Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Thoughts toward Sunday's service

Well - Lent as a time of renewal is all very well and good. But this week it is stretching me to think about renewal with the Genesis (12) reading. I think that I'm going to go with renewal of the night. After Abram makes his sacrifice "a deep sleep fell on him, and a terrifying darkness descended upon him." Talk about the times when, like Abram, we doubt that God is going to come through for us. . .

Here's what I really love, though: The idea that that strange business of cutting the animals in two was an acting out of a covenant pledge or a promise, like "cross my heart, hope to die" if I don't do what I say I'm going to do. God is saying, "If I don't fulfill my pledge to you, you can tear me to pieces." And then, what do we do to Jesus, but break his body and shed his blood. It's not really because God isn't faithful. It's because we aren't faithful, and God takes the blame for us.

But I'm not preaching that this year. Hopefully, I'll still be preaching in three years when this set of texts come up again.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Choosing between two good things

Making a choice isn't always a matter of picking the good thing over a bad thing. Often, (and this is a blessing, really) it is a matter of choosing between two good things. Even two good and important things. Feeling guilty over not being able to do both is just . . . arrogant. So I'm not going to feel guilty about not going to Committee on Ministry today. I have too many people to see and chores to do to be in Effingham today. So there.

O God, you can turn a human being back to dust
by saying, "As you were, mortal!"
To you, a thousand years are a single day,
a yesterday now over, an hour of the night.

Our lives are like waking dreams,
like grass sprouting and flowering in the morning
withered and dry before dusk.

Teach us to count how few days we have
and so gain wisdom of heart.

Psalm 90

I could use a little wisdom of heart these days.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Ash Wednesday

Did you get your invitation? Invitation to Christian Discipline, that is?
Every year we start off Lent with that peculiar sounding invite. And I'm RSVP -ing here:
Yes. I will attend. I will attend, as in pay attention, to what God may be trying to do in my life through these next forty days.
There are a couple or more things I'm going to do as outward signs that I'm paying attention:
I'm going to read devotional material, either from Presbyterians Today's Lenten devotion, or something like that, every day.
And I'm going to spend some time - (some? yes, SOME) time in quiet prayer that has nothing to do with asking God for things - every day. I'm pretty sure that if I do these things, Christ's grace and mercy will take up more of my thoughts and direct more of my actions.
And I'm going to attend to my health more carefully. And the health of my little family.
And I'm going to visit this blog (the next best thing to a prayer closet) daily. Sometimes I'll write something. Sometimes maybe someone else will.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Downhill Discipleship

Luke 9: 28-43
Transfiguration Sunday
Getting Downhill

Before the Scripture:
Every year, the Sunday before Lent, we read an account (there are three of them) of how Jesus, Peter, James and John, go up on a mountain and the disciples are privileged to see Jesus in all his divine glory - shining like the sun. God speaks to them there and confirms that Jesus is indeed his beloved Messiah. It is an awesome text and I’m always glad to read it as we head into Lent. Lent tends to be a trying season in the church. All that focus on our own sin and Jesus’ suffering for our sakes . . . it’s hard stuff, and we need the assurance of this vision in order to be able to handle it.

This year, it is Luke’s turn to tell us about it. But in Luke’s Gospel, the account of the transfiguration - Jesus’ glory - is inextricably linked with the next story - a healing that takes place when Jesus comes down the mountain. The stories are linked by references to majesty, by naming “the only son” in both stories, by the bruising and wounding that refer to both Jesus’ prediction of his passion, as well as to the tortured boy brought to Jesus for healing. Clearly, for Luke, what happened on the mountain was important and beautiful. But it is also incomplete without what happens when Jesus and his disciples come down the mountain.

Getting down the mountain - for Luke - this is something to contemplate:

Scripture reading. 

There is something very special that happens in the downhill. If you’ve had your TV on this week, you’ve seen glimpses of the Winter Olympics and the incredible feats of some of the athletes who find themselves most vivid, most alive, more engaged as they throw themselves down the side of a mountain. (This is from the trailer of a movie about downhill skiing:) “Downhill is the extreme of extremes of winter sports Where simply hanging on melds with the ability to control the situation. 100% in control of being 100% out of control. “where calm serenity and sheer terror coexist” If you look at downhill, and the essence of downhill it is about being so stoked to be living on that ragged edge, being right on that threshhold where you can be paralyzed, be dead, or you can be a champion. It’s not a comfortable place. It’s not a safe place. But for an elite few, it is the only place worth being. Picabo Street says, you hear your boot bindings click and click. And with that second click, it’s on.

It’s the same for a following Jesus Christ. The safe and good place to be - the place where the disciples would like to stay - is at the top of the mountain with Jesus. There, Peter wanted to make three dwellings, so they could all stay up there and enjoy the view. Mountaintop Christian experiences - work camps, church camps, even a really great Sunday morning, where the music is just right and the sermon makes sense and the spirit of the Lord moves during the prayers so that you can just feel it - just FEEL it - Those great experiences are gifts of grace. And God! I know how we would like to preserve them. I’ve wanted that as much as anyone. My dear mother will tell you, if you ask her, so please don’t, how awful it was for her when she had to come get me at church camp as a child. Was I glad to be going home? Heavens no! I cried the entire two hours home. I love the mountain top!!!
But time after time, Jesus leads us down the mountain. Successfully navigating the downhill journey and arriving, faith intact, wits about us, in the world of need is as challenging as a slalom course on an ice covered mountain.

Gravity pulls us - Jesus leads us - but to negotiate that passage takes courage and strength and faith and . . . if we are really giving it our best effort . . . we don’t get down the mountain unscathed.

(this is from an article on Yahoo Sports, Feb. 13, called “Skiers fear and know, accidents happen” )
Four years after the Turin Olympics, Picabo Street can still paint a striking picture of a half-broken Lindsey Vonn. Street can remember sitting in a Turin hospital, looking into tearful eyes struggling through fear and doubt. Cruel momentum had stolen Vonn’s body up in a blazing turn during a training run, then mercilessly skipped her like a stone across a frozen mountain. Her back and hips were badly bruised, dwarfed only by a battered psyche.
With the Olympics just two days away, Street arrived to be Vonn’s anchor at that moment, and came armed with two gifts. In her hands, she carried a plate overflowing with Italian pasta. And on her lips, she offered the anthem of an entire Olympic ski culture:
Everyone crashes once. Champions dare to do it again.
“I remember her lying there,” Street says now, “and it was all so vivid and really crossroad-ish. You just knew it was time to get into hashing out the dangerous stuff. I told her, ‘You’re going to crash. It’s part of it. In order to win at that level, you have to ski right on the edge of crashing. And in order to know that you are skiing on the edge of out of control, you have to go past the line every now and again.’ ”
Christian discipleship crashes rarely result in broken bones, torn up ligaments, or even concussions. It’s not that kind of physical risk, trying to take your spiritual experience of the wonder of Christ out into the world.

Our mistakes might be more like overzealousness for a project or mission that gets us out ahead of ourselves and causes us to fail. Or another Christian mistake might be not looking out for each other, so that we collide with one another, causing pain and a spill rather than encouraging each other on. Maybe, if we are getting downhill too fast, we might say the wrong thing to the wrong person - maybe tell someone about our love for Jesus before they are ready to hear. And we get a little bit embarrassed. Or alot embarrassed, I don’t know. Some of us are more easily embarrassed than others. We might give too much and have a couple of tight months, till we get our budget back in balance. Or have to ask somebody else for help.

My point is that discipleship downhill does have some hazards, if we put ourselves out there and really give it all we’ve got. Everyone who does it eventually falls.

But that is no reason not to try. Inching down the mountain, testing our footing every inch of the way, creeping down, taking only as much as we are sure we can control. Making certain that a full STOP is within our power.

Where’s the faith in that? Where’s the trust in God? And where’s the fun is that? What beauty is there in that? Is that really how we want to live our lives? Always totally safe, always totally in control, slow and hesitant and dull for ourselves and others? NO! If we’re going to participate in downhill discipleship, let’s strap on our boots and do it! Let’s not linger up on the mountain, trying to nail down a cloud of glory. Let’s follow Jesus downhill, to meet the crowds of needy people, to hear the worried parents, to touch the lives of poor afflicted children - to rebuke those unclean spirits, and heal lives and reunite parents and their children.

That’s what Jesus did. He came right down the mountain, into a world of hurt. He descended right into the midst of faithless people and gave his very life that they might have the faith to follow. He’s still doing that. He’s still making it possible for us to become the disciples he calls us to be. Come on! he says. Come downhill with me!
So hey, let’s fasten those bindings - click click. OK? It’s on. Disciples - let’s take on the downhill.
It’s not a comfortable place. It’s not a safe place. But for an elite few, it is the only place worth being.

Jan 31 sermon

Here are sermon notes from the Jan. 31 message on I Corinthians 13.
I should tell you that I asked our accompanist to play The Wedding March before I began. Just so that I could make explicit that we were NOT treating this as a wedding text today.

Here comes the bride . . .
This scripture lesson is one that we often hear at weddings and associate with sweet and sentimental feelings. I am not preaching my valentine’s day sermon early this year. Instead, I am hoping to challenge all of us untangle this passage from the accessories and ritual words of weddings and couples and hear it as it was meant to be heard when Paul first wrote it: As instructions to church members about the relationship that ideally existed between them.
Paul didn’t write this for use at Corinthian weddings. He wrote it as part of his attempt to get the church in Corinth, a church that was deeply divided amongst themselves and full of bad feelings and bad manners, to get that church to live up to their calling in Jesus Christ their Lord.
What could possibly go wrong in a church so close to Jesus’ time, a church founded and nurtured by none other than the Apostle Paul? Well - what went wrong was that people got involved.
We remember that the church in Corinth was struggling because they were a faith community living in opposition to the culture around them. In a city where the many Roman gods were worship, the church of Corinth claimed Jesus as their one and only Lord. In a city where the wealthy and the poor don’t mix, here in this church the rich and the poor shared a common meal in the context of worshiping together. Where the Jews and the Gentiles were separated by the ritual purity laws of the Jewish tradition, in the church in Corinth, Jews and Gentiles were in community together. With all these differences within the Corinthian church, it is no surprise that tensions arose in several ways.

What could possibly go wrong in a church so close to Jesus’ time, a church founded and nurtured by none other than the Apostle Paul? Well - what went wrong was that people got involved.
What we forget is that the church is a human institution and whenever any group of humans get together, there will be disagreements, especially in times of change and transition. Conflict in and of itself is not a bad thing, it is how we choose to handle the conflict that makes it good or bad and this morning’s reading provides us with a Christian way of dealing with conflict.

One way to try to deal with conflict is to try to reason yourself out of it. This may be my favorite way, and I’m not alone. Let’s just figure out what is reasonable and makes sense and is intelligible. The church through the ages has done this.

In the early church, Christians began developing creeds that both encapsulated their understanding of the faith and served to separate the "orthodox" from the "heretics." The word creed comes from the Latin word credo, "I believe." What would have happened had the church put more emphasis on the word amo, "I love." ???

One wonders why no one in church history has ever been considered a heretic for being unloving. People were anathematized and often tortured and killed for disagreeing on matters of doctrine or on the authority of the church. When the Biblical record shows that Jesus, our Lord, and even Paul, our first theologian, were far more interested in how we live our lives before God and how treat each other than what we believe.
People are more interested in that, too. Just as when we snipe at each other, and talk behind one another’s backs and undermine each other . . . people notice that and say, “Why would I want to belong to that church?” When church members genuinely care for other church members - when they visit them, share with them, spend time with them, speak well of them, their neighbors and friends notice. The second century theologian Tertullian said that even Christianity's harshest opponents had to admit of Christians, "See how they love each other!"

Thought: Marriage counselors ask partners who are quarreling - which is more important - being proved right, or being in a loving relationship? Being right, or being loved and being loving? And the answer is often, I’d rather prove that I am right. But God is not like that. God actually IS right! In the relationship with people, God is, over and over again, in the right. The people do things, think things, say things that are wrong. God could insist that on His rightness and His righteousness. But he makes the love move - and makes the relationship central.

If you look at the original text as it was written in Greek, you will find that Paul uses the Greek word agape when he speaks of love. This is a special kind of love that is different from the love shared between friends or romantic love. This is a self-sacrificing love that is unconditional and given freely. Agape love is more difficult than other loves because it is most like God’s love. This is the way we are loved by God. That’s why experiencing this love and embodying this love isn’t just an option, or an ideal to be held up for exceptionally spiritual Christians. It is - it has to be the norm. It is central.

Stephen J. Patterson Biblical Theology Bulletin, May 2009
We have to take 1 Corinthians 13 seriously since the reality is that Paul's fundamental experience of God--whether in religious ecstasy or in community relationships--revolves around the experience of love received and given. He cannot understand God, and especially God working through Christ, apart from love (Rom 5:8). To discover Christ, and to be in Christ, is to allow the love of God to control one's whole life (2 Cor 5:14). For Paul there is indeed a way that is higher than all others. It is not faith; it is not hope, or righteousness, or holiness. For Paul, "the highest way" is love.
* 1 Corinthians 13: 1-13 paraphrase Nathan Nettleton

Our spiritual gifts are not the most important thing.

I could have the gift of the gab;
........I could speak like a news reader
................or pray in the language of angels;
but if I don’t love would be a waste of breath; meaningless as a blast of static.

I could have the gift of prophecy,
........the ability to speak God’s word into any situation;
I could have the gift of knowledge and insight;
........the ability to get my head around God’s mysteries
................and make them clear to everyone else;
I could have the gift of earth-shattering faith, that reduces mountains to molehills;
I could have all this and more,
........but if I was devoid of love,
................I’d still be a waste of space.

I could give away everything I owned
........and burn myself out in the fight for justice;
I could throw my body in front of an oncoming tank prove my passion for peace;
but if I do it all without love,
........I’ll have achieved precisely nothing.

Love is willing to hang in there for the long haul;
........Love is always ready to do something for someone else;
Love does not begrudge others their success;
........nor flaunt its own.
Love is not arrogant or rude, doesn’t force its own agendas
................and trample others down in the process.
Love does not get all worked up over every little thing
........or hold grudges and dream of revenge.
Love takes no pleasure in dishonesty, however daring;
........but it is the first to celebrate truth and integrity.
Love holds firm under pressure,
........keeps believing the best of others,
................maintains its hope when all seems lost,
........................and toughs it out, no matter what.

Love is forever!

The gift of prophecy will reach its use-by date,
........speaking in strange tongues will have had its day;
................all our knowledge will be useless and forgotten.
What we know now is a mere drop in the ocean,
........and even prophets can tell us only a little of God.
But the time is coming when everything will be made whole,
........and these things that are less than whole
................will all be over and done with.

When we were children, it was okay to speak like children, think and behave in immature ways;
but sooner or later we’ve got to grow up,
........we’ve got to grow beyond those childish limits.

All our present attempts to make out God’s truth
........are like trying to see under water with the naked eye.
But the time is coming when it will snap into focus,
........when we’ll stand face to face with the fullness of truth.
Now we know only a fraction - then we’ll know it all;
........God will be known to us as well as we are known to God.

There are only three things we have now that will last forever -, hope, and love -
................and the one that matters most is love.

©2001 Nathan Nettleton

In the meeting to come - in the year to come, we’ll be discerning and discussing and doing what God calls us to do together as a church. We’ll also be disagreeing sometimes. And that’s OK. As long as we disagree with each other patiently, humbly, with integrity, with endurance to hang with one another, even though. As long as we love.

Now faith, hope love abide, these three. But the greatest of these is love. May it be so for us. Amen.