Reading Ramblings – September 26, 2021

September 19, 2021

Date: Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost ~ September 26, 2021

Texts: Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29; Psalm 104:27-35; James 5:(1-12)13-20; Mark 9:38-50

Context: I’m out of practice a bit, but hope to catch up a bit in the coming weeks! We’re still in Ordinary Time, so that’s something!

Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29 – Let me reiterate at the outset that I great dislike slicing and dicing sections of Scripture (or any written material, for that matter). Most often this is done to remove extraneous or unnecessary material (as it is here) and thus shrink down the overall reading and the time required for it. If you’re married to the idea that worship can’t be more than 60 minutes long, shortening the readings gives the preacher more time to preach. Circumstances dictate whether that’s a good thing or not. So here we don’t want to take the time to read about what manna was, we’re simply focused on the central conflict and why God had to provide it in the first place.

Ungratefulness, a theme related to the reading last week from James, is what’s at play here. But the greater story is God’s providence. The short memories and general ungratefulness of a people in a difficult transition from settled city life to long-term campers is secondary to the provision God extends. Provision not just in the physical manna to feed a perceived physical hunger, but further in his grace and mercy against a rather unattractively ungrateful people. Even Moses is perturbed by everything and his role in it, yet God remains calm in providing bread for his people’s temporal needs, just as He will provide the Bread of Life in his incarnate Son, Jesus the Christ, to provide for his people’s eternal needs.

Psalm 104: 27-35 – In line with God providing manna in the Old Testament reading, the psalm selection emphasizes creations’ dependence on the Creator. The first 27 verses of this psalm extol the works of God in creating and sustaining. He alone is the cause behind all the causes and effects in the created order. As such, creation looking to the Creator starting at verse 27 is only reasonable and logical. Here the verses deal not only with the physical needs of food and shelter, but emotional needs like fear and existential issues such as death. All of which culminates rightly in praise to God as the author of creation and the author of our faith and hope and salvation.

James 5:(1-12)13-20 – Prayer is the language of faith. Prayer is the appropriate response in all situations, though we tend to think of it more often when we’re in need or facing difficulties. Perhaps that’s why James leads off with such situations in this section starting at verse 13. But it’s great that second in the list is a reminder we can pray when we’re grateful and happy just as much as when we’re lacking and fearful! Verses 14-15 are interesting in this time of pandemic and sickness and fear. A wonderful reminder that healing ultimately comes from God, whether He chooses to dispense it miraculously by the Holy Spirit through prayer or equally miraculously through vaccines or other medical options.

Some Christians interpret these words as directive regarding what we are supposed to do – anoint with oil. Certainly anointing with oil has a rich and deep history in Scripture, but this is mainly because it was also cultural and historical. Oil was used not just as a beauty product but also as a balm for healing. As such, it can easily be argued that James is basically instructing the Church to provide necessary medical care as opposed to rejecting or refusing medical care as though these aren’t means by which God can sustain his creatures! James also provides a link between illness and sin, something few churches are willing to preach about!

Throughout this section the reminder is that while physical illness and need are real and valid things that prayer can be brought to bear on, our greater need is for the affliction that runs deeper in us and ultimately is the cause of all sickness and disease and brokenness in creation – sin. Ensuring that we don’t neglect the spiritual care of people while going overboard to treat their physical afflictions is certainly something the Church must remember at all times!

Mark 9:38-50 – The initial verses in this section are striking. Jesus does not demand his disciples stop others from using his name to perform miracles. These other people presumably are not committed followers of Jesus (not among the 120 or so that formed his extended discipling group beyond the 12). They would not be privy then, we can assume, to the fullest of his teaching. They might be running with just the barest of understanding of who Jesus is and what He is here for. There must be some level of actual faith at play, since demons could refute the mere name of Jesus (Acts 19:15), yet these people were missing so much for whatever reason! Yet Jesus insists they be allowed to continue their work. Their work is good as done in faith and in the name of Jesus.

What an interesting lesson might there be here to learn for our congregational or even denominational conflicts? To remember that as we have faith in Jesus we are considered his, even if we may be missing out on some beneficial doctrinal understanding. The Universal Church of believers spans far more corners of belief than we are likely to be comfortable with. And while this is not an excuse not to preach and teach the Gospel to the best of our ability, there is a comfort that comes from knowing that even when someone doesn’t necessarily understand all they could or should, they are still in Christ.

Book Review – A Brief History of Indonesia

September 17, 2021

A Brief History of Indonesia: Sultans, Spices & Tsunamis: The Incredible Story of Southeast Asia’s Largest Nation by Tim Hannigan

How many colons are you allowed to have in a book title? I feel like Hannigan has exceeded his limit but, then again, he’s published a book and I haven’t. So I’ll just be quiet.

This is an engaging overview of Indonesia’s history going back to its earliest speculative and archaeological roots. Hannigan writes in a very readable fashion and his style is not dry or boring. It’s history – and a lot of it! But it’s also an interesting read.

One of the things I most enjoyed about this book is along the way he makes mention of key concepts that form important aspects of Indonesia’s past and current cultural identity and self-conceptions. By bookmarking these as I notice them, I hope to have good guidance on areas for future study. Ideas such as Majapahit (p.57) help me understand how past empires are called upon as current and future inspiration, similar to the semi-mythical Wali Songo, remembered as Muslim saints who helped bring Islam to Indonesia. Great food for future study and contemplation.

Because of the books’ broad scope Hannigan doesn’t spend too long in any one area. This helps the book move along quickly. I found the names of people and places to be difficult to keep track of and didn’t try overly hard. That will come in time and once we’re living there and better able to find and even visit some of these places. But the scope of the book helps me get a handle on how much history these islands hold, and how many different forces have attempted to shape, exploit or otherwise engage with these peoples.

Clocking in at just about 260 pages, and with a bibliography of sources to be used as a launch for further reading, this is a great and manageable history for those who enjoy history and are interested in the island nation of Indonesia.

Pool Hall – Kolby’s Corner Pocket ~ Tempe, AZ

September 15, 2021

I was still in the first half of my educational venture at Arizona State University when Kolby’s opened. Having become addicted to the pool tables in the Memorial Union on campus, I was excited about another option for playing pool, even as my interest in classes continued to wane.

There were other places to shoot pool back then. Rack & Cue was still in operation on Apache near McClintock, Cue & Brew had relocated to the location it still maintains on Southern & Broadway. But Kolby’s was by far the nicest and newest place to shoot. As it should, this lured the best players, and my early impressions of Kolby’s were that I was way out of my league. Rather than be embarrassed by my lower playing level, I just opted to avoid Kolby’s and shoot in less competitive places where people weren’t watching and comparing so much.

That avoidance has lasted the better part of 30 years, and I can count on probably two hands the number of times I’ve returned to shoot there. It’s still one of the nicer places to shoot pool, although (as with us all) it’s showing it’s age. The tables are still good (Diamonds) and the felt is still kept in good shape. It remains a shooter’s pool hall with ongoing tournaments as well as league play. It offers beer and wine as well as a kitchen that can do a bit more than the typical fried bar food.

They have ten nine-foot tournament tables including Diamond and Brunswick brands. They have five seven-foot Diamond bar-box tables, and also one Joy Chinese Eight Ball table. Everything is kept in good condition. Staff is friendly enough and prices are reasonable.

When I stopped in the other evening I played for about an hour. I’ve enjoyed the practice I’ve gotten on nine-foot tables since relocating and joining a league that plays on the tournament-size tables. As such, I played fairly well. I noticed one guy wearing the jersey from the recent World Tournament in Las Vegas, and the play level of the people on the next table was definitely higher than mine. Still, I garnered at least two compliments for high-level bank shots I made in the process of just hitting the balls around.

I don’t feel out of my league here any more, though it still isn’t likely to become my preferred place to play since they only have beer and wine, neither of which I enjoy. It’s nice to know that in the last 30 years or so not only have I been able to further my education, but I’ve become a much better pool player!

Blogging Has Been Hard

September 9, 2021

Everyone goes through periods of writers’ block. Given the uncertainty this stage of life is for myself and my family, perhaps that’s even more understandable.

It’s frustrating, though.

The things I’m inclined to observe and write about have felt burdensome in light of how divisive and hurtful they’ve become in our culture. Rather than contribute towards that – even when attempting to be diplomatic rather than vitriolic – I’ve just opted to keep silent.

While we’ve been busy in preparing for the next stage of our journey – literally – in working abroad, most of that isn’t very exciting. Doctors’ visits, filling out forms, raising funding – none of that makes for very riveting reading by and large.

But I’m here. Busy. But here. Trying to write about things that are enjoyable and pleasant rather than divisive and irritating. Waiting for the writers’ block malaise to lift and have the urge to start writing more frequently. Until then, thanks for your patience.

Pool Hall – BCA World Pool Tournament ~ Las Vegas, NV

September 8, 2021

Since we’re planning to head overseas in the near future, it may not be possible for me to play in the BCA Pool League World Championships. I’ve been blessed to shoot in this tournament most of the last six years or so. Playing for a local BCA bar pool league qualified me, and I’ve enjoyed shooting both as part of a team as well as individually. Over the years I’ve competed in both 8-ball and 9-ball team events as well as individual 8-ball events. I decided early on that if we weren’t deployed yet, I would attend this event for perhaps the last time.

This year I didn’t have a team to play with. The one I’ve played with for the past decade has largely dissolved. One of the three core members moved to Las Vegas in early 2019. Then I moved this year. Our remaining core teammate has assembled another team to continue playing in the local league but there wasn’t enough interest in coming to Vegas to compete. So the two of us decided to head to Vegas separately and meet up with our buddy there.

All three of us competed in the individual 8-ball event. Dave and I played in the silver division – so named because of the skill level not because of our hair. Our buddy James played in the Bronze division – which he placed third in last year, completing his play just hours before Las Vegas was shut down by Covid.

We met up Friday night to watch a little of the professional player matches. The one we watched featured a young guy who is really an up-and-comer in the competitive pocket billiards world. Chris Robinson came out of Ventura, California, where I had the opportunity to play against him several years ago when he was still a minor and on the cusp of becoming old enough to start competing seriously. We shot at the only pool hall in Ventura – Stixx. At the time a former teammate of ours was giving Chris some tips on shooting. I seem to remember beating Chris, but most likely he wasn’t trying very hard and I got lucky! Now he’s in the spotlight playing with the big names in billiards.

Chris Robinson competing in Las Vegas, NV.

Saturday was a light day of play for me – just a couple of matches through the day. To my surprise, I won both matches, though they were nail-biter, come-from-behind-and-win-by-the-skin-of-my-teeth victories. That kept me in the winner’s bracket of the double-elimination tournament. My buddy Dave was bumped to the loser bracket and was out of the tournament by the end of Saturday. James stayed in the winners’ bracket in his division through Saturday as well, though he had to play several more matches than I did.

The main tournament room at the Rio, Las Vegas. 110 tables plus close to 30 vendors.

Sunday started bright and early. Matches start as early as 9 am, which is really an extremely unpleasant hour for most pool players. I’ve argued for years the matches should start much later – noon at the earliest – and then play into the early morning hours if necessary. That would be a lot more natural and comfortable for the vast majority of the players! However nobody listens and we continue to start early. Of course, the 9am start is really not the beginning. I was up at 6am to get showered and start waking up. Then it was a drive to get a bite to eat and some hot tea on my way to the Rio, the casino just off the strip where the tournament has been held at least as long as I’ve been going. Arrive by 8am, finish breakfast and tea in the car before masking up and heading in to start warming up.

This is a huge event. Thousands of competitors from around the country and North America show up for it every year. The main tournament has 110 bar-sized (7’x3.5′) Diamond tables with Simonis felt. Around the perimeter of this room the vendors set up shop, selling all sorts of billiard related merchandise from cues to apparel and everything in between. Deals are usually good and over the years I’ve picked up a case as well as a variety of tools to keep my cue tips in good condition and shape.

Additionally there is another room for tournament play with another 70 or more tables in it. And another room with about the same number of tables set up for side tournaments. This is one of the big attractions of the event – mini-tournaments. For $10 or $20 or more you can enter a small tournament pretty much from 9am to midnight. You play against 3-4 other people and if you win you win money. Quick and easy and more than a few folks show up just to play in the minis rather than the main event!

I lost this early morning match and was bumped to the losers’ bracket. In some ways, this was a relief. I don’t consider myself to be as good a player as I ought to be and playing in the losers’ bracket took some pressure off. That’s good, because I proceeded to shoot pretty much non-stop until about 10pm that evening. Win after win after win. My first one was commanding and pretty. Most of the others weren’t as pretty or commanding, but a win’s a win.

My last match started about 9pm. By this point, I knew that I was in the money. That meant that even if I lost this match and was out of the tournament, I would still get some money from the tournament. And this was the first player I’d encountered who was close to being a buzzsaw – a term for a player who’s just orders of magnitude better than you are, and therefore cuts through you pretty easily. I made several stupid mistakes and handed him the win in three of the games. I managed to win one game, and he finished up the final two.

I was out. I was also exhausted. But I had made back my entry fee money for the event, which was a lot better than I expected to do. I also am now able to claim I’ve won money in tournament competition in Las Vegas in both teams as well as individual events. Out of the 350+ competitors in my division, I placed 33. That’s not a bad feeling!

London Bridge

September 1, 2021

It’s quiet at 7am on Sunday morning in Lake Havasu City. I drive down from the seemingly endless rows of houses towards the main drag through town that skirts the Colorado River where it bulges out into Lake Havasu. I’m seeking a cup of tea before the morning of commutes and preaching between two different parishes I’m visiting with a colleague in Kingman, AZ and Needles, CA.

I see the sign for the London Bridge.

Ah yes, the London Bridge. Brought over from England and set back up again in this strange little river town. Bought from the town of London in the late 60’s and carted over to Arizona as a tourist attraction. Who would have ever thought of such a thing?

But somebody did. Somebody in London thought of offering it for sale instead of demolishing it to make way for the new one that was needed. And a wealthy businessman in the US thought of buying it and setting it up again. And there it remains today, some 50-years later.

I’m not interested in seeing the Bridge. It’s enough to know it’s there. Enough to know that daring people were able to conceive of such an improbable venture and carry it to fruition. Enough to know that such intrepidness was possible in the not-so-distant past, even if such intrepidness seems very lacking today. Today when we’re too absorbed in our cell phones and binge-watching and can’t be bothered to be concerned about our eroding freedoms and new definitions of liberty.

It’s good to know the bridge is there. Anachronistic as it is both in terms of engineering as well as regulatory red tape. Good to think that perhaps there remain people willing and able to dream and dare and accomplish improbable things.

Book Review – The 3D Gospel

August 24, 2021

The 3D Gospel: Ministry in Guilt, Shame and Fear Cultures by Jayson Georges

This book was recommended by my friend and colleague JP. It’s a short read (74 pages), but it is likely to give lifelong Christians more food for thought than many much longer books.

The author worked overseas in Central Asia for close to a decade before returning to the US. He has firsthand experience with some of what he talks about in this book. His premise is that in Western Christianity the Gospel is primarily proclaimed and described as a motif of guilt/innocence. We stand guilty of sin both inherited and personally committed. The punishment for this guilt is death and separation eternally from God’s presence. However Jesus comes to pay the penalty of our sin and extend to us his innocence, making reconciliation with God the Father possible. This motif works well in our culture where rule of law is paramount over most anything else.

Sound familiar? It should.

But Georges posits two other motifs more dominant in other parts of the world.

The first is the shame/honor motif. There are cultures in the world where the primary driving concern culturally is not the rule of law, per se, but rather the idea of creating/maintaining honor – both personally and for the larger family – and avoiding shame. Using this motif, the Gospel is the story of our dishonor, exchanging the glory and honor God bestowed on us in creation and obedience for a the lie of honor on our own terms. All our lives have become now an effort to manufacture real or false honor to remove the shame we are born with. Jesus accomplishes this for us, and extends to us once again the honor we were created for and with.

The second is the fear/power motif. There are cultures in the world where the primary driving concern culturally is how to appease the spirits who are among us and can either bring us harm or blessing. Control over these spiritual forces is attempted through charms, totems, rituals and magic, just to name a few. Certain actions or words are avoided at all costs because of the danger it may expose the person (and their loved ones) to from spiritual powers. The Gospel is explained in this motif as Jesus coming as the greatest of spiritual powers to defeat the demons and other spiritual powers of this realm. Those who accept Jesus come under his protection, and need not fear the posing spiritual powers of this world any longer. There is no further need for charms or spells for protection as the individual believer receives power from the Holy Spirit.

Georges maintains this three-fold way of interpreting the Gospel is demonstrated in Scripture itself, and wise Christians (as well as those who work cross-culturally) should be aware of these three motifs and know when it might be appropriate to engage one over another when sharing the Gospel with someone from another culture. Georges references the book of Ephesians as a Biblical example of all three Gospel dimensions being referenced. Ephesians 1:7 and 2:5 reference the guilt/innocence motif. Ephesians 1:5 and 2:19 reference the shame/honor motif. And Ephesians 1:19-21 and 6:10-11 reference the fear/power motif.

It seems clear that Georges’ personal experience cross-culturally is with the shame/honor motif (as well as his native, Western guilt/innocence motif). The fear/shame motif is not explained quite as deeply in this book, but it is still well presented. Georges takes time to document various Bible verses that deal with or at least acknowledge each of these three motifs. Although the idea may seem strange at first considering how deeply we’re embedded in a guilt/innocence culture, Georges’ observations are solid and worth further consideration.

Considering the Gospel in a fuller sense than simply the forgiveness of sins can be very helpful, and certainly provides no little amount of fodder for personal reflection and meditation. While elements of all three motifs will be found in varying degrees in every culture, most cultures will have one of the three more dominant than the other two. This is a great little read that might be very helpful if you engage in any cross-cultural relationships!

Pool Hall ~ Mr. Lucky’s – Lake Havasu City

August 23, 2021

There is one pool hall in northwestern Arizona – Mr. Lucky’s in Lake Havasu City. Twelve to fifteen tables, including one Diamond bar-box that claims to have Simonis felt. The tables are basic and the felt on most of them is rather slow. This is a river/lake town, and the vibe on a late Saturday afternoon is decidedly laid back. Most of the 20 or so folks in the place looked like they had spent the morning on the river and retreated to this air conditioned lair once the temperatures got to be too much. A full bar and I’m not sure if they serve food or not, but it’s likely to be basic bar food if they do.

I shot here with a buddy and colleague from California for about an hour. Good range of people in the place. It’s a little hard to spot from the road unless you know what you’re looking for.

Not a place for serious shooters – other than it’s really the only pool hall this side of Vegas. The place seems safe and decently clean, and likely a good place to pass an afternoon or evening with friends and a few drinks around a pool table. Not much more you can ask for, really. I was able to get a shirt here, but tragically they only had sizes suitable for my wife. C’est la vie!

Reading Ramblings – August 29, 2021

August 22, 2021

Date: Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost – August 29, 2021

Texts: Genesis 12:1-4; Psalm 96; 1 Corinthians 7:17-24; Mark 5:1-20

Context: Something different this week.  I’m preaching in two small congregations in Northern Arizona on Sunday and the pastor serving them both is preparing a sermon for the previous Sunday (8/22) entitled Go When God Calls.  Since he’s setting things up for a mission-oriented sermon I decided to step away from the assigned three-year lectionary readings and select a set of readings that highlight different aspects of mission work.  The Old Testament reading and the psalm both emphasize the going aspect – sometimes God calls us to pack up and leave where we are and go somewhere else.  The Gospel and the Epistle reading each highlight that God doesn’t always call us to massive changes – geographically or otherwise. 

Genesis 12:1-4 – The seminal text in terms of God calling someone to faith and trust in him as well as calling them to relocate.  Abram is called to leave his family – a far dicier proposition in those days than it is for many people today.  The larger family unit provided stability and protection, a very close social network of people committed to one another as well as to the good of the family as a whole.  An interesting aspect is that Abram’s father, Terah, had moved his family as a whole from Ur of the Chaldeans.  They were headed towards Canaan, but ended up stopping in Haran instead.  At the time, Ur was likely very close to the northern edge of the Persian Gulf but those waters are thought to have receded considerably since then.  Haran is located about 30 miles south of Şanlıurfa in Turkey.  The journey from Ur to Haran would have been approximately 750 miles, so no wonder they decided to stop!  But just because the family was done traveling doesn’t mean God’s intentions were done.  He calls Abram to complete the journey without his two remaining brothers, taking only his wife Sarai and their nephew Lot and their servants, slaves and possessions.  They would not be returning to Haran.  God calls Abram to be faithful and trust in him – not even revealing directly where he will be headed though would likely have been roughly a 600-mile journey. 

Psalm 96 The lectionary assigns this psalm to be read at a midnight Christmas service. It is an eminently missional psalm, both calling people around the world to faithful worship and praise of God as well as calling for God’s glory to be declared throughout the world (v.3). God is not the narrow, limited God of a particular people or place. As the Creator of all creation, praise is due to him by all of his creation. Of course, due to sin and the demonic lies of Satan not all of God’s creation recognize him as God any more or acknowledge any power greater than what they can identify with their senses. For this reason God’s glory must be declared continually. Whatever other false gods may be worshiped ought to be replaced with praise directed to the one, true God of all. The work of mission is to share the good news of this God with those who have forgotten or been misled into false worship of false gods or blinded by the conviction that there can (and must) be nothing greater than ourselves. The Church as God’s people in all places and times is entrusted with the primary responsibility of declaring these truths both to her own people, who must always be reminded, and to the world beyond. Ultimately even nature itself will give God praise, and all of this truly is good news, because when the Lord comes He will establish righteousness and faithfulness.

1 Corinthians 7:17-24 – Paul is responding to questions from the Corinthians regarding marriage, believers, and unbelievers. But this section in the middle is more generalized. Some might be called to exotic or unusual service, such as Paul himself. But Paul never presumes this is the expectation or goal for every believer. Rather, God the Holy Spirit is the one who determines how each should serve. Ideally, issues of ego should not enter into matters. Where has God called you? Coming to faith in Christ is no excuse for divorcing an unbeliever. Likewise faith in Jesus does not require other changes in status, even from slave to free (though Paul acknowledges the latter is more to be desired than the former if possible). Change is possible, but is not always required. Seeking to understand how God has equipped us to serve – as well as where and what – is the duty of the individual Christian as well as their Christian community around them. The blessings of Christ are real and present and not dependent on our marital or economic status or any other markers of this age and world.

Mark 5:1-20 – What often gets lost in reading this passage is the ending. This man – likely not Jewish if he was living in the non-Jewish Decapolis – seeks to join Jesus’ disciples. His intentions no doubt are sincere but Jesus denies his request. There is no hint of Jesus seeing this man as unworthy of such a calling, but undoubtedly understands that the presence of a Gentile amongst his inner circle would cause innumerable problems in having his message heard and received by his primarily Jewish audience. Rather, Jesus redirects this man’s desire to serve and follow to his hometown, to people who already know him and will likely be very soon aware (if they aren’t already) of the radical transformation and change in fortunes in his life. This man will have the opportunity to give glory to God in telling how Jesus delivered him from slavery to demons.

Unlike many other recipients of Jesus’ blessings, this man is not commanded to remain silent but rather commanded to speak! Commanded to share specifically the amazing story of what Jesus did for him. The result is that people marveled, to be certain. But also the result is likely such that when Christians begin to travel after Easter to share the good news, the people in this area will already know about Jesus despite not being Jesus. They have a living witness to his power right in their midst.

Some Christians have an amazing story to tell about Jesus’ deliverance in their life. Perhaps deliverance from drugs and alcohol and other addictions. Perhaps deliverance from abusive relationships. Perhaps deliverance from the blindness of disbelief or false belief. Such stories can be powerful opportunities of witnessing to people who knew the former circumstances of these converts. Incredible transformative stories are never required of those who come to faith in Jesus, despite the erroneous but well-intentioned doctrines of some Christians who insist there must be a conscious conversion story or spiritual evidence such as speaking in tongues. But the Holy Spirit can use all believers and their unique stories as He best sees fit. The Church’s job is to ensure all know their stories are a gift from God to be used to his glory rather than their own.

Reading Ramblings – August 22, 2021

August 15, 2021

Date: Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost – August 22, 2021

Texts: Isaiah 29:11-19; Psalm 14; Ephesians 5:22-33; Mark 7:1-13

Context: Whenever this reading from Ephesians 5 comes up I feel compelled to focus and preach on it because it is so misunderstood in our time.  The readings as a whole today have a theme of the contrary nature of human ideas and rules with divine, and the Ephesians reading sits nicely in that context.  We have our ideas about things.  Some of our ideas are better than others.  But all must be subjected in humility to the divine will and wisdom.  Even as we seek to be faithful to our Lord’s wisdom and will we are apt to wander astray and allow additional ideas to infiltrate, ultimately to our detriment, and therefore a humility is always appropriate with one another in order to remain not only wise, but unified.  Personally, this is a challenging set of texts this week as I’m preaching and it’s a congregation I’m just visiting, not the installed pastor of!

Isaiah 29:11-29 – Verse 16 calls out to me as the pivotal point of this passage.  God is speaking to his wayward people.  A people who have not witnessed the powerful works of the Lord as in generations past.  What they know of God is secondhand.  This has led them to presume their own understandings of God are the important thing at one level – so that following the rules laid down by tradition or doctrine replace an actual relationship with their Lord (v.13).  In part this is God’s doing (vs.10-12).  In part it is our human sinfulness both within us and in the world around us combined with the active workings of our enemy Satan to draw us away from a vibrant trust and faith in our Creator God.  Today nothing characterizes our American culture so much as an insistence that we are the creators.  Or at least that there is no conscious Creator, and therefore might (or ability) makes right, and we are free to recreate ourselves and one another and our world in whatever form we might prefer.  Verses 17-19 seem like a modern laundry list of goals science promises to deliver us – avoidance of climate change or climate change in our preferred direction, triumph over our physical bodies and limitations up to and including death and aging, and social justice and equality for all.  But we are not the authors and accomplishers of these things – God is.  While we are free to faithfully pursue our caretaking of the world we are not free to do so by disregarding or denying the reality and truth God the Creator has woven into the fabric of reality itself.

Psalm 14 – We might object to this caricature of the atheist as someone who is purely evil.  And certainly such a straw man would be easy to knock down with examples of good-hearted non-believers.  But the deeper truth this psalm directs us towards is that without a God above us who gives us truth and defines right and wrong for us, we will inevitably redefine truth and right and wrong to suit our own preferences and desires.  We will exalt evil as good and denigrate good as evil.  We will ignore the physical world around and within us and insist on becoming not simply masters but tyrants over both.  It is not possible to have truth or moral grounding apart from the God who Created all things and wove those realities and definitions into his creation.  Whenever we attempt to define these things without reference to our Creator, we will inevitably, eventually wind up completely opposite to what He designed and intended.

Ephesians 5:22-33 – The readings all point us to the error and danger of substituting our own ideas and rationalizations for God’s revealed order and rule in creation.  Most Christians would nod in agreement with this in the abstract, but we suddenly choke and sputter when it strikes at some of our current assertions of what love really means and looks like.  Surely equality must be God-pleasing?  Surely we can redefine what equality looks like to suit our preferences?  Or is equality something God has already provided a definition for in the dawn of creation?  An equality based not on function but on his Creation of each one of us as his sons and daughters?  Equal but different?  Called to honor and love and respect one another within the bonds of marriage that preserve our essential differences and call us to be equal within those differences?  That’s a hard pill for many people to swallow these days.  We’d rather focus on real and potential abuses of these verses as justification that St. Paul is not serious or is misogynistic.  To put these verses off till our Lord’s return so we don’t have to grapple with the challenges of them here and now.  But Paul is clear.  Marriage is, in fact, our clearest depiction of our Lord’s relationship with we his people, his Church.  Imperfect, but striving in our marriages to mirror the divine relationship full of grace and mercy and truth.  And a reminder that our own preferences – no matter how deeply held or sacrosanct – could be just as flawed as the Pharisees and the Israelites and even the fools who say in their hearts there is no God

Mark 7:1-13 – How easy – and dangerous! – it is to presume our own ideas are actually fulfillments of our Creator God’s wishes and commands.  How easily good intentions lead away from God’s intentions.  How crafty and deceitful are our own hearts, even when we are not conscious of it!  How easy it is to fulfill the letter of the law while completely missing the spirit of the law, replacing the intentions of the law (love of God, love of neighbor) with something more expedient.  And of course, how easy it is to justify things with the cover of righteousness or the Gospel, defending actions that are patently unloving by invoking the name of God.  If we think we are above this or beyond this we are in the greatest danger.  If we presume our traditions are beyond reproach and must be guarded against any criticism or – gasp! – change, we are in danger.  Good things can be gradually turned to bad ends.  Original intentions can be lost so that we go through motions no longer understanding their original intentions or benefitting from the intended outcomes. 

Thank God we are forgiven in Christ, but thank God also the Holy Spirit continues to work among us, striving to unify us and lead us towards fulfillment of the law not in hopes of earning God’s favor but in joy and thanksgiving for his grace and mercy!