Sunday Note: Chosen Ones

Text: Ephesians 1:3-14

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For God chose us in God before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in God's sight. In love God predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with God's pleasure and will— to the praise of his glorious grace, which God has freely given us in the One God loves. In Jesus Christ we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that God lavished on us. With all wisdom and understanding, God made known to us the mystery of God's will according to God's good pleasure, which God purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.

In Christ we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of God who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of God's will, in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of God's glory. And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in Christ with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of God's glory.

 

Note: Chosen Ones
 

The letter’s author, Paul wrote in Greek to the church in Ephesus, and in its original form this entire section is one LOOOOONNNNNGGGG sentence. Paul is on a roll, and no punctuation is going to slow him down. He is spilling out these words of blessing and praise and promise to the Ephesians— a church community made up mostly of Gentiles.

There was an understanding for a very long time that God— Yahweh, the one God who had chosen the Jewish people to be in a covenant relationship and bring about God’s plan of salvation for the world— chose the Jewish people exclusively and not those outside of Jewish lineage. God’s plan was for the world, but those who had a role to play were Jews— those who had inherited the lineage and the religious rituals of the Israelites. So Gentiles could be God-fearers, people who revered God, who believed in the one God that the Jewish people professed and worshiped, who were devote practitioners, but they could not be full participants. They could not enter into the Temple further than the outer courts. They were not in the family; they were outsiders.

Early in the life of the church, Paul and Barnabas and Peter— Jewish followers of Jesus— were led by God’s Spirit to share the good news of Jesus’ life, message, death, resurrection, and reign as Lord of all things with Gentiles. And not only to share this message that they might know and look in on the action from the outside, but to actually invite Gentiles into this new community of Jesus-followers, into this Kingdom of God, into the family of God. The claim Paul makes is even bolder: Gentiles were never outsiders. This inclusion, participation, and family was God’s plan before the creation of the world. Jews and Gentiles participating together in grand narrative of God’s salvation and redemption of the entire world— ALL THINGS, as Paul writes— was God’s plan from the start. God predestined these Ephesian Gentiles and Jews to be a part of God’s community and mission through Christ.

This word, “predestined,” has been used as an exclusionary concept for far too long. In my own faith tradition it has been used to separate people into camps— those chosen by God and those not chosen by God. Those deemed worthy by God (articulated as by grace, but always containing more judgment than that) get to play on the field, while the rest sit on the bench, or worse are thrown out of God’s game completely (the World Cup is on my mind, so please forgive the imperfect analogy). This is the opposite of what Paul is proclaiming in rush to the Ephesians.

You are included!
You are participants!
God has chosen you!


Even though you thought God didn’t want you, that you were excluded from God’s promises and community, even though you were told by religious people that you were an outsider: God chose you from the start. And in Jesus, we’re all included; we’re all participants; we’re all chosen.

But we aren’t chosen based on our worthiness. We aren’t chosen based on our devotedness. We aren’t chosen based on our religiosity, our lineage, our gender, our ethnicity, our geography, our intelligence, our goodness, our giftedness, our abilities, our personalities, or our charisma. We have not been left out due to our inability, our sins, our faults, our awkwardness, our limitations, our lineage, our gender, our geography, or our wrongness. 

We are in because of the riches of God’s grace that God lavished on us.

This may make you grateful to hear. This may make you angry at who else is included. This may make you think that God is a terrible judge of character. But trusting God’s grace, trusting the forgiveness Christ proclaims, and trusting the great story of God’s love and redemption of all things— that is our salvation. Here and now: It is my salvation and yours, it is the salvation of our shared life together, and it is the salvation of all creation.

Living in this trust, living in God’s grace, marks us, taps us into the power of the Holy Spirit, and catches our lives up in God’s love. We are holy and blameless in the sight of God as those drenched in grace and love. We are forgiven. We are being healed. We are loved more than we can imagine. This is the foundation, the center, the heartbeat of the life of a Jesus-follower. It is out of this reality, this gift, this calling that we get to play a part in all things being redeemed through Love. 

May we be a people who live out of this expansive love of God in Christ. 
Amen.

Sunday Note: The Gospel According to Moana

Text: Mark 6:1-13

Jesus left there and went to his hometown, accompanied by his disciples. When the Sabbath came, he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were amazed.

“Where did this man get these things?” they asked. “What’s this wisdom that has been given him? What are these remarkable miracles he is performing? Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.

Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home.” He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. He was amazed at their lack of faith.

Then Jesus went around teaching from village to village. Calling the Twelve to him, he began to send them out two by two and gave them authority over impure spirits.

These were his instructions: “Take nothing for the journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. Wear sandals but not an extra shirt. Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you leave that town. And if any place will not welcome you or listen to you, leave that place and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.”

They went out and preached that people should repent. They drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them.

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Note


Yesterday, I watched Moana again. I have watched Moana more times than I can count. I now know every word to every song, a significant amount of the dialogue, and exactly when Junia (my 3 year old daughter) will need her hand held when the "lava monster" appears (she doesn't 100% get the movie). Luckily, my daughter's two favorite movies-- Moana and Coco-- are really great. It's not a terrible task to watch them again and again while drawing pictures and eating cereal on Saturday mornings. 

But yesterday, as I watched Moana, I had this story of Jesus offending those in his hometown in the back of my mind, "A prophet is not without honor," he says, "except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home." The tension created in Moana is a classic hero's journey-- the journey of leaving home to pursue an often misunderstood greater calling. And in many stories of the hero's journey, the misunderstanding of those back home is in part due to the hero seeming unqualified and not up for the task. The other part of the misunderstanding is a disbelief that anything could be worth pursuing outside of the hero's home.

Moana leaves her island in search of Maui to return the heart of Te Fiti and stop the spreading darkness (I won't give spoilers as to how this all shakes out). But her people do not go beyond the reef that encircles their island. Her father, the chief, has created this blanket rule out of his fear for the safety of those on the island. But Moana, from the time she is young, wants to explore further out in the sea.

The tension builds on the island as we watch Moana grow and wrestle with external expectations vs her desires in the first act of the movie, but the story doesn't really start until she leaves her home.

This likely goes without saying, but Jesus and Moana are not exactly alike. However, Jesus deals with this tension as he teaches in his hometown of Nazareth. The people of his town ask, "Where did this man get these things? What's the wisdom that has been given him? What are these remarkable miracles he is performing?" And it seems at first as if the people are just amazed...amazed of what Jesus, who they have known or known of from a young age, has become in his adulthood. Amazed at his wisdom and his teachings. Amazed at his stories of his healing. But the questions take a turn from wonder and amazement...

Isn't this Mary's son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas, and Simon? Aren't his sisters here with us?

And they took offense at him.

Jesus was the son of a carpenter. Jesus was born and raised under oppressive conditions in a town that was impoverished and viewed as a place where only the lowest of the low lived, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" Philip is asked by Nathaniel when he hears about Jesus. And Jesus was not just born in a place where people were assumed to not amount to much-- he was born out of wedlock in this place. "Isn't this Mary's son?" is a loaded judgment, not an honest question. This is not Joseph's son, a standard way to ask in a patriarchal society-- he is Mary's, born a bastard child.

The people of Nazareth had internalized the common narrative about Nazareth. And what is more offensive than a man, who is not the best a group has to offer, but one of the most embarrassing, walking around teaching and acting as if he is a prophet-- a person chosen by God to speak authoritatively to God's people. Even if his words wise and he is healing people and he is speaking with authority, he cannot be called to something greater-- nothing good comes from Nazareth, especially not Mary's son.

Only a few chapters earlier in Mark's telling of the Gospel, Jesus' family went to try to take him home because they thought he was out of his mind. Crowds were listening to him, and he was traveling from town to town claiming that the Kingdom of God was near, calling disciples to follow him as if he was a trained rabbi, performing healings, and casting out demons. His family feared he had lost it. Who did Jesus think he was to do these things?

Jesus knew he was the Son of God. Jesus knew his purpose was to bring about and proclaim the presence of God's Kingdom. Jesus knew he was beloved by God, sent as the Messiah to the people who God loved and would save from their sin.

God did not choose to be present in the flesh to humanity by being born into a position of power, by gaining the proper permission and credentials to teach, or by playing by the rules of respectability-- God choose to be present in the flesh to humanity through Jesus, a child conceived out of wedlock to parents who would flee to Egypt for their safety then return to the impoverished, oppressed, looked-down-upon region of Nazareth. 

There are several points in Moana when she is questioned (or questions herself) on her worthiness for the task to which she has been called. She is a young woman "self taught" in sailing, she grew up in a place that did not allow her to explore past the reef...as Maui angrily says at one point, "We're here because the ocean told you, you're special and you believe it."

But the unqualified, the looked down upon, the dishonored are exactly the ones that God has chosen to work through, and ultimately to be born into as human being, Jesus of Nazareth.

There are two questions this story forces us to confront:

Can we listen and learn and be healed by those to whom we take offense? Can we hear those who are not of the right background, who do not speak in a way that we like, those whose very presence challenges the way we live and identify?

And do we have the courage to leave behind the expectations placed upon us when God calls us out? Do we have the courage to leave the comforts of our homes-- be it our theological, political, cultural, geographical, economic, racial comfort zones-- to journey with God? Do we have the courage to return changed to our people and risk rejection?

Sunday Note: What is the Kingdom of God Like?

Text

Mark 4:26-34

He also said, “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.”

Again he said, “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.”

With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand. He did not say anything to them without using a parable. But when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything.

 

Note

Jesus spoke more about the kingdom of God than about anything else. Often this gets confused with more modern concepts of “heaven.” But this “kingdom” was never about the afterlife. In the words of NT Wright, noted New Testament scholar, “It is about the establishment of the rule of heaven, in others words, the rule of God here on earth.” In my words, it’s about the way of God, the way of heaven here on earth. It’s about relationships, families, communities, policies, economies, governments, borders, individual hearts and global relations mirroring God’s way, God’s character, God’s very being. And that begins on earth and extends into eternity—in New-Testament-speak, it begins in this age and extends into the age to come.

It is a new social ordering that mirrors the way of God from the bottom-up, individual to communal, grassroots to highest office. Where the least are first; where the hungry are fed; where the thirsty find drink; where the naked are clothed; where prisoners are set free; where the oppressed are unchained; where the poor are given good news. It is the Kin-dom of God, the Commonwealth of God, the Economy of God.

Jesus asks, “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like?” To what can this Commonwealth, Kin-dom of God be compared that we already have, that we already can experience?

It is like a man scattering seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.

It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.


The kingdom of God is naturally, organically growing under our noses.Planted and wanted (as grain) or unwanted and invasive (as mustard plants) God’s kingdom is here and growing. Will we take notice? Will we reap the harvest of what God is doing in the world? Will we find shade and rest and a home in it like the birds?

It is much easier to see the places where the kingdom of God is pushed back, where this harvest is being burned, where this mustard plant is being cut down. It is easy to see where our relationships, families, communities, and inner turmoil are not mirroring the way of God, shown through Jesus. It is easy—sometimes too easy—to see where our policies, economies, and governments are not mirroring God’s commonwealth.

The Kingdom of God is both something intentionally seeded and an invasive species. In barren places, we are called to plant the seeds again and again then wait for the harvest. And even as we wait and rest and wonder if the planting make any difference at all—God is at work growing the harvest.

And we are called to pay attention, to notice when God’s Kingdom is sprouting in unwelcomed places. In the midst of all that is un-Christ-like, Jesus invites us to take notice of the invasive species of God’s Kingdom. And maybe throw some extra water and light on it.

Plant, cultivate, and notice the Christ-like—in yourself, in your closest community, and in our larger systems. Do not only kick back darkness or rage against injustice-- Create and lean into the light, the good, the beautiful, the just. And rest **do not miss this** rest, be at peace, perch in the shade in kingdom places. Because it is God that makes the kingdom grow, and it is God who will bring it to fruition. Where you are--saint and sinner--and where the world is--kingdom of God and kingdom of tyrants--God is present and at work.

So, what shall you say the kingdom of God is like?

Sunday Note: On Kings & Tyrants

Text


1 Samuel 8:4-20, 11:14-15

So all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah. They said to him, “You are old, and your sons do not follow your ways; now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have.”

But when they said, “Give us a king to lead us,” this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the Lord. And the Lord told him: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you. Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will claim as his rights.”

Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. He said, “This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”

But the people refused to listen to Samuel. “No!” they said. “We want a king over us. Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.”

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Note


My daughter turned three two weeks ago. A few relevant things about her: She's curious. She loves to ask lots and lots of questions. She loves books. She's very into baby Jesus. This final trait developed around Christmas this year, and her love of baby Jesus has not faded through Ordinary Time, Lent, Holy Week, Easter, Pentecost, and back into Ordinary Time. The baby Jesus persists.

For her birthday her curiosity, love of questions and books, and loyalty to the baby Jesus converged in one gift--a book called, Bible Stories for Children: The Birth of Jesus. We have read it over and over and over since she received it. (If the givers are reading this-- THANK YOU-- seriously, it's an awesome book) The book is in English and Arabic, and I believe from an Egyptian publisher, and it ends with a brief description of Jesus' family fleeing to Egypt because "King Herod was angry," then returning to their homeland after his death. So we've been having a lot of conversations about why King Herod was mad at baby Jesus and why baby Jesus was in Egypt until King Herod died.

For real, this is what happens in my house at 8pm. #pastorskid

This is how I have explained it to my three year old, which is the best way to clarify anything to yourself, too:

King Herod was angry because people said baby Jesus was a king. So Herod thought he wouldn't be king anymore, and that made him mad. Sometimes when people are mad, they do things that hurt other people.  So Jesus and his family moved away to stay safe until King Herod was gone.

I've been repeating this almost every night for two weeks, so as I read the Scripture for today God's warning to the Hebrews rang loud: You will cry our for relief from the king you have chosen.

Most of history has been lived out during the time of "tyrant kings," to borrow a phrase from Brian Zahnd. Kings just as Samuel described, who claim as their rights their people's sons to fight on their behalf, their people's daughters to work, their people's fields for food, their people's cattle and flocks, and the people themselves to serve the king and the kingdom over their own welfare. 

These literal tyrant kings-- corrupt governments, dictators, emperors, pharaohs-- of the past and present enslave their people through fear of violence, of other tyrant kings and nations, of scarcity of resources. But actual tyrants and corrupt government are not the only tyrant kings of our lives. Nor were they the only tyrant kings the Hebrews were turning toward in our text. 

The tyranny of fear in our lives can come in many forms. You know your own heart what tyrant kings you serve: money, success, toxic relationships, admiration, pleasing others, comparison, shame, pleasure...there are many tyrant kings striving to lord over us.

Yet, Samuel was wrong in his final word to the Hebrew people, "When that day comes you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day." The Lord did answer. The Lord does answer. Because the Lord never ceased to be the true King. 

Perhaps the confusion is that God does not seem like a king. Really, king is a paradoxical word to use to describe God. Kings rule over, kings hoard riches, kings incite violence, kings build up walls to protect US from THEM. But what kind of a King is God? Who was this King that Herod so feared?

A human, fragile baby born in a stable.
A refugee fleeing violence.
A homeless traveling teacher.
A healer.
A friend of zealots, sinners, prostitutes, tax collectors, women, Samaritans, and the poor.
A servant.
A prophet, flipping tables and speaking uncomfortable truths.
A King killed by tyrant kings.

God's defining trait as king in the Scripture of 1 Samuel is as the one who, "brought them out of Egypt." God as King is a liberator from all other tyrants. God's Kingdom is the reordering of the world to free the oppressed, the poor, the prisoners of tyrants.

Just as the Hebrew people in 1 Samuel 8, we too often place our trust in tyrant kings over our liberator God. We place our trust in our worst fears over God's great love. We place our trust in perceived strength over vulnerable, peaceable freedom in God.

But God does not let our cries for liberation go unheard and unanswered. God in Jesus shows us the way of the true Kingdom. The Kingdom that is not for the welfare of a tyrant, but the welfare of the poor, oppressed, and imprisoned in all forms.

May we chose the Kingdom of God and King Jesus over all other tyrant kings. May we chose God's love over fear and be liberated to the freedom of God's Kingdom here and now.

Amen.

Sunday Note: Breaking the Sabbath

Text for Today

Mark 2:23-3:6
One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?”

He answered, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.”

Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”

Another time Jesus went into the synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath. Jesus said to the man with the shriveled hand, “Stand up in front of everyone.”

Then Jesus asked them, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” But they remained silent.

He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored. Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.

 

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Breaking the Sabbath

To the modern reader, this Scripture passage may seem unremarkable or, perhaps, a bit perplexing. What's the big deal? Why does it matter that Jesus' disciples picked a few heads of grain while walking on a Saturday afternoon or that Jesus healed a person's hand after sundown on a Friday? Other than the miraculous healing, these acts of rebellion seem mundane. How in the world does this text end, "Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus"?

Violating the Sabbath law was scandalous-- for both religious and political reasons. In the Hebrew Bible, the command to keep the Sabbath day holy contains the longest explanation of the Ten Commandments given to Moses by God:

“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but God rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy." (Exodus 20:8-11)

Keep the Sabbath holy because it is intricately connected to understanding and honoring who God is and how God created. Even those who are not Hebrews must keep the Sabbath if they are residing among Hebrews. In Deuteronomy, the author gives a different explanation for this commandment:

"Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day." (Deuteronomy 5:15)

The Sabbath is a practice rooted in the defining, relational act between God and God's people-- God freed you from slavery, so you must honor God by resting.

There is such beauty to this command. A decree to rest. A command to be freed from work. A demand to order our creativity in the image of our God.

In 2014, Walter Brueggemann published a book called, Sabbath as Resistance, urging the practice of Sabbath as a prophetic act to a workaholic, consumerist, performance-driven culture. Sabbath as a life giving force that can reshape a person, community, or even society to be freer and more like our loving, creative God.

But, as we read in Mark today, somewhere around 30AD, the Sabbath was clearly not for the sake of more freedom or remembering the God who brought God's people out of slavery or imaging the Creator, who rested. Sabbath was not about honoring the creative life giving God, rather, it was about making sure you followed the code-- or else. This legalism had a long legacy. In the Hebrew Bible, the book of Numbers records a man, who was ordered by Moses to be stoned to death for picking up sticks on the Sabbath (Numbers 15).

In Mark's Gospel we see Jesus, the "exact imprint of God's nature," as the author of Hebrews writes, challenging a law given to Moses ostensibly by God, 

Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save a life or to kill?

From the perspective of the religious and Jewish political leaders, this rabbi questioned God's law, from which their authority is derived. This is a threat to their power, to their beliefs, to their religious and political norms, to their laws, and, even to their God.

Yet, from the perspective of the Christian Scriptures, Jesus is not some rabbi challenging God. Jesus is God. So what does it mean for God, who commanded the Sabbath to advocate breaking it?

The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath.

Laws, codes, practices-- the way we live in community with God and others-- are not the end, but the means. The means matter, but the end dictates them. The end-- love of God and love of neighbor, as Jesus summarizes all the commands of God-- must always dictate the means.

In practicing piety, are we loving God and our neighbors? In following the laws of our land, are we loving God and our neighbors? In the way we live among our communities, are we loving God and our neighbors? In the moral codes and norms of our cultures, are we loving God and our neighbors?

Sabbath was always meant to be a prophetic, life-giving, creative practice to love God and neighbor. As soon as it was not that, as soon as the answer to Jesus' question, "Which is lawful on the Sabbath?" defaulted from doing good and saving a life, it was time to let the practice go. It was time to be prophetic, life-giving, and creative through resisting the Sabbath.

In our time, there are laws, moral codes, and religious practices that do not do good and do not save lives. There are laws, moral codes, and religious practices that-- even if commanded in Scripture-- break the ultimate command to love God and neighbor.

What practices might you need to let go for the sake of love, goodness, and life? What laws and codes might you be called to resist, or even break, for the sake of love, goodness, and life?

May you be freed to follow Jesus. May you be freed to love God and your neighbor. May you be freed to live by the grace of love, goodness, and life over any law.
Amen.

Sunday Note: Seeing Anew

We got a little behind in posting our Sunday Notes to the blog. This Note is from May 27th.

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Text for Today : Trinity Sunday

John 3:1-17

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life."

“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him."

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Seeing Anew

One could describe John 3:1-17 as the gospel reading with verses most likely to be plastered on billboards.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but have eternal life.”

 “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again.” 

These verses are powerful and beautiful, but very truly these billboards feel out of touch. When these words are written on billboards, they appear as acts of desperation. Its as if Christians are shouting along highways hoping someone speeding by may hear these words and change their entire perspective on life. Putting these words on billboards and church signs feels distant from the intentional and powerful Spirit of God present at Pentecost giving birth to the church. The Spirit that comes to break down walls of division and create space for unity among all people.

The Christian community has a history of extracting these token verses from the story of Nicodemus without much thought to the larger narrative. Thomas Long writes that the story of Nicodemus is not a “crisis of God brooding in heaven waiting on us to make a choice, withholding a verdict on our souls.” Rather, it is a crisis of understanding the message of Jesus. It is a crisis of understanding what it means to be a child of God and what it means to be able to participate in the kingdom of God.

There is so much more to the story. Who was Nicodemus? What does it mean to be born from above or born a new?

Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a member of the Sanhedrin, Israel’s highest legislative and judicial body. He was the most renowned teacher of the Law and Torah of his day. He visits Jesus in the middle of the night and shows respect to Jesus because of his signs and miracles. 

However, Jesus is not impressed. Instead of focusing on the miracles, Jesus shares with Nicodemus that no one can see God’s kingdom without first being born again. Unfortunately, Nicodemus takes this information quite literally and tries to understand the biology of being born again in our mother’s womb. Not quite what Jesus was going for…

In ancient Palestine, birth determined a lot about a person’s life. It determined their social status, inheritance rights, and occupational opportunities. Being born again held potential to drastically change a person’s situation in life.

Nicodemus was a man of status and wealth. He was born Jewish, which meant he was born into the inheritance of the kingdom of God. When Jesus states that all must be born anew, it was a challenge to Nicodemus to expand his understanding of the kingdom of God. It was a challenge to see that all have access to God’s inheritance. Those who believe they have sole ownership must be prepared to see anew. To see that Jews and Gentiles a like are called to be daughters and sons of God. 

No one can experience, encounter, and participate in the kingdom without seeing anew. Nicodemus is focused on the miracles. He is focused on the heavenly things without understanding the earthly things. 

Jesus calls for us to be rooted in the abundance of this earth. For God so loved the world (the actual world, the whole world), that God sent Jesus to dwell in human form among us, that we might have union with God and that peace may fill the earth. The message is not about escaping this world, but extending peace to this world. 

This is good news. It is so good that we might want to plaster this message on billboards, but we need to remember that Jesus did not focus on the miracles and signs (pun most definitely intended). He focused on the message. A message grounded in relationship and embodied in extending peace to others. For God so loved this world. We do not have to fear and we do not need to act of desperation for God does not abandon the world that God loves. 

I have hope that kingdom of God is more than billboards. Our society is somewhat obsessed with posting our positions on billboards without the desire to be in relationship or to understand others points of view. This passage challenges Nicodemus, challenges the present day church, to see anew. Are we willing to expand our vision? Are we willing to engage the world and extend God’s peace?

Sunday Note: The Whirlwind and Fire

We got a little behind posting these to the blog. This Sunday Note is from May 20th.

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Text for Today : Pentecost Sunday

Acts 2:1-21

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.

Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”

Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.”

Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:

“‘In the last days, God says,
    I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
    your young men will see visions,
    your old men will dream dreams.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
    I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
    and they will prophesy.
I will show wonders in the heavens above
    and signs on the earth below,
    blood and fire and billows of smoke.
The sun will be turned to darkness
    and the moon to blood
    before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord.
And everyone who calls
    on the name of the Lord will be saved.’

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The Whirlwind & Fire

Today the Church around the world will celebrate the day of Pentecost. In our text from the book of Acts, the followers of Jesus waited in Jerusalem, gathered like thousands of other Jews from the diaspora for the festival of Shavuot, called Pentecost in Greek. It is the festival of the wheat harvest and a commemoration of the Hebrews receiving the Law (the Torah) from God.

For the Church, Pentecost now commemorates and celebrates this story in Acts-- the day the Holy Spirit rested upon the followers of Jesus. It is the day that God again encountered the people, but this time with Spirit rather than Law.

So this day is a celebration of God's Spirit resting upon and dwell within ordinary people. It is a day that remembers the way that God's Spirit translates the way of salvation and the promises of God across language and culture. It is a day that recognizes the presence and power of God's Spirit still at work in the world and in us.

Yet, this day in 2018 is a day of where we are mourning for young lives cut short this week during a school shooting in Texas. This is a day of remembering lives lost in Gaza this past week. For many, it is a day in the midst of family strife, of struggling to make ends meet, of fighting sickness, of walking alongside family, friends, and neighbors who are suffering. It is a day that we may wonder if the presence and power of God's Spirit is still at work in the world and in us.

The Holy Spirit often has the reputation of being gentle, flying under the radar, and working out circumstances in particular ways. And there is some truth there-- the Spirit manifests in the Scriptures as wind, as breath, as a dove. The Spirit seems to set up circumstances to inhibit Paul from going certain places. The Spirit hardens and softens hearts.

But here, in this Pentecost story, we are gifted with the Spirit as whirlwind and fire. Spirit that is poured out powerfully. Spirit that causes a commotion, that propels the people to proclaim loudly the work of God-- so much so that some mistake the Spirit's work for drunkenness. Spirit that speaks truth across divides.

This Spirit of whirlwind and fire is the same Spirit that hovered over the darkened chaos at the emergence of creation. It is the same Spirit that Jesus spoke of as wind-- no one knowing where it comes from or where it will go. It is the same Spirit whose movement bears the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

It is the Spirit that causes sons and daughters to prophesy, youth to see visions, and elders to dream. It is the Spirit that created and creates-- around and in and through all people.

In our celebration, in our mourning, in our remembering, in our suffering, and in our joy, the Spirit's presence and power continue to create, making way for her fruit to be born in the world and in us.

I see today the Spirit's work in sons and daughters speaking prophetically to those in power, creating new possibilities. I see today the Spirit's work in young people seeing visions of what can and must be. I see today the Spirit's work in elders dreaming and scheming alongside those who are young. I see today the Spirit at work in translating across difference, in burning down the walls we have built up to separate us from each other, in saving us for the sake of one another.

The work of God's Spirit is not always quiet and gentle. And if you find yourself in a season of movement toward speaking hard truth, challenging power, envisioning new futures, tearing down walls, it may feel like going through the fire and whirlwind. 

Take heart-- God's Spirit is with you. God's Spirit is in the fire. God's Spirit is in the wind. And God's Spirit is always in the business of creating fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control-- that is where this fire and whirlwind will take us.

So today, may we get caught up in the movement of the Spirit-- prophesying truth, envisioning new ways of loving our neighbors, and dreaming how the Kingdom of God may come on earth.

Praying with Our Feet: A Service of Lament and Sending

The evening before the March for Our Lives, Sanctuary gathered to ground ourselves in prayer as we engaged in protest, demonstration, and civic action to work toward less gun violence in our country. Linked is an outline of that service, including Scripture, liturgical prayers, and a blessing.

As we again mourn the school shooting in Texas today, as well as many incidents of gun violence since this service, we wanted to share this resource as a way to find grounding for the necessary work of challenging and changing our laws and culture surrounding guns.

Below is our lament from that service, which we invite you to pray with us. For the full service PDF, click here.

 

Litany of Lament

For all the lives touched and torn by violence,

Tonight we mourn.

For the fascination with guns and weapons that claim the lives of the undefended and vulnerable,

Tonight we mourn.

For the media that glorifies violence and trivializes human life,

Tonight we mourn.

For choosing individual rights over peace in our communities,

Tonight we mourn.

For the teachers and students experiencing trauma and living in fear,

Tonight we mourn.

 

Merciful God, who does not raise up the sword except to break the chains that bind us, draw near to us in our mourning and grant us wisdom, courage, and strength to march onward in our grief.

 

God of Remembrance,

Let us not forget those who have died.

God of the prophets,

Guide us to speak truth to the powerful.

God of deliverance,

Release us from the grip of violence and guns.

God of justice,

Empower us to change this broken world.

God of comfort,

Help us to create spaces of sanctuary and healing.

God of shalom,

Teach us to be instruments of your peace.

 

Amen.

Sunday Note: Where Is There Life?

Scripture

1 John 5:9-13
We accept human testimony, but God’s testimony is greater because it is the testimony of God, which God has given about God's Son. Whoever believes in the Son of God accepts this testimony. Whoever does not believe God has made God out to be a liar, because they have not believed the testimony God has given about God's Son. And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in God's Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.

I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.


Sunday Note: Where is there Life?

There is a story in the Gospel of John about a woman, who encounters Jesus at a well (John 4:1-26). This woman was Samaritan-- a religious and ethnic group, closely related to the Palestinian Jews, but despised for both religious and political reasons tracing back hundreds of years prior to when Jesus walked up to the town's well. In the heat of the day, this woman went to draw water, a purposeful decision to avoid the morning when most other women went to draw water. 

What follows in John's Gospel is the longest conversation Jesus has with anyone in the New Testament. Jesus-- a Jewish man-- speaks to this Samaritan woman. A Samaritan. And a woman. And, as we quickly find out, a Samaritan woman, who has had five husbands and now lives with a man, who is not her husband. We'll come back to that. 

Jesus instigates this conversation by asking for water. And soon he offers the woman "living water." Water, of which he says, "whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life." And when the woman asks for this water, Jesus' response is like a punch to the gut:
“Go, call your husband and come back.”

There has been much ink split over what sins this woman must have committed to be in the "no husband" circumstance she is in. She has had five husbands, and the man she is currently living with is not her husband. There is, though, no plausible explanation for a first-century Palestinian woman to be getting married five times because she's just a harlot. Likely, this woman was the one sinned against-- discarded again and again-- with little to no recourse.

That was her place of deepest wounding. That was her place of deepest shame. That was the pain and the shame that brought her to that well alone in the heat of the noonday sun. As Nadia Bolz-Weber points out:

When she says Give me this water so that I may not thirst he then goes straight for her wound. She says give me this living water and he asks about her husband.
He wasn’t avoiding the subject – he was avoiding the BS...
The Living water offered by Jesus Christ finds your lowest point. It flows to your original wound.


(You can read the full sermon here)

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John talks a lot about Jesus bringing, embodying, and offering life. Eternal life. Not life that starts in some disembodied ether-world after death, but literally life "from age to age", life that is "unending." Life that beginning here and now is abundant and will not end. 

John's community-- likely the authors of 1 John after his death-- were shaped deeply by this. The letters of John speak again and again about life. In fact, the very start of 1 John explains why they are writing: To "make their joy complete" by telling others about the Word of life, who was made manifest. They write to experience together eternal life-- beginning here and now-- in Jesus.

Our text today comes from the end of this letter, and the purpose is made clear again: And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in God's Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.

Another way to translate this: I write these things to you who trust in the Son of God so that you may experience the unending life that you have.

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How do can we experience the unending life that we have? What does this trust in Jesus look like?

The woman at the well may ask: What is your greatest wound? What is your greatest shame? What bs are you covering up with short-term fixes?

The unending life starts there. Because to experience unending life, means letting go of temporary life--temporary fixes, temporary hiddenness, temporary happiness to trust God's love shown to us in Jesus. To trust God's way of life shown to us in Jesus.

Too often followers of Jesus read of living water and abundant life and think it means we need to believe harder, to buck up, to bootstrap our way to joy, or just to hid our pain and woundedness under false smiles. That is the junk Jesus came to save us from.

Life begins in the healing of our wounds. Eternal, unending life is experienced only when we drop the facade, and trust in the love and goodness of God for us, as we are.

Where there is trust in our belovedness; where there is authenticity; where there is Jesus-- God's love in flesh and blood-- there is unending, abundant, eternal life. 


Amen.

Sunday Note: Who Belongs? Pt. 2

Scripture

Acts 10:44-48 & John 15:9-17

While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles.For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God.

Then Peter said, “Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked Peter to stay with them for a few days.

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 “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. This is my command: Love each other."



Note: Who Belongs? Pt. 2


One of the hardest questions for the church to answer-- from the earliest gatherings in the first century up until today-- is: Who belongs with us? It is the question of all movements, all nations, all tribes, all families, all social and political and meaning-making groups: Who is in and who is out? At it's heart, the question is one of group identity. Who are we?

This question of belonging was at the forefront of the Jesus movement in the first century. Before there were statements of faith, New Testament Scriptures, or ordained church officials, the apostles of Jesus had little but story, prayer, and consensus to determine these big questions of identity and belonging that would set the course of Christianity.

Last week, the lectionary text in Acts told the story of a Philip and an Ethiopian man, who was a eunuch. This unnamed man was an outsider according to the Torah, but would be welcomed into the fold as a child of God, according to Isaiah. And Philip choose on behalf of the Jesus movement that Isaiah's prophecy would be fulfilled, and the circle was opened to eunuchs in the moment. Philip continued by opening the circle of belonging to a Samaritan and a sorcerer. Then the apostles in Jerusalem open the circle to Saul, a former persecutor of Jesus-followers. And in our text today, we reach the climax of belonging: Do Gentiles-- not just wayward Jews or one guy on a road-- but Gentiles as an excluded group, belong? Are they in or out?

The answer comes, not from arguing finer points of theology and Scripture nor from a vision of the future Christian movement, but rather from the recognition that God had already encircled them. There was no argument to be made: God had already included Gentiles. They already belonged. The Spirit of God already choose to dwell in them.

Just as God had already loved, accepted, and acted in the lives of Saul and the Samaritans and Simon and the Ethiopian man...so God already loved, accepted, and acted in the Gentiles-- those formerly defined by their outsider status.

As Peter would later say to the leaders in Jerusalem:  If God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?

Jews, Gentiles, Samaritans, Roman soldiers, tax collectors, prostitutes, Pharisees, zealots, women, children, eunuchs, those in Judea, and those in the far corners of the earth-- ALL BELONG. People of color, white people, LGBTQIA identifying persons, blue collar workers, academics, the poor, even the wealthy, developers, community organizers, Americans,, Afghans, Australians, and ALL nations...ALL BELONG.

The question arises: If all these people who we thought were out are actually in-- Who are we? What is our identity? If everyone belongs, does belonging even matter?

And here we turn to the words of Jesus in John 15:
Remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commands and remain in God's love. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you...I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit...This is my command: Love each other.

Jesus loves us all. Jesus choose us all. We belong to God through Jesus. Our identity is those who are loved by Jesus and love others as Jesus has loved us.

This way of belonging that Jesus teaches requires a shift in our paradigm. There is no "in" or "out." There is, instead, proximity to love. Remain in love, and you will love all those who belong to Jesus (read: everyone), and that love will bear fruit in this world that will last. Stray from love, and you will not love all those who belong to Jesus, and you will not bear lasting fruit.

So often, those who belong in God's love, stray, and find meaning and belonging in fear, hate, worry, pride, or envy. You may find yourself there now. Or feel the frustration of seeing others far beyond the center of love, out in the field of fear. 

We are invited and called to come back to God's love. To remain in the love that has been tangibly shown in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. God's love that is defined by the actions of Jesus. That is our truest identity-- as Christians and as humans.

All belong to God in Jesus Christ. This does not water down belonging or identity-- it is an invitation to our truest identity; it is an invitation to remain in God's love and invite others closer to love. It is a way of being in the world that looks with compassion and love on others, rather than building up walls to keep them out.

We belong. So may we remain in God's love, bearing fruit that will last, and loving one another in the way of Jesus that all people may know that they, too, belong to God and to us.