Prayers for Sunday, March 1, 2009 Lent 1B

Prayer of Adoration

Almighty and merciful God,
From the wilderness of temptation
and anxiety,
we call out to you.
Open the heavens
and send your Holy Spirit upon us
in new and powerful ways,
we pray,
that we may respond to your call to repent,
and with joy,
believe the good news of the Kingdom
of your beloved son,
our Saviour,
the Lord Jesus Christ
who lives and reigns with you
and the Holy Spirit,
One God, now and forever, Amen.

 

Invitation to Confession

Our Lord Jesus knows what it means
to be alone,
to suffer deprivation, and intense temptation;
he has been tempted
in every way that we are tempted;
he understands our weaknesses full well,
but he calls us to repent,
and live lives congruent
with the kingdom of God.
Certain that he will understand
and forgive us,
let us come now with repentant hearts,
confessing our sins.

Assurance of Pardon

Hear the Good News:
the Kingdom of Heaven is near.
God’s will is not to destroy us,
but to rescue us
from the damage and pain of evil,
and to fill us with the joy of life
in his presence,
and in communion
with our sisters and brothers,
So believe the Good News of the Gospel,
In Jesus Christ, we are forgiven!

 

Prayer for Illumination

Loving God,
here we are in your presence,
wanting to be your disciples,
needing to hear your word.

Send your Holy Spirit upon us
that we may hear you speaking to us
in a personal and compelling way,
through Jesus Christ, Amen.

Sermon on Mark 1:9-15, March 1, 2009, First Sunday in Lent Year B

Genesis 9:8–17

Mark 1:9–15

Required Courses: Zoology 101, 102 and 103modern-noah

Three of my favorite pictures from the picture bible story book I used to have as a child had animals in them. The first was of Adam naming all the animals in the garden of Eden. They were all there together, peacefully waiting to learn that one was going to get to wear the name “wolf” while another had to suffer the name “lamb” which did not bode well for its future career in the world.

The next picture was Noah on the ark with his floating zoo – of course he had to make a hatch in the roof to allow for the giraffe’s long neck; but again, all the animals were there in peace, living together, at least as long as the flood waters covered the earth.

The third is the picture of the peaceable kingdom from the prophets’ vision of the kingdom of God, when there would be a new creation and wolf and lamb would once again be reconciled and live in peace together just as they did in Eden.

We need these three pictures; they teach us something crucial, so let’s think of the three pictures ans three required courses: Zoology 101, Creation; 102, Noah’s floating zoo; and 103, the wolf, the lamb, and the wild beasts in the peaceable kingdom of God.

Why do we need these pictures? How do they help us today?

Because these are anxious times, and these pictures help us get to the questions that are at the heart of our anxiety: what in the world is God doing, and what does he want from me?

These questions are deeper than the economic crisis we are in, but perhaps they are provoked or even intensified by it. How am I going to get through these times, we wonder?

What does God want? God wants what he has always wanted. What is that? Look at picture number one, Zoology 101: creation. God wants a world in which there is peace, and plenty, where all men and all women, made in his image, share life in harmonious community with each other and in the presence of God himself.

But there have been some complications along the way, and plan A for a perfect world did not last too long. Humans turned out to be pretentious, selfish people who, when given a chance to “be like God, knowing good and evil” would fall for the first apple offered to them.

What should God do with a world gone wrong? If plan A, starting from scratch did not work, how about plan B, start over with only the good guys (and the animals since they are not guilty of anything). Plan B is the story of Noah and the flood; picture 2; Zoology 102.

But people, being what they are – what we are – are simply going to start living the same story over. How many times should God wipe them all out and start again? Obviously that plan has no future either. God understands this. So after trying it once, he announced that plan B was off the table. He put away his weapon, his bow, and hung it up in the sky making sure it was pointed permanently away from the earth, so no one would get hurt that way again. To seal the decision, he made a covenant – with Noah, yes, and (did you notice?) with “every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” Animals included.

So now, if starting from scratch does not work, and starting over with only the good guys does not work either, what will God do?

Teach. He will start with a very small class – in fact just one family, Abraham and Sarah, and he will teach them about himself and what he wants from them. He teaches them that it is his long-range plan to bless the whole world through them.

It’s a long story; the class size grows, and God wants no Hebrew left behind, so he sends Moses who brings a detailed curriculum of instruction down from Mt. Sinai. After him other teachers come too, like the prophets, so the lessons continue. And what do the prophets teach? That God still wants what he wanted since the days of the Garden of Eden. He still wants a kingdom of peace and plenty, of blessing and of community, of restored, reconciled relationships between people and God – and yes, animals too. They picture God’s plan like picture number three; Zoology 103; In Isaiah’s picture, the wolf and the lamb at peace once again. ( Isa 11:6–9)

The prophet Hosea says it like this: I will make for you a covenant on that day with the wild animals, the birds of the air, and the creeping things of the ground; and I will abolish the bow, the sword, and war from the land; and I will make you lie down in safety. Hos. 2:18

Hosea pictures a future day in which all is restored: a new covenant will be made, peace will be possible, and even nature will be put back to its original condition: the covenant will be “with the wild animals.”

If there came a person who could be “with the wild animals” in perfect peace, would not that signal that the time of that new covenant had come? That the time had in fact been fulfilled; that the kingdom of God had come near?

With those exact words, the Gospel of Mark tells us that Jesus went out in to the wilderness for 40 days, and was “with the wild animals”. And at the end of those days, he came proclaiming: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.

Picture number three is coming true: it has started. The time for the new covenant has been fulfilled: Jesus, God’s beloved Son has come.

What does this have to do with us? Everything.

We know what God wants: he wants what he has always wanted: a kingdom of peace and plenty, of reconciliation and community, of blessing in his presence. But because we are still the same kind of people we were after plan A and plan B, he needs to continue the teaching. His lesson is short and simple. It has has exactly two verbs of action, both in the imperative form: repent! and believe in the good news, the gospel!

Repent: because we are still grasping pretentiously for apples so that we can be like God, determining for ourselves what is good and what we will call evil. It’s always the same story; it goes like this: “I will call me, and my kind good; and I will call those other guys and their kind, evil. They are different, they do not believe the same things I do, they do not want to live like we do, so they are evil. If they are poor, what is that to me? If the don’t have access to health care, is that our problem? If my lifestyle puts them at risk, well, everybody around me lives like me; I can’t change the world.”

That apple is rotten. The kingdom of God is a reconciled kingdom – not that everyone looks and acts alike, but that there is community and mutuality between people; generosity and responsibility that spans vast seas of difference in tastes, languages, and lifestyles.

We carry within us the constant tendency to exclude and condemn; and therefor the constant requirement to “repent!” Change course! Turn around to go a different direction! Verb one is the command: repent!

Verb two of our lesson from the teacher at the end of time is “believe!” Now this is tricky. How do you command belief? Can you command belief any more than you can command enjoyment? “Here: like this!” “But I hate heavy metal music.” “I don’t care: I command you to like it!”

Because commanding belief is futile, what could the command mean? Believing in the gospel is not like believing in the Easter bunny. It is much more like believing your spouse when she says, “OK, I forgive you.”

Then, you’re not angry with me?”

Believe me, I forgive you.”

Believe Jesus: God is out to get what he has always wanted: reconciliation, peace. The good news is that God has watched us take the apple, he sees all the horror and pain we have brought on ourselves, our families, our relationships, our whole world, and he is not going to start over from scratch with a new world, he is not going to start over with just the good guys and a flood, he is going to teach us that God wants us back. God wants us to repent from the pretentious apple path, and to come back and believe that his love has overcome our evil.

How do we believe? Just like with our spouse: “You forgive me? Well then, let’s sit down and have supper together and talk.”

What will we find him talking about at supper? He will tell us what he wants; his quest does not stop with a table for two. He wants that third picture; Zoology 103, the wolf and the lamb together. He has come to bring the kingdom of God, the ultimate reconciliation.

He put away his bow after the flood, now we have to put ours away as well. We do not get to choose who is “us” and who is “them,” who is in and who is out, who are “our kind” and who are “those other guys,” who we call kin and care for, and who we call alien and ignore. It’s his garden; no claws, no fangs allowed.

So believing the gospel means acting on the basis of the gospel’s truth. It is another way of saying “follow me” which Jesus says as he meets his disciples. “Do what I do, live like I live, welcome children, heal the sick, touch lepers, share your loaves and fishes, tell sinners, “neither do I condemn you.” Practice hospitality, visit prisoners, and keep on saying “Our Father in Heaven, holy is your name! Your kingdom come! Your will be done in my life, as completely as it is done in heaven.”

The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Ash Wednesday Sermon, Feb. 25, 2009, Isaiah 58:1-12 and Matt. 6:1-6, 16-21

 


Isaiah 58:1-12

Matt. 6:1-6, 16-21ash-wed-girl

The Problem

Here is the problem; here on the Gulf Coast, we have just finished the Mardi Gras season which is completely given over to frivolity and hilarity, (purple and gold necklaces!) and suddenly we are faced with Ash Wednesday. It is difficult to get all morose and gloomy so suddenly, especially when the Azaleas are blooming and nature seems to want to be about new life rather than about ashes and death.

A Different Approach: Life

So, I want to suggest to us a different approach. It is true that ashes are all about mourning and death, and in our refections today we will go there, but let us start with life. There are two powerful statements in scripture, one from Moses and the other from Jesus, that act like two ends of an axis, like the poles of the earth – everything revolves around these two statements; they sum up the significance of everything we believe and make sense of it. Here they are:

First Moses: he is standing at the foot of Mt. Sinai with the torah in his hands, making his appeal to the people he has just led out of Egyptian slavery, and he says to them:

I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, Deut. 30:19

Choose life”! Now hear from Jesus:

I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. John 10:10

Both Moses and Jesus see it as their mission to bring life to us, not death. In fact, both of them see their mission as saving us from paths of death – spiritual death, emotional death, social death, relational death.

Moses and Jesus completely agree on this: everything God wants for us, everything he commands, everything he forbids, everything he promises, all are to give us; well-being, peace, or in Hebrew, Shalom; that is life.

Moses & Jesus on Genuineness & Life

Moses and Jesus are in complete agreement about the path to life: it lies in genuineness, not in falseness; in truth, not denial.

Moses said it this way:

Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. 5 You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Deut. 6:4-5

Jesus said it like this:

Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; … whenever you give alms… whenever you pray… whenever you fast… [do so in secret] and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. Matt. 6

It must be real, it must be from the heart – the whole heart. It’s not a performance, it’s not about what other people think, it’s about a genuine, authentic connection with the Father that is perfectly congruent; seamless from the secret room where you pray all alone, down to the public street where you shop.

The path to life is in a genuine, living connection with God, not in phoniness.

That is what Isaiah the prophet was so upset about. In our Old Testament reading we heard him castigate the utter falseness of a religious life that would include fasting and prayer without living the faith in practice – listen again:

6“Is this not the fast which I choose, To loosen the bonds of wickedness, To undo the bands of the yoke, And to let the oppressed go free And break every yoke? 7“Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry And bring the homeless poor into the house; When you see the naked, to cover him; And not to hide yourself from your own flesh? Isaiah 58:6-7

If it’s not real, it’s no good. The fasting and the ashes are meant to lead to something genuine, not to be an end in themselves. Why in the world would God want fasting without compassion? Why would he want ashes without justice? God does not need more hungry dirty people in the world!

Jesus had the exact same analysis: acts of piety – prayer and fasting, they are not ends, they are means. The end is that we would live and act as Jesus’ disciples in word and deed, imitating him in his genuine trust in our Heavenly Father and in his embrace of all people with God’s love, especially the poor and suffering ones.

Falseness & Death

Genuineness is the path to life. But the problem that we live with is that we humans share a common characteristic tendency to confuse the means with the ends. If the means to a life-giving faith includes prayer, worship, and seasons of fasting like Lent, we tend to make them the the end itself, convincing ourselves that we are pleasing God in the process.

We are painfully aware that there were slave-owners and even slave-traders who thought of themselves as good Christians. We know that lots of people in Europe who wanted to think of themselves as Christians turned a blind eye to the holocaust, knowing but in denial about what they knew.

Even today there are people whose greed and corruption cause enormous damage who think that they are OK with God because they go to church.

Let’s bring it down onto a more personal level: churches are not without people who harbor envy and hold grudges, who withhold forgiveness for past wrongs, who use their power to bully and control, who are unfaithful to their spouses – who do not get the enormous disconnect between their personal lives and the faith they espouse. That is the way of death. There is no health in that condition; it is false; it kills the spirit, it kills the life of the community, and it brings effective mission to a grinding halt.

We need ashes

And I’m not just talking about “other people” – I have to include myself. None of us live lives of total congruency. None of us is without fault. This is why we need Ash Wednesday.

This is the great reality-check day of the Christian year. This is the day on which we go back to square one, back to fundamental principles, back to basic facts.

Fact number one: I am not God, I am mortal. The universe does not revolve around me; I have a place on this planet in this moment, but I am only human. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, I have been given the gift of life not to live for myself, but to know my place in this world. God is God; to him I am responsible.

Fact number two: being a human means I sin. I know it, I do not deny it. I am not happy about it, but there it is; that’s the reality. God asks me to love him with my whole heart and mind and strength; I do not. God tells me to love my neighbor as myself. I do not.

God tells me that the fast that he chooses is to share my bread with the hungry and to cloth the naked, to loosen every oppressing yoke. That is what real faith does. That is the path of life that Moses and Isaiah and Jesus were talking about.

So, as it turns out, even though we wanted to stay on the Mardi Gras theme of festival, we ended up taking trip down the road of ashes and death; mortality and sinfulness.

And that is the great irony of faith: that when we start with the real truth, minus the self-deceptions and pretensions, when we start with our mortal, sinful human condition, then we are set free to be open and honest, and to turn to God for his grace to live more congruent, genuinely faithful lives.

So we need these ashes today. They announce that we have accepted the truth, and we have come to the real and living God, seeking true and genuine life

I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. – Jesus

Choose life!

Sermon on Mark 9:2-9, Lectionary text for February 22, 2009 Transfiguration Sunday

2 Kings 2:1-12

Mark 9:2-9footprints-snow-night

No Tents for Old Men

 

In times like these (have there been any times like these?) we hear many contradictory voices. We are not going to hear just one more voice to add to the din today. Rather we are going to hear a voice that will put all the other voices in perspective.

I believe this text is exactly what we need to hear today. Let us dive into it. The scene is set on a mountain top.

There are very few mountain top scenes in the Bible: all of them are literally awe-some – they all involve people meeting God. The first is the scene in which Abram takes his beloved son to Mt. Moriah, and is willing to sacrifice him there. Isaac is the only son of Abraham and Sarah, his “beloved son,” the one who God promised, the one through whom God’s covenant with Abraham will be fulfilled. God’s voice intervenes; Isaac is spared. The covenant continues (Gen. 22).

The second mountain top scene is Moses, on Mt. Sinai. After crossing the Red Sea to escape the pursuing Egyptian army, Moses leads the newly freed people to the base of the mountain. It is covered in a thick cloud. Moses ascends the mountain, and after six days, the Lord spoke to Moses (Exod. 24:16). Moses comes down and proclaims “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God; the Lord is One.” (Deut 6:4)

Before the third mountain scene we must recall that God promised, in the text of Deuteronomy, that after Moses died, God would raise up for the people another prophet who would, like Moses, hear the voice of God and teach it to the people. When that prophet comes, the text commands: “Listen to him.” (Deut 18: 15)

Who will be that prophet like Moses that the people should “Listen” to?

The third mountain top scene is the one in which the great prophet Elijah is, waiting to catch a glimpse of God; he was not in the wind storm nor in the earthquake, but Elijah heard his voice in the sound of sheer, awesome silence. (1 Kings 19:11, ff.)

Do you hear the echoes of those mountain top scenes in the text of Mark? The timing, after six days, the mountain itself, the cloud, the voice, the beloved son, the command to listen to him, all come together, along with presence of Moses and Elijah.

The fear on that mountain top is another shared similarity as well: Peter is terrified, as he must be, in the presence of God’s glory. His suggestion that they make three tents, one for Moses, one for Elijah, and now one for Jesus is pious, but that is not to be. Jesus is not on that mountain like Teddy Roosevelt on Mt. Rushmore to take his place among his great predecessors. Jesus is there, just as the voice of God says, as the beloved son, the prophet like Moses that had been long promised. Listen to him! says the voice from the cloud.

Jesus’ clothing is transformed – it becomes dazzling white, just like the mysterious person called the Ancient of Days in Daniel’s prophetic vision (Dan. 7:9). There is something ultimate and final about that description, as if something has been achieved that cannot ever be superseded. The vision is being fulfilled: the final act is now being played. This is it!

All of these images are gathered up together on that mountain top: the significance is clear. Jesus is God’s fulfillment of the promise, the covenant with Abraham. He is the one whose voice we must hear; he is the one who speaks with God’s authority.

This is why we need this text today.

You are going to go home, and just like me, by this time tomorrow you will have heard a lot of voices clamoring for your attention. You will listen to the news reporters and anchors. They will tell you about the stock market, the statistics on foreclosures and unemployment.

You will probably watch some TV this week, maybe see a film. You will hear conversations and have conversations and beneath ever single word spoken there is a world of meaning that makes sense of it all.

We never just hear words purely, in a vacuum; we always hear words “as” something. I hear the news reports:

  • as an American,

  • as a white American,

  • as a white American male,

  • as a white middle class American male,

  • as a family man,

  • as a home-owner,

  • as an employed person.

I never hear anything except that it comes to me “as” something – and that something is who I am. I always hear words filtered through my identity.

You do the same; everyone does the same. When someone says that the value of our stocks is not completely lost until we sell them because they may recover some of their value – most of you hear that as retired persons: how long can you wait for that recovery? You and I will hear that news differently.

Here is the point: in the text we have before us, we see Jesus, on that mountain top, in the cloud of God’s presence, shinning in dazzling white like the Ancient of Days, hearing the voice of God almighty saying: “this is my beloved Son; listen to him.”

This is not a suggestion; this is our mandate. We are obliged to Listen to Jesus; to learn what Jesus said and is saying and what it means today. We were baptized because Jesus said, “Go into all the world and make disciples…baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” (Matt 28:18-20)

We will celebrate the Lord’s Supper today because this Sunday is the feast of the Transfiguration, because Jesus said, “Do this, remembering me.” (Luke 22:19)

These two examples, baptism and the Lord’s Supper are religious duties that our Lord told us to do – but to believe that he only spoke to us about activities inside the church is a grave error. In the very text in which he tells us to go into the world baptizing, he tells us first to make disciples. Listen to his words again:

Go into all the world and make disciples of all peoples, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” (Matt 28:18-20)

What does it mean to be a Christian? The shortest and most complete answer is: to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. That is our identity. We are disciples of Jesus. It is His words that we listen to. He defines us. He sets our agenda. He is not one among many, or even several; he is the Beloved Son: he is our Lord. He is the voice we listen to. This is the identity through which we filter everything else we hear around us.

Some of us were at a seminar recently at which the leader said that if you asked most of us Presbyterians what it meant to us that we are Christians, as he has, you would get a variety of answers, but in his experience, very few say first and foremost, “being a Christian means that we are disciples of Jesus Christ.”

If that is true, it is sad. Let that not be true of us here in Gulf Shores. Here, we listen to Jesus; when he says we are to be disciples we therefore define ourselves as his disciples; people who follow in his footprints.

So when I hear the news of higher unemployment, plant closings, thousands of lay-offs, I do not just hear this merely as a white middle-class American male: I hear this as a disciple of Jesus Christ. When the value of stocks plummets, I do not just hear this as a helpless consumer, I hear this as a disciple of Jesus Christ.

What does that mean practically? It means, first, that I will hear of the pain of others with great compassion. I will look around and see where that pain shows up in my community, and I will do everything I can with the strength God gives me to be his disciple, extending his compassion and care where I can. And if my physical body will not let me go over to the Christian Service Center anymore, then I can still pray for the people that come through that door – no one is ever too weak or sick to stop praying for people in need.

Being identified as a disciple of Jesus Christ means more than serving as Jesus served, it means trusting God the way Jesus taught us to trust God. Being a disciple means that when we hear bad news, we do not panic, as if there were no God. Being a disciple means that we have learned from Jesus that God is our Father in Heaven. We learn that he clothes the birds of the air and the grass of the field, and how much more are we to him than they? (Matt. 7)

What does that mean? It does not mean putting on rose-colored glasses and trying to convince ourselves that “everything will be OK soon.” It means that even if it is not OK with the stock market that I trust in God; I am in his hands. He will see me through.

Being a disciple means that we do not measure the meaning of our lives in net worth, but in our growth in similarity to Jesus himself. This past year has not been wasted even if I have been sick in bed all year if I am more Christ-like now than I was last year. If I trust God more deeply, if I have more compassion for people who suffer, if I am more welcoming of people different from me.

Disciples are not one-hour a week Christians. Disciples are learners. Disciples are people who seek out opportunities to deepen their understanding of God and his will. That is way Sunday School or, Adult Christian education is a vital ministry here. We are serious about learning to follow Jesus. We do not assume that we know all we need to know.

This is why Bible Study is so vital to our lives: our discipleship depends on hearing his voice with understanding. That is what Bible Study is for – to deepen our understanding so that we can live lives that are more congruent with our identity as disciples.

This is a challenging text, but it is also deeply helpful for times like these. This time of national and world crisis may be a clarifying time in our lives; a time in which we re-examine our values and consider what has been consuming our time and energy. Maybe this is the time to make a change; break some old habits; acquire some new ones. Start putting yourself within range of his voice more so that we can Listen to him.

We are not here to make religious tents for old men on mountains; we are here to listen to the voice of the Beloved Son, to be and to become disciples! To hear every other voice filtered through the identity that Christ give us. We are Christians. We are disciples!