Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Devotion - Wednesday, January 31

This morning I read John 6:52-59.  Here, Jesus responds to those who disputed among themselves, saying, "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?"

Jesus offers one of several replies.  He reminds us that the bread and wine of Holy Communion provide us the food and drink needed for eternal life.

The mystery of Holy Communion is something we accept, knowing we cannot offer sufficient explanation.  Those who ask for or insist upon a full analysis will remain confounded and disappointed.  We do know (nor do we really care) how  God does this.  It is something which we experience and receive and for which we give thanks.

Two days ago I found myself in a phone conversation.  My conversation partner wasn't sure about this or that one-line statement of Christian creeds.  In just a few brief moments, we explored the limits of language to capture the meaning and purpose of those one-liners.

The whole of Christian faith is too vast and too deep for total comprehension.  It is not our place to understand, it is our opportunity to receive the assurances delineated in those proclamations of faith.

I will never understand the whole body and blood thing - but I am continually strengthened by the assurance that God would give anything in order for me to have the one thing I need.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Devotion - Tuesday, January 30

I wrote yesterday about faith, and I want to add more today.  I continue to read from Hebrews 11.13-16.

Let me quote a few verses:  
All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.

Two gifts were presented in these verses:

First, the talk of persons of faith "seeking."  Too often we associate faith with certainty, as if it brings the conclusion of our quest.  This has not been my experience, nor is it the sort of talk I hear from those who have been my inspiration in the faith.  Seeking is the very essence of what it means to be a person of faith.  We are on a constant search for that "better country" in which the will and word of God is complete.

Second, there is the assurance that God has "prepared a city."  There are places, actual physical places, where we can be and know that God is there.  There are opportunities to experience being safe and secure and relaxed.  We often call such places congregations; they might also be small group gatherings or supper clubs.  My seeking does not mean I have no fellow searchers.

Faith is the assurance of things hoped for.  It is the promise that I will not seek in vain and that I do not have to seek alone.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Devotion - Monday, January 29

"Faith" is what God hopes to find in us.

We continually hear "Justification by faith."

But when our cognitive selves try to understand or explain "faith", we sometimes slip into something that isn't faith.

I was reading this morning from Hebrews 11. This is the chapter which lifts up the faith of Abel, Enoch, Noah, and Abraham.  It was by faith that they lived and "became an heir of the righteousness which comes by faith."

In our culture, we most often confuse faith with morality.  We begin to associate being a person of faith with living by a particular code or set of expectations.

We also associate faith with believing outrageous things, which no one would believe if thinking about it on their own.

Faith (to me and those with whom I tend to associate) is a relationship.  It is a trust in God.  Faith becomes the lens through which I see the world and the construct by which I make life decisions.  Out of this there grows a moral code and I do accept some things as reality which the culture around me finds laughable.  My faith informs what I think, but it occupies many additional parts of my life.

Read Hebrews 11.  Develop the ability to articulate your own understanding of what faith is.  

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Sermon - 4th Sunday After Epiphany

Mark 1:21-28

                                                          “Have you come to destroy us?”

Today’s reading from Mark has been carefully selected in order to lift up how different is the teaching of Jesus.  We are in the Liturgical season of Epiphany.  Today is week 4.  There is one more Epiphany Sunday and then we observe Transfiguration before launching into the Lenten Season.

In this season of Epiphany, we are to be encouraged (or allowed) to clearly see Jesus as the one who has been sent by God.  Today’s reading from Mark is intended to lift up the “authority” with which Jesus teaches.  His fame begins to “spread through the surrounding region of Galilee” as folks come to understand that while he may be a highly insightful orator, he is also something more. 

What he is is apparent to one of those in the midst of the people.  Who he is is well known to one particular man, at the synagogue in Capernaum.  This man proclaims: you are “the Holy One of God.”

I am getting a bit ahead of myself, in the story which will unfold as we read through the rest of Mark’s Gospel.  But one thing which will happen in the weeks, months, and years to come is the struggle for folks to recognize Jesus.  It is in John’s account, in the 14th chapter, where Jesus responds to Philip by asking, “Have I been with you all this time…. And you still do not know me?”  In each of the accounts, the disciples seem dulled to the truth about Jesus and his relationship with the father.  They seem unprepared or not ready to hear and accept the message Jesus proclaims.

Remember that the end of Mark’s Gospel tells us that the disciples who came to the tomb on Easter morning fled in terror, and told no one what they had seen (or I guess what they had NOT seen – since they were looking into an empty tomb.)

They don’t seem to know – they fail to understand.  But this man in the synagogue in Capernaum does – he encounters Jesus early in the story – right at the very beginning – and announces loudly and clearly – You are the Holy One of God.

Was he heard?  Probably.  Jesus tells him to be silent.  This demand surely implied that what the man said we heard by those around him.

Was he believed?  Well, that may be a different matter.

This man seems to have something different about him which may have allowed folks to dismiss him.  In speaking of what is different about him, I am intentionally avoiding saying that something was wrong with him.  The story doesn’t say that something was wrong with him, scripture simply says he was “a man with an unclean spirit.”  The story also does not say whether this “unclean spirit” would have been apparent to anyone else, before its exit from the man caused him to convulse and cry.

I want you to think about that description.  Think about what you have been told in the past, or encouraged to believe this description means – and then we will try to think for ourselves what this might mean.

Let’s start with those well-engrained assumptions.  What have you heard in the past, or been taught to think about persons with “unclean spirits”?  What diagnosis code is likely to be attached to a person with an “unclean spirit”?  Was is the medical condition which could have resulted in such a description?

Epilepsy?  Schizophrenia?  Depression?  Chemical addition?  Multiple sclerosis?  Parkinson’s Disease?

I asked my search engine for help.  Most of what I found on the internet was talk of “demon” possession.  The Good News Bible translates this man’s condition as an “evil spirit.”  But the King James Bible uses the same English words printed in our bulletin.  The King James Bible says the man has an “unclean spirit.”

Whatever this spirit is, it isn’t something Jesus will tolerate.  He orders the unclean spirit to come out of the man.  The man with the unclean spirit has spoken his fear that this Holy One of God, Jesus of Nazareth, has perhaps come “to destroy us.”  And, destroy Jesus does.  And Jesus’ ability to order the unclean spirit to exit the man does cause the folks in the synagogue to sit up and take notice.

I want to return to those on-line resources.  One of them had this to say:

An unclean spirit or demon is “unclean” in that it is wicked. Evil spirits are not only wicked themselves, but they delight in wickedness and promote wickedness in humans. They are spiritually polluted and impure, and they seek to contaminate all of God’s creation with their filth. Their foul, putrid nature is in direct contrast to the purity and incorruption of the Holy Spirit’s nature. When a person is defiled by an unclean spirit, he takes pleasure in corrupt thoughts and actions; when a person is filled with the Holy Spirit, his thoughts and actions are heavenly.

What if what ails this man is none of the medical conditions we listed earlier.  What if the unclean spirit with afflicted him was “spiritual impurity and pollution”?

Wouldn’t Jesus be as eager to remove such a ‘spirit” as he would be to cure someone with one of the medical conditions we named earlier?

Wouldn’t Jesus be even more eager to take away such things?

Yes – this sermon is a bit off the cuff.  Members of the Congregational Council can affirm that I told them at yesterday’s Council Retreat that I was likely to need to go home and re-write what I had thought I say this morning.  As a result, I haven’t had as much time for this to sink in as I would like.  And, I might not be able to pull you along through this chain of thought. 

But, let’s try.

The person with the unclean spirit is worried that Jesus may have come to destroy.  What might he worry that Jesus would destroy?  Well, any number of ailments which would work against the hope Jesus has for us, for our lives and for the world.

What if the unclean spirit possessed by this man was worried that Jesus would destroy any one of the many thoughts/beliefs which possibly permeated the gathering in the synagogue that day?  Convictions such as:
1.     Devotion to and dependence upon a system of sacrifice as the way to obtain God’s favor,
2.     The notion that some are more acceptable to God than others,
3.     A fear that God will punish us for breaking any one of the hundreds of quotes selectively lifted from the sacred writings,
4.     A fear and often times rejection of the alien and sojourner living among us,
5.     The mere suggestion that I can obtain God’s acceptance while harboring in my heart hatred toward one of God’s children.

When you think about it, Jesus did come to do a lot of destroying.  And much of what Jesus came to destroy was present right there in that synagogue in Capernaum. 

When you allow yourself to think about it, Jesus still comes to do a lot of destroying.  It is difficult to enter the Kingdom of God – because entering the Kingdom of God means the removal of so many unclean spirits – spirits which allow us to remain self-centered and self-absorbed and (possibly above all) self-justifying.

The liturgical season of Epiphany is designed to help us see and perceive the truth about who Jesus is.  Maybe we have ceased to look with fresh eyes in order to see him and to perceive who he truly is.  At least part of who he is, is the One who forbids unclean spirits to remain.  Few – if any – unclean spirits will welcome this intrusion and expulsion.

So, let me ask you again.  What name or diagnostic code might you assign to the unclean spirit which Jesus is casting out?

Few of them will go easily.  And as the attempt is made to strip them there will be a lot of convulsing and crying and loud voices. 


Thursday, January 25, 2018

Devotion - Thursday, January 25

I enjoyed last night's program.  Y'all can let me know if you did as well.  What I do know is I didn't get home for a couple of hours till after the program ended, as a result of four very meaningful conversations which grew out of the evening's attention to The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

Then, this morning, I opened my devotional guide and one of the themes from last night came back.  I was directed to read Hebrews 9:1-14.  In this selection, we are told about the role of the High Priest and the his entry to the Holy of Holies in the Temple.  "Behind the second curtain stood a tent....  having the golden altar of incense and the art of the covenant covered on all side with gold, which contained a golden urn holding the manna, and Aaron's rod that budded, and the tables of the covenant."

This curtain is the one torn open in the account of Jesus' death in Matthew 27.  

Our discussion last night touched on this curtain and how its being ripped open informs The Church's understand of the need for priests/pastor (or that we no longer need a priest/pastor).

Here is the message I would offer this morning:  The image instructs us that God who does not reside in hidden places.  God is accessible to us.  This is primarily shown in God taking on our form and living among us.  But it is also revealed in the acts of God.

A priest or pastor is not necessary - but we have pastors and priests in order to benefit from the wealth of reflection and study of past interactions between God and God's people.  Pastors and priests are given the luxury of years to study.  Then, we ask of them assistance in learning what we might.

Too often, we allow our communities understanding of topics such as the role of priests and pastors to rob us of the unity which is ours in Christ.  The torn temple curtain nudged us in that direction last night.  The Baptists and the Roman Catholic and the Lutheran participants each had their own opinions.  I am hoping this morning's readings might assist us in holding to the unifying Word.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Devotion - Monday, January 22

I failed to note on Thursday, that I will be attending a retreat through Wednesday morning.  Should I miss a morning to write to you, this is why.

But, today I am up and able to send this note without causes too much disturbance for my roommate.

This retreat is a conference for campus pastors.  Assisting us these days is the Chaplain from Wake Forest University.  He will share with us what it means to be mindful and be present.

Last evening we discussed these words, "Be still and know that I am God."  We wondered together about the difference between being silent and being still.  Silence may be necessary for there to be stillness; but stillness is something more.  Stillness involves stopping long enough to allow our spirits to move downward rather than continuing with our mind's desire to move horizontally. 

Be still.  

This is part of the reason we go on retreats.  Too many of the "retreats" I take are filled with activities and attempts to cram as much information into my brain as possible.

Be still.

I am going to enjoy these days.  And the opportunity to share with my peers how activities get in the way of doing the work of Jesus.

Be still.

I realize it might be easier for me these next couple of days than it will be for you, but I want to encourage you to find time and opportunity.

Be still.

At least for a few moments - right now.

And get to know the God who created you, and loves you.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Devotion - Thursday, January 18

John 4 contains the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well.  This story serves as fodder for many theological insights.  The one I wish to reflect on this morning is Jesus' offer of water.

He tells the woman that the water he offers means that one will never thirst again.  She, of course, asks for this water.

My non-believing friends are quick (and appropriate) in pointing out that they are doing just fine without God in their lives.  I would never revert to telling them threatening things or attempting to argue them into a relationship with Jesus.  It is important for me to acknowledge this, before moving on.

Amid all the challenges, fears, and disappointments of life, it is my relationship with Christ which endures.  No matter how upsetting or unsettling the events of the day, I know there is a foundation upon which my life is built.  

Any ministry that I might attempt to offer consists of speaking of this foundation and encouraging others to stand upon it as well.  There are very few "answers" which can be given those who are in pain or heartbreak or deep anxiety.  This may come to us someday.  What is available to us now is the gift of being surrounded and held up by the rest of God's family.

Others may do just fine, standing on their own.  But not me.  I am like the woman at the well who seeks and desires and comes to know that the water offered by Jesus is the water that makes life possible.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Devotion - Wednesday, January 17

My devotional guide brought this gift to me.  It is the Opening Prayer for today:
Whenever we try to face life with nothing but the strength that is ours, show us, O God, how poor that is.  Then share with us thine own.

This is another example of why our Christian faith sets us apart from the operating mindset of our world.  The message heard from practically every defender of conventional wisdom is to be self-sufficient and ruggedly independent.  How different is the invitation from Jesus to think of ourselves as little lambs.  We do not need to have all that is necessary - our shepherd will guide us to what is needed.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Devotion - Tuesday, January 16

Can I offer you a word of critique, without it being heard as a criticism?

This morning I was reading Hebrews 5:7-14.  The closing verses express a frustration: "About this we have much to say which is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing."  The writer goes on to say "You need milk, not solid food."

There is only one way to become more knowledgeable about our bibles.  That is to read our bibles.  There is only one way to learn the history of the Christian family.  That is to study this history.

It may seem like a daunting task - to suddenly know the bible.  Out of frustration, too many will fail to start.

It is a new year.  Make yourself a promise, a simple promise.  In the next four months, read one book of the bible's many books.  Get out a piece of paper and take some notes.  Write down your questions.  Ask me or another mentor of yours.

There is milk enough to nourish and sustain all of God's little ones.  That milk will never run out or be taken away.  It would be helpful for a few to move toward more solid food.  And that move begins with the smallest and most achievable of goals.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Devotion - Monday, January 15

You will have no classes today, in observance of the M.L. King, Jr. Holiday.  You know this.  But I wonder if you know how contentious has been the decision to have this day as a holiday?

It was not universally and immediately agreed that there should be an ML King Holiday.  In fact, many fought against it and refused to comply.  

You can do your own search of the web for reasons, and there were (are) many.  What I want to say to you this morning is doing God's work is never going to result in a joyous outburst in the world.  When God's Word and God's mission are lifted up, change is called for and folks become uncomfortable.

Rev King insisted that this nation of ours match its religious talk with the way we looked upon all our sisters and brothers.  He spoke first of race, then he began to speak of poverty.  He asked for justice and he insisted on the dignity of each individual regardless of their skin color, wealth, or prominence in society.  

It was one bullet which took his life; but there were many who wanted him silenced.

Observe ML King Day appropriately.  Consider well how the world responds when the word of God is spoken and applied in our community.  It remains a battle (a life-robing battle) to see that the least among us are fed, clothed, visited, and set free.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Devotion - Thursday, January 11

John 14:14 - "If you ask anything in my name, I will do it."

This is a promise Jesus made to his disciples.  This is a promise to which Jesus' disciples have continued to cling.  It is a promise which demonstrates Jesus' care for us and compassion toward us.

It is not a promise which Jesus fails to keep.

We sometimes fail in our application of this promise.  Jesus is put to the test - asked for things which would satisfy our curiosity or prove our convictions.  This promise is mis-heard as a wishing-wand or as a magic trick.

Jesus wants what we want.  Jesus touches the sick and transforms the lives of the broken.  John 14:14 encourages us to "ask," but Jesus already knows and Jesus is as eager as we to see the hurting stop and the world made right.

So Jesus makes this promise to us.  And this promise resonates in our ears and in our hearts and in our lives.  We cling to it and see in it just how precious we are to the Word made flesh, to the creator of the cosmos.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Devotion - Wednesday, January 10

This mornings readings included Jeremiah 23:1-8.  The prophet speaks of the work God will do to call back together his people.  The image is of a shepherd who locates the lost sheep and makes of them one flock.

I love this image.  It is powerful and comforting.

It is an image much larger than the smallness of my own experience, but it does open my eyes to the significance of what God is doing now.  While I celebrate with you the time you had away from school and this place, it is powerful and comforting to see you return and for this community to be restored.

On Monday I helped with Orientation for transfer students.  They have it rough - coming in at the middle of the year; coming in as juniors.  So much of what we do to welcome folks as part of the August rush is not repeated in January.  The experience reminded me how fortunate we are to have one another, as a buffer against all the stresses and strains and challenges.

God is calling us into the community of Jesus.  God serves as the shepherd who gathers us and leads us and makes of us a powerful and comforting flock.  I hope you can see it, too.  And that you will be sustained by the love and care and support of one another.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Sermon - Baptism of our Lord - Year B

Mark 1:4-11; Acts 19:1-7                                                                     

                                                            Be Silent and Receive the Gift

            Sermons are supposed to answer questions, not ask them.  But I have a question for you this morning, “Why was Jesus baptized?”  He was not baptized in the same way that you and I are baptized.  Our baptism is into the death and resurrection of Jesus.  We are baptized in the name of the LORD Jesus - thus the necessity (pointed out in our second lesson for this morning) for those in Ephesus to receive the lying on of hands.  Their baptism, John's baptism, was in some way different from the baptism practiced by the Christian community.

            So why was Jesus baptized?  Especially since the baptism he received was John's baptism.

            I hate to ask questions and then fail to provide an answer but I have to tell you now that I am not going to come up with one any time in the next eleven minutes.  There are theories and explanations; there are doctrines and theological justifications - but there is not a final answer to the question of why Jesus was baptized.  It is one of those things which just happens.  We are at a loss to explain it - but somehow it speaks to us and Jesus’ baptism becomes an important part of our experience of God.

            But we are rational people.  We like explanations.  Many of us are academicians.  We spend our lives looking for answers.  So it bothers us, not knowing why was Jesus baptized.  Why did he receive John's baptism? 

            Our Gospel lesson for this morning is very clear what it meant by John's baptism, it was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Mk 1.4).  John's baptism was offered to that brood of vipers, who had somehow been warned to flee from the wrath to come.  It was a ceremo­nial bathing associated with one's decision to turn their life around.

            The people who came out to John, listened to his sermons and became aware of how far they had drifted from the places God wanted them to be.  Those who entered the waters of the Jordan River had come to realize their sinfulness and they were acknowledging their desire to do better. 

            I do not mean to minimize the importance of a baptism of repen­tance - but it is not the same thing as the baptism we cele­brate in the Christian church.  a baptism in the Christian Church is a baptism in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  We baptize one into the death and resurrection of Christ.

            The story in Acts 19 exposes this difference.  Paul is passing through Ephesus when he encounters some disciples.  He asks them if they had received the Holy Spirit.  Actually he asks them if they received the Holy Spirit when they became believers - a subtle comment perhaps - but one that does raise the question of what is absolutely essential for one to be considered a disciple of Jesus.  Here is a group whose theology did not even include the Holy Spirit yet Paul addresses them as brothers and sisters in the faith.  Sometimes we get awfully picky about what one has to believe or confess or do before we will consider them a part of the community of Christ.  Paul seems much more willing to accept these folks - even though there is a gaping hole in their theological fabric.

            Paul encounters these folks in Ephesus and asks them if they had received the Holy Spirit.  As he tries to understand why they haven't even heard of the Holy Spirit, he hits upon the symbol of baptism.  These believers had received a baptism of repentance - they had come to an awareness of their sinfulness and their need to turn to God.  But they had failed to receive the gift of baptism into Jesus - they had not experienced the confidence associated with the Spirit's coming to dwell in the very midst of their lives.  Their baptism was all about what they had decided to do – the baptism to which Paul wished to expose them is all about what God intended to do.

            If we accept the Biblical witness regarding Jesus, then we must admit that he had no need for John's baptism.  Scripture speaks of him as one who knew no sin.  So why would scripture include this story of his baptism (a baptism for repentance) at the hand of John?

            Again – I have no final answer.  I will acknowledge with you that Jesus’ baptism by John seems to be a way to link his life with the lives of those who would later be baptized in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.  His baptism unites him with those who are being baptized.  His baptism yokes him with the baptism of you and me. 

            It is not that Jesus needed to be or had to be baptized – he wanted to be.  He wanted to share our life and our experience and he wanted to give us hope and promise.  And so, Jesus was baptized.  And in so doing, he transforms baptism.

            After his baptism, after his death, after his resurrection; baptism became a way of experiencing this desire on the part of our Messiah.  Baptism became the way that we could once again acknowledge that a God who didn’t have to do something, did do something.  Did it because God wanted to be a part of our lives and our world.  Did it, so that we might never again have to bear the weight of our sin.  Did it, so that having been set free from the burden of our transgressions we would be free to love and serve God.  God didn’t have to do this; God wanted to do this.

            We baptize, not as some outward sign of an inward change of heart.  We baptize, in order to provide physical confirmation of a spiritual reality. 

            The Church has never doubted that God may be found along a stream or in a baby’s cry or in the midst of a beautiful piece of music.  We may experience God in any number of settings.  What we believe and teach is while God may be present to you in those places, there are two places where God promises to be present.  One is at the table where we share The Eucharist and the other is in the baptismal waters.  God’s desire to enter our world is made real in God’s promise to enter our lives through baptism.

            By now you have caught on that I am really not all that interested in an answer to the question, “Why was Jesus baptized?”  The answer toward which I move is “Why are we baptized?”  True, there a number of writings, and scripture itself speaks of our baptism as a baptism of cleansing.  But Christian baptism is not John’s baptism.  It is not a baptism of repentance.  It is a baptism into the death and resurrection of Christ.  Whereas John’s baptism looks at the change of heart made by a sinner, a Christian baptism has God’s activity as its focus.

            The baptism of John addresses what we plan to do.  The Baptism of Our Lord speaks of what God is doing.