Sunday, July 16, 2017

Sermon for July 16

The reading:

Ephesians 1:1-4

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, To the saints who are in Ephesus and are faithful in Christ Jesus:  Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places,  just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love.  He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.  In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ,  as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit;  this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God's own people, to the praise of his glory.

 The message

Today we start a 4 week series on a letter that claims Paul wrote it to the church at Ephesus.  We have good reasons to doubt Paul himself wrote it and that it was written to people in Ephesus.  In the New Testament there are 14 letters attributed to Paul. Seven of these New Testament letters were almost certainly written by Paul himself: 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, Philippians, Philemon, 1 and 2 Corinthians, and Romans. These letters were most likely written during the height of Paul’s missionary activity, between 50 and 58 a.d. which makes them the oldest writings in the New Testament (Mark, the oldest of the 4 Gospels was likely written between 60 and 70 ad). The other 7 letters  credited to Paul were probably written by co-missionaries or students of Paul (At the time, if you wrote something based on another person’s teachings and ideas, you didn’t just attribute it to them with a footnote or something, you put their name on it).  This division of books of by Paul and not by Paul is based on structure, use of language and content.  This is not something modern scholars made up with new science or some dark secret the church hid from people for centuries.  Since the second century, Christians divided Paul’s letters in this way, seeing both groups of letters as the inspired word of God, with good news in them.  Since the address to the Ephesians in this letter does not appear in the earliest manuscripts and it does not address any issues specific to a particular church, most people believe Paul’s letter to the Ephesians was meant to be a general circulating letter that went to the church in Ephesus but also to other churches and communities.

Ephesus was an important city, one of the major ports of the ancient world. It was located on the coast of Asia Minor (modern day Western Turkey).  It was home to the Temple of Artemis, one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world.  (a few pieces of which still stand today) . Worship of Artemis, one of the Greek gods who took on a local character there, was an important part of life and commerce in Ephesus.  Paul’s successful evangelism  and conversion of people to Christianity, then called “the way” angers the priests and merchants who earned their living selling things related to the temple. Paul had visited Ephesus a few times and lived there for a while. In Acts 18:19-21 we learn Paul and his coworkers arrived at Ephesus, where Paul left Priscilla and Aquila. He himself went into the synagogue and reasoned with the Jews.  When they asked him to spend more time with them, he declined.  But as he left, he promised, “I will come back if it is God’s will.” Then he set sail from Ephesus.

Paul also passes by Ephesus later on but does not stay, choosing instead to send for the leaders of  the leaders of the church in Ephesus and meet with them someplace else. Paul wanted to go directly to Jerusalem.  In Acts 21, we learn: Paul had decided to sail past Ephesus to avoid spending time in the province of Asia, for he was in a hurry to reach Jerusalem, if possible, by the day of Pentecost. From Miletus, Paul sent to Ephesus for the elders of the church.  When they arrived, he said to them: “You know how I lived the whole time I was with you, from the first day I came into the province of Asia. I served the Lord with great humility and with tears and in the midst of severe testing by the plots of my Jewish opponents.  You know that I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you but have taught you publicly and from house to house. I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus. 

The Letter to the Ephesians presents and celebrates Paul’s vision for the church.  This vision is summarized by the last verse we just heard from Acts 21: I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus . Christ’s death and resurrection united Jews and non-Jews.  The Jewish law, outlined in the first 5 books of the Old Testament, served to separate and set apart those who followed it from those who did not.  The message revealed by Jesus teachings and the events of his life meant that the law was no longer necessary, people where connected to God by grace through faith, by the death and resurrection of Jesus, nothing else mattered, nothing else could bring the forgiveness of sins.

It’s hard to exaggerate how radical and strange this was to ancient Greek, Hebrew and Roman societies.  People laughed at the idea, people were scared by the idea, people were confused by the suggestion that everyone was the same.  To say the death and resurrection of Jesus was more important than how you were born, what group you belonged to or where your citizenship was,  that was crazy talk.  Societies at the time were highly divided, that was how social and political life functioned. There were patrons and clients, rich and poor, first born and later born, sick and healthy, clean and unclean, Jews and Gentile, male and female, slave and free, priests and not priests. These divisions were strong, seen as part of the natural world.  Going from one group to another was usually impossible or could only be done with a great amount of effort, luck and help.  Paul’s word that to God all people were the same, undeserving sinners saved by Grace, was hard news for people to hear.  Even people on the wrong side of these divisions struggled to accept this joyful news. In fact, a lot of Paul’s letters to churches criticize the communities for not living this equality out.     

Paul frequently uses this idea of adoption and inheritance to talk about what God has done through Jesus death and resurrection.  (This comes up in Galatians 4 and Romans 8 as well).  During Paul’s time, there were several words for adoption, each had a different meaning. When talking about being joined to Christ’s death and resurrection, Paul always uses the one that meant giving full and total status as a child to the one adopted. There are no classes of people in God’s kingdom, there is only saved by grace.  One of the most hateful and angry things I hear during difficult times in the life of a family is that step children, adopted children or estranged members are called “not real”, that somehow since they were born to different parents, screwed up in the past, or where not there to help, they did not  deserve a voice in planning a funeral, a spot in a service or a part of an inheritance.  The early church faces the same exact challenge, that natural inclination that we should get what’s fair, what we deserve.  God’s grace does not work that way, the church has no use for that way of thinking.    

In addition to radical inclusion, the other main focus in Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians is the conflict between good and evil, the forces of God and the forces of demonic evil. This is a battle constantly fought but one that God has given us the power to win. We see look at this when we get to week 3 and 4. 

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Sermon for July 9

The reading

Psalm 150

1 Praise the Lord! Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty
2 Praise him for his mighty deeds; praise him according to his surpassing greatness!
3 Praise him with trumpet sound; praise him with lute and harp!
4 Praise him with tambourine and dance; praise him with strings and pipe!
5 Praise him with clanging cymbals; praise him with loud clashing cymbals!
6 Let everything that breathes praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!

The message

Today is the last Sunday of our 5 week series with the Psalms.  Fittingly enough, we end the series with Psalm 150, the closing song in the book of Psalms.  Over the past weeks, we have heard Psalms of lament, praise, help, invitation and trust. We learned a little about the order and structure of the psalms, their role in worship and their expressive power.  As we met in class after worship each week, we looked at the psalms in depth, attempted to rewrite them for today and went off on lots of tangents, discussions about church today, faith and how we live out God’s gift of grace.  In many ways, those sorts of conversations are where the psalms come from, the experiences and trials lived through by people of faith, the things that happened in the daily lives of God’s people.   In translation from the original Hebrew many of the poetic aspects of the psalms like rhyming and alliteration are lost but this ancient songs for use in the temple worship still inspire patience, faith and trust in God.  

Psalm 150 is a call to worship, an invitation to communities to give praise and worship to God.  
There are several calls to worship in the collection of Psalms in the bible but Psalm 150 is different.  It is missing something found in all the other psalms that call people to worship.  Psalm 150 gives no reason to praise the Lord.  In all the other calls to worship, people are invited to worship God because God is great, because God is deserving of praise, because God has answered prayers, because God has saved an individual from a crisis, Because God has released someone from despair and loss or because God has rescued a community from suffering.   We heard the entire psalm and Psalm 150 offers none of those reasons or any other.  It is a call to worship and praise God, the community is invited to trust the singer, the reasons are personal,  left to the hearer to think about.  

Back in High School, I spent a few seasons on the school football team.  I was honestly never that good.  A lot of people (like my wife) see the game as a bunch of huge guys just running into each other to move a ball.  In some ways, that’s true, the point of the game is to the get the ball from one place to another. Beyond that, it’s actually a complicated game that has a lot of rules and regulations.  There are virtually limitless plays and patterns that the 22 people can have parts in. Playbooks for a team can have 1000s of possibilities and variations.  In addition, there are right ways to tackle, hold the ball, run, line up and put on equipment. There are rules about every aspect of play, what counts as a catch, what is out of bounds and what each player can do.  There are penalties when these rules are broken (and the violation is seen by the ref).  Each time you line up for a play, you need to be aware of many things, where they are on the field, where the opposing team is, what play is going to happen, where to line up and move, when the ball will be snapped and possible last second changes.  The good players were able to keep track of all that, could naturally incorporate all that stuff into their thinking and still get the ball from one place to another.  People like me got lost in the details, trying to get everything right and being too distracted. 

We could say many of those same things about church.  We have a lot of rules, the doctrines of the Reformation and the ELCA, what we believe, conflicts when those things differ, scripture, the history of a community, building and church, the relationships we have (or do not have) with the people in the seats next to us.  There is an order to lighting things, putting them out, reading and singing.  There are places assigned for everything. I have 15 or 20 of the thousands and thousands of books about worship.  Then there are the day to day management issues that come up, the oversight of a school, all different city agencies up in our business, there are checks to write, bills to pay, exemptions to maintain, mail to pick up, supplies to order, other congregations to work with, support, pray for and collect rent from, doors to open, roofs to fix and walls to paint.  There is community work, community groups and maintaining relationships. There are lots things I don’t like doing, was never trained to do or get me frustrated. Beyond all this, we are here to Worship God.   

The psalms are a gift given to us to help with that work.  It cannot only happen on Sunday morning though, all that other stuff can get in the way. A commentary on our reading tells us,  The psalms as a whole are not meant primarily to be sung in worship (despite what I have been saying for the past 5 weeks). Rather, we are invited to come to worship in order that we might sing the songs in daily life. So, when we are wallowing neck deep in the mire of life, we are invited to sing the songs of lament: O Lord, have mercy. When we are experiencing the grace and joy of life, we are invited to sing the songs of praise: Thank you God! When we are in a tough spot, but remember God's presence, we are invited to say, "I trust you O God, you are with me." And when we see God at work in the world, we are invited to point to God's invisible hand at work and say, "Praise the Lord!

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Sermon for June 25

The readings

Psalm 23 

 The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
 He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters;
 he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name's sake.
 Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff— they comfort me
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.

John 10:1-4

 “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by  name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice

The message

Today is our third week with the Psalms.  We hear some of the most familiar verses in scripture.  Psalm 23 is one of the few bible passages I know by heart (I am from that generation where memorizing things has lost a lot of its appeal, I mean I can look up anything on my phone in a few seconds. I can find any passage in my bible app almost instantly).  Over my 9 or so years as a pastor, I have shared the 23rd psalm with many people at the end of their lives and at almost all of the funerals services I have planned and participated in.  I have a good sense of what it can mean for people at the end of their lives and for loved ones in times of mourning.  God’s promise that I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever can bring a reminder to people that since Christ is arisen, we will arise. God’s promise to be with those who are in the valley of the shadow of death, which can be the angry, complicated and anxious space created by the loss of a loved, one can bring great comfort to those who mourn.  

Psalm 23, with its great familiarity and comfort, does fit into its own group of Psalms. Over the past few weeks we have looked at a few categories of psalms including hymns of praise where the songwriter give thanks and praise to God, especially as creator and redeemer. We also looked at Laments or prayers for help, where the song writer calls on the name of God, gives voice to a complaint, seeks help from God and proclaims trust in God’s promises.  Psalm 23 fits into another category called psalms of trust.  Similar to prayers for help, pslams of trust are turned to for help during times of crisis (like being in the valley of the shadow of death).  Psalms for help and psalms of trust really contain the same content, the big difference is that while psalms for help are focused on the struggle, the crisis or the situation that causes fear and anxiety, psalms of trust focus on reassuring people and celebrating that God will help.      

It can also be difficult to get the depth of this psalm when you do not know much about an actual sheep or the actual life and work of a shepherd.  Jen and I have a good sized collection of plush sheep, we have made several visits to petting zoos and saw a lot in Ireland (they really are everywhere) but I can’t say I have any idea what goes into caring for a sheep.  The plush kind only need an occasional dusting. Someone I know lived in and served churches in Montana for several years. She talked about her first sermon there in Montana about the Good Shepherd, which was not a great experience. Afterwards a group of people in the church who worked as actual modern day shepherds went up to her, politely asked “do you know anything about sheep”.  She was invited to visit their sheep, their work and see what they do.  That day, they taught her sheep grow to depend on the shepherd. It’s not just a matter of guarding them from other people or thieves, in many ways a shepherd is needed to care for the sheep, to make sure they survive.  The metaphor of God as shepherd teaches about God’s complete and total care for us.

Many of us know that psalm 23 expresses trust in God with this metaphor about the shepherd being trusted by their sheep.  There is a whole other, different half of psalm 23. The Lord is also the host of a royal banquet. At verse 5, we learn the Lord will  “anoint my head with oil and ensure my cup overflows”.  

Things were very different back then when this song was composed but you did not prepare great feasts for your sheep, anoint or refresh them with oil on their heads or do your best to ensure the flock’s cups of sheep brand wine were always full. No, at verse 5, the psalm changes, it is no longer about God as shepherd, it is now about God as the host of a royal banquet. Of course, most of us know the same amount about Ancient Near East royal banquets as we do about caring for sheep.  The information we have about these events is limited and they have changed from time to time and culture to culture. What is known and shared over time is that these royal banquets were not just big parties.  They were events where a king with sufficient resources took care of your every need, these were events where everything else stopped, sacred so that no one messed with them.  

As we go through the Psalms, we continue to meet after church, to review the psalm of the day and rewrite them for today.  This work is an invitation for us to quit trying to figure out what happened at a royal banquet when psalm 23 was composed and start to wonder what one would look like today, what the world would look like with God as our host.  Ultimately, we are waiting for Jesus promised return when God’s saving work will be completed, these things, or greater things we cannot imagine, will happen and all will be restored. We cannot do this so we wait for God to come as host. As we wait, we work and we try to show people a glimpse of what is to come.  My idea of a royal banquet is silly, impossible, wishful thinking, easily criticized  would be an place where everyone had food and good work, access to healthcare, where there was peace, an absence of violence and the things that lead to violence, where people were not separated, where we all saw each other as Children of God          
We are asked to pursue these things like victory in a war. This section of my sermon is based on  notes from the net bible (I do not know nearly enough Hebrew to do this). It has to do with the last verse, the trust that Goodness and mercy will follow me my whole life.  In Hebrew, the use of radaf, “pursue, chase”  with tov vakhesed, “goodness and faithfulness”  is weird.  This is the only place in the entire OT where either of these nouns appears as the subject of this verb radaf (pursue). This verb is often used to describe the hostile actions of enemies.  The word “pursue” is used way outside of its normal context in a way that creates a unique image of God “chasing down” the one whom he loves.  As God loves us, we are asked to love each other.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Sermon for June 18

The readings

Psalm 13

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?
 How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
Consider and answer me, O Lord my God! Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death,
and my enemy will say, "I have prevailed"; my foes will rejoice because I am shaken.
But I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
 I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me.

John 6:35-40

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away; for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.”

The message

Many people have turned to the words of the Psalms to express their religious feelings of frustration, joy and hope (especially when they struggle to or cannot find their own words).   During his life, Martin Luther often turned to the Psalms. In his 1528 preface to a commentary on the Psalms Luther wrote “It could well be called a “little Bible” since it contains, set out in the briefest and most beautiful form, all that’s to be found in the whole Bible” 

The Psalms cover a great range of human experiences and history with honesty and faith.   Around one third of the Psalms are laments.  Those typically follow a pattern: calling on or invoking the name of God, a complaint that describes a particular distress or suffering, an appeal to God for help and a declaration of trust.  Another significant portion of the Book of Psalms are hymns. They offer praise to God and celebrate God’s presence in the world, with a focus on creation and redeeming.  The pslams can be individual, the protests and begging for help of one individual struggling to see God in the world and remain faithful in suffering, or they can be communal, an invitation for all to worship, one person’s celebration of joy at God’s grace or giving voice to an entire community’s mourning a loss in battle.  During our time with the Psalms we will meet after church each week for a bible study where we will focus on what the psalmist is saying and rewriting the day’s reading for here and now.  

Over the next weeks, we will alternate between hymns and laments.  This is the same way we experience the ups and downs of life. The psalms speak to the frustrations that come when everything seems fine and things are finally going well (For instance, after finally finishing several months of updating paperwork for our city preschool contract, we had a few weeks off and then got a brand new issue to deal with). The Psalms also speak to the unexpected help or relief that comes when it seems like everything is falling apart and there is just nothing we can do about it. (For instance, I was trying to figure out how to run the food pantry over the summer months as we waited for the new grant money to be processed how to stretch out the food we had and buy the rest.  One of our volunteers offered to help with a food drive at her school and suggested I give in and do a go fund me campaign.  I did the campaign and we had to shut down in a few hours since we raised several hundred more than we needed. There are lots of other good schools, churches and community groups that could use support. A few days later, we were given extra money from the United Way).  Instead of worrying about paying for Summer, we will actually be able to open extra days.       

 Today, we have our first psalm of Lament.  In this case, it is an individual lament, one person’s expression of their anger, frustration and disappointment. It follows the standard format for a lament.  God is called on with “O Lord” but there is something more going on.  The Hebrew for Lord here is yhwh, this was the name of God, except it’s not really a word.  During periods of time in the Old Testament, God’s name was considered so holy and sacred, it could not be written or spoken.  Instead, they used these 4 Hebrew consonants as a substitute or space filler. The letters contained no vowels which meant the word could not be said (try pronouncing zmym correctly).  When seeing yhwh, the reader would simply say Lord or the name.  This is to help us see the awe of the singer, that one could stand before and petition a God so powerful and complex, the name cannot be said.

The complaint of the psalm writer today is that God is ignoring him.  He feels like God is not listening to him because enemies are being exaulted over him, bad people are succeeding, winning and taking things from him, while he struggles to be faithful.  Then there is the appeal for help “Consider and answer me, O Lord my God! Give light to my eyes”, and the statement of faith or trust “But I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation, I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me.”

Let’s be clear here, as easy as it is to show how this psalm fits that standard outline of a lament, It is not easy to get from “God why are you ignoring me ” to “I will sing to the Lord”,  from “God, how long will you hide your face from me” to “I trusted in your steadfast love”;  from “how long must I bear pain in my soul” to “my heart shall rejoice in your salvation”, but that is a journey we have to take all the time. 

We take that journey as we see bad things happen to good people, we take this journey as those we pray to recover, do not, as those we pray to be safe, are not.  We take this journey from why “God, are you ignoring me” to “my heart rejoices in your salvation” every time we have to say “Thy will be done” after a tragic loss, when we see the persecution of Christians around the world (and even here in the US as a group of Caldenain Christians in Detroit were recently taken into custody by ICE agents and are being deported back to Iraq where they will almost certainly face persecution, torture and death)  We ask why doesn’t God protect God’s people, why don’t our prayers change things.  Some people internalize these things, perhaps I’m not good enough, I didn’t pray right, I was bad and am being punished.   That ain’t from Jesus teachings and none of that is true. 

For me, today is a tough day or a good day, to think about these things.  As many people celebrate Father’s Day, I have nothing to really do.  My father passed away about 20 years ago. My father passing away was probably the first time I remember really having to go from “God, why did this terrible thing happen to me” to “My heart shall rejoice in your salvation”.  I wish I had the secret formula for taking that journey and I could share it with all of you, that would make a great sermon, book and viral hit on the internet. Of course, there is no secret way to do this. Instead, we worship and are loved by a God who promises to walk with us as we take that journey.  As our church, we commit to take that trip together, to support, pray for and care for each other.  We remind each other that we are not in this alone.  God’s word is real, God’s promises are true, God listens and God is with us.   Those are the things that lead us to say, My heart shall rejoice in your salvation