You Matter

24 Oct
via Flickr user Charamelody

via Flickr user Charamelody

The Hebrew Scripture is tough. It’s long and old. It requires studying it year in and year out, so much more than just reading it like a devotional or a novel. Translating the stories to our own lives is daunting to say the least. And I think it’s easy for Christians to oversimplify the whole Bible into law and Gospel– the Hebrew Scripture is law and the Christian Scripture is Gospel. The Hebrew Scripture God is wrathful and angry and the Christian Scripture God is loving and approachable. So let’s skim the tough stuff and get to the good news. This dichotomy is not helpful or true. It limits God. It limits us.

If we do commit, if we do read the Hebrew Scripture year in and year out, we find a wealth of beauty in its stories. We find human characters and moments to relate to. And maybe most importantly, we learn about the complex nature of our God.

In his fantastic reflection of the God of Noah and Abraham, Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisels points out an important difference in the two human characters. In both stories, God is angry and wants to cause destruction:

Noah is obedient, he walks with God, but he makes no attempt to intervene; he simply saves himself from destruction. Abraham, on the other hand, acts to transform the situation. Though humble, Abraham is not content to merely be led. He confronts God, challenges the decree and insists on involvement. Indeed, Abraham is active and involved from the beginning, converting the citizens of Haran to the one God. While Noah provides rescue and disaster relief, Abraham is involved in the long hard work of reconstruction and transformation. And we identify ourselves, of course, as the descendants of Abraham, not of Noah. It is Abraham who is our model and aspiration.

We see a difference in maturity between Noah and Abraham, but also between the God of Noah and the God of Abraham. The God of Abraham includes Abraham in the decision-making. Unlike with the flood, God has seemingly learned that God needs to involve humanity in the process. The Abraham story shows us that God needs us. God uses us. God wants our engagement and realizes “perhaps the limits of divine omniscience.”

What is so exciting to me about the progression shown from Noah to Abraham is that our relationship with God is dynamic. It moves and grows. As difficult as it is to believe, God needs our intervention, our courage, our articulated longing. God needs us to fight for humanity. We are in process with God. God is willing to grow and change if we are.

And this brings me back to God being limited by our over-simplification of God’s nature in the Hebrew Scripture. We see God’s anger, yes, but we also see God’s intimacy. God gets angry because God loves creation. God’s willingness to compromise omnipotence for relationship is stunning. The stories remind us of God’s fierce love and commitment to us. In order to engage and intercede, we have to believe that we matter to God. These ancient stories bring us back to that truth.

Gospel Reflection for October 26, 2014, 30th Sunday of Ordinary Time

21 Oct

“Teacher, which commandment is greatest?”  

Matthew 22.36

Gospel love is not an idea or an emotion but an imperative–a call to act.  The two great commandments–to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves–recognize that acts of love weave us into community, just as selfish and violent acts fray the social fabric.  The commandments are more than rules to keep and thereby gain heaven.  The actions to which they call us are the hammer and nails of Christians community.”

Who that you once treated as an alien or no-good have you treated as a neighbor?  With what result?

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Recover Your Life

17 Oct
via Flckr user Ali Catterall

via Flickr user Ali Catterall

What do I need to do to make it to heaven?

How do I be first?

I want one of my sons to sit on your right and one on your left in the kingdom of heaven.

Who is the greatest among us?

I’ve done all that, what am I missing?

Throughout the Gospel of Matthew, the people just don’t quite get it. Frantically, they try to identify the hoops they need to jump through to assure their salvation. They want assurance. They want homework to check off. Heaven will be their gold star. Jesus keeps presenting tricky, paradoxical parables where things aren’t fair. Workers get the same wages without working the same amount as the others. It’s maddening. Jesus doesn’t answer our questions with what we want to hear.

I can’t blame these people in Matthew in the slightest, for I have similar instincts daily. We are all striving for the good life, now and later, and we can forget that God uses power, rewards, forgiveness and love differently than humans. It’s not about working harder and getting more gold stars on our chart. It’s not about being first in this world and checking to make sure God is watching. It’s frustrating because a lot of us kid ourselves into thinking we are pretty good at that game. But then, if we can sit in God’s love for just a second, we hear the good news:

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” –Matthew 11:28-30

These verses are my learning edge. No one has ever had to tell me to work harder. Ever. I’m a prime candidate to perpetually fall into the spin cycle of work and life. I get frantic. And when I catch myself in franticness, I also know I am in a space of proving myself, of not feeling enough. It’s exhausting, this striving. My work is to stop working so hard from that place and feel the tempo of grace. It’s not a tempo that comes from laziness. It’s a tempo that comes from a deep place of peace, worthiness, and love. It’s recognizing the ill-fitting and learning to walk freely and lightly with Christ. I don’t have to walk on my knees for miles to prove that I am good. I just have to believe that God loves me and work joyfully from that place of peace.

I’m tired and worn out, and I know it is time to recover my life, to find real rest, and to once again attempt to learn the unforced rhythms of grace.

World Food Day

16 Oct

“For I was hungry and you gave me food.” - Matthew 25.35

Today is World Food Day. World farmers produce enough food for Earth’s more than six billion people, but nearly 870 million people struggle to survive on less than a $1.25 a day with little access to Earth’s abundance.

Contact Bread for the World or to involve your Christian community in the advocacy efforts on behalf of policies to end hunger.

Gospel Reflection for October 19, 2014, 29th Sunday of Ordinary Time

15 Oct

“Whose image is this and whose inscription?”

Matthew 22.20

In Sunday’s gospel Jesus confronts a worldview about who images God–Caesar or the human person.  Jesus insists we cannot keep separate our obligations to God and those to government.  God blesses and calls us to integrate the spheres of our lives and image the One who made us.

Christians image God by helping people who are poor, caring for the abused and sick, visiting the imprisoned, grieving with those who mourn, and listening attentively to those who ache.  Our advocacy for just and compassionate government policies toward the poor, toward health care, education, and immigration are examples of how we carry the image of God into the civil sphere.

How do you see God imaged in yourself?

Sunday Scripture Readings: Isaiah 45.1,4-6; 1 Thessalonians 1.1-5; Matthew 22.15-21

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The Cost of Freedom

14 Oct
via Flickr user Peter Enyeart

via Flickr user Peter Enyeart

“Which is better, the slavery you know or the freedom you don’t?” I asked a group of 10th graders. It was a risky question for a lot of reasons, one being that I didn’t know these students yet. My teacher friend asked me to come in to his Hebrew Scripture class for a day.

“We are out of Egypt,” he told me, “but not yet to the Promised Land.” I said yes immediately for a lot of reasons, one being that I love the muck in the middle. It’s the part of the Exodus story where the Israelites are free from slavery, but not experiencing the joy of being home yet. The wilderness is uncomfortable, unknown and overwhelmingly expansive. Where is the next meal coming from? When will we get there? Will we die wandering? Is it worth it? When I asked this question of the students, I wasn’t sure they’d have opinions. Had they lived enough life to understand freedom and slavery? And would they be willing to share these moments with me?

They had, and they were.

It became clear to me very quickly that these students may not know slavery like the Israelites in Egypt. They may not know wandering in the freedom of the wilderness for forty years. However, they do understand limitations and wandering. They understand the freedom that looks like running from something, and they understand the freedom of running toward something.

“It’s like coming to high school,” one student said. “That first day of high school, man, it’s so scary I wanted to go right back to middle school where I knew the place. I knew high school was going to be better eventually, but that first taste of something bigger was rough.” Like the Israelites that wanted to go back to Egypt after the vastness and unknown of the wilderness, he was wiling to revert to middle school just to be in a familiar place.

Another admitted, “When my friends started getting their licenses, we had harder choices to make. One night when a friend picked me up, some of the others were drinking in the back seat. I decided to turn around and go back in my house. I know it was the right thing, but sitting alone that night felt like the wilderness. It was lonely. It wasn’t fun. I don’t want to get caught up in all that, but there are consequences for choosing the other path. It takes so long in high school to find new friends.”

And a third articulated, “I feel enslaved by social media sometimes. You’re supposed to be a certain person on your page. Your pictures have to show you being happy and popular. It feels like a part of me is trapped and can’t come out.”

The students had been working with clips from Birmingham, Alabama during the Civil Rights Movement as a more modern-day example. Hoses, dogs, tear gas, verbal spewing: freedom isn’t always fun. It’s not always as neat and tidy as the status quo and bad rules that limit us all. Freedom is worth fighting for, but there’s no guarantee that the Promised Land is right around the corner. And the wilderness makes no promises.

I love the Exodus story for so many reasons, one being that there are so many themes that are so very human and still speak to us today. We get used to limits. We choose comfort and the known over real, vast, scary freedom. We, like the Israelites, start complaining and want more signs as soon as we get a little free. My question for the 10th graders is a question for us all, “Which is better, the slavery you know or the freedom you don’t?”

Why Do You Go to Church?

9 Oct
via flickr user Wil C. Fry

via flickr user Wil C. Fry

My pastor friend recently started an adult confirmation class at her church. Why? Well, in part because the church doesn’t have any kids of the typical confirmation class age. Also, she has noticed that many adults, who may or may not have been confirmed as youth, struggle to articulate why they go to church. For example, one woman has repeatedly expressed frustration that her niece in her twenties does not join her at church.

My pastor friend pushes her, “Why do you go to church?”

“Um,” she paused, a little taken aback, “it’s just what you do. It’s what I’ve always done on Sunday morning.”

“Well, I’d bet your niece has more reasons why she doesn’t go to church. I bet she can think of eighteen other things to do– like take a walk, sip coffee in her pajamas, go to brunch with girlfriends, or do crossword puzzles with her boyfriend– instead of go to church that all feel like Sabbath to her. Unless you can tell her why she should give those things up to come with you, unless you can tell her what she will find her to bring her peace and rest and joy, she’s going to pass.”

My pastor friend is hoping adult confirmation can equip her congregation with some vocabulary around expressing their faith, their story. Each session she is focusing on one of the baptismal promises that is affirmed at confirmation. Week 1: To live among God’s faithful people. Or, in other words, Why church?

Martin Luther answers by expressing seven marks of the church, or seven things you will find in a church that defines it in society: the word of God, baptism, eucharist, confession and forgiveness of sins, presence of ministers, prayers of thanks and praise to God, and the possession of the cross (or suffering). He believes that these seven things work together to strengthen the ordinary holiness of Christ believers. Many people go to church because these elements work for them.

In Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott has a great chapter called “Why I Make Sam Go To Church.” Sam is her son. Here are some of her reasons for bringing her son to church:

1. “I want to give him what I found in the world, which is to say a path and a little light to see by. Most people I know who have what I want– which is to say, purpose, heart, balance, gratitude, joy– are people with a deep sense of spirituality. They are people in community, who pray, or practice their faith…banning together to work on themselves and human rights. They follow a brighter light than the glimmer of their own candle; they are part of something beautiful.”

2. “When I was at the end of my rope, the people at St. Andrew tied a knot in it for me and helped me hold on. The church became a home in the old meaning of home– that it’s where, when you show up, they have to let you in.”

3. “Sam was welcomed at St. Andrew seven months before he was born. When I announced at worship that I was pregnant, people cheered…And they began slipping me money.”

4. “I found that life handed you these rusty bent old tools– friendship, prayer, conscience, honesty– and said, Do the best you can with these, they will have to do. And mostly, against all odds, they’re enough.”

I agree with my pastor friend. More and more people will choose to find Sabbath outside of church unless the people who go to church can clearly articulate what church offers. I know people who go because they love the feeling of singing in a choir. Others go because when they are too broken to pray, they know the others around them will pray for them until they are strong again. Still others value being part of a bigger story, a community that spans distance and time. It is one of the only places left to build genuine inter-generational relationships. Or for some, it’s a quiet place to sit still and reflect on the week.

If you go to church, can you explain why?

Gospel Reflection for October 12, 2014, 28th Sunday Ordinary Time

8 Oct

“I have prepared my banquet…everything is ready. Come to the feast.”

Matthew 22.4

Christians today don’t catch on readily to Matthew’s allegory. For first-century Jews, both Christian Jews and rabbinic Jews, the Jewish-Roman war that destroyed the temple was a watershed event. Until then, rabbinic Jews who studied the Torah in synagogues and Christian Jews who broke bread in Jesus’ name in house churches came together for temple feasts. With the temple gone, differences between the two groups sharpened. The community for whom Matthew writes lives in the midst of this conflict.

Over the centuries Christians have wrongly seen in Matthew’s allegory reason to persecute Jewish people. Matthew connects the parable to events in his time. The parable will say more to us today without these details. The parable is first and foremost the story of a man who prepares a great feast and wants others to share it.

What do you do with abundant leftovers?

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Gospel Reflection for October 5, 2014, 27th Sunday Ordinary Time

6 Oct

“The kingdom of God…will be given to people that produce its fruits.”

Matthew 21.43

We humans are like all tenants of Earth and like those in Sunday’s parable.  Our basest instincts are to draw everything to ourselves, the “owner” be damned.  God has given us a precious vineyard/planet/home, teeming with life and extraordinary resources, but we have fouled our nest, mistaking God’s gifts for our possessions.  Our greed has put our precious planet in grave danger.

If there is hope for us, it is in Jesus’ message write large across his life and death: whatever happens, love will not leave.

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The Daughters of Abraham

23 Sep

We’re walking through the whole Bible this year with our 7th graders. That means we are attempting to address the entire Hebrew Scripture by Christmas– no small task. This week we are studying the story of Abraham and Sarah:

They said to him, “Where is your wife Sarah?” And he said, “There, in the tent.”  Then one said, “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women.  So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son….The Lord said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, seeing that Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? No, for I have chosen him, that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice; so that the Lord may bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.” Genesis 18:9-14, 17-19

It’s a great story, one of hospitality, kept promises and Sarah’s laughter. We are thinking about how God uses specific, particular, ordinary people to accomplish extraordinary things. Abraham and Sarah are, in some ways, unexpected candidates to have a child that will grow into a mighty nation. It is so unexpected, in fact, that the only appropriate response is laughter. Amused, joyful, bewildered, unbelieving, frightened, excited laughter. For me, at the heart of Sarah’s laughter is her being chosen. Being called out. Being blessed. Being seen and named and highlighted by God in a way that she can’t see herself- as mother, as fertile. Particular. Singular. Specific. Having a new hope, a new role, a new life that is almost too good to be true.

As an expecting mother, it is easy for me to relate to Sarah’s laughter. I am not very old, and my child will not carry on its shoulders the promise and charge of God to multiply the nations, yet still the good news brought me to laughter. The moment I knew I was pregnant, I felt it as an important part of my story. I expect that to multiply exponentially once I meet my child. It is easy, I think, for women who are in love with motherhood to think that it is our best calling from God. Yet not every woman chooses to have children. Not every woman can have children. So I have to believe there is more to being a woman than being a mother.

In her Work of the People video, Sarah Bessey addresses this by talking about Luke 11: 27-28:

While he was saying this, a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you!” But he said, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!”

Yes, motherhood is a blessed calling, but so is being a person who hears the word and acts on it. Bessey, in highlighting minor female characters in the Bible, also mentions Luke 13:15-17, when Jesus chooses to heal a crippled woman on the Sabbath:

But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites, does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the stall and lead him away to water him? “And this woman, a daughter of Abraham as she is, whom Satan has bound for eighteen long years, should she not have been released from this bond on the Sabbath day?”As He said this, all His opponents were being humiliated; and the entire crowd was rejoicing over all the glorious things being done by Him.

This is the first time the term “daughters of Abraham” is used. It has been just the sons until this moment. Jesus, by calling the woman a daughter of Abraham, is saying that she, too, matters. She is counted. She has a place. She belongs. She is part of the lineage. “That,” Bessey says, “makes me straighten my spine, even more than the healing does.”

This fall, we’ll look at the particularity and ordinariness of Abraham, Issac, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses, and how God used them to do extraordinary things. We’ll look at the promises that God made to Noah, Abraham, David and Jeremiah. Sarah is the last woman we will focus on specifically in our study of the Hebrew Scriptures. And even as I relate to Sarah in her laughter, it will be important for me to help both the young male and female students that women have meaning beyond their womb. Sarah mattered before she gave birth. She was blessed when she believed she was barren. It will be important for me, in studying the sons of Abraham, that we know that women receive God’s blessing as well. We are loved. We are called. We are blessed. We are daughters of Abraham.




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