Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Adjusting to a New (Unpleasant) Reality

Lectionary Reading: Jeremiah 8:18-9:1 (NRSV)

When our son David was five years old, we were hosting an afterschool tutoring program at our church in Piedmont.  He was on the playground as the day was finishing, enjoying the older children for some unscheduled time together.

Unfortunately as he was standing atop the slide, getting ready to go down, another child pushed him in the back and he went off sideways.  His arm was obviously broken and we rushed him to the hospital.

It was a rather bad break that required surgery.  As Sheryl eventually took him home from the hospital, he was looking rather despondently at his new cast.  He asked his mother, "How many more minutes do I have to have this thing on?"

Sheryl said that it broke her heart to tell him that his expectations were off by a magnitude.

There are times in our lives when we must adjust to difficult circumstances.

While a broken arm is not ideal,
we often eventually recover from it.
Sometimes it has to do with our health.  There are diagnoses that we recover from and others that we must learn to live with.  Even worse are those that cause deterioration and are fatal.  Our attitudes in dealing with these new conditions may factor into our recovery or they may contribute to our demise.

In this week's reading, we see Jeremiah reporting on the perceived absence of God.  Times had turned and a tyrant was knocking on the door.  Independence would quickly change to suffering and subjugation.  This was a reality that the people of God couldn't quite grasp.  It seemed to them that God had abandoned them.

It is difficult to know in today's passage whether this is God speaking through the prophet Jeremiah or if it is the feeling of Jeremiah himself.  As the two voices are often intertwined, it may make no noticeable difference for us.  We see the lament.  We can almost feel the tears falling from eyes moist with heartache.  Jeremiah weeps for his people and so does God.

When David broke his arm, he suffered quite a bit of pain.  He was comforted somewhat by the presence of his parents who loved him and sought to alleviate his difficulty.  At the same time, as parents, we are stricken worse than if it had happened to us.  Love for a child is like that.

When we suffer with our own ailments, we turn to passages like this to remember God's love for us is akin to the love of a parent for a child - even when we may not perceive that love clearly.  When we cannot find a physician to give us comfort, we resonate with the frustration in verse 22.  Faith retains the belief that God is indeed on our side even when reality points to the contrary.

This Sunday, we'll explore this theme in worship together.  Join us in Edmond or Guthrie or online so that we may renew our faith together and stand up to the frustrations that are so common to the human life.

In Christ,

Sam

Photo by Sandor Weisz via Flickr.com.  Used under the Creative Commons license.

Monday, September 9, 2019

Sometimes I Need to Convince Myself

Lectionary Scripture: Exodus 32:7-14 (NRSV)

Christians often utilize the image of Jesus as the advocate for humanity standing in the way of an angry God that is all-too ready to smite us.  Within this view, our atonement comes because the mercy and faithfulness of Jesus off-sets and overcomes the wrath of God.

I don't personally hold to this view as I think that it pigeonholes God into someone who is one-dimensional.  The Hebrew scriptures reveal quite often the characteristics of love, mercy and compassion for God.  Christians also ascribe these to God but often from within the person of Jesus.  As Trinitarians, we often forget our own doctrine that no one person of the Trinity has characteristics that aren't shared by the other two! 

But in looking at today's text, I can see where the view of Jesus standing against the wrath of God might have emerged.

Moses stands up for the Hebrew people that have been freed from Egyptian slavery.  They have sinfully adopted idol-worship in making a golden calf.  The local Palestinian deities were influencing them as they would throughout the biblical witness.  God is understandably disgusted with them.  Moses feels that he must intervene.

It is not without precedence.  

Moses is adopting a similar stance of mercy for humanity that Abraham exhibited when God was set to destroy Sodom in Genesis 18:16-33.  

Both of these stories portray God as a judge ready to carry out a sentence.  Moses and Abraham operate as defense attorneys that seek to plea for leniency.  Moses doesn't dispute their guilt.  He doesn't try to explain it away.  Rather, he seeks to persuade God that genocide would be a public relations nightmare.  What will people say about you?
Moses by Michelangelo
San Pietro in Vincoli, Italy

God seems to be ready to start over with the line of Moses.  When presented with this idea, it may have been that Moses knew his own offspring weren't any better than the rest.  After all, Joshua was chosen as his successor to lead rather than one of his own sons.  Jewish Midrash gives explanation that the sons of Moses didn't give much time to their study of God's word.

If the line of Moses were used as a template, how long would it be before we were right back here with the people going astray?  

Could it be that Moses needed to work out his own issues with God?  It is possible that God didn't need a cooling off as much as Moses did.  If we continue in chapter 32, we see in verse 19 that "Moses' anger burned hot" which mirrors language written about God in verse 10.  As he continues in his anger, he calls the sons of Levi (of which tribe the priests would come) and orders them to kill those that we must assume were the greatest offenders.  About three thousand were put to death by the sword and while Moses speaks of ordaining themselves at the cost of a son or a brother, his own brother Aaron was spared even though he was in charge of the mess!

It may be that the conversation with God was God's design that Moses would curb his own wrath against his people.  Could this great slaughter have been restrained in comparison to his original desire?

When we pray with God, we are often seeking God's will.  Sometimes we pray for mercy in circumstances that do not favor us.  Even if we do not imagine God to be the author of our difficulty, we would like for God to take it away.  But sometimes we may need God's help to stay our own wrath.  We sometimes imagine that God mirror's our own anger so as to justify it.  Yet the longer we stay in conversation with God, the hope is that we will remind ourselves of the love, mercy and compassion of God.

And sometimes we may just need to bounce our thoughts and feelings off God until we come to what we know is right.

We'll continue to meditate on this passage in worship on Sunday.  You're always welcome to join us whether in person or online if that fits better with your schedule and location.

In Christ,

Sam
 

Photo by Patrick Rasenberg via Flickr.com.  Used under the Creative Commons license.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

What is Shaping Me?

Lectionary Reading: Jeremiah 18:1-11 (NRSV)

Our culture shapes is in lots of ways.

For a while, we were very body-conscious and the best-sellers all had to do with diets and exercise trends.  While there is still emphasis on being slim and trim, I'm not sure the subject carries the weight it once did (pun intended)!

Quite frankly, it is easier to be more conscious of our bodies than our spiritual lives.

We see our bodies in the mirror on a daily basis.

We know when we are having trouble catching our breath after the flight of stairs.

We encounter lots of advertising using men and women of particular body types.

But as pervasive as body-consciousness is, there may be a new sheriff in town with regards to what captures our attention.  This is because the way we process information today continues to change.  The use of screens has become obsessive for many people.  We gather and are exposed to more information than we were in the past.

While reading a novel written in the 1970's, I was surprised that the characters in the book were waiting for the 6:00 hour with anticipation so they could learn about the latest national disaster on the evening news.  We are so used to the 24-hour news cycle and its immediate consumption that it sounds strange to think that people used to make it a priority to watch the news at a specific time.

The average amount of screen time for Americans seems to vary widely depending on the study you read but the consensus is that the average continues to increase.  There is so much that we can do on our tablets or smart phones that it boggles the mind.

What are the likely consequences?
How does this shape us?  I don't think we can definitively say yet.  It is so new that it is difficult to process the good and the bad.

This Sunday, we will let Jeremiah remind us that God will shape us if we are willing.  But it clearly looks like our choice (God will not force our cooperation) in this week's scripture reading.  Our actions will bring consequences and Jeremiah seems to indicate that we should be more willing to count the cost.

Join us for worship either in Edmond or online and we'll continue to explore this important topic!

In Christ,

Sam


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


Tuesday, August 27, 2019

But I've Got Some Very Good Reasons...

Scripture Reading: Jeremiah 2:4-13 (NRSV)

The sheer scope of history in examining the prophet Jeremiah boggles my mind.  When I think about the time frame, we know that he is preaching to a specific moment in history - likely here at the end of the 7th century BCE.  This is a little over 600 years before the birth of Jesus.  

The southern kingdom of Judah was facing a threat from the Babylonian empire.  Unfortunately for God's people, they occupied land that was the preferred route between Egypt and Mesopotamia.  While this might allow for prosperous trade to flourish during certain points in Israelite history, the land often becomes coveted by whichever larger nation or empire becomes greedy for expansion.

In today's reading, we see Jeremiah berate his people for turning away from God.

This seems to be a common theme with humanity and it still rings true all of these centuries later.  While in Jeremiah's day, there were tempting idols from other exotic cultures to worship.  We may scoff at them out of our own sense of superior knowledge.  We know as in verse 11 that idols "are no gods" and our temptation is not to worship anything else.

We might want to belay our scorn for a moment.  

While we aren't tempted after literal alternate deity worship, there are many things that capture our attention, time and resources.  

Many people today are looking for meaning in life.  We seek it out in many ways.  It may be similar to the journey of the person looking for themselves only to find their identity after they return home.  

Sometimes we seek what is not ours
to our eventual detriment!
The largest idol that we have ever worshipped is the self.  We elevate our own desires above the will of God and then we remake God into our image so that our will coincides perfectly with God's will.

Giving in to the self will not refresh or quench our souls.  It is not living water.  Rather, we find that it is more like a cracked cistern that leaks.  We may find that we are empty more often than not.

These are difficult words to hear and they would have been no easier for Jeremiah's original audience all of those years ago.  Self-examination is never easy but it may be profitable if we are willing to pursue it in earnest.

If you have come this far, maybe you'll come a little farther.  We'll explore this more in depth on Sunday.  I know it is Labor Day weekend here in the United States, and so if you can't be here in person, join us online for worship!

In Christ,

Sam

Photo by mliu92 via Flickr.com.  Used under the Creative Commons license.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Is Respect a Right or a Benefit?

Lectionary Reading: Jeremiah 1:4-10 (NRSV)

Jeremiah is called at a very young age.  He is worried that he will not be taken seriously.

I know how he feels.

When I started out as a pastor, I grew a beard before taking my first appointment.  After being there for a while, I shaved it off.  One of our parishioners smiled at me and exclaimed, "Oh, you look just like a little boy!"

I heard lots of comments from people I met outside of our church along the lines of "You're too young to be a pastor."

It may be that they believed that old pastors were just hatched and came out of the egg with wrinkles, grey hair and life experience!

It has been my experience in life (and my guess is that this is your experience too) that some people have automatically afforded me respect and others have waited until I proved myself.

There are many in the world with the attitude, "You've got to earn my respect."

This is likely the world in which Jeremiah lived and the reason for his trepidation.  Who is going to listen to me?

I understand the view of earning respect and have done things to prove myself in the eyes of others so that my voice will be heard.  After all, a preacher that no one pays attention to is doing a lot of preparation for nothing!

But as I think about this idea of earned respect, it makes me realize that we may often be telling the world that I will disrespect you until you deserve otherwise.

Both donning and removing your
hat is a sign of respect depending
on your culture!
This is not a healthy way for us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

As I mentioned that I have experienced those that have given respect and those from whom I had to earn it, I can tell you with which I prefer to deal!

Respect for others should be a fundamental thing that is our starting place.  What if we adopted the attitude that people are to be respected until they prove otherwise?  And even then, it may be that we disrespect behavior rather than people.

One argument for earned respect is that it sharpens us.  Would I have been as effective if I didn't have to prove myself?  This may be important for positions of authority that don't have prior certifications.  Leadership is often this way in that we want to follow someone who is going to be effective.

So while I may reserve judgment on a leader based on his or her ability and track record, I will still fundamentally respect them as a person.  This means allowing them a voice until they do or say something that would be harmful to those they encounter.  Fortunately, I live in a country that is set up to allow the people being governed to have a voice through our representative democracy.  This country fundamentally respects its citizens through the Bill of Rights.

This philosophy was not shaped in a vacuum and comes out of the Christian idea that all people are deserving of respect and love simply because they exist.  As I mentioned, our behavior is not always to be commended but we continue to respect human beings.  This is why we treat prisoners humanely.

So as we explore this passage from Jeremiah, we'll discover that the message God gives him to relate is not one that will be popular or well-received.  No wonder he was nervous!  Are you sure you want me to do this God?  I hope you'll join us for worship as we reflect upon Jeremiah's call story together!

In Christ,

Sam


Photo by Aaron Tait via Flickr.com.  Used under the Creative Commons license.


Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Jesus Christ, Prince of Division??

Lectionary Scripture: Luke 12:49-56 (NRSV)

What was your family like growing up?  Did you experience an easy childhood where everyone got along with one another?  Or was it more difficult?  Was there a lot of conflict and chaos?

Likely it was somewhere in the middle.

Family systems operate on cycles.  They achieve a type of balance (theorists call this homeostasis) that may or may not be healthy.  Sometimes there are larger family gatherings that upset the applecart.  Old systems that have been escaped through family members moving out or moving away sometimes rear their ugly heads and you have heated arguments arise.

I've heard people tell me as a pastor, "I'm never going back to Thanksgiving dinner as long as it's at so-and-so's house."  I've also heard of people cutting off their relatives from communication because their relationship is unhealthy or emotionally abusive.  Yet at the same time we mourn the loss of contact with people with whom we've grown up.  We may even feel somewhat guilty about making a specific stand with relatives even if we believe it is for the best.

I grew up in a home that included a family business when I was a teenager.  All of us worked the business - both parents, my older siblings and me.  Money was tight and the stress of making ends meet was always present.  Harsh words were often spoken between my father and brother on a cyclical basis.  I often felt the need to play peacemaker between them.  The words said in anger did not help relieve the stress all of us felt.  Eventually, they would make up and we would continue to work together.  This lasted for years until my parents retired.

Who is the witness to how we disagree?

When I received my psychological evaluation as a part of my preparation for ministry (all candidates go through this!), I was labeled as a peacemaker as a large part of my identity.

So when I read today's text, I am at a loss.  It doesn't sound like what Jesus would say!  We more readily identify Jesus as the Prince of Peace rather than a cause of division.  When we identify Jesus with service and love, our reading for Sunday seems to run contrary to those characteristics.

Before preaching my last sermon, I mentioned that our scripture was a part of the genre of eschatology or end times theology.  We see that continue in this reading.  Luke in particular relayed the words and deeds of Jesus in an orderly fashion to share specific theological points.  Luke wrote these things in the aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem by Rome which directly affected the leadership within the early church.

In a way, I believe that Luke is trying to normalize the stress and conditions that the early church would have been under.  The violence and upheaval that they experienced were seen in the light of the Gospel as something to be expected.

This may actually be comforting when we are going through difficulty.  If we experience family conflict and then find out that most families go through this, it can actually help relieve the stress we are under.

We do know that our relationship with Jesus when taken seriously changes our lives.  We also know that changes are disrupting to the balance and patterns we already regularly experience.  So in a very legitimate way, Jesus does cause division for those who would like for us to remain unchanged!

This Sunday, we will explore this passage further in worship.  As I read it again, my first instinct was to say "let's choose an easier passage to work with!"  But I find that the greater fruit may lie with tackling the tougher scriptures.  Luke included these for our benefit after all!  I hope you'll join us as we discover what that may be!

In Christ,

Sam


Photo by Thomas Halfmann via Flickr.com.  Used under the Creative Commons license.

Monday, August 5, 2019

Jesus is Coming! Look Busy!

Lectionary Reading: Luke 12:32-40 (NRSV)

The difficulty of end times theology is that it creates an anxiety over the need for change.  There is an expectation that with the return of Jesus there will be a system reset and this life will be over.
This may work for people who are suffering or facing a difficult future. 
But for the average person, this may not be the case.  When a loved one dies, we grieve at the loss of life even if we believe that the person went to heaven.  We grieve our loss of time with them.  We grieve the future that we had planned that will no longer be possible.  
The sense of always being "ready"
may bring more anxiety than peace!
When we think about Jesus returning and disrupting our lives, there is some natural anxiety over the loss of our plans and dreams.  Then there may be some guilt over the fact that we know that we are supposed to really be happy about Jesus returning!
So this passage for Sunday has some baggage attached to it if we are honest with ourselves.
I have come to believe that our ideas about the return of Jesus may not be as literal as we have interpreted them.  If we are to interpret them literally, what does this do for the generations of Christians that preceded us?  If the end times will occur in a moment in history (and preachers always seem to predict that it will not only be within our lifetime but very soon), then it means that the book of Revelation is only relevant for the particular generation in which these predictions will occur.  Did all of the Christians who came before us waste their time in reading it?
I don’t think so.
So maybe we need to interpret this week’s reading differently.
What if the return of Jesus is more akin to how we treat the least of these as featured in Matthew 25?  Certainly, we encounter the least of these unexpectedly.  Most of us do not calendar encounters with the outsiders among us.  Could these encounters be life-changing? 
They can certainly be life-challenging.
They may also cause us to question the living of our lives as we know it.
As far as our peace of mind goes, I’m not sure this interpretation is any easier!  In fact, if it is all about a more literal encounter with Jesus, then at least I’m off the hook if he doesn’t show!  But maybe he’s been hanging around for longer than I’ve thought.
I look forward to being back from vacation and preaching on this passage this Sunday as we explore it together!
In Christ,
Sam
Photo by Olivier Deveault via Flickr.com.  Used under the Creative Commons license.