Saturday, January 31, 2015

Discipleship

As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.  Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them. And great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.  Matthew 4:18-25

How would you define "discipleship"?  Perhaps it starts simply with following Jesus, which was certainly easier when he was physically on earth.  Maybe it is about obeying what he says.  But which gospel, which stories, is it just the ones we like? Maybe discipleship means letting go.  Maybe it means a willingness to take risks that go against what rationale sense.  The image of Peter and Andrew's net floating, abandoned in the water, fascinating. When was the last time I dropped everything to follow an instinct?  I like structure, carefully constructed and carried out plans, not just willy-nilly following some random guy with eternity dancing in his eyes who wonders past and say, "Hey, follow me."  

Sure, I know that being asked to follow a rabbi was an honor akin to getting an acceptance letter to Harvard.  But, if I received such letter from Harvard, would I really drop everything?  Would I leave my family and job?  Of course, the disciples, it seems stick somewhat close to home.  Later in the Matthew we will hear about Jesus healing Peter's mother-in-law...which most of us forget the disciples were even married...but their wives didn't!

Sure, I know no one wants to miss their moment to be something.  Many of us live with the regrets of "What if??"  What if I would have taken that job or said, "Yes" to the date, or been willing to take a leap of faith?  Yet, realistically, often those moments to be something, to cross over the fence where the grass looks so green, once over we see that things are not as rosy as we thought.  Even when we say "Yes" to the promotion or to the opportunity to be the chair of an organization, there are expectations and stress and life changes.

My hunch is the disciples' lives changed drastically.  When was the last time our life changed drastically because of faith?  We are about to run a membership class at the church our served, that question might just make everyone shift uncomfortably and maybe decide NOT to join.  But if discipleship stakes a claim on our lives, maybe we can expect some changes and some amazing opportunities and a lot of walking and wandering.  

One of the images of the disciples echos the wandering in the wilderness in the book of Exodus.  We learn on the road.  We learn from the topography of traveling together through the ups and downs, storms and sunny days, and all that we encounter day in and day out.    I encourage you to think of your definition of discipleship and maybe even post a comment below for others to see.

May we continue to find traces of God's grace as we seek to be disciples of the One who still has eternity dancing in his eyes. 

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!