Tuesday, January 9, 2018

This is the Gate of Heaven

Lectionary Reading: John 1:43-51 (NRSV)

What is it like to be known?



My first real friend's name was Ralph.  He lived in the house behind ours and we had an adjoining chain link fence that would divide our play in the backyard.  This didn't keep us from enjoying our daily time together as children and we invented lots of play together through the fence.

I can remember him calling my name, "Saaaammmy!!" when I was inside the house indicating that he wanted me to come outside.

St Paul's Cathedral in London draws the eyes
heavenward to perhaps remind us of angels ascending
and descending.
I would just as often call out a sing-song, "Raaallph, come out and plaaay!" when I was ready for him to join me in the backyard.

We moved when I was five years old and Ralph was the first absence I remember.

To be known by another and to know that person in kind is significant.

In today's lectionary reading, Jesus seems to know Nathanael.  Nathanael responds in worshipful tones to Jesus, declaring allegiance through his praise.

Jesus alludes to angels ascending and descending on the Son of Man which is a self-reference.  This would call to mind the story of Jacob experiencing God in a dream in Genesis 28:10-22.  Jacob's theophany calls him to cry out, "This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven!"  Jesus later refers to himself as the Gate in John's Gospel.

As we context the Genesis reference, we remember that Jacob is fleeing from the homicidal wrath of his twin brother Esau whose paternal blessing he just swindled.  When Jesus tells Nathanael, "Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit" it makes one wonder if he was being sarcastic.  Nathanael had just asked the question, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?"  Maybe Jesus was just acknowledging that Nathanael was a blunt individual.  He called it like he saw it!

In any event, we see that Nathanael's response is to being known.

As we continue to look at God's call upon our lives, we also know that sometimes we are not interested in being known quite so thoroughly.  As we get older, there are calls we get from people that make us respond not with joy but with cringing.  We find that, like Jacob, we may end up wrestling with God.  Hopefully, we can discover a truth in ourselves and in those we meet.  Maybe, this realization will cause us to declare that we have entered the house of God and seen the gate of heaven.

In Christ,

Sam

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Order Among the Chaos

Lectionary Reading: Genesis 1:1-5 (NRSV)

After Christmas, I was able to go with my daughter Kyla as a chaperone on her orchestra trip to London with Edmond North High School.  We saw a lot of really memorable things: Windsor Castle, Oxford University, the Tower of London, Piccadilly Circus, and the Royal Observatory at Greenwich just to name a few.

However, for me, the most memorable thing was Sunday morning worship at Westminster Abbey.  The grand architecture of this building is almost 800 years old and it's vaulted ceilings draw the eye heavenward in a most impressive fashion.
Our walking group from Edmond
North Orchestra following worship
at Westminster Abbey.

The acoustics were such that the choir sounded angelic as they sang the Gloria Patri in Latin.

As we went into the sanctuary, we were seated in the South Transept which if you were looking at a design layout, would seat us on the right crosspiece (the Abbey is laid out in the pattern of a giant cross with the main entrance at the foot of the cross).

The only difficulty with being seated in one of the Transepts is that you can't see some of the sanctuary, particularly the entrance where the priests bring in the cross and where the choir is seated.

As I looked around, I noticed two television screens placed on columns facing each Transept so that those in the wings could see what was going on.  They did look at bit out of place in this ancient Gothic structure.

After worship was over, I asked one of the ushers about them.  She visibly cringed and said, "Well, they are fairly new.  Maybe a couple of years old.  But they are not very popular with our regulars.  The Queen and Prince Charles are not fans of them."

Knowing how church traditions can be sacrosanct, I wondered how these screens would have ever made it past the proposal stage.  The usher continued, "Well, the BBC used to bring them in every time they wanted to televise a grand event.  And so it became easier to just leave them up."

She did make a concession that "they do allow people to see what's going on which will hopefully improve their ability to worship."

Worship wars happen in every church and changes continue to occur in churches - even in grand structures like Westminster Abbey.  As we consider that worship is for the people to wrestle with the divine whether that looks like praise or questioning, it is natural that worship would adjust from time to time.  It is also natural that people would want to resist major changes to their worship patterns.

As we think about worship this Sunday, we will be celebrating the Baptism of the Lord.  The baptism of Jesus reminds us of the ordering of our lives.  The text from Genesis today also reminds us of the order God brings forth from chaos in creation.  When too many changes happen all at once in life, we often turn to things that are stable - the traditions of the church, for example.  Baptism is central to all Christianity.  It is the reminder of the grace of God available to us in Jesus Christ.  It's message continues throughout history whether people meet in a grand building like Westminster Abbey or in simple homes with fellow believers.  As we begin the new year together, join us in worship as we remind ourselves of the order amid all of the changes going on around us!

In Christ,

Sam


Monday, December 18, 2017

The Fulfillment of Longing

Lectionary Reading: Luke 2:1-20 (NRSV)

Within the United States, we have continued along the political polarization that has widened in the last two decades.  It seems that many Americans were dreading Thanksgiving because they didn't want to get into political discussions with relatives where a diversity of opinion was expected.  At one point, it was considered rude to discuss religion or politics at the dinner table.  The pew research center suggests that religion is hardly discussed at all anymore.  So that just leaves politics.

The difficulty people have with a difference of opinion is astounding.  Both Democrats and Republicans view the opposing party very unfavorably at around 45% which may not be surprising.  What is interesting is that in 1994, this figure was only at 20%.  Our distrust of those who differ in belief or philosophy has increased.

As we approach Christmas, our Advent time of waiting comes to an end.  Our longing for God's presence or comfort or justice is fulfilled in the quiet reverence found in the simplicity of the nativity.  It may be that we can put aside our differences around the Communion table.  Jesus does represent a juxtaposition even in his birth.

As we read Luke's narrative, we see that angels and shepherds become the first messengers of the Good News.  These two groups could not have been considered more opposite in terms of societal respect.  Angels are seen as higher than mortals and the direct messengers of the divine.  Shepherds were not always trusted as they might easily stray onto your land in a time when fences were not as prevalent.  However, these too became messengers of the incarnation.

There is something important not only in the declaration but also in the heralds selected to share the message.  It seems that both prominence and obscurity go by the wayside when something this monumental occurs.

And so for Christmas, we set aside our differences and bow before the Lord.  As we share the Eucharist together, we may remember the parable of Jesus where the tax collector and the Pharisee both kneel to pray in the temple.  Both would have been on the opposite sides of what was considered respectable and yet the tax collector is praised.  Jesus seems to turn expectation on its head.  If this is the case, maybe our celebration of his birth can do the same.  Our faith may allow us to reexamine our own views and even if we don't come to a new conclusion, maybe we can grant a little dignity to our brothers and sisters across the aisle. 
The irony of the blue and red at opposite ends in this photo are not lost on me.
If we are honest, most people are interested in the same things: love, peace, joy and hope.  It is interesting that these are the four traditional themes of Advent.  Maybe Christmas allows us to recognize what we have in common rather than what separates us.

In Christ,

Sam


Photo by Rosanne Haaland via Flickr.com.  Used under the Creative Commons license.  

Monday, December 11, 2017

Longing for Justice

Lectionary Reading: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 (NRSV)

When I was in elementary school, a bully got the best of me.  It lasted for over a year until we moved to a different town.  The kind of humiliation that comes with being bullied by someone else impacts people in different ways.

For me, I vowed never to let anyone bully me again even if it meant getting beat up.  This meant for some close calls later in school but I never felt that same kind of antagonism.

What it left in me was a sense of embarrassment over my past.  I thought about getting even.  I thought about going back to the old neighborhood and challenging him to a fight.
 
There seemed to be some wrong that was done to me that needed to be righted.  I wanted justice.  I wanted him to hurt just like I had been hurt.  An eye for an eye after all.

As I matured, I realized that these fantasies about revenge were not helping me.  I was not growing as an individual.  In fact, they were holding me back.
 
I realized that I needed to forgive the bully whether I ever spoke to him in person or not.
 
Batman remains a popular figure due to
an ideal of vigilante justice.  Most people are under
the illusion that vengeance will make them feel better.
It was difficult but I asked God’s help and I was able to forgive.  My guess is that I had thought a lot more about him than he ever thought about me.  But after I forgave him in my heart, I quit thinking about him.  It became less embarrassing as I recognized that I was just a child.  I realized the pain that he must be going through in order to inflict pain upon others.
   
Certainly, if this was behavior that was continuing rather than in the past, this would be a different situation.  But it was something that had ceased.  It was only continuing in my mind.  It’s a terrible thing to let someone have that kind of influence over you.
 
And so as I consider God’s justice, I think that this means something different than human justice.  We try to even things out but God deals in mercy and forgiveness.  We experience the forgiveness of God more fully when we have dealt with truly forgiving another for a wrong done to us.  Isaiah reminds us that God’s covenant is everlasting.  As we look toward the nativity once more, we see that God is willing to be vulnerable so that we might know divine love.  Even though this seems maybe one-sided or unfair, because of the love God has for us, God may feel that we are getting what we deserve.

Grace.

And so Christmas gives us a glimpse of God’s justice.

In Christ,

Sam

"Batman" by Ed Merritt via Flickr.com.  Used under the Creative Commons license.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Longing for Comfort

Lectionary Reading: Isaiah 40:1-11 (NRSV)

There have been times in my life that I have needed comfort from painful situations.

As a very small child, I remember getting an earache that seemed as if it was tearing a hole in my head.  My mother prepared warm sweet oil and poured it into my ear and it alleviated my pain.  She held me after applying it and the combination of pain relief, warmth, and her rocking sent me back into a deep, comforting sleep.

When I was a little older, I had a splitting sinus headache.  I was already in bed and my father came and held my forehead with his strong hands in a way that gave some relief.  He held me like that in silence until I fell asleep again.

As a young man, I experienced surgery extracting kidney stones.   When I awoke, my wife Sheryl was there in the room and her presence was reassuring knowing that she was watching out for me.  She later told me that right before surgery, the nurse brought something for her to sign.  She began to read it over and the nurse seemed a little put out.  Then Sheryl discovered that the papers indicated someone else's surgery!  The nurse apologized profusely and didn't rush Sheryl when she returned with the appropriate chart.  That story made me doubly glad that Sheryl was there for me.

There are some things that technology
may never effectively replace.
Pain is easier to manage when we experience it within the bounds of others helping us to cope.  Studies have shown that human touch actually speeds up the healing process.  Seeing a loved one often causes the brain to release natural painkillers which helps with endurance.

How are we comforted by our faith?  This Sunday's lectionary text immediately calls to mind for me Handel's Messiah.  This important work declares the love of God for us through Jesus Christ.  It opens with the Isaiah passage with a tenor soloist holding out an elongated "Comfort Ye."  It is the desire of God for the prophet to bring comfort to a people in exile.  This speaks to us of who God is.  It speaks to us of what God comes to do in Jesus Christ.  It is one of my favorite passages and it prepares us for Christmas.

In Christ,

Sam


Picture by Katy Tresedder via Flickr.com.  Used under the Creative Commons license.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Longing for Presence

Lectionary Reading: Isaiah 64:1-9 (NRSV)

Thanksgiving has come and gone.  The insane quest for just the right gifts for your loved ones has likely commenced.  The decorating of the homes has begun.  Our household even managed to get a tree up already!

For many, Christmas is "the most wonderful time of the year."  What makes it so special?

There are parties to attend and lots of goodies to eat.  There is Christmas music on the radio and in the stores.  There is the annual debate over whether one should say "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Holidays".  There are church cantatas and candle lighting.  There are school programs and specials on television. 

There are cards to write and cookies to bake; gifts to wrap and family to see.

We spend extra time thinking about others - even if finding the right gift is frustrating because they really have everything they need.  But even if buying the right present is difficult, we are still moved in some way in our generosity toward others.

For some, the rush is too much.  The hustle and bustle has taken away the special feelings we may have once cherished.  Within the Charlie Brown Christmas, Charlie Brown is trying to capture that Christmas spirit that seems to be eluding him because of all the commercialization.  Instead of buying the shiny aluminum tree for the Christmas pageant, he buys the sickly looking tree that looks like it needs some love.

Sometimes simplicity and vulnerability
capture Christmas in a profound way.
This compassionate twist is what makes the story enduring. 

It reminds us in some way of the Gospel story.  Jesus is vulnerable as a baby - born in a manger rather than in opulence.  God's vulnerability is contrasted to the might of Rome in that day.  And yet, the one who has ears to hear recognizes which is ultimately more powerful.

This Advent, we will be exploring our "Longing for God" as we explore the prophetic readings from the lectionary texts.  As we reflect on Isaiah's passage today, we can see the people longing for God's presence.  As Advent begins, we remember that this is an important part of our preparation for Christmas.

In Christ,

Sam


Photo by Pete B. via Flickr.com.  Used under the Creative Commons license.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The Power of Trust

Lectionary Reading: Matthew 25:14-30 (NRSV)

I've seen creativity shut down in groups plenty of times. 

Someone may come up with a creative idea that is a little too creative.  It seems unfeasible and not realistic for actual implementation.  And so the idea is sneered at, laughed at, scoffed at.  At worst, the presenter of the idea is ridiculed. 

The creative person doesn't add any more to the group process after this point.  Their voice has been effectively silenced.

As group dynamics go, there are certain rules to brainstorming sessions.  One of the primary rules is that when brainstorming, there are no stupid ideas.  Everything, even the most ridiculous, gets written on the board. 

To ease anxiety, we let people know that just because something is written down, doesn't mean that it will be adopted.  Brainstorming is not the time for critique.  It is the time for thinking outside the box.

The great thing about ridiculous ideas is that they may spur thinking toward something different and new that is not ridiculous.  It is just unique.  I've also seen this happen time and again.
Learning to swim takes a lot of trust but the
end result is very rewarding!

The reason that the rule of "no stupid ideas" is so important is that it gives permission to be a little silly.  We can laugh with the person in delight but never in derision at the person.  This creates an atmosphere of trust.  When we begin to trust one another, we pull in a variety of viewpoints.

Otherwise, the loudest voices always dominate because they shut down quieter thoughts.  In a group process using brainstorming, the less vocal participants are given time and permission to share their ideas.  The experience and outcomes are always richer when the entire group enters into the process rather than hearing from only a minority.

This Sunday's gospel reading is a well-known parable for many dealing with the owner entrusting money to the servants.  As you read it over, how does a lack of trust stifle the creative use of the money with the third servant? 

As we continue to examine gratitude and thanksgiving this Sunday, I will be preaching on this parable with the examination of how trust and thanksgiving intertwine.  I trust that you'll join us if at all possible!

In Christ,

Sam
 
Photo by PoolSafely via Flickr.com.  Used under the Creative Commons license.