Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Forgiveness: Carrying Stones

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Luke 6:27-42:

On Monday, October 2, 2006, Charles Carl Roberts entered into a one-room Amish schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania carrying several weapons and 600 rounds of ammunition, and most of you know the rest of the story.  It was the third school shooting that took place that week, and the sense of shock that struck us all in that moment was not just of the five little girls who lost their lives and the 5 others who were wounded, but the shock was also about how the Amish community and the parents of the victims responded to this senseless act of violence.  The idea of forgiveness in the immediate aftermath came to be one of, if not the, dominating storyline of this tragedy.  Because on the same day of the shooting, members of the community, including relatives of the victims went to see Roberts widow and his children to tell them that they forgave him and them for what had happened.  They attended R oberts funeral and burial at Georgetown United Methodist Church, and when a fund was established to help support the girls and their families, a similar fund was also set up for Roberts family and the members of the trust who oversaw the disbursement of the funds, most of whom were Amish, made sure that Roberts family was also taken care of.  This was not what people expected, because this was not what people normally saw nor what they thought they would do in the wake of such a tragedy.

Now here is some good news.  Our desire to seek revenge, to be filled with anger and hatred, to want to get even with someone who wrongs us, has been programmed into us by evolution; it is part of who we are.  But here is the other good news.  Forgiveness is also part of our evolutionary programming, the desire to forgive, to heal, to reconcile and to move past tragedy are just as much a part of who we are as our desire for revenge is.  In fact, in every animal that has been studied except for one, they have demonstrated acts of forgiveness, conciliation and reconciliation.  The one animal that doesn’t do this is the house cat, and for those who own cats, and those who dislike cats, this should not come as a surprise.  The reason why it is found in other animals, including humans, is because we live in community, and to stay in community which is necessary if we are to survive we have to have the ability to forgive wrongs.  The simple fact is, we forgive every single day, even if we don’t know that we are doing it, because if we clung to every hurt that is given to us, we wouldn’t be able to go on.  But on the flip side of that we also hang on to a lot of those hurts for many reasons, and I’ll be honest and say that I am really good at holding grudges and not letting go of things, and I’m willing to bet, if we bet but we are Methodists are opposed to gambling, but if I were a betting man, I’d be willing to be that that is true for you as well.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Standing Up and Speaking Out

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Genesis 37:1-28:

In the high school I attended, athletics reigned supreme.  To give you a small sample, our football and basketball teams played for the state championship in two of my four years, our soccer and golf teams won the state championship, and our softball team won several, and the level of play was high.  One of the members of our basketball and track team could dunk the basketball after beginning his jump at the top of the key, and he went on to the University of Arizona. The quarterback who graduated the year before I did, went on to become the starting quarterback for Ohio State, and the quarterback who graduated the same year I did went to play for Utah.  Our kicker was all-American, and two people from my graduating class of 336 played in the NFL.  And, as you might guess, when athletics rule supreme, the players who play them also rule supreme.  Jocks were the BMOC’s, the big men on campus, looked up to by many, supported, lauded and favored by much of the administration and some of the teachers.  Allowed to do things and get away with things that other students couldn’t and administrators often turned a blind eye to how some of them treated other students, causing them to be loathed or even hated for the special treatment they received.  I was thinking of that this week as I pondered the beginning of another school year, and as we continually hear stories about bullying and other inappropriate behaviors that take place at school, and as I thought about this story of Joseph that we just heard.

In Numbers we read that the sins of the father will be passed onto the third and fourth generations.  And while we could argue about that, or perhaps argue about what that really means, we do see those sins continuing through the Abrahamic line, into this the third generation from Abraham.  There is a DNA in their behaviors that continues to repeat itself, and so they keep making the same mistakes, although it also allows them to keep doing some things well.  The same thing happens in our families and in other organizations as well.  Churches and other social organizations, like schools, will develop a certain DNA, and if you track through the history of a church you will see the same things happening over and over again.  And those things will continue happening until someone steps up and stops it.  Until someone says enough is enough and begins to move things in a different direction, or at the very least says this is wrong, the same things will repeat themselves over and over again.  And that certainly is happening with Jacob’s family.

Jacob was the favored son of his mother Rebekah, while his father Isaac, favored his older brother Esau.  Plotting together with his mother, Jacob is able to steal both Esau’s birthright and also the blessing due to him as the first born son, causing Esau to hate Jacob and to plot to kill him.  Sounding familiar?  Isaac too was the favored son, at the very least by his mother, who plots to have the older son Ishmael expelled from the household so that only Isaac will inherit from his father, even though he is the second born son.  And while we don’t know anything about what Ishmael things about all of this, we might surmise that he has some hate in him for his brother, and his people the Ishmaelites become contenders with the Israelites and also play a part at the end of this story.

Death by Suicide

Yesterday we learned of the loss of Robin Williams, who apparently took his own life after battling severe depression.  It's somewhat of a cliche, but also one that is often true, that those who laugh the most on the outside, or cause others to laugh, are hiding and covering for deeper pains, and that appears to be true for Williams as well.  For me his most memorable performances are not the ones he is perhaps best known for, but instead those like The World According to Garp or One Hour Photo, which showed that deeper, darker, vulnerable side.  As comedian Michael Ian Black tweeted yesterday, "We lose at least one great comic to suicide or ODs every year. Our jobs are to communicate, but we seem to not know how to ask for help."

There is enormous stigma that comes with suicide.  Stigma laid on the victim and on the families who are left behind.  There are also enormous questions that follow in the wake, and many things with which to deal.  I can still remember my pastoral care professor in seminary talking about having to deal with the giant "FU" that suicide victims often send out to the world.

And yet we must also recognize that most, if not all, victims of suicide are also dealing with and struggling with mental illness in many different forms.  And so while as we would not castigate someone who died from cancer, we should also not castigate someone who dies from suicide.  It is a tremendous loss and so we should take the time to talk about mental illness, to pull it from behind the curtain of shame and put it into the light so that we can actually deal with and work to get people the help they need.

Here is the official statement from the United Methodist Church on suicide:

We believe that suicide is not the way a human life should end. Often suicide is the result of untreated depression, or untreated pain and suffering. The church has an obligation to see that all persons have access to needed pastoral and medical care and therapy in those circumstances that lead to loss of self-worth, suicidal despair, and/or the desire to seek physician-assisted suicide. We encourage the church to provide education to address the biblical, theological, social, and ethical issues related to death and dying, including suicide. United Methodist theological seminary courses should also focus on issues of death and dying, including suicide.

A Christian perspective on suicide begins with an affirmation of faith that nothing, including suicide, separates us from the love of God (Romans 8:38-39). Therefore, we deplore the condemnation of people who complete suicide, and we consider unjust the stigma that so often falls on surviving family and friends.

We encourage pastors and faith communities to address this issue through preaching and teaching. We urge pastors and faith communities to provide pastoral care to those at risk, survivors, and their families, and to those families who have lost loved ones to suicide, seeking always to remove the oppressive stigma around suicide. The Church opposes assisted suicide and euthanasia.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Wrestling with God

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Genesis 32:22-31:

There something important and powerful about a name.  Names have meanings and we associate certain things with a name, including such things as ethnicity or nationality, or age, as name popularity comes and goes, and sometimes just intangible things.  When I hear the name Jenny or Steve, I just imagine a certain type of person in my head.  Have you ever met someone and when you found out there name, you thought either a, that it sounds perfect for them, or b, that the name didn’t seem to match them at all?  Parents know that there is a certain amount of pressure that comes with picking out the right name for a baby, as you don’t want to give your child the wrong name.  When Linda was pregnant with Samantha, we didn’t know if she was going to be a boy or a girl, and while we had a girls name picked out, we didn’t have a boys name set, and so I proposed that we consider naming them after the first Yankee that we saw hit a homerun at the first Yankee game we attended after we found out Linda was pregnant, which just happened to be against the Chicago Cubs.
© Scott Stantis 

In the first inning, Gary Sheffield hit what Gary and  nearly everyone in the stadium thought was a homerun, and we thought well Gary’s not bad.  But as I said nearly everyone thought it was a homerun, but the one person who counts, which is the umpire, didn’t and so Gary was out.  In the fourth inning,, Derek Jeter came up with the basis loaded, and we thought how great would this be.  Derek had never hit a career grandslam, and as a Yankee fan this was our opportunity to name our potential son after the greatest Yankee of my generation, and one of the greatest of all time, and plus we could use either Derek or Jeter as a name, but he simply flew out.  Then in the seventh inning, Hideki Matsui, our hard hitting Japanese right fielder came up, and sure enough he hit one out, and as soon as it was clear it was going to be a homerun, Linda turned to me and said “we are not naming our son Hideki,” and so my dreams of a Yankee name were out.  There is something powerful about a name.  They often give meaning and importance, especially in the Bible.

When we looked at the story of Hagar, I remarked that neither Abraham nor Sarah ever used Hagar’s name because to do so would give her position and place, and that Hagar is the only person in the Bible to name God.  And of course they also represent people whose names are changed with changing circumstances.  Abraham starts out as Abram, which means exalted father, and then is changed to Abraham, which means father of many, or father of nations.  His wife sarai’s name is often said to be princess, although there is also a meaning of controlling or contentious, which certainly matches her personality better, but then it is changed to Sarah, which means, mother of nations, but the name change does not always necessarily indicate a change in personality or character as Sarah demonstrates and the same could be said of today’s passage.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

When God Doesn't Speak

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The passage was Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67:

We are told at the beginning of Genesis, that in the beginning that the earth was formless and darkness covered the face of the deep, and then what happens?  God says, “let there be light,” and there was light.  So we are told that simply by speaking that God is able to create, and in fact in the first creation story, everything is created simply by God talking.  Indeed, the central declaration of faith in Judaism “Hear, O Israel…”  Not peak, or believe, but instead listen.  “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord is one.”  For us as Christians speaking and language are just as important, because we are told that at the beginning of the Gospel of John, that in the beginning was the word, and the word was with God and the word was God.  And who is the word?  Jesus.  So God talks creation into existence and Jesus is the word, and a God who emphasizes this is not a distant transcendent God, but instead an imminent God who is involved in our lives, and we also see that witnessed to in scripture, especially in the stories of Genesis.  God talks with Adam and Eve, and God talks with Cain, God talks with Noah, God talks with Hagar and of course God talks with Abraham.  God talks a lot with Abraham.  In every step of Abraham’s story not only is God present and active, but God is telling Abraham what to do and what God is going to do in return.  God is asking things and making promises.  God is intimately involved in everything that is going on in Abraham’s life, and yet in the passage we just heard, which is the last significant story of Abraham, God does not speak.  Now after the past two weeks in which we have heard God tell Abraham that he should listen to the voice of his wife Sarah and expel Ishmael and Hagar, and then last week when God calls for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac perhaps we are a little relieved that God is not talking or asking anything.
Rebekah and Abraham's Servant at the Well
by William Hilton

Today’s passage is a nice little story.  A simple story of a servant going to get a wife for his master’s son.  It has a nice beginning, a good middle and even a happy ending because we are told that Isaac loves Rebekah.  A nice simple passage which transitions us from the story of Abraham into the story of Isaac.  But it’s not like this is an insignificant story.  This sets up the rest of the Book of Genesis and the creation of what will become the nation of Israel, and yet in striking contrast to everything that has come before, God is not a primary character.  While it’s assumed by the author that God is involved in this process, God does not interact with anyone.  God does not have a dialogue with Abraham about what he needs to do or with the servant about what to say or where to go.  Nor does God talk with Laban, Rebekah’s brother who conducts the negotiations for marriage, nor does Rebekah hear from God telling her that this is the plan she is to follow, that everything will be okay and she should go with the servant.  Throughout this entirely long story, God does not speak.  Not once does God become openly involved in the plot.  Not once does God utter anything to anyone to let them know that what they are doing is according to divine plan.  God is strangely silent.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Stupidity of Black Out Rules

Today is the first day of the All Star break in which there are no baseball games being played, and that means that tonight, just like every other night, I won't be watching the Arizona Diamondbacks playing. But, the difference between tonight and every other night during the baseball season, is that normally I can't watch the Diamondbacks not because they aren't playing, but because they are blacked out where I live.

For those unfamiliar with what that means, in an agreement made between the owners in the dark ages, they agreed to divide up the country geographically giving teams the broadcast rights to large swaths of territory that they then control whether their game can be shown there or not.  This might make some sense in the Northeast, but in the west it's totally insane.

When I lived in Boston I understood why I couldn't watch the New York feed when the Yankees were playing the Red Sox.  That makes sense because the Red Sox want me to watch commercials for Boston, and make them money, rather than making the Yankees money.  But I could still watch the game!  And when the Yankees were playing anywhere else I could watch the Yankee feed.  But that is not the case with the Diamondbacks.
MLB Broadcast Black-Out Map*

Why?  Because the Diamondbacks "broadcast territory" includes all of the state of New Mexico, and so we are perpetually blacked out.  I can't even watch them when they are on ESPN.  They are always not on television, because heaven forbid that I might decide to go to the game, but then decide not to because I can watch them on TV instead.  Now to demonstrate the stupidity of this rule.

We currently live in Albuquerque.  If I suddenly had the urge to go to a game I would either a) have to drive seven hours to get there, or b) drive to the airport and catch a 1-hour flight to Phoenix.  The current airfare to do that on Southwest would be $493, round-trip.  So if I wanted to take my whole family, we would spend $2000 on airfare for our last minute decision, not counting the cost of the tickets, food and transportation.  Not really going to happen.

But, you might say, it's at least possible, and yes it is, so let's broaden it out a little bit.  My last church was 45 minutes from the Texas border.  So to do that same scenario, we would have added another 3 hours driving to get to the airport in Albuquerque, or 2 hours to go to Lubbock, plus an extra $100-$150 more for the plane ticket, and it was still blacked out.

Now here is the bigger problem for the Diamondbacks, and really for MLB as a whole.  I want my daughters to be baseball fans.  We get the MLB package so that we can watch as much baseball as we can, and in particular watch all the Yankees games, which we do.  I was born and grew up in Phoenix, and even though I left before the Diamondbacks existed, they are still my "hometown" team.  It would be nice for my daughters to have a rooting interest for them, and maybe even become fans, but you know what, they never will be because they never, ever get to see the Diamondbacks play.  Ever.

That means that when we are planning vacations, they are never going to say, "hey, let's go to Phoenix to see the Diamondbacks play."  They are never going to ask for any Diamondbacks jerseys, hats, socks, lunch bags, etc.  Which means the Diamondbacks are never going to make money from us, and my daughters are never going to be fans of them. But they do talk about the Yankees and ask for those things, why?  Because that is who I root for and it is the team they see all the time.

I heard yesterday that the average age of baseball fans is 53.  If the MLB want to make fans of a new generation, one of the things they need to do is to abolish the stupid way they televise games, because most people are not like me, they are not paying to have access to nearly every MLB game being broadcast, and so children are not seeing these games, and unless the live in the immediate vicinity they are not watching the games of teams that might mean something to them.

*You might notice that I am also blacked out from Rockies games, but I don't care about the Rockies, although maybe I would if I could see their games.  In my last church I was also blacked out from the Rangers, so even though I was minimum 8 hours from any of these teams I could not see them.  And if you live in Vegas, forget about seeing anyone.

A Passing Faith: The Sacrifice of Isaac

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Genesis 22:1-14:

I know this is not going to come as a surprise, but men and women are different; this does not mean that one group is better than the other, just that we are different.  As a general rule when women talk about highlights that are not referring to what they watched on ESPN the night before and when a man says he is going to hang a rack in his house, it probably has more to do with a dead animal than with spices.  Or as Dave Barry has said, something appropriate for today’s passage, “If a woman has to choose between catching a fly ball and saving an infant's life, she will choose to save the infant's life without even considering if there is a man on base.”  We are different.  Now there are many debates about who wrote particular books or passages of the Bible, with some scholars looking for clues that might indicate that one of the authors may have been a woman.  I think that we can unquestionably solve the debate about today’s passage.  This story could have only been written by a man, simply for the fact that there is not enough information given.  He is a masterful storyteller, there is no question about that, but even as a man at the end of this story I want to ask questions in order to get more information.  Was Abraham’s conversation with God really that short?  Did he not ask more questions?  What did Sarah say?  Did she even know?  What were the servants thinking when Abraham and Isaac went up on the mountain?  Did Isaac really just go along with no resistance?  Did Abraham have no doubts whatsoever about carrying out this request out?
The Sacrifice of Isaac
by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo

The beginning of this story tells us two important things.  The first is that God is testing Abraham.  We know this and God knows this, but Abraham does not.  That means that Abraham has to take everything that God is telling him to do seriously.  The other thing we are told is that the test happens, “after these things,” and so what were those things?  The first is that Abraham was called by God, and this actually mirrors today’s passage, because God calls Abraham, and says “Go.”  And where is he to go?  To the land that God will show him.  Abraham’s faithfulness to God and God’s faithfulness to Abraham also begins with this call.  Abraham pretends that Sarah is his sister rather than his wife, in order to try and save his life, thus not trusting in God, and he does this twice.  He and Sarah go around God in order to get an heir to fulfill God’s promise of descendants more numerous than the stars, by taking Hagar, his slave, and having a child with her, who is Ishmael.  Abraham argues with God in order to try and save the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.  He and Sarah have Isaac, and then in the passage we heard last week, Sarah demands that Abraham expel Hagar and his son Ishmael into the desert, which he does.  What we see in these stories is that God has always been faithful to what God has promised to Abraham, even when Abraham has tried to play around with how those results are going to come about, and as that statement implies, Abraham has not always necessarily been faithful to God, or at least has not always trusted God to do what God says will happen.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Hagar: The Handmaid's Tale

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Genesis 21:8-20:

The story of Hagar and Ishmael is one of those troubling stories we find in the Bible, and yet one with which we don’t often deal.  In fact, I would be willing to guess that many of you had never even heard this story before, and have certainly never heard this passage talked about in church.  Even the reference materials I have been using, both Jewish and Christian, don’t cover this story, but I think we ignore it at our own peril.  As troubling as it is, and make us question Abraham, the father of the faith, and wonder why he ever went along with what he did, it is included as part of the story of faith for a reason for what it teaches us about God.
Hagar Offering Water to Her Son Ishmael in the Desert
by Charles Lock Eastlake

But before we get into that, we need to go backwards to remind ourselves of what has already happened to get us to this point, or to learn the story if we don’t know it already.  Abraham, although he is still named Abram, as it will be changed later, is called by God and told to leave his ancestral lands, and to go to the land God will show him, and he is told that God will make of him a great nation, and that his offspring will be more numerous than the stars, and so Abraham and his wife Sarah, get up and leave and go to the land of Canaan.  And then lots of things happen, but Sarah and Abraham remain childless, the promise not fulfilled, and so Sarah decides to take things into her own hands, or someone else’s really, and offers Abraham her slave girl to impregnate, so that Sarah can claim that child as her own.  You can find this in the 16th chapter of Genesis.

Now you may have heard Hagar referred to as Sarah’s handmaid, which is how some versions translate it, but the New Revised Standard Version translates correctly that Hagar is a slave, an Egyptian slave, and I think that is important to point out and to remember because that means that Hagar has no say in what is going to happen to her, her life is controlled by her owners, Sarah and Abraham, and there is something else striking in both this story and the passage we just heard, and that is that Sarah and Abraham never refer to Hagar by her name.  We only know her name because the narrator and later God use her name.  Sarah and Abraham only refer to her as the slave girl.  And so Abraham takes Hagar, and to put it bluntly, he rapes her.  That’s certainly not how we think of it, and if you can think of another word to call it I’m open to hearing it, but let’s be honest, Hagar has absolutely no say in what takes place, even if Hagar were to say no, it’s still going to happen.  Although this would have been acceptable practice in the ancient world, it does not change the reality of the situation.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

State Of The Church: A One Year Reflection

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Joshua 24:1-15:

It is just one day over a year ago that I stood before you on my first Sunday here at Mesa View.  I know some of you were upset to see Pastor Tom go, others were excited to have a new young clergy here, although some of you probably said I think I have shoes older than him.  It’s been quite a year, and so I thought I’d take today and do a sort of a state of the church address.  This congregation was officially founded on February 8, 1987, although they began meeting the year before in Rev. Chuck Bader’s, the founding pastor’s home.  In those 28 years, we have had only five pastors, including me, and even more amazingly, according to the records I have, we have sent out 12 people into the ministry.

Just like this past year, this congregation has seen some tremendous highs and lows.  We have seen a large drop in attendance over the past 8 years, but we are not alone.  In conversations I have had with the pastors at the two churches closest to us, we figure that between the three of us we have lost a combined 800 in worship attendance over the past 8 years.  That’s not good, but it also gives us tremendous opportunities, and I have some good news and some bad news.  The good news is that things are not as bad as they might have been perceived, and the bad news is that things are not as bad as they might have been perceived.  That’s the bad news because it’s a lot easier to just find a buyer for the property and close the doors then it is to say that this is God’s church and that we are going to make our stand here to make new disciples of Christ for the transformation of Taylor Ranch and the world, because that takes work.  But here is the good news; we’re in a lot better place than we were a year ago.

When I started I was given a sheet of paper that showed us owing $64,000 in bills.  We were several months behind on some of the bills, and Roger Sargent and Mark Stilwell were doing their best to try and keep everything together, and to keep the lights on.  Kim Short who is the director of our preschool came in and needed to buy some stamps, and JJ had to call Roger to make sure we had enough money in the bank to cover that.  The good news is that we are not there anymore, but the bad news is that we are not out of the woods yet.  We knew that the summer would be a lean time, and it has been.  But except for two checks to the conference that are sitting in the office, we are caught up on all of our bills, although we need a good offering today in order to make our next mortgage payment on Tuesday, but we will make that payment.  We have cut somewhere between $20-25,000 in expenses out of the budget, and we are working hard at increasing the income side of the budget

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Born By Water And The Spirit

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was John 3:1-17:

Today’s scripture might contain two of the most famous passages for American Christianity.  First we have the famous John 3:16, and then we have Jesus saying that we must be born again, or born from above, which is how the NRSV translate it, an idea which plays a major role for a significant portion of the American church, and so I was asked to explore what this idea means.  What did it mean for Jesus and what does it mean for us?  Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night to engage in a conversation.  When people came in darkness it is often the sign of bad things to come.  This is true in most books of the Bible, but for John darkness is a metaphor representing a separation from God.  But there is something positive here as well, and that is that Nicodemus seeks Jesus’ out, which is the first step of discipleship in John.  So from the start it’s not clear whether Nicodemus is on Jesus’ side or not.  He says he knows that Jesus is from God, although he doesn’t actually really know.

So Jesus tells him, “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”  Notice that the primary emphasis here is not about eternal life, but about the kingdom.  While we talk a lot about eternal life, Jesus actually had little to say about the afterlife, but he did talk a lot about the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven depending on which gospel you are reading.  In fact, in the synoptic gospels, the first thing Jesus says as he begins his ministry is “repent,” why?  For the kingdom of God has come near.  Jesus’ message is a kingdom proclamation, and not just of a kingdom to come, but of a kingdom here and now, just as we pray each week, “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

Even John 3:16 is about the here and now, “for God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.”  When does eternal begin?  Is it something that only starts when we die?  Doesn’t sound very eternal.  This is not a statement about the afterlife, this is a statement about eternal life, a life lived in the eternal presence of God.  This is a statement that shifts the emphasis not to our death but to the here and now.  Our eternal life with God is taking place here in the present, it is a current reality.  This is an eschatological claim, and we’re remembering that eschatology deals with the end of time.  Jesus is saying that the end of time is here already, and yet it is not here as well.  Repent for the kingdom of God has come near.  Our eternal life with God begins not sometime in the future; it begins now in this very moment because the kingdom is here, now, and God is present for us, here and now, and for all time.  But how do we get that?  Well that’s where knowing a little Greek helps, or at least leaning on those who know the Greek, which is what I do.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Father of Righteousness

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Romans 4:1-17:

The first request I received on what to preach about after Easter was the issue of righteousness.  It was a request made on behalf of the Thursday morning women’s group.  They came into my office and said, “What is righteousness?” and my response was “you’re looking at it.”  The question is actually a very good one because one of the major themes of scripture is righteousness, although we don’t really talk about what it means, hence the question, and more often deal with it as if everyone knows what it means, probably because we don’t know what it means.  But today we are going to try and tackle the subject, although I want to set your expectations a little low that we are going to be able to completely cover the topic, because there are just too many different ideas to be covered all at one time, so this will be sort of 30,000 foot view.

The word righteous or righteousness is found 630 times in the bible, and that doesn’t include other times that it might have been used but is translated differently.   To give you a comparison, the word love is found 872 times.  The Hebrew word is tsedheq or tsedhaqah, and it is also often translated as justice or integrity or sometimes deliverance.  Its fundamental meaning is to do the right.  The Greek word found in the New Testament is dikaiosynÄ“, having a similar meaning to the Hebrew word, and it too is often translated as justice, but also sometimes blamelessness, mercy, or compassion.  In the gospel of Luke, after Jesus dies, a roman soldier at the foot of the cross says, “surely this man was innocent.”  The word translated as innocent is this same word, so really the centurion is saying that Jesus was righteous.

Surprisingly, Jesus does not talk about righteousness all that much, and when he does it sort of has an ironic characteristic, such as saying that he came not to call the righteous but sinners, where righteousness is really about self-righteousness.  But there are people who are called righteous.  Zechariah and Elizabeth, the parents of John the Baptist, are said to be blameless, another word for righteous, and one we see applied to several characters, including Job, Noah and Abraham, who will get back to.  Joseph of Arimathea was said to be a good and righteous man, and John the Baptist is said to be both holy and righteous, a combination of characteristics that is also plentiful.  Paul is one of the few people to proclaim himself righteous, well besides for the righteous brothers, and it is in Paul’s writings, in particular in Romans, where we find most of the consideration of righteousness in the New Testament.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Pentecost: Get Out of the Room

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Acts 2:1-21 and Genesis 11:1-9:

While the Tower of Babel might not be the best known story in the Bible, it is certainly one that is known by most people, it’s sort of seeped into our consciousness, even for people who might not have been raised in the church.  The Tower of Babel serves as the last of the ancient histories in Genesis, before moving onto the stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs.  In some ways this story  sets itself up as a grand story from the first lines, in which we are told that “the whole earth had one language and the same words,” which  remembering George Bernard Shaw’s famous quote that “England and America are two countries separated by a common language,” I’ve always wondered how that’s possible.  Like the other stories of the ancient histories this passage serves as an etiology, that is it is a story that seeks to explain why things are, and so it seeks to tell us why if we all came from the same place why we speak different languages.  But just like with the other stories, this is of course much more than just a story of origins.  If that’s all it was we wouldn’t be talking about it all these millennia later, so what is it that makes this story important and what can we learn from it, and the story of Pentecost that we can apply to our lives today?

The story that comes immediately before this is the flood, and so obviously there is a large gap of time, although none is indicated, so that the population has grown large again.  But rather than following God’s injunction to “be fruitful and multiple and fill the earth,”  which is the injunction given first to Adam and Eve, and then it is given twice, in just a few verses to Noah’s and his sons.  Instead they are all staying in one place, and indeed one of the two reasons why they give for why they should build a city and a tower is so that they are not scattered “upon the whole face of the earth.”  Why this is a fear is not really said, because it’s not clear who will do this scattering.  We might think it would be God, but there are not threats that this is going to happen, but it is really this fear that drives the first reason why they need to do this, and the second reason is so that they can “make a name” for themselves.

That sort of stands in contrast to what most people think is happening here which is that they began to build this tower in order to challenge God, to try and build a tower that would reach heaven.  That’s certainly the story I remember from Sunday school when I was young, and it’s certainly the imagery we see in art or in the movies, of people trying to reach God.  But that is not what the passage actually says, and the New Revised Standard Version, which was the translation we heard today, sorts of encapsulates this better than the King James Version, by saying that they are building the tower to the heavens, rather than to heaven.  That is they are building it up into the skies, rather than into heaven itself.  We are also told that this tower is not seen by God as a threat, by what happens immediately afterwards, and it’s sort of hidden between the lines unless we’re paying close attention to the text, but what it says is that God “came down to see the city and the tower.”  God has to come down in order to see what it is that they are doing.  This city and tower are not a threat to God, instead what is a threat is why they did it, and that is to make a name for themselves and to keep themselves from getting scattered across the whole earth.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Bible and the Wesleyan Quadrilateral

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5:

When I asked what people wanted me to talk about after Easter, I received several questions about the Bible, and so that is what we are going to be looking at today.  If you were coming for an uplifting sermon, you’ll have to come back next week, because today is more about me teaching then about explicating scripture.  I cannot cover everything today nor am I even going to try.  I’ve often thought about trying to create a sermon series to talk about the Bible itself, but in my initial thoughts I haven’t figured out yet how to do that, but perhaps some time in the future, especially if there is a clamoring for it, although after today you might also hope I never come back to this information.

All of us have assumptions that we make about the Bible, some of them correct but unfortunately many of them incorrect.  Many want to treat the Bible as if it’s a simple book to read, when in fact it’s not.  There are some extremely difficult passages that we encounter, and we even read in 2 Peter, talking about Paul’s letters, “There are some things in them that are hard to understand,” and these difficulties were leading some people astray.  (2 Pet 3:16)  And while the Bible might be the bestselling book of all time, it is one of the least read books as well.  As someone recently posted on Facebook, we treat the Bible like we do software licenses, we don’t read it, we simply scroll to the bottom and click “I agree.”  If we are serious about the Bible, then we actually need to take it seriously, which means we need to pick it up and read it.  We also need to be very aware of what we bring to scripture when we read it, that influence what we find.  In the passage we just heard from 2 Timothy, we are told that all scripture is inspired by God, an idea that we will have to come back to, but what scripture is he referring to?  It’s only the Hebrew scriptures, because the New Testament doesn’t exist yet, but I’m sure most of us don’t think of that when we read or hear that passage.

Friday, May 23, 2014

High Cost of Conservation

Albuquerque, where I live, is currently in the middle of a major drought, as is most of the Southwest, and everyone has been called on to try and conserve as much water as possible.  Apparently consumers took this seriously, and water usage dropped 9% last year.  As a result, the water authority ended up with a deficit because people didn't use enough water to cover the budget they had passed.  And so the water authority just authorized a rate increase of 5% in order to cover the budget deficit.  This follows a 5% rate increase from last year as well

People are using less water, which is a good thing, and now are going to be charged more for the lower amount of water they are using.  What is the message we are actually conveying about the need and the benefits of conserving?

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Sheep and Goats

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Matthew 25:31-46:

As Protestants we believe that we are saved by faith alone.  That is that there is nothing we can do to merit God’s grace, that it is given to us unconditionally and without price.  God’s grace is freely poured out for us.  As United Methodists we also believe that we can either choose to accept or to reject this grace, and all that goes with it, but it is still God’s grace that saves us.  But then we have this passage which on its face may be seen as saying something else entirely.  While I don’t know why someone asked me to preach on this particular passage, I suspect that it might be because of the message the story seems to imply that by doing good works we can earn bonus points, as it were, that will reap us eternal rewards.  This is known as works righteousness, that we are made righteous through what we do, and this struggle between works and grace has been a major sticking point between Protestants and Roman Catholics since the time of the Protestant Reformation.

There are five sections of dialogue in Matthew which are interspersed between narrative sections, so that it goes narrative, discourse, narrative, discourse, narrative, etc.  The last discourse discusses judgment and right living.  It begins with a diatribe of woes against the Pharisees and scribes, in which we are told that we should basically do as they say not as they do.  This series of woes sort of bookends the discourses, because the first discourse is the Sermon on the Mount, which contains the blessings, but we end with these woes.  Then the last thing that Jesus teaches the disciples, and thus us, in the Gospel of Matthew is the passage we just heard, as immediately after this Jesus and the disciples begin their last journey to Jerusalem.

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory.  All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.”  The sheep will be put at his right hand and the goats on his left, and the sheep will be welcomed into the kingdom and the goats will be scattered into the eternal flames.  Surprisingly, especially considering how much the idea is emphasized by some within the church, this is the only detailed description we find in the New Testament of what might be called the final judgment.  Notice that Jesus does not say “did you believe the right things, did you decry the right sins, did you dislike the right people, did you support the correct doctrines and dogma, did you attend the right church, and did you not cross your fingers when saying the Nicene or Apostles creed?”  Good then come into the kingdom.  Instead he says “when I was hungry, you gave me food, when I was thirsty you gave me something to drink; when I was a stranger you welcomed me; when I was naked you gave me clothing; when I was sick you took care of me; and when I was in prison you visited me,” and then concludes by saying that whatever you did for one of the least so you did, or did not do, to me.