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Friday, May 18, 2018

Job 37:1-13 God Causes it to Happen?

Job 37:1-13 (NRSV)

​"At this also my heart trembles,
and leaps out of its place.
Listen, listen to the thunder of his voice
and the rumbling that comes from his mouth.
Under the whole heaven he lets it loose,
and his lightning to the corners of the earth.
After it his voice roars;
he thunders with his majestic voice
and he does not restrain the lightnings when his voice is heard.
God thunders wondrously with his voice;
he does great things that we cannot comprehend.
For to the snow he says, 'Fall on the earth';
and the shower of rain, his heavy shower of rain,
serves as a sign on everyone's hand,
so that all whom he has made may know it.
Then the animals go into their lairs
and remain in their dens.
From its chamber comes the whirlwind,
and cold from the scattering winds.
By the breath of God ice is given,
and the broad waters are frozen fast.
He loads the thick cloud with moisture;
the clouds scatter his lightning.
They turn round and round by his guidance,
to accomplish all that he commands them
on the face of the habitable world.
Whether for correction, or for his land,
or for love, he causes it to happen.

Observation: Job has suffered terrible losses, even though he feels he has done nothing wrong. His friend Elihu, in the midst of a lengthy debate about why God would allow such things, talks about God's direct hand in every kind of weather, and says we can't always understand why God causes certain kinds of weather. 

Application: I'm struggling with this text for a couple of reasons. 

The first is as ancient as the text itself, and maybe more so. Elihu's point is God directly causes every natural phenomenon, and God has God's own reasons for doing so. Everything from devastating hurricanes to volcanic activity is God's direct doing. I have a hard time believing a God who loves us would go around zapping people with thunder and destroying towns with tornadoes. I think it's a little more complicated than the simple, poetic way it's presented here.  

My second struggle is more modern: the scientific community is increasingly convinced that human activity can and does have an unintended impact on weather patterns. We've always had extreme weather, but the effects of climate change are creating more extreme and inhospitable weather in more places. The idea that "Only God is responsible for bad weather, so God must be getting increasingly angry at us in a way that happens to be directly connected to how much fossil fuels we put into the atmosphere" doesn't seem to hold water. 

What I come away with after wrestling with this text is that I think it's a poetic image--a metaphor--to imagine God's own breath freezing water, God's hand opening up a special room where he holds whirlwinds, God's direct word to the rain or snow saying "fall here, not there." In a world deeply affected by sin, we do not live in harmony with the elements, and there is an element of chaos in dealing with the natural world, which God never wanted for us. That said, I also believe that as we learn more about the natural world, to continue to ignore the small amount of control we have, and act as though we have no role in restoring balance, is morally irresponsible.

In short, sin has messed up our relationship with nature, but since we bear the image of God, we can repent of our sin and do some things to improve that relationship. 

Prayer: God, thank you for the good weather you give us that nourishes the creation. Help us to better understand the weather we see as "bad," to see its part in renewing and creating new life. Help us to be humble in our dealings with all that you have made, and this home where you have called us to live. Amen. 

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Numbers 8:5-22 Priesthood

Observation: In this passage God gives instructions for setting apart Levite priests to represent the people before God in Temple worship. In fact, during the night of the Passover God set aside the firstborn of all the Israelites, not just this one tribe. But because God knows the people can't repay this debt, the tribe of Levi will be set aside as priests instead.

Application: For Christians, there's good news and bad news. The good news is that it's not just one family that can be priests. Anyone can. The bad news--or rather, the challenge--is, by our baptism, we ALL are priests. Nobody's off the hook.

We come from a Christian tradition in which we have trained, professional church leaders: pastors and deacons. But we're not "professional  Christians." Every baptized person represents Christ on earth, as well as lifting up the world before God in prayer. None of us can do that perfectly, and God's grace is there for us when we fail. But we are responsible to get up each morning and keep doing it.

Prayer: God, thank you for the gift and responsibility of being your priest. Help me take time to connect with you, and time to serve my neighbor, each day, as you have called me to do. Amen. 

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Ephesians 1:15-23 Under His Feet

"Hey've changed."

Observation: Ephesians gives a poetic vision of the ascended Christ. God "raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but in the age to come." A far cry from the rural peasant from Galilee that we knew...

Application: Happy Ascension Day! Today on the church calendar, forty days after the day of resurrection, ten days before the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, we celebrate Christ being taken up to heaven and sitting at God's right hand.

I have ambivalent feelings about Ascension Day, because in a way, with all this poetic imagery, the world seems to finally be getting the Messiah it wants: on a high throne, in a fancy palace, far removed from the dirt and grime and pain of daily human existence..."above it all." We, and all creation, are just "under his feet."

We know from the Bible what has happened all too often to human rulers once they get power. David goes from a humble, faithful shepherd boy, to a selfish and lecherous king. Solomon goes from a wise student to uber-wealthy power broker with hundreds of wives and almost as many gods. In human history, power corrupts. Being removed from the daily lives of ordinary people is not a good thing for most royals. By that logic, ascension to a whole other level of existence would not be a great thing for the ministry and mission of Jesus.

But that's where the metaphor of "ascension," "enthronement" and being "seated at God's right hand" kind of breaks down. Granted, to make sense of a physical resurrection, we have to believe that Jesus' body is indeed still...somewhere. And for lack of a better understanding of this mystery, we call that somewhere "God's right hand." Jesus is in heaven, with his Father. But does that mean he's removed from all human suffering? From the very people he died to save, and the sheep he promised to shepherd? No way.

By raising Jesus "above all rule and authority" and lifting his name "above all names," God is not giving Jesus a "promotion." Jesus has always been king, from manger to cross. What God is lifting up before all is Jesus' way of life. God is lifting up faith, compassion, justice, mercy and self-giving love as the real authority and power in this universe. And by the power of the Holy Spirit, which has descended and filled us, that power  and authority still rules our world. Jesus is not removed from our pain. Jesus is the head of the church--united to us forever--and Jesus' presence fills all in all. Love has been lifted up, only to reach out once again.

Prayer: Jesus, thank you for sitting at God's right hand. Help me to lift your way--the way of self-giving love--above any other way. Amen. 

Mark 16:19-20 "I Believe in Happy Endings"

Observation: The oldest copies of Mark's Gospel do not include this final story, of Jesus' appearing and preaching to his disciples, then ascending into heaven and sitting at God's right hand. This part was probably written a few centuries later, to more closely match the end of Luke's gospel. Yet for many centuries of Christian history, this "longer ending of Mark" was part of the story for many believers. In fact, it forms the basis for some parts of the Lutheran Confessions.

Application: We have a natural tendency to try to make sense of things that confuse us. Mark's Gospel (the original version) ends with an angel announcing Jesus' resurrection, and the women running out, terrified, and telling no one what they saw. I mean...what??? Like, Jesus is on the loose somewhere, but nobody knows where he is or what he's doing? This ending reminds me of how Disney might resolve a chaotic story like that.

I don't think it's wrong to try and make sense of a life that often seems crazy and disordered. As I've heard said before, the key to a happy ending is knowing when to stop telling the story. 

Common sense dictates that the disciples did eventually encounter Jesus, and that the women at the tomb did eventually tell their story. Other witnesses say he did indeed ascend. But was it necessary to make Mark's Gospel "fall in line"? 

Sometimes we do need to sit with what feels like an incomplete story. Our lives, our world, our history, still feel very unresolved, much like Mark's original story, and it's very tempting to go for an "easy ending." But rest assured, the story is still in God's hands, still being told, and the ending was already decided in the life, death and Resurrection of Christ. 

Prayer: Jesus, help us to accept that which feels too open-ended, and give it to you to finish. Amen. 

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Deuteronomy 11:1-17 It's Not Our Kids' Job

Observation: In a final speech to the people of Israel, Moses is addressing the last living people to have witnessed God's action in leading them out of slavery in Egypt. Therefore, Moses reminds parents that if they don't acknowledge God's goodness and follow God's commands, neither will their kids.

Application: Even as a pastor, I still struggle with the modern parenting dilemma, "how much of my own faith should I push on my kids, and how much should I allow them to discover for themselves?" My dad once told me a story of himself as a willful teen in the 1970's announcing to his father, "Dad, I'm not going to church anymore," to which my grandfather (true to form) responded, "Okay, son, where you gonna live?" That's not really my parenting style, nor, thankfully, the one my parents went with. And yet, growing up, church was an expectation for me, and you better believe we bring our kids to church too. Unless they're deathly ill, they're there. When we're traveling, we figure out another church to try.

I've heard people before say, "I want my kids to be able to choose their own spiritual path, so I won't push any particular path on them." And I'll admit, I do sometimes feel a pang of doubt, wondering whether we are exerting undue influence on our kids and young people by setting out the expectation that worship, prayer and talking about God as a family will be part of their lives. Are kids born Christian? Well, no. We do indeed share our faith with them at a formative time in their lives. You could reasonably call that "indoctrination." But here's the thing...

We do that with literally every other part of their lives, and don't bat an eye. I have no compunction about indoctrinating my kids to believe spinach is better for them than cupcakes, and that they need to get outside and exercise. I'll tell my young, impressionable kids any chance I get, that girls are every bit as capable and smart as boys and should get equal opportunities in this world. I will gladly "brainwash" my kids to believe that we'll only ever get one planet, and we'd better take care of it. That compassion is more important than strength. That I will love them no matter what...and so will God.

You may have heard before that faith is "caught, rather than taught." And it's true. Kids will learn their spirituality from their parents. Maybe those parents choose to have a light touch--to lead with questions, to ask kids what they think about God, about Jesus, about human nature. That's fine. In fact it's great. But the single most important thing parents can do if they want kids to have a vibrant spirituality, even if it looks different from ours, is have a vibrant spirituality ourselves, and not hoard it away from them as though it's some kind of secret. Like Moses said, it is not the job of our kids to figure out faith on their own. It's our job to witness to them, which is more than reciting dogmas; it's sharing our own stories of what God has done in our lives and living as if those stories are true. 

What my parents never told me is that here's no finish line for our faith development. I'm fully aware that any parents reading this are trying to figure out their own faith, let alone what they want to teach their kids. Maybe some reading this have been burned by organized religion, or never did find a style of worship or theology that really matches what they believe. The hard truth is, there may not be a "perfect church" out there for you. They're all full of humans, and humans screw up. A lot. But the other hard truth is your kids can see if your words don't match your actions. They can see if you're struggling with God and trying to figure it out, or if you've just decided that spirituality is not a priority in your own life. They know. The best thing you can do is be authentic about it.

Prayer: God, I pray for parents today. May they feel your grace, and your love. May they have some grace on themselves as well. May they continue to work on their relationship with you. May they be the type of person they want their kids to be. May they make disciples, simply by being your disciples. Amen.      

Friday, May 4, 2018

Isaiah 42:5-9 The Idol of Familiarity

Observation: When the people of Judah are in Exile, it is especially important for them to remember exactly who their God is. The Lord, the Great "I Am," is no local tribal deity, but the one who stretched out the heavens and earth... including Babylon, where the Judahites now reside against their will. No idol from the past or present compares. God is still in charge, even here, and God is doing a new thing.

Application: Here's something to ponder, for what it's worth...the God we think we know is an idol. Why? Because God is YHWH, "The Lord." This translates to "I will be what I will be." Any God we think we know or can fully understand is by definition an idol. Any idea of God in our heads who is bound to a particular time, who doesn't live dynamically in this moment and do new things, is not God.

The picture of white Jesus from our Sunday School classrooms growing up? It's an idol. The concept of God as an angry white bearded dude sitting on a cloud? Idol. All our favorite hymns, all our beautiful buildings, all our memories from summer camps that might lead us to believe God is somewhere in the past, if we get so attached to those things that we can't hear God calling from the future, they are idols. Period.

On the other hand, if we receive these things humbly, as seeing through a glass dimly, if we know that all the gifts of our tradition are just a teeny, tiny fraction of a fraction of the Lord who is beyond our knowing, they can help us as we try to perceive the new thing God wants to do today.

Prayer: God, help us to move beyond the pictures of you in our heads, and to perceive the new thing you are doing. Amen. 

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Acts 10:1-34 What God Has Made Clean

Observation: This is a turning point in the Book of Acts. After Saul's conversion, but before his ministry to the Gentiles begins in earnest (and really before the Jerusalem church really knows what to make of him), Peter has a vision. In that vision, God lowers a sheet filled with all sorts of animals, both "clean" (meaning kosher) and "unclean" (meaning not kosher, the stuff Gentiles eat). God tells Peter "get up, kill and eat." Peter wants no part of it. An angel says, "What God has made clean, you must not call profane." When Peter wakes up, he is invited to the house of a Gentile, Cornelius, a Roman centurion, to preach the Gospel. Had Peter not had this vision, entering a Gentile home would have been out of the question, and even still, Peter voices his misgivings. Yet he goes, and he preaches the Gospel. Spoiler alert: this sets up our first reading for Sunday, in which the Holy Spirit pours out on all these Gentiles, and they are baptized.

Application: For some reason as I'm reading this (and preparing a sermon on Acts 10) I'm struck by the image of the Berlin Wall coming down. As of February, that wall had been demolished for the same number of days as it stood. For a whole generation of Germans, it must have felt as though the wall had always been there, and it always would be. Now, there is a whole generation of adults who have never known it. 

Now, try to imagine a cultural and religious wall like that--the wall between Jews and Gentiles--that had stood for a thousand years, ever since Moses led the people into the promised land. Imagine being Peter, told by his parents, who were told by their parents, that Gentiles are an unclean people, and we are not to eat with them, or so much as enter their homes. Imagine how shocking and unnatural it would feel to be asked, by God, to call these people "clean". This miraculous encounter notwithstanding, the Bible attests that this was a hang-up Peter took with him to his grave. He gave grudging approval to Paul's ministry to Gentiles, but Peter continued to feel most comfortable among his own kind.  

There are so, so many ways this applies to our life of faith today, from simple questions like, "What do Lutherans make of guitars and screens in the worship space?" to much bigger questions like "How can Christian communities work to dismantle racism?" and "How can Christians best welcome those whose sexual orientation, gender identity, or family make-up doesn't look like what we grew up with?" It wasn't very long ago, after all, that divorced persons were not accepted in most churches, and those churches had some very clear scriptural "justification" for their views. But there was a movement in our society, and in the Church, and that wall came down. Maybe it's time for a few others to come down, too.

It's always hard to look at the questions of our own day with historic perspective, but the plain fact is, almost any defining issue for our church today pales in comparison to the Gentile issue in the first century. It was a game-changer. And in that case, God was clearly on the side of breaking down walls. What to make of that with the issues we are now facing, I leave to the Holy Spirit and your conscience. But I can say I'll pray for you as you wrestle. 

Prayer: God, help us to listen for your voice, and strain our eyes to see your vision for our society. Break down the walls that separate us, and teach us to love one another as you have loved us.