier for me than silence inside. This is also a quiet activity, but the surroundings inspire thought and prayer in a way that indoors and lack of motion do not.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Never Stop Exploring

I was looking at one of my jackets the other day and I noticed writing on the loop that I use to hang it up. It says NEVER STOP EXPLORING. The cynic in me couldn't help but think that was an excellent thing for a sportswear company to say, after all, as long as I keep exploring they can keep selling me things.

But then I remembered that I went for a walk last weekend in a national park with my husband. I saw some teenagers there and thought back to when I was a teenager - and the world was one big adventure. I thought about my little nieces and nephew - everything really is new and an adventure to them. When did life stop being an adventure for me? When did I stop exploring? God created a universe filled with wonders and I haven't seen but a minuscule fraction of it. I've got to keep exploring. I've got to keep looking at the world with fresh eyes.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Friday Five: Springing Forward

Jan, over at RevGals offers this Friday Five:

Whether we liked it or not, we all "sprang forward" with the change to daylight savings time in the USA this past Sunday. There is lightness and brightness slipping in as spring approaches, so let us consider what is springing forth in our lives right now.

Name 5 things that are springing forth, possibly including : what you hope for, what you dread, what you observe, what is concrete, what is intangible.

I hope for...
a holy Lent, greater productivity and focus in what I choose to do, and more time with family and friends.

I dread...
more bad news about natural or human-made disasters. I pray that Japan solves its nuclear problems quickly. I also dread cleaning out the spare bedroom closet, but that is another thing entirely.

I observe...
that the days are getting a little longer, the sun is shining more during the day, green things are starting to grow again, and the temperature is slowly rising.

What is concrete...
is good friends and good food.

What is intangible...
is the future, where I will be and what I will be up to five years from now.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Safe Spaces

All animals have their safe spaces- somewhere to hide, to rest and sleep. My cat loves boxes. If you are at all familiar with cats you will realize that this is not a phenomenon limited to my cat. Cats like small, dark places to hide in. Gandalf (yes, that's his name even though he is not grey or white) is no exception.

It makes me contemplate what my safe spaces are. Where/how do I hide from the world? When is it helpful to be in my own safe box, and when do I need to get out? 

I also wonder about when and how the Church (universal) hides in it's own safe place, and if that really is where we need to be as Christians.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Movie: The Last Lions

A few days ago my husband and I saw The Last Lions, a movie by National Geographic. It is the story of a lioness named Mau Di Tau as she protects herself and her cubs. 

Check out the preview on YouTube:

I enjoyed this movie. The scenes are spectacular and the story is moving. Scenes are pieced together to tell a story. I do not know how much of the story is conjecture, and how much is fact (how do we really know what lions are thinking?) but the story is a good one nonetheless. 

The Last Lions may not be appropriate for the youngest viewers. It is rated PG because of some violent scenes, this is a story after all about lions and lions are predators. Animals do die in this movie, some violently. Even though it is tough to watch in a few parts, I believe that this movie is definitely worth seeing. Check your local listings to see if this movie is playing near you, and you can also check this website.

The wild lion population in Africa has declined in the past 50 years from 450,000 to 20,000. Human beings need land for housing, agriculture, and industry, and this leaves less land each year for lions and other wildlife. We have serious questions before us. How can we provide for the needs of human beings and animals when they conflict? What is our responsibility towards creation? What is our responsibility when we live in other countries, in other continents? 

Monday, March 14, 2011

Sermon for Lent 1

1st Sunday in Lent, Year A
March 13th, 2011

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7

Temptation is the obvious theme of our readings today. Our Old Testament reading is from Genesis and tells of the temptation of Eve and Adam in the Garden of Eden.  Our Gospel reading from Matthew is the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. These stories contrast well to show us what it is like to be human and what we should strive for.

In our story from Genesis, Adam and Eve were in the garden and listened to the serpent’s words rather than God’s. The sin was communal. Eve had the conversation, but note that Adam was there with her during the conversation, he was silent. The serpent doesn't straight-out lie – Eve and Adam do not immediately die from touching and eating the fruit and God later even acknowledges that the humans have become more like God in knowing good and evil. What the serpent does is bring doubt as to the trustworthiness of God, and Adam and Eve decide to trust the serpent and themselves instead. The serpent brings doubt about God’s intention and offers awareness and completion. The serpent points out their incomplete nature – they are not like God, their eyes are closed, they do not know good from evil.

The incomplete nature of humanity has been a common theme in literature and theology. I’m sure you've heard the popular statement that each person has a God-shaped hole in their heart. There is a hole in our hearts, our souls, and we long for something to fill it. We try to fill the hole with all sorts of things – food, entertainment, addictive drugs, sex, power, money – but nothing except God can truly fulfill us.

Blaise Pascal describes this well: "What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in humanity a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This we try in vain to fill with everything around us…though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God alone."
    (Pensee 10.148)

In the garden, Eve and Adam put faith in the words of a serpent and in their own desires – rather than putting their faith in God. This is what it is like to be human – we all put faith in the words of other people and in our own desires instead of putting our faith in God.

This is easily contrasted with Jesus’ experience of temptation in the wilderness, where he shows us the perfected human nature.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Adam's Silence

I’m preaching this upcoming Sunday, March 13th. The Old Testament reading is: Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7. This is the story of the temptation of Eve and Adam by a serpent in the garden of Eden.
What struck me this time as I read Genesis 3 was Adam’s silence. You see, I had learned as a child that Eve was the one who was tempted by the serpent and the first to sin, and then she went and found Adam and led him astray. Bad Eve, it was all her fault. But if you take a close look at Genesis 3:6 you will find that both Adam and Eve were present during the conversation with the serpent and the eating of the fruit.
Genesis 3:6 (CEB) - The woman saw that the tree was beautiful with delicious food and that the tree would provide wisdom, so she took some of its fruit and ate it, and also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.
Adam was present and silent. In this interpretation the fault is communal.
I’d like to explore this further but I don’t know if it will fit into my sermon or if it will have to be another discussion later.

Turn the Other Cheek

On February 20th, I preached a sermon based on the gospel reading Matthew 5:38-48. This is where the famous “turn the other cheek” comes from.  I do not have a sermon text to post, because I preached from a few note cards.  However, I wanted to share the main points of the sermon and the resource that I used.
My sermon was primarily informed by Walter Wink’s article How Turning The Other Cheek Defies Oppression.
Walter Wink argues that “Do not resist an evildoer” would be better translated as ”Do not violently resist the evil one.”  After all, Jesus did resist evil and calls us to do the same! It’s violent resistance that Jesus rejects, and he goes on to give 3 examples of non-violent resistance: 1. Turn the Other Cheek, 2. Give Your Cloak, and 3. Go the Second Mile.
If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also. –  Turning the other cheek is not being a doormat. In Jesus’ day, a person would only hit another person with their right hand (the left hand was considered unclean). The only way to hit someone’s right cheek with your right hand is to backhand them (which is an insult, it implies dominance). By turning the other cheek, you make it impossible for them to backhand you again. If they hit you with the palm then they are now calling you an equal.
If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well. – A coat can be used by a very poor person as collateral for a loan (Deut 24:10-13). Jesus is saying that if someone is heartless enough to take the clothes off of your back, give them all of your clothes and be naked. Yes, nakedness was taboo in that culture, but it was more shaming for the people who viewed the nakedness than for the actual naked person.
If anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. – This refers to a Roman law that allowed Roman soldiers to force someone to carry all of their gear (65-85 pounds worth). There were severe penalties under military law for abusing this, the limit was one mile. If you were willing to go a second mile the Roman soldier would not know if you were insulting his strength, being kind, or were going to get him in trouble at the next stop.
Jesus is using examples of non-violent resistance that shame the oppressor and reclaims power for the oppressed. For a more in-depth exploration of this, please read Walter Wink’s excellent article found here.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Going Down the Mountain to Lent

Last Sunday’s gospel was Matthew 17:1-9, the Transfiguration of Jesus. Peter, James, and John had an incredible experience of Jesus’ Transfiguration and the appearance of Moses and Elijah, all of which took place on a mountain.  Many sermons on this text focus on “mountaintop experiences,” experiences in our lives which are inspiring and/or life-changing, and that can bring new and profound understanding and insights. Also examined in sermons is the experience of returning to normal life after one of these “mountaintop experiences.” Our seminarian preached a good sermon that covered these points.
Last week I returned from Big Event 4.0 – a continuing education cruise arranged by the women at RevGalBlogPals. BE 4 was an opportunity to spend time with old friends and make new ones, learn from the stories of one another and from our moderator Rev. Carol Howard Merritt, and of course rest and relax in the sun. It was an amazing experience, and in many ways a mountaintop experience (although ocean-top experience is more technically correct in this case).
Today is Ash Wednesday, and the first day of Lent. I find last Sunday’s gospel to be especially appropriate for where I find myself today. I’ve come down from the mountain, (disembarked the ship), and returned home. It is the end of one journey, and now the beginning of another – Lent.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

A Work in Progress

Recently, I read some of my earliest sermons, from 8 or 9 years ago. Frankly, there were some that were cringe-worthy. I couldn’t believe that I said some of the things that I said, or that I said them in such a poor manner. I guess I should take that as a good sign that that I have progressed in my theological understanding since then, but it makes it difficult for me to read those old sermons (and to now post new ones).
I’m starting a blog, one that will contain my sermons and theological ponderings. The inspiration and courage to do so comes from RevGalBlogPals. I went on their Big Event 4.0 – Reframing Hope and have decided to give blogging a try.
I’m sure that it will be challenging to share unfinished thoughts and even finished sermons, knowing that in 10 more years (or even one) I might look back and cringe yet again. Yet I take heart in this quote from Henry Van Dyke: “Use what talents you possess: the woods would be very silent if no birds sang there except those that sang best.” We are all a work in progress, and that’s just fine.