Monday, March 26, 2012

Fifth Sunday in Lent. Year B

Preaching: Id_Tap_Dat

Denominational Background: United Methodist. Currently serving two United Methodist Churches in the San Francisco Bay Area as the youth director, where I work closely with ISlapYou. We also work together as advisers to a local nonprofit.

Educational Background: Bachelor’s Degrees in Economics (BS) and Religious Studies (BA) from UC Davis, Master’s Degree in Religious Studies from Duke, starting a PhD program in the fall at Duke.

Hi everyone! As we journey together through Lent towards the celebration of eternal life that is Easter, I don’t know about you, but my enthusiasm from my fast is getting pretty thin. I’m abstaining from reddit with the exception of dropping this sermon, praying a prayer rope three times a day, and giving the dollar value of the number of days in lent that have passed to each homeless person who asks for change. It’s at times like these, when our own internal strength wears thin, that we wonder what possessed us to ever undertake the journey in the first place. Change is hard. Keeping to that change is even more difficult. In order to make a change worthwhile, economists say that the benefits gained from the change must not just outpace those of the way things were done before, but they must also exceed the cost of undergoing the transformation. It’s not enough that the new way is more profitable than the old one, it must be so much more profitable than the old one that it will pay for the cost of changing from the old way to the new way. It is therefore not surprising that businesses, much like people, rarely change unless they absolutely have to do so. I am here to today to tell you that that is insufficient reason to do anything. We can all do better than following the path of least resistance.

Jeremiah 31:31-34 reads “The days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and the people of Judah.” The word covenant stands out to me this morning, because it doesn’t fit well with what I have gathered is the American idea of God as Law-Giver, Commander, and Controller of Existence. A covenant is a deal, a bargain, a treaty between two consenting parties. The Mosaic Law was a covenant, just as our current relationship with God through Christ is a covenant. Now, for many, this will be somewhat of a shock, and for others, this will be like a trip back to third grade Sunday School, but I feel like this point doesn’t get made explicit enough in modern churches. We do not follow Jesus because we have to, we follow Jesus because we want to. We begin our covenant with God through Baptism, sustain it through Communion, take personal ownership of it through Confirmation, and reconcile it to our future and our family life through Marriage (I should note that Methodists only acknowledge these four sacraments). This is a part of our bargaining with God, and the problem with the Mosaic Law was not that the Israelites’ bargaining position was too dubious to make demands of God, but rather that they were not honest enough with themselves to ask for what they really needed: forgiveness and grace.

David was one of the lucky ones. Just about any time he screwed up when he was in power, he had Nathan barking at him for hours about it. Psalm 51 recounts one such instance in which David realized his error. According to Mosaic Law, rapists (which, let’s face it, that’s exactly what was going on between him and Bathsheeba, at least at first) are to be put to death, but David asks for forgiveness. Why? He knows the deal, the covenant, between he and God is unbreakable, but he, in a moment of clarity, realizes that it was a raw deal for both sides. “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me. Yet you desired faithfulness even in the womb; you taught me wisdom in that secret place.” David sinned, and had to pray for his salvation to be restored to him, even though God had wanted faithfulness from the very start. His choices, his resolve for following the Will of God, which he sings of in Psalm 119 had worn thin, and it had cost him dearly. As is often the case for those of us who are fasting in Lent, we make zealous promises, with every intention of following through on them, but our resolve wears thin, and we falter, and sometimes it costs us dearly. Imagine if we held ourselves to this kind of agreement for anything: that we will always, without fail, say, eat dinner at 7:30pm. Even a simple thing like that becomes an impossible promise to live up to, as even just forgetting once causes us to break the promise and suffer the consequences.

This is why, I believe, that the Mosaic Law was designed to be temporary, as Jeremiah, and almost each and every prophet before and after him iterated. This model of high-stakes law observance falls apart at the slightest shortcoming on our part. Because God loves the world, and the people of it, despite our flaws and short-sightedness, God arranged for a new deal, a new covenant, to bring closure to the first, and a new one, based not on law and punishment, but on motivation and love, to come forward.

This is what the author of Hebrews meant when he wrote that Jesus was a high priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek. Why the order of Melchizedek, the guy who appears for all of about 10 verses in the Torah, and is never heard from again? Let’s take a look at Melchizedek for a moment. It’s in Genesis 14.

Melchizedek blesses Abraham, and Abraham, for no discernible reason whatsoever gives him “a tenth of everything,” which I assume is the booty from the raid. Why did Abraham tithe to Melchizedek? Because he wanted to. It should come as no surprise that Jesus, like Melchizedek, blesses us with bread and wine, and our response is to serve Him because we want to. Salvation and communion with God are a gift, given to all of humanity without price or any work on our part, only the humility with which to accept the gift.

Jesus’ ministry was all about the power that people have through committing their lives to God. With faith the size of a mustard seed, one can order mountains to throw themselves into the sea, and they will obey him. He taught that it was easier for a man to forgive another man’s sins, and have it be true, than it is to tell a paralytic to get up and walk, and have that be true. Jesus then makes a claim that the new covenant that Jeremiah spoke about, wherein “I (God) will forgive their wickedness, and remember their sins no more,” is consecrated. John speaks of a voice from Heaven saying “I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.” The voice, as Jesus reminds the people, if not for God’s benefit, nor for Christ’s, but for ours. It is God’s assurance that this new covenant has already been made, and will be glorified again at Jesus’ resurrection. Jesus punctuates it in saying “I will draw all people to me.” (notice the “all people” in there, Calvinists? :-P)
That’s the abstract, so what do we do about it? I suggest that today’s scripture should shed light on a few things:

1. Our walk with God, our faith journeys, are not compulsory. Salvation is a gift, given without price. If we are doing something, anything, “because I have to,” or “because God makes me,” or any variation on that tired old theme, perhaps it is time to stop doing whatever that is. We go to church because we want to, we love one another because we want to emulate God, and we want to share that love to everyone, not just those who love us.

2. Salvation is a gift. The defining feature of Christianity is that God brings all people to Him, and the problem we face is that people refuse to allow it. That’s because, as we’ve seen from today, this is a covenant process. If one party disagrees, then that’s all there is to it. When we evangelize, we are not “saving” people from the default destination of Hell to which all are condemned unless they “accept Jesus Christ as their personal lord and savior,” a phrase that drives me crazy, but attempting to arbitrate a covenant making process that has clearly gone awry. As Jesus taught, “blessed are the peacemakers.”

3. This is the most pragmatic part of the whole thing: don’t swear, or make promises. The entire saga of the dead-end that the Mosaic Law lead the people of Israel to is probably what inspired Jesus to teach “let your yes be yes and your no be no.” Don’t swear oaths, obviously, but this touches a deeper issue: we must accept that our control over the world is an illusion. Part of not swearing oaths is understanding that we cannot necessarily control what we do. I may have every intention of following through on my commitment to praying the prayer rope three times a day, but if I get sick and sleep all day, what happened to my commitment? When we accept the illusory nature of human control over the world, we get one step closer to dethroning ourselves from the centers of our worlds, and putting God there instead.

4. Our faith journeys are about intention. They are not about living up to a set of standards. Our two most important commandments are to love God and love our neighbors. These can be expressed in any number of ways. If we are to transform the world into the Kingdom of God, the way we will do so is through God’s power, and through our intention to love.

May the peace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all, now and forever.

Monday, March 19, 2012

18 March 2012: Year B, Fourth Sunday in Lent. Texts: Numbers 21:4-9, Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22, Ephesians 2:1-10, and John 3:14-21

Preaching: ValenOfGray

This week's readings focus on Salvation, on mankind's need for it, and in God's loving provision that we might have it. Covering not only one of the most powerful and contested doctrines in the Christian faith, but the single most known Bible verse is something I have been weighing over since it was assigned to me. I want to first say that with such varied opinions and insights on salvation, it will not be surprising that many of you will not agree with me and how I view or read this. I only hope that this message serves to contribute, if only a little, to the conversation. Anyway, on with the show!

Denominational Background: I was raised in a "Christ-less Christian" home until the age of 13-14, by way of life-changing events we began to attend a Southern Baptist church in my home state of Maine, where I began to receive my first feeding of scripture, doctrine, and faith. A decade later we now attend a independent baptist church.

Educational Background: Assoc. Degree in Computer Sciences, looking into doing an online degree program focusing in Theology.

Vocational Background: My father, my brother, and I all work in Law Enforcement (all in different departments across the area). I work night shift doing E-911/Fire/Police/EMS Dispatching specifically and have been for several years.

For as far back as I can remember, God seemed trivial or unnecessary to me. I never felt, at the age of 13, that I was really "missing" anything. Then in November of 2001, it was revealed to me that my loving, devoted father, had been a drunk and a drug user for decades. After his coming to God one morning on his knees, beginning to attend AA & NA (Alcoholics Anonymous & Narcotics Anonymous), and his starting on the life journey that is the 12 Steps, we began to attend Church as a family. Having not really "known" God or retaining much about God for much of my childhood, and yet being raised in a home where there was so much care and love, at first the need for God did not make much sense to me. If we had love for each other, then that was enough, right?

I tell you this because the doctrine of salvation has always held a special place in my heart ever since. When you revere a person like my father, who was always there, always sacrificing his own happiness and time for us, who I looked up to as the picture of what being a husband and father should be. Then, after all that, finding out that behind it all was a sad, depraved, empty person, it forces you to comprehend that on the inside, behind the outside person, lies what man is truly like. It makes you reevaluate much of what you thought you knew about the good-ness of the world.

God, however, does not experience such surprise. He knows the state of man, the sin that corrupts His Creation. Even so, even knowing all of mankind's flaws, failings, sin, and depravity, He still loves us. And so, instead of justly judging His creation, He made provision for our salvation, in Christ his son. One of my favorite radio preachers, Adrian Rogers, has said that "God loves His Son so much that he wants to give us many illustrations of His son, and God wants us to be saved so much that He gives us so many illustrations of salvation."

Throughout the Old Testament, we find illustrations, prophesies and types of Christ, and few are more explicit in this than the passage of the Brass Serpent.

Here we find the people of Israel, having had the Canaanites delivered to them, having been delivered themselves through the Exodus and throughout the journey by God through divine miracles, we find them beginning to speak against the very God who delivered them. The people who witnessed these miracles, who ate the manna of heaven cried out against God. God had given them everything they needed and more, but they did not trust God and still spoke against Him. This is a picture of man's own heart, even with his needs met, the sin-nature still haunts him and can cause him to sin against God.

As with any sin, their are consequences for its effects. The people believed that they were to die in the wilderness, contrary to everything God has told them, so God "took them at their word", and with fiery serpents righteously judged His people. However, the people came to Moses and repented, confessing their own sins and asking for forgiveness. God would then provide for their salvation from the serpents by having Moses erect a brass serpent on a pole for all that were bit to look upon and live - giving a picture of Christ on the Cross. In this, those that thought themselves above God might humble themselves, looking up not to the pole per se, but to God Himself to find remission of Judgment. Moses too shows a picture of Christ, as he made intercession for those who had until recently cried out against him, to love those that hate us.

Our reading in the Psalms shows us what the Israelites reaction should have been - to praise God for His goodness and for all He has done for them. Psalm 107 in its entirety is used to illustrate that God is faithful and gracious to His People, and that in return we must give glory and honor to Him, especially after having come to the other side of salvation, and possessing the knowledge of truth that the salvation experience brings. The second reading from Psalm 107 itself gives a picture of salvation - from affliction due to sins bearing their deathly fruit, to man's crying out to the Lord and being delivered, and then praising Him for the wondrous works He has done.

So we come to Paul and one of (in my opinion) the best passages about salvation in the New Testament. From the outset, Paul quickly outlines the initial human condition and predisposed presence of the sin nature, and the consequences of that sin - namely being dead in those sins and our longing for them. Even then, the critical word comes into play at the very beginning of verse 4 - But. From that, Paul expounds upon what God saw fit to do with Love for the very creation that by its nature seeks anything but God. Instead of judgment, Grace instead enters the picture. We see that by Grace, believers come to Christ, sitting with Him, that He might show us those "exceeding riches of His Grace in His Kindness". Compare this loving relationship with the Divine Creator against that original misery of those who in the first verses chose everything but God.

We then come to the more widely known portions of this passage, verses 8 & 9. Paul makes it clear that it is Grace, that free gift, alone that provides our salvation, that with our sin nature as it stands defies any attempt we may make in the flesh to work our own salvation. While I do very much love these two verses, too often verse 10 is forgotten - that after we are saved our work is not done, but only just beginning. Works are laid out for us to do after we come to be saved, that God's glory may be shown to man, and that more might come to know Him. It should never be forgotten that Faith without those works is dead, and a saving faith works toward God's ends and Will.

Lastly, we come to John 3, with Christ speaking to Nicodemus. Christ points back to the serpent erected by Moses as a picture of himself, making Nicodemus to ponder on the greater meaning behind His words. In the major verse 16, we find Christ giving words to the great love God has for His creation, and we find yet another very crucial word - that. God wanted us to draw to Him so much, to love Him and spend eternity with Him so much, and so God did something - He performed an action - the giving and sacrifice of His Son as a means for Grace to be imparted to His people. Christ makes poignant mention of condemnation, and man's current state, being that we are already condemned, loving the darkness (being that which is not of God) over the light. The need for something greater than the Law is made blatantly plain throughout the passage.

The law of the Old Testament was not enough to bring about a change in the hearts of man. Consider yourself, that you were driving on a road going a single mile over the speed limit, and were caught by an officer of the Law. Doing his duty, and as you were breaking the Law, he issues you a summons for you to face judgment and pay your fine. What attitude would any of us have toward that officer, toward the Law? Would you not act much as the Israelites did during their early days in their land, sputtering, murmuring, and complaining? Would you not come to curse the Law and those that enforce it?

However, think instead if you were driving, and found that you were speeding, and instead went to the officer patrolling the roadway, saying "Officer, I must confess to you that I was breaking the Law, please forgive my misdeed and give me my ticket." What if, the officer said back to you "Sir, I appreciate your honesty to me and yourself, and that you have the ability to see and accept the consequences of your actions. I am not here to make you miserable or ruin your day, but to keep people safe from others and themselves, and to let people enjoy life. You may go free, and do better next time." What would your reaction be? Instead of cursing the Law and he that enforces it, would not this show of grace change your view to that of praise and thankfulness that He who upholds the Law does so with a compassionate heart and not one of sheer judgment?

By way of the Law, man's heart grew hard toward God, filling with hatred toward a God who judged (albeit justly and righteously). The Law did not serve to bring man closer to God, but only separated us from Him. Grace, however, inspires an opposite reaction, one that is continuously shown to be the right one - one of thankfulness, praise, and reverence toward a God who has a love so great that it moved Him to action, and is reflected not only in the present, but throughout all of time itself.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

John 2:13-22. Preaching: Lionhearted09

I have chosen to concentrate on the fourth passage assigned to me, John 2:13-22

I have always interpreted stories in the Bible differently than others, not because I am reading different words but because I identify with different people within those stories. When I read the story of Job, I found myself less enthralled and focusing on him than I did his friends. When I read the story of the prodigal son, I find myself identifying more with the older brother than the one that left home, and when I read the story in John 2, I find more of myself in the money changers than I do with the actions of Jesus.

When I first read the book of Job, I kept having the same thought. His friends are right. Repent of your sins and seek God with all your heart. They genuinely loved Job. They didn’t desert him in his destitute state but went outside the city and sat with him to try and council him. It seemed like good advice to me, but it was counter to the plan of God and they, though they had only good intentions, were rebuked by God for their mistaken counsel.

In the same way, I identified more with the older brother rather than the younger in the story of the prodigal son. It seems logical that the ones who have never stopped being in the service of God would be celebrated more than the one who rebels against God. It also seems that we should praise those role models more than the ones who have left the faith, but this attitude is rebuked and for good reason in the story. The good intentions to celebrate the faith of the most righteousness can often keep others from returning and having a relationship with God. Once again, good intentions do not always align with what is best for the kingdom of God.

And lastly, when I look at the money changers, I initially see nothing wrong with what they are doing. It was the time of Pentecost and as with this celebration there were three series of sacrifices: (1) the daily burnt-offerings, (2) the special offerings for a feast day (from Numbers) and (3) the waving of the loaves and lambs, and connected sacrifices (from Leviticus). Finally, "sacrifices" of freewill offerings of individuals were given to the sanctuary and to the poor. Since multiple sacrifices were required and some people had traveled from far away to attend Pentecost, it was difficult to carry with them the animals to sacrifice. The merchants in the temple were doing a good thing. They were providing a necessity to people to be justified before God. How often do we as a church find ourselves providing services such as this for others to grow closer to God? In addition, there were money changers in the temple also and not all people had the shekel required to purchase these animals for sacrifice since many were foreigners. Therefore, for a small fee (just as it is today when we exchange money) the currency could be traded. All these merchants were not there to become rich. They were there to provide a necessity to those who chose to worship God. However, God despised all these actions, despite them being performed with good will, not because they were evil but because they kept the people from truly having a relationship with him.

The outer yard of the third temple in Jerusalem was used by the gentiles for sacrifices and prayers to God. Imagine the scene there of people trying to pray. They had come to this place to offer prayers to God and to seek him, and what they found was more like a barn yard than a temple. Having to squeeze between livestock to hopefully find a spot merchants did not occupy or that the animals had not left their dung. Then, once a spot might be found, the sounds of the cattle, oxen, birds, and sounds of money in a loud market place failed to make it the intimate environment we desire to talk with God. In fact, it may have made it impossible.
For this reason we find that the cleansing of the temple by Jesus was necessary. The cleansing of the temple had little to do with a divine judgment or a justification of the wrath of Jesus against sin and more to do with the correction of actions that was keeping the people of God from truly having a relationship with him.

The reason we should focus on the merchants in this story is because most of us will find more of ourselves in their actions than we do in Jesus, when in reality it should be the other way around. We often travel down paths with the best of intentions just as the merchants did. They thought they were doing something to help others be closer to God and in doing that they must have thought it would find them some favor with God himself. However, they were blind to the fact that their seemingly good deeds were keeping themselves and others from truly having a relationship with God. Today many of us have actions in our lives that may not be sinful in and of themselves, but we must take an inventory of these deeds to know if they are truly keeping us from having a relationship with God.

As followers of Christ, we must today continue to cleanse the temple of God. 1 Corinthians 3:16-17 “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for God’s temple is sacred, and you together are that temple.”

We ourselves are the temple of God with God himself dwelling in us. Therefore, we must take an inventory of our actions and our daily routine to see if there is something keeping us from having a true relationship with God. If we find that some action, whether we can deem it good or bad in nature, that keeps us from truly seeking and finding God, we must treat it as sin and cut it from our lives.

I don’t know who you are or what your life is like but I will tell you as my brothers and sisters in Christ that God desires to have a deep and intimate relationship with you. We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, most of us do this daily. So, in wrapping up, I want to urge you to do three things. 1) Meditate. Before you jump into any action, find some quite time to take a step back, think and process your life. 2) Take inventory of the actions in your life that are keeping you from God and formulate a strategic plan to cut them off or change them so that you can become more intimate with your creator 3) Repent of your sins, go in peace and sin no more.

Easy enough right? Well maybe easier said than done. I want you to know that you are not alone as we all walk this path every day. We brothers and sisters in Christ are strong together, so rely on your Christian community and know that we have a helper, the spirit of God who dwells within us. Pray for one another, go in peace and love all. Amen.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Romans 4. Preaching: ANewMind

Sorry about the very late posting. Although I tried for the first attempt, I didn't feel comfortable trying to follow the given liturgy. So, I went with the passage (and the rest of the chapter) which I felt expressed the themes. It's my first attempt at typing out a message, so please forgive the awkwardness.
  • Denomination: Independent Fundamental Baptist
  • Passage: Romans Chapter 4
Let us study together the 4th chapter in the book of Romans. In this chapter Paul speaks about faith. To demonstrate faith, he uses the figure of Abraham, and shows us how that we might also obtain the same salvation through faith.
This chapter takes place in the middle of Paul's doctrine of salvation. For the first three chapters, Paul takes the time to make it clear to us that God's condemnation is on us all. He explains how that the Gentile, that is those of us who are not Jews, are condemned because we do those things which God hates. He reveals that we know the judgment of God is on us, but that we still do those very things God hates. Then, he condemns the Jew, who had thought that his birth would save him, but did not do the law which he was commanded to keep. Finally, as if he had left anybody out, in chapter 3 Paul shows that all of mankind is condemned and unworthy of salvation. If we had stopped reading there, we would be without hope. I thank God that He did not stop there in His plan for us, but that He had provided us with a way. Nevertheless, we need to understand the judgment which we stand accused of. This is the point that many modern teachers forget. They would like to proclaim the Gospel, but what Gospel is there to a people who are not under judgment? What need is there for a cure to those who are not sick? It was Jesus who said to the Pharisees that those who are not sick have no need of a doctor. In like manner those who do not know they are lost can never be saved. That is why Paul had to be so harsh, so that all mouths were shut, and all men condemned before God. So that now, we know that no work of our own could ever make us worthy.
And so, Paul asks, what is it that Abraham has found? How is it that Abraham was saved? Was it because he was perfect? No, for we know that he sinned with Hagar, and had deceived the Pharaoh. Was it that he kept the law? No, for the law was not yet presented to men. Was it for anything that he did later in life to atone for his sins? Not that either. Verse 2 tells us that if he had been able to atone for his sins, then the glory of Abraham's salvation would not have been to God but to Abraham. The same would be true of us if there were anything that we could do to become worthy of our salvation. Paul answers this great problem by quoting the Old Testament: "Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness." It was only by simple faith that Abraham was counted as righteous, not because God must, but because God gave it freely, of His own desire. He then quotes David: "Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin." It is not our joy to have never sinned, but that God will not count our sin, if we have believed on Christ.
Beginning in verse 9, Paul deals with another matter. The Jews, having become puffed up in their heritage, had believed that it was their circumcision which allowed them to be saved. So, is this salvation by faith available only to those of the circumcision? Paul reminds us that the salvation of Abraham was while he was yet uncircumcised. The circumcision was only a sign to show that which had already been done in his heart. It is much the same as how we now are baptized, not to be saved by the water, but because it is a sign of the death we have died to our selves, which Paul speaks of a few chapters later. Since it is not the circumcision of Abraham that is important, but the faith, this same salvation is available to all the world, even unto you and me, if we choose to believe as did Abraham.
In verse 17, we are shown how salvation is the power of God. At other places in the Word, we are told that before we are born as children of God, we are dead in our trespasses and sins. Here, we are told of a God who can "quicken the dead", that is to make the dead to live. That is exactly what salvation is. It is not simply a man turning over a new leaf or deciding to do things right. Instead, it is taking something which is dead, and incapable of doing anything, and making it to be a living, breathing, creature. This is not something so simple that a man can do it. No preacher or evangelist can ever make this to happen. No amount of emotional manipulation can cause this change. No water baptism or religious rite can make a dead man walk. It is all of God alone, who makes the dead to live.
With that in mind, let us examine the nature of this saving faith. The Bible tells us in verse 18 that Abraham believe in hope against hope. That is, when he had no hope that Sarah could bear him a son, when all his reason said that it was not possible, he believed that it would be done, and with no more reason than that God said that it would be. Likewise, we are a people without hope. We are dead in our sins and are condemned without hope. Even so, we have hope, because God has spoken. In this life, there is no hope. One day, we know that we must all die. Everything that we own will one day rot or belong to somebody else. Our legacy will fade. And yet, without hope, we have hope, that we are working not for this world, but for an eternal kingdom, and for the joy of knowing a Lord who we can not see.
Further, we see in verse 21 that Abraham was fully persuaded. This is the hallmark of faith. If there is anything which can rob you of your faith, then it isn't faith, but merely your own reason. The test of your faith is that when it is challenged, it still remains. And yet, we are not perfect. As the man with the possessed child said, "Lord, I believe. Help thou mine unbelief." Abraham's faith was weak in that he sinned with Hagar. Even so, when God made clear that Sarah would be the mother of his seed, he did not stagger. No matter how often we fail, God is quick to forgive. The life of the believer is not marked by sinlessness, but instead by a continual turning toward God and by ever growing faith.
So the life of Abraham was not told to us as history alone, but, as verse 23 states, it was told to us so that we may have an example of faith, and that we may know that same righteousness may be imputed to us. That word "impute" means to be counted or regarded as such a thing. In other words, that faith is not righteousness, and we are not righteous, but because of God's mercy, He has chosen that when he looks on those of us who have believed unto salvation, he sees us as if we are righteous. I am glad that it is not my good deeds which God seeks, but the deeds of His Son, which are not my own.
The final verse shows us what our faith is in. Everybody has faith in something. It is not the measure of our faith that is important, but that which we place our faith in. The faith by which we are saved is the faith in the atoning work of Christ. There are two parts to that. The first, is that Christ died for our sins. We see that it was not for any sin of his that he was under the wrath of God, but for our sins. And so, when he died on the cross, he bore our sins and our offenses. They were nailed to that tree with him,and he drank the wrath of God. This is a much bigger thing then we could ever hope to cover, but I encourage you to read further of this cup and the atoning work of Christ. However, the story did not end there. If he would have only died, we would have been forgiven, but he did not just die. He was raised again, and the Bible says it was for our justification. Paul covers this more in further chapters, but we learn here that it is not only his death that is important but also his life. We who are dead to our sins now live a life of abundant freedom. We live as those who have already died, and it is also in his resurrection that we trust unto salvation. This is the object of our faith which we believe.
The story of salvation continues on in the next chapter which is about how our faith is given by grace, and wholly unwarranted. Then, Paul continues on to describe what that salvation is and how it affects our life. Even so, this chapter on faith is vital to the believer. If we can not understand faith, then we can not understand the Gospel. I would encourage you to take some time to realize all that God has done for you in the work of Christ. Most importantly, try your faith. Is your faith in your good works? Is it even in a prayer or your own sincerity? Or instead is your faith in the finished work of Christ? The only thing that saves is faith, and the only faith that saves is faith in Christ alone.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

26 February 2012: Year B, First Sunday in Lent.

Preaching: malakhgabriel (Gabe, if you prefer)
  • Denominational and Theological Background: Raised Southern Baptist, current member of a small house church. Influenced by process, narrative, postmodern, body, Quaker and weak theologies.
  • Educational Background: Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies.
  • Vocational Background: Started a house church.
Genesis 9:8-17, Psalm 25:1-10, 1 Peter 3:18-22, and Mark 1:9-15.

Turning. Turning toward something. Turning away from something. Changing direction. Reorienting. Our readings today speak of turning.

In the first, one of the most terrifying episodes in the Bible has come to an end and even God wishes to turn from that. The one who is love turns away from destruction and toward love. Toward life.
What does it mean that God turned, changed direction, reoriented?
We see it again in today's Gospel reading, Jesus, after his baptism, a very public ceremony, turns away from the crowds, from his family and his people, He turns away so that he can turn back toward them renewed. He turns away from temptation so that he can turn toward his ministry.
The Psalmist asks God for help turning. "Make me to know your ways," he says. "Teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long." Turn me toward you, Lord. Take me out of my busy life. Teach me patience as I wait for you.
And the author of 1 Peter talks to us of our own turning, our baptism, "an appeal to God for a good conscience," echoing the earlier cry of the Psalmist.
Here at the beginning of Lent we bring our attention to our own turning. We may be turning away from our evening cocktails, or from spending too much time online, but in these turns our goal is ultimately to turn ourselves toward God. Often in saying "O my God, in you I trust" we have to remind ourselves to turn away from the places where we often put our trust, places that do not deserve it.
On Ash Wednesday we heard the words "You are dust, and to dust you shall return." This reminder of our own mortality, and of our oneness with all that surrounds us, opens our entry into Lent, into our turning. Looking at this precious and brief time we are given forces us to take note of our own direction, to be deliberate in that toward which we are oriented.
Perhaps you are called to turn away from clothing yourself in the products of worker abuse. Perhaps you are called to a clearer mind, turning away from alcohol or other substances. Perhaps you are called to turn toward God in regular prayer. Perhaps you are called to turn toward God in service. Perhaps you are called to fasting and self-denial, to turning away from yourself and toward the other, often-forgotten children of God. Perhaps you are called not to turn away from yourself in self-denial, but to turn toward the self that you or others have forgotten to love, toward remembering that you are made in the image of God, that you are holy and that the dust from which you came was stardust.
Whatever the call may be, God is calling to you. God is asking you to turn, as God has shown you God's own turning.
Lent is a time for turning, but I cannot tell you how to turn. I can only tell you that God's call is to love. You must listen to God's call, to how God is calling you to love.
O God, in this season which begins with an embrace of our own mortality, an acknowledgement and observation of the brevity of the time in which this pile of dust is animated by your holy breath, we put our trust in you. Help us to walk the paths to which you call us with steadfast love and faithfulness. Help us, O Lord, in everything that we do, to turn toward Love.

A Faith of Humility

Preaching: GoMustard

Denominational: Presbyterian Church (USA)
Education: Bachelor Arts in Religious Studies and Communication; Master of Divinity
Vocation: I serve as a Campus Minister and Worship Leader

A Reading from the Gospel of Luke 18:9-14
There were some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and held  contempt for others, so he told them this parable: To men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee, and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing on his own prayed like so: “God, I give thanks to you that I am not like other people: thieves, exploiters, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a  Sabbath, and tithe a tenth of whatever I gain!” But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but instead beat his breast, crying, “God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner!” I say to you all, this is the one who went home from the temple justified, rather than the other. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted. 

For years, Gary Birdsong is somewhat of a celebrity on college campuses throughout the state of North Carolina. While he prefers to call himself simply, “Brother Gary,” he’s better known by any number of titles, depending on which campus you find him on: at East Carolina, where I went to school, most of us knew Brother Gary as “the Joyner Steps Preacher.” At N.C. State, he’s known as “the Brickyard Preacher.” But Brother Gary is probably most widely known as “the Pit Preacher,” a named derived from his most frequent preaching location outside the Student Union at the UNC-Chapel Hill.

At first glance you might mistake Brother Gary for a character out of a Flannery O’Conner novel. He wears tight suspenders underneath his dark suite and tie; and sweat drips down his forehead and graying beard, as he waves his leather-bound Bible, and shouts at students about their sinful lifestyles as they pass him by. You can always pick out the Freshmen from the crowd that gathers to listen to Brother Gary speak, because the Freshmen tend to be the ones that haven’t yet figured out yet that there’s no use in arguing with Gary. Upperclassmen seem to be more inclined to simply enjoy Gary’s theatrics. 

But that’s not to say Brother Gary isn’t offensive, for indeed, Brother Gary is an expert at getting your blood to boil. On top of some of his more grotesque stories from his days as a Hell’s Angel; On occasion, Brother Gary has been known to make racist, bigoted and hateful statements in the name of Christianity; he’s even been known to refer to young women passing by who’s clothing do not meet his standards as “prostitutes” and “hussies.” But the bulk of Brother Gary’s preaching always seem comes back to the same theme: anyone who isn’t like him, who does not think or believe the way he does, needs to get right with God, for is surely condemned to spend eternity burning in hell.

The first time I encountered Brother Gary, I was coming out of a history class; walking across campus heading back to my dorm room. A small crowd had gathered on our campus library’s steps to hear Gary and One girl in particular had emerged from the crowd and was now face-to-face with brother Gary in a shouting match. Gary had apparently told her she was going to hell for the shorts she was wearing, and she, a devout Christian herself had decided she was going fight back. “You are disgusting, and I can’t believe you call yourself a Christian!” she told him. When she’d finally had enough and decided to leave, she turned back for one last jab, “You’re a hypocrite, just like the Pharisees. You are nothing but a Pharisee!”

Then for a moment, a small miracle occurred: Gary Birdsong was left speechless. She had called Gary the P word. For brother Gary it was the greatest possible insult, evidenced by the fact that when Gary finally regained his speech, he turned beat red and shouted back “Me? A Pharisee? How dare you, you self-righteous hypocrite! You’re the Pharisee!”  This of course was enough to draw the young woman back into another argument with Brother Gary, this time about which of them was more like the Pharisees.

Nobody, it seems, wants to be a Pharisee. Today the word Pharisee has come into semi-common usage to describe someone who is being hypocritical and arrogant, and this like seems like a fitting meaning, after all, Pharisees are the bad guys of the gospels, right? Pharisees are the ones that were always butting heads with Jesus; the ones always getting in the way of Jesus’ ministry. It was the Pharisees who were always getting offended by Jesus’ parables, it was the Pharisees telling Jesus he shouldn’t heal the sick on the sabbath, and it was the Pharisees who were always asking him tricky questions trying to trip him up and prove him wrong. Come to think of it, from the way it’s told in Bible school stories, you’d come think that the Pharisees were a bunch of sneaky, mischievous, unmerciful, cold-hearted villains.

Well today, I want to say a few words in the Pharisee’s defense. Over the past two thousand years, Pharisees seem to have gotten a bad rap. In their own day pharisees were not seen as villains, rather were actually devout religious leaders among Jews in those days: it was populist Judaism, the religion of the people. We forget that some of Jesus’ most significant followers were actually practicing Pharisees: disciples like Nicodemus, Joseph of Aramathea; and then of course, there was this other pharisee, named Paul, who went on to write half the New Testament. In the same way, while the Gospels tell us that Jesus butted heads with the Pharisees, they also tell us he also shared numerous meals with them, prayed and worshipped with them. While we might know Pharisees for their arrogant bullheadedness, in their own time and place, in first century Judea, the Pharisees were known and respected primarily for a deep faithfulness and a commitment to holiness.

Which brings us to today’s parable: yet another instance of Jesus picking on a faithful Pharisee. Jesus tells the story like this: two men go up to the temple to pray. The first is our friend, the Pharisee. Like most pharisees were, he’s a very religious and pious man. He gives offerings from whatever he earns, and he spends two days out of each week devoted in prayer and fasting. To put it another way, our friend the Pharisee is not unlike many of us: he takes his faith very seriously.

So when the Pharisee prays, he gives thanks to God for blessing him with such righteousness and devotion. He’s seen the kind of lives lived by those who aren’t so devout: thieves, adulterers, those who take advantage of others; he’s seen their misery, and can only thank God he is not among them. After all, the Pharisee can’t take credit for it, because it is not his own doing, but only by God’s blessing. In the same way, he doesn’t stand out in the open shouting his prayers for everyone to hear. Instead the text says that he goes off by himself so he can pray in private and in peace. Just the kind of faith and devotion we might expect from a Pharisee.

But then there’s the other man: a tax collector. Unlike Pharisees, tax collectors were not the kind of people you’d expect to find praying in the Temple. Tax collectors made a living by swindling and scamming others, and were despised by many for their exploitive ways. But just like so many of Jesus’ stories, in our story, there’s a twist: the tax collector does not quietly pray to himself, but rather calls out to the Lord beating his chest: “God have mercy on me, For I know that I am a sinner!” It’s this sinner who goes home justified, Jesus says, and not the faithful pharisee.

So what’s the real difference between the two? What exactly is it that Jesus uplifts in the tax collector that the pharisee is lacking. Well isn’t it obvious? The Pharisee is full of himself, right? I’m not so sure. Try for a moment, to forget the 2,000 years of pharisee vilification we read into text; try to forget our modern notions of pharisees as arrogant and hypocritical: because it seems to me that it’s little too easy for us to just jump in and suggest that the problem here is typical Pharisaical self-righteousness.

When I read this story, what I’m particularly struck by is the fact that our Pharisee friend doesn’t seem to be primarily concerned with his own righteous. Instead he seems far more concerned with the unrighteousness of others. In fact, he’s so concerned with how unrighteous other people are, that perhaps he no longer even understands what it means to actually be righteous. The Pharisee from today’s story is guilty of taking an unfortunate spiritual shortcut; a shortcut that many of us are also guilty of taking. The shortcut is this: it’s far easier to figure out who we are not than it is to dive and discover who we are.

Consider the work of Christian Smith; who is a sociologist who has written a number of books on the religious faith of young people in America. In 2005, Smith ran a lilly foundation project called “A National Study of Youth and Religion.” Smith and other colleagues interviewed over 3,000 American teenagers about their religious beliefs, and what Smith found was rather shocking:

Smith found that even though most of the interviewed youth would call themselves religious or faithful in some form or another and even though most came from Christian backgrounds, most of the young people interviewed could hardly articulate any of practical meaning of their religious faith. He found that there were really only three, very basic practical theological convictions the young people could readily explain: the first is that there is a God, a divine being some kind that orders the universe, the second, that God wants us to be good people, and the third that God is there for us in times of need. Smith argue these young Christians are so unaware of what Christianity is about that we might as well call this a new religion, and he coined a term, to describe it. He calls it *Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.*

But what Smith also noticed was that while the interviewed youth gave Smith a lot blank stares and few positive answers about their faith, he also got a surprisingly high number of negative answers. In other words, the interviewed young people were incredibly perpared to articulate what they didn’t believe. “I’m a Christian, but you know I don’t think that,” they would say. “I’m not the kind of Christian who does those things.” Smith would follow up these statements by asking what Christians did believe, what Christian did do, and would again only be met with blank stares. Ultimately, Christian Smith found that today’s young people are so good at explaining what their faith isn’t about, that many can hardly describe what it actually is about.

Since then, Smith has written another book, identifying many of these same patterns in young adults as well. And I’d suggest that it doesn’t stop there. I’d suggest that many of us, even those of us who might readily be able to articulate what our faith is about are guilty of focusing too much on what we are not, particularly us mainline protestants (originally said Presbyterians, but changed for the audience). 

“We’re not like those Christians,” we say. “We’re not the kind of Christians that use words like “saved.” We’re not the kind of Christians who believe that you should read the Bible literally. We’re not the kind of Christians that believe a rapture is coming and end of the world is coming on May 21st or October 21st or whenever. We’re not the kind of Christians who think women can't be leaders; we’re like not those Christians that dance in the aisle and speak in tongues; we’re not the kind of Christians that support racism and sexism and bigotry. We aren’t the kind of Christians that like Brother Gary, think everyone other than our little group of like minded people are going to hell. Oh, God we give you thanks that we aren’t like those other people! Thank God we aren’t like those Pharisees.” 

So what’s the real difference? What’s the real difference between the pharisee and the tax collector? What’s the real difference between the pharisee and us?

At the end of the parable Jesus reminds us that “those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted." If we are really interested in knowing who we are in Christ, rather than who we are not; if we are interested in understanding what our faith is about rather than what it is not about; then the place Jesus tells us to start is with humility.

“God have mercy on me, for I know that I am a sinner!”

Friends, Jesus is not concerned with our always being in the right. Rather Jesus is first concerned with how ready we are to admit we are often in the wrong. As the old testament passage says “tear up your hearts and not your clothes,” for this is what we stand for, this is where our faith begins: not with the glory of devotion and holiness but with the heartbrokenness of humility, for we are not believers in ourselves, but rather recipients in God’s grace. Hear this good news of Jesus Christ: we do not get to split humanity up in to pharisees and tax collectors. We don’t get to decide who is “us” and who is “them,” who is “in” and who is “out.” Human beings have a long history of deciding who are the righteous and who are the unrighteous. But Christ does not work that way, for we are all sinners who fall short of the glory of God, and it is Christ who is the righteous one.

Friends my prayer for this morning, is that we might be humbled, so that we might be exalted. I pray that we might first know who we are in Christ Jesus, rather than who we are not. I pray that we might first concern ourselves not with the righteousness of others, but with our own need for mercy and forgiveness. I pray that we might remember that the Christian faith does not begin with having all the right answers, but rather starts with the humility to acknowledge we are often in the wrong. And the prayer I pray this morning not a prayer of thanksgiving that we are not like the Pharisee, but rather that a prayer of confession that we are just like the the Pharisee: that we are sinners saved by God’s grace. 

Thursday, February 16, 2012

12 February 2012: Year B, Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany.

2 Kings 5:1-14, Psalm 30, 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, and Mark 1:40-45. Preaching: liturgical_libertine
As we approach lent we’re told of the healing power of Christ and what we must do to receive healing and restoration. In the 2 Kings passage we’re given a story about Elisha heals a valiant warrior of leprosy and in our gospel reading we get another story of a leper being relieved of his disease. Healing is a topic of controversy in the contemporary Church. Does God heal through prophets like in our OT reading? Does God heal physically? Emotionally? Who does God heal? Why are some who are in need not receive healing? With these questions in mind, let’s enter into a conversation about healing with much fear and trembling. In our Gospel reading a leper approaches Christ and asks:
“If you are willing, you can make me clean.”
To such a question, our text cites that Christ answers indignantly, but affirmatively. Christ heals the man and gives the qualification to tell no one but a priest and then make the appropriate sacrifices. In our Old Testament reading, we get a short narrative about the warrior Naaman who is seeking reprieve from his leprosy. Naaman goes to the King of Israel and asks the King for healing. The King, like Christ, answers indignantly, but unlike Christ answers negatively. When the King cannot help Naaman, he seeks out Elisha. Naaman goes to the door of Elisha’s house. Elisha will not go out to see Naaman, so he sends a servant to instruct Naaman to go dip himself in the Jordan Seven times. Naaman’s response to the servant was incredulity. Surely, there is more to healing than doing what someone’s servant says! After some talking in to from Naaman’s servants, Naaman went and did what Elisha’s servant instructed and was healed.
Now, what does this all mean for us and for what we know about healing and being healed? Leprosy in biblical texts is a catchall for a variety of awful skin diseases. Obviously, skin diseases aren’t pleasant and it doesn’t take much faith or motivation of any kind to go looking for relief. In Naaman’s story, Naaman approaches the obvious outlet for healing, the King of Israel. The King’s answer to Naaman’s search for healing is interesting in that, the one who has been put in place by God to rule over and govern his people can’t even do something as simple as heal a leper. To be healed Naaman must follow the instruction of Elisha’s. Naaman is a bit scandalized by the whole occurrence; Elisha doesn’t even come out to see Naaman. Naaman must submit to Elisha and in turn God in order to be healed.
Consider the connections Naaman shares with the story from the Gospel. A leper comes to Christ and asks to be healed. This Gospel story is particularly interesting because this other nameless leper goes to the same people Naaman does, the King of Israel as well as the one who can actually heal him. As flippantly as Elisha gives Naaman the instructions for healing, Christ heals the leper. Neither Christ nor Elisha does anything great or ceremonious to heal their lepers, they both just require to be asked.
What does all this tell us about healing? Apparently, all that is required for healing is to just ask the right person. However, just asking the right person requires something radical. Like Naaman we have to approach healing with a humble spirit. Pomp and status must be put to the wayside. Christ comes to us though the weak not necessarily through Kings or people of lofty social standing. Healing requires the faith to come to Christ and ask “If you are willing, you can make me clean.” This is a particularly subversive act because if Christ were transposed into our society we would pay him no mind. The juxtaposition of Christ in our culture underscores the paradox of Jesus. Christ is of incredibly low social standing and even lets himself be killed, but also embodies the very ground of being from which we all are pushed into existence.
Perhaps the healing and restoration Christ brings us if physical, but perhaps it’s larger than that. The healing we receive may not always be the healing we ask for, but we will get the healing we need if we submit to Christ.