Sunday, January 31, 2016

Sermon - 4th Sunday of Epiphany

Luke 4:21-30 

                                                               The Prophet Comes Home

I have been preparing for weeks for this reading from Luke 4.  I was preparing for it, long before I realized it would fall to me to preach on this lesson, and way before the circumstances swirling around us would (possibly) add additional importance to the message of these ten short verses.

Jesus goes home.  He is given the scroll of Isaiah (we aren’t sure whether he asked for this particular scroll or it just happened to be the one handed to him), he reads from the scroll the announcement of God’s anointment, of God proclaiming release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, of those in bondage being set free.  When he finishes reading he announces “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing…..”

He does have other things to say.  We cannot be sure if the storm of discontent began brewing from when he was reading or only started when he announces he will be doing none of the miracles they have heard of doing in other places while he is here at home.  But a dark cloud does settle over the place.  So dark that Jesus is silenced.  The crowd drives him out of town and to the edge of a cliff.

So, back to my advance preparation for these verses and this sermon.  It involves a novel that I thought was more popular than it seems to be.  It was made into a movie, and some liked the movie, but as is often the case, the entertainment the movie offers is a big shift from what the novel addresses (in my opinion.)  The novel I referring to is Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.  Seen the movie?  Read the novel?

The simple summary of the plot is to say that a young boy - Oskar (who falls somewhere on the Autism Spectrum) loses his father when the World Trade Center comes down on 9-11.  Oskar goes to his father’s closet, among his clothes.  There he finds a key and a name in an urn.  Oskar has never seen this urn.  He hopes it might unlock mysteries about his father.  He goes in search of the name on the key, “Mr. Black,” and answers.

The more complicated summary of the plot involves the name associated with that key and the closure Oskar brings to a young Mr. Black about his own father.  The elder Mr. Black is also deceased.  There is also this odd man whom the boy thinks simply rents a room from his grandmother.  This man does not speak.  He writes.  This man’s earlier writings addressed the inadequacy of words. 

Both the simple and complicated summary of the plot include the events on 9-11 when Oskar, and all other pupils, are sent home from school on 9-11 as soon as the planes hit the Trade Center.  Oskar’s father had left the apartment that morning on his way to the Center.  Oskar is in the family’s apartment when the phone rings.  He hears his father’s voice when the answering machine come on.  But the little boy can’t bring himself to pick up the phone.  More calls come from the father.  The content of the messages begin to shift from “Don’t worry,” to “Remember I love you.”  Still the boy can’t bring himself to lift the receiver and tell his father good-bye.

Why couldn’t he?  That is what the book (in my opinion) is about.  Sometimes there are messages with so much potential to alter our lives and our world that we had just as soon not hear them.  Sometimes, there is a word which is so full of power that it is better left unsaid.  Sometimes, we just can’t bear to hear the truth and we would prefer to ignore or avoid confirming it’s message.

Remember the Grandfather whom I mentioned in the “complicated summary”?  The grandfather has become speechless in the years during which he tried to adjust to being married to Oskar’s grandmother, when in his youth the Grandfather had fallen in love with the grandmother’s sister.  That sister dies, and the Grandfather speaks to her sister as if he were speaking to her sister.  His love message for the sister fall on this girl but after a while he realizes his folly and the inadequacy of his words.

Why had the older Mr. Black not told his own son the information which is pieced together when Oskar comes bearing the urn, and the key?

Some messages are just too significant to be spoken. 
Some messengers ought to remain silent when the content of their message is too great to bear.

The folks in the synagogue on Nazareth the day that Jesus returns to town were expecting him to set them free and to bring Good News to their lives.  Perhaps they were thinking, “If he did some much for strangers, just think what he will do for us?”  It would have been better if they had not spoken up.  When Jesus speaks to them he tells them, “God doesn’t play favorites,” or “God isn’t your magic wand to accomplish all that you desire.”

When we talked about these passages at the Wednesday night gathering, one of the students suggested it was Jesus’ claim to be the Son of God that got the crowd so riled up.  Very good and highly plausible answer.  It is the explanation given in may bible commentaries.  But why shouldn’t he say he is the Son of God?  It is true, isn’t it?  Is the truth too much for them to bear, so they are unwilling to accept it?  Or even to allow it to be spoken out loud? 

They knew Jesus as “Joseph’s son.”  How dare he so drastically change the role relationship into which they had all become comfortable?  So what if he was the Son of God, couldn’t he just come home and pretend he was who he was when played in the street and ran errands for his carpenter father?

Some messengers might do better to simply remain silent.

I am not attempting to ascribe fault in all of this.  There need not be a condemnation of the crowd for becoming so enraged and for threatening to silence Jesus themselves.

And far be it from me to imply that Jesus ought to have bridled his tongue.   That is one heresy I would never commit.

But might this story expose what the novel I enjoyed so much attempted to teach us – that sometimes there is something too significant to risk putting it into words.  Sometimes there is a message too profound or powerful to even attempt speaking it out loud. 

How could the folks in Nazareth have ever been expected to see Jesus for who he is, rather than who he had been in the relationships they had with him during his childhood?  Who could accept his Word and the meaning of those words?  Nazareth is but the first of the cities to cry out for Jesus to be silent.  Along the way there are the cities of Samaria, and finally there is Jerusalem.

Some messages are so life-altering that we find it difficult to allow them to issue forth from our lips.  Some messages are so complicated that there is no way mere words can express their truths. 

This happens over and over in the pages of our Bibles.  Words fail us; so we speak of events.  Jesus doesn’t merely say we are set free, he lives that freedom.  He lives it so completely that those who reject his good news for the poor put him to death.  An event which once again drives home the inability of us to hear the messages which are truly life-altering.  He is murdered rather than being allowed to speak.

Some messages are so life-altering that we find it difficult to allow them to issue forth from our lips.  Some messages are so complicated that there is no way mere words can express their truths. 


Thursday, January 28, 2016

Devotion - Thursday, January 28

I have been reading a portion each morning from Genesis.  Chapters 15, 16 & 17 recount the giving of promises.  God makes promises to Abram.  There is a promise to Hagar (the Egyptian maid of Sarai, Abram's wife.)

There are many, many levels to these chapters, and forgive me for pulling out one simple message, but in these promises there is something helpful to remember:  God makes the promise.

God comes to Abram and promises him a great and large people.  God comes to Hagar and promises her and her child protection from Sarai.  God comes and announces, "I will be your God."

We too often think God is willing to be our god if we approach him and make a promise to him.  We too often set up an "if, then" exchange.  The way of God is "because, therefore."  It isn't "If you sign on, then I will bless you."  No, God says "because I am your God, this is how your life ought to show that relationship."

We respond to the promise God makes to us.

Because God has loved me so deeply, therefore I need to fret about my purpose in life or what will happen when I die.  Because I have experienced God's search me out and claiming me, therefore I will search out the lost and tell them that God has also redeemed their life.

"Because, therefore."  Much different that "If, then."

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Devotion - Wednesday, January 27

Our Bible study of Phillipians did get very far last night.  In fact, other than my reference to the hymn contained in Chapter 2, we hardly looked at Phillipians at all.

We were too engaged in a wide ranging conversation about the questions "I have had but never got to ask" (as one student put it.)

Many of those questions directed our attention to atonement, i.e. how is it that Jesus' death brings about our being made one with God?

It so happens that the proscribed lessons for these weeks include Hebrews, and today I was once more reading from the 9th chapter.  In the 9th Chapter of Hebrews, the blood sacrifice is lifted up as the way we are set right with God.  There is this long presentation of how blood is required for purification to occur.  Blood is necessary if an inheritance is to be passed on to those for whom it is intended.  Very helpful stuff, and a great aid to our attempts to understand the mysteries of faith.

But it is only one way to speak of such things.

Later today, I will post at the LCM-Clemson website a summary of other theories of atonement.  For now, I want to lift up these verses from Hebrews and in doing so I want to encourage you not to too quickly abandon your asking your own questions and speaking of your own experiences.  There is, among God's people, a variety of experiences and a number of differing replies to the questions you "never got to ask."

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Devotion - Tuesday, January 26

Today's offering might be less of a "devotion" and more of a "fact check."  The verses from John 5:1-18 provide an opportunity for those who hear me often to realize I do as I say.

Jesus encounters a man who has been ill for 38 years.  He heals him.  In the ensuing mayhem (Jesus did all this on the Sabbath) the man searches for Jesus and finely locates him.

Jesus comments on the man's being well.

Then, Jesus says something that challenges my understanding of God's grace and gifts to us.  Jesus tells this man, "Sin no more, that nothing worse befall you."

I am not comfortable with the notion that our sin results in punishment from God.  I preach and teach an understanding of grace birthed from the verses of scripture in which it is noted that God sends the rain on the just and the unjust.  That those who died in the collapse of the temple wall were not somehow deserving of their injuries.

But here, in John 5, Jesus makes this comment to this man.

In case you haven't been around me when I have noted a quote from the Reformation, let me repeat it now.  "You should never quote a verse of scripture unless you can quote two more:  a second which supports what you intend to communicate with the first, and a third which conflicts what you hope to suggest."

John 5 is such a verse for me.

I won't, in these short paragraphs, explain my thinking on this matter.  My aim this morning is to demonstrate that while I am very confident in my faith and in my theology, I am constantly and continually seeking the Spirit's leading.  Peter is confronted and changes his mind about Gentiles.  Paul is confronted and stops hunting down members of the Way.  We must all remain open to what God is attempting to teach us this day.  We must never become so convinced of our position or defensive of our thoughts that we fail to follow where God would have us go.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Devotion - Monday, January 25

The gospel accounts repeatedly raise the question of why folks believe in Jesus, or seek Jesus, or flock to be around him.  

This morning I read from John 4, where Jesus challenges a man by saying, "Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe."

The man remains committed in his pursuit of Jesus; and Jesus heals the man's son.

What is it that attracts you to Jesus?  Why do you seek him?

As for myself, I could not imagine life without Jesus.  I seek him because he opens to me the possibility to live a life that is meaningful and purposeful and void of the cares and concerns which I see eating away at life.  Because of my commitment to Jesus, the bumps and bruises of life are placed in a new perspective.  Jesus teaches me to be understanding and forgiving; to see the possibilities of reconciliation.

What is it that attracts you to Jesus?  Why do you seek him?

The story in John 4 assures us that regardless of how we might answer the question, Jesus remains ready to acknowledge our desire.  Jesus sees and understands and gives voice to that which we ourselves may not be able to articulate.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Devotion - Thursday, January 21

In the Daily Appointed Readings, there is no intentional correlation between the readings from Old Testament, epistle and Gospel.  But today I felt there was one.

From Genesis 11 I read the story of the confusing of languages.  The "sons of men" had decided to build a tower to the heavens in order to "make a name" for themselves.  God confuses their languages and scatters them across the earth.

From John 4 I read the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well.  Jesus speaks to her, though she is a woman and though she is from Samaria (the Jews did not think much of the Samaritans.)

After his death, Jesus sends the Holy Spirit to guide his followers.  We read of this in Acts 2.  The confusion in Genesis is set aside by Jesus who does not want our confusion of language to be compounded by a confusion of purpose and hope.

We are too often divided.  We are separated and at odds with one another.  We are not the sisters and brothers God hopes we will be.  All of this is remedied when that Spirit comes into our lives and when God's presence allows us to see one another not as stranger and enemy but as another child of God.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Devotion - Tuesday, January 19

The "Week of Prayer for Christian Unity" has begun.  An emphasis of the National Council of Churches, the Week of Prayer is intended to lift up our common, core convictions and set aside the theological subtleties which divide us.

This does not mean we give up on those fine lines of reflection.  I am not ready to stop being a Lutheran.  I know that my friend Steve would not consent to a closing off of the Methodist Church.  

But both Steve and I are grateful for the other and for what the other brings to the whole of the Christian family.  We appreciate that the family of God would be weaker if it did not include the other.

We need to pray for the unity of the Christian Church.  We need to strive for deeper appreciation of what each community has to offer.  We are "One", as Christ declares in the Gospels and prays in his High Priestly Prayer.  Living as one is the goal and hope of this week.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Sermon - ML King Weekend

2nd Sunday After the Epiphany - Year C     
I Cor 12:1-11                  

On the Use of Spiritual Gifts

Of all the courses I took at the seminary, the one which had the most dramatic effect on me was the one I took in order to learn the life-story and the theology of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  I had always known that he was a “preacher.”  But I was unaware of the ways in which his life-story emerged out of his faith experience.  He knew that he was a man, blessed by God, with certain gifts.  And he knew that God gives us gifts in order for them to be used.  His sermons and essays instilled in me a tremendous appreciation for God’s insistence that we assess our spiritual gifts, and then use them for the common good.

  I grew up in rural south.  I supposed I had heard something of the earlier work of Pastor King, but it was his assassination in 1968 that I remember most vividly.  I remember being in my fifth grade classroom; listening to the comments, shouting at my classmates and friends.  Those are painful memories.  It is really the first time I remember thinking, “I want to go somewhere else.”  “This isn’t where I belong.”

Moving to Chicago, eleven years later, didn’t make me feel more at home.  Neither did enrolling in Seminary.  And then I took that course on ML King.  While we were still reviewing his life-story, before we had ever gotten to his sermons and books, we read of his struggles upon graduating from Crozer Theological Seminary.  King had left the south, with it’s Jim Crow laws and its “white’s only” signs.  He had moved to the north – where there was racism for sure, but not the kind that was likely to get your house bombed.  He had opportunity to remain in the protected halls of academia and tolerance.  But he realized that no place would feel like home unless it was the home that had birthed him and nourished him.  He returned, writing that the only hope for the south was her native sons (and daughters.)

He knew that he had been blessed.  And he understood that blessings are not given in order to elevate the recipient.  They are given for the common good of all God’s children.

ML King accepted the call to Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama.  In 1955 events began to unravel the illusion of normality which permitted segregation and racism to go unquestioned and unchecked.  He was one of the pastors, but he was only one of the pastors.  And, in 1955 he was not the most well-known pastor in Montgomery nor was he the pastor to which the black community would have looked for a word.  In C. Eric Lincoln’s account of what happened, it is suggested that King was chosen to be the speaker not because of his great gifts of oratory, not as a result of his understanding of the history of the issues, but because he was lesser known than many of the others and therefore less likely to be ignored or dismissed before anyone heard what he had to say.

This moment had come in King’s life as a result of someone else making use of their gifts.  Rosa Parks remained in her seat when asked to move to the back of the bus.  The earliest reports quote her as explaining her actions by saying, “My feet were tired.”  But the story is more complex.  Ms. Parks had competed her training at the Highlander Folk School where she had learned about civil disobedience.  She had gone there because she was tired, tired of giving in.  That day, on the bus, it was exhaustion which motivated her – she was tired of never feeling at home in the place that was her home.

The Highlander Folk School is still in existence.  They continue to prepare individuals for activist lives.  It is quite an impressive place; and there are many notable persons who keep it moving forward.  Miles Horton was one of the founders.  He, like Clarence Jordan of Georgia, refused to accept the status quo that persons of African descent and folks with European blood lines could not and should not live together as God’s children.  Their spiritual gift was the ability to see a new home, a home in which all of God’s children are recognized as brothers and sisters; a home in which no one is made to feel unwelcome or desire to run away.

All sorts of folks – each one doing their part.  And as a result the world is a better place than it was in 1954.

All sorts of folks – each one doing their part.

This is the message of today’s reading from I Corinthians.  Paul is addressing the issue of spiritual gifts.  He reviews some of these gifts and he celebrates their being offered for the common good.  ML King, Rosa Parks, Miles Horton and the Highlander School – all examples of those who upon realizing they had received a gift began to look for a way to use it – for the common good.

The list of gifts, shared in this brief reading, is not intended to be exhaustive.  These are but examples which Paul uses in order to make the point that to each of us God has given some abilities.  These skills, these traits, these abilities are not ours for the hording.  They are given to us so that we might be of service to others.

The text would also remind us that no one of us receives all the gifts that are to be given.  We are typically only given one, maybe two.  Just because an individual has one gift to offer, we should not assume they have them all.  This is why someone who is wonderful in teaching might not be such a good example of doing.  Or why a person who can bring about healing is totally incapable of getting anything organized. 

The gifts are spread around.  And sometimes one gift is totally useless unless it is coupled with the gifts of those around us.

When we use our gifts, in service to others, the world is changed.  It is changed by the results of our sharing; it is changed by the very act of sharing.

What are your gifts?  Are you too modest to name them out loud?  The greater tragedy is that you probably haven’t been challenged to identify them.  Maybe, in one of those career builder workshops you were forced to refine your three-minute self-presentation in which you rehearsed the phrases which are most likely to get you an interview.  But when have you sat with another servant of God and identified the things you are able to do and willing to do for the sake of God’s people?

What are your gifts?

Sometimes gifts are discovered in the moment.  King’s gifts were revealed when he was picked for reasons other than his keen intellect.  And he had a lot of help refining his gifts as the years passed by.

What are your gifts?  And what are the needs or the world which call upon you to offer those gifts?

I want to challenge you to hear in the messages of this ML King Weekend the examples of how various individuals (not just King himself, but so many others) offered their gifts for the common good.  I encourage you to see the ways in which their willingness to offer their gifts made it possible for others to do the same.  And above all, I want you to start to see the blessings which God had given you as an invitation to contribute to the common good.  It is a start to sit with a career builder and answer “What am I good at doing?” but it needs to move beyond that to an understanding that these are gifts God has given you and God has given them to you for a reason.  It is God’s intention that these gifts be used to make the world the home that it is intended to be for all of God’s children.


Thursday, January 14, 2016

Devotion - Thursday, January 14

In John 1:43ff we read of the call of Philip and Nathanael.  There is an interplay in the story between being found by Jesus, and seeking Jesus.  It is a helpful interplay, and one that may be helpful to us in our journey of faith.

The story begins with a clear statement that Jesus "found Philip and said to him, 'Follow me.'"  I hope we hear this as affirmation that Jesus seeks us out - comes looking for us - and does "find" us.  

It is important that we have such an affirmation.  When we are lost and alone, when we are confused and distressed, we need the confidence that we will not be left to our own strength. Jesus comes looking and finds us.

But in the events of John 1, there is a response and and interplay.

Philip then goes and locates Nathanael and says to him, "We have found him of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote."  The one who is found seems to have also been looking.

My piety resides in being found.  I could never have approached God had God not moved me.  But I do read in this story and other places in scripture of how a quest for God is likely to lead us to the places where Jesus can find us.  So, from these stories I gain the encouragement to search and seek.

We are found by God.  God comes to us.  Having been found, we surely respond by looking for other expressions of God's presence.  There is an interplay here - one which encourages us to open our bibles and visit God's house.

Jesus promises Nathanael that he will see wonderful things.  Such things are seen, by those who follow the gaze of Jesus and learn from him what to look for and were to look to.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Devotion - Wednesday, January 13

This morning I read from Genesis 4 the story of Cain killing his brother Abel.  This story continues to horrify me, though I have read it countless times.

My first disbelief is the impetus for Cain's jealousy.  Why is it that God "had regard" for the offering of Abel, but not for the offering of Cain?  I will leave that to another time, but wanted to note it, thinking you might also stumble over this part of the story.

The story does not explain God's actions; it addresses our emotions and our reactions.  The words of God (quoted below) draw a distinction between an offering being accepted and a person being regarded.

When Cain's offering is not regarded, he becomes angry and vengeful.  He kills his brother.  God exposes Cain's inability to withstand it.  God says to Cain, "If you do well, will you not be accepted?  And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it."

Our jealousy, our envy - these too often gain an upper hand on us and rule over us.  We do not resist them, they enter the door and dominate our lives.  There will always be occurrences where what happens is unfair (it isn't fair that God regards the offering of Abel over that of Cain).  We will forever be confronted with such.  The question is how will we respond.  How did Jesus respond?

Do not let hatred or suspicion or ignorance of another to enter the door and cause you to rise up against brother/sister.  Master it - with God's help.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Monday, January 11

I apologize for turning Monday into a repeat of Sunday, but since I don't send an e-devotion on Sunday, the only way to reinforce the theme of a particular Sunday is if I write about it on Monday.

Yesterday was the Baptism of our Lord.  The appointed lessons recounted the baptism of Jesus, by John, in the river Jordan.  Before I spout off all kinds of lessons about this event, let me acknowledge that it does create a lot of confusion.  The baptism which John offered was a baptism of repentance and of renewal.  Why would Jesus be in need of such?

The Baptism of our Lord observance does not  pretend to answer such questions or settle discussions so much as it reinforces in us some terribly important lessons.  Jesus' baptism unites him with those of us who have also been baptized.  Jesus' baptism signals the action by which God claims us and says "You are my child."

The baptism offered in our Christian Churches is not the baptism of John.  It is a baptism in the name of Jesus.  It is a baptism into the life and death and resurrection of our Messiah.  We may, and we should, participate in rituals of repentance and renewal.  But our baptism is not the place to point when we wish to acknowledge a re-dedication of our lives.

The Baptism of our Lord is an observance on the Liturgical Calendar too important to skip or overlook.  It has many lessons to teach.  Thank you for allowing me to extend yesterday's theme into today.  This is a theme which is to be repeated and relived every day of our lives.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Devotion - Thursday, January 7

I have allowed myself to get caught up in this whole "playing for the National Championship" thing.  It is very exciting, and it is no exaggeration to say that practically everything is on hold till next Tuesday.  Who can think about anything else?

But in my prayers this morning I repeated a petition I often utter on Saturday afternoons in the fall - "They are only kids; recently out of high school and only just beginning to find themselves as adults."

Let's not forget the joy associated with this widely popular game of sport.  Let's not forget that it does matter how we play the game, not merely whether we win or lose.  And let's not forget that there are many ways in which "a champion" emerges.

This may seem an odd "devotion."  But if faith is the underpinning for all of our thoughts and actions, it surely should inform our thoughts, actions, and comments over these next couple of days.  As persons of faith, we can interject into the various discussions a word of reason and rationality.  As Tiger fans, we can uphold the values which are of prime importance to us all.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Devotion - Monday, January 6

Today is Epiphany.  January 6 is the date for commemorating the visit of the Magi to the baby Jesus.  Our Christmas pageants tend to imply that this visit occurs while the new-born baby is still in a stable, with the shepherds in attendance.  But the story told in Matthew suggests this visit may have come as much as two years after Jesus' birth.

The visitors are clearly not Jews.  They are from a different country; followers of differing deities.  This is the significance of their visit:  the Christ child's arrival has implications for everyone.  The prophet Isaiah had said it, "It it too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth."

W.H. Auden's poem "Star of the Nativity" which begins:  
I am that star most dreaded by the wise, 
For they are drawn against their will to me.
 ...I shall deprive them of their minor tasks.

The world would rather go about its business and do it's own thing.  But the star beckons all and alters our course.  We can no longer look to tribe or tradition, but are drawn to that which is God's message for the world.