Reflections Upon the Sunday School Lessons Uniform Sunday School Lessons Teacher: Esther Kletsch
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. God will pick us back up. We may have to wait for it, but God will be faithful to us. We enact that promise every time we taste of the bread or drink of the cup. God will be there and in God's hands we will be held.
I have lived in proximity to various expressions of grief. I have seen the wild unrestrained rage of grief. I have seen as well the silent and tearless grief that stares into the abyss of absence. I have felt the anxiety of someone who has lost a fundamental support. I have seen in many the corrosive self-blame we carry for years after loss. I have witnessed the emotional and mental confusion which takes over when lives are touched by loss. I have felt the weight of loss when it pulls the human spirit into depression. I have watched as grieving souls attempt to replace the loss with mindless distraction and self-destructive behavior. I have known the emotional vacancy of those who are exhausted by the weight and burden of just getting through another day.
Given what we know about ourselves and our experience of loss, we can latch onto the eternal hope of the Bible. The hope is covenant-shaped. When we are down, God will lift us up. God will be there. We have that promise. Bank on it. Pastor Joel
May 26, 2019 Theme: Called to Be Transformed Scripture: Romans 12
Christian Nonconformity "Be Not Conformed to this World..." 12.2
Paul issues a bracing call for Christian nonconformity. This nonconformity exists in a contrast and rebuke of prevailing cultural attitudes, fashion and values.
I recently saw an advertisement that declared that we define who we are, and represent who we are through what we buy. This terribly shallow understanding of the depth of human beings, and the diminishment of human aspiration implied here is a cultural and social influence which must be resisted and rejected. This pressure for us to frantically consume to somehow define, or worse, justify ourselves is an example of a cultural value which must be resisted.
There is a tendency to reduce our higher commitments to commonly held Christian values by collapsing them into prevailing social norms. We have a higher calling. Standards of behavior embraced by the culture are not our own. What is good enough for the crowd is not good enough for us. Our loyalty lodges in a greater summons.
To live a vital faith requires Christians to be forever out of step with the world. We are not upheld by the standards of the crowd but by the radical summons of our faith in Christ. Christian vocation cannot be separated from the necessity of nonconformity.
Paul declares in this same chapter that in the community of faith God gives various persons diverse gifts. This affirmation is consistent with the call of nonconformity. In a Christian fellowship, we serve God best by being different from each other.
Acknowledging the call to nonconformity we need to also embrace the ultimate unity of our diverse fellowship of Christ. Pastor Joel
May 19, 2019
Theme: Called to Mutual Acceptance Scripture: Romans 11
Together in a Place Called "Humility"
Today's reading from Romans is a part of a larger block of material that begins in Chapter 9. In this section, Paul considers the Jewish-Christian question in light of salvation. Paul maintains his core belief in the saving grace he has found as a follower of Christ. He defines that core belief in contrast to aspects of Jewish beliefs and practices. But Paul expresses his continuing desire that God will bring those who have been separated back together.
Nowhere is that desire expressed as clearly as the image he develops in Chapter 11 of this book. He uses the figure of a tree, accessing a familiar image developed in places throughout the Bible, like the first Psalm.
The tree represents Biblical faith viewed within its historical context. The tree's roots and trunk represent the historical foundations of our faith. Remarkably, Paul uses the image of a wild olive shoot to signify and represent Christians. Christians are merely a branch drafted onto the trunk. He cautions Christians against considering themselves as the whole tree. He says to them, "You do not support the root, the root supports you." It is a comic absurdity that a branch gets so full of itself that it thinks, "Hey, I am making this whole tree happen." Or, to convey Paul's message more simply: "Christians, don't forget you are a branch."
This is a call for humility. Humility is the way forward in our dialogue with other faith traditions. We need to listen and try to understand one another, particularly those with whom we respectfully differ. We don't need to be afraid in doing so. We stand to gain insight and wisdom in this dialogue We have our beliefs and we do not need to surrender or submerge any aspect of what we believe in our dialogue with others. But if we take it down a notch or two on the self-important scale, we will greatly profit in this dialogue.
This principle of humility applies across the board to encompasss all our issues within the comtempoary clamor of competing viewpoints, perspectives, beliefs and convictions. I might rephrase Paul's admonition this way, "Chill out and remember you are a branch." Perhaps there is hope in this divided world that we can come together in that places called "humility." Pastor Joel
May 12, 2019 Theme: Called to Life in the Spirit Scripture: Romans 8
Misreading Paul Romans 8 is Paul's elaboration of the work of the Spirit over against the work of the Law. The new day of Christ has brought about an elevation of the Spirit of God's grace as a means of salvation in the contrast to the Law.
This is a wonderful, life-giving insight. However, this chapter, and others like it have produced a history of destructive misreadings. We need to be very clear about what this chapter says and what it doesn't say.
First, the contrast Paul draws between the spirit and the flesh is not meant to imply that the human body is bad. The theological use of the word "flesh" is not to be equated with the human body. In Paul's usage, flesh is the principle of the sin that arises from human rebellion against God. Flesh is not the body.
Conflating flesh with the body has dire consequences for theology. It has helped to generate a culture of shame regarding our attitude towards ourselves. The principle of sin under in Paul's use of the word, "flesh" is bad. The human body, created in the image of God, is good. The human body is a wonderful gift. It is how we live, understand, think, feel love, see, create, worship, pray, breathe and everything else. Show me some area of life where the culture of shame has not taken some terrible toll on human well-being. I don't think you can.
The second misreading arises from the contrast Paul draws between God's Spirit of grace and the Law. Paul proclaims that we are saved by grace and not the law. This is a true, wonderful and liberating affirmation.
A terrible misreading of this passage concludes that the law, no longer efficacious for salvation, can be or should be set aside or devalued. At its worst, this misreading leads to antinomianism In Christianity, an antinomian is one who takes the principle of salvation by God's grace to the point of asserting that the saved are not bound to follow the moral law contained in the Ten Commandments.
Paul is right, We are not saved by the law, but by grace. But that is not to say that the law has lost any of its value to us and to human society. The law is the wonderful, wonderful gift of God. The law encodes values, supports efforts to establish an ordered society, promotes human flourishing, and protects and defends the powerless. I believe the Christian church has two great missions. One is to proclaim and practice the grace of God. The other is to teach the law of God. There is no tension here between law and grace. We don't have to tie ourselves up in knots trying to think our way through the question of primacy of either. There is a seamless, organic, vital connection between them. It is certainly not that we have to pick one or the other.
This confusion is particularly dangerous to maintain in our contemporary situation. Social norms are increasingly contested. The individual has been made the ultimate authority about what is right and what is wrong, We live in a particular moment of normlessness. It is a situation which may be compared to the description provided in the Book of Judges, Chapter 16:6: In those days, there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes. The French sociologist Emile Durkheim has defined this situation as "anomie".
On this matter, read and appreciate Psalm 119. It is long, It contains 176 verses. It extols the wonderful gift of God's law. Christians should extol this gift as well. Here is the bottom line: Christians should endeavor to learn and follow the Ten Commandments. God's grace empowers us to honor and practice fidelity to this law. It I were calling the shots I would hand a copy of the Ten Commandments to every new member delivered into the arms of God at baptism. Pastor Joel
May 5, 5019 Theme: Called to Righteousness Scripture: Romans 3
You Can't Hold Back God's Grace
The Apostle Paul is excited about the new day that is ushered in through the death and resurrection of Christ. God's grace is moving out into the wide world beyond its beginnings with the original chosen people. There is nothing to hold back God's grace. The old thinking that one must be first a Jew to become a Christian is set aside. God's grace is available to everyone. Beautifully and powerfully grace is on the move.
All the old boundary lines have been erased. Those boundary lines were drawn so that we could establish meaningful differences between people and groups, and we could say who is in and who is out. God's grace violates those boundaries That is unsettling to those who are on the inside looking out. But it is good news, in fact wonderful news, for those that are on the outside looking in.
God's grace is good news for successful people and for failures, for smart people and less smart, for rich and poor, for those who are included, and those who have been excluded, for those who are righteous and those who aren't. When God's grace happens, it always brings pleasant surprises. It lifts people up who are defeated, it wins over those who have been fighting against it all their lives, it releases those imprisoned in shame and heals the broken hearted. It is peace for those who are anxious. Finally, at long last, there is peace.
We live our lives with a conviction that we pretty much know the score concerning who is worthy of grace and who is not. God upsets and rebukes all those self-absorbed assumptions that we have in our head. Grace is gold for those who never felt worthy and have been the object of the scorn of others.
Grace demands that we relax all our preconceived notions of how God is supposed to deal with others, particularly those we have some kind of problem with. We are not driving that car. God is. So, grace is a good thing. We should welcome it and marvel when we see it change lives. When grace has its moment with us, then we should just relax and let it do its work. There is this experience of just letting go when grace moves into your heart. Just let go of your attachment to shame, negativity, hatred, and fear. Let grace lift you up, forgive you, encourage you, direct you, and fill you with joy. After all, you can't hold it back anyway. Pastor Joel
April 28, 2019 Theme: Called to Make Disciples Matthew 28:16-20, Acts 1:1-16-20
God's Power Among Us
These readings from Matthew and the first chapter of Acts convey the giving of God's power to the followers of Christ. In Matthew, Jesus claims all power in heaven and earth. There is a further sense that the Risen Lord is passing along aspects of this power to his followers, particularly in their global mission to spread the gospel. In Acts, the power and authority of God is being invoked and imparted as the followers of Christ begin their journey of witness to the four corners of the world.
Returning to Matthew, the concluding instructions of the Risen Lord to his disciples are for them to go to all nations, baptizing new believers in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
The Christian doctrine of the Trinity is a fitting tool to help us understand the nature of the power we receive from God. I was reading through some old Christian Carols from the 15th Century written by the Franciscan Friar James Ryman. A theme running through these carols is the glory of the Trinity. God is the author of creation. Jesus is the source of wisdom. The Holy Spirit is honored as a source of grace.
I believe is it helpful for us to think of the power we receive from God more expansively. This power is revealed as the power of wisdom, of relating what we have learned from the past to the struggles of the present and future. This power also has the ability to understand those who are different from us, and communicate God's love in ways that are respectful of these differences. This power is the courage to stand fast in a conviction in the face of opposition. It is the ability to pull yourself back after you have stumbled. It is the healing of relationships through honest listening and speaking. It is the life-giving power of forgive- ness, both ourselves and others. It is the power to be faithful in our friendships, loyal to our family, useful in our community and persevering in our daily tasks, commitments and goals.
That kind of power God gives us through Christ. We invite others to the fullness of this promise. Pastor Joel ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
April 21, 2019 Theme: Called to Believe in the Resurrection Matthew 28:1-15
Gift of a Future
We live in a backward-looking age. There is this sense in people that there was a better time somewhere in the past, but the world has changed and whatever was good back then has slipped away. We remember better days, but we no longer anticipate better days. As individuals we may look forward to many things which we hope will come to be. But largely as a culture we feel the power of a sentimental longing for the past. We want things to be like they were, and are afraid that whatever it was we feel we lost, we will not get it back.
This is why Matthew's account of the resurrection is such a powerful witness of hope to our contemporary nostalgia In the sorrow and despair of the cross, surely the disciples were sunk down in this longing for better days of their past, when Jesus lived among them.
In Matthew's account of the resurrection, Mary is directed by an angel first to look inside the tomb where they body of Jesus had been but is no longer. Mary next is instructed to go to Galilee where she will see Jesus who has gone before her.
The message to her is clear. Faith in the resurrected Christ is forward-facing. It embraces the future as the place where we will meet Christ. The advice is clear: Keep your head up. Keep yourself alert to God's presence in our world today and every day. We have this promise that Christ has gone before us. God has done great things. Yes, God will do great things. Yes. Authentic Christian faith keeps the balance intact.
This hope rests in the assurance that the God of history is active in our world today, working and moving toward greater things. We don't want to miss the excitement and opportunity to meet Jesus on the road ahead. Pastor Joel
April 14, 2019 Theme: Called to Remember Scripture: Matthew 26:1-13
Comfort Given and Recieved
Two days before the Passover, Jesus was staying in the home of Simon the Leper in Bethany. It was an ominous time as there was an active plot to arrest and kill Jesus taking place at the highest level of authority in the religious leadership.
A woman brings a jar of expensive perfume and pours it on Jesus as an act of love and respect. The disciples immediatley object to this extravagant act of devotion, condemming it as wasteful.
It is striking here that this nameless woman was the only person who reached out to comfort Jesus in the midst of this dreadful week. She is a solitary figure in this regard. No doubt Jesus appreciated her kindness. He says later that what she has done will be "preached throughout the world."
I don't know why the disciples were unable to extend a single word or deed communicating comfort to Jesus. Perhaps they were in denial about the reality of the dire situation. Maybe they were caught up in their own worries. The Bible reveals the uncomfortalbe truth that the disciples were disappointingly unable or unwilling to reach out to Jesus with comfort, support and compassionate understanding. Therefore, Jesus made his way to the cross alone.
The disciples had seen Jesus bring healing and hope to so many people. But now, in this moment of danger, the disciples are somehow incapable of at least trying to comfort their friend. Sadly, on the night before his betrayal and arrest, Jesus is in the garden lifting up an anguished prayer. It is obvious that he needs someone just to be with him. He walks over to his disciples who are all sleeping. Jesus says to Peter, "So, could you stay awake with me one hour?" (Matthew 26:40) In his hour of trial, there is no one there for him. But yet this unnamed woman at Bethany knew what to do. For the comfort and care she provided, she is honored in our memory. The support and devotion she extends to Jesus contrasts sadly with the absence of the same from the disciples.
The theme in all of this involves the mutuality of our relasioniship with Jesus. We know he gives us comfort. The Bibles tells us he wants ours. He needs us not to turn away from him. He needs us not to call on him only when we have a need for him to address. He needs us not to hide from him in our distracted and defended lives. He needs our authentic regard and honest devotion. We need to consider his pain, the pain we know he still carries in his heart because of his loving concern for this troubled world. We need to take that pain seriously and know that he needs us as we need him.
It is a shallow understanding of Jesus to see him as existing only in relation to our need, questions and desires. The Bible stubbornly insists that God wants relationship, friendship and the substanital commitment of a life. Try showing up at friend's house only when you need to borrow a drill or spot you twenty bucks. Discover how long that friendship lasts.
Remember the story of the Prodigal's Son? The father of the wayward son is in pain until that son returns. That story is really about God and the pain in the heart of God for his creation. That is what the cross shows us. The cross of Jesus is much more than just a historical reality, it is a revelation of God's suffering and searching love.
Can Jesus give us comfort and life-affirming support? Yes, Jesus can and will provide comfort. Jesus yearns also for our support, our sincere prayers, our understanding, our fidelity to a community and history, our study and out turning to him. He longs for us to come to him, speak to him, and share in his love by comforting others. Jesus needs and desires the comfort of our devotion. Pastor Joel
April 7, 2019 Theme: Called to Mission Scripture: Matthew 10
Three Moments in Matthew Chapter Ten I would like to focus on three moments in chapter 10 that should be appreciated. These moments arise in the three verses quoted below (using the NRSV translation). 1. 10:5ff These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: 'Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.' Contained in these verses is a resounding affirmation of the faithfulness of God. God had chosen a people and stood by and with them through thousands of years of history. The mission to the Gentiles would come later. But in this moment, God is not giving up on anyone. God stands with us though thick and thin. At a particularly trying moment in their history, Israel wondered if God had forgotten her. Isaiah proclaims the divine response: Isaiah 49:15 Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. In the season of Lent we affirm the faithfulness of God. God in Jesus is showing us the depth of that faithfulness in the outstretched arms and wounded hands of the one dying on the cross. Those hands and these arms are reaching out to us.
2 10.9ff 9) Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, 10) no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food. This is an important moment in the passage as well; for two reasons. First, the verse could be used as a critique of the materialism of our day. It confronts the futility of trying to fill the void in our souls with things rather than God's grace and love. Having and acquiring a bunch of stuff clutters our lives and displaces human aspiration away from pursuits that truly matter. The second reason this passage is important is because it shows us what it takes to share the gospel. We share the gospel not with anything that we can carry along with us. We share the gospel with what we have in our own hearts. Our hearts have known the presence of Christ. We have the stories in our hearts of how Christ came to us. This is our authority. This direct authority is the direct experience of the divine made manifest in the particular matters of our lives. We live in a day when traditional authorities dwell under a cloud of suspicion. People today want to know about our stories of hope, salvation and those moments when we were spoken to by the still small voice of God. We can mention the peace we came to know when that voice of calm settled into our hearts. People don't need to know how smart we are or how many answers we have to this or that problem or issue. They don't need to know how perfect we became when we accepted Christ. They want to know what is in our hearts.
3. 10:14ff 14) If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. 15) Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgement than for that town. O my gosh, there is so much here. We live in a day when people are increasingly seeking their meaning and spirituality outside traditional Christian religion and practice. These words of Jesus therefore have particular meaning for us today. These words encourage us not to be bent out of shape when the world turns away from the message we bring. Shaking the dust from the feet merely encourages us not to get down when the world turns away from the Christian message. It is not rejection and it is not failure. So, like the dust on your feet, don't take it with you. God is in this with us and God will do what God will do. Our calling is to do what we are called to do and not let rejection control us. The underlying message here is: Trust God. Trust that God is using you in the right way. Trust that God will take what you offer and make use of it in powerful ways. Trust that God will correct and guide you as you seek to be a faithful disciple. But don't give away all your power and confidence when your presentation of the gospel message is met with indifference or worse. Don't pay ransom to failure or rejection.
Honestly, verse 15 seems a little harsh. Those who reject the gospel message will be judged in a manner worse than the sulphur and fire that rained down on Sodom and Gomorrah. Let us leave the consequences that befall those who reject the gospel up to God. We can't let ourselves get hung up on any of that. This passage urges us to keep moving forward. Everyone is ultimately responsible for the decisions they make. We can't make their decisions for them. But we have to continue to move forward in our lives and in our faith. There is a wonderful homecoming in our future and a glorious day of joyful celebration. We can't keep forever anxiously circling around those moments that did not turn out the way we had hoped. We are a pilgrim people.
From time to time there can arise in the hearts of the most faithful Christian a sense of futility. We have seen attendance at church drop. We see someone who has been in church act in ways that disappointed us. Conflicts arise in church that painfully threaten friend-ships. Ultimately, we are not here to memorialize defeat. We are here to keep our heads and hearts up. However much we may feel we deserve any of it, God calls us, uses us and loves us. So keep moving. Keep trying. Pastor Joel
March 31, 2019 Theme: Called to Follow Scripture: Matthew 4:12-22
When God's Light Shines On Us
The fourth chapter of Matthew forecasts trouble. Jesus has just gone three rounds with the devil. We know the devil will be back because he is a sore loser. Ominously, John the Baptist has been imprisoned.
Then, the scene shifts to Jesus walking by the sea when he notices four fishermen caring for their nets and fishing. He summons them with a single, stirring command: Follow me and I will make you fish for people. And they follow.
Jesus understands that he is entering a dangerous moment in his ministry. The devil is out to get him. The Baptist's imprisonment bodes ill for him, and anyone associated with him. We are not told why Jesus reached out to these first four disciples. There is no explanation of character traits that any of them possessed. They seem like ordinary people living ordinary lives. Further, we might reason that Jesus needed people with courage and integrity to share in his daring adventure. Courage to stand up against opposition that surely will gather around them. Integrity so that in times of pressure, they will remember who they are and what they are about. Jesus needed extraordinary people. Why then did he choose these guys?
The answer is telling. Jesus recognized the essential good in them and in us. Jesus acknowledges the goodness in all people even when it lies hidden or dormant. The most consistent report I hear from people who have faced moments of unusual trial is: You know, until this happened, I never knew the strength I had inside. (Of course, Christians know that this strength is by God's hand.)
You can talk to the most ordinary people in the world, but when you hear their stories and what they have had to overcome and the battles they have fought, we realize that somewhere in all of us there is this dignity and courage, God-given we believe. But Jesus unfailingly takes note of it and teases it out in the high calling he places before us.
In this passage in Matthew, in between the announcement that Jesus is beginning his ministry and the call of the first disciples, is this beautiful description of the moment God's light begins to shine in a world that was in darkness. It is taken from a prophecy in Isaiah. God's light in this passage is revealed in the way Jesus looks at us and what Jesus sees when Jesus looks at us. He sees in us more good then we ever would imagine was there. So, deal with that. Jesus sees good in you. Maybe just knowing that summons you to greater things. That just might be the case. Maybe it is a little scary, all that good that Jesus sees in you (and me). The goodness Jesus see in us is a summons to reveal it and make use of it. That is not easy. Deal with it. But balance that challenge with gracious understanding and patience God shows to us. Maybe we have, for whatever reason, either for escape or avoidance, been walking away from our own goodness. Then remember Jesus walks with us and encourages us along the way.
But don't walk away from the goodness that is in you and in us all. Be like Jesus, and get good at seeing the good in yourselves and others, you will begin to see it more and more. That's God's light shinning in the world.
It is like this: Imagine you are somewhere in the southern hemisphere, up on some height, away from the light of any city, up where the air is thin and cool on a cloudless night. The sun sinks slowly below the horizon and the sky displays darkening colors of orange and red. Then you look up and begin to see tiny points of light emerging in the dimming sky. Then another and another. Then, in an instant you notice that the sky is radiantly filled with beauty and wonder. Countless stars, galaxies and nebulas are shinning up there. There are not enough words to express the miracles we behold.
That's God's light shinning down on us. Noticing the good in all people, starting with yourself but also in others, is God's light too.
And when I say ALL people, I mean ALL people. Pastor Joel