Saturday, June 25, 2011

Maintaining the Bond

OK, here’s the deal. We are moving house in less than a week. Which means it is crunch time. Final approach. Down to the brass tacks. Time’s running out. The clock is ticking. Hey, I came prepared with a bucket full of cliches, just for this occasion.

My point here is that there are lots of things I need to be doing today. And this bible study has fallen down the list a bit. Not because it isn’t important. By no means! This is one of the primary ways I have of preparing to preach on a Sunday morning. Even when what comes out on Sunday is very different than what is written here. It is still preparation for that most important of tasks.

Plus I have heard from many of you who appreciate the opportunity to spend a little time reflecting on the bible with me. Not all can come to the bible studies at church, but this mode is a little more accessible, a little more convenient, and it often causes people to stop and think, or so I am told. And that is always a good thing.

So, I’m not saying that my opinion of this task has diminished in anyway. All I’m saying is that since I am not preaching, and since the sword of Damocles is hanging over all our heads here on Candlewick Drive, I need to shorten our reflections a tad and get back to packing.

Of course, I could also use it as an opportunity to invite all of you and all of those you know to come to a loading/moving party next Thursday and/or Friday. But that would be a misuse of the forum. Wouldn’t it? Yes, I think so. Darn.

So, I feel drawn, if not compelled to get to other tasks. I feel I need to do my share of the preparations, to carry my load, to maintain the bond of peace and unity here in my house. Of course, considering I don’t even think the kids are out of bed yet means I do have a couple of minutes to at least show you the passage that will be read in worship tomorrow.

Ephesians 4:1-6, 25 - 5:2 I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3 making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. ... So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. 26 Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27 and do not make room for the devil. 28 Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. 29 Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. 31 Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, 32 and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. 5:1Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, 2 and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

It was all those ones in the first part of the reading that got me. Paul seems on a unity bend here in Ephesians. Makes you wonder what was going on in the church. Whether they were arguing about service times or the color of the carpet. Something serious that was dividing the church into factions. Or maybe it was theological, what was right, what was acceptable, what were the proper words to say at baptism or communion. Or maybe it was that some weren’t doing their share. Boxes were being packed and stacked and some were sitting at computers staring into space.

Sorry, got a little too praxis there. But you know what I mean. There are so many things that divide us. Sometime it is conflict or disagreement. Other times it is divergent interests or responsibilities or commitments. Or a culture that invites us to think of ourselves first, not what would be good for the whole.

And for some it is that they don’t belong to a whole. Families often live as independent of one another, each doing what is good in their own minds, instead of contributing to a sense of unity. Corporations don’t value loyalty like it seemed they once did. Even nation seems more about individual rights and freedoms than it does about community, about sacrificing for the good of all.

Paul surrounds this talk of unity - and the long list of “one” - by talking about call. Live a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, he says in verse one. And then “just as you were called to the one hope of your calling” there in verse four before he gets back to his litany of one. We tend to think of call as an individual thing, each are called. We discern our call. And that is certainly true. But, Paul points out here that our call is to community, to set ourselves aside long enough to participate with the body in building the kingdom. We are not called just to be special in and of ourselves, but we are called to participate in something bigger than ourselves.

Which is why the second part of the reading, from verse 25 through the first two verses of chapter five (and you do remember that the chapters and verses were added in hundreds of years after the letters were written and are somewhat arbitrary) is all about how we can get along as a community.

Paul knows that living together isn’t easy. Tell me about it. When a moving deadline approaches, it becomes even more evident that living together isn’t easy. And the first six verses aren’t implying that we will all be the same, having the same thoughts and inclinations and ways of operating. No, we are still who we are, we still bring the gifts we have been given to the community. And that is great in that if adds to the vast and diverse tapestry that is the human community called the church. But it is also difficult because we bump up against one another and sometimes get upset by different points of view.

So, to both acknowledge this inevitability and to build in systems and procedures that will help us deal with these difficulties, Paul talks to us about how we go about getting along. He reminds us the lying, even when we think it is safer is a dangerous thing. He reminds us that anger left unchecked causes more damage than we realize, to us and those around us. He says there are no short cuts in the life of the community, just a need for labor and effort on everyone’s part. And then that sniping, the pulling down, that tearing each other up is the very antithesis of what community is about. We are in the business, he reminds us, of building up. Why do we find tearing down so much fun? All that stuff (wrangling, for example, what the heck is that? Oh, wait, I’ve got teenagers. I was a teenager. Never mind. Wrangling. Got it.) All that stuff gets us off the track of trying to be like Christ. Trying to love like he loved. Trying to participate in the community of faith called the church. So, get back to the ones, he says, and remember to what we were called.

Speaking of calling, someone is calling me. There is another box to be taped up. Gotta go.


Saturday, June 18, 2011

What's in a Name?

OK, time to take the “bible study” part of the title seriously for a little while. Most of the time what I do in this space is provide musings about the passage with a little exegesis (that’s fancy seminary talk for doing bible study!) thrown in here and there. Mostly to sneak up on you. Sorry, seen too many eyes glaze over when doing some of this stuff.

But this time I need to be up front about the study part of it all. Set aside for the moment the musings, the contemplations that deal with reactions to the words and images. And the reason I need to do this is because it is Trinity Sunday.

I’ve never been a big fan of Trinity Sunday. One reason is that it causes us to change colors from the dramatic red of Pentecost, back to the white of majesty. White is used at Christmas and at Easter and the seasons that follow, and on Trinity Sunday. It is about authority, about purity, about Lordship. A powerful color, appropriate for these occasions. But we have just gone from a white season - Eastertide, and are teased with red for one Sunday and then it is back to white again. And technically, the tradition is that after trinity Sunday we switch to green for the whole summer - or Ordinary Time as the old calendars had it, Sundays after Pentecost we call it in our tradition today.

So Trinity Sunday bumps the red off the chancel, and I’ve never liked that. (I do sneak some red back in for the early part of Ordinary Time, just to keep the excitement up. Yeah, I’m easily amused.) So, I would usually give Trinity Sunday a passing reference, but not much attention. But I’ve decided to mend my ways and jump into it this year. And I’ve selected the Psalm as the reading for the week. So, here it is. See if you can figure out how this is a Trinity Sunday passage.

Psalm 8:1-9 O LORD, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens. 2 Out of the mouths of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark because of your foes, to silence the enemy and the avenger. 3 When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; 4 what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? 5 Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor. 6 You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet, 7 all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, 8 the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas. 9 O LORD, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!

How majestic is your name. That’s the line that stands out. Maybe because the Psalm begins and ends with those same words. How majestic is your name. Sounds wonderful. Can’t read those words without hearing the Michael W. Smith song in your head. “O Lord, Our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth.” It is one of those 7/11 songs that people complain about. “Seven words you repeat eleven times.” You’ve heard that, I’m sure. And yet sometimes it works. Sometimes it is the repetition that carries the meaning. It is only in saying it over and over and over that it makes any sense at all. Like the seraphs flying around the temple in Isaiah 6, and they kept singing “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of his glory.” Over and over they sang those words. And it was in the singing, and in the repetition that it began to make sense.

Or did it. What was that sense, what do these words mean? “How majestic is your name”? Does it mean that God’s name is kinda cool? Well, sort of. But in an Old Testament sense, not in a modern day “hey I like that name Raymundo!” kind of sense.

In the Old Testament, knowing a name was a way of having power. That is why it is so incredible that God would give away the name. That’s why that burning bush is such a singular moment. And the people of God knew that, so they were reluctant to say the name of God. The letters YHWH form the name of God in the Hebrew text. We would pronounce it Yahweh, because our understanding is different. Words are just words, names are just names. So, you’ve heard the name “Yahweh” in some circles. And perhaps rightly so, since God gave us this name to use.

But the early followers didn’t want to abuse the gift, so whenever the text would have those letters, YHWH, then the reader of the text would substitute the word “adonai” for the name. Adonai means Lord, it is a title instead of a name. Adonai was used for human beings at times, to acknowledge a superior. It was an honorific.

So, now when translators heard the word “Adonai” inserted where they saw the letters “YHWH” they substituted the vowels from the first into the consonants for the latter and came up with a new word. “Yahovah” or since they were German translators where the “Y” letter is pronounced like a “J”, the word was Jehovah. We now use that word as a substitute for both the name and title of God. But in fact it doesn’t appear in the original text of the bible anywhere.

OK, fascinating, but what does it have to do with Trinity Sunday or the Psalm for that matter? Well, I’m not sure. Except that it is a bit of a mystery. This name thing, I mean. And how can a name be majestic in all the earth? And does constant repetition of praise bring glory to God’s name? And what aspect or dimension of God are we praising anyway.

The Psalm is about the Creator God. Which we usually understand to be the Father. (Oh, right, Happy Father’s Day, dad. And all other dad like creatures out there.) So, how is this a Trinity Sunday passage. Where are the other dimensions? Or aspects? Or persons? Or whatever you call thems?

“When I look at the heavens, the work of your fingers...” I’m amazed, I’m astounded, I feel small. Not a bad feeling to have every now and then. That in the vastness of this created universe we are but a tiny speck. And yet this isn’t a humbling psalm. It isn’t about our speckness, it is a psalm of amazement that we are anything but speckish. We are a “little lower than God, crowned with glory and honor.” We share in God’s glory, by God’s choice. We are significant because God made us so.

That is the aspect of God we know as Jesus, or the Son. The Redeemer aspect of God is what lifts us up beyond where we might be, could be, perhaps should be. Elsewhere we are told this was done because of love. Because God so loved us, we might know eternity, we might stand in glory.

So, how else could we respond but by saying “O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” Like babes we coo and gurgle to the one who cares for us, or so says the Psalmist. And those coos and gurgles silence those who say there is no God. And those coos and gurgles are what brings majesty to the name of God. It is us, our words, our lives, our power that gives majesty to God’s name. We are bearers of that name. A name that is beyond us, bigger than us, more than we can carry, unless we are strengthened by the God whose majesty we proclaim with our words and deeds and being. Unless the Spirit, the consolation, the comforter and guide is with us.

So, it is us in the end, or is it God in God’s self that brings majesty to the name? Yes!

Derek C. Weber

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Violent Wind

What are you looking for this Pentecost Sunday? I know, not much really. Another Sunday, hymns and prayers, people in the pews, maybe an attempt to bring a smile or to boost one’s spirits. It’s another opportunity to give you the little bit of encouragement to face whatever is in store for you in the week to come.

It’s a nice place to be. A good place to be. And if you have to miss, no big deal, we can catch it the next time around. Like a soap opera you stop watching for a while and then come back only to find them in about the same place they were when you left. Not much has happened, same issues, same stories. Just a warm feeling that you did a good thing before getting back to the really important things in your day or your life.

Maybe I’ve undersold it a touch. But our expectations are understandably low. I say “understandably” because we never really see much happen in our worship experiences week by week. And so we have learned to come with everything on our minds but the possibility that we just might encounter God one Sunday morning. We’ve come to fix a problem, or to tweak a lifestyle, or to get a pat on the back or push in the backside to keep us moving on the right track. And any and all of those things just might happen and would be good outcomes for our investment of an hour of our time. But they seem so much less than what might be.

Here’s a story of worship gone awry, at least from a human perspective:

Acts 2:1-21 When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. 5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, "Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs-- in our own languages we hear them speaking about God's deeds of power." 12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, "What does this mean?" 13 But others sneered and said, "They are filled with new wine." 14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, "Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15 Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o'clock in the morning. 16 No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: 17 'In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. 18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. 19 And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. 20 The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord's great and glorious day. 21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.'

Pentecost was originally an agricultural festival celebrating the first harvest of the growing season. Later it became a commemoration of the giving of the land of Canaan to the people of Israel, and the even later it morphed into an observance of the giving of the law to Moses on Mount Sinai. All important times of celebration, but nothing to indicate the power that was unleashed in this day. I’m sure it caught the disciples by surprise too. They were used to a low key holiday (not like Yom Kippur or even Rosh Hashana) but instead found themselves in an encounter with God that literally blew them away.

The poet Amos Wilder wrote “Electric Chimes or Ram’s Horns” in response to an advertizement in Reader’s Digest July 1960. The magazine was recommending church attendance, suggesting that good things would come of it. Wilder gleefully agreed, but then proceeded to include a warning. He reminds us, in a creative way, that church is not just about being nice, but about being transformed. It is about being empowered, being cleansed, being commissioned. This isn’t something that we ought to take lightly. We are dealing with nothing less than the Creator of the universe. Can you take that lightly? Is that something that we can yawn through on a sleepy Sunday morning?

Wilder concludes the poem with these final two stanzas:

To draw near is to take your life in your hand.
Going to church is like approaching an open volcano
where the world is molten
and hearts are sifted.
The altar is like a third rail that spatter sparks,
the sanctuary is like the chamber next the atomic oven:
there are invisible rays and you leave your watch outside.

Go, therefore, not to be tranquillized
but to be exorcised.
Follow the pillar of fire and the pillar of cloud
with exultation and abandon,
with fear and trembling,
for the zeal of the Lord of Hosts
whether in the streets or the council chamber,
whether in the school or the sanctuary
waits not on the circumspect
and the flames of love
both bless and consume.

The Day of Pentecost came like the sound of a violent wind, Luke tells us. It was fire, it was power, it was chaos and noise, but it was meaning and it was hope. “Go, therefore,” Wilder writes, “not to be tranquillized but to be exorcised.” To have that which keeps us from being who God created us to be pulled out of us. And then to be filled with the power to be, the power to grow, the power to love like Christ loved.

That’s what Pentecost is all about. Not simply a birthday commemoration, just a marker along the road, a milestone passed. It is a moment of power, an offering of transformation. So, how about it? Ready to come to church on Sunday?

Who knows who you might be once you’ve been wind swept by the Holy Spirit.


Saturday, June 4, 2011

Restoring Kingdoms

Ascension Sunday. Got your banners ready for the parade? Got your cards bought and the presents wrapped? Got the party plans in place and the invitations sent? What do you mean “No”? Come on, it is Ascension Sunday this week. Aren’t you pumped? Aren’t you jazzed? Aren’t you chomping at the bit to get there early so the best seats aren’t taken in Church?

Ahem. That little bit of foolishness is brought to you by the tradition of the disciples who miss the point. I love those guys. If it weren’t for the followers of Jesus back then, it would be our own dumb questions and our glazed looked that would carry the day. But, thanks to these guys, we can look relatively intelligent as we stumble around to figure out just what in the world Jesus is talking about most of the time.

Ascension is one of those moments. It’s a “huh” moment for us at best. A “how about that” or “who’d a thunk it.” Interesting in a pseudo-scientific way – “How’d he do that? Wires and mirrors? Magic elevators? Poof, he’s gone? Interesting in a theological way – He is who he is, who he said he was, who he needs to be. Interesting. But not terribly transformative. It doesn’t really affect our lives in any significant way. It just is something about him, about this Jesus. It is something he did, or is doing, or will do. That’s what matters. Right?

Well, that’s what the disciples thought. Take a look at our reading for this Ascension Sunday:

Acts 1:6-14 So when they had come together, they asked him, "Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?" 7 He replied, "It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." 9 When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11 They said, "Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven." 12 Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day's journey away. 13 When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. 14 All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.

“Is this when you...” We’re ready to watch the show, they said. Bring it on, Jesus, the exclaimed. Oh, yeah, they still had those best seats in the back of their minds but they knew better than to ask about that again. James and John were still razzed about that every now and then. So, maybe it is implied in the question - “what’s in it for us?” But they don’t ask it. All they want to know is what is he going to do. Sure, he suffered and died like he said he was going to. But surely now it was time to kick butt and take names, wasn’t it. Is this when you will restore the kingdom to Israel? Is this when you bring us back from the margins to the center stage? Is this when you throw off the oppressors and raise us up little guys? Is this the moment when we get to shine? When we get to say “Told ya! Told ya!” When we get to thumb our noses at the Romans, when they go running back across the Mediterranean with their tails between their legs? Huh? Is it? Is it?

Well, no. And frankly, Jesus might have said, that’s exactly why you don’t need to know my timing. Because you are likely to use it for your own purposes instead of for mine. Anyone who has ever spent time trying to figure out the why and the how and the when - especially the when - has had, at best, mixed motives for sharing the information with the world at large. They tend to try to figure out ways to profit from the information. They may have started with the intention of sharing the “good news” of ultimate doom and destruction, but they invariably figure out ways to increase their own power and status and holdings. Which when you think about it is a contradiction of their own message. If they really believed in the end of everything, then wouldn’t they want to get rid of anything of this old and dying world?

Jesus says “It is not for you to know.” And that should be good enough. Especially since he doesn’t end it there. His last words before ascending are not, “it is not for you to know.” His last words are “Get to work.”

OK, not exactly. But my point is just when we are asking what Jesus is going to do and when Jesus is going to do it, he is asking us to get to work. And to get to work doing what he wants us to do more than anything else - living as followers of Him.

You shall be my witnesses, he says. You shall be exhibit A of how this faith thing works. You shall be the prime example of what it means to call yourself Christian. You are the answer to the question “how are we to live in this world?”

We hear this call to be witnesses and think it means that we are to make a nuisance of ourselves, banging on doors and hanging out in street corners with cardboard signs and shouting at passers by. We think we have to figure out how to insert the name of Jesus into every conversation that we have. And so we shy away from the main responsibility that Jesus gives us on his way out of town.

I don’t ever want to say that words aren’t important. And sometimes the only way we have of introducing people to Jesus Christ is by talking about why it is that we believe, or what believing does for us. But there is more to being a witness than telling our story every chance we get.

And what is that more? Living. Living openly and joyfully. Living connected to the community of faith and to the world around us. Living with hospitality and grace. Living higher. Maybe that is what we can claim form Ascension Sunday, a call to higher living.

While the event of Ascension Day is about Christ, claiming the seat at the right hand of God. Proclaiming himself as who he really is. The knock on effect is that we all can live higher because we are all called to live like Christ.

That’s the power that is promised. The power to maintain a higher kind of living. A life that is beyond us on our own. A life that emulates the love of Christ. A life that puts into practice the service of Christ. A life that restores the Kingdom on earth.

Which means, I guess, that Jesus could have answered the disciples’ question “Is this when you restore the Kingdom to Israel?” by saying “well, that’s up to you.” We are called to be in the Kingdom restoration business. Not in terms of power, but in terms of love. That is the life to which we witness.