Sunday, January 25, 2015

Wilderness

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.  Matthew 4:1

Quick review: Matthew begins with a genealogy, the deep roots of Jesus' family tree, including people whose halos did not shine the brightest.  He moves on to shining a light on Joseph, Jesus' adoptive father, who swims against cultural and religious expectations by dismissing Mary quietly.  By doing that Joesph takes on the shame of a broken relationship, since people would assume the baby Mary carried was his and he was not taking responsibility.  For this Matthew calls him "righteous," which stretches our understanding of that word.  Then, we get visitors from the East, who knock on Herod's door, causing a nervous Herod to go into hyper mode when he hears that there is a "King of the Jews".  When the Wise Ones leave for home by a road that did not pass by Herod's palace, Herod inflicts infanticide on people, creating misery and pain and reminding us of the ways people in power today still use their influence to hurt rather than help.  Jesus and his parents flee to Egypt, so that Jesus' life will echo...echo...echo Moses' life.  Eventually, Herod dies, a new regime is put into place to serve at the pleasure of the Roman empire.  It is safe for Jesus to stop being a refuge and return to his homeland.  We then have a gap in Jesus' life from age 5 or so, to the moment he shows up on the shores of the Jordan for baptism.  Whew!  And that is just the first three chapters! 

You can click here to watch a sermon from January 11th I preached on baptism.   But it is those moment following baptism, as the echo...echo...echo of God's voice claiming Jesus as a beloved son fade into the blue sky that is so powerful.  Jesus does not jump up and down, shouting, "Look at me, I am the king of the world."  It is not cue dramatic music ala Rocky Theme or Chariots of Fire.  The amazing moment of being named and claimed by a child of God is follow by...wait for it...temptation!?

I once heard a theologian say that the moment you get what you want, whether it is the corner office or relationship or the recognition, you are going to be tested.  You will be tested because the dreams you'd built in your imagination will clash with the harsh realities of life in the office...or relationship... or with the award on your wall.  The dream and reality meet and it is not always cordial.

But, you may wonder, what is the deal with the devil?  So often we picture the devil as some being in a red suit, pitch fork, piercing eyes, the overseer of the underworld no one wants to visit  But the better translation here is "accuser".  Ever gotten a new position and found an "accuser", someone who tests and tries your patience?  A new employee you are supposed to supervise who undermines and trash talks?  A co-worker who you confide in, only to have it come back to bite you?  We all have made trips to the wilderness, we have spent some time there.  So did Jesus.

This may not make everyone feel better.  But, for me, it makes a difference that it was not all pony rides and chocolate rivers in Jesus' life.  He was tempted, he was tested by voices that wanted him to do all sorts of things his heart told him not to, and he was able to find another way.  Just as the Wise Ones found another way home, Jesus finds another way.  He does not give in to anger or to gossip in response to the accuser.  He simply faces the difficulty with honesty and his heart wide open.  

Are you going through a wilderness moment right now?  Are you living with physical, emotional, or spiritual pain that numbs you from feeling fully alive?  That is wilderness.  While I do not believe God causes pain, I do find moments of trail and wilderness to be times when I encounter God in deeper ways.  There is a vulnerability in living in the wilderness that opens me to God with honesty and an open heart.  And there, I do find more than a trace of God's grace.  I am not sure this is always an "all is well that ends well moment."  The times of testing and trail can leave scars that take time to heal...sometimes never fully recover.  Wilderness moments, trial moments, and struggles are part of life, even Jesus' life, and while that doesn't make it easier, it does make a difference for me.

God's love and blessings, especially to those in the wilderness right now!  

Sunday, January 18, 2015

That is what happened when the Wise Ones left??!


Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”  When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under  Matthew 2:13-16

I am sure one of the reactions to reading the above passage is to question whether you want to keep reading this blog today.  "Gee thanks for this uplifting reminder."  Or maybe you never realized that after the Wise One's depart, King Herod, who was not the most emotionally stable king, let his rage and fear turn toward innocent children.  This past week I heard a pastor talk about how we often wall paper over the messy parts of faith.  This might just be one passage we want to skip or plug our ears and shout, "La, la, la, I am not listening!"  

Why study such a depressing and discouraging passage of Scripture?  Isn't there enough violence and hurt in the world?  What happened in France?  What is going on in villages of Africa?  And what about the concerns over the deaths of African American by police that a month ago the media was all over?  Have we forgotten?

Scripture is not wall paper.  Scripture shines a light bright on the realities of today.  Realities of violence and brokenness.  Scripture does that NOT to make us feel guilty, but so that we might continue to see that God is present both in good times and in the valley of the shadow of death.  Because that reality takes time to wrap our minds and hearts around we need to return to it time and time again.

The Sunday after Christmas is usually the Feast of Holy Innocents.  It reminds us that the first Christmas was messy for Joseph and Mary's relationship (whatever that was).  It reminds us that the first Christmas was less holy night and more holy nightmare.  Again, perhaps we'd rather not talk about it.  Perhaps it is easier, even now a few weeks removed from Christmas, to talk more diet tips to stay on your New Year's Resolutions or plans for the upcoming Super Bowl.  But again, are we willing to wall paper over the realities of life?

My point is not that we should all walk around discouraged or feeling like...well you know what. But I do think that reality is messy.  Life is not easy.  And the church needs to hold those realities and the dis-ease (or uneasiness) of life in tension when talking about grace and love.  I know why we stop short of reading this passage on Epiphany with the Wise Ones departing for home, "by another road".  We don't want to go down the road of innocent children dying.  I know why we skip right to John the Baptizer the next Sunday (even if his clothing and diet sound strange).  But I also think we need to begin talking about this passage too.  It reminds us that Scripture is complex and we never fully understand.

I invite you today as you read the paper about a tragedy of human life to hold that in conversation with Scripture.  Of course to do so might cause us to wonder, "Why would a loving God allow this?" The tension of suffering is you either have to let go of God's powerfulness or God's unconditional love.  Either God can't stop it (and is a weak force) or wills suffering (and is a real dent to the basic definition of love).  All of our efforts to explain or justify God are just that - OUR EFFORTS.  Scripture seems more content to shine a light saying, "This is the way life is."  Yet, Scripture also says that in the midst of messy, broken life, there is grace and there is hope even in the most difficult times.  There is hope in the face of hunger when food is offered.  There is hope in the face of death, when we grieve with another.  There is hope in the midst of life.  When we discover that hope, we discover another trace of God's grace.

Blessings and pax (peace)

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Matthew Review



Where do you begin telling a great story?  Of course, you begin at the beginning.  But sometimes it can be hard to know where that beginning place is.  If I tell you about being born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, that is my beginning.  But it is NOT the beginning of my parents relationship.  And my parents relationship is NOT the beginning of their life either.  They had a story before they met.  They have stories of dating and marrying and having my older brother before I was even a glimmer in their eye.  Beginnings matter.  Each of the four Gospels begin in a different way.  Mark jumps in with both feet and we are taken to the edge of the Jordan River with John the baptizer.  John gives one of the most beautiful poems that ties Jesus' life with the beginning of Creation.  Both Matthew and Luke decide to focus on Jesus' birth...each in their own unique ways.  Luke is the more familiar, the one quoted in the beloved Charlie Brown Christmas Special.  Matthew's version is a bit more heady.  He begins in chapter one (click here to read the whole of chapter 1) with a genealogy.   So and so begat (or was the father of) so and so.  I know people who love genealogy, who are passionate about tracing their roots as deep as possible.  Then there are people who yawned the moment they read the word "begat" above...but I pray did not stop reading.

Where we come from matters and leaves an impression on our hearts.  While today the truth is that we believe we construct our own identity through the clothes we wear or the cell phone we buy (I am an iphone guy but often admire the Galaxy people) or even the jobs we perform, family still makes its mark on who we are.  As I said above, my parents had a story before I was even a glimmer in their eye.  That story impacted how they parented me.  So knowing a bit about Jesus' parents, grand parents, great grand parents (etc...) does help.  What is interesting in chapter 1 is that Matthew names five women.  Each of the women were...shall we say...not exactly Victorian/Downton Abbey approved.  Each had a part of their past that might have marginalized them or caused them to be the topic of gossip.  But Matthew does not shy away from that past, he lifts and names these women as important to who Jesus is.  That means something, especially when the Christian Church has not always been kind in issues of sexuality with women.  We need to let Scripture speak truth to our understandings.

It is not only women, but also men.  Joseph is called a "righteous" man.  Usually when I hear "righteous" I think "self righteous".  People my grandmother said needed to get down off their high horse.  But this is NOT Joseph's righteousness.  Joseph swims against the cultural current.  He decided to not dismiss Mary with a divorce, but quietly.  By doing so, people...when they found out Mary was pregnant....would have assumed Joe was the dad and he was not living up to expectations of a father.  He would have been looked down on, the topic of gossip...not Mary.  Righteousness in Matthew can mean going against cultural and even religious norms.  

I encourage you as we read and look at Matthew to look for ways he uses righteousness.  I invite you to think of your definition of righteousness.  Where do you need to swim against the cultural and religious norms?  Why?  Is it for your own sake or the sake of another?  I pray as you ponder these questions, you sense a trace of God's grace in your life.

Blessings and pax (peace)

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Gospel of Matthew Overview


Quick question, what is your history with the Gospel of Matthew?  For some reading this blog, you have images of Matthew being the one to tell us about the Wise Ones coming to visit Jesus or you might think of Matthew as being the gospel where parables end with people being "thrown into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth."  Such an uplifting way to end a story.  Or maybe you don't have any preconceived images of Matthew.  Perhaps it is not a book you've spent much time with in your life.

The church I serve is starting on a journey of reading Matthew and over the coming months I am going to make comments on passages that I am not preaching on in worship on this blog.  My hope and prayer is that over the coming months through sermons and posts you might become better acquainted with Matthew (who is depicted in the icon above through the imagination of an artist...while it is not a selfie, it is one way of giving Matthew a face).

Matthew is the first of the four gospels in the New Testament, but only in sequence not chronologically.  Since Matthew did not date his gospel, scholars need to make best guesses.  In seminary, I was taught Matthew wrote in the 70 A.D. or Common Era (CE).  In the reading I've done recently for preaching on Matthew, scholars is now pushed back to the 80s or even 90s CE.  Why does it matter?  We think that the Gospel of Mark is the first to be written.  Mark is the shortest gospel and the most succinct, straight forward, no nonsense.  Scholars propose that Matthew and Luke each had a copy of Mark on their desks as they wrote because both use Mark's structure with embellishments.  Matthew also has some unique stories none of the other three gospels have (e.g. the story of the Wise Ones visiting Jesus).  Luke has unique stories (e.g. Parable of the Prodigal son).  But then Matthew and Luke have stories that neither Mark nor John have (e.g. the Lord's Prayer or the Beatitudes).  So, in addition to having Mark and some unique stories, scholars suggest that Matthew and Luke had a source known as "Q", which was a collection of sayings.  Click here to read more about "Q"

Matthew also has a brilliant way of structuring his gospel.  He alternates narrative/stories about Jesus and speeches/sermons Jesus gave.  Here is how that looks:
Chapters 1-4 is narrative about beginnings of Jesus' life
Chapters 5-7 is speech/sermon Jesus gives
Chapters 8-9 is narrative about Jesus (particularly healing)
Chapter 10 is a speech/sermon about discipleship
Chapters 11-12 is narrative about rejection of Jesus by his generation
Chapter 13 is a speech/sermon about the realm of heaven on earth
Chapters 14-17 is narrative about recognition by disciples
Chapter 18 is a speech/sermon about life in Christian community
Chapters 19-22 is a narrative about authority and invitation
Chapters 23-25 is a speech/sermon about present trouble and God's future
Chapters 26-28 is a narrative about new beginnings/resurrection

One final layer we can peel away to discover something beautiful is that for Matthew Jesus is the NEW Moses.  Legend had it that Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible (Genesis - Deuteronomy).  Five books...Jesus gives five speeches.  We will see other ways Jesus' life echoes Moses in coming posts.  

For now, I pray that the above information is helpful for framing the coming posts about Matthew.  I pray that these first days of January are a blessing and you sensing traces of God's grace in your life. 

God's blessings and pax (peace) to you!

Monday, December 29, 2014

Dwindling Days



There is something about this time in-between Christmas and New Year's that invites reflection.  Perhaps it is because everyone and their brother is doing a "Year in Review" or Countdowns of music and highest grossing movies.  We pause, we look back at the past 365 days, and we at 2015 like a blank canvass beckoning us to create something new, different.  That is what resolutions are after all.  They are our attempt to re-create, re-imagine, and re-purpose our present life in a new way.  I think it is healthy to look back at the last year, but not only as a trip down memory lane.  Rather, ask yourself, when did you feel most fully alive?  For me, it was on our summer vacation to Disney World.  Yes, it was hot...Florida tends to be that way in the summer.  Yes, it was crowded...Disney tends to be that way, almost always.  But there was something about the ease of laughter in our family, we did not try to do it all, we took it easy ourselves.  Unfortunately, that vacation pace did not last.  What moment did you feel most fully alive this past year?  What was it about that moment?  

It is also healthy to look ahead.  How does that moment of feeling fully alive guide you into the days ahead as you put up your 2015 calendar?  For me, it is a reminder to laugh, to stop trying to control every second, and to be more open to the natural flow of God's presence in my life.  To be sure this does not come easy to my Type A, hyper-aware of every imperfection usual way of life.  But, when I lean into a more grace-filled and grace-flow way of life, I do feel more fully alive.  Now don't get me wrong, it still bothers me when the lift chair at the 11 pm Christmas Eve service starts beeping out of control!  But I also know that one moment does not need to define or ruin everything.  Rather it is a reminder that I live in the messy middle, the joyful tensions, and the real stuff of life.  Or to quote one of my favorite theologians, "At some point your plan for personal salvation will fail you."  The key word here is "your".  Resolutions are often about being in constant control of diet or time or even happiness.  I will be happy, you say, with that tiny vein in your neck visibly pulsing.  We cannot will ourselves to happily ever after.  Grace happens.  It is serendipitous and surprising.  That is not to say we just sit back and live life on cruise control.  We need to listen and respond faithfully.  We need to be open and ready to get caught up in what God is doing.  Then, we need to let God be God.

I pray there is more than a trace of God's grace in these dwindling days of 2014 and as 2015 dawns around us.  I pray you sense God's presence in a way that opens you to be fully alive and to let the hope, peace, joy, and love of God entering the world at Christmas guide you every day next year.

Until next year...blessings and Happy New Year ~ 

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Ponder


So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.  Luke 2:16-20

I take heart that the first Christmas was far from perfect.  It was messy and inconvenient.  It was stressful...and I thought I had it bad making sure the bulletin was error free and all the candles were ready to be lit!  The first Christmas was not perfectly wrapped or a Norman Rockwell painting.  To quote the Grinch, the very first Christmas, "Came without ribbon, it came without bags, it came without packages, boxes or bags!"  Good to remember when tonight, someone cries because they are tired, or Aunt Bertha has a bit too much liquor, or life does not seem to go according to the script you wrote in your head over the last four weeks.  Take heart... Jesus' birth was not exactly picture perfect despite all that great religious art.  God works with our best intentions, God works with the messiness of our lives.  God rolls up God's sleeves, sinks God's finger tips into the over cooked turkey and the bad Jell-O salads and all the other miscues of life.  

But somewhere, we've taken all the messiness out of the manger.  We've taken all the drama and tension out of the first Christmas and left only a soft-focused Hallmark cards of sugary sweetness.  Can we, to quote Elsa the Frozen Princess, "Let it Go!"?  

I love that Mary ponders all this in her heart.  Ponders the dirty, drafty, dusty stable.  Ponders Joseph over there wondering what in the world he has gotten himself into.  Ponders shepherds standing there before her talking too fast about angels in the field (Yeah, right, angels appeared to you shepherds, my sarcastic side would say, were they riding ponies??).  To ponder is not just to contemplate or to act like I did in my Philosophy 101 class, stroking my chin and saying, "Ah yes, Plato's ideas shed light onto the depravity of the human condition...got an A for comments like that!  No Mary's ponder is not the image of the Thinker...it is the ability to hold together two complex, even contradictory, ideas with grace.  To hold together that God would enter the world in this way, to these people is a contradiction that needs some serious pondering today.  

I pray tonight you will find ways to sit with Mary and ponder.  Ponder how God is moving in your life, maybe in ways that cause you to scratch your head.  Ponder the ways you hear God's voice in that annoying neighbor, who makes good points.  Ponder the ways God is calling you to do something new and different and even bold in 2015.  And let your pondering open you to the traces of God's grace that are all around us.

Merry Christmas!  May the hope, peace, joy, and love of this season sustain you and guide you every day in 2015.

Many blessings~

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Hopes and Fears


And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.  And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.  And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.  And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.  Luke 2:8-12


As if I need to prove that I am a child of the 80s, I cannot hear this passage of Luke without the voice of Linus from A Charlie Brown Christmas saying these words.  Remember the scene?  Charlie has just lost it...have that feeling yet this December when out shopping or your hand numb from writing cards or having one more thing to do?  Charlie exclaims..."Doesn't anyone know the true meaning of Christmas?"  And Linus, asks for the lights, please, and recites this passage from Luke.

I agree with Linus that the true meaning of Christmas is the angels singing to the shepherds. God decides the best messenger of God breaking into our world in the flesh is not George Clooney or Oprah; but smelly shepherds who were considered thieves; who did not have homes.  Would you really listen to a homeless person telling you God was doing something amazing or would you cross over to the other side of the road?

To be honest, if I was in the shepherd's sandals, I don't know what I would do.  I am not at my best when the fight or flight part of my primate brain is touched by fear and confrontation.  I can only imagine how the shepherds' hearts pounded and blood rushed past their ears; throbbing and maybe only hearing some of the angels' song.  I might have not went to the manger.  I might have stayed in the field where life was normal and try to find my happy place, calm down, and maybe do some deep breathing.  Or maybe I just would have ran in whatever direction my feet would take me...to Bethlehem or Egypt or anywhere...just get me outta there.

I give thanks that some of the shepherds made it to the manger.  I give thanks that some of them found their voice to share what God was doing.  I give thanks that I am still surprised by how God moves in our world.  Not through celebrity endorsement or preachers with perfect hair...but in messy moments.  Which is a good reminder that the first Christmas was messy, smelly, incredibly inconvenient...so maybe your Christmas gathering is more reflective of Scripture than you thought.  I pray that we can let these words of Luke wash over us anew and afresh this week as we take the final few steps to the stable.  Whether you hear these words in the voice of Linus or your minister growing up or your grandmother who read them to you while you sat on her lap on Christmas Eve, I pray these words will make all the difference this week and every week in 2015.

May the traces of God's grace sustain you as we inch closer to Bethlehem.

Blessings ~