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March 22, 2015

“Something Old, Something New”
Jeremiah 31:31-34

In a season of failure and disappointment, the prophet Jeremiah speaks to God’s people of something on the horizon.

For most of us, we live in a territory marked by privilege and exceptionalism. Lent is a time for honesty. Not only about ourselves, but our society, our world. Such honesty may well disrupt the illusion of well-being.1

I recently heard about Oklahoma legislator, Dan Fisher, who introduced legislation to ban AP courses in that state because they “omit American exceptionalism.” Fisher said the current structure of Advanced Placement history courses focus on “what is bad about America.” The Tulsa World newspaper contradicts him, saying that the course teaches the full range of American History, ‘the good, the bad, and the exceptional.’ But it isn’t only in Oklahoma where there is resistance to naming how we have failed one another. We do this to ourselves, our families, and our communities all the time.

Against the prevailing, self preserving, idea that we are doing just fine, thank-you, the prophet speaks of the brokenness of the covenant; the covenant that shapes a healthy society. As long as there is denial and illusion, nothing genuinely new can happen. But when reality is faced, new possibility becomes imaginable.

If someone is speaking about a new covenant, they must have in mind an old covenant. Jeremiah recalls God’s covenant at Mt. Sinai, which they broke. His community could call to mind the covenants before that one: with Noah, with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. After Sinai, there was Joshua and Samuel. Each of these covenants were new at one time. Jeremiah says that the newness will not be seen in the terms of the agreement or the time period covered. Even God does not indicate any change. What will change? What will be new? It is the people and how they receive it. First, Jeremiah speaks of inhaling the Torah. Then he speaks of knowing it.

The people will internalize the covenant. This will be no privatized reformation of individual lives. Not that people were asking for this new covenant. No one in Jeremiah’s day was speaking sweetly of “letting God into” his heart. There is no hint of an invitation on the part of the people. As Walter Brueggemann points out, this covenant is given by God without reason or explanation. God wants the relationship with the people and resolves to have it. So God declares that he will write himself into the people.

You could say there is a down side, I suppose, to all this. God will be intimately present. God will not be experienced as some distant, disinterested deity. With that presence we cannot live in a world of our own imaginations. There will be no refuting reality. God will be as close as a parent chaperone on a first date. The young couple returns from the movie, a hamburger and milkshake, the car is parked along the curb as they chit-chat in the front seat. A few moments go by and hands embrace. The tones are hushed, there is electricity in the air. Then the porch light goes on. See what I mean? There might not have been anything happening, but the icy stare the father received by his daughter as she came through the door indicated that not everyone believed that ‘nothing was happening.’ There can be a down side. When Jeremiah uses the word ‘know’ he means it in the biblical sense. He does not mean some sort of intellectual awareness or possession of some inert fact. This is something as tight as your skin, as ever present as your pulse.

Yet there is an upside; the upside of this is that God will be intimately present. Yes, I know it is the same thing I said a few moments earlier. But not every close relationship is overbearing and restrictive. There is in the covenant the truth that it is loved into being, not coerced. Did you hear about the story of what is called ‘free-range’ parents? There was a time when letting young children walk to school alone, ride their bikes around the neighborhood unsupervised, and hang out in the park didn’t seem like irresponsible parenting. In fact, if you grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s (and earlier, of course), you probably remember going out to play after school and being expected to return home only when the street lights turned on. But as more families had both parents working outside the home, supervised after-school activities became increasingly necessary. What resulted was a shift in our culture that requires kids to be under constant adult surveillance. This is not what Jeremiah is talking about when he speaks of God’s presence.

Instead, God has chosen to give us a good bit of free reign. But like every good parent, God does not send us out into the wilderness without the resources to deal with it. This resource is the substance of Jeremiah’s message. Something new is on the way.

In some quarters you will find resistance to anything ‘new.’ Who isn’t skeptical about every ‘new and improved’ claim? But this ‘newness’ does not involve starting from scratch. Hope for the future in Jeremiah involves the same divine message known from Sinai, ‘I will be their God and they will be my people’ (verse 33); same covenant, but this time, that relationship will be the defining mark of each person rather than something that must be learned. It is not imposed upon anyone. It is freely given. It is something that they will have with them as a resource rather than baggage.

Like every good parent knows, both ‘helicopter’ and ‘free-range,’ your children are not puppets and do now always do what you want them to do no matter how much or how little supervision they receive. So in every relationship there are moments, days, that are strained, even with us and God. But even this doesn’t threaten the relationship. We are sent out into an imperfect world with a guide for what will bring a happy, healthy life in community with our neighbor; and, the promise that we are never ever left alone, ready to be received with open arms.

The way back to God, says Jeremiah, is the way of forgiveness: For I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more (v. 34). The choice of grace on God’s part to create a world and love it into freedom is, Karl Barth writes, the “sum” of the Gospel, the best news that we could ever hear. For it means that God has chosen not to be alone in this life or in the life to come but to share that life with every creature. It is in this respect that we can say God has made a commitment to be for us and with us before we ever came into existence, no matter what.

Some years ago I had a confirmation student whose mother was a Christian and his Father was Jewish. At the little reception they had for him after confirmation I saw grandma coming out of the corner of my eye. There was no place to retreat. With no introductory chit-chat, she said, “So, Pastor Fogle, what do you think about the Jews?” Fortunately, God is merciful and just, I quickly came up with something to say, I told her: “I believe that God doesn’t break promises.”

So, until such a time as Christ is raised up and draws all people to himself, Jeremiah’s text remains for us – and for the first hearer of these words – a word of hope. Until that redeeming comes, until that new thing pushes the old thing into the past, God’s covenant with us will bear the marks of the cross. We have reason to be hopeful. We have not yet arrived. The days are surely coming, Jeremiah says. They’re on their way. We’re leaning into them. This is what God desires, and it would serve us well to accept that, God as present in our house, present in our hearts. Jeremiah insists that the covenant remains, will be renewed, and our best days are ahead.

1Walter Brueggemann, “Ferguson and Forgiveness” Odyssey Networks March 16, 2015 ON Scripture – The Bible. Walter Brueggemann says: “Lent is a time for honesty that may disrupt the illusion of well-being that is fostered by the advocates of indulgent privilege and strident exceptionalism that disregards the facts on the ground. Against such ideological self-sufficiency, the prophetic tradition speaks of the brokenness of the covenant that makes healthy life possible. As long as there is denial and illusion, nothing genuinely new can happen. But when reality is faced, new possibility becomes imaginable.”

February 15, 2015

“An Altar In The World”
2 Corinthians 3:2-6
Mark 9:2-9

As I begin this morning, I want you to take a few moments and turn to your neighbor and share with them one time that you experienced God in the world.

If you are willing, share with all of us that time. You can be brief, just the ‘Reader’s Digest” version.

I did not hear any accounts of clouds of smoke or pillars of fire as the Israelites experienced on their journey out of slavery. I did not hear any mention of faces, shining so brightly with the radiance of God that a veil was necessary so as to not terrorize the neighbors. It doesn’t sound like any of your shrubbery was set ablaze but not consumed. Nor did I hear any accounts of visitation by our Lord that moved you to set up permanent residence there.

I am not questioning your interpretation of those events. Who am I to say that you cannot experience God’s presence out on the golf course or in the turkey woods? You can. Its just that even in accepting that fact I must tell you that nobody has ever come up to me to elaborate on such an experience.

I suppose I am a bit suspicious because I spend so much time in church. I agree with another famous preacher who says she came to love churches, every one she has been associated with. This love is born from the all of the things…

we did nowhere else in our lives: we named babies, we buried the dead, we sang psalms, we praised God for our lives. When we did, it was as if we were building a fire together, each of us adding something to the blaze so that the light and heat in our midst grew. Yet the light exceeded our fire, just as the warmth did. We did our parts, and then there was more. (Taylor, Barbara Brown (2009-03-06). An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith (p. 6). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.)

Compared to what we experience in here, so often so full of God’s presence, the world seems not only ordinary but often worse than ordinary. So we focused our attention here.

Somewhere along the line we bought— or were sold— the idea that God is chiefly interested in religion. We believed that God’s home was the church, that God’s people knew who they were, and that the world was a barren place full of lost souls in need of all the help they could get. Plenty of us seized on those ideas because they offered us meaning . Believing them gave us purpose and worth. They gave us something noble to do in the midst of lives that might otherwise be invisible. Plus, there really are large swaths of the world filled with people in deep need of saving. (ibid, p.24)

And then we stop looking around, or if we do, we can walk right past a big bold epiphany because we have no expectations for God’s presence out there.

I don’t know what sort of expectations made the journey up the mountain with Jesus and the disciples. It may not have mattered. The disciples seem to have such an overwhelming experience of God’s presence that it could have torn in two whatever veils kept the Lord hidden. It’s a good thing too. Amid the violence and confusion of daily life that surrounds the Transfiguration event in Mark, faced with a troubled boy and a rowdy crowd Jesus.…God’s presence…wasn’t easy to notice.

Until, that is, they came face to face with the still-glowing countenance of Jesus and remembered that who he would one day become is who he already is. They are reminded that Jesus’ future glory shines into each violent and confused moment of life. It alone is able to transfigure the present moment. And it needs only a disciple who remembers to look, to notice your surroundings. It is a kind of paying attention to God.

The artist Georgia O’Keeffe, who became famous for her sensuous paintings of flowers, explained her success by saying, “In a way, nobody sees a flower, really, it is so small, we haven’t time— and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time.”

And if time is one of the essential elements for epiphanies such as this, it is no surprise that all this occurred as Jesus and the disciples went ‘away’ to pray. Not to the synagogue, not to the temple. Away.

Barbara Brown Taylor, in her book, “An Altar in the World,” suggests that one part of our problem is categories. We draw sharp boundaries between what is sacred and secular, what is ‘clean’ and what is ‘unclean.’ I do not mean to suggest that everything in life is a homogenized muddy gray. Rather, as Taylor suggests, there is a rich often unnoticed tapestry of God’s presence in the world.

It may be a pretty simple experience, not many get a grand and glorious, hit you over the head, experience like the disciples. But whenever and wherever you come to a stop and say, hey, surely God is present in this, you stand on holy ground. The real secret is that all ground is sacred ground. Our presence in it and our recognition of it does not make it so. But when we do, oh thanks be to God.

February 7, 2015

When our Consistory President and I were first discussing the content and agenda for this meeting this morning my mind immediately turned to a verse from proverbs that is often quoted to support meetings like this: “Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.” Proverbs 29:18.

But translated in the Contemporary English Version, we get closer to the original Hebrew meaning: “Without guidance from God law and order disappear, but God blesses everyone who obeys his Law.”

This text from Proverbs, chapter 29, is often cited to justify the work of visioning. Actually, it has nothing to do with vision, per se, but is instead about the ability to hear God’s will for God’s people and to act upon that.

Which lead me to think that this was not the perfect verse for today. It is a perfectly good verse for any day, but as a backdrop for thinking about what we want to accomplish in the coming year it isn’t that great or inspiring a verse.

I prayerfully contemplated this situation an I was drawn to another place in the Hebrew Bible, in the book of Nehemiah. In chapter 4, the nation Israel is in ruins, literally and figuratively. Nehemiah has convinced the King to allow the people to rebuild their ravaged temple, their city, and their passion for this is made evident in their work to reconstruct the wall.

But there was this man, Sanballat, a Moabite who held some authority in the land at the time of Nehemiah the prophet. He heard about this band of Jews rebuilding the walls and he was angry. He ridiculed the Jews. He spoke to his associates and the army of Samaria, no doubt with a tone of ridicule and sarcasm: “What are these feeble Jews doing? Will they restore their wall? Will they offer sacrifices? Will they finish in a day? Can they bring the stones back to life from those heaps of rubble…?” The thing is, opposition to the work of God’s people has always been opposed by someone.

Nehemiah 4 is the verse that came to my mind: “So we rebuilt the wall, and all the wall was joined together to half its height; for the people had a mind to work.” (Nehemiah 4:6) Under the shadow of some angry opposition, the people went ahead and did what God had called them to do.

The temptation is – when there is opposition – is to become so worried, so terrified by the opposition, that you pray and pray and wring your hands and wait, and to stop doing what God would have us do. This happens to individuals and churches and can become the death of mission and ministry. You experience a few set-backs. The number dwindles, the budget is strained, and people think about the negatives, talk about the grim prospects — and talk themselves into death, by keeping their eye on all the difficulties and challenges and not the work God sets before them.

I imagine Nehemiah heard things like this: I just don’t know if we can make it… such a pitiful little bunch… people don’t want to go in this direction…We like things the way they were.” That’s not faith talking — that’s the emotion of fear and discouragement. Faith says: Let’s just do what’s right. Faith says: let’s turn adversity into advantage. Faith says: in spite of the trials, conflicts and circumstances – we are still going to obey this new light shed upon God’s word. There are strong parallels between our time and Nehemiah’s time. What looked like a disaster was turned, eventually, into a time that the people looked back upon as a moment in their history when new hope came forth.

Michael Piaza, part of the Center for Progressive Renewal wrote:

“While we in the church tend to think that institutional failure is just about us, the truth is that we are living in the midst of a much larger social shift that is destabilizing all of our critical institutions and creating a sense of fear, uncertainty and anxiety about our future.

In the midst of this change, the progressive church will rediscover its voice. The promise of the Gospel is that fear never has the last word, and that faith, love, and hope are always our paths forward. The future progressive church must reinvent itself in the midst of this global disorientation and step into the gap that today divides rich and poor, healthy and sick, educated and uneducated, legal resident and illegal resident, gay and straight, female and male. The church should be the place where these barriers are erased and genuine community forms to care for people victimized by the failure of the institutions built to support them. Reformed by a value of pluralism and diversity, the church provides a place for people to be known, loved, and supported as the world around us wrestles with disillusionment, violence, fear, and failure.” (Piazza, Michael S.; Trimble , Cameron B. (2011-07-15). Liberating Hope!: Daring to Renew the Mainline Church (Kindle Locations 331-340). Pilgrim Press/United Church Press. Kindle Edition.)

Let us pray: God of new beginnings every day, as we come before you, open our hearts and spirit to the difficult and rewarding work of discipleship. We have been working at caring for one another as you call us to do. Help us now, to add effort to the vision you supply, to add action and concern for our wider community; for your gospel is for the whole world. Inspire us. Grant us your Spirit and a mind to work. Amen.


Privilege is something I am familiar with. This awareness was something that came lately. Most of my life I would have rejected the assertion that I am privileged. As I graduated from seminary in the late 80’s, I was aware that being a tall, white, heterosexual, male, married to the same woman, I had a distinct advantage over some other candidates. This advantage was not based upon substance or skill, but rather upon perception.

But I have been privileged before that. I grew up in a fairly diverse community. Wider community. In the first grade I was bused to a school across town, from a predominantly white school to a more diverse school. In high school our population was diverse, predominantly blacks and whites with a very few asians. I lived next door to Ann Arbor, home of the University of Michigan. My town was a college town. And yet, it was only really a few years ago that I realized that some of my classmates faced issues that I never had to face.

I think of one frequently. He is a ‘Facebook friend.’ He was a year ahead of me in high school. My mother served with his attorney father on a “Planning Commission.” He was recently inducted into my high school’s sports ‘hall of fame.’ After he graduated, he went on to Fisk, then University of Alabama, has done some teaching and consulting on leadership. A great personality, generous, and by every measure I can think of is a ‘success.’ And yet, he has to warn his son about where he goes and and when; how to avoid putting oneself in a ‘compromising’ situation.

There is another I think of. Lives in Costa Rica. A pastor. We were walking down a road one day in the Puntarenas region of Costa Rica, going to the bus. Two huge stone pillars marked a driveway toward the ocean. I asked him, “what is this?” He told me it is a “resort for north americans and europeans.” I said, “can we go into see it?” He said, “you can.” For a second or two I didn’t know what he was talking about.

I am sure that there are many, many, facts in the situation in Ferguson that I know nothing about and that it isn’t nearly as straightforward as I might think it is.

It seems to me though, that the explosion of anger and frustration is not only about Michael Brown. I am just guessing here, because, after all, I know nothing about the situation or the experience. What I do know is that all through my pastoral work, if someone acted out in a way that seemed out of proportion to the precipitating event, I said to myself, “something is going on here I don’t know about.”

So I have said it here. As I write this, however, I realize that I do know what is going on here. The reaction is not exclusively to the Michael Brown situation but the grand jury’s decision to not charge the police officer is a ‘tipping point.’

Is it possible that the police officer used excessive force? Of course it is. Is it possible that his perception of this person clouded his thinking? Of course it is. Is it possible that Michael Brown did something that made the officer think he was dangerous? Of course it is.

This, to me, is the underlying issue. Perception. Anticipation, or more negatively said, profiling, can be an element in shootings such as these. It’s presence is born out in the statistics regarding race and incarceration, and race as a co-efficient to a variety of studies that chronicle the inequality of society. The weight of living in this situation for a lifetime must lead to despair.

Martin Luther King said, “A riot is the language of the unheard.”

When I ask myself, ‘what is going on here that I might not know about’ there are many potential answers, as privileged as I am. But that is the thing that I don’t really know about, that the playing field is not level, that there is not really equality, that it is this sociological and economic inequality that wears down entire classes of people. I have learned about perceptions, that because I so easily walk through those huge stone gates without a question, in no way means just anybody can.

Cornel West, in his book Democracy Matters, lifts up a literary metaphor for this condition, commenting on Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick,”

Ishmael is the slim beacon of hope, the only one who survives the journey. And he survives in a coffin-raft given to him by his only friend, Queequeg, a man of color – in stark contrast to the white – dominated ship – whose near death prompted the building of the coffin. Ishmael’s survival at the end of the book is therefore due to Queequeg’s agency. The carving of the lid of the coffin symbolizes “a mystical treatise on the art of attaining truth.” Even as Moby Dick is an indictment of American imperialism it is also a call for multiracial solidarity. (West, Cornel “Democracy Matters” Penguin Books: London, 2004, p. 89)

On the southern part of the Americas, Paulo Freire describes this condition more directly,

Peasants live in a ‘closed’ reality with a single, compact center of oppressive decision; the urban oppress live in an expanding context in which the oppressive command center is plural and complex…in urban areas, the oppressed are subjected to an ‘oppressive impersonality.” In both cases the oppressive power is to a certain extent “invisible”: in the rural zone, because of its proximity to the oppressed; in the cities because of its dispersion. (Freire, Paulo, “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” p. 156)

Although Freire is writing about a different culture, the basis of his way forward is important for us. Freire is is describing the creation of an awareness that ultimately is far-reaching; moving beyond a call for a raising of the minimum wage or the end of racial profiling to a solidarity, a ‘cultural synthesis.’ This ‘critical consciousness’ is the fuel for a movement “…beyond the deception of palliative solutions. It is to engage in authentic transformation of reality in order, by humanizing that reality, to humanize women and men.” (ibid, p.164) I am saying that the problem is that we live in a society that values some human beings more than others.

For this preacher, the Gospel (as in the inclusive ‘good news’) is clear about this. There is no hierarchy, their is no division in God’s eyes and by extension, we should make no divisions either. One of my favorite texts of late is from Acts, chapter 8.

8:26 Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Rise and go toward the south[a] to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” This is a desert place. 27 And he rose and went. And there was an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure. He had come to Jerusalem to worship 28 and was returning, seated in his chariot, and he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29 And the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over and join this chariot.” 30 So Philip ran to him and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31 And he said, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. 32 Now the passage of the Scripture that he was reading was this:
“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter
and like a lamb before its shearer is silent,
so he opens not his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.”
34 And the eunuch said to Philip, “About whom, I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” 35 Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus. 36 And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?”[b] 38 And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him. 39 And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord carried Philip away, and the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing.
The eunuch, this person of bondage, ethnicity, of a foreign race and religion, of questionable sexuality, this person (it seems to me) heard in the words of Isaiah a word about himself. The pivotal question for those holding the power in this situation (who are Phillip and the disciples) is the question asked by the eunuch: “what prohibits me from being baptized?” Philip’s far reaching and widely implicating response is this: Nothing but water. Nothing but water stands between us and the recognition of your full humanity. In a moment of interpretation of the text, brought upon him by the ‘situation in life,’ Philip’s thinking is radically transformed.

In his book, The End of Words: The Language of Reconciliation in a Culture of Violence, Duke Divinity School preaching professor Richard Lischer writes:

The multiple traumas of the twentieth and now the twenty-first centuries have produced a sense of futility among those with a vocation in language. Violence has a way of making a mockery of words. After Auschwitz, Hiroshima, Vietnam, Cambodia, Rwanda, all the words seem hollow. What does one say after a televised beheading? The proclamation of God’s justice or God’s love meets a wall of resistance first in the throat of the proclaimer, then in the ears of the hearer. … When the message of Jesus Christ can be Nazified or made the tool of racism, anti-Semitism, apartheid, or capitalism, it is time for preachers to shut up and take stock of themselves.” (Richard Lischer, The End of Words: The Language of Reconciliation in a Culture of Violence (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005, p.5.)

I hope that I have done that in the last few days. And I pray that God forgives and transforms me where I continue to need it.

I am reading. Well, I am always reading something. But recently I was laid up and so part of that time was spent reading.

Here is what I have been reading lately.

First, I read a book on Sabbath keeping. I have read many books on this subject. Long ago I read Marva Dawn’s “Keeping the Sabbath Wholly” and Eugene Peterson’s work that is sprinkled throughout with his view of the essential relationship between Sabbath keeping and pastoral work. I know about sabbath keeping. I am not so great at doing it.

So the when I was referred to MaryAnn McKibben Dana’s text “Sabbath in the Suburb” I was not expecting anything radically new. What I did expect was a very different perspective. Dana is a young, married, Pastor, with small children. Any one of these qualities can be what stops sabbath keeping in its tracks. I am painfully aware of the calendar most of our young families at church keep. The attraction for this book is MaryAnn’s voice. She shares a year in the life of her family, struggling to keep the sabbath. It was good to read, but I expect it would be ever better for some folks who find themselves at the same place in life that she is. The children complicate it, spouses complicate it, responsibilities complicate it, and technology becomes a leash with a very long reach. Dana deals with it all in her own way with timeless wisdom.

Too often I find books on sabbath keeping to seem unrealistic. When I read Peterson I wondered ‘why his church didn’t fire him.’ Some seep appropriate to the cloister but not to ‘real life.’ Dana’s book is real life through and through.

Another book I have been reading is Brian McLaren’s, “We Make the Road by Walking.” This text is a bit different than some of his other books. This one is designed and structured for groups. He calls it a ‘catechism’ but I wouldn’t classify it that way. Most catechisms I know about are prescriptive, or at least descriptive of the faith. I would categorize this as evocative. Brian says, straight out, that he is trying to introduce folks to the variant in Christianity that he believes is emerging now. And, if it is possible to introduce this post denominationalism, post modernity, post institutional, Christianity then I guess it should be through this kind of conversational style. There are fifty two chapters in this book. No coincidence. This would be a good resource for a small group ministry, or a prayer group.

One word of caution. This devotional will not be acceptable to some folks because in it McLaren seems unorthodox. For UCC folks his writing isn’t too threatening. Challenging, perhaps. Threatening, no. Apparently I am more ‘traditional’ than I thought, because I think this is a resource for folk whose faith has moved along on the journey. Developmentally, it would be helpful to have some Christian basics in your pocket before struggling with what may appear as a lot of ambiguity.

Another book I have been ‘nibbling’ at for some months is “Real Good Church” by Rev. Molly Phinney Baskette. Baskette was called to a small, urban, New England, church that was on hospice care. Surprisingly, they didn’t die. They went from a small, dozenish, gathering to a congregation of about 100 that can now support a solo pastor. What Baskette offers is not unique or new in the world of church development. What she does is get specific in terms of their experience and that makes it easier to translate into your situation. Is the space welcoming? Specifically, is the woman’s bathroom spotless and bright? Statistics suggest that it is women who decide if they will come back. She does not surprise in describing how attention to space, updated signs that make it seem like we’re alive, an ‘open and affirming’ welcome, and opportunity for participation (ownership, really).

This book is a whirlwind. Ok, an organized whirlwind, but a whirlwind none the less. Baskette lists items that deserve notation in every paragraph. That’s because she said she doesn’t like ‘swirly’ language but concrete language. So, plenty of examples are offered. Most importantly, epic failures. It is a comfortable read without technical ‘church-ease’ that is approachable by anyone.

One last book. Another friend recommended to me “A Center in the Cyclone: Twenty-First Century Clergy Self Care” by Bruce Epperly. The author addresses contemporary issues such as technology, our calendars, and the changing expectations for the pastoral ministry. Still, he describes practices for self-care that have been around for hundreds of years. While I think that Epperly is masterful in his treatment of various practices, and his use of ‘real life’ conversations with pastors is helpful, I am not sure what makes this particularly contemporary. Compared to Molly Phinney Baskette’s chapter, “Pastoral Self-Care and Administration” in her book Really Good Church; Epperly’s treatment is plain ancient. Don’t misunderstand me, I really appreciate the way Bruce pulls together the classic areas of spiritual and physical care and his suggestions are absolutely practical. I am all about most of the spiritual and physical practices he suggests. But unlike Epperly, Baskette offers specific ways to deal with twenty-first century issues like email, social networking, and voice messages. No ‘swirly’ language there.

Finally, there are two liturgical resources. The first is a new volume by John Knox. It is a “Feasting On the Word” resource for Advent. I use the commentaries and the ‘worship companions’ and i find both very helpful. I expected this to be new material, but it seems to be a compilation of the other two resources in to a single, seasonal, text.

The other text was a joyous surprise. Here at church we have a children’s sermon every Sunday. Any preacher knows that those 3 minutes are dangerous territory. Say too much, over the kids head. Distill a complex text down to next to nothing and don’t do it justice. So I ordered “Feasting on the Word: Guide to Children’s Sermons.” For some reason I thought that this book would be a collection of children’s sermons that I could cut and paste from, modifying to suit my situation. Imagine my surprise when I opened it to see one of the first chapters: “Who Are the Children We Invite to the Feast?: Language Acquisition and Cognitive Development.” It was a great reminder for me that the Children’s sermon must take into account an entirely different world than the ‘other’ sermon. I knew that. But I have been fed a steady diet of ‘canned’ and ‘cutesy’ children’s sermons for a long time. It was good to remember some solid theory that underlies the ‘teaching moment’ in a children’s sermon.

PROPER 21 A – September 28, 2014

“Saying No and Doing Yes”
Matthew 21:23-32

23 When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, ‘By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?’ 24Jesus said to them, ‘I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. 25Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?’ And they argued with one another, ‘If we say, “From heaven”, he will say to us, “Why then did you not believe him?” 26But if we say, “Of human origin”, we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.’ 27So they answered Jesus, ‘We do not know.’ And he said to them, ‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

28 ‘What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, “Son, go and work in the vineyard today.” 29He answered, “I will not”; but later he changed his mind and went. 30The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, “I go, sir”; but he did not go. 31Which of the two did the will of his father?’ They said, ‘The first.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax-collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.

Tonight used to be a particularly challenging night at my house. It is garbage night. I have two sons who, when they still lived at home it was their responsibility is to see to it that the garbage gets out to the curb.

This is particularly important because these young adults stay up much later at night that my wife and I, and they sleep in much later than we do. The garbage man comes at O’ dark ‘thirty in the morning. So putting the trash out the night before is a necessity.

This is what the Sunday night scene used to look like: They would be wanting to begin their evening, going here or there about nine-thirty. PM. The garbage is not at the curb. On their way out the door I say, “do you know tonight is garbage night?” “Oh yea, Dad,” they say, yep, got it. But with frustrating frequency I would get up in the morning, get ready to come here to the office, and as I leave I notice that there aren’t any garbage cans at the curb in front of our house.

I go back into the house, raise them both from their sleep and interrogate them. “Don’t you remember me telling you that last night was garbage night?” “Yes,” they reply. “why didn’t you take it out” I ask? “Oh,” one said, “I thought you were just giving me a ‘heads up.’

Now, I know that none of you have problems like this, that someone tells you they are going to do something and then doesn’t do it. And, my children are only home periodically and so it is I, myself, who occasionally lets myself down. Focusing on the gospel lesson, beginning in verse twenty eight, we find ourselves observing this very scene.

The response to Jesus isn’t always this way. The disciples immediately left their boats and followed Him. Dietrich Bonhoeffer describes the reasoning this way;
“the response of the disciples is an act of obedience; not a confession of faith in Jesus.” They did not consider His claims, make up their minds, and then decide whether to follow – they simply heard and obeyed…disciples are not so much people who follow as those who must follow. (Guiness, Os “The Call: Finding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose of Your Life.” W Publishing Group: Nashville. 1998, p. 65)

Many of you are parents and this status alone qualifies you as an expert in analysis of what is going on here when someone says yes and does no. Yet, I believe that others, without children, also perfectly understand what is happening. The greek word here is actually “children,” not sons. See it is not so much that the ‘Man’ had two biological sons, but that he had two heirs, two whom he claimed, and to them he offered a simple command.

You heard me right, it is a command. My father, when I would respond to his saying something similar would tell me: “That wasn’t a question.” The man is not offering alternatives as if it is equally acceptable that the ‘son’ lolly-gag around the house or ‘hang’ with his buddies over at the mall. No, he tells him to go work in the vineyard.

The young man says yes and does no. Another says no and does yes. And, in one way or another both men insult their father. They insult one who, in reality has authority over them, but who at the same time it is possible to disobey.

We do not know what the consequences were, in that moment. There is no mention of corporal punishment. There is no description of a follow up argument. Based upon my personal experience, this surprises me. But we just don’t know.

What we do know is that one young man had a change in heart. The text says that he changed his mind, but everyone knows that in the times that the gospels were written the idea of mind was not like our idea of mind and was closer to our idea of heart. The word here indicates that he ‘repented,’ literally, that he ‘changed direction.’ This is not so much an altering of how you think about something but is instead a change in what we do. The end of such conversations with my father was often punctuated with the phrase, “it’s just like lima beans, you don’t gotta like them, you just gotta eat them.”

As Christians told and retold this story, it dawned on them that this was more than an attack on the leaders of the synagogue. They began to see that the great danger was no different for them than it was for the Pharisees. See they knew their relationship with God was as heirs, as ones who through Jesus were made inheritors of the promise. They affirmed that Jesus the Christ the King. They also knew it was easy to say “Lord, Lord,” but not so easy to do what the Father asked. So we cannot hold this parable at arm’s length and shake our heads at the bad guys who ran the religious institution. This judgment is directed at all of us who claim the name Christian.

A friend of mine recently moved halfway across the country into the ‘bible belt.’ There are very few UCC churches near his new home, which isn’t necessarily a problem but he is definitely not religiously conservative so he doesn’t fit the local ‘mold.’ While visiting one church, for the fourth or fifth time, he spoke to the coordinator for the Adult Bible study. She asked him what he thought. He said, “I think a lot of people come to worship on Sunday and worship at another Chapel the rest of the week.” She did not understand his allusion. What he meant was that it is as if the fervent faith proclaimed on Sunday has no effect the rest of the week. I suppose he identified this trait because, well, it takes one to know one.

If this dichotomy between faith and practice is real, then no wonder the world turns away from our wordy gospel. What stops those outside of the church in their tracks and grabs their attention are those who have learned to move beyond the words. It isn’t only the Gandhis and the Rosa Parkses and the Mother Teresas who remind us what faith and commitment are all about. It’s those medical practitioners in Doctors Without Borders who travel on their own time and expense to work in out- of-the-way places like Liberia. They’re told that the people they treat are too far gone, the disease in that area is ‘too hot,’ and that ‘we are losing this battle with ebola.’ This doesn’t stop them — they do what they can do.

I admit that these grand illustrations are powerful. But for most of the world, there will be no opportunity for this kind of witness. Most of us are not called to such work. That doesn’t mean that we are not called to make the gospel visible in the world. That does not mean that what we do as a part of our following Jesus is unimportant. In our own daily tasks we can be Jesus’ hands and feet. One author claims that
“The church’s deepest challenge is neither political nor ideological, and certainly it is not military. It is spiritual and theological and comes to a head where behavior expresses belief and deeds express words.” (Guiness, Os “The Call: Finding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose of Your Life.” W Publishing Group: Nashville. 1998, p. 65)

Similarly, St. Paul told the disciples in Corinth: “Be disciples of me as I am of Christ.” Or as Dostoevsky’s Father Zossima said, “What is Christ’s word without an example?” Working in the vineyard is what we are called to do….and I hope that this serves as a reminder that not all ‘church’ happens on Sunday morning. And the good news is that it’s not always the ones who come to Sunday School or sing the hymns and pray the prayers who reflects the will of the Father. Sometimes it is the one who shows up on a Wednesday morning to take food donations to the food pantry. Sometimes it is someone who stops on their walk downtown and puts a dollar or two into someone’s paper cup. It may be one who drops off flowers to a shut-in. It could be, and most often is, simple kindnesses and graces shared with another, people doing what they can do, where they are — making the world a little better for Christ’s sake.

Let us pray:

O Thou that asketh much of him to whom thou givest much, have mercy. Remember me not for the ill I’ve done but for the good I’ve dreamed. Help me to be not just the old and foolish one thou seest now but once again a fool for thee. Help me to pray. Help me whatever way thou canst, dear Christ and Lord. Amen. (Buechner, Frederic, Godric’s prayer)

September 14, 2014

“Learning Gratitude”
Psalm 65
1 Timothy 6:6-19
Luke 12:13-21

Psalm 65 NRSV
Praise is due to you,
   O God, in Zion;
and to you shall vows be performed, 
   O you who answer prayer!
To you all flesh shall come. 
When deeds of iniquity overwhelm us,
   you forgive our transgressions. 
Happy are those whom you choose and bring near
   to live in your courts.
We shall be satisfied with the goodness of your house,
   your holy temple.
By awesome deeds you answer us with deliverance,
   O God of our salvation;
you are the hope of all the ends of the earth
   and of the farthest seas. 
By your strength you established the mountains;
   you are girded with might. 
You silence the roaring of the seas,
   the roaring of their waves,
   the tumult of the peoples. 
Those who live at earth’s farthest bounds are awed by your signs;
you make the gateways of the morning and the evening shout for joy.
You visit the earth and water it,
   you greatly enrich it;
the river of God is full of water;
   you provide the people with grain,
   for so you have prepared it. 
You water its furrows abundantly,
   settling its ridges,
softening it with showers,
   and blessing its growth. 
You crown the year with your bounty;
   your wagon tracks overflow with richness. 
The pastures of the wilderness overflow,
   the hills gird themselves with joy, 
the meadows clothe themselves with flocks,
   the valleys deck themselves with grain,
   they shout and sing together for joy.

1 Timothy 6:6-19

Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.

But as for you, man of God, shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. In the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you to keep the commandment without spot or blame until the manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ, which he will bring about at the right time—he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords. It is he alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see; to him be honour and eternal dominion. Amen.

As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.

Luke 12:13-21

Someone in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.’ But he said to him, ‘Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?’ And he said to them, ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’ Then he told them a parable: ‘The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” Then he said, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.’
What a pleasure it is to gather together today in the presence of such wealth. In the sanctuary today we are surrounded by the symbols and reality of the bounty of the earth. For some of us these gathered goods are more symbolic than they are tangible examples of the richness of our existence.

IMGP2850There is so much distance, for most of us, between all that we have received and the source of these riches. Fortunately, we have Christian brothers and sisters in our midst whose lives are lived close to the ground. And so I am quite aware that the pork I select from the meat case, packaged so neatly as it is on that foam tray, wrapped with that plastic wrap; I am aware that there was a time when it was not packaged this way.

Most people realize this, at least at some level. But the distance remains and it is easy to forget, not only that a pig gave its life, but also that someone fed this animal daily. And moreover, someone raised the grain and processed it so that it could be fed to this animal. Someone prepared the meat, packaged it, shipped it. That neat package of pork chops did not drop from the sky into my shopping basket.

The same can be said for other things we use or consume. We are often unaware of how these items got into our hands.

And sometimes we can be too aware. What I mean is that there are times when we look around at all that we possess and find great comfort in it. This is relative, of course. I have told you before of the fishing trip my dad and I participated in for years. Northern Ontario. Remote lake. Island in remote lake. No electric. No plumbing. Take in what you need. Carry out what you don’t need. No TV. No Cell phone, and no “onstar’ does not work there. And yet every time I have gone on that trip I sat near the fire eating some fresh fish, swatting at mosquitos or blackflies and thinking, I am living like a king.

Fortunately, we all receive a reminder that it was not, actually our own efforts that provided what we have.IMGP2851

You know what it looks like when we think that it was solely the sweat of our brow or the uniqueness of our own intellect or the resources of our own finances that created the bounty we enjoy. The reminder that what we enjoy is not, in fact, the product of our own efforts is a necessary correction. And nothing serves as quite a reminder as when we feel we are lacking.

John Reynolds, in his Anecdotes of the Rev. John Wesley (1828), tells the story of Wesley’s student days at Lincoln College in Oxford. A porter knocked on Wesley’s door one evening and asked to speak with him. After some conversation, Wesley noted the man’s thin coat (it was a cold winter night), and suggested that he had better get a warmer one. The porter replied: “This coat … is the only coat I have in the world – and I thank God for it.”

When asked if he had eaten, he replied: “I have had nothing today but a draught of spring water … and I thank God for that.”

Wesley, growing uneasy in the man’s presence, reminded him that the headmaster would lock him out if he did not soon return to his quarters. “Then what shall you have to thank God for?” Wesley asked.
“I will thank Him,” replied the porter, “that I have dry stones to lie upon.”

Deeply moved by the man’s sincerity, Wesley said, “You thank God when you have nothing to wear; … nothing to eat … [and] no bed to lie on. I cannot see what you have to thank God for.”

The man replied: “I thank God… that he has given me life and being; a heart to love Him, and a desire to serve Him.”

The man left with a coat from Wesley’s closet, some money for food and words of appreciation for his living testimony. Wesley later wrote these words in his Journal: “I shall never forget that porter. He convinced me there is something in religion to which I am a stranger.”

We are a people prone to see what is missing, rather than what is present. We see a nation at war, endless political infighting, economic woes, and declining moral values. We bemoan the downward spiral of our time without regard to our relationship with the God of grace, might, and providence. We need a new perspective.

This Psalm for today is usually categorized as a “Thanksgiving Psalm.” One scholar describes it, instead, as a “Reorientation Psalm.”

This is part of a learning cycle that we all participate in. It begins with orientation (assigning meaning to something); disorientation (or experiencing something that denies or diminishes that meaning); and finally Reorientation. Psalms of Orientation help create, not just remind us, a sacred ‘canopy’ where we as God’s people can live without fear and anxiety. These Orientation Psalms notice and proclaim that God’s creation is good, and that it works for our good.

And there is also the experience of disorientation. Bad things happen to good people. For no apparent reason this same creation seems to betray us. And yet, these Disorientation Psalms demand a God who is not absent but who is present in the dark days.

But Psalm 65 is a Psalm of reorientation. What it does is it begins, not at the beginning but at that low spot, the dark day, and it points toward a transformation that God has created. Paying close attention to this Psalm we can learn gratitude. Gratitude keeps us from thinking that being a disciple of Christ is all about us and our needs. It includes the act of noticing. Then our relationship with God is enhanced because we’re focused on God instead of ourselves.

IMGP2855All the Abrahamic faiths know this.

In Judaism, The day starts with the Shema: “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might “(Deuteronomy 6:5). The concluding prayer, the ‘alenu,’ thanks God for the particular destiny of the Jewish people. Gratitude for everything is appropriate in Judaism because all things come from God in the Hebrew world view; therefore, Jewish life is filled with this recognition. A prayer is said upon hearing good or bad news, and God is praised for everything. In this way, a divine perspective on life is maintained.

One pillar of Islam is fasting during the month of Ramadan. This period is intended to lead believers to a state of gratitude. “He wants you to complete the prescribed period and glorify him that He has guided you, and perchance ye shall be grateful “(Koran,2:185).

Jonathan Edwards, the 17-century revivalist preacher and theologian, described two types of gratitude in his classic work, “A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections.” He described these two types as natural gratitude and as a gracious or spiritual gratitude. Natural gratitude is thanks expressed to God for the benefits a person has received, whereas gracious gratitude has its source in the knowledge of the goodness of God independent of favors received. This is why Paul urges Timothy to set his hopes on God.

As a discipline, this means we are to able to realize our indebtedness to God and “practice” our faith because of what God has done for us. Thus, this ‘Discipline of Gratitude’ enables us to know God as we keep our focus on God’s promises and not our circumstances-His provision and care, not merely our experiences. See, following Jesus is not for our personal benefit; it is for His glory. Seeing life from the perspective of what I can’t get or what I deserve rather than what I have already been given will create problems in our relationship with God (and others). In a similar way, it is the ‘Love of Money’ that creates a problem…not money.

Look, no one is born grateful. We learn to be grateful, We can volunteer to do things for others and then feel gratitude for the work that others do for us. It takes a pause and sometimes an effort to identify something we are thankful for. Yet, the simple act of saying thank you teaches gratitude and this is the core of worship.

There has been a practice going around on the internet lately. On Facebook, participants are asked to list 3 things they thankful for, every day for a week. I think what would help this exercise be even better is to remember that those three things did not come out of nothing. Each one was a gift from God waiting for you to recognize it.

The purpose of Harvest Home is to create people of Gratitude. And for the faithful, gratitude needs to be directed in a certain direction. The practice of recognizing the blessings God has given us, and giving thanks is what today is about.

I have been off work for several weeks, recuperating from surgery. Before this started, I promised myself that I was going to get to some professional reading I have wanted to do for a while.

Didn’t exactly happen. At first, my brain seemed so ‘fuddled’ that I couldn’t concentrate on much of anything and my attention span was very brief. So much for reading.

Eventually, this all changed and I have done some reading, just not as much as I imagined.

One thing I did was finish two texts that I began reading together. The first was: “Zealot” by Resa Aslan. Along side this I was also reading: “Jesus of Nazareth: What He Wanted, Who He Was” by Gerhard Lofink. Being that Aslan is a historian, his text was rich with description of the ‘sitz em lieben’ (setting in life) of Jesus. I thought the book was well done, even though I did not agree with the conclusions that Aslan reached. You may remember that this author received a good bit of criticism about his authorship from some evangelicals, because he is a muslim. I did not share this concern as by all accounts he is a fine historian and this text intends to be a historical review, not dogmatics.

This is not true for Lohfink’s text. Because Lohfink is such a fine biblical scholar and ‘practitioner’ (he is a jesuit scholar), the book speaks not so much to history (although that is one lens used) but rather to the consequences of ‘what he wanted and who he was.’

I also read three other books about the church. The first one, recommended by a bookseller and friend, Byron Borger, was “Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient way of Jesus”. The second was “The New Parish: How Neighborhood Churches are Transforming Mission, Discipleship, and Community.” The Third in this grouping was “Strangers and Pilgrims Once More” by Addisoin Hodges Hart.

“Slow Church” is basically an affirmation of what Byron Borger wrote: “We need courage to say no to “bigger is better” assumptions and the patience to see what better desires and habits will emerge among us.” What is most valuable about this book is that while it critiques our hectic lifestyles and our all too often capitalistic version of church, it also makes the case for an alternative. For me, at least, I usually slow down because I am exhausted or am forced to because of some other circumstance beyond my control. These authors make a case for the faithfulness of slowing down so that we might notice each other and the world around us and in so doing transform our lives. The final chapter is titled “Dinner Conversations.” I immediately thought Eucharist. But actually it is about that very practice of sitting around the table with old or new friends and enjoying food and conversation, only to realize much later, when the busboy is trying to mop around your chair, that the evening has flown by.

Dave Klundt reviews the book “A New Parish” On “The Burner,” a blog for Fuller Theological Seminary, saying:

As an alternative to the technique-driven, one-size-fits-all, packaged approach to ministry, The New Parish authors suggest faithful presence, entering “into a perpetual practice of careful responsiveness to the Holy Spirit speaking through your context” (72). Surveying four “modes of church” (seeker, heritage, community, and missional), they suggest each tends to disintegrate and distance people from place. In response, they envision New Parish leaders to find a new ecclesial center where “the love of God manifests itself in holistic love of neighbor” (90). Finally, the New Parish must engage the new commons – “all the dimensions of life for which everyone in your neighborhood shares a common concern” (specifically in the areas of education, civics, economy, and environment) (95). The New Parish church’s role in a particular place is to “exist as connective tissue between every issue” (111).

I am reminded of a much older book, ‘The Dynamics of Religion” by Bruce Reed. Like “A New Parish” it uses a sociological model to examine the church and its various ‘styles’. Because Reed was an Anglican, living in the UK, he uses the term Parish in a way that is foreign to most americans. Parish is a geographical region for which that particular church is ‘responsible,’ religiously speaking.

What is valuable about this text is that (perhaps) it takes up the heart of what ‘slow church’ is asking and encourages the Body of Christ to discern our ‘neighbors’ and their ‘needs’ and not just ‘how we get more people in the pew.’ Engagement with the ‘common concern’ is also a corrective to the otherworldly focus we often have. It answers the questions my adult children sometimes ask of the church: Why, and So What? This is what the authors believe is transforming Mission, Discipleship, and Community.

One thing I particularly like about this book is that it forces ecumenism on us. To these authors, the “Church” is not a particular church or denomination, but rather “The Church(s)” in a place. The intentional connection between churches of various stripes, mission projects, and even business that cooperate for the ‘common concern’ is an essential element of this “New Parish” idea.

I also read “The Bible’s Yes to Same Sex Marriage: How an Evangelical’s Mind Was Changed.” This book was an important read for me. I appreciated it, not because it changed my mind on anything, or because I agreed (totally) with the author. I appreciated the honesty and clarity of thought that went into David Achtemeier’s changed mind.

Because the state I live in has now legalized same sex marriage, pastor’s no longer have the luxury of hiding behind the fact that, “it’s not legal here.” So, in my view, a conversation has to be had in the congregation to decide if ‘we will honor any marriage license and conduct a wedding for those holding it.”

Some years ago I realized that the for and against arguments are not rational. Mostly, they are emotional. That is why Achtemeier’s story is so compelling.

For me, though, I don’t believe that a church should honor every couple who wants to be married in the church by doing so. I believe that the acceptance or rejection has to do with the nature of the relationship. Is it abusive? Is there a strong commitment? Do they understand this as a ‘faith’ event and not a ‘civil’ event? Does the couple have some connection with the congregation? (in my case I don’t believe holding weddings is good evangelism and I don’t want to be a local ‘wedding chapel’). You may have noticed that none of these questions had to do with race, ethnicity, religion (as in interfaith), or sexual orientation. With Achtemeier, I ask the question, ‘does, and will, this covenant commitment glorify God.’

I also read Nadia Boltz Webber’s Autobiographt “Pastrix.” The title is her embrace of a derogatory term one person labeled her with. She has had quite a personal journey, from stand up comedy and addiction to the founding of a congregation in the ELCA, “House for All Sinners and Saints” in Denver. Although her story is quite unique, folks who have heard the call to ordained ministry will recognize the strange paths that God calls us to travel. We may not describe it with quite the same ‘ahem’ coarse language but the experience of discernment is similar. It is an excellent read (don’t let some of the language disturb you). She describes one way that the church can reach and bless folks who are usually on the margins of our congregations.

I also read two ‘narrative’ cookbooks. I say narrative because both are much more than a collection of recipes. The first is a book by someone i cam across who shares many of the interests I do, Hank Shaw. It is his book “Hunt Gather Cook.” I hovered over this book. For instance, in chapter 14 Shaw discusses the question “Why hunt?” See Shaw wasn’t always a hunter. As he says, “For most people, foraging for wild plants poses no moral problem.” He recognizes that the whole business of hunting can seem weird or alien to some folk. The reality is that all meat comes from somewhere, and some animal (with the possible exception of stone crabs) had to die in the process. But really, with stone crabs they catch them, lop off a claw and put them back…not all that civilized really. In this chapter he covers how to take some specific animals from the field to the table. This is, in my estimation, why so many people do not like wild game. First and for most, said game was handled improperly from the get go. And then Shaw offers some basic recipes. This covers the second reason some folks don’t like wild game; it wasn’t cooked properly. This summer I invited over a couple of friends who also guide upland hunts (and their wives). I prepared 3 kinds of sausages (2 fresh and 1 smoked), A grilled venison loin. One friend stared in disbelief as his wife went back for seconds saying, “She never eats wild game.” I treasure those moments of ‘conversion’ when someone tells me they don’t like wild game and then they are surprised when I tell them that’s what they are eating. Anyway, Shaw’s book is well written and was interesting.

The second cookbook is titled “Charcuterie: the Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing.” This book was just what I was looking for! Last Christmas the family got me a smoker. I have used it for the normal stuff, but wanted to do it right. (it is quite easy to make people sick if your sausage or cured meat.) These Authors, Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn are chefs from my home state, Michigan. Their credentials are stellar.

I got this book on the advice of Hank Shaw (mentioned above). It covers the waterfront speaking on such matters as pate to dry cure sausage, salted fish and confit. Part of the reason I wanted to read this book was its opening chapters where the authors address the question: “Why bother?” In the days of the refrigerator, dominoes pizza, and the 24 hour grocery store, These guys make a case for this labor of love called Carcuterie.

Well, maybe I did do some reading after all.

June 15, 2014

“Something to Be and Do”
Psalm 8 – 2 Corinthians 13:5-13

I hope you will not be too disappointed if on this Trinity Sunday I do not spend much time trying to unpack the mystery of the Holy Trinity in a way that is easy for us to understand. Instead, I want to share with you a text about a pastor who is under fire and a congregation that is in conflict.

The assigned reading is a short and sweet benediction of sorts. I thought it would be good for you to hear the paragraph that precedes it:
5 Examine yourselves to see whether you are living in the faith. Test yourselves. Do you not realize that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless, indeed, you fail to pass the test! 6I hope you will find out that we have not failed. 7But 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. 8For we cannot do anything against the truth, but only for the truth. 9For we rejoice when we are weak and you are strong. This is what we pray for, that you may become perfect. 10So I write these things while I am away from you, so that when I come, I may not have to be severe in using the authority that the Lord has given me for building up and not for tearing down.

11 Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell. Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. 12Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the saints greet you.
13 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.

St. Paul has come to the church in Corinth at the height of their disagreement. We do not know what sort of whispering behind the scenes has been going on. We do not know what small group has rallied about some preference of practice that is being changed. If someone was disappointed at the singing of an unfamiliar hymn or the rearrangement of the furniture we are not privy to the particulars.

We do know that that this disagreement is unbecoming of a Christian church. Passive aggressive behavior may well be acceptable outside in the world, but not in the church. Dividing and conquering, that great Napoleonic tactic, is not appropriate. Bullying others into cooperation or at least resignation is not ok.

It is a bit surprising to me that Paul doesn’t address the Corinthians directly, saying, “Where is the gospel in all this?” After all, that is the point of the church, the spread of the gospel in word and deed. Everything else is just a happy accident.

It is also surprising that he doesn’t spend a great deal of time defending himself. Despite the obvious amount of personal pain that this friction is causing him he turns instead to the basic message of the faith and urges the Corinthians to ‘do something,’ and to ‘remember whose you are.’

First, Paul urges the Corinthians to ‘test themselves.’ It is the path of least resistance to cling to our own interests and understanding of events. Something comes up that we don’t agree with or is inconsistent with our own practices; the first response is usually to question the other. And, if we are thoroughly honest with ourselves we often enter into this questioning only to discredit the other and not in a spirit of openness or inquiry. And so Paul urges the Corinthians to ‘test themselves.’

To do this means that we have to pause, to take a step back, honestly unpack our own motives and reasoning. It is a time of self-examination that intends to foster self-improvement.

This advice is not always taken well. See, to enter into it means that you need to assume, even provisionally, that the problem is not out there, but rather in here. It is ‘Pogo’s’ famous quote “We have met the enemy and they is us.”

I understand this. I have been in the midst of more than one disagreement between otherwise nice church folk who have a tendency to hurl accusations at the other and to assume that they (or I) am the innocent victim, the one who is right.

Without self examination and entertainment of the idea that the other position may be correct, relationships become tenuous, and in the worse cases, break. More than 600 years ago, Ignatius of Loyola wrote a guide for spiritual growth; and one of these exercises might just be helpful in this situation:

…it should be presupposed that every good Christian ought to be more eager to put a good interpretation on a neighbor’s statement that to condemn it. Further, if one cannot interpret it favorably, one should ask how the other means it. If that meaning is wrong, one should correct the person with love; and if this is not enough, one should search out every appropriate mean through which, by understanding the statement in a good way, it may be saved (SpEx 22).

This exercise may seem difficult and even ‘abnormal,’ but that is why it is called an exercise.

What Paul seeks to remind the Corinthians of is that, without an intentional change in our way of reacting, these conflicts allow the unity of Christ to become more and more frayed, sometimes to the point that someone will claim ‘you do not belong to Christ.’ Whenever we insist that the other no longer belongs to Christ we give ourselves over to that which is not Christ. We give ourselves up for inappropriate anger, or self-righteousness. Where is the gospel in this?

In previous correspondence, Paul urged the Corinthians to remember that ‘you are the body of Christ, and individually members of it.’ This is a call to remember whose you are. If the admonition to ‘test themselves’ is to do something; the second admonition, to ‘pull yourselves together,’ ‘or put things in order’ actually means to maintain the body of Christ. This is a plea for wholeness, not in some medicinal fashion but rather in an organic way; evidenced in the protective way that Paul seeks to ensure the survival of this flawed and fragile community that he birthed. This begins as we remember whose we are. We are God’s own people.

Paul’s scripture was the Psalms. He may have turned to Psalm 8 to help the Corinthians. When I consider the moon and the stars, the whole of the cosmos that God has created, why does God pay so much attention to us? Paul knows this. His concern is not only that they maintain the faith he gave to them, but rather that they find a way to maintain the unity of the church. Pastors will come and go, members are born and will die. What remains? We are not the first of God’s people and we are not the last. In that same Walt Kelly, Pogo, comic strip, Porky Pine once said, “don’t take life so serious son it aint nohow permanent.”

It would also be good if the people over in Corinth would remember that they are a little less than God. I know, I know, some people act like garbage sometimes. One morning this winter I looked out and saw our garbage cans overflowing with trash from holiday festivities. I thought, ‘that’s awful.’ That very evening it snowed and the next morning the garbage can looked so clean and white, a splendor of glory.

It would be tempting to remind the Corinthians of what Paul told them in his previous letter, in chapter 13, the love chapter we like to read at weddings. In practice, however, I think that this second letter is better for relationships. When all is sweetness and light it is easy to look at a friend and recite that treatise on love. It is better to hear these words when a day of difficulty has arisen. It is on those days it is good to remember that the other person is a child of God. It is good to try and hear what is good about what they are saying, and if you can’t find it, ask them to explain it to you again. If you still don’t agree, simply tell them that. It need not have an effect on how they feel about you or how you feel about them. Your commitment to one another is all you ever had in common anyway. Listen to what Paul tells the church. Then, take a look at the stars tonight and remember how small you are. See if that doesn’t give you some perspective.

How does Paul put it? “Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell. Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you.”



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