Saturday, September 25, 2010

“It’s got to be the going, not the gettin’ there that’s good.” Where’s that from? That’s one of those song lyrics rattling around in the hard drive of my brain, left over from who knows when. I’ll look it up later, just to satisfy my curiosity. But I don’t need to right now, because in this case I disagree.

Oh, I’m all for enjoying the journey. I tell my kids to look out the windows when we drive somewhere. “Seen it, dad,” they reply, “nothing there, dad.” “Trees and road, houses and cows, dad.” Yeah, but, I’ll argue, oddly shaped trees, perhaps. Funny houses you’d love to live in, maybe. Mutant cows from Mars. Or maybe not.

Getting there IS what its all about, isn’t it? Otherwise, why have destinations in mind? Why have goals, outcomes, plans at all? We’re on the way, we say, but to where? We’ll get there, we say, but will we? How can we, if we don’t have any concept of where we are going? It’s got to be more than just the going that’s good.

Now all of this random musing has come about because of a phrase that Jesus uses in our gospel passage for this week. It is a phrase of such hope and promise that it catches your breath. And yet is could almost pass you by, if you aren’t paying attention. Take a look:

Mark 12:28-34 One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, "Which commandment is the first of all?" 29 Jesus answered, "The first is, 'Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30 you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.' 31 The second is this, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these." 32 Then the scribe said to him, "You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that 'he is one, and besides him there is no other'; 33 and 'to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,' and 'to love one's neighbor as oneself,'-- this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices." 34 When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, "You are not far from the kingdom of God." After that no one dared to ask him any question.

A familiar passage, in a familiar setting. And so clearly significant, it is like a bright red flashing light that draws our attention to the center message. It is a message that we have to grasp, a message we have to wrestle with and claim as our own. It is a message that we have to figure out how to live in our day to day existence. “The greatest commandment,” right from Jesus’ own lips. How can we debate the meaning and value of such words? There it is in black and white - or red and white, if you have one of those bibles!

And isn’t it interesting that it comes in the midst of an argument. Or rather, a tag team wrestling match. It was a collusion of bitter rivals who band together against a new common enemy. The Pharisees and the Herodians wouldn’t give each other the time of day, wouldn’t hand out a band-aid to cover a bullet wound. And yet, there they are in the beginning of Chapter 12, palling around together in an attempt to trip up Jesus with their rapier like logic. Only it doesn’t work. Jesus out logics the logicians. And when they are left hanging on the ropes, panting for breath, who should show up but the Sadducees. Now, both the Pharisees and the Herodians would rather belly surf in a pig sty than ask for help from the Sadducees, but in their desperation they reach out to tag them in. Only to watch them driven to their knees in humiliation by the surprisingly unmarked Jesus.

All of that happens in the first part of Chapter 12. That’s the scene that elicits the passage we are looking at today: a UFC cage match gone horribly wrong. During a commercial break, when the main contestants are catching their breath and stitching up the gaping wounds, this guy sidles up to Jesus and asks his question. Now, this guy is a scribe, Mark says. Which under normal circumstances is presented as a bad guy; a letter of the law guy, a stickler for the whereases and heretofores of the fine print buried in the back pages of the incomprehensible legal document. Mark tells us this with a sly grin and a “who’d a thunk it” shrug of the shoulders.

“Which commandment is first of all?” And being a scribe, he knew in intimate detail just how all all could be! There has been a debate over the centuries as to whether this was just round 4 in this melee and the scribe was trying to trip him up just as assuredly as the previous combatants. But Mark doesn’t think so, and neither do I. There is something different about this approach. Mark describes it by saying the scribe was impressed by Jesus. “He argues like a scribe” he must have thought to himself. Which many would see as an insult, but for a scribe it was the highest of compliments.

No, it appears to be an honest question, a sincere search for answers. And that is how Jesus responds. “Hear O Israel,” Jesus reverts to the shema, a traditional liturgy that every Jewish child learned almost as soon as he or she could talk. “The Lord our God, the Lord is One.” These are the words that are written on a scrap of paper and placed in the mezzuza, that little box attached to the doorframe of every Jewish home. As they would go in and come out, they would touch that box and recite the words, remembering who they were and whose they were. Of course he would use those words. What else? Then follow them up with the proscription to love God and love neighbor. Presenting them both as though they were inseparable, two sides of the same coin.

There are some variations of wording between Mark’s account and the Old Testament. Mark has four dimensions of this love - heart and soul, mind and strength; the Deuteronomy has only three - heart and soul and might. But we can understand the shift by remembering that Mark wants to make sure that Gentiles understand the totality of this commitment. To the Jew the heart was the seat of both emotion or feeling and intellect. Greeks tended to divide the human emotion from the rational mind, so Mark makes sure we hear both heart and mind.

But for the most part it is the same. Jesus reaches back and grabs a foundational statement and offers it up as answer to the plea. And the scribe grins and claps his hands. Not in appreciation of the scholar who passed the test, but in the joy of knowing that what was in his heart is truth. When Jesus sees this joy in agreement, he tosses out the phrase that transforms this whole event from a back alley brawl to glimpse into eternity. “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.” Wow. No wonder no one could ask any more questions, they were stunned by the fleeting image of glory.

What we wouldn’t give for a statement like that from Jesus. “You are not far off” Jesus tells us that is why he came, to seek those who are far off and bring them near. We want to be near, we want to know that we are close to the Kingdom, close to the hope, close to the model for living that we are called to live - more than that, close to model for living that we long to live.

Mark tells us here that to get close, we have to live full out. We don’t hold back, we don’t keep a little in reserve. With all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, with all your strength. That’s the only thing Jesus wants from us - everything. In our Aldersgate book study, this section is called Live Passionately. Which I guess means that the going and the getting there are pretty much the same thing. Let’s get going!


Saturday, September 11, 2010


It’s Confirmation Sunday this week at Aldersgate. A high holy day indeed. A bright spot in the life of any church. Plus we are all squeezing in together at 9am, instead of spreading out in two services. So, that could be fun, packing the house in order to watch this year’s set of young people claim their faith and join the church. A good reason to gather together, a moment for celebration and thanksgiving, not just for the young people, but for the church in general. It is a good sign that there are still young people who want to say yes.

But then, some might be thinking, that’s great for them, and I’m happy for them. What about me? Not to sound selfish or self-centered. Honest. I’m still going, you might say, still planning to worship, to applaud, to say thanks and all, to gather with the community and catch a glimpse of the Presence that calls us to that place.

Maybe, I’m asking wrong. Wrongly? How does one say that? Maybe I’m asking the wrong question. That’s better. Instead of what’s in it for me, what I really mean is what’s my role on Confirmation Sunday. I mean, I’m already confirmed. So, what am I supposed to do, or to think, or to expect?

A reboot. You know how when something goes wrong with your computer, the screen freezes, a program won’t work, whatever. Well, one of the first things you should try is a reboot. Turn it off and turn it back on. Start over. A mulligan - that’s what they call it in golf. A do over.

I could use a reboot right about now. It’s been one of those weeks. You know what I mean, I know you do. When there are more questions than answers. When everything you do seems to be the wrong thing. When everything you say seems to cause more hurt or confusion or misunderstanding instead of fixing what was broken. When you begin to suspect they’ve finally found you out and any minute now someone in authority is going to say “what made you think you were competent enough to do this job?”

You know what I mean. The thing is, it wasn’t always like that, though at the moment it might feel like it. There was a time when you were sure, when you were on the right track with the wind in your sails and confidence in your soul. Remember when you said yes – to a job, to a move, to a loved one, to God – and all was new and right and full of possibility. Remember?

1 Timothy 1:12-17 I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, 13 even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, 14 and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 15 The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners-- of whom I am the foremost. 16 But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life. 17 To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.

We never think of Paul as needing a reboot. He seems so overwhelmingly confident, standing up in the face of persecution, singing songs of thanksgiving from a jail cell, planting new communities of faith all over the known world, and then writing letters to straighten out all sorts of problems in those churches with clarity and an interesting mixture of law and grace. He never seems to have a moment of doubt or uncertainty, he’s never known to question his call.

Yet, he has to constantly remind us that his whole life is a reboot. In this letter to Timothy, a young leader he is grooming for great things, he starts by telling his own story. There was a before, he says. And there is a now, an after. And that’s all you really need to know. Transformation is possible. Starting over is available. In fact, he would argue, it is standard operating procedure. This is how it is done. There was a before, and there is an after, thanks be to God!

OK, we say, you can’t argue with that. But that was then. This is now. Why is my after starting to feel like a before? Maybe transformation doesn’t always take. Or maybe some of us don’t have the grip we need to hold onto it. Why can’t we have what Paul had? He was that new creation he talked about. He was strong and safe and certain. Wasn’t he?

There’s a word I need you to notice in the passage above. It is tucked away in one of the most important verses in the whole New Testament. And we can miss it because the light is so bright on the other words of that verse. Verse 15: The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners. A restatement of the Gospel, some argue. As important as John 3:16, others claim. But it is the rest of the verse that I want us to see. After the dash, Paul says “of whom I am the foremost.” It follows the word sinners in verse fifteen, Jesus Christ came to save sinners – of whom I am the foremost. Overlook the hyperbole for a moment. We roll our eyes at this sort of thing from Paul - the best, the strongest, the worst, the weakest. Everything has to end with “est” for Paul. Sounds like bragging, even though he said he wouldn’t. Overlook that for a moment, the word I want you to see, the word I am clinging to by my fingernails tonight isn’t foremost. It is am. I am the foremost, says Paul.

He said “am.” He didn’t say was. I find that amazing, and oddly comforting. You would think he would have put the sinful part of his nature in the past tense. I was a sinner, the worst of the lot. But now, he could have said, now I am ... What? I am, says Paul, confident Paul, new creation Paul, I am a sinner. Paul is admitting that he prone to losing his grip on his own transformation, it seems to me. Or at least he can see that tendency in himself. It is the thorn in the flesh, it is the evil he doesn’t want to do but still does for some unknowable reason. I am the foremost.

Maybe it isn’t just a theological point he wants to get across to young Timothy and to us. As important, vitally important, as that point is, maybe there is something more. Maybe he isn’t boasting about the transformation worked in his life, or at work in his life. Maybe he wants us to discover that it is in telling the story, our own story, that we regain our grip on the Christ at work in us. Maybe it is in the remembering that we can recapture something of an assurance of that hope at work even in us. There was a time, we say, when we said yes, when we were sure, when we were on the right track because it was His track.

Confirmation Sunday is an opportunity to celebrate the witness of the young people who have claimed that Christ and who are living that transformation. But maybe it an opportunity for all of us to reboot. To start over again, to go back to when we stood where they stand, or where we knelt and felt those hands on us conferring the blessing of the church and of the Spirit. Maybe as they claim Christ, so can we. We who are sinners, but the very ones that he came to save. Even us.

Maybe that ought to be the legacy of 9-11, as well. Not an excuse to hate, not a call for revenge, but a reboot back to the foundations of our nation, the legacy of freedom for all. “Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free...” Maybe that’s who we could aspire to be again. Reboot.

Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners. Even you. Believe it or not. Even me. Thanks be to God.


Saturday, September 4, 2010


OK, I'm lazy. Not really. The truth is I'm heading out of town this afternoon to preach at the church I served when I came back to Indiana over 15 years ago. But I was assigned a text different than the one most of the readers of this blog will hear.

So, I decided that it would be less confusing to rerun a bible study I wrote three years ago on the text that Kent will be using at Aldersgate in the morning. That way I can spend the morning preparing my sermon for Elkhart Trinity and perhaps be a little less nervous than I might have been.

The added advantage to this rerun is that it contains an explanation of the name of this bible study. In case you forgot! Now, here's the tricky part: since I was honest and admitted this was a rerun, will anybody claim they remembered it from the first time? :)

Playdoh Edition

Just to let the newcomers in on the joke - there is a reason why this is called the “Late Night Bible Study.” If I could only remember what it was. No, just kidding. I do remember. A long time ago in a galaxy far away, sorry ... A few years back my former associate pastor Taylor Burton Edwards started an online bible study designed to engage folks in a dialogue around the gospel text for the following Sunday. He would give some background and then pose some questions and once in a while someone would answer or at least respond to the rest of the group. I don’t know how long he did this nor do I know how many folks ever responded to what he was doing, but at least it gave the participants food for thought.

When he left First Anderson, he told me that he thought I ought to continue the study. So, I took it over and changed it. Not really on purpose, I just changed it because I got my hands on it. I’m a different person with my own ways of doing things, my own ways of seeing things and hearing things. So this study came out different too.

When I started it, it was a part of my final sermon preparation which takes place on Saturday night. Sometimes really late. That’s not because I don’t do any sermon prep before Saturday, I’m working on sermons almost all the time. At least in some corner of my mind I am. But I’m putting the final touches on it on Saturday night. So, I would write the bible study late at night. Hence the title.

The problem with this is not everyone is a late night person. Many folks, who enjoyed reading the bible studies and using them to prepare for worship the next morning, didn’t want to wait until after midnight (sometimes) to get the email. So, they asked politely if I would consider doing them earlier. And since I was asked so nicely I started doing it earlier in the day. But for some reason I kept the name. Don’t know why exactly, just liked it I guess.

I also shifted from a true bible study to something more like a commentary. Or as I like to think of them, sermon seeds. It is my form of a blog, really, comments on a biblical text and insight into the sermon I am still preparing. And here in Fort Wayne it serves as something like the printed sermons that some folks were used to getting each Sunday morning. Since I no longer write out the whole sermon, this is as close as I get.

So, now you know why this is called Late Night Bible Study, even though it isn’t done late at night and isn’t really a bible study. I hope I do manage to say something about the text in this space, but I try for more than just understanding.

Like many things, this has evolved over the years into the form you now see before you. I can’t help but change and grow ... at least we hope it is growth. We add our influence to the things we do, we shape them by the images and ideas that are in our heads. Our fingerprints are on the things we do.

Which is what our lesson is about this week. Jeremiah was one of the prophets of God, which meant that sometimes he had to give bad news. What is amazing about the prophetic books is that when you look closely the bad news is surrounded by good news. But sometimes it is hard to see.

Jeremiah 18:1-11 The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: 2 "Come, go down to the potter's house, and there I will let you hear my words." 3 So I went down to the potter's house, and there he was working at his wheel. 4 The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter's hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him. 5 Then the word of the LORD came to me: 6 Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the LORD. Just like the clay in the potter's hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. 7 At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, 8 but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. 9 And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, 10 but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it. 11 Now, therefore, say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: Thus says the LORD: Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.

Jeremiah isn’t the only one to use the image of the potter to represent the creative power of God, but there is a depth here that is unique. The potter is the one who takes the seemingly insignificant elements of the earth and shapes them into something beautiful. God takes “what is low and despised in the world” to use Paul’s words, and makes it into something of glory.

The bad news here is that sometimes things go wrong. The pot being shaped on the wheel is spoiled, goes bad. The Hebrew word here used to describe the ruined vessel means marred or spoiled or ruined, but it also can mean corrupted or perverted. There is a moral element here, a judgment made.

The good news is that the ruined pot is not discarded but remade. Re-created in the hands of the potter. What is interesting about the passage is that the word for create is a different one than what appears in the beginning of Genesis. The word for create in Genesis is used only for God, the divine creator, something we cannot duplicate. But the word in this passage is used both for God’s activity and for our own. We are co-creators with God in this reclamation project. We are participants in the act of re-creation, not passive subjects acted upon by unseen, outside forces.

That is why the passage ends with a call to change: “Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.” God has chosen to let us participate in the act of creation. We put our own fingerprints on the aspects of our lives that we remold. We make choices. We are not helpless, according to God’s words through Jeremiah, victims of circumstances beyond our control. We are partners in the process of the re-creation of our own lives. How shall we live? What shall we choose? Who shall we be?

One last interpretive image - when Jeremiah reports that the potter was “working at his wheel” the literal translation is “making a work on the stones.” The ancient potter’s wheel is not like the ones we see today. It was more like a millstone, two large stones that sat on top of one another and were caused to spin by great effort. It took the potter’s whole body to spin the stone to make the pot. By identifying God as the potter, Jeremiah is making the claim of God’s great effort expended on our behalf. He literally wraps himself around us as he works to make us new.

So, what about the “edition” in the title of the Late Night Bible Study? Well, it’s a teaser, I guess. A little hint as to what the whole thing is about. In this case, Play-doh, the kids equivalent of potter’s clay. Or in this case, a quick description of the human condition. I hope I’m one of the brighter colors!