Reflections Upon the Sunday School Lessons Uniform Sunday School Lessons Teacher: Esther Kletsch
The Adult Sunday School class was given a fun exercise last Sunday by our teacher, Esther. She asked that we write down things we were grateful for and then use those words to write a psalm of thanksgiving. Over the rest of Advent these will be posted here anonymously. It was fun and we hope you enjoy our efforts.
Bless the people that seek God, health, communication, fellowship peace, joy, long suffering, life, good health, fellowship with God talking to Christ in prayer.
Another psalms of thanksgiving..... Shout with Joy for all my blessings. My God is good. He has given me all good things. I praise him for my family, friends. My home, my church, my health, laughter, tears, my country.
The Ark of the Covenant is so named because it contained the stone tablets on which the Ten Commandments were written (Ex 25). It is a portable wooded chest built by the Israelites following divine command. It originally stood in the Tabernacle in the desert, but it was also, by means of rings and poles, carried by the Israelites on their journeyings. The Ark later stood in the Holy of Holies in the Temple of Solomon. Other passages in the Bible state that the ark contained a golden pot containing manna and Aaron's rod that budded.
It was overlaid with gold, inside and out. The cover or "mercy seat" was also of gold. Facing each other on the cover were two winged cherubim.
The area between the cherubim was the place of divine manifestation.
After Israelite settlement in Canaan, the ark was kept at Shiloh. Being taken into battle, it was captured by the Philistines who placed it in the house of their god, Dagon. The ark caused nothing but trouble for its captives, who took it next to Gath where it continued to cause problems. Next it was taken to Ekron where again it caused problems (to put it mildly). The journey this ark made was truly epic.
Eventually, the Ark ended up with Abinadab and his two sons, Uzzah and Ahio.
In the time of King David, the ark was placed on a cart for transport to the house of Obededom, or at least that is where it ended up. On this trip, Uzzah attempted to steady the Ark on the cart and he died immediately. The place where that death took place was called Uzzah's breach or Yahweh has brought destruction. On reaching the possession of Obededom, the ark brought many blessings to his family.
Early theologians have interpreted the ark as an Old Testament type of Christ, a symbol of the church, or of Christian faith as a whole. The ark has been closely associated with the power and presence of God.
The story of the ark provides a cautionary insight related to our relationship with God. The ark is a visible object where human beings encounter God. Like the presence of God itself, the ark can overthrow our enemies, accompany us in our journey, provide a place of worship, praise, human delight and forgiveness of sin. But, this place of worship must be respected. This is no casual relationship where we employ the power of God for our own uses. God will comfort. God can also disturb. God can fight by our side, or fight against us when we presume too much that God submits to our causes, perspectives or narrow interests.
The ark and its story reminds us not to presume on the holiness of God. When politicians drag God into partisan political issues, that presumption is condemned in the Bible. The ark is a constant reminder that God is greater than us, bigger than our causes and not to be reduced to the means by which we achieve our purposes. We don't bend God around our smaller uses.
That is a beautiful thing. That is want we need. That is the core of our faith. There is this greater power, wisdom and love that places a claim on us, not us on God. We need this because we get all wrapped up in the obsessions of the momentary, and thus, at times feel trapped and helpless. The Bible reminds us that we have a better reference, guide, hope, power and friend.
The ark simply reminds us of who God is. In our confessional standards, this memory is defined: God is....infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body parts, or passions; immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise, most holy, most free, most absolute, working all things according to the counsel of His own immutable and most righteous will, for His own glory; most loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin, the rewarder of them that diligently seek Him; and withal, most just, and terrible in His judgements: hating all sin, and who will by no means clear the guilty. Westminster Confession, Chapter 2
November 24, 2019 Theme: Faith Rising Above Corruption Scripture 2 Peter 1
Ladder of Virtue and Divine Ascent
This passage in 2 Peter has provided inspiration for artists and spiritual theologians to conceive of a ladder with virtues leading upward toward perfection. This inspiration arises particularly from the sequence of virtues listed in verses 6,7 of this first chapter:
...support your faith with goodness, and goodness with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self control with endurance, and endurance with godliness, and godliness with mutual affection, and mutual affection with love,
Here, one virtue is added to another as this interdependence maps out the process of sanctification. Virtues added rise upward.
In this connection we may think of the account in Genesis of Jacob. The dream of this displaced patriarch, returning home, of a ladder rising up to God, gives us a picture of our opportunity to rise untoward God. Putting our foot on the first rung of the ladder, we are encouraged to consider that our progress is forever upward.
That we should be encouraged in the goals of Christian perfection is clearly what is being addressed here. Not that perfection is ever accomplished fully or quickly, but the process leading there is what our lives are about.
In Dante's Divine Comedy, Purgatory is conceived as a tall mountain where, as people ascend, their sins are purged and virtues are added.
Purgatory here is about our striving toward self-improvement. There is something very encouraging about this ascent of the mountain of purgatory. Contrary to expectation, the further you climb, the easier the effort becomes. As your sins are removed, the burdens of those sins no longer pull you down. The higher you climb on the mountain, the easier it is to climb.
This surprising insight is contained in the following verses in the Fourth Canto of the Purgatorio.
This mountain is such that Always at the start the climb is the hardest, But the higher that one mounts the less one tires.
Therefore, when it seems to you so gentle That walking up is just as easy for you As riding down a river in a boat,
Then you will be at the end of this path: There you can hope to rest from your fatigue, I say no more, but this I know is true.
Christianity is not about piling heavy stuff on our backs. It is not about adding a bunch of rules and expectations and worrying about what other people do or think. The further we advance into the discovery of God's grace, the more we are lifted higher into greater freedom. I seem to remember Jesus saying, My yoke is easy and my burden is light.
Somewhere in our desire to live a life of Christian fullness, we need to remember that. Christianity is about human freedom, not being better than anyone else. Pastor Joel
November 17, 2019 Theme: Faith That Is Focused Scripture: 1 Peter 1:13-25, Pslam 27
We encounter Peter, a man, a person, a human being not unlike all of us, at least in his essential humanity. He becomes known to us through the depths of his struggles and the height of his hopes. He has learned to face his fears, and in the aid of his faith, to rise above them. He has faced absolute pain, psychological pain of rejection and what it means and feels like when those closest to you disappoint and discourage. And that perhaps is the deepest pain of all. The psalmist knows what it is. In prayer he has returned, again and again, to express to God his deepest yearnings and searing questions.
There is a depth to his life. He has not lived life on the surface. He brings deep questioning, particularly when it seems that many have turned against him. His foes have been many and frequent. He has dealt with and stood up to opposition and, no doubt felt the loneliness of doing what is right in times when everyone else was doing wrong and threatening harm to those who resisted. And so in the fire of this experience he has grown strong, faithful, patient and at least at peace. He has learned deeply how to trust. When challenges in life arise, he knows God is there, and will be there, but, this psalmist is unafraid to hold God to the terms of their relationship, a stubborn insistence that God will do what God has promised, that God will live up in this time and place what God has done in the past. Serious faith, honest prayer calls on God to honor the words God has spoken.
So, to be clear, what we are given in Psalm 27 is a person, a man, or woman like us.
The psalmist conceives of life as a wonderful, divinely given opportunity to increase in wisdom. Life experience can enrich us or it can impoverish us. Life can close us off in our hearts and minds to anything new, or it can open us up to the broad horizons of all that we can gain in insight, self-understanding, appreciation of the miracle of our lives, and the wonder of surprises and discoveries that are held for us every day.
So the obvious thing here for us when we read a psalm is that we encounter a person like ourselves, no stranger to the heartache and the healing that we all have known, but a person like you and I and nothing more. The importance for us in this encounter is that we can see how it is that God makes a difference in the lives of men and women.
If the nature of our relationship with God is anything like that of a friend, a friend in the best and highest sense of what good friendship can bring to our lives, then God as a friend will listen to us, honor our perspective, respect our questions, not back away from challenging our errors and forgive us when we ask for mercy and understanding. This friendship of God is celebrated throughout the psalms and through the rest of the Bible as a sheltering friendship, a deep comfort and ultimate place of trust. Yes, even with a friendship like this we will continue to be afraid at times, but nevertheless we will rise above it.
Abiding friendship of Jesus Friendship is stronger than our own efforts and intentions. It weathers the ups and downs.
Courage to get up each morning and try again, humility to acknowledge our part in those parts of our lives that are challenging.
Peace at last, shelter---a safe place. Pastor Joel
November 10, 2019 Theme: Faith Sets An Example Scripture: 1 Thessalonians 1:2-10
Dignity of Work
It is not hard to see where Paul is going in the opening chapter of 1 Thessalonians. In verse three he gratefully remembers the three accomplishments of the congregation he is addressing: their work, their labor and their endurance. Hint, hint. Paul is lifting up the value and dignity of their work. Their work makes known their faith, their love and their hope.
We will learn in reading through First and Second Thessalonians, that some in this congregation were thinking that since Christ was soon to return, it was OK to quit working. They asked, "Why bother?"
Paul exhorts the church in 2 Thessalonians 3:11ff: 11 For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. 12 Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. 13 Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.
One of the earliest poems in English (Old English) is Cadmon's Hymn (believed written between 658 and 680). This poem praises creation as the work of God (urec Uuldurfadur---the work of the glory-father). God is described as master-builder, architect and the one who fashions the roof of heaven.
The image of God as master craftsman appeals to me. God conceived a plan, followed it through to completion, and declared it good. Created in God's image, our high calling is to be involved in a work of some kind. We speak, listen, learn from and respond to God in and through our work. As we behold in wonder the craftsmanship of God, we respond by bringing something of value into this world through our own effort, sweat, perseverance, imagination and love. The fullness of our lives has to do with that work that we are drawn into and which we are good at. That is where our happiness is.
It is good to remember that for most of his life, Jesus was a carpenter. That is not insignificant. Jesus embodied the image of God who is the master craftsman. Jesus the carpenter was a craftsmen too.
The work we do is of various kinds. Maybe our work is sitting with those who are sick, listening with care to those who are troubled, sweeping floors, pouring cement, teaching, healing, study, writing, cooking, driving a logging truck, planting a garden, singing, thinking or any of a million other things. The vast range of work we do is a chorus of praise to the God of creation.
Paul affirms that honest work is how a Christian's hope, love and faith come to life. This holds true for whatever the work is that we do, paid or not, noticed or not, valued by others or not. As Christians, we need to value work as essential to our faith. It is how we make an appropriate response of thanksgiving to the ultimate craftsman. Christian hope, love and faith are communicated to the world through the work we do.
We are not created for idleness. The great monasteries of medieval Europe were centers of industry, work and excellence. And, you had better believe the praying in those monasteries was a service of work, discipline and devotion. Prayer is work.
Human well-being is known in and through the work we do. Pastor Joel
November 3, 2019 Theme: Faith that is Tested Scripture: 2 Corinthians 13:1-11
Standing Out from the Crowd
Paul's letters to the church in Corinth provide insight into the struggles of an early Christian community as they strive to remain faithful to the call of Christ. In these letters, the apostle applies his theology to the contemporary cultural situation. Theology can exist as a persuasive, coherent and detailed approach to understanding in the realm of speculation, but it must ultimately be tested as it is applied to the emerging aspects of lived experience. The letters to the church in Corinth show us the way.
There is one verse in the last chapter of the Second Letter of Paul to the Church in Corinth that, for me, contains encouragement and hope to those challenged to live faith in Christ within the context of day to day struggles. That is the 7th verse, which I admit, is a bit difficult to understand at first. It reads: 7 But we pray to God that you may not do anything wrong--not that we may appear to have passed the test, but that you may do what is right, though we may seem to have failed.
My way of interpreting this verse is something like this: It doesn't matter what others think. Do what is right regardless of what they think, even if they think you are nuts. Anyway, something along those lines is my approach to the meaning here.
The meaning is beautiful to me. We surrender too much of our power when we worry about what others may think of us. People of accomplishment have the courage to stand out in the crowd, advance perspectives not yet appreciated, values that are not immediately recognized and insights not yet envisioned. People of accomplishment dare to be different. People who let themselves get bashed around by the opinion of others get nowhere.
The crowd, in its momentary fancies and preoccupations, is a terrible foundation upon which to base judgements and behaviors. Eternal truths are passed over by people living in this culture of mindless distraction. If you are a betting person, put your money on the crowd being wrong, silly, short-sighted and stupid. Bet against the crowd ever stumbling on anything worthwhile, Let's see, what has the crowd ever been wrong about? Let's see.....well, everything.
Consider the events remembered each year during Holy Week. It begins with the crowds cheering as Jesus entered Jerusalem, but ends with the crowd shouting, "Crucify him." The crowds flocked to see Jesus and marvel at his miracles and wisdom. But at the end of that life, the crowds were there to condemn him. Crowds invariably get caught up in momentary fancies at the expense of thoughtful conviction.
How much of our lives are dominated by the idiocy, mendacity and cruelty of the crowd? How much of the crowd and its influence gets into our own heads? It is as if we fall into a swoon, whipped around here and there by the judgements of others. How liberating it is to pull out of that influence and embrace instead the steady, wise and liberating love of God in Christ.
Consider every negative thing we have ever thought about ourselves, then ask yourself: Where did that negative thought come from? It probably didn't come from honest and fair self-evaluation. It most likely was derived from the twisted values of the crowd and the madness of this world. Who are you going to let tell you who you are and how you are to be valued? If you leave all that up to the stupidity of common opinion and thought; good luck.
People condemn what they don't understand. Why give them the power by conforming to their expectations? Paul knows something important, which is this: time and history reveal the truth. So, do what is right even if people think you are nuts. History is in God's hands. History eventually will rip the veil away from that which had previously been hidden from the many and revealed to the few.
Infinite grace and encouragement is found here in this verse. In its eternal truth we are liberated from the mindlessness of the crowd and anchored in the eternal grace and goodness of God. Pastor Joel
Oct 27, 2019 Scripture: Luke 7:36-50
Simon the Pharisee
Considered within its immediate context in Luke, this passage occurs as a defense of the friendship Jesus offered people such as tax collectors and sinners. This defense arises with the fact that the religious and social authorities have rejected the ministries of John the Baptist and Jesus.
The controversial friendship and grace offered by Jesus to sinners is set in contrast to the piety of Simon the Pharisee who has invited Jesus into his home for a meal. For Simon, that Jesus extended friendship to this sinner is reason enough to doubt he is a prophet. If Jesus was a prophet, he would have realized who this woman was and would have denied such extravagant grace to one so undeserving.
Jesus confronts the pious calculation of Simon, telling the story of two debtors, one whose debt is great, the other whose debt is meager. When both debts are forgiven, the one with a larger debt would have a deeper appreciation and love toward the one to whom the debt was owed.
In interpreting this text, we need to settle upon an entry point. That requires we decide with whom we will identify. Are we Simon or are we the sinner? This question is like so many others we face in this gospel. Are we the lost sheep or are we the found sheep? Are we the Prodigal Son or are we the older son? Are we the Pharisee or are we the Publican? Where in this story, and others like it, do we locate ourselves?
Are we Simon? He has invited Jesus into his home for a meal. Is the invitation merely a trap to set for Jesus or a genuine attempt to get to know him better? Whatever may be the cause, Jesus is in his home and they are sharing a meal together. Simon could be honestly upset that Jesus would extend the courtesy of kindness to this sinner, because it indicates the violation of norms he holds dear as a part of his faith.
Simon may have genuine affection for Jesus, but unwilling to follow the logic of grace shown in the forgiveness of this sinner.
We are reminded that pious people need sinners to define themselves by way of contrast. Piety purchases justification at the expense of those who are condemned. People justify themselves by judging, eluding or denouncing others.
So, we return to the question of where we locate ourselves in this passage. I think we must identify with both. We are Simon. We are the sinner.
We are Simon, interested in Jesus. We invite him into our lives, but yet remain uncertain how far we are going to go along with the extravagant logic of grace that topples our self-righteousness and upsets our stubborn sense of who is deserving and who is not deserving of God's love. We are Simon in clinging to our sense of having earned the grace we have received while doubting others to have done the same.
We are the sinner, deep down inside, beneath our public personas and in places within we don't talk about.
The good news is that Jesus loved them both. Pastor Joel
Oct 20, 2019 Theme: Humble Faith Scripture: Luke 7:1-10
Exclusion and the Human Condition
The theme of exclusion is central to the gospel of Luke. If you look at the material in Luke that is unique among the other gospels, this theme will be apparent. No other gospel contains the story of the Lost Coin, Prodigal Son and Good Samaritan. These and many other stories found only in Luke highlight this theme of exclusion and separation. This experience of separation is seen as well in the way Jesus describes his own life and work in Chapter 9. 'Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.'
Thedevelopment of this theme throughout this gospel is central to the life and work of the Savior. Jesus, himself excluded even to the extreme of crucifixion, has come into this world to heal the pain of our existential separation, the brokenness in our world, families, communities and hearts.
The account of the healing of the Centurion's servant shows us how an otherwise, well-placed and successful person can suffer like anyone else from the crisis of exclusion. Even though he is sympathetic to the faith of Israel, he dwells apart because he is a Gentile. Further, because of his association with Roman domination, he is probably resented among those whose faith he at least admired if not shared. Even more, though he has social influence and power, he is separated from the only power the current crisis demands, and that is, the power to restore health to his servant. The exclusion he experiences may not be as readily appreciated as those with more obvious, aching need. Jesus gives him not only the gift of healing his servant, but the grace of inclusion with the people of God. That more subtle miracle is the real wonder here.
However we may define ourselves in relationship to others, the experience of exclusion is universal, The experience of being kicked to the curb, somehow, some way, is common to us all. Maybe we sense it in the disruption of relationships important to us. Or, we feel it when we realize we are refugees from our heart's deepest desires. Perhaps we don't even know what our heart desires anymore. One way or another, we are the excluded ones because this is the human condition. We are sons and daughters of Adam and Eve, expelled from original well-being and not allowed back. Expulsion is something we all know about, one way or another, rich or poor, healthy or ill, successful or not. That is why Jesus is so dear to us. He does not hesitate to hold us in his vast love. Pastor Joel
Oct 13, 2019 Theme: Active Faith Scripture: 1 Kings 17:1-24
Linkages of Sin
In our conversation on this passage, a holdover matter from a previous discussion was brought forward. The earlier discussion concerned the warning found in Numbers 14:18 that God "punishes the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation." This admonition is repeated in many places in the Bible. Sin is passed down from one generation to the next. The admonition seems to be contradicted elsewhere, as in Jeremiah 31:21: In those days they shall no longer say: 'The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge.' But all shall die for their own sins; the teeth everyone who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge.
We react negatively to the notion that ancestral sin is somehow passed down through subsequent generations. It seems unfair to impute anyone's sin on anyone else, particularly within our contemporary cultural privileging of individual rights and perspectives. Today we naturally maintain that everyone is responsible for their own actions.
Dismissing the biblical warning that sin is passed down from one generation to the next hides a greater truth. The truth comes into focus when you step back and widen your perspective to include the broad sweep on the narrative of 1 Kings leading up to the situation bravely faced by the prophet Elijah, which is covered in the lesson today.
There are linkages of sin that connect the sins of Solomon, his sons Jeroboam and Rehoboam, Ahab and his wife Jezebel. Solomon is rebuked by God for allowing the worship of foreign gods in the land. (1Kings 11:11). His son Rehoboam is condemned for adding to the suppression of the people against the counsel of wiser leaders. Jeroboam becomes a cautionary example of the catastrophe of apostasy. Then comes Ahab who doubles down on this tragic tradition. The Bible tells us that the sin of Solomon will rebound upon distant, future generations.
I believe 1 Kings is trying to reveal, through this narrative, the truth about how ancestral sin comes into play. Sin is linked to sin across generations. Sin passed down is also magnified until it issues in its destructive results. Sin and it consequences build upon itself. This is a truth we need to come to terms with.
Sin is a progressive illness. Sin starts small with incidental compromises, but then gains momentum over time until it overwhelms. Satan is patient. A wrong is committed, than a rationalization follows, such as: Hey, nobody got hurt and nobody got caught. With that compromise we make it easier the next time to compromise our beliefs. The faults of an earlier generation make it easier to normalize the mistakes of the present. Sin and its consequences increase until they overwhelm. Our most terrible moments of wrong and the tragic situations that arise have deep roots in our institutions, history, traditions and beliefs. We are foolish to believe that the individual alone propagates sin. We are fools if we do not respect the linkages of sin.
Elijah, in this lesson today, lived on the razor's edge of danger and mortal peril in his confronting the sin of Ahab and Jezebel. The tide of evil had been set in motion before Ahab was even born. The Bible is trying to warn us that yesterday's sins become tomorrow's peril.
October 6, 2019 Theme: Obedient Faith Scripture: Deuteronomy 4:1-14, 5:1-21
Hoping and Having
After the forty year sojourn in the wilderness, a new generation is ready to take possession of the Promised Land. What a previous generation had failed to achieve, their sons and daughters were ready now to attempt. In this propitious moment, Moses recounts the failures and fortune that has brought them to this point as well as all that they had learned along the way. This new generation must always remember the promises and responsibilities of being God's people.
In reflection upon this moment of sacred history, it is difficult to avoid feeling regret in relation to Moses. He will not accompany this generation into their new day. From the heights (2,300 Ft) of Mount Nebo, Moses may glimpse the Promised Land but not enter. The reasons are contained in an enigmatic passage in Numbers 20 and noted as well in the first chapter of Deuteronomy. Moses is held back. After all the struggles he has known and shared, with his people and his God, the way forward is closed to him.
A case could be made that Moses, before any other person, would deserve the opportunity to venture into the Promised Land. He had suffered to bring this promise to fulfillment as much as anyone else. In the back of your mind, you would be tempted to feel like Moses got a bad deal, stopped just short of the goal.
But what here may seem unfair to Moses contains for us a lesson of faith and life. Human beings are creatures of hope. We live, struggle, venture, love and fight for that which outlives us. That for which out heart longs extends beyond us and our present horizons. Our lives are anchored in that which is great than us.
No one dares deny the joy a grandparent will feel in the presence of their grandchild. Part of that joy, I think, is knowing that a future is promised in the love and joy of that child, a future that they themselves will not possess. But in the face of a child, they can glimpse it.
The truth given here is that hoping is better than having. Moses had the greatest joy and brightest hope. He would not experience what is felt like to possess the land that God had promised. But from the heights of Nebo he saw it. Our lives are bounded by our mortality. Across certain lines we cannot venture. But, from where we are situated here and now, we, like Moses, may glimpse eternity. We glimpse eternity in God's grace given us in Christ. So we live with hope. Like Paul says, For now we see only a refection as in a mirror, then we shall see face to face. 1 Corinthians 13:11 NIV
The hope by which we live does not take us away from the struggles and challenges of the present day. Rather this hope throws us into the fray and enables us to engage fully in the struggle and opportunities that God gives us each new day. Pastor Joel
September 22, 2019 Theme: Faithful Despite Unfaithfulness Scripture: Numbers 13:1-14:10
The Opposite of Faith Despite some possible objections, it is helpful for me to understand that the opposite of faith is not disbelief, nor is it doubt. For me, the opposite of faith is fear. I understand other arguments could be made, but this appreciation of the role of fear and faith in our lives and in my life, seems right. Particularly in this passage in Numbers, the contrasting roles of faith and fear are placed in sharp relief.
The vast company of Israel is encamped at Kadesh on the southern border of Caanan. Spies are sent out to assess the land promised to them by God. The spies return after over a month to render their report. The land is one of abundance, yet it is occupied by giants. The report details vast opportunity for settled life, but sadly concludes that the abundance of this land is beyond any hope of conquest. The overwhelming majority of the people of Israel shrink back from the promise God has made.
They shrink back from opportunity because of fear. Joshua and Caleb, almost alone in standing up to the challenge relinquished by others, conclude their more optimistic assessment of the situation declaring, "Do not be afraid of them."
What is true then is true now. Fear holds us back from opportunity and the promises of God. That is why I think of fear as the opposite of faith. Fear imprisons, shrinks human aspiration, narrows horizons of hope, forecloses on a better future, tears down foundations of trust, destroys self-regard and fuels hatred. Don't stop me, I am just getting started. Fear masquerades as envy, worry, stress, and depression. It stomps on our dreams, closes the door and shuts the windows of any noble pursuit and meaningful action, thought and purpose. Fear takes away our peace.
Cloaked in fear, forsaking faith, Israel's sad plight is summarized in the following way in chapter 13: There we saw the Nephilim (the Anakites come from the Nephilim); and ourselves we seemed like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.' v.33
As I understand it from biblical perspective, the Nephilim (Genesis 6) were all destroyed in the flood. I never heard Noah look around and wonder: "Where are all the giants?" In order to justify their fear, Israel conjured up a non-existent enemy. Did I fail to mention that fear also distorts accurate assessments of the situation? Fear conjures phantoms. Fear attacks our senses and impairs our ability to think straight.
The passage calls forth an honest appraisal of the impact of fear in our lives, our churches and our nation. The passage persuades turning away from fear toward the calm, settled confidence of faith.
What is our promised land? Matthew tells us in the last verse of his book:
Matthew 28:19 'Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20) and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.' Our promised land is being alive to this call of a vital faith. We find reason not to be afraid in any of this by the promise that Jesus himself will be with us through it all. Pastor Joel
September 8, 2019 Theme: Faithful During Grief 1 Samuel 1:1-2:10
Dealing with Divine Delay
This is a beautiful story and one of my favorites. In this passage we are introduced to an unlikely hero, or here, a heroine: Hannah. She is the childless second wife of Elkanah. What we see with her is what we have seen before and will continue to see: Israel's sacred history moves through unlikely people and places.
Childless, Hannah is a member of that large, important group of women and families in the Bible that suffer long delay before prayers are answered. I will list a few to get us started. Sarah, Rachel, Israel 40 years in the wilderness, and Rebekah. Do you sense a theme developing? We continue in the New Testament: Martha, whose brother died while she waited for Jesus to arrive as well as the company of all those in Revelation who gave their lives for the gospel and are up there in heaven waiting for God to make things right with the world they left behind. Don't forget Elizabeth. Oh, yeah, there is Jesus in the wilderness.
To this list, I might add, thinking of people alive today, just about everyone else. A serious faith, it seems to me, will include sometime or another, this lament: "God, what took you so long?"
We can add the voice of the psalmist to the lament regarding divine delay: (Here, just one of many)
1. How long, O Lord? Will you forget me for ever?" How long will you hide your face from me? 2 How long must I bear the pain in my soul, And have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? 13 NRSV
The Psalmist, as usual puts us in touch with our own hearts and the serious pain felt in the hearts of good and faithful people who are in distress. Thank God the Bible is honest about this pain, because this evil age is all too eager to sell us cheap substitutes for serious faith.
Why does God make us wait?.......I don't know. That's God business, not mine. God knows everything. I can't remember what I had for lunch yesterday. God has God's own reasons and we can bet those reasons are good.
Here is what I do know, however. There is spiritual power in that word, "wait." It is among the most spiritually powerful words in the Bible. (ie: Isaiah 40:...but those who wait upon the Lord....). A lot happens when we wait. We grow in faith. We learn patience. We pray. Waiting does not mean sitting around doing nothing. Waiting is doing what can do. And maybe that is what God wants from us in our waiting: Get busy people! Get busy praying. Get busy thinking, loving, etc. Do something!
While waiting to get into the promised land, Israel learned how to build its temple and how many commandments Moses would bring down from the mountain (Ten). In the wilderness they learned how not to be slaves. It turns out, learning not to be slaves would come in handy when they moved into a new land where there were all sorts of other beliefs and practices tempting them to abandon the one who got them there.
Christians are tough and must be tough. We have hard lessons to learn. We need to learn how not to be shoved around in this wicked and dishonest world. We have to stand up for ourselves and others. We need to take our faith seriously. There is a whole lot we can be doing. Hannah went to the temple and prayed. She engaged God with passionate honesty. She did not buy into superficial consolation. Maybe God's delay is about us getting busy doing what we have to do, standing up for those we need to stand up for and learning what we have to learn and loving who we need to love. Divine delay is God respecting the part we play in this deal. It is divinely necessary for us to be challenged to discover all of what we can do, and all we are called to become. That is, while we are waiting. Pastor Joel
September 1, 2019 Theme: Faithful During Distress Scripture: Genesis 18:16-19:29
Tag, You're It!
Arnold B. (Abbie) Rhodes was my professor for Old Testament and Hebrew. When I took his classes, it was within a couple of years of his retirement. He died in 2002. He was a wonderful Christian. He was a good person.
One principle he taught us was the importance of recognizing that the Bible interprets itself. Traditions are passed down from one generation to the next and appropriated in light of the present situation. It is like a dance of change and continuity. We value the old in light of the new. Jesus applied many teachings of Deuteronomy to his own ministry. The New Testament understands Jesus in light of prophetic anticipation of the Messiah.
In the lesson before us today, Abraham's nephew Lot and his family are warned to flee Sodom. Sodom and Gomorrah were among five cities of the plain (Genesis 14:2) in the Jordan River Valley which God destroyed for their iniquity when not even ten righteous men could be found there.
Interpreting the event today has often involved associating Sodom with the sin of homosexuality. This association arises out of the account of the men of Sodom threatening rape against the divine messengers visiting Lot. If this passage is only about homosexuality, then it has nothing to say to me. I can associate that sin with someone else and cheerfully walk self-righteously away. I think we play this game of "tag, you're it" with the Bible's strictest admonitions, associating its harsh rebuke with others.
There is so much more in this passage. First, this passage condemns rape with violently subjugating others and using them for your own purposes without regard for their interests. The philosopher Immanuel Kant said that rational human beings should be treated as an end in themselves and not as a means to something else. This principle is the foundation of ethics.
The rapists condemned in this story are violating the sacred duty of hospitality. They are treating something sacred with irreverence and disrespect. The sin of Sodom is profoundly different than what it has come to mean.
We can apply this principal of letting the Bible interpret itself to further understand this passage. The sin of Sodom and Gomorrah is human depravity, broadly defined. Among the sins of Sodom interpreted in other places in the Bible are its lack of justice ( Isa. 9-10; 3:9), backsliding into idolatry (Deut. 32:15-43;, Isa 1:10) idolatry expressed through the metaphor of adultery (Jer. 23:14), pride, fulness of bread, and abundance of idleness, disregard for the poor and chasing after false gods (Eziekiel 16:40-50).
I think it is wrong to collapse our understanding of what Sodom means around just one wrong and then take that and tag another person with the offense while we just walk away, confirmed in our goodness. We can always make the Bible's challenging admonitions about someone else, but that is not how we grow in faith. We take the admonitions and apply them to ourselves. The Bible is admonishing us, not that person over there.
Let me tell you this: Growing in faith is hard-won. We gain our victories inch by inch. It is slow, deliberate going my friends You stay with it, You hang in there. You think hard. You feel deeply. You keep after it. When you stumble, as most all of us do, including especially me, you get back up, You don't get yourself all lathered up about what others are doing or not doing. It is about you. It is about what you can change, how you can grow. Time, patience and grace are required. You press on. You walk away from sin that holds you down. You let go of what you need to let go of. You pray.
But it is worth it. There is something like a light that begins to shine in people who are growing in faith. At first it is like a tiny night-light. Then a 20 watt bulb. If you keep at it, that light is going to shine. People will notice. It is real. It works. Pastor Joel
August 25, 2019 Theme: A Covenant of Love Scripture: Ephesians 5:21-6:4
Ethics of Grace
The opening words of Ephesians sweep us up into this boundlessly positive affirmation of all the good God has given us in Christ. This proclamation is conveyed with words that push hard against the boundaries of our imagination. It is difficult to wrap our heads around those words because they defy the limits of what we allow ourselves to hope for. The work of this first chapter is to open our hearts and minds to the good God has accomplished for us in Christ. I guess we shall have to wait until we are up in heaven to see in its fulness, all we have been freely given by God. But for now, at least, we can carry the brightness of the promise in our hearts.
As we are coming to terms with this bright promise, Ephesians challenges us to attach God's grace to an ethic of grace. The argument is stark and clear. God has been gracious to you. Therefore, be kind to others.
The logic of this argument is established in the opening words of this lesson: submit to one another out of reverence of Christ. (5:21).
We tend to think of the idea of God's grace in theological terms. God's goodness is how we are forgiven, saved and given new life. But I think it is important to think of God's grace in ethical terms as well. Grace is not only about us being forgiven and saved, it is about how we relate to others and why we relate to others in the way we do. It is an ethics of grace. We need to pick up grace at church, and then carry it our into our lives. Put it to work. Make it lift heavy loads. Make it heal relationships and restore hope in our homes, community and nation. Be kind to others.
The work of kindness is no easy work. It's hard. You need courage. You will set yourself apart being a friend to the friendless. I know someone whose parents were just about the worst you could ever imagine. This man told me he could not love his parents. But he said, though I can't love them, I can have compassion for them.
Being kind takes guts and brains.
Obviously, if you are in an abusive relationship, you do what you need to do to help yourself. No one is under the compulsion to just take it. Kindness begins with kindness towards self. Take care of yourself and reach out for help if you are in an abusive relationship.
The heart of Christian theology is the saving grace of God in Christ. The heart of a Christian ethic is the saving grace of God in Christ. Be kind to others. Pastor Joel
August 18, 2019 Theme: A Covenant to Marry Scripture: Ruth 3:6-18, Chapters 3,4 & Mathew 19:1-12
Precise wood cuts and measurement of angles are essential in building a house. One tool for such measure is the Carpenter's Square. This tool is both simple and indispensable. Our word "norm" comes from this root. The word originally referred to a tool for measuring. Norm has become to mean a standard for behavior that is typical or commonly accepted.
The passage today from the book of Ruth is a celebration of social norms. These norms protected the poor and powerless as they constrained the rich and powerful. These norms rewarded honesty and integrity in human relationships. Norms are deeply held and communicated in our cherished traditions and cultural memory. They enrich our life and guide us in our discovery of what is important in our lives.
Ruth is a woman who has found herself, through no fault of her own, in a desperate situation. She is a foreigner, without a husband or support of traditional kinship relations. Boaz is wealthy, at least by comparison. Their relationship develops to the advantage of both through commonly accepted norms of behavior. Norms uphold common notions of virtue, honesty, integrity and simple kindness. Norms are standards whereby we are admonished to treat other with respect.
We are shown in this story what makes a life. About this there can be no confusion. But unfortunately these days, sadly there is. Confusion that is. And a lot of it. We argue about everything. Norms are those things that even those who can't agree on anything else agree on. How can you argue with a Carpenter's Square? We need to return to the simplest measures of what makes a life. It is not that complicated. Pastor Joel
August 11, 2019 Theme: A Mother-Daughter Covenant Scripture: Ruth 1:1-18
The Sacrament of Everyday Life
In Christian belief, when we gather at the table in worship, and take a bit of bread and drink from a cup, we affirm the presence of God in the common, familiar and accessible aspects of our life. We realize how close God is to us and with us in our lives. We may also realize how creation itself proclaims the glory of God.
There is a beauty and warmth in the Book of Ruth that is timeless. The book brings into focus a family trying to survive and find a little peace in a world of harsh contingencies and mortal peril. The beauty of this book is how it locates their salvation, fulfillment and hope so very close to them at any point in their life. Their hope is in family, friendships, loyalty and love. All of these things are a part of our lives. That which seems most common, ordinary and taken for granted is invested with transcendent power. Family is shown here to be invested with the power to heal, overcome adversity and open a way into the future. Family can turn stranger into daughter, mother, son or father. Loyalty and friendship forge new possibilities.
Yeah, we all know the modern narrative about dysfunctional families. We occupy a culture of skepticism about families and their future. I know some families are harbors for the worst kind of human anguish. But as shown here in Ruth, families are more than blood relations. Ruth affirms the power of positive human bonds. There are all sorts of families.
May the Good Lord direct us to celebrate the sacred power of ordinary things, or the things we call ordinary. Every sunrise on this tired world has God's signature on it. Every sunset proclaims divine benediction. In between is the sacrament of everyday life. God desires closeness. How relentlessly in our lives we are summoned by what we see, taste, know and feel into the open door of wonder. Pastor Joel
August 4, 2019 Theme: A Covenant Between Friends Scripture: 1 Samuel Chapters 18-20
Ultimately, the story of Israel's first King, King Saul is a tragic story. Nearing his death, and the death of his son in battle, a deep depression comes upon him as he becomes isolated at the moment of his most profound challenge. Saul was a great man and great was his fall. I have always felt that Saul would have made a great judge like those that had arisen in Israel's past. Saul was brave, charismatic and righteous. The Bible tells us Saul was not looking to become king. When he became king, he tried to run away from it.
Saul was a transitional figure, more connected to the past than the future. The king to follow would be the one to lead Israel forward into its future as a nation. King David was like an emissary of the future.
David possessed all that Saul did in terms of bravery and charisma. But David had what Saul lacked, and that was a strategic vision of the glorious future of Israel.
Saul's oldest son Jonathan must have intuitively sensed that the future would be on the side of David. In a dangerous time, David and Jonathan became friends, and this friendship served the strategic interests of a nation in the dawn of their greatness.
Jonathan would live long enough only to render necessary protection for David from the violent envy and anger of King Saul. History extols Jonathan as a model for friendship and love. St. John Crysostom sites Jonathan as a preeminent example of charity (Homiles on First Corinthians). Aelred of Rievauls in De Spirituali Amicitia writes, Jonathan was found a victor over nature, a despiser of glory and of power who preferred the honor of his friend to his own.
Jonathan lived in a moment of time when the past and the future were colliding. He would not live to see the triumph of the life of his dear friend David. The triumph David achieved would in no small part arise from the life and help of Jonathan.
We live in a day of transition like that of David and Jonathan. This is a day when the future is colliding with the past. Scripture's witness to the life of Jonathan summons us to the appreciation that we have a part to play. As we seek to live our lives faithful in these days of change, the Bible show us the power of friendship not only to bind the human heart to another, but to shape the future. We all have our part to play. Don't ever underestimate the power of friendship. Pastor Joel
July 28, 2019 Theme: Spiritual Discernment Scripture: Matthew 7:1-6, 15-23
'Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgement you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.'
Three important questions to ask when reading the gospels. These questions, when answered, will reveal essential truths about the message and the purpose of the gospels. The three questions are: 1. Who was judged? Answer: Jesus 2. Who did the judging? Answer: Religious Leaders 3. Who did Jesus judge? Answer: The Judges.
Answering these question will direct us to an understanding of how unreliable and tragic human judgements turn out to be. Things go badly when we judge others. The gospels warn us that the only truly innocent person that ever lived was condemned. Further, the judgements made against Christ were made by those who had been given the authority to judge. About the only people Jesus ever judged were the Pharisees, Sadducees and Scribes. In other words, Jesus judged the judges.
So don't judge. We owe it to others not to judge them. What makes us so smart as to think we understand them enough to judge them? Judgement reeks of arrogance. It is divisive. It rebounds against its source of hypocrisy. It prevents us from emerging from our narrow-mindedness. The gospel is best conveyed in a nonjudgemental manner. You give up nothing to achieve this goal. You gain everything in connecting with others if you leave behind your tendency to judge anybody for anything. Anyway, I think this is the point of the passage here in Matthew 7. Concern for others with an effort to understand and appreciate them are far more useful tools for Christians. There is such a fever for Christians to judge others. We need to walk away from all of that. Talk to someone sometime who came to church and left feeling the shame of being judged. The pain is not easily resolved. That pain might cause them to walk away from God's grace and never come back. How the church every got in its head that it gets to stand in judgement over anybody else sure beats me. To corrupt our faith with this neurotic need to have power over others by judging them is the original sin of the church.
Human judgements are very prone to error. We don't fully know someone in terms of why they are what they are, or do what they do. Further, human beings have a terrible tendency to see in others the flaws they do not recognize in themselves.
Don't judge. Things will go much better in this world. Pastor Joel
July 21, 2019 Theme: Transforming Love Scripture: Matthew 5: 38-48 Love is Action Perhaps the most honest reaction to reading this challenging ethical prescription in the later part of the Fifth Chapter of Matthew's Gospel would be, "This just doesn't feel right." The higher standards of conduct contained here confound conventional thought.
The teachings and parables of Jesus are powerful because they challenge existing assump- tions, norms and understandings in favor of higher values and aspirations. If we are honest, we must admit that we are shocked as Jesus explains what it means to love our enemies. Traditional notions of fairness and right conduct are set aside for a higher, extremely difficult standard. What has been taught in the past is no longer good enough in the light of the new day of Christ's salvation.
These teachings are a challenge to normal, natural human feelings and tendencies. When we are wronged, generally we are angry. On the most basic human level, these teachings don't feel right. These teachings run counter to instinct and natural reactions. We hear them and we balk, hesitate and rationalize.
I think that is the point. What Jesus wants us to understand is that it is not critical how we feel. The point is what we do. We have interiorized our understanding of what love is, reducing it to feelings and feelings alone. Love is a lot more than feelings. Feelings come and go. Love is more than feeling. It is action. It is commitment. It is patience. It is under- standing. It is effort. It is discipline. (See Erich Fromm's Art of Loving 1956)
In the wedding service, a man and woman face each other and promise fidelity that rise up over contingency. There is more than feeling going on here. A lot more. In light of the vows many take when married, we must conclude that love has more to do with willful intent than anything else.
In this passage, how we may feel toward our enemies is not at stake. How we act toward them is. We are called to stand courageously in the breach between friend and foe. We are called to listen respectfully to those with whom we disagree. We are called to arrest the impulse to judge and employ instead the discipline of compassion and understanding. We are summoned to interrupt the cycle of violence in favor of the higher demands of peace. How we may feel about any of this is not the point.
We live in extraordinary times of division. Just good enough these days isn't good enough. The courage of love in action, the kind Jesus called for in this passage, is the only thing I can think of that can impact in a positive way the madness that we are living in. Pastor Joel
July 14, 2019 Theme: Love One Another Scripture: Matthew 5:21-32
Love One Another
Splat! That is the sound the human ego makes when it encounters the towering demands made here by Jesus in his understanding of the law of God. The interpretation of the Sixth Commandment is extended beyond the commission of the crime of murder into harboring anger toward a brother or sister. Reading through these amplifications of the command-ments, I can't imagine anyone thinking after reading them, "I got this."
If it is true that this understanding of the law is not possible to realize within the realities of our lives, then what do we do with the commands and expectations contained in this chapter?
These words of Jesus have value as lofty ideas which we can work towards, even if we cannot realize them completely in our lives. I believe that spiritual progress is happening throughout all our days. Ideals are necessary for that journey. We may not be there yet, but we know where we are going.
Further, Jesus tells us later in this gospel, and in Luke: 'For mortals in it impossible, but for God all things are possible.' The towering commands Jesus practices upon us in this chapter drives us back into the arms of God, who is our help.
A part of what Jesus is offering us in this monumental chapter is a gift which we may not immediately recognize as a gift, That gift is spiritual discontent. Spiritual discontent stirs in us when we know we can do better than we have done in living and sharing in the love of God. There is such a sternness in this chapter. Jesus closes off all the loopholes we may seek to free ourselves from the demands and challenges of living our lives faithful to the law as understood here. Spiritual discontent stirs in us when we regard the state of the world particularly in contrast to these lofty teachings, Spiritual discontent is a gift and I think everyone has sensed it in their lives at one point or another. We are summoned by God for higher purposes. Spiritual discontentment is a divine tool to transform us into effective agents of positive change in this world. Pastor Joel
July 7, 2019 Theme: Fulfilling the Law Scripture: Matthew 5:13-20
Strive to be the Best
Did you ever have a friend, mentor, teacher, coach, loved one or family member who saw in you more than you were able, at that time, to see in yourself? This person kept pushing you, perhaps even to and beyond the point of resentment. This person persisted, pushed, admonished, criticized and confronted you until, somehow, some way, you achieved or became more than you ever even realized or hoped you could become?
We can call that a good friend. That is who Christ is. That is Christ with and for each of us. He admonishes us to strive to be the best. That is what he is saying to us in this important passage here in the fifth chapter of Matthew. He tells us: You are the salt. You stand out in the world. Standing out in the world you will transform, redeem, preserve and enliven this world. You are the light of the world. People seeing you will be able to see the good around them and in them because of who you are.
In this passage, Christ lifts up the law and the prophets. God has shown us how we can live consequential lives by learning the tradition, wisdom and guidance of a faithful people. He tells us we must honor these traditions, laws and prophetic wisdom more than others have done and more than the people of this world would ever intend. That is how we are to stand out and stand up in this world.
Christ must think a lot of us to speak to us like this. Religion does not call us everlastingly to wallow in our despair, regret, nostalgia and negativity. The Christian religion is about the high call to a consequential life, governed by the best guidance we are so blessed to have as heirs of a powerful, historic faith. Pastor Joel
June 30, 2019 Theme: Right Attitudes Scripture: Matthew 5:1-12
The Beatitudes and the Book of Revelation
The Book of Revelation sets itself in opposition to the corrupting power of Imperial Rome. Jesus was sentenced to die at the hands of a Roman Prefect (governor). A few years later, Rome, in 70AD, would destroy the Temple in Jerusalem. Roman power had corrupted the higher levels of religious leadership in Jerusalem. Imperial Rome would sponsor persecution of Christians for hundreds of years It is therefore no accident that the Book of Revelation would set itself in opposition to this exercise of state control.
The beauty of Revelation is the power it sets in opposition to imperial power. In Chapter Five we are introduced to the power of suffering love which is presented in the image of a slain lamb. The image of suffering love is first announced as the "Lion of Judah and the one who has conquered." By this we know that this instance of suffering love is powerful. This is the love that in the end will prevail as it opposes the corrupting influence of state power.
Like the Book of Revelation, the Beatitudes sets itself against traditional norms of power relations. Those categories of forgotten humanity become the source of hope for a new future. Their lives matter. They are brought together into a new community. Their experiences of dislocation, suffering and loss become the bridge to a new day of reconciliation and new birth.
Revelation critiqued the imperial power of Rome as idolatrous. It is appropriate to regard contemporary idols of power in the same way. Our idols of power might be named success, wealth, youth, a socially-constructed notion of beauty and self-satisfied pleasure.
Revelation and the Beatitudes set the suffering love of Christ in opposition to this idolatry. The paradoxical logic of the beatitudes only makes sense in view of the God who suffers.
The pain of those who mourn, who suffer injustice, who fight for righteousness, who are poor, who are meek, those who are merciful and those who are pure of heart can only be comprehended and resolved in the suffering of Christ. Jesus takes away the pain. Only he can take away the pain. This is what he did while he lived. That is the work he continues as Risen Lord. He takes away the pain. That is the promise carried in these Beatitudes: The merciful will receive mercy, the pure of heart will see God and those who are deep in the experience of loss will be comforted. And it goes on. Jesus takes away the pain. Our contemporary idols are powerless to do so. Is there pain in our lives somewhere? Turn it over to God. God knows what to do.
Revelation and the Beatitudes jointly participate in this joyous hope of the conquering presence of suffering love, In Christ this love is set loose in the world and nothing can stop it. Pastor Joel
June 23, 2019 Theme: Hearts United in Love Scripture: Colossians 2:1-15
Bonds of Love
In this letter, Paul addresses the growing prospect of conflict in the church at Colossae. The division was brought about by elements of non-Christian cultural and religious influences. Paul, or the author of the epistle, admonishes the Church, in this chapter and chapter three, to find unity in the bonds of love. In our day, the word, "Love" is used to refer broadly to a diverse range of human sentiments. Consequently, this work has been drained of meaning. We have used this word in so many different ways that it no longer refers to anything in particular.
The Greek word used in this passage for love is "agape." This refers to a self-less love in contrast to eros, a passionate love, and phileo, a fraternal love. If we are determined to understand Paul's admonition to be united in love, we need to decide what we mean when we use this term.
When Christians use the word, love, I believe we are including in our understanding a depth of commitment over time. Love in this higher sense is held up as that which resists the contingencies of fortune, change, chance or fate. It remains constant like the North Star.
This theme is found again and again in the Sonnets of Shakespeare. Here is a portion of Sonnet 116:
Let me not to the marriage of true minds Admit impediments. Love is not love Which alters when it alteration finds, Or bends with the remover to remove. O No! It is an ever-fixed mark That looks on tempests and is never shaken; It is the star to every wand'ring bark,
The ultimate expression of love's victory over time, change and even death comes to us from the Song of Solomon:
Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is strong as death, passion as fierce as the grave.
Another useful understanding of love involves the apprehension of goodness and spiritual beauty in another. Plato's dialogue, The Symposium, posits this understanding of what love is. This dialogue features a drinking party where various well-known Athenians are discussing the nature of love After several very tenable arguments are advanced, the dialogue presents the higher sense of love as finding the good and beautiful in another.
June 16, 2019 Theme: The New Covenant's Sacrifice Scripture: Hebrews 9:11-28
Gifts of Dying
This chapter draws a contrast between ancient systems of animal sacrifice and the sacrifice of Christ. The contrast is intended as encouragement to Christians in the practice and worship of their new faith communities Once the High Priest would enter the Holy Place to offer the blood of goats or bulls. For Christians, Christ as a High Priest gives up his own life as a sacrifice.
It is a great theme of the Bible that life's most precious gifts are given at the moment of death. The blessings of the Patriarchs are given at the end of their long lives. The blessings of Moses are spoken to the people of Israel upon their entry into the promised land. Immediately after the blessings are spoken, Moses dies. The death of Jesus dominates the material in all four gospels. John's gospel is largely a farewell discourse.
In this light, death has meaning. The meaning of death is to pass on life to those who will come after us.
I knew a woman, mortally ill and bed-bound. She had three daughters to whom she wanted to say goodbye. She called them over one afternoon. Only two showed up at the appointed time. No one was surprised the third daughter was late. She was the one that had failed in various ways to live up to expectations. The mother embraced each daughter and shared her love and blessings with them, as they shared their love and blessings with her. Finally the third daughter arrived, head down in shame and guilt, perhaps dreading a final rebuke. She went over to the bed, and stammered, "I am sorry I have not been the daughter you wanted me to be." Then there was such a look of love and joy on the mother's face. The mother spoke in reply. "No, I have always loved you, absolutely and completely. Never for a second have I ever stopped loving you just as you are."
These are life-giving words. The meaning of death is to pass on life. There is wisdom to be communicated. There are life-lessons to be shared. There are blessings to be spoken. Understanding, forgiveness and reconciliation are accomplished. There is joy and laughter to share with another. If the future could be wrapped up and given as a gift to another person it would happen at final moments like this. These gifts have come to us because Christ died. In doing so, he gives us life. Life and death now have this meaning. The Christian blessing in its deepest, biblical roots is to pass on life from one to another. Pastor Joel
June 9, 2019 Theme: Jesus Seals the New Covenant Scripture: Mark 14:6-15, 25, 26, 33-39
The Cross of Christ: Cause and Cure
During their long sojourn in the wilderness, the people of the Exodus became dissatisfied with their plight and lifted up a cry of protest to Moses and to God. The Lord sent a plague of poisonous serpents to bite them and it inflicted some with death and others with sickness. Moses appealed to God on their behalf and was instructed to make a serpent of bronze and put it on a pole. Everyone who had been bitten by the serpent then might look upon it and live. The cure of this illness resembled its cause. (Later in Israel's history this bronze serpent became idolatrously associated with various religious cults and its use was condemned.)
The lesson today in Mark is the account of the crucifixion of Christ. The association of the bronze serpent and the cross is made by Jesus in the well-known third chapter of John's gospel. Like those of Israel's history, those who are sin stricken may behold the cross and live. This terrible image of human affliction would become the means of human healing. Again, the cause and cure are brought together. The cause looks like the cure. That is the eternal paradox of the cross.
This is how it works. When we look at the cross and the man upon that cross, we see so much that is known to us. The cross unmasks the nature of our mortality. When we behold the cross, we see the physical, spiritual and emotional pain, all which is certainly not unknown to us. We see in the cross what it means to be truly alone. The cross reveals in stark relief the inhumanity violence, bigotry, and fear that too often is hidden in state sanction. The cross is powerful because it represents and mirrors our own lives back to us. The cross is immediately and intuitively grasped by the human heart because it shows us so much that is intensely familiar to us. When we survey the cross, we see deeply into the truth of what our sin sickness looks like and what it feels like.
There is a book written in the 1970's by the Dominican Monk, Sebastian Moore. It is titled, The Crucifixion of Christ is no Stranger. The book develops this important theme.
The cross is known not just to reveal the nature of our plight but to bring about the cure. The healing is in the identification of God with us in our dire situation. God uses that moment of recognition to come into our hearts with forgiveness, healing, and wholeness. When we look upon the cross, we have this felt assurance of God's boundless compassion and limitless power to restore broken hearts and guilty souls. God stand with us as no one ever has or could ever have before. Pastor Joel
June 2, 2019 Theme: Jesus Institutes the New Covenant Scripture: Mark 14:17-25, Hebrews 8:6,7,10-12
Living Through Loss
Here we have two New Testament Passages strongly affirming the power of God's covenant relationship. As people of faith, we live by and through these promises.
We gain a greater appreciation of these promises if we bring into focus the historical circumstances in regard to each passage. In doing so we realize that both passages are bound up in a situation of imminent loss. The passages can thus be regarded as providing essential support and encouragement to those who are confronted with the loss of something possessing fundamental value.
The passage in Hebrews is written to an exodus community. They were separating them- Selves from the worship of the synagogue, the faith traditions of familiar social groups and the disruptions of patterns of relationships that had existed in their lives. The move into Christian faith required a courageous break from old patterns of worship, community and established patterns of social and private life. This radical change involved loss. No one should dismiss the significance of what they were leaving behind.
The passage in Mark provides an account of the Last Supper. In this gospel, the Last Supper is preceded by the anointing of Jesus and the announcement of his death. To the extent the disciples were aware of what was happening, this also was an occasion for the anticipation of loss. Additionally, in this chapter we are informed of a murderous plot that was unfolding among those in positions of power. Mortal peril was in the air.
Together, these passages give us powerful encouragement in our own moments of loss. The key to this encouragement is the covenant God enacts with us. This covenant is the promise and conviction of God's unfailing, deathless fidelity and love held out for us.
When we are faced with loss we have, live by, and in this promise. The realization of the promise may take some time. Often we must wait for it. Faith is our friend in the waiting. But by the terms of this covenant, God will come to support us. God has a million ways to reach out to us-directly through the lift of spirits in the power of the Holy Spirit, the help and fellowship of others, the kindness of strangers, the consolation of prayer, the memory of grace and the still small voice of calm which fills the human soul with peace.
The overall effect is that God will be there for us. G