Thursday, August 31, 2017

Devotion - Thursday, August 31

This morning's appointed lesson is 2 Samuel 11.  After recounting many of the good things that King David has done, this chapter is one of his worse.  This is his seeing, desiring, abusing, and finally claiming Bathsheba for his own.

I do appreciate how the Old Testament is much more honest.  There are rare persons who are "perfect."  God's servants do good, and they do not-so-good.  They are more human, more like you and me.

But, when they do that which displeases God, they really do show a dark side.

Too often the story of David and Bathsheba is read as a history lesson.  Too seldom do we allow ourselves to see ourselves in the story.  This comes more easily with those who would identify with Bathsheba.  They know the horror of being objectified and desired for the wrong reasons and abused by someone with power.

Are we able to see ourselves in the actions of David?  Are we able to identify our tendency to covet and desire and then pretend we have a right to that which exceeds our needs and is something we want?

There is a cable TV show which presents stories of those who hoard.  How easily we could each be on that show.  We have two coats - or three.  What does Jesus say?  I am saving up money for a spring break trip to Germany, while within a mile of my house there are families who face eviction because of missed rent payments.

It is not easy to fix the imbalances of our community.  But we can start by recognizing the causes of the problem.  Open your bible and read I Samuel 11.  Or here, I will help you -

And then think of how this story might be a horrible prediction of your own story.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Devotion - Wednesday, August 30

In Acts 19, Paul is in the city of Ephesus.  He locates some "disciples" and begins to talk with them.  He asks if they received the Holy Spirit when they were baptized.  They said they had never heard of the Holy Spirit.  Paul asks about their baptism.  Their response was to say they had received the baptism of John.

Paul says, "John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is Jesus."

They are then baptized in the name of Jesus.  The Holy Spirit came on them, and they "spoke with tongues and prophesied."

These baptisms are different.  The Church baptizes in the name of Jesus.  While repentance is a part of each Christian's life, our baptism is more than a washing away of sin.  Our baptism is a gift, shown forth in the Holy Spirit.

We spoke last night in our bible study group about remembering our baptism, daily.  Luther is said to have begun each day by affirming "I am baptized."  Each evening, as he washed his face, he recalled the waters of his baptism.  Such practices can remind us of the gift which has been given to us.  They can assure us when we fear.

If you don't know the date of your baptism, find out.  I can help you if you need to contact the congregation where you were baptized.  On the third Sunday of each month, UniLu has a baptismal remembrance liturgy.  Begin to participate in that.

Celebrate the gift God has given you.  And be assured that nothing will separate you from the love God has for you.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Devotion - Tuesday, August 29

The daily cycle of readings and the cycle of readings for Sunday were created independently of one another.  But sometimes they overlap; and when they do I usually pay particular attention.

This morning I read from Mark 8 the story which we read on Sunday from Matthew 16.  It is the confession of Peter.

Jesus asks, "Who do you say that I am?"  And Peter answers, "You are the Christ."

No confession may be as simple as this.  No statement of faith may be as basic.  No statement of faith is more pure than these simple words.

There are many things which are implied when we refer to Jesus as Christ.  There are many things which flow from one affirming Jesus as Messiah.  But to be a Christian one only needs make this affirmation.  To be a follower of Jesus, does not mean we have all that additional stuff memorized.  It simply means that in Jesus we have found rest for our souls, hope for our anxieties, and promise for our lives.

I do hope that you will continue to learn your bible stories, that you will develop your appreciation for the finer aspects of Christian theology.  But those are add-ons.  The simplest of affirmations is the essential confession to make.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Devotion - Monday, August 28

Mark 8:11-21 is yet another story which exposes the inability of the disciples to understand.  Jesus speaks of leaven; they think he is commenting on the lack of bread; Jesus reminds them that with five loaves he fed 5,000 and with seven he fed 4,000.  They are confused (and this passage confuses me a bit, too.)

But here is what comes through very clearly - while the disciples are clearly earthen vessels, they are the instruments of the building of a community which has endured and continued to this very day.

They did something right.

It is to us (earthen vessels which we are) that God has entrusted his message and his community.  While we may be quick to see our shortcomings or our failures, God has chosen wisely and God will accomplish what Got intends.

Be God's instrument this day.  Bring the Good News of God's love and compassion into the lives of those whom you encounter.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Sermon - Pentecost 12, Year A

Matthew 16:13-20 & Romans 12:1-8            

“Who do you say that I am?”
“How we identify Jesus will impact the way we interact with one another and with the earth.”  (Mitzi J. Smith, Working Preacher) 

Therefore, the question Jesus sets before his disciples as they enter the region of Caesarea Philippi, needs to be answered by each of us, in our own words, in our time and context.  Matthew records for us the exchange which happened between Jesus and the first group of disciples.  The way Matthew describes that encounter prevents us from ever thinking that the question has been answered and thus no longer needs to be asked.

“Who do you say that I am?”  
“How we identify Jesus will impact the way we interact with one another and with the earth.” 

Those of you who were here two weeks ago will remember me apologizing for fearing that I was being overly dramatic.  I will still offer such words of apology.  I do worry about being overly dramatic.  But I am even less worried about being so today than I was just two weeks ago.  I really do think we (we Christians, we the gathering of persons called the Church of Jesus Christ) are a critical juncture.  I am convinced that the way we respond now will set the course for the Church for generations to come.

My fear is not for the Church.  Take a quick look at verse 8 of today’s Psalm:  “Your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever.”  There will always be a Church of Jesus Christ.  The critical juncture at which we find ourselves will merely determine whether you and I (and a church called “Lutheran”) will be a part of that which endures forever.

“Who do you say that I am?”
“How we identify Jesus will impact the way we interact with one another and with the earth.” 

Geography can be important.  This exchange with the disciples is given a geographic location – the district of Caesarea Philip.  This region is at the far east edges of the world Jesus encounters.  It is clearly a Roman region.  To place this exchange on the identity of Jesus in this region may be significant in later conflicts over how the Jewish followers of Jesus were to interact with the non-Jewish followers.  The question of whether the words of Jesus apply to the stranger and the alien will dog the Church through most of its earliest days.

Comments about the geography are speculation; what isn’t left to conjuncture is the identity assigned to Jesus by Peter.  This is an identity which Jesus embraces and blesses and seems eager to reveal to others.

You know the sequence of questions.  The first thing Jesus asks is who do “people” say that he is. 

“People” is always a troubling reference.  When told that “people” are upset or bothered, there is no way of knowing if the reference is to the speaker and their coffee buddy, or if it refers to the whole of society and the world.  “’People’ are saying…..” too often precedes a comment impossible to verify or to qualify.  I heard on Friday that “people” are upset that Dabo Swinney got a new contract and is now the 3rd highest paid college coach.  But something tells me “people” will still show up at the stadium this fall and shout and cheer their affirmations for doing whatever needed to be done to keep Dabo here.

Who do “people” say that Jesus is?

I am not meaning to imply that Jesus sets up a trick question.  But asking the question this way exposes the influences to which Peter and the other disciples have been exposed.  If it is a trick question, it surely was not asked in order to cause the disciples to stumble and fall.  If it is a trick question its intent would be to expose the ability of Jesus’ followers to set aside what “people” were saying - and speak of that which they had come to know.

I think it is helpful for you and I to follow the same sequence.  Before we answer who Jesus is for us, it could be helpful to acknowledge what “people” around us say about him.  What instructions do “people” most forcefully repeat from the words and life of Jesus?

Let me mention a couple of things which very well could come up were we to take a vote or survey.  What do “people” say which might cause those of us gathered in this room some concern?

1 – Alcohol.  I think we might find that a majority of Jesus’ followers are teetotalers.  Some of us, in this room, are teetotalers.  Others of us know the disastrous effects of alcohol and fight to hold on to sobriety in a culture too fixated on “having a drink.”

2 – Divorce.  It is not allowed at all in the Roman Catholic congregations.  And the most popular congregation in my hometown forbids anyone who is divorced from being a voting member.

3 – Creation.  Here there is often a separation between what people think and what they are willing to say.  Maybe the balance would tip away from a new-earth theory.  But I am not so sure.

Who do “people” say Jesus is?  And what to “people” then tell us it means to follow Jesus?

When Jesus is brought into the discussion of how one interacts with the world, there are underlying assumptions about “who Jesus is” and there are many layers of convictions built up a foundation which is so far below ground level that we might no longer see it or be aware of the way in which it gives support to what we want to construct.

What are we committed to building on that foundation?  Are we building lives in which love of God comes first?  Are we building lives that love the other as much as ourselves?  Are we building lives in which the pursuit of justice and peace are paramount?

Too often it seems that “people” are building a prison nation, a nation where millions of children are homeless and hungry, and even a church which too often oppresses the poor and women and turns a blind eye toward sexual violence within its gates and in the streets.

“Who do people say that I am?”  Jesus asks.

In the gospel account, several answers are given.  Those answers are varied and represent a great swath of God’s history in the world.  In past sermons I have analyzed the significance of John, Jeremiah, Elijah, or some prophet.  An article I read this week reminded me of the one trait which holds true for all of the answers given by “people.”  They are all dead men. 

Unsatisfied to be identified with any dead man (even some dead men of considerable stature), Jesus presses the disciples.  “But who do you say that I am?”

Got your bible/got your bulletin? I want you to recite with me the answer Peter gives.  It is verse 16.  Right in the middle of this morning’s assigned reading.  Ready – “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

“The Son of the living God.”  A living God interacts with the world differently, and calls upon followers to do the same.  A living God experiences the pain of God’s living children and comes to their aid.  A living God is moved by the cries of others and responds as the moment unfolds.

We may be content with what people tend to say – that Jesus is another of the dead men who have changed the course of human history.  Or, we might actually believe and live our lives in such a way as to reflect the confession of Peter, in Matthew 16.  Might we say it together, one more time?  “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

In Romans 12, Paul writes:  Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you may discern what is the will of God.

This critical juncture in the life of the Church places before us the challenge of discerning what is the will of God.  The critical nature of this juncture exposes whether we will follow what “people” say or if we will act as persons who live in relationship with the Son of the living God.  This living God is continually about the process of renewing of our minds, our hearts and our lives. 

We live in contentious times.  There are angry mobs and hurtful posts on every social media outlet.  We have chosen our source for news and labeled those we opposed at too biased to be considered worthy. 

We live in a critical time.  It is very important that we examine the foundations upon which we stand and evaluate that which we are constructing. 


Thursday, August 24, 2017

Devotion - Thursday, August 24

The Jewish food laws were confusing and an impediment to the Gentiles who sought to follow Jesus.  In Mark 7, there is an exchange between Jesus and some Pharisees about such matters.  In these verses, Jesus' words remind readers the purpose for the food laws.

How easily we forget the reason why God tells us what is good and proper and right.  How quickly we become like those to whom Jesus speaks, in Mark 7.  Jesus quotes Isaiah, "This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain they do worship me, teaching as doctrine the precepts of men."

It is not an easy task, to discern where we have substituted our own "precepts" for a command from God.  But discern we must.  One tool in making such determination might be to ask whether the instruction furthers God's message to the world.  Is the thing being asked of me something which will show love of God and love of neighbor; will it bring justice; and is it something which will advance the call to unity?  Many of the precepts of men which get ingrained in us are shows of personal devotion or piety; they are self-serving displays of prominence.

The laws of God are not confusing nor an impediment.  The laws of God lead us to the place where the love of God is shown and where we are encouraged to love in return.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Devotion - Wednesday, August 23

Welcome back!  The summers in Clemson are pleasant, but they lack the energy, enthusiasm, and sense of community which come with the academic year.  It is good to be back together again.

It is an exciting time for all of you - and there will be many opportunities to smile and laugh and celebrate.  At each such moment, God will be with you to "make your joy complete."

There are also likely to be lonely moments, and times of tremendous stress.  God will be there, then, too.  

I was reading this morning from Mark 6:47-56.  It is the story of Jesus walking on the water, coming to the boat with the disciples.  In Mark's version, there is a strong wind making their journey difficult.  When Jesus comes, and joins them in the boat, the wind ceases.  I like that image.

For those times which are stressful or lonely or frightening, remember Mark 6.  Invite Jesus into the boat with you.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Sermon - Pentecost 10

10th Sunday After Pentecost - Year A
August 13, 2017                                                                                           
I Kings 19:9-18 & Matthew 14:22-33           


Thank you for the time away – I am deeply appreciative to you for granting my sabbatical request.  I would also point out that while many of you have spoken of the ways in which you missed me personally, no one has identified a lapse in ministry.  While this might not bode well for my job security, it speaks volumes to the goal of every professional church worker – we are to equip the saints in such a way that we become unnecessary.  We are getting real close to that point here – and that is a beautiful and powerful witness to the presence of God’s Spirit among us and to our meaningfully taking on the mantle of the priesthood of all believers. 

I am glad to be back; but it is a difficult Sunday to be back.  Like many of you, I have spent much of the past twenty-four hours listening to stories from Charlottesville.  I have gotten caught up in the twitter storm.  And I know that what is said this morning in our Christian Churches will expose our character and place in society as we move forward into the days and weeks to come.

I am also fully aware that today is the blessing of the back-packs.  As a result, many households included an additional push to get the youngest of their members here this morning.  Those little ones do not deserve the blame for what happened yesterday.  But as one twitter chain noted “Love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.  People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love.”  It is very, very important; it is absolutely essential; that these little ones among us this morning hear us speak a lesson about loving others and denouncing hatred. 

We know this – we repeat it often.  Say with me, but if there is a child near you look them in the eyes as you speak the words of John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world….”

Maybe this isn’t a difficult Sunday after all.  Maybe this is a Sunday we will remember and recall for the rest of our lives.  Maybe this is the day when we are courageous enough to look in the mirror and be truthful about what we see.

This is the fourth version of a sermon I have written this week.  Preachers who look for justification for writing their sermons as they walk through the parking lot will long point to this day and say, “See, that is why I do it….”  I am not going to do it every week – mostly because it isn’t fun to toss and turn all night then get up extra early to type out yet another rendition.

One of the earlier drafts started with an analysis of Matthew 14 and I Kings 19.  Not knowing what lay ahead, the bible study leader at our conference this week look at the attempts of Elijah to escape the mission God had given him.  She pointed out that twice in that reading God says the same thing to Elijah – “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

God had given Elijah a task; God had empowered Elijah to speak the word of the Lord.  And Elijah had done pretty well, up to this point.  But now, he is off in the wilderness somewhere, hiding in a cave. 

“What are you doing here, Elijah?”  “You belong somewhere else.”  “You ought to be where my word and my command have sent you.”

The bible study leader’s challenge is even more applicable than she could have anticipated. 

If we cower in the face of what happened yesterday in Charlottesville, we are attempting to rewrite the exchange in I Kings 19.

If we back away from this opportunity to speak God’s word, we have given a different answer to God’s asking “What are you doing (in this place of hiding)” than the scriptural answer.

Another twitter chain made an undocumented but probably true statement.  Many, too many, of the organizers of yesterday’s official protest would self-identify as “God loving Americans.”  I know, from my own personal history, that the KKK has deep convictions that they are doing what they do because it has been ordained by God.

The Church has to speak.  What we say is very important.  And perhaps more important is what we might fail to say. 

Bring it back home.  One of the twitter feeds I followed last night is A.D. Carson.  He completed his doctoral studies last spring.  If you have not read his “See the Stripes” poem do so today.  It has been set to rap.  “See the Stripes.”

Those who assembled in Charlottesville yesterday were overt in their racism and bigotry.  I would be surprised if there are any among us this morning who are overt, but I know there are way too many instances in which we are passive.  And that is a mistake we cannot continue to make.

I will say it clearly – even expanding it a bit.  If the Church does not stand up against hatred and oppression, we have lost our moorings and our reason to claim the name of Jesus.  There is NO DOUBT what would Jesus do.  He would defend persons of color, he would welcome persons of differing religious traditions, and he would see that the poor are treated for their illnesses and healed.

Some of you have been asking me for stories from Germany.  So let me tell you one.  And it ties in to all this.

In Wittenberg, for the anniversary, there are display booths from practically every expression of the church.  One of them impressed me more than any of the others.  It is a tent set up by “The Confessing Church Movement.”  I didn’t know the movement was still active – but I know now why it needs to be.

The Confessing Church gained notoriety because of a pastor by the name of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  He, along with others, refused to go along with the church’s willingness to fall in step with the Brown Shirts in Germany, in the 1930’s.  They penned a statement called the “Barman Declaration.”  It condemned the racism of the Nazi Party and called on the Church to stand in opposition.

The Declaration didn’t garner widespread support.  Bonhoeffer is eventually imprisoned and executed at the concentration camp in Flossburg. 

Now – I want to be careful – and I want to fully acknowledge that only extensive research can discern whether something causes an outcome or if the outcome is merely somehow related to the earlier events.  But it has been my experience that many of the Germans who no longer see a reason for being involved in the Church point to the silence of the official church at a critical time.  I will be even more explicit in saying that this is what I experience in our culture, and in the work we seek to do with college students.

The Confessing Church Movement – in Germany – continues to identify places where the voice of God is desperately needed.  The churches in the U.S. must speak out this morning, or accept the observation that our silence has exposed what is in our hearts and what matters most to us.

A closing look at the Gospel text. 

Peter could see where Jesus was.  Peter saw Jesus standing in a place that ought not to have been capable of allowing him to stand there.  In the story, Jesus is walking on water.  But the image is of a Lord who is able to do what they say can’t be done. 

Peter asks Jesus to make it possible for him to stand on that porous surface; Peter asks Jesus to help me do what no one is capable of doing.  And Jesus says, “Sure.  Come on out here.”  And Peter does it.  He does what is not possible to do.

But then he allows the wind to distract him.  He stops thinking about Jesus and starts to think of the 20,000 leagues of water below and around him.  And he starts to sink.

Eliminating racism and bigotry may seem like an impossible task.  But if our Lord beacons us to come to where he is, we can do it.  And we ought to do it.  Will we be battered by the wind and the waves and lose our focus on the voice which says, “Sure.  Come on out here.”?

The soul of the Church is at stake here.  The future of the Church may well be determined in these days.  Some of us will die and many of us will lose our places of prominence.  But we do have to decide whether to retreat back inside that cave or wrap our mantles around us and come out to the place where God’s Word once again comes to us and instructs us.