Archive for the ‘Theology’ Category

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 – 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!

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!

Death and Collective Guilt

August 13, 2021

I don’t consider myself a real aficionado of Texas-style (or maybe just more traditional American) folk music. A bit too twangy. But playing pool in bars with juke boxes for most of my life you pick up a taste for a little bit of everything, and all that absorbed country music made me a bit more open to the twang than I otherwise might be. I discovered Nancy Griffith in the mid-90’s hot on the heels of the success of her Grammy-winning album Other Voices, Other Rooms. Twang notwithstanding, I fell in love with Griffith’s story-telling. Songs like Love at the Five and Dime and Gulf Coast Highway are still some of my favorite songs for the powerful stories they evoke in the small space of a song. I had the pleasure of seeing her in concert in the early 90’s and it was a wonderful experience to hear that clear voice in person.

She died today and that’s sad, as all deaths are.

I went back to listen to some of her songs this evening. They still bring a smile to my face or tug the heart strings in a way few other songs or artists do.

By chance I happened upon another of my favorite songs of hers, It’s a Hard Life. I still love the song but what caught my ear, in the midst of the rising racial tensions in our country was the last verse, a sort of confession on Griffith’s part that:

I am guilty I am war I am the root of all evil

She believed the words and the visions and promises of some great people like Walt Disney, Walter Cronkite and Martin Luther King, Jr. She believed their promises that change could come and was coming. And decades later, realizing those visions had not materialized the way she had assumed they would, for everyone rather than just specific demographics, she holds herself accountable. Though she’s not at the wheel of control, by implication she is guilty for those who are at the wheel of control, either by her support of them or her failure to stop them.

It’s a hard confession to hear after her stinging examples of prejudice that occurs in every culture and can take myriad forms. She confesses guilt that this still exists and she has personally failed to prevent it.

In the way this kind of corporate confession is currently being wielded or demanded in our country, it’s erroneous. It is misplaced. It assumes that we individually are capable of preventing people from reaching power or using power if they are not worthy of it or misuse it or fail to use it to full capacity. And it assumes at a deeper level that these things – prejudice and racism of all stripes – can actually be defeated and destroyed by our own efforts. If we just have the right leaders. The right policies. The right educational systems. The right corporate policies.

Unfortunately for Griffith and you and I and those who struggle under the oppression of real prejudice and racism, this isn’t true. Not that we don’t work towards it. Not that we can’t make improvements. But to remove these things is beyond our control. It is not in us to do so. Or more accurately, like Griffith’s confession, the sin we would stand against is present within us as well. Perhaps not in the same forms or to the same degrees, but there all the same.

And in that sense the corporate confession is appropriate. We all share in the common affliction and malady of sin. None of us is capable of removing it from ourselves let alone another person. And so we continue to struggle with sins as old as humanity. Some people are constantly amazed that a particular program or regimen failed to root out a particular sin. That is a sinful error as well, though a well intentioned one. Anything designed by a broken and sinful person is going to turn out in one way or another broken and sinful and inadequate as well.

Griffith’s bleak confession would be the last statement in her life and every life if there were not a deeper, greater hope than our own visionaries and programs. Thank God, there is.

There is only one hope for the defeat and removal of sin. One hope promised long ago in a primal garden, and one hope accomplished 2000 years ago on a cross by a man who claimed he was more than a great teacher or a great moral model, an inspirational speaker or a worker of wonders, but in fact the very Son of God. Who promised that in his voluntary and innocent death and burial, the sin within us would be overcome. All we had to do was believe this was true and who He was and what He accomplished. And for an anchor for that faith and trust He asserted He would rise from the dead after three days.

That hope and promise remain today. I pray that Griffith shared in that hope. That her disappointment in herself and others was overcome by a hope and trust in Jesus Christ. I pray it was ultimately that hope that inspired her to write and to sing and to become an inspiring voice to others and future generations.

Because I’d love to hear that clear voice in person again someday when she can sing of victory instead of defeat.

A Collection of Misinterpretations

August 11, 2021

A random assortment of interesting/frustrating news articles that caught my eye today.

First, as usual a great article from GetReligion.org (the Protestant jab aside). The press is insistent on characterizing the refusal of Sacraments to public and unrepentant members as ultimately a political ploy aimed at President Biden. That’s hardly the case. The press willingly and repeatedly ignores actually reporting on the beliefs and practices of the Catholic Church (and many other Christian denominations) in favor of straw-man caricatures that suit their intentions of disparaging organized religion (particularly Christianity – you don’t see many similar articles about Judaism or Islam) or pressuring believers to view their historic and clearly articulated faith as no longer valid or binding in our more enlightened culture.

Second up in terms of allowing our implicit and explicit biases’ to affect our interpretation of things is this little article. The presence of gender-specific articles for both men and women in a single grave becomes an argument for historical evidence of a non-binary leader – someone 1000 years ago who didn’t neatly fit our allegedly cultural sex and gender classifications.

Because, you know, that’s the only possible explanation, which just so happens to justify the latest in cultural fads.

Because nobody is ever buried with items from someone else – possibly even someone of the opposite sex. A meaningful piece of jewelry from Mom or Dad, for example. How is it that objects can or should be used to argue for a sexual orientation (or lack thereof) in a burial from a thousand years ago? Is that good science? Good archaeology? Or just a convenient way of appealing to the apparent swing of the cultural pendulum, a swing that might mean a few bones thrown in terms of grants or donations?

Ugh.

And finally, I’ve been loathe to blog further regarding Covid and our responses to it (or responses imposed on us). I’m simply so tired of it all. The rhetoric on both sides is ridiculous. But this article I found somewhat darkly amusing. Apparently there have been posts online referencing I Am Legend, a mediocre but different zombie movie. People are referencing the movie claiming the zombies in it were the result of a vaccine.

That’s not literally true, as this article points out. But that’s rather splitting hairs, I’d argue. Yes, this is just a movie. A piece of fiction. And I’d hope that most of the people posting the memes are fully aware of that and aren’t presuming to claim the movie as any sort of evidence or justification of rejecting the Covid vaccine.

However it is fair game to remind us all that even the best-intentioned efforts can have unanticipated consequences, something the critics of such memes are quick to forget. The fact that the scientific method and scientific processes and individual and collective scientists did and continue to do their best in formulating Covid vaccines does not, in and of itself, preclude the possibility of unanticipated, negative side-effects. Rare but causal side effects have already been identified in many of the vaccines, and such observations are quickly drowned out by shouted insistence that the benefits are far greater to far more people than the infrequent side-effects. That may or may not be true – we won’t know for some time, as more and more unanticipated side-effects are identified, and as the overall effectiveness of the vaccines becomes better understood.

The role of good science fiction is to contemplate not just literal science but potential side-effects or abuses of science. Great heroes and villains populate the genre for their manipulation of various aspects of science and technology or their responses to it. The genre provides a ‘safe’ zone for contemplating real issues in the context of make-believe. The original Star Trek series utilized it for these purposes, as have great authors such as Ray Bradbury and Walter Miller Jr. Even The Lord of the Rings could be (and has been) interpreted as a commentary on science and technology and industry, noting that it isn’t these things in and of themselves that are evil, but only how they are used or misused or, just as validly, accidentally developed or implemented without enough information to accurately determine longer-range consequences.

Back to School

August 10, 2021

It’s that time of year again. For so many years as a student, as a teacher, or as someone involved in campus ministry (sometimes all three at once!) my year was more defined by the ebb and flow of the American academic year. August and September always seem like starting months – more so than January.

This is a good article whether you’re a Christian student headed to school (really of any grade, adjusted for age-appropriateness of course), or the parent/grandparent/concerned friend or relative of a student.

Of course, these suggestions are all things that should already be going on in the life of every person of faith. If these habits and practices and skills haven’t already begun to be owned by the time college rolls around, it’s going to be a hard time for a student to pick them up. Although this article is aimed at Catholic students, the same ideas hold true for Christians of any stripe. Know who you are, where you’ve come from, where you’re going, who created and redeemed you, who abides with you constantly. Don’t expect to have an answer to every objection or criticism leveled at the Bible or the Church or your faith personally. But know that you’re likely to encounter objections and criticisms, or assumptions that you can continue to consider yourself a Christian if you don’t actually believe the Bible.

Reading Ramblings – August 15, 2021

August 8, 2021

Date: Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost ~ August 15, 2021

Texts: Proverbs 9:1-10; Psalm 34:12-22; Ephesians 5:6-21; John 6:51-69

Context: Pastors are trained to interpret Biblical texts.  It ought to be a lifelong practice of not just personal reflection but also continued study in the art of exegesis, with reference to how others have interpreted the texts.  A combination of skills, spiritual giftings, intellectual aptitude, and practice all contribute to how a particular pastor reads a particular text or multiple texts together.  Often this is a very isolated process.  Working with others in the process is hugely beneficial but can be hard to arrange as exegesis towards sermon preparation is often assumed to be a very personal process.  This Sunday I’m preaching at another congregation and the pastor has provided a theme for the texts today, primarily based around St. Paul’s words to the Ephesians in the Epistle lesson.  The theme is one of time and making good use of time.  While verses 15-16 clearly articulate this theme, it was interesting to see how this theme of time might be linked to the other readings for today.  It’s a different process than I normally use, and it’s an interesting exercise for me!

Proverbs 9:1-10 – Several themes are recurrent through the book of Proverbs.  The overarching framing of a father passing on advice to his son is the major one.  Another is the personification of wisdom and foolishness/folly as two very different women.  Each offers themselves to the son in particular ways.  Wisdom’s offer is to share her wisdom – here further embedded in the metaphor of a feast.  Foolishness offers ease, pleasure, and ultimately destruction.  The son needs to choose judiciously which voice he listens to as the consequences can be far reaching.  In keeping with the theme of time, we are offered some advice as to how to share what wisdom we may have acquired with others.  Wasting time sharing wisdom with someone too foolish or arrogant to receive it is ultimately just that – a waste of our time.  Yet wisdom is revealed when someone else (or we ourselves) takes the wisdom of another to heart and benefits from it.  Finally, in our pluralistic age it is important to remember and affirm as followers of Christ that there is only one source of true wisdom and that is God the Creator of all things.  Any contrary wisdom is not wise at all but rather empty words, as Paul states in the Epistle reading.  We cannot hope to be truly wise apart from the God who Created us, died for us, and promises to indwell with us forever.

Psalm 34:12-22 – This psalm reads very much like a proverb!  Wisdom is not an assurance of long life and good days, but it certainly doesn’t hurt those goals!  Choosing the good rather than evil in both large and small ways leads toward a long and good life.  This is grounded in the understanding that there is a God and that God is very much present with us.  Our actions large and small do not go unnoticed.  While we rejoice in the forgiveness available in Jesus Christ through our repentance, to assume God doesn’t care about what we do is not simply ignorant but dangerous.  Little decisions and actions build and can easily lead us down roads we never would have anticipated initially, and those roads ultimately either lead towards salvation in Jesus Christ or eternal separation from the love of God.  God will deliver his faithful.  We take assurance in this when life reveals twists and turns and stumbles in the path we thought would be smooth and easy.  Our plans are not capable of delivering us from sin and death – only God is capable of that, and He has revealed his eagerness to do so in sending his Son to exchange his perfect and righteous life for our sinful and unholy ones. 

Ephesians 5:6-21 – Our time is limited.  Living in a time-obsessed culture we are told daily there are certain and definable ways to live long lives – to have as much time as possible.  What we eat, how we exercise, what habits we engage in – often these are discussed as though we are in control of how much time we have.  This is not the case.  This does not lead us towards ignoring the decisions we make as though they have no impact on us, but it does call us to remember where our ultimate faith and trust  lie – not in our own efforts individually or communally but only and always of the God who alone created, redeemed, and sanctifies us.  Those who follow Christ therefore use the time allotted to them wisely rather than foolishly, as the writer of Proverbs would agree with.  We make choices and engage in behaviors with an eye towards the eternal consequences, giving thanks to God for his wisdom and strength to strive after obedience to his good and perfect Word!

John 6:51-69 – The world focuses us on the here and now.  We are convinced through repetition that really, this life is all we have.  We cling to it at all costs, literally.  But Jesus’ words call us to the stark remembrance that our life here and now is only part of the story.  Ultimately apparently a very small part.  It occupies our attention at the risk of eclipsing the larger picture we are promised.  That may well be the essence of Paul’s description of the days as evil.  They blind and distract us to the reality these days are finite and limited.  But in Jesus we are promised eternity.  He brings us not just an improvement in the quality of our lives here and now, but rather eternal life.  As diligently as many people focus on what they eat and put into their bodies, followers of Jesus are to literally receive him into their bodies.  Lutherans would be quick to assert this is Sacramental language.  Jesus is not calling us to cannibalism but rather to trust in his promise that as we eat the bread and wine of Holy Communion, we are taking into ourselves his body and blood, and it is this union in faith and reality that lead us to eternal life, that prepare us and assure us for our bodily resurrection and entrance into eternal life in the presence of one another and our Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier God. 

There are no other means towards this end. Science is working diligently on unraveling the mystery of our mortality and aging in an effort to slow or even eliminate these realities.  Genetic studies so far have determined that there is nothing in our DNA that indicates we have to die.  There is no gene for death that could simply be switched off.  At our most central identity, we are programmed for life, not death!  But it is life with God.  Life as his creatures in full acknowledgement and worship and obedience to their Creator.  Jesus promises us life, but not on our terms.  They are his terms because He is the means by which we access it.  Knowing this eternal timeframe should better inform how we spend the time we have here and now, prior to our death or his return!

Reading Ramblings – August 1, 2021

July 25, 2021

Date: Tenth Sunday after Pentecost ~ August 1, 2021

Texts: Exodus 16:2-15; Psalm 145:10-21; Ephesians 4:1-16; John 6:22-35

Context: In 2012 I noted how switching the Gospel readings to John 6 for the next three weeks provided a more in-depth reflection on the feeding of the 5000 we read a few weeks ago in Mark. While I still find it odd to take this sudden swerve out of Mark and focus for so long on this piece of Jesus’ life and ministry, it does have advantages. What, after all, were the disciples supposed to make of Jesus’ feeding of the 5000, which Mark indicates they didn’t understand? For that matter, what are we? Jesus’ teaching then in John 6 is very helpful here, moving us beyond a momentary obsession with the miraculous or the delicious and focusing our sight where it needs to be, on the eternal which is present in Jesus. Of course God has a long history of providing food for his people, so we have the reading from Exodus 2. The psalm takes up this reality and calls us to continue passing the story of God’s provision down to the next generations. Ephesians reminds us God continues to feed us as He raises up servants and pours his gifts upon them to call them to service – apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds, teachers.

Exodus 16:2-15 – It might be easy for Christians today, much-divorced from our Jewish roots and often dull and ignorant of the Old Testament of our own Bible to miss what the crowds (and certainly Jesus’ disciples!) should not have – in miraculously providing bread and meat to thousands of people, Jesus was echoing the gifts of God in bread and meat to his Old Testament people. Further, this leads us to consider once again how Jesus is the embodiment of all God’s people, and as such is also a retelling of God’s relationship with his people. God provided for the Israelites as He led them towards the land He prepared for them to settle in and care for, where their needs would be provided for from the land which was God’s means for blessing them. Now Jesus feeds the people, providing for them as He leads them to himself, the living Promised Land who will be the means of God’s grace and forgiveness which will, in turn, allow his people to return to our eternal Promised Land in the City of God. We should give thanks daily for the First Article gifts of God the Father in sustaining us both physically (bread and meat) as well as spiritually (Word and Sacrament).

Psalm 145:10-21 – In our hyper-individualized American culture even the communal experience in faith becomes more oriented towards ourselves. What has God done for me? How do I feel about my relationship with God? The antidote to this spiritual navel-gazing is the firm reminder that God is the Creator in ongoing relationship with his creation. As such, our individual experiences are contextualized against the larger story of God’s work of redemption. We are not each an individual story or beginning, but rather part of the one story of God with one In the beginning and one conclusion as foreshadowed in Revelation. Even when we cannot find the strength or joy to praise God for what is happening in our lives at the moment, we are able to give him thanks and praise for all He has done not only for us but for his creation as a whole and his covenant people. It is this larger context that gives us a realistic hope for the future. Passing through an airport recently I noticed a large brightly lit sign with a picture of someone with arms upraised at the exit of a tunnel, a blinding brightness of sunlight and green enveloping this person who, presumably, had recently been encased in darkness. The caption simply encouraged people to hold on because things will get better. But on what basis can such a claim be made? Simple, naive or even foolish optimism? This is not the case for the people of God! We are called to hope, and that hope is real and true. That hope has a basis – in our own lives as well as in the lives of God’s people through history – and it also has a firm promise to sustain it. For those in Christ, truly things will get better, even if they are wonderful at the moment.

Ephesians 4:1-16 – Having prayed the Ephesians would be strengthened in power and rooted and grounded in love (3:14-19) Paul encourages and exhorts them to live as those who have indeed received these blessings. This is not a generic or vague call to being “good”, but Paul is very specific and detailed about what this should look like. Humility, gentleness and patience are to characterize their loving interactions with one another as believers. Their goal should be to maintain unity in peace through God the Holy Spirit who dwells in their midst. They who have been united in one confession of faith and one baptism are to live out this reality of unity in their daily dealings with one another. We who have been graced in Christ with all good things are to press on in this life towards our eternal life to come. This will anchor us against the shifting tides and sands around us of culture and contemporary concerns. Our groundedness in Christ should be an anchor against being tossed about, and in the larger context this may imply tossed about against each other in conflict or anything unbecoming brothers and sisters in Christ.

John 6:22-35 – The crowds who were fed miraculously by Jesus are quite hard-working when it comes to figuring out where He now was! He didn’t get into the boat with his disciples, so presumably they searched and inquired about the region where He was the night before. But to no avail! So when boats came who could take them farther afield, they jumped on board and headed for the place Jesus used as a home base for his ministry – Capernaum. Their sleuthing pays off and they find Jesus, at which point are they embarrassed when they find him? Is their eagerness and endeavoring suddenly awkward to them, so that they try to engage Jesus in preliminary small talk? Or are they genuinely curious as to how He could come so far so quickly without a boat? Are they probing for more miraculous signs to be entertained by?

Regardless, Jesus is not in the mood for small talk. He calls out the crowd for their motivation – full stomachs rather than spiritually enlightened minds. Like his disciples they didn’t understand why Jesus had fed them – perhaps they too missed the connection with God’s feeding of his people in the wilderness in Exodus? Hardly surprising if so! But if they’re going to work that hard just hoping for another free lunch, how much better that they apply themselves to things that matter, to eternal life and the Son of Man who alone can provide it to them!

They miss this last point – eternal life is the gift given by the Son of Man. Who is able and willing to do so because of God the Father’s intentions through him. Instead, they pick up on the idea of work. You think we’re hard working? Just tell us what to do and we’ll do it! We’ll work for that eternal life! We’ll work for God! But that’s not the point either, otherwise Jesus might have commanded them to bake bread instead of miraculously providing it to them! They have nothing to contribute, however. The work of God is entirely the free gift of God’s love. They can either receive it (believe) or ignore or reject it.

Note the crowd clearly understands what Jesus is getting at – they know He’s calling them to faith and belief in him. The only reasonable context and setting for this is in terms of being the Messiah. If that’s what Jesus is getting at, they want to see his credentials. Ironically they bring up the manna God provided the Israelites as an example of what they want to see from Jesus, completely missing that this is exactly what He did the night before!

Jesus knows they’re missing the point, in part because they assume Moses is who provided the manna, and Jesus is equating himself to Moses and therefore needs to prove his case. But Jesus isn’t comparing himself to Moses at all. Moses didn’t provide the manna, God did! And Jesus provided bread for them last night, showing himself to be God who has come down from heaven to give not just bread but life to the world.

This time, however, God is not merely providing bread. The most important food God is giving to his people is not mere manna, but Jesus himself, the Son of God come down from heaven. Simple bread is impressive but it doesn’t last. But what Jesus gives to them in himself will last forever. Jesus is the essential thing they need more than daily bread itself, and when Jesus gives himself up to be broken on their behalf, they will be filled to the fullest forever.

Reading Ramblings – July 25, 2021

July 18, 2021

Date: Ninth Sunday after Pentecost ~ July 25, 2021

Texts: Genesis 9:8-17; Psalm 136:1-9; Ephesians 3:14-21; Mark 6:45-66

Context: God is the Creator of all things.  This means God is master of all things.  There is nothing that happens without God’s either direct will (the Flood) or permission (Job).  This is how we are to see everything that happens in this world and in our lives, acknowledging God’s presence and power and wisdom, trusting that He will work all things for good, even if it must be in spite of and through the sin and brokenness and pain and suffering our sin inflicts on ourselves, one another, and the rest of creation.  To say we trust in God is one thing.  To fall back on that trust when our own plans and preferences have come to nothing is quite another.  Elie Wiesel, who survived the Nazi Holocaust, talks in his book Night about how he lost faith in God during that time, because he could not reconcile the suffering and death all around him with a good and loving God.  Wiesel could not imagine that God could use even this blackest sin as ultimately a demonstration of his power, wisdom, glory, and love.  We must resolve ourselves through daily meditation and prayer on our baptismal grace, so that if and when we are faced with similar catastrophe, we might stand faithful in the gifts of our loving God, even if it means the end of our lives.

Genesis 9:8-17 – Noah and his family have just witnessed the destruction of human and animal life on the planet by the floodwaters unleashed by God.  Now they are called to place their trust in God’s promise to never again do such a thing.  Noah’s life prior to the flood was marked with obedience to God, so that he was deemed by God to be righteous (6:9).  Now Noah and his family had to decide if they would continue to be obedient to God, trusting his promise of mercy and grace just as much as they trusted his message to them of coming destruction and short-term instruction (6:9-22).  Like Noah we are called to trust God in all things, even when things don’t seem to be working out in a way we would consider pleasing to God.  Faith is not just a feeling, it is a decision as well, an insistence on persisting in a certain way of thinking or living even when alternate options are more desirable or even appear to be safer or better by worldly standards.  Noah serves as a powerful example to us when things are difficult to remain anchored in the promises of the God who also brought us every blessing we have ever experienced, and promised us eternally more in his perfect will and timing, through faith in the sacrifice of his Incarnate Son, Jesus the Christ.

Psalm 136:1-9 – These verses are what the insistence of faith I just referred to looks like.  We give thanks to God in all situations, insisting that God truly is good and loving and holds all power over all things and situations.  This requires we admit that we are not gods ourselves, and that it was not our understanding that made the heavens or spread the earth above the waters.  God alone has that perspective on time and creation, and God alone is able to know what is best and how to work in and with and through and despite our flawed and sinful natures to bring about his greatest glory.  There is nothing subjective in these verses – the power and glory of God and therefore the just and proper recipient of praise is based in creation, not in our subjective experience of that creation in an incredibly finite time and place.  We are called here, in a sense, to acknowledge our finite experience of creation, and perhaps to ponder briefly the absurdity that we should find God at fault for a particular event or sequence of events considering how limited our field of vision is!  We are called to trust that the eternal Creator of the finite and limited truly does love us and intend the best for us even if our particular moment of time is not what we would want for ourselves or others. 

Ephesians 3:14-21 – To best appreciate the beauty of Paul’s words here, we should also include v.13 in the reading.  The Ephesians are concerned for Paul because of his struggles and suffering.  This suffering might include the riot at Ephesus that might easily have cost Paul and his companions their lives (Acts 19).  It might include Paul’s words to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20 about how they would never see him again.  But perhaps most likely this suffering is Paul’s arrest in Jerusalem in Chapters 21 and following.  Yet despite this suffering, Paul bows his knees in prayer not regarding himself but on behalf of the Ephesians (and all the other Christians he has nurtured).  Paul no doubt is unhappy about his suffering, but also can recognize there is a larger picture at play, in which his suffering is in fact for the glory of the Ephesians and Christians down to you and I today.  That is not a perspective possible not only with a god, but without the God of Scripture who is the loving Father seeking constantly after all of his wayward and rebellious sheep. 

Mark 6:45-66 – The final words are instructive here.  The disciples are astounded by Jesus walking across the water to them and calming the raging winds.  This is because they didn’t understand what Jesus had done in the feeding of the 5000 because their hearts were hardened.  I don’t interpret that to mean God the Holy Spirit was hardening their hearts, but rather their hearts were hardened by their own ideas and assumptions and interpretations.  They could not yet acknowledge that Jesus might be the promised Messiah.  They were still working to explain his incredible actions by some other means.  Jesus in his loving patience continues to demonstrate his power and authority to them, leading their hearts to eventually soften so that Peter can proclaim him the Messiah (Mark 8:27-29).  But they aren’t there yet.  It isn’t that they aren’t seeing miraculous things, but that they can’t accept those events for what they are and interpret them properly.

So still today people misunderstand (or just miss) God’s workings in the world around us.  They presume that just because a surgery or a medicine healed a serious illness or injury it wasn’t God at work – as though God was not the provider of the skill and wisdom and ingredients!  Many (Christians, even!) are more apt to talk about coincidence than they are to daily remind themselves God is not absent, sleeping, or silent.  When we remind ourselves daily that God is the source of all things in creation, we are better able to see his hand in all things, even when mediated by human involvement.  All of this should be towards the glory of God, and our thankful and faithful hearts that not only appreciate his love here and now, but actively look towards the return of his Son and our Lord to usher in an eternity of joy together.