Monday, March 31, 2014

Lent 5 A -Ezekiel 37:1-14

Ezekiel 37:1-14
“Mortal, can these bones live?” is a question in a dream sequence so it would be a mistake to imagine a valley of bones literally putting on flesh and blood even though we certainly hope our dry bones will one day be resurrected in whatever valley they eventually come to rest. But for the first readers of these words the literal interpretation was that their figurative dry bones held captive in the valley of Babylon would one day put on the sinews and flesh and blood that would finally breathe freedom in the land of promise. In a real sense “by the waters of Babylon we sat and wept” (Psalm 137) would experience “the ransomed of Lord will return unto Zion with singing…” (Isaiah 35:10) That may have been the dream sequence that inspired James Weldon Johnson (1871 – 1938) to pen “Dem Dry Bones” anticipating the day when “I have a dream” (Dr. Martin Luther King) was spoken in the place of power and “Let Freedom Ring” animated the dry bones of an oppressed people to demand equality in the “home of the brave and the land of the free.” 

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Lent 4 A - John 9:1-41

John 9:1-41
The disciples ask Jesus to name the blame for the man’s blindness even though the way they understand it the burden fell fully on the man’s parents. Bad things happen to people who do bad things and Psalm 51 notwithstanding “Behold, I was sinner from my birth” it is difficult to find a sin that can be done in utero. Jesus chooses the third way and blames God. I mean if we push his response to its cynical conclusion the man’s blindness affords Jesus the opportunity to heal him so that God’s work might be revealed in him; though I bet the man would have preferred God gifted sight a little earlier in life. But maybe Jesus’ response rejects sin as cause and effect for the way the world works without making it a show and tell for God either. It is what it is. People are born blind and no one can clearly see a connection. So while it appears as if the physical healing is the place where “God’s works are revealed in him” it is actually in the transformation of the man who had endured years of condemning comments whispered within earshot that the real miracle of sight takes place. For the first time the question, “whose fault was it?” doesn’t matter to him and he sees God up close and personal in “the man Jesus”. The respectable rabbis revile him because the way he received his sight doesn’t fit their view of the world even though they know “if this man was not from God he could do nothing.” The more tragic "sin" in the story is that the man's parents having endured the blame for his blindness all these years cannot give thanks for the miracle in front of their very eyes and in their response “he is of age ask him” shut their eyes to their son for fear of losing even their back seat in the synagogue. The seeing man born blind with nowhere else to go finds the only one who will welcome him and in his confession “Lord, I believe” God’s work is revealed within him.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Lent 4 A - Ephesians 5:8-14

Ephesians 5:8-14
The trouble with “find out what is pleasing to the Lord” is that well-meaning “children of the light” have conflicting Bible based visions as to what the Lord likes and dislikes and without the proverbial lightning strike the Lord is not so clear as to which voice we should obey. It was easier to figure out what side God was on before Einstein muddied the waters with relativity. As long as there was a clear distinction, black and white so to speak, you could live as children of the light and justify something as shameful as slavery without the cover of darkness. But if we begin and end with the light that is the event of the cross – that is – what does it mean for God to enter the reality of our existence through the person of Jesus – we come to see that personal piety (do not do shameful things in the dark) is inextricably tied to social responsibility (do not do unjust things in the light). Sleeper (i.e. church) Awake!

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Psalm 23

Psalm 23
In twenty plus years of ministry I can’t remember a funeral that did not include the congregation speaking the 23rd psalm in the 1611 version approved by King James. It’s the only passage of scripture I prefer in the King James Version because there is something about the Lord “maketh me, leadeth me, restoreth me, yea though I walk… thou preparest for me…” that makes the ancient language a present comfort in times of sorrow. It may be generational and in the future any version of the psalm will do (as a good number of young people who seem to have no dog in this hunt have told me) but I can’t help but think there are some times that the present life and loss calls for ancient poetry because the reality of death does not change from one generation to another even as the hope of the words penned by David evoke the eternal – “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever”.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Lent 4 A - 1 Samuel 16:1-13

1 Samuel 16:1-13
The Lord does not judge by outward appearance or the height of one’s stature even though Samuel feels compelled to tell us Jesse’s youngest son was ruddy and handsome and had beautiful eyes. Maybe his GQ good looks led David the shepherd to wander despite the desires of the heart only God could see. He doesn’t suffer Saul’s fate but handsome David, consumed by his passions, doesn’t get away scot free. The sword of conflict never leaves his house and he will have as many enemies within his own palace as without. So what is it that makes David a man after God’s own heart? Most will quote Psalm 51, his act of poetic contrition after Nathan nails him with a story of rich man who steals a poor man’s perfect lamb. “You are the man!” David, like so many of us, is capable of self deception on a grand scale until confronted by the truth from which no one can hide. “Create in me a clean heart, O God” is as much an appeal to God’s own heart as it is David’s desperate desire for his heart to return to the relationship he had with God before his weak will threatened to ruin it all. And therein lies our hope. In the cross of Christ we have every reason to trust that God’s heart is inextricably bound to ours and that with or without ruddy good looks our wandering ways cannot separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Lent 3 A - John 4:5-42

Nicodemus, hiding from prying eyes, seeking answers, looks for Jesus at night. The Samaritan woman, hiding from judgmental eyes, seeking water, is found by Jesus in the heat of the day. Nicodemus, the teacher of Israel, doesn't step out into the open until Jesus is dead. The unnamed woman at the well gains the courage to be exposed as a believer in a single encounter. Of course Nicodemus had a lot to lose while the woman at the well never had anything to begin with. Even so she is just as confused over the meaning of living water as the teacher of Israel was with being born again. But where Nicodemus goes away perplexed everything comes into focus for her when Jesus tells her, “I am he.” She says she came to believe because “he told me everything I had ever done” but I imagine the people of Sychar kept track of her history and reminded her of it on a regular basis. It must be that Jesus told her story differently than the people she was avoiding in Sychar. Jesus knew all the things that labeled her as less than respectable but spoke to her as if none of that mattered. Without knowing it she was drinking deeply at the well of living water. When she realized her thirst was quenched she did what Jesus did. He did not hold her history against her and she did not hold their hatred against them but went to find those who made her draw water in the heat of the day with the good news, “everyone who drinks of this water will never thirst again.” No doubt she went back to the man who wasn't her husband. There were not many options in the first century for a woman married five times. But then the woman who went to the well at noon was not the same woman who came home that night and one hopes the city of Sychar noticing the difference was changed as well.    

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Lent 3 A - Romans 5:1-11

Romans 5:1-11
Since it is God’s love that is proved in the death of Christ whatever Paul means by being “saved from the wrath of God” cannot be understood as an angry God needing to be appeased or there would be hell to pay. It just doesn’t follow that a wrathful God initiates the action to be reconciled to us (humanity) while we were weak, while we were sinners, while we were God’s enemies, as if God needed to kill something in order to settle down and spare humanity from a whole world of hurt. To be sure there are those who still hold to a classic doctrine of atonement where God’s holiness does not allow for mercy without payment due but that would mean God's mercy is in bondage to human understanding (even if you claim your understanding is God's understanding). Again if it is God’s love that is proved surely God is free to forgive with or without the cross. So what is the purpose of Jesus death on the cross? I affirm it is for the forgiveness of sins but not to appease a wrathful God but rather for a beyond belief merciful God to transform us so that what Paul preaches in Romans might be accomplished. Peace with God means we no longer live as God’s enemies but instead our love for God is proved when we boast not in our strength or our piety but in our hope. That hope is not illusory but tested by suffering, proved by enduring, confirmed by character and is the way we live the faith that justifies and in the end is the only hope of peace for the humanity God loves.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Lent 3 A - Psalm 95

Psalm 95
Those of us who were born into Lutheran Church Missouri Synod pews some fifty years ago will remember Psalm 95 as the Venite in the Order of Matins. It was printed on pages 33 and 34 of The Lutheran Hymnal in such a way that one had to flip back and forth throughout the singing of it. We frowned on user friendly worship in those days. Venite is Latin for “Come” and served as the call to worship, though if I remember correctly we left out the threats at the end where God loathing the “they do not regard my ways” people swore to lead them in circles until every last one of them died in the desert. There is no doubt that the hardening of the heart leads to spiritual cardiac arrest but I have difficulty imagining that God loathes those on spiritual life support. The consequence we suffer for not listening to the Lord’s voice is that we are on our own. That does not mean we suffer the hatred of God who in anger despises the “people of his pasture and the sheep of his hand” who don’t stay in the pen. Rather for the sake of “a people whose hearts go astray” the shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine in search of the one (Matthew 18:12) “was led like a lamb to the slaughter…” (Isaiah 53:7) O come let us worship and bow down for the Lord was put to the test and the proof of God’s intention for every generation of hardened hearts is the cross.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Lent 3 A - Exodus 17:1-7

Exodus 17:1-7
The congregation of the Israelites is a pain in the Lord’s you know what. And poor Moses standing between this quarrelsome people and God (who when push comes to shove is not to be trifled with) no doubt regrets the day he listened to a burning bush. To be fair dying of thirst in the desert drives people to do all sorts of crazy things including provoking the Lord Almighty with complaints. Even in their desperation they had good reason to trust the Lord for when they complained of hunger manna and quail arrived in time for dinner. But these people have a short memory, forgetting the Lord’s faithfulness in the past in light of their present pressing need. We tend to be more polite in our relationship with the Almighty predicating our “demands” with please but whether one complains or pleads ultimately the question is the same. “Is the Lord among us or not?” Our dry times of trouble call for patient trust so that our present pressing need does not speak more loudly than the memory of deliverance when in the past “the Lord among us” was like water from the rock. 

Friday, March 14, 2014

Lent 2 A - John 3:1-17

John 3:1-17
 Some of us familiar with faith, comfortable in the pew of our choice, are more like Nicodemus than we care to admit. Not ready to come out of the church closet where we wonder if our concrete answers rest on shaky ground we do our seeking at night, so to speak, so as not to be exposed as doubters. But the same Spirit that drove Nicodemus to risk his standing in the Sanhedrin drives us. There is something more to Jesus than our catechisms can contain or explain. So in the same way that the teacher of Israel seeks out the peasant preacher at night to ask the question most on his mind, “who are you?” we come with our own questions. Jesus, who is not one to give an easy answer, is surprisingly straight forward. “God so loved the world…” is all one needs to know. That is the same world (cosmos) that loving the darkness “knew him not”. The same world that John tells us hated Jesus, the world in which one will have troubles, the world from which disciples will need to be protected, etc. etc. The feel good John 3:16 on coffee cups and t-shirts and banners in the end zone cannot be fully appreciated without recognizing that the world God loves is hell bent on destruction and not interested in anything God has to offer. It is for that reason that God allowed the world to do its worst so that in his dying the world might receive life whether it wants it or not. But isn't there a choice to make? Of course there is and God was the one who made it. We live God’s choice when loving God we love the world. It takes some time but eventually the love of God in Nicodemus sees the light of day and he risks everything to ask Pilate for the body of the crucified Christ. What he didn't know then, but of course knows now, is that Jesus (God saves) made Nicodemus (the people’s victory) possible. 

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Lent 2 A - Romans 4:1-5, 13-17

Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
I wonder what Abraham would think of the three children that name him father? All three claim first born rights that exclude the others even though one child was adopted and the other was born to Abram’s slave Hagar. Is this what God had in mind? That the many nations fathered would include Judaism, Christianity and Islam?  And how in the world did a small fortress city at the crossroads of empires (the El Paso of the Middle East as a Texan born and bred once said to me) come to be the center of the spiritual universe? I know Paul does not state it explicitly in chapter four but it would seem to follow that God would desire peace between father Abraham’s children in the city named Yerushalayim (abode of peace). I’m not making any predictions as to how that might happen as the only way I even entertain the hope is because I believe the One who suffered a violent end in the abode of peace can “make all things new”. Therefore what has to be let go for peace to last, even within the adopted child’s immediate family, is the notion that whatever God gives us is wages owed for work done. Our temptation is to move faith from the credit column to the debit side of the ledger so that even when we are not doing anything we can claim we did something to guarantee the adopted child is the only sibling that will receive the inheritance. Faith lets the promise rest on grace is what Paul writes to the Romans so let’s leave it there and trust that the God who brings life to the dead and calls into existence things that do not exist will work out the details.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Lent 2 A - Psalm 121

Psalm 121
Psalm 121 is read at graveside services even though it would seem help from the hills is a little late in arriving. But then funerals are for the living not the dead. It is the living who struggle to hold onto to “my help comes from the Lord” in the sight of loved ones laid to rest, even when death is a welcome release. To speak of our God who neither slumbers nor sleeps In the face of life’s inevitable end denies death the last word for the deceased as well as those who mourn. There are times, of course, when the ancient words alone fail to help, when desperate prayer is spoken into deafening silence, when the Lord awake seems absent.  It is for those trying times that God gifts us with help closer to home than the hills. Speaking the ancient words of faith together, even with weeping eye and through clenched teeth, keeps us from the evil of hopelessness and in the life of the community our lives are kept.  All of which remembers the help that came from the holy hill of Calvary when the Lord who neither slumbers nor sleeps slept in death and three days later rose again so that our final “going out” would  be our forever “coming in”. 

Monday, March 10, 2014

Lent 2 A - Genesis 4:1-4

Genesis 4:1-4
This is the story of ultimate faith, though to be fair I imagine the opportunity for advancement was limited for Semitic septuagenarians in the land of the Chaldeans. Even so it took a leap of faith for Abram to go home and tell Sari to pack the bags and load the camel because God told him he was destined for favored nation status in a “God only knows where” land. So while it is the promised pot of gold at the end of the rainbow that makes the offer tempting it is ultimately Abraham’s trust that God can deliver the goods that gets him to leave the center of civilization to wander in the wilderness. Whether Abraham knew it or not God blessed him to be a blessing (even with the caveat about the cursed) since “all peoples will be blessed” would not be “all” without everyone being included. When you read the rest of the Abraham story his trust was less than trustworthy and he did as much maneuvering as faithful following. Of course we do the same and before leaving country, people and home we generally “trust but verify”. In the very end Abraham put his trust where his heart was when with the seed of the promise on the altar of sacrifice and his hand raised to do the unthinkable God intervened and spared the only son. For us it is not a ram but the God of promises who is caught like a ram in the thicket on Calvary’s hill and the only Son not spared is cursed so that we might be blessed to be a blessing.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Lent 1 A - Matthew 4:1-11

Matthew 4:1-11
It is right after Jesus’ baptism when The Voice from heaven declared “You are my beloved Son” that the Spirit led him into the wilderness for the time of testing. Famished after fasting, the tempter’s first attempt appeals to Jesus’ stomach. “Turn theses stones into bread” is an appetizing option after forty days and nights without food.  But Jesus is well fed on the word of God and trusting The Voice that declared him The Beloved he is not as hungry as the devil thought. The consummate con man changes tactics and using “every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” tempts Jesus to give a demonstration of his trust. This temptation is trickier than it appears because proof negates trust but Jesus knows that testing The Voice denies the truth that he is The Beloved.  Believing the third time’s the charm the devil goes back to the basics and uses the temptation that worked so well in the garden. It is a temptation to take power from The Voice who called him The Beloved, even though it appears in bowing down Jesus would have to give power away. But the devil is offering an option, a discount if you will. Bow down on a high mountain or climb a hill to the place called the skull. It’s your choice, Jesus, and don’t let some Voice tell you different. To which Jesus replied, “Nice try.” And the devil said, “damn you” and left knowing he’d have to meet Jesus on the hill and there wasn’t a chance in hell he was going to fool the Beloved there. And the angels came smiling, laughing, rejoicing, as Jesus breathed a sigh of relief and rested in their arms.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Lent 1 A - Romans 5:12-19

Romans 5:12-19
“But the free gift is not like the trespass.” If we take that statement and run with it then the trespass is not nearly as universal as is the free gift of grace. That is not explicitly stated, but (and granted this is a big but) if the free gift is greater than the one trespass by which “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) then “how much more” must mean just that. The effect of the “one act obedience” means the free gift is greater than the trespass as God in Christ was “reconciling the world to himself not counting people’s sins against them…” (2 Corinthians 5:19) Of course some argue that the one act of obedience only makes up for the one act of disobedience (original sin) and that everything else that you or I have done or left undone still has a “payment due” attached to it. That’s not such a free gift good deal if you ask me and so I going to trust that in the end God is going to pick up my tab. Does that mean we party hardy and order a round of sin for everyone? Of course not. Have you ever received a free gift you know you didn't deserve and couldn't possibly pay for even if you wanted to? The only thing you can do when that happens is hug the one who gave you the free gift and say thank you, thank you, thank you and then try to live in the light of such an act of unconditional love. Oh, yes, and there’s usually crying involved but it’s not required. 

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Lent 1 A - Psalm 32

Psalm 32
The Lord’s hand “heavy upon me” day and night is a blessing and not a curse for we are more adept at self-deceit than we care to admit. It is a sad truth that our strength to bear our sin silently often has to be dried up as by the heat of summer as the body of our reasonable rationalizations has to waste away until someone hears (or sees) our day and night groaning and invites us to “fess up.” When we finally give voice to the inner monologue and truthfully tell another the burdens we bear silently the “happy are those” is experienced like a breath of fresh air in the stale rooms of our lives. It would be nice if “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord” could happen without a third party but silent confession is still… well, silent. So find someone you trust and spill your guts because silence is never golden when it comes to what’s good for the soul.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Lent 1 A - Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
“Did God say….” is the crafty question that gets Adam and Eve to doubt God’s goodness despite the fact that they live in paradise. On the other hand you could read the story as the ultimate set up. What was God thinking? You don’t populate paradise with naive naked people, a “crafty” serpent and a tree in the middle of the garden that was “good for food, a delight to the eyes and desired for making one wise” that btw you can’t touch. But if you read the story after the fact (as I do) you are not as concerned with the details as you are with the truth it tells. Given paradise we would want a little bit more. Maybe that is the fatal flaw of creation. In the beginning it is God who is not satisfied. Moving through the shapeless void God’s spirit sweeps over the darkness of the deep and out of God’s infinite imagination God calls forth creation culminating in a creature that is equally restless. “In the image of God humankind was created…” (Genesis 1:27) So does God touch the untouchable by eating the forbidden fruit by creating creatures capable of breathtaking beauty and equally breath-stealing cruelty? Maybe I've told too much of the truth that I see in this story but then I think that God is willing to know us better than we are willing to know ourselves. Given paradise God would give it up to touch us.