Tuesday, February 24, 2015

New Series Starting

For more than 10 months, our church has studied the book of Mark together, during our Sunday sermons.  This sermon series has challenged and enriched my own life, as I hope it has yours.  
I truly believe that the Bible is God’s word. One of my goals, as preacher, is to help people understand and apply the Bible to their lives.  The seminary from which I earned my Masters of Divinity had as its motto:  “The Whole Bible for the Whole World.”  That means there is no unimportant or irrelevant parts of the Bible.  The whole message is important. But, it is hard to understand the Bible, when a preacher jumps around from the text to text, or only preaches topically.  
That is why that when we finish the Gospel of Mark, we will look at another portion of the Bible together. By looking at whole sections of the Bible, it is easier to grasp the meaning, not only of the part being studied, but of the over-all story of the Bible. Our next stop is the Book of Romans.  The Book of Romans, more than any other writing of Paul, has changed countless lives throughout the centuries.  St. Augustine, Martin Luther, John Wesley, and Karl Barth, just to name a few, found their lives transformed after reading the Book of Romans. 
The same revolutionary power awaits modern readers, as they open the pages of this high-voltage, little book.  In Romans, Paul walks us through the Old Testament, helping us to re-read its message through the lens of Jesus Christ.  That is why I am calling our new series, Romans: “The Power and Relevance of Israel’s Ancient Story.”  I hope you will make plans to be with us and to invite others, as we explore this portion of God’s word together. 

Our new series will begin on 19th, (20th for those of you listening or reading online).

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New Romans Series

In April, we will begin offering weekly podcasts of our weekly sermons. Up until now, we have been posting them rather sporadically, as we learn how to really make it happen. We have our feet under us and are ready to go. I will start posting two podcast each week. One, will be simply called Romans and will be broadcast of our Sunday sermon series. The other will be called Tracts for Our Times and will feature Biblical reflections and commentary on current topics happening around the globe.

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Thursday, November 20, 2014

Mark 24

The Gospel of Mark: 
Part 24

16 November 2014         The Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost         
Year A  Color: Green  

First Reading: Judges 4:1-7; Psalter UMH 797; 
Second Reading: 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; *Gospel: Mark 10:1-16(Alt Rd.)

First Light Reading: Mark 10:1-16

The Pharisees posed a challenge to Jesus, by asking him to give them his interpretation of a particular portion of the Old Testament.  Specifically, they want him to weigh-in on the matter of divorce.  The Torah made a provision for divorce, while not directly encouraging it.  In the first century AD, scholars debated about when it was permissible for man to divorce a woman.   Some scholars said that a man was permitted to divorce his wife for anything at all, or even without a reason; while others argued that there had to be a good cause.   The Pharisees wanted to know on which side of the issue Jesus came down .

I want you to see the fatal-flaw in the Pharisees’  whole approach to reading the Bible.  What they were really asking is, what can I get away with?  What is the minimum I have to do to be in compliance with God?  Later, in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus will identify the key to understanding the entire Bible, by saying that two commands summarize the whole message.  Love the Lord your God with all you heart, mind, soul, and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself.  

Where in the question raised by the Pharisees is the question of love?  Where is there concern for women and children?  The answer is, it’s not there. So, Jesus asked the Pharisees, what does Moses say in the Torah?

Moses, of course, had given a provision for divorce; but, this was only a concession.  Far from being God’s will, divorce is a messy process, by which families and individuals are harmed emotional and otherwise.  God is not against divorced people, but he hates what divorce does to us.  

Jesus says that Moses made this concession in order to reduce the fall out and damage caused by men with calloused hearts.  The certificate of divorce protected women from the worst kind of abandonment.  If cleared her of accusations of adultery, when she remarried, and kept the ex-husband from wrecking her next marriage by trying to reclaim her as his wife.  It also prevented men from swapping wives like some kind of property.  In short, the concession was meant to reduce the social fallout caused by the divorce.  

This means that Deuteronomy 24:1-4, the passage being discussed, is not about God condoning divorce.  It also exposes just how far these men were from understanding the intent of God, as expressed in the Law.  If the heart of the Law is love for God and others, one is not going to look for loopholes to get out of marriage, but is going to work to preserve and strengthen their marriage.  

The same is true today.  Marriages sometimes end.  Some people are not emotionally or spiritually healthy.  Some people are abusive or have destructive habits and behaviors.  Sometimes it is necessary for marriage to end to preserve one of the people in it.  But, this does not mean that we enter marriage with hopes of only doing the minimum and having plenty of loopholes to jump out of it, if being married becomes inconvenient to us.  

The passage then follows with the story of a little child being set before them.  Now, here is the connection.  When the Pharisees were arguing about divorce with Jesus, they completely left women and children out of their discussion.  It was a man’s world and, in their view, how divorce impacted men was all that was important.  

In in ancient world, children were powerless, had not rights, and were regarded as being completely insignificant.  Those who are part of Jesus’ Kingdom, who read the Bible through the lens of love will not disregard or ignore marginalized, powerless, or insignificant people.  In fact, such will find a place of welcome and honor in a community where Jesus is Lord.  

Both of these passages challenge how we read the Bible.  We can read it like the Pharisees were reading it, by asking, “What are the minimum requirements by which I have to live?”  What is the least I can do and still be a Christian.  But this way of reading the Bible falls a long ways short of realizing the intentions of God.

Or, we can read the Bible with these questions in mind, “What would it mean for the love of God to guide my life in this area?”  What would it look like if God’s love shaped my attitude, opinion, way of acting, and choices?  What is God’s desire and intent for this area of my life.  And, how does this part of the Bible inform that?  These questions will work for any part of the Bible. 

Now, there are lots of ways of misreading the Bible.  Almost all of them have to do with trying to make the Bible suite our own particular tastes.  One particularly dangerous way of reading the Bible is to say that some part of it are God’s word, while other parts are not.  
When I was serving in another church, we had a retired pastor who was a part of our congregation.  I genuinely liked him and his wife; however, I had a rather strange encounter with him in a Bible study.  We were looking at a text in the Old Testament where God had sent his people into battle.  

During our discussion he said, “The God I worship and serve would never send troops into battle.  Not wanting to dishonor him, I grid to carefully point out that Jesus had always honored the Old Testament as God’s word, and that he never repudiated any part of it.  Further, he made the radical claim that the God of the Old Testament, the God of Israel, was his Father, and that he was God’s only Son.  
Yes, there are some very difficult texts in the Old Testament.  Some of these texts require a lot of work to understand; but I we do not worship the God of the Old Testament, then we do not worship the One Jesus called Father, and the One Jesus came to embody.  

Where the old pastor knew it or not, he was beginning to step outside the bounds of orthodox Christianity, by creating a god that seemed more suitable to him, which is idolatry.  

There are authors, pastors, and theologians who will say that it’s okay to do this.  They even encourage people to decide for themselves which parts of the Bible to accept and which parts to reject.  But, if we are so good at knowing what God is like that we can stand judge over the Bible, why then do we even need the Bible, if we are the standard by which we measure claims about God?

But, Jesus, the Prophets, and the rest of the Bible tell us that we are not good at knowing what God is like.  Instead, they teach us that the human heart is good at creating false gods, called idols.  

A more sophisticated argument says that we will accept Jesus and his teachings, but that we will not receive the teachings of Paul and other New Testament authors.  But friends, to do this is to disobey Jesus. Jesus hand-selected 500 eye witnesses to give the authorized version of his story to the world.  These people were called apostles. We have their version of the Jesus story in the form of the four canonical Gospels and Acts.  
Jesus also authorized the apostles to teach God’s people how to live and serve Jesus.  We have a selection of their writings in the rest of what we call the New Testament.  Jesus said that those who accept their teachings would be accepting Jesus; while those who were rejecting the teachings of the apostles were, in fact, rejecting Jesus.  In Luke chapter ten, we read:

10 After this the Lord appointed seventy-two[a] others and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go. He told them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field. Go! I am sending you out like lambs among wolves. Do not take a purse or bag or sandals; and do not greet anyone on the road.
“When you enter a house, first say, ‘Peace to this house.’ If someone who promotes peace is there, your peace will rest on them; if not, it will return to you. Stay there, eating and drinking whatever they give you, for the worker deserves his wages. Do not move around from house to house.
“When you enter a town and are welcomed, eat what is offered to you. Heal the sick who are there and tell them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ 10 But when you enter a town and are not welcomed, go into its streets and say, 11 ‘Even the dust of your town we wipe from our feet as a warning to you. Yet be sure of this: The kingdom of God has come near.’ 12 I tell you, it will be more bearable on that day for Sodom than for that town.
16 “Whoever listens to you listens to me; whoever rejects you rejects me; but whoever rejects me rejects him who sent me.”

As a former atheist, I am perplexed by Christians who reject large portions of the Church’s teachings and Scripture because they do not want to live by them.  As a former atheist, I just wan to say to you, that if you find God so hard to live with & the teachings of the Faith so uncomfortable, why not just become an unbeliever?  Why not just stay home on Sundays, sleep in and watch football?  Then, you can live any way you choose. 

Jesus says, those who love him will keep his commands.  He also says that his yoke is easy and his burden light.  In the name of Jesus, stop trying to re-form God in your image.  Quite trying to be his lord.  Surrender.  Lay down your arms and call him Lord.  

Thursday, November 13, 2014

New Podcast


Mark 9:2-16

The Gospel of Mark: 
Part 23
“Right Before Our Very Eyes”

9 November 2014         The Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost          
Year A Color: Green

First Reading: Josh. 24:1-3, 14-25; Psalter UMH 799 Psalm 78; 
Second Reading: 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; *Gospel: Mark 9:2-13 (alt. rd.)

First Light Reading:  Mark 9:2-13

Also look at 9:14-29

The previous chapters of Mark tell of the long, slow, and arduous process by which the disciples came to understand who Jesus was and what he had come to do.  At long-last, they realized that Jesus was the Messiah.  

Upon realizing that Jesus the Christ, Anointed One of God, and upon confessing it, Jesus told his disciples not to tell anyone.  He gave them this command because what the crowds expected Messiah to be & what Jesus actually came to do were markedly different. 

Jesus had not come to defeat evil by means of a military victory over Israel’s human enemies.  He had come to defeat evil by meeting hit head on, in his own sacrificial death.  He would give his life as ransom for the world, as the only way of bringing God’s victory over sin and death.

After all of this, Jesus took three of his closest disciples high upon a mountain, where his full glory could be displayed for them to see.  There, on the mountain, the disciples discovered that even the title Messiah, while being correct, was not a big enough category to describe all that Jesus is and had come to do.  

But, perhaps we may ask, why didn’t Jesus just do this from the very beginning.  Why didn’t Jesus just show everyone who he is and then say something like, “There you have it.  I’m God.  Now, shut-up and do what I say?”  There seems to be two answers to this question. 

  1. Just as Jesus’ definition and description of Messiah different greatly from the ideas of Messiah held by the masses, so too does Jesus’ description and definition of God different from what many of us understand by the word God.  We toss the word For around very casually, as if we all know and agree about what we are talking about when we say it, when nothing could be farther from the truth. 
  2. God desires for us to make a meaningful choice for God, one that is not forced.

Let’s talk about each of these answers in more detail.  First, many of us have a different definition of God than Jesus has.  When some people say the word God, they mean nature.  They mean the trees and animals, the ocean and the sky above.  

Others mean something like the force in Star Wars.  When they say God they mean the life giving energy that animates the universe and the things in it. 

Others use the term God to mean a personal being;  but, one who is very different from the God described by the Bible.  Some picture a god who is so nice that they are really a composite picture of their grandma, Santa Clause, and Tom Hanks.  

For others, this personal god is something like a combination between the worst teacher they have ever had and the mafia enforcer.   Still, for others this personal god is an absent minded watch-maker who dreamily stares at his work from afar, or who as actually wandered off to work on other projects.  

When Christians pray, we do not direct our prayers to whom it may concern.  Nor are we simply placing a message in a bottle, hoping someone will receive it.  Instead, we are speaking to the One Jesus called Father; the same God who crated this world, fashioned us in his image, and chose Abraham’s family as the human instrument through which to bring about his plan of salvation for the world.  

But, our understanding of God has been made even clearer because Jesus has brought God into focus.  Jesus came to embody the life of God, so that we could not only know about God, but more importantly, come to know God.  God is best known by looking at Jesus.  Jesus is what we mean when we are talking to and about God.  

We are not New Testament Christians.  We are Bible Christians.  We worship the same God Abraham and Sarah worshiped.  We worship the same God Moses and Miriam worshiped.  We worship the God of the priests and the prophets.   But, Jesus brings the rich, complex, and nuanced picture we find of God in the Bible and brings it into focus through his own life, death, and Resurrection.  
But, that is why it is important to study whole books of the Bible without always jumping around from place to place.  If all we ever do is jump around from one text to another, instead of talking whole books of the Bible in whole, it tends to encourage us to create our own picture of God, by taking a little bit of this and a little bit of that from the Bible, in order to create a god to our liking.  But, this is idolatry.  And if we are going to do that, we might as well dispense with the Bible and the church and just create our own pagan-religion to suite us.  

Instead, we take the picture of God presented by the Bible, made crystal clear in Jesus, who is both holy and love.

He is holy, not shrugging sin off or acting with indifference about how we live.  Yet, he is loving and kind, not going around whacking sinners’ hands with a ruler.  Instead, his supreme answer to sin, hold’s both the holiness and love of God together perfectly.  His supreme answer to is to give his life for the sake of redeeming us from sin.  

He is the Lion who rules in righteousness, and the Lamb of God who dies to take away the sin of the world. 

Lastly, the reason Jesus does not just overwhelm us with his divinity, is that we have a real part to play.  Our response is important to him.  He does not want puppets or automatons.  He wants friends.  And so, he waits to reveal His divinity to us as we become able, by his grace, to make a response of love.