Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Blogging toward Sunday

The Lectionary readings for this week include Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Matthew 21:33-46 and Philippians 3:4b-14.

Since over the past few Sundays we have been reading through Exodus and Matthew, let’s begin with these two texts. First, the reading from Exodus provides for us the Ten Commandments. God has brought the people of Israel out of Egypt and they have reached Mount Sinai. Now it’s time to go to school. Now it’s time to learn what it means to be God’s people. So God lays out the ground rules beginning with “I am the Lord your God…you shall have no other gods before me.” Concerning this passage, I love what Murray Andrew Pura says in his commentary in The Life With God Bible: “The important thing for us to understand [here] is the way in which grace precedes law. God first acts in grace and mercy by delivering the people, and then the people respond in gratitude and thanksgiving by obeying the commandments. Put succinctly: the crossing of the Red Sea comes before the giving of the Ten Commandments.”

In the reading from Matthew, Jesus continues to put the chief priests and elders in their place. The parable of the wicked tenants is a picture of God’s grace and love being rejected repeatedly. Through the death of God’s Son, the kingdom will break forth from its boundaries to include even those the religious authorities of the day would have never expected.

Which brings us to the reading upon which the sermon for this week will be based—the Philippians text. Here Paul claims his reason for boasting—Christ Jesus. There was a time in Paul’s life when that was not the case. There was a time when he despised the people of the Way and did everything he could to stop the gospel they proclaimed. But Paul has encountered Jesus and he will never be the same. 

The Apostle Paul provides for us a host of gifts, but the one that we will consider on Sunday is the hope that he models for us in a new life made possible through our relationship with Jesus.

Here are some things to consider as we journey toward Sunday:
1.      In the old life, what were Paul’s reasons for boasting?
2.      In today’s world, what types of things do people generally brag about?
3.      Paul uses the metaphor of running a race for his spiritual journey. How might that relate to your own story?
4.      All three Lectionary texts seem to point to a new life. In Exodus, the theme is new life made possible by knowing God, and treating our neighbor as we would like to be treated. In Matthew, a new life is promised for those who have been considered outsiders. And in Philippians, new life is modeled for us in the person of Paul. Have you experienced new life? How might you describe it to others?

These have been just a few thoughts from your pastor on the journey toward Sunday (which is also World Communion Sunday). I look forward to seeing you in worship.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Blogging toward Sunday

The Scripture passages for Sunday are Exodus 17:1-7 and Matthew 21:23-32.

So who is in charge, here?
We continue to follow the people of Israel through the wilderness. The passage from last week was one filled with complaints; this one provides more of the same as the people continue to quarrel with Moses and test Yahweh. Moses becomes frustrated in his role as leader of the people and says to God, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” It seems that Moses is between a rock and a hard place. Well, not really. Not really because God shows up and brings forth water from a rock sending a clear message that the LORD is still among the people. Moreover, the LORD is still in charge.

Now, let’s look at our reading from the Gospel of Matthew.  The chief priests and elders approach Jesus with a question about his authority. It’s a fair question. Perhaps they see him as some young fellow touting his own new teaching. It’s more likely that by this time in Jesus’ ministry, they see him as a threat to their own way of doing things. When Jesus answers their question with a question (something Jesus does quite often) they deliberate among themselves and decide that it might be best to keep silent—for now. (But only for now since it will be leaders such as these who serve on the final court that sentences Jesus to death.)

Jesus’ answer, in the form of a question, may be considered an indirect response. If these leaders can see the hand of God in John’s ministry, perhaps they can do so regarding his own ministry.  Certainly there have been signs and wonders enough!  Jesus has been teaching as one who has authority. He has been healing the sick and loving the un-loved.

Wondrous works of God are all around, but the religious leaders aren’t really interested in changing their beliefs. They will not bow to Jesus’ authority. And in the parable that follows, they are portrayed as those who may have pledged allegiance to God with their mouths, but failed to follow up on their beliefs by their actions.   

Consider the following:
A simple definition of “authority” is the power to control or influence the actions of other people.  Think on your own life. Who has influenced you in a positive way? What good things have you learned and acted upon because of some teaching you have received along the way? In what way have you been a positive influence for someone else?

Take some time this week to read Matt. 21:23-32 several times. Quietly sit with the text and try to imagine yourself in the story.  First, imagine that you are a chief priest. How does the story strike you? Ponder these things for a moment. Then read the text as a tax collector or a prostitute. Do you find hope here? Finally, read the story as a Jew who has happened upon the scene. What are your thoughts about Jesus once you hear his teaching? Might you consider giving him authority over your life?

In our earthly pilgrimage toward eternal life, we all “bow” to something or someone. Who or what is “in charge” of your life?  If this is the word you proclaim, how do your actions line up with your words?

May the LORD bless your week as we journey toward Sunday. I look forward to seeing you in worship.

Grace and Peace,

Monday, September 12, 2011

Blogging toward Sunday

The Scripture passages for Sunday are Exodus 16:2-15 and Matthew 20:1-16.

Let’s look first at the text from Exodus, which follows the crossing of the Red Sea. You remember the story. The people have been brought safely out of Egypt. In a spirit of thanksgiving, Moses offers a song to Yahweh. The prophet Miriam, with tambourine in hand, leads the first documented liturgical dance, singing, “Sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.” 

But the voices of worship and praise don’t last long.  In the blink of an eye, the people complain about the bitterness of the water.  In response to which, the LORD miraculously turns the water sweet.  Then Moses leads the people to a place where palm trees and fresh springs of water abound.  Yet again, in the blink of an eye, the whole congregation complains. In The Message their grumbling voices say,  “Why didn’t GOD let us die in comfort in Egypt where we had lamb stew and all the bread we could eat? You’ve brought us out into this wilderness to starve us to death, the whole company of Israel!” In response to this complaint, what does GOD do?  God rains down food from the heavens.

Fast forward to our reading from Matthew 20.  To really understand what is going on here, let’s back up to Matt 19:27. Peter has another question to ask. (Recall that his question from last Sunday was about how many times we should forgive a brother or sister.) Here, Peter seems to be checking out the way of the future. “Look Jesus, we’ve given up everything to follow you, so what’s in it for us?” 

Now there’s a question.  It’s a question that is woven into our modern day worldview—and one that, sadly, has taken up residence in the church. If you doubt it, let me share a few questions I’ve heard over the years along with a few responses I’ve been known to make: 

Question: What’s in the church for me?
Answer: How about God and fellowship with God’s children!
Question: Why should I go to church when I don’t get anything out of it?
Answer: First, could you tell me, what you put into it?
Question: Why doesn’t the church entertain me and meet my spiritual needs?
Answer:  It’s not about you.

It’s the truth.  It’s not about us.  And that’s what Jesus tells Peter.  The story of the laborers in the vineyard demonstrates how people tend to see the world—seeking fairness for number one—first of all.  The point of the story is that it’s not about us—it’s about God!  God is a generous God. God loves whom God will love.  And in God’s math—many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.

But most of us have trouble with God’s math, don’t we?  We want what we deserve and if we show up to work early in the morning and sweat all day in the hot sun, we want paid more than that rascal who shows up right before quitting time.  We want what we deserve. Or do we?  Okay, I won’t speak for you, but personally, I don’t want what I deserve from GOD because I know that what I deserve is zero—nothing—zilch.  No, I think I am in better standing if I accept God’s math. 

Still, if I am being honest (and since I am your pastor, I feel compelled to be honest here) that doesn’t keep me from complaining right along with those laborers in the vineyard. I grumble when things seem to be going better for other people than for me. I complain when I pray and pray and nothing seems to happen. I grumble when God doesn’t rain down manna from the heavens to fix whatever ails me—right now.  I complain and, admit it, so do you.  We all do.

Which brings us to something important that will be happening on Sunday.  During worship we will each receive our very own “A Complaint-Free World” bracelet.  As a church we are taking the challenge to remain complaint free for 21 days.  That’s right—3 whole weeks without complaining. 

God is so generous.  God is so good. Let’s make a pact to work together to end the ear pollution of complaining. Let’s trade our spirit of complaining into a spirit of thanksgiving for being counted among those loved by the Lord.  Yes, let’s!


Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Blogging toward Sunday

Have Mercy!
After finishing the summer sermon series, we return to the Lectionary as a guide for preaching texts.  In particular, our focus this Sunday will be on Matthew 18:21-35. By this time Jesus has been about his earthly ministry for some time. After the birth narrative provided in the Gospel of Matthew, other important events occur, such as the ministry of John the Baptist, Jesus’ baptism and temptation, the calling of the disciples and numerous accounts of Jesus’ teaching, healing and wonder-working. Prior to our reading for Sunday, Peter has acknowledged that Jesus is the Messiah and Peter, James and John have gone up on a high mountain to witness Jesus’ transfiguration.  A lot has happened.  Jesus has been working hard to set the stage for coming attractions.  Day by day he has been teaching his disciples, preparing them for his own departure, preparing them for the day when the church will be born.

It is in this context that Peter asks a question. It’s a question about life together, life in community. The question is: “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”  It’s interesting to note that Peter provides his own answer to the question.  It seems generous, doesn’t it?  Seven times. Perhaps Peter has something else on his mind, like the number seven is the number of completeness, and therefore perfection.  But if Peter thinks he has just gone above and beyond the call of duty, he is in for a big surprise. 

For Jesus, this simply isn’t good enough. For Jesus, who is always raising the bar above our meager expectations, forgiveness should be wrapped in a different package.  How about seventy-seven times? While the number can be translated as 77 times or 70 times 7, the end result is the same.  Jesus is calling for radical forgiveness.  Jesus is requiring a forgiveness that is so complete, there is no keeping score.  Then to get his point across, Jesus tells a story, a parable, as he so often does.

Take some time to read and ponder Matthew 18:21-35. What are your thoughts?  What two or three things come to mind as you consider forgiveness in light of Jesus’ teaching?  When have you been shown radical mercy?  When have you shown radical forgiveness to another?

Along these lines, here’s something else to consider.  What happens to us, in this lifetime, in our own bodies, when we refuse to show mercy to others?  It seems to me that having a spirit of un-forgiveness takes its toll. What are your thoughts?

Jesus wants us (his brothers and sisters) to be people who show radical love for one another and radical mercy to one another.  It was certainly his way of walking upon the earth. 

I look forward to seeing you in worship this Sunday.