Reflections Upon the Sunday School Lessons Uniform Sunday School Lessons Teacher: Esther Kletsch
March 15, 2020 We are sorry but for a short time, there will not be Comments.
March 8, 2020 Theme: A Prayer for Justice Scripture: Habakkuk 1
How Long, O Lord? This Question is crucial and central to any consideration of the meaning and nature of our faith in God. The question reaches into the deepest part of our hopes and fears. It is a question that will arise at some point in anyone who takes their faith seriously over time, through moments of triumph and distress. How can you seriously live in this world, the way this world is in its torments, in the way the innocent are crushed and evil prospers, and not at some time turn to God and raise this question? It is not possible. We need to respect the question when it arises in the minds and hearts of others. Raising this hard question does not mean we are walking away from faith, but, as the Bible shows us, walking ever deeper into faith. Habakkuk raises the question, How Long, O Lord? This very question is the most frequently asked question in the Psalms. No other question is raised more. It doesn't end there either. It continues into the last book of the Bible. In chapter six of Revelation, it is in the heart of the martyrs, when, while up in heaven, that are looking down at a suffering world, and crying out, 'Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?' 6.9
In this same chapter in Revelation, God answers the question, "How long, O Lord?" He tells those who are asking the question to put on a white robe and wait a little longer. And be patient. This is significant. When we are wanting God to fix the brokenness in our world, God challenges us to be part of the answer to our own question. How Long, O Lord? is a question that falls back on us. We must put on a white robe, A white robe means that we must not participate in the evil that is choking the world. We must not fall into the worst we see around us, or allow the worst we see in others to somehow make it OK for us to lower our own values, There are things we can do. There is a way we can live that has power to effect positive change. We can do our part.
God wants the question Habakkuk asks to do its transformational work on us. Yes, we live in troubled times and we wonder what God is waiting for to get involved. But God answers back: I have given you Christ, forgiven you, empowered you, taught you and admonished you---why don't you help out here? So, what are YOU waiting for? "How Long, O Lord," is a question directed to God that turns around and becomes a call to action for us.
After all, God is depending on us. Jesus looked around and chose twelve rather ordinary people to follow him and help him with this work. What's more, Jesus turned around and told all his disciplines: Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works that these, because I am going to the Father. John 14:12
It is striking that God entrusts us, values us and enlists us to do what we can do. The Bible is not given to us to make us feel like we are helpless. It is given to us for the opposite reason. Pastor Joel
March 1, 2020 Theme: A Call to Accountability Scripture: Amos 5
Skating on Thin Ice In 1846, Soren Kierkegaard wrote the devotional classic, The Present Age. The author maintains that the church at that time had lost its original purpose through its cultural accommodation. The very first sentence of the book establishes the theme and tone: The present age is one of understanding, of reflection, devoid of passion, an age which flies into enthusiasm for a moment only to decline back into indolence. p. 4
Not very far into this book, the author illustrates the spiritual situation of the church by telling a story. The story involves a lake which had become frozen in the winter. At the center of the lake, where the ice is most thin, rests an extremely valuable jewel. Everyone wanted that jewel and would cheer the bravery of those who would endure the risk of skating on ice most thin at the center of the lake to retrieve it. As it turns out, even the bravest skaters took the measure of risk involved in retrieving the jewel and turned back. As time passed, the skaters, unwilling to skate out to the jewel, began instead to impress onlookers with increasingly skillful and impressive tricks and maneuvers on the ice. As impressive as the skaters become, all of them were skating only upon the ice that was safe and near the shore. However pleased the crowd was to watch them, the original purpose of gaining the jewel had been forgotten.
The story illustrates the tragedy of a church that has lost its way. It has become all show and no substance. It impresses but does not bring real value to the lives of men and women.
Consider our reading in Amos, chapter 5. The prophet conveys God's displeasure with religious observance that has become a substitute for a faithful engagement with God's passion for justice and right-living.
It might be helpful, in this matter, to consider how the contemporary use and meaning of the word "prophet" had become too debased.
Prophet is used these days only to refer to those who reveal future events. Illuminating the future is only a very small part of the more impactful and consequential meaning of this word. A prophet is one who conveys God's passion for justice in this world. That later sense of what a prophet is and does is powerfully affirmed in this passage, where we read the unforgettable words: But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like and ever-flowing stream. (v 18) Pastor Joel
February 23,2020 Theme: Preserving Prayer Scripture: Luke 11:1-13
I wonder when it was during his life that Jesus first became aware that the cross was going to be the way his earthly life ended. Was it from the earliest moments of his youth? If so, it is hard to imagine the burden that must have been to someone in such early years in his life. Did the awareness of the cross come to him when he was tempted, realizing in that moment the terrible evil that was directed against him? Was the realization of the cross something that came gradually, as Jesus calculated the mounting resentment that was aligning against him? Of course the question is impossible to answer. At Caesarea Philippi, Mark 8:30ff, Jesus makes the first of several predictions of his death. At this moment of the gospel, Jesus seems to know and to want his followers to know, how he is going to die. He seems also to inform them that they may have to pay a steep price for their faithfulness to the gospel.
We do know that the consciousness of the cross came to Jesus early in his ministry, and before his closet followers were aware of it. It is a heavy burden, in your heart and mind, to live with a thought like that. In the eleventh chapter of Luke, Jesus communicates the understanding that this is an evil world and those who embrace the gospel should expect hostile, perhaps violent opposition. The theme that this is an evil world is repeated in this gospel several times, indeed in this chapter several times. Jesus understood how vital it was to have courage, faith and a trust in God so strong that it could stand up to whatever opposition one might encounter in this evil age.
In the passage studied today, Jesus compares this evil age to a parent, who, when the child asks for a fish, will give instead a snake. Or a parent, when asked to give an egg, would give a scorpion. These are striking illustrations. But these illustrations highlight the dangers in this world that many followers of Christ would face. The culture of the early Christians was not organized to accommodate early disciples. Jesus, in these illustrations, is telling his followers: "Hey, it is not a cake walk out there."
The bright hope Jesus offers is the power of faith in God: Ask and you shall receive. When tough times come, hold on ever more tightly to the promise of the gospel of God's care and gracious provision. Hold on to you your faith in a good God, particularly in those moments when those opposed to the gospel have turned against you. Jesus, with his consciousness of the cross, is a completely reliable guide to living in this world with that kind of hope. It is a hope that does not fade in the presence of opposition. Pastor Joel
February 16, 2020 Theme: Kingdom Seeking Prayer Scripture: Matthew 6:19-15
Transforming Prayer The Lord's Prayer is a prescription for peace. Peace is revealed to us in this short prayer by establishing the terms of our relationship with God, ourselves and others.
Peace with God involves our regard and respect for a holy God whose will shapes our purpose.
Peace with God involves gratitude for each day's gift of bread, life and all the beauty and opportunity that comes before us each day. Peace comes from knowing that the best things in life are freely given.
Peace with others depends upon walking the path of forgiveness in our dealings with others. We realize that our dependence on God's grace creates space for us to understand and live with others.
The Lord's Prayer is transformative. It critiques our life of worry and empty distraction. I think just saying aloud this simple prayer not only gives us peace but gives us hope that God wants to give us this peace in response to our genuine prayer and expressed plea. Pastor Joel
February 9, 2020 Theme: God Honoring Piety Scripture: Matthew 6:1-8
That Which Passes Show In Shakespeare's play, Hamlet, the young prince is grieving the loss of his father. However, Hamlet's mother and stepfather are ready for him to move on from his grief. Apparently, his grief is putting unwanted attention on questionable aspects of their marriage. Therefore his mother and stepfather urge Hamlet to put away the behaviors and appearances of mourning and get on with his life. Memorably, he replies that his grief is not just a performance comprised of specific behaviors and rituals of dress, but a genuine experience of loss. Here are words he uses: But I have that within which passeth show, these but the trappings and the suits of woe.
Hamlet conveys the truth that grief for him is the authentic experience of loss, deeply personal, beyond and before any outward signs of mourning. Grief is not something we perform, it is something we experience.
This passage in Matthew makes a similar claim about faith. Faith is the authentic experience of a direct connection to God. It is that before it is anything else. Prayer begins in the silence of a trusting heart, reaching out to God and receiving the assurance that God is listening and drawing us into the give and take of dialogue and the realization of healing grace at work in our lives. This is the beautiful assurance in this passage.
But we tend to miss the positive message amidst the prohibitions contained here. There are a lot of "don'ts" in this passage. If all we see here are the "don'ts" we miss a lot of what is very positive. Christianity is not about performance or about show. It is not about how we look to others. It is not about what other may think of us. It is not about shaping what we do and who we are to win approval or be accepted. To reapply Hamlet's statement: We have that which passes show.
In Christ, we have the knowledge of who God is and how God is with us. In him we have a direct connection to the wonder of God's forgiveness and power. Don't look for God in external trappings of faith. Find God in the stillness and firm conviction of grace placed in our hearts and minds. This is the surprising and powerful assurance provided in this passage. God has drawn close to us, and desires entrance into the inner spaces of our thoughts and feelings.
Authentic Christian faith is an active power, vitality and courage nurtured within. It is freely given. We don't need to do this, that or the other to obtain it. It is not an act. It is not something performed for others. It is a source of life and hope freely given. All that is required is the ascent of an aching and yielding heart. Pastor Joel
February 2, 2020 Single-Minded Obedience Matthew 4:11
The Temptation We find Jesus being tempted by the Devil in the first three gospels. Luke and Matthew provide the more detailed account of this event. In Matthew, the Devil tempts Jesus to turn stones into bread after Jesus had been fasting forty days. Next, Jesus is tempted to throw himself off the top of the temple. Lastly, the Devil tries to persuade Jesus to worship the Devil in exchange for all the kingdoms of the world and all their glory. These temptations are embedded in the logic of conventional thought. The Devil entices Jesus, "Use you power to feed yourself." There does not seem to be anything in that which is overtly scandalous. The first temptation makes strong sense to someone who has not eaten for over a month. The next temptation has a compelling logic as well. Draw attention to yourself and your righteous cause by a miraculous stunt. Use the spectacle or outrageous behavior to advance your message and purpose. There does not seem to be anything here that is, on its face, scandalous. Lastly falling down to worship the Devil would be a tragic renunciation of one's faith. But this single act of faithfulness brings the entire world and its glory into the influence of your righteous purpose. Honestly people do not generally agonize over the morality of allowing the ends to justify the means. Conventional thought is very comfortable with the notion of doing bad to accomplish good. Here, the Devil leverages an "end justifies the means" argument that most people could make themselves comfortable with. The Devil persuades with arguments that make sense. Or at least a certain kind of sense. Jesus is not tempted with evil for evil's sake. The Devil deviously seems almost to present himself to Jesus as an advocate, as if to say, "OK friend, you want greatness, power and authority? Here's how." The Devil insinuates himself into conventional thought, uses reasonable arguments and feigns genuine concern. But Jesus is having none of it. Jesus has come with an authority that goes well beyond conventional thought. His teachings in the beatitudes turn conventional thinking upside down. His parables end with reversal of expectation. Then there is the cross and this king who rules from the cross together serving as ultimate expression of a life lived well beyond conventional understanding. Conventional thought is in support of the way things are. But Jesus knows that the way things are is not the way things should be. The gospel carries a subversive challenge to the status quo and conventional thought. The passage calls us to a higher loyalty beyond and before the common, expected thinking of the crowd, what others are doing and all the seemingly sensible arguments that persuade us to renounce the way of the cross of Jesus. The cross is our logic, and all conventional thought falls under its critique. Pastor Joel
Memory and Hope The contemporary poet T. S. Elliot begins his long poem, Four Quarters, with these lines: Time present and time past Are both perhaps present in time future, And time future contained in time past. If all time is eternally present
(This long poem is principally about the theme of time.)
If you think about it, each moment we live is formed out of the union of past and future as well as memory and hope. The moment recalled here in 1 Kings is a moment that contains a powerful union of time past and time future. As Israel's temple is completed and Solomon offers up this prayer. The ark, brought into the temple, evokes the powerful memory of exodus, the wilderness journey and God's presence through all the struggles and triumphs. Solomon's prayer also reaches out toward the future in envisioning possible moments of exile and warfare, rebellion and reconciliation. There is an indication, revealed earlier in this same chapter, that the narrator of this occasion is recalling these events from long ago. Verse eight in this chapter tell us the following about the placement of the ark and its poles in the temple: The poles were so long that the ends of the poles were seen from the holy place in front of the inner sanctuary; but they could not be seen from the outside; they are there to this day. That sounds like the eventscontained in this chapter are remembered from many years hence. (Biblical scholars have identified this material as part of the Deuteronomist History compiled in the 6th Century BCE.) When a people are faced with hard times, it is the past that is consulted. Revolutionary times of change are built on the rediscovery of that what was known in the past but somehow forgotten. We more forward by glancing backwards and remembering what has been important, what has guided us and what were the lessons learned. Those who have no past have no future. Hope is largely about remembering. And so it is with faith. Faith is about moving forward in our lives, in a world constantly changing, life circumstances changing, and our own hopes, dreams and fears changing. Faith is about trying new things and attempting new things. It is about falling down and getting back up. Faith is always about moving into the future. I must say, it takes courage to embrace that forward movement, That courage is only possible because, as people of faith, we hare this memory. This memory involves the particular details of God's gracious and faithful dealings with God's people. This passage, bringing past and future together, delivers the brave hope of moving forward in our lives. Pastor Joel
Mutual Regard of Prayer The temple now built, Solomon stands before an assembly of the people and demands God keep the promises God has made to this nation. Solomon acknowledges blessings received in the past and now insists that God continue to bless this people, their king and this temple. God is called to be attentive to this people, listen to their cries and provide forgiveness when that is needed. From this passage, the temple not only is a place of worship and sacrifice, but an enduring reminder to God of God's promise of divine favor for this people. Solomon memorably here, in the presence of a great assembly, holds God accountable to the historically understood terms of this relationship. Authentic faith invites us to stand up to God in mutual regard and respect.
Holding God accountable is a quality of a bold faith which accepts challenges and overcomes obstacles. Bold faith involves the full participation of human beings, in their hopes, struggles, fears, desires and intentions with the God of creation. With this God we ultimately are bound and connected. Mutuality of faith involves honest communication and interaction where everything important in our lives is at stake. Faith puts the cards on the table. All the cards.
God is considering judgement against Sodom. God understands this knowledge must be shared with Abraham because of the terms of their relationship. Hearing of the divine intent, Abraham confronts God, arguing that the innocent cannot be destroyed with the guilty. Abraham has this faith that assures him that God will listen to and respect his arguments. Here is the boldness of a faith that stands up to God. God calls us into a relationship of mutual regard where we dare to honestly share our perspectives and disclose our questions. God desires nothing less of us than we share our whole hearts and place our particular interests on the line.
Those of strongest faith entered into this mutuality of regard. Cries of protest arise from men and women deeply anchored in the historic faith of Israel. Mutuality of regard where nothing is held back in this relationship is the source of the power of biblical faith.
We have learned the lessons of this faith and seek to capture the meaning of the living body in covenant fidelity, cherishing such promises as the one given in Hebrews:
Let us come bold to this throne of His grace, so that we might obtain mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. Hebrews 4:16
January 12, 2020 Theme: Solomon Speaks to the People Scripture: 1 Kings 8:24-21
God's Presence in Our Lives King David dreamed of building a temple, but that desire was deferred until his son Solomon came to power. In this speech Solomon declares that God now wants the temple built. The emphasis of the speech is that this temple would be the place where God's name would dwell. The temple would always be connected to the presence and character of God who had brought this people out of slavery and lead them into the Promised Land. The name of God is to be linked to the journey of this people from bondage to freedom. The temple would provide a home for the ark that was carried by this people on that journey.
The Ark of the Covenant had been the moving throne of God, leading Israel in their journey into freedom. The temple therefore would always evoke the memory of how God's presence accompanied God's people as they advanced toward the Promised Land.
The Temple faithfully gestures beyond itself to this history of God's presence. The Temple surely would not be the place where the presence of God would be exclusively contained. The Temple is where the name of God is kept, but the presence of God is in the world. As the Psalmist declares: Who is like the Lord our God. who is seated on high, 6) who looks far down on the heavens and the earth? 7) He raises the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash heap, 8) to make them sit with princes, with the princes of his people. Psalm 113:5-8
Likewise, theologically, our churches and places of worship are not places where God's presence is contained. Churches are where we worship and learn about the God who is in the world. God's activity is not bounded by the church. Churches and other places of worship are essential in that the name of the Lord is preserved there and the particular character and identity of that God is remembered. That should never cause us to forget that God's activity is in this world, in and among people, particularly in their journey from bondage to freedom.
Ultimately, in the final chapter, there will be no Temple.
I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb, 23) And the city has no need of the sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb, 24) The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Revelation 21:22-24
No temple, however grand and glorious, could ever contain the God who is in our lives, listening to our prayers, forgiving our sin, standing up for the defeated and calling us to the great adventure of life. Pastor Joel
December 29, 2019 Theme: David's Prayer Scripture: 1 Chronicles 17:16-27
Chosen I believe there is moral and spiritual failure at the root of a negative self-disregard. We are familiar with the need to treat others with respect and an honest appreciation of the good that is in them or the good that is possible in them. Many people are less likely to apply that same ethical standard to themselves. It is a sin to run yourself down.
Sadly, religion has become warped when it obsesses with human frailty and sin, rather than affirming the inherent dignity and worth of our humanity. There is this sickening false piety that wallows in human helplessness and spiritual wreckage. Religion is not the effort to win God's favor by making God feel sorry for us.
Much of this world's troubles and conflicts arise from an unhappy self-regard. People cannot think highly of others because they cannot think highly of themselves. People cause hurt to others when they are hurting inside. A lot of that hurt is self-generated when anger and frustration is turned inward. So many just can't help beating themselves up. Faith in God is learning how to quit.
The First Commandment declares that we should have no other gods before God. A negative self-regard thrives on disobeying that commandment. When we stand up against ourselves to render judgment regarding who we are, calculating the devastation of our regrets and reliving our worst moments, we are displacing God's loving, forgiving and affirming light with the harsh, critical light of our own fears and doubts. Who is our God? Our God is loving, forgiving, empowering and engaged with our well-being. What kind of God have we replaced our God with when we run ourselves down? Just let God be God. God would never say the terrible things so often people say to themselves. God would never hold the dire opinions of us that we so often express toward ourselves.
In his prayer, David pours out a heartful of gratitude for this God who has chosen him and his people. This experience is uplifting as seen in verse 17, in chapter 17, of 1st Chronicles:
And even this was a small thing in your sight, O God; you have also spoken of your servant's house for a great while to come. You regard me as someone of high rank, O Lord God! (NRSV)
One thing about David: He always maintained this connection to the God of Israel. What he learned through all the ups and downs of this life is God lifts us up to the full stature of what it means to be chosen by God and made in God's image.
We can rise up to the challenges of the day. We don't need to shrink down into the pit of fear and doubt. You know, we may not always come out a winner, and we surely will stumble from time to time. I make a jerk out of my self at least once a day. But the world will see God's power in us when we rise back up, when we learn and we forgive ourselves and others. We are chosen.
God sees David as someone who has value and worth. This is not a truth confined to David. It is a truth about an honest, vital and living faith. We need to draw the meaning of these words into our own heart--You regard ME as someone of high rank, O Lord God! 'Cause God does, maybe we can too. Pastor Joel
December 22, 2019 Theme: Mary's Praise Scripture: Luke 1:39-56
This passage is a canticle contained in the first chapter of Luke's Gospel. Sung on the occasion of the visit of Mary to her cousin in response to Elizabeth's greeting, it is a song of praise emphasizing God's strength in contrast to Mary's weakness and humility.
Mary's song first praises God for the conception of Jesus and then enumerates God's actions in the salvation of the poor, the oppressed and the weak. This passage, called the Magnificat, has been part of the liturgy of the church since at least the 5th Century.
What is most striking is the daring vision Mary has of the future justice of God, God is going to shake things up, reordering existing structures of power, in favor of those who have been pushed around in this world. Mary may be humble and unassuming, but she has a fire in her spirit. She knows that the God that has lifted her up from her lowly state, is the God who is going to reshuffle the deck when it comes to the haves and they have nots.
What we see in Mary is what we have seen all along in the story of faith. God chooses unlikely people and lifts them up to exalted purposes and unexpected accomplishment.
Consider the courage of Mary, the mother of Jesus. In order for her to fulfill her role as the mother of Jesus, she undoubtedly had to stand up to opposition and misunderstanding of her pregnancy. She undoubted had to raise her child with determination and wisdom in instruction. Jesus had to have courage to live his life. Wouldn't God have foreseen that Jesus would need a mother who had the courage and heart of a fighter? Mary had to summon the courage to walk the path of immense grief and bitter pain when her child was put on a cross to die. Mary walked no easy path.
I guess humble people, like Mary, have the greatest courage and strength of all. She had the heart of a lion. It takes courage to walk the path God puts out there for some of us to walk. Mary had the courage of faith in the song she sings before the birth of her child, she shows for all ages the courage that lies just beneath the humility. Anything less than a daring faith would waver and fade before the courageous vision she proclaims. Pastor Joel
December 15, 2019 Theme: David's House Scripture: 1 Chronicles 17:1-15; 21:18-31
How to Say, "Forever"
After many years of warfare, King David is finally and firmly established upon his throne. David has built a palace for himself and now decides to build God a more substantial dwelling than the tabernacle which is called here a tent. The prophet Nathan learns of David's desire to build a temple. David wants a permanent dwelling for God.
But that very night, Nathan hears a divine rebuke of David's desire to build a dwelling for God. By divine command, David will not be the one to build such a place. God explains to Nathan that God has dwelt in the tabernacle all along through the momentous journey of Israel from slavery into the freedom of the Promised Land. Where Israel has traveled, so travels God. With this moving tabernacle, there has always been a closeness between God and Israel. Where God goes, Israel goes. There is a sense that an elaborate temple will confine God. God simply wants to be there with and for God's people.
David's son Solomon will be the one to build that temple. Looking far ahead in this story-line, the temple built by Solomon will be destroyed after four centuries. The temple built after that will itself suffer destruction by the hands of the Romans just after the period of history covered in the Gospels. During that arc of history, the people of God would worship and be instructed in local buildings called Synagogues, scattered in various parts of the world.
After David learns he will not have the honor of building Israel's first temple, God elevates the scope of David's hope by telling him that his throne would endure forever. Matthew's gospel interprets that hope as leading finally and fully to the reign of Christ, Son of David.
The text is clear. David's throne will be established forever. The promise of the presence of God expands into a limitless future. The focus of this passage is not the semi-permanence of a Temple, but the eternal permanence of God's presence with God's people.
The never-failing permanence of this hope is unlike any other. It dawns in the promise to Abraham that God will make of his descendants: a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. Gen 12:2 This promise is realized across a vast expanse of time and change.
Historically, we who live today know that the promise of God's presence with us continues to live in our hearts and minds. Christian hope is born of this promise. Recognizing how durable this promise is and how it has never been undone by accidents of history or circumstance, we are better able, more than any other time in history, to say that word, "forever," and trust in God's abiding faithfulness to us.
I think that is at least part of the reason we treasure the 23rd Psalm. At the end of that psalm, we get to say that word the Bible helps us say, "forever." It is a daring hope to say such a word. It is an immense comfort. It gives us something to hold onto in a world of change.
Christians see that hope embodied in the child born to Mary, called Immanuel, God with us. Pastor Joel
December 8, 2019 Theme: David's House Scripture: 1 Chronicles In Ovid's masterpiece, The Metamorphoses, there is this description of the creation of human beings. While other animals look downwards at the ground, he gave human beings an upturned aspect, commanding them to look towards the skies, and, upright rise their face to the stars. Book 1, Line 87. By this description, there is an upward-looking aspect to the essential nature of what it means to be human.
David's Psalm contained in this chapter has the character of being upward looking. Encountering the psalm, we are swept up and beyond the smaller orbits of our self-preoccupation, into the broader horizons of our lives and our connections with God. The focus of this psalm is placed on the sovereign might and majesty of God, our creator and redeemer.
The insight gain from this psalm involves our practice of prayer. The first instinct of prayer is the upward-looking aspect. When we pray, we are mindful of God and who God is. Often we neglect or diminish the importance of this mindful attention to the character of the one to whom prayers are addressed. This consciousness of God is the cornerstone of prayer. We should avoid prayers which do not acknowledge God but rather jump right into the matters in our life we are intent on lifting up.
Consciousness of God should animate our prayers. When that occurs, as it does here in this psalm, our prayers will gain power to lift us up.
December 1, 2019 Theme: David's Worship Scripture: 1 Chronicles 15
The Ark of the Covenant
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