Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Primal Scream

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Lamentations 3:1-24:

Today we complete our Lenten series on prayer, by tackling the one area that most of are not good at and the one that many of us want to avoid and that is lamentation.  We are certainly good at complaining and making a big deal out of little things, but that is not what lamentations are about.  While breaking a fingernail or our favorite sports team losing might be reasons to be upset, they are not truly lamentable.  Lamentations are about those things which touch us deep down in our souls, which bring us to the depths of despair, which put us on our knees, literally or figuratively, which have us not only questioning but even cursing our existence and sometimes even cursing God.

“How lonely sits the city that once was full of people!” is how Lamentations begins, “How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations….  She weeps bitterly in the night with tears on her cheeks...”  The she that is being referred to here is Jerusalem and her mourning comes in 587 BCE after the Babylonians had destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple and taken the leaders into exile.  This was one of the most important and the most traumatic things to happen in Judaism, indeed the form of Judaism that we know, and that Jesus knew, probably would not exist without this event.  As destructive and traumatic as 9/11 was to us as a nation and to our psyche as a people, 9/11 does not really compare to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple.  Picture that event and magnify it by a factor of ten, and you might begin to get a picture of what this meant.  All the promises that had been made to the people by God seemed to have been destroyed, wiped away, in one devastating act, and it left the people wondering what had happened, why it had happened, and what the future held?

Tradition holds that the prophet Jeremiah wrote Lamentations, and Jeremiah is known as the weeping, crying or suffering prophet, and his writings certainly reflect that.  They are difficult to read, and thus not preached on very often, not only because they are sometimes hard to understand, but more because they are sometimes brutal in their message, as we heard from this morning’s passage.  Now while Lamentations is usually said to have been written about the time of the destruction of the temple and the exile, there is actually nothing which dates it to this period.  Instead, it is a lament that could just as easily apply to the Holocaust as it could to the time of Jeremiah, and it can also apply to the times in which we have needed to offer lament in our lives.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Make A Joyful Noise To The Lord

On Sunday in our series on prayer I talked about singing being part of our prayer life.  Besides for the Psalms, there are plenty of other songs found in scripture, and I said that it didn't matter whether you can sing or not that you should feel confident enough to sing to God.

This then brought up the inevitable question about who sings in the choir, and in particular in the praise band. If you want to join our praise band currently, there is not really an audition, but interested members are required to come and rehearse with the band for several weeks, without performing with them during worship, in order to see how they fit into the overall group, and to make sure their musical skills fit what is needed.  Some people think this is wrong, that we should take everyone, after all we are called to "make a joyful noise to the Lord," so we should take whoever wants to even if it's noisy.

Every time I hear this I wonder how far we are willing to push that analogy.  If we wanted to paint a mural would we let someone who can only draw stick figures do it because that's who wants to do it?  Or would we let someone who was a terrible public speaker, but wanted to preach, do so so they could make a joyful noise?  Or would we let someone who was a bad teacher take over a Christian formation class?  And if we aren't willing to do those, why wouldn't we apply the same to music?  Is music somehow fundamentally different from those things?

I believe that we are called to give our best to God, most especially in worship, and that means we are called to use our gifts in the best way possible, and so we find those with the best gifts for music, or teaching, or art, or preaching, or anything else, and put them in those places to give our best to God.  Not everyone has those gifts, and so we find out what their gifts are and utilize those for the betterment of the church and the community.  That is not to say that people who can't carry a tune shouldn't sing, because they should, but maybe not at the front, and those who don't have artistic talent can still paint, and should be encouraged to be creative, but maybe not be creative on the walls.

But at the same time I do struggle with this question to a degree because I don't want to stifle people in what they want to give to the church and to God.  In a large church this is easier because it's clear what those expectations are, but in a medium size church it's much harder.

Does making a joyful noise mean that we should allow anyone make that noise regardless of how noisy it becomes?

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

On Meaningless Symbolic Actions

It was recently announced by the MLB and the Players Association that they are going to be strengthening the penalties for players caught using banded substances.  I'm not opposed to this and I think it was driven primarily by players who were upset at A-Rod, but I don't think it really will make a huge amount of difference.

The first reason is because players who have been caught in the past have continued to be given major contracts, and so their suspensions have not had any impact on their income.  That means that players will continue to take risks because the payoff is well worth it, just ask Jhonny Peralta and Melky Cabrera.  And the fans of the teams the players are on don't care, simply look at Ryan Braun's reception or the way the Red Sox support Big Papi.  If the player on the other team is doing it it's bad, but for our guy it's just fine.

And the second, although MLB does not want to admit this, but the testing program is really sort of a joke (and it's better than the other leagues).  Of the players who were suspended last year only Ryan Braun had failed a test.  Every single one of the others never tested positive for anything, and thus making suspensions longer for players who fail does nothing because players aren't failing. The only reason these players were caught was because of an investigative reporter in Florida. None one wants to talk about this, but MLB had nothing to do with them being caught, and if they think this is the only "anti-aging" clinic servicing professional athletes they have their heads in the sand more than I think they do (and the sleazy way MLB conducted it's investigation should make everyone sick).  And on the same topic, why are the press and the other leagues not investigating this clinic in regards to the other professional and college athletes whose names were also reportedly in the reports?

This was largely a meaningless symbolic action for both parties.  Bud Selig can continue to talk about how he is tough on drugs, when he isn't and wasn't, and how he cleaned up the game, when he didn't, and the players can talk about how they are cooperating and want the game played cleanly, even when it isn't.  For those stupid enough to get caught, the penalties are stiffer, but there is little other penalty facing them when they can still count on getting big contracts on the other side and so the potentials still far outweigh the risks.

And speaking of meaningless symbolic actions, the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry recently approved four actions to help increase the numbers of young clergy and to support them. (here is an article on the plans)  This all comes out of a young clergy symposium held two years ago to talk about young clergy, recruitment and issues facing young clergy, in which the vast majority of the people attending were over the age of 50.  That about shows the problem the church has in even talking about young clergy, they don't engage with them even when they are supposed to.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Songs for the Journey

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Psalm 126:

Our Psalm today is part of a collection, extending from Psalm 120 to 134, which are known collectively as the psalms of ascent or the pilgrim songs.  They are called that, first because the superscription says “a song of ascents,” simple enough, but also because it is believed that these psalms would be sung as people made their pilgrimage to Jerusalem in order to be at the Temple for the celebration of the most important Jewish holidays. Although nowadays as people make pilgrimages, as they are about to do to the Santuario de Chimayo to be there during Holy Week, people are just as likely to be listening to their iPods as interacting with the people they are traveling with, once upon a time they would spend their days talking or singing songs in order to pass the time.  It is more than likely that as Jesus and his disciples made their way to Jerusalem for the final time that, along with the others they were probably traveling with, they sang these psalms in order to not only pass the time but also to be connected with each other and with the past and as a way to lift up their concerns and celebrations to God.  These are traveling songs.

Each of the psalms in this group is relatively short, meaning they would be easier to remember, and a wide variety of themes and types are represented.  In addition, many of the psalms talk about concerns of ordinary life, which are then juxtaposed with those that talk about national concerns; they also switch between individual and communal positions or references.  Several scholars have even postulated that they are in the order they are in because they follow the path of a pilgrimage with psalm 120 beginning with those who live outside of Jerusalem, and hence needing to make a pilgrimage, and ending with psalm 134, as a benediction, when they are leaving and heading home.

But it is more than just these psalms that would have been sung by Jewish people, it would have been all of them because the Psalms are the song books of the ancient Israelites.  We most commonly use the Psalms today as prayers, and so as a way of continuing our look at prayers through lent, today we are going to be addressing the issue of songs and singing as prayer.  We have no idea how the psalms were sung, but of the 150 Psalms 55 of them contain superscriptions that contain instructions relating to music.  If you have your Bible with you can turn to Psalm 4, or on the screen.  After the title of the Psalm, we have the superscription “to the leader: with stringed instruments,” which is obviously an instruction of some sort.  The problem is we don’t know what this actually means, beyond the obvious.  Did they normally chant the psalms, so only some would use instruments, were they normally sung using drums instead of stringed instruments, so you would need to know this, or were they usually sung accapella?  We simply don’t know.  But in addition to the superscription if you look at the end of verse two, you’ll see the word “Selah.”  I’m sure that some of you have seen that before and wondered what it meant.  Well, if you figure it out, please let us all know, because we don’t really know what it means.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Like a Mother

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Isaiah 49:8-16a:

Today we continue in our series on prayer by looking at our images and metaphors for God.  If I were to ask you to tell me or to me draw me a picture of what God looks like, I can probably guess that most of us would describe the image we see all the time.  God is an older man, white of course, with a long white beard, maybe, like Michelangelo’s famous portrayal in the Sistine chapel of the creation, he is incredibly buff, but he’s floating in the clouds looking powerful and maybe all knowing.  If you do a Google image search this is the first image that comes up, and we would all shake our heads and say, “yep, that’s what God looks.”  But is that really what God looks like or who God is?

The scriptures give plenty of metaphors for who God is and most of them are male, not necessarily of someone who spends all their time in the gym as Michelangelo would have us believe, but male nonetheless.  Now, some of the male imagery used for God is not very flattering.  The prophets Hosea, Jeremiah and Ezekiel all picture God as an abusive husband, but it’s okay because his wife, who is Israel or Jerusalem depending on the prophecy, “Hey, she was asking for it.”  How we think about God and the metaphors we use for God matters.  Is the image of an abusive husband the image of God we want to hold onto and someone we want to pray to?  If we were to always conceive of God as an abusive husband, our practice of Christianity would be very different, and I strongly suspect that many of us would not be sitting here.  We would not want to follow or worship a God who was like an abusive husband.

Jesus, of course gives us the masculine identity of God as father.  But, the word translated as father, abba, might be better translated in most cases as daddy.  It’s not a title as it is a deeply personal relationship.  So when we pray to God as father, do you conceive of that as someone who is an authoritarian figure, who is sort of around but not intimately involved in our lives, who is more there as protector or provider or disciplinarian, or do you conceive of God, as daddy, someone carrying you on his shoulders, teaching you how to throw a ball or slide into a base, or sitting down and having a tea party with you?  These are two radically different images of God from the same metaphor, and depending on how we use them will impact how we pray.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Lord's Prayer

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Matthew 6:5-15:

Just 58 words, or 69 words as we say it every week, comprise the Lord’s Prayer, probably the most famous prayer of all time.  A prayer that most of us learned as children.  A prayer that is so familiar to us that most of us can say it without even thinking about it.  And that is part of its problem.  Because we say it every Sunday, at the very least, it’s one we often don’t really spend a lot of time thinking about what we are actually saying or why, it just becomes sort of a rote activity, and we don’t really think about what it is that we are saying or praying for, and so as we look through prayer in the season of lent, we are going to take a brief overhead view of  the Lord’s Prayer

Last week we heard Luke’s version, which can be found in Luke 11which was given after the disciples asked Jesus to teach them how to pray.  Luke’s version is an abbreviated version of the prayer.  The one we pray is from Matthew, which is given right in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount.  We should note that this is a thoroughly Jewish prayer.  It is rooted in Jewish prayers and tradition that Jesus and the disciples with which they would have been familiar.  And   I think that based on both versions of the prayer that we shouldn’t really call this the Lord’s Prayer.  Although it was certainly given to us by Jesus, it was given to the disciples, to us, to prayer and therefore might more appropriately be called the disciple’s prayer, and so when we pray, we should pray like this:

Our father…  Based on this tradition, this is how many of us begin our prayers, but as familiar as this is, the term here is not actually father.  The word Jesus uses here is the Aramaic word Abba, spelled like the disco band, which more properly should be translated as daddy or papa.  It’s a word of endearment and of closeness.  Now father in and of itself implies relationship, and potentially close relationship, which is important to note here, because Jesus does not say pray O God of the universe, or Great and guiding light, instead he prays father.  Those other terms can be useful in prayer, but praying to father implies a God who is present and in relationship with us, and praying daddy, implies a God who is close to us.  It’s sort of like the old card that says that while any man can be a father it takes someone special to be a dad, but many of us feel uncomfortable praying to God as daddy, and so we use father.  I should also note that there are some people who have problems with using the term father for God, for lots of different reasons, and we’ll talk about that next week when we talk about the metaphors we use for God and how those impact our prayers.  But we pray to a God who is like a parent to us, who is close to us, who is in relationship with us.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Lord, Teach Us To Pray

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Luke 11:1-13:

Prayer is at the heart of Christianity.  Martin Luther said “to be a Christian without prayer is no more possible than to be alive without breathing.”  When you join the United Methodist Church, you pledge your prayers, your presence, your gifts, your service and your witness.  The order is not insignificant.  I do believe that prayer is first because it is the most important.  But, prayer is one of those difficult things for many Christians.  I suspect that even with the quote I just read that few of us have actually ever been taught how to pray, at least formally.  Even though prayer is vital to who we are, to what we do, and to deepening our relationship with God we don’t spend a lot of time learning how to do it, but for the weeks of Lent, we are going to be looking at prayer in many different forms, and we won’t even begin to touch the surface of everything that might be said.
by Carrie Grant, behance.net

Prayer is very important for Luke.  He talks more about prayer than any of the other gospel writers, and he has Jesus praying all over the place for lots of different things, but apparently to the disciples, whatever it is that Jesus is doing does not look like or feel like what they have been doing.  Jesus seems to be like the old EF Hutton commercial, “when Jesus talks, God listens.”   Comparing themselves to Jesus, they must have been feeling a little inadequate, so they begin to think that maybe they are not praying correctly, or maybe that they don’t know anyone about prayer at all, and so they go to Jesus and say, “Lord teach us how to pray.”  This is the only time they ask Jesus to teach them how to do something, and that should give us some comfort I think, because like the disciple, it feels like we should know what you are supposed to be doing and you don’t, and you want to say to Jesus, just like the disciples did, “Lord teach me how to pray.”

I remember as a child sitting in worship one day with my mother, and we got to the point in time in the service when we all recited the Lord’s prayer, and this was the time in which everyone was assumed to know it and so it wasn’t printed in the bulletin, a standard we can no longer expect, and so I turned to my mother and asked her how she knew the prayer, and she told me it was just something you learned by going to church.  That is my earliest memory about prayer, and being taught about prayer and what it meant to pray.  But, how I really learned how to pray was by sort of being pushed into the deep end and being told to swim, which is what happened as soon as I said that I was going to enter the ministry, then I became the designated prayer at seemingly every event, from family meals to church meetings.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Building Monuments

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Matthew 17:1-9:

Today’s Gospel passage is known as the transfiguration, and it is read today because it is, appropriately enough, transfiguration Sunday, which is always the last Sunday before Lent begins.  Transfiguration is not a word we use a lot these days, although the Harry Potter fans amongst us probably remembering him going to transfiguration classes.  But we are probably more familiar with the Greek word used here, which is metamorphosis, which means to change, or to be changed.  Jesus is changed into something different from what he had been in his normal appearance so that the Peter, James and John come to understand him very differently than what they had before, although they still don’t get it, or at least Peter doesn’t get it.  But to illustrate that we have to take a step back in the story.

Six days before this, which is how today’s passage begins, Jesus asks the disciples who people say that he is, and they respond that some say John the Baptist, and other’s Elijah or one of the other prophets, but then Jesus says, but who do you say that I am, and it is Simon Peter who speaks first and says “You are the messiah, the son of the living God.”  This is the first pronouncement by the disciples of who Jesus is in Matthew, and Jesus responds his famous phrase that Simon is “Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.”  It should be noted that Cephas, which is the Aramaic word for rock, also had a connotation when applied to someone of meaning something like blockhead, although as a term of endearment, and that certainly applies to Peter, but then Jesus begins to teach them about what it means to be a disciple and says that “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  How often?  That’s actually a trick question, because it’s in Luke’s gospel that Jesus says daily.

Jesus then leads Peter, James and John up a high mountain, where he is transfigured before them.  We should be seeing some strong parallels here between Jesus and Moses.  When we began looking at Matthew just after Christmas I talked about Matthew’s emphasis in comparing Jesus to Moses, but making Jesus greater than Moses, thus Jesus delivers the sermon on the mount and when he gives the great commission at the very end of Matthew, where do the disciples meet Jesus?  On the top of a mountain.  But this of course is more than just Matthew as Mark and Luke also have this even taking place on a mountaintop, and any time we hear in scripture that something is taking place on a mountaintop we should begin paying close attention, because important things take place on mountains, encounters with God take place on mountaintops. And here is where the disciples come to understand who Jesus is, not just something they can proclaim, but see for themselves.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

When Why is not the Right Question

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  This was preached in reaction to the death of my 9-year-old-nephew Wyatt, who also attended the church. The text was Romans 8:18-39:

In order to be a good journalist, or really to be able to tell a good story, you have to be able to answer five questions: who, what, when, where and why.  Of those, the why question is probably the hardest to be able to explain or to find.  After all what do we hear all the time in the news about some criminal investigation, “police are still looking for a motive.”  The motive is the why question.  Why did they do this, why did this happen.  Sometimes the why question is never really fully answered, and even when it is it is often unsatisfactory, but that doesn’t stop us from asking it, especially when bad things have happened.  I remember one person saying that they didn’t ask why when their first child was born happy and normal, they didn’t think about it because that’s the way things are supposed to be.  But when their second child was born severe mental and physical handicaps they were asking a lot of why questions.  These are the cries we lift up not in the best moments of our lives, but in the worst, even Jesus asks these questions as we are told that he cries out on the cross, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

We want things to be orderly, to be predictable, to be understandable, we want things to go the way we think they are to go, and when they don’t we wonder that question why.  That has certainly been flowing around our house the past week following Wyatt’s death.  I would have been perfectly content continuing to preach on the Sermon on the Amount, which we’ll have to come back to, and so I wonder why did this happen?  Why is a seemingly healthy boy no longer here?  Why did what seemed like successful surgery go downhill so fast?  Why did God let this happen?

I was just two months into my first pastoral appointment when I got called on to perform my first funeral.  I had assisted with one funeral in my internship, but it was for someone who was 96.  As Pastor Gerry said last week, when performing funerals for people who have lived long lives, it’s more of a celebration, there aren’t a lot of questions being asked, and certainly not a lot of why questions, but this was not one of those funerals.  Ethan had been born with a rare genetic defect called Spinal Muscular Atrophy.  It is a disease caused by a recessive gene which means that both parents have to carry the gene, and even if both parents carry the gene there is only a 25% chance of the child being born with it.  Jane and Anil had two children when Ethan was born, neither of whom had the disease, and they did not know they were carriers until they sought help from their pediatrician when around three months Ethan stopped growing.  They  were told the disease would cause his muscles to continue to deteriorate, that he would never be strong enough to lift his head, let alone walk or crawl, and his respiratory functions would be  most affected, and that with a good outcome he might live to be two years old.  He didn’t make it that long, dying at 15 months.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

This Little Light of Mine

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Matthew 5:13-20:

When the Puritans first arrived in America, they saw themselves acting out the exodus story, with America as the new Promised Land.  John Winthrop, one of the early governors of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, referred to the colony as “the city on the hill” which would be a beacon to the rest of the world of what Christianity, when rightfully practiced and purified of Catholicism, hence the name Puritans, would look like.  When they were choosing the location for a new state house, they choose the tallest hill in Boston, called Beacon Hill, and had the dome of the building clad in copper by none other than Paul Revere, so that it would reflect the sunlight and be seen as the light on the hill.  This idea of being the city on the hill has been a recurrent theme in American politics and American religion, and it is found not just here in today’s passage from the Sermon on the Mount, but is part of Jewish tradition as well.

In Isaiah, God says, “I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.” (42:6-7) As part of the covenant between Israel and God, God has set them up as a light to the nations.  Of course part of that covenantal also involved salt, as we are told in Leviticus in the instructions given regarding offerings, that salt was to be given with every offering, and in the instructions given to Aaron, Moses’ brother about what offerings he and the other priests are to receive, they are told that they are to receive what the Lord gives them that it “is a covenant of salt forever before the Lord for you and your descendants.”

Salt played a critical role in the ancient world.  Roman soldiers were paid in salt, and as a remnant of that practice our word salary comes from the root word for salt.  To indicate fellowship or friendship it would be said that you had shared salt with someone.  It sounds sort of dirty doesn’t it?  But what it meant was that you had dined together, and were willing to share salt with that person, and since salt was valuable that indicated that you had a relationship that was more than just mere acquaintance.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Between A Rock And A Hard Place

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Matthew 5:1-12:

Who does society say is blessed?  Wealthy?  Educated?  Those on the East? Athletes? Actors? Entertainers? White?  Men?  Powerful? Politicians?  These are who society says are blessed, and it is certainly the groups that seem to have blessings showered on them.  In addition, there are those who will claim that these blessed people have these characteristics because they are blessed by God, and because they are blessed by God they also have these characteristics.  It’s a circular argument.  But although that is who society is blessed, that is not who Jesus says is blessed, which is what we hear today in the gospel passage from Matthew:

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

 ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
 ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
 ‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
 ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
 ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
 ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
 ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
 ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
 ‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Dropping Our Nets

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Matthew 4:12-23:

Today we have a fish story to tell.  I’m sure that all of us have heard at least one fish story in our lives, and most of us have probably even told one or two ourselves, about the one that got away or about how big the fish, which the person hearing the story never saw, really was.  There’s a great scene in the movie Dave, in which Kevin Kline, who is pretending to be the president, has his arms in a machine which replicates his movements using enormous robot arms, and so he stretches his arms out and says “I once caught a fish this big,” and of course his fish story is amplified by the mechanical arms.  I wanted to show that clip this morning, but when I did a search for it on YouTube, I didn’t find it, although I did find out that there are apparently a lot of people named Dave who fish and have posted things on YouTube.

For some reason, fishing tends to bring out these stories, more than most other activities in which we engage.  That most famous of all authors, anonymous, once wrote “An answer to this question, is greatly what I wish; does fishing make men liars, or do only liars fish?”[1]  I’m going to be honest, I don’t like fishing.  No offense to those of you who do, but to me, fishing is about as exciting as watching paint dry.  But the Bible is full of fish stories, and today we have one of the most well known.  Of all of the fish stories we know, today’s is one of the biggest.  In fact, this passage, or at least the line about making the disciples “fishers of men”, is probable one of the most famous.

The passage begins, first with the announcement of John the Baptist’s arrest, which will lead to his execution and serves as an example, which will be played out again, of what discipleship looks like, the arrest leads to the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry in Galilee.  Next we are told that Jesus began to proclaim “Repent, for the kingdom of God has come near,” which is at the core of Jesus’ message, then we have the calling of the first disciples, followed by a summary of Jesus’ activities in proclaiming the reign of God which he will follow throughout the remainder of his ministry.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Descending Like A Dove

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was John 1:29-42:

Last week we heard the story of Jesus’ baptism from Matthew, at the end of which we are told that the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove descended upon him.  This week we hear a similar account, except that this time it is John the Baptist who is reportedly telling the story to us, before moving into telling us John’s version of the calling of the first disciples.  Next week we move back into Matthew’s account with Jesus calling the first disciples there, and so I am going to hold off on talking about the calling until next week, and instead we are going to look at the Holy Spirit, because that is one of the questions I hear a lot is who and what is the Holy Spirit.

Now for those of you who grew up using the King James Bible, or liturgies based on the King James, you probably know of the Holy Spirit as the Holy Ghost.  That is still the language we sing as part of the doxology each week after the offering is received (praise father son and Holy Ghost).  The term was changed for several reasons.  The first is that our understanding of ghost is a little different from that of the 17th century, and we don’t want people either thinking of something scary or even something nice, like Caspar the friendly Holy Ghost.  The second reason is that spirit is sort of a closer approximation to the Greek and the Hebrew terms that it is being used.

One of the reasons we don’t understand the Holy Spirit is because the church has not always been very clear about it.  In the Nicene Creed, which was the church’s formalization of Trinitarian theology, in which we say that there is only one God, but God has three parts, it originally said “We believe in the Holy Spirit.”   That is what is still contained in the Apostle’s Creed, but that doesn’t really give us any information.  Later at the Council of Constantinople in 381, this was added to so that it included, “we believe in the Holy Spirit, the lord and giver of life, who proceeds from the father and the son, who with the father and son is worshipped and glorified, who has spoken through the prophets.”  In the doctrinal standards of the United Methodist Church, we state that we believe in “The Holy Ghost, proceeding from the father and the Son, is of one substance, majesty and glory with the Father and the Son, very and eternal God.”  Those are a little fuller statement, but they have more to do with the Spirit’s relation in the trinity rather than about what the Spirit does or how we experience it.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Down to the River

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Matthew 3:13-17:

A man is stumbling through the woods, totally drunk, when he comes upon a preacher baptizing people in the river.   He proceeds to walk into the water to see what’s going on. The preacher turns around and is almost overcome by the smell of alcohol, but asks the man, "Are you ready to find Jesus?"  The drunk answers, "Yes, I am." So the preacher grabs him and dunks him in the water.   He pulls him up and asks him, "Brother have you found Jesus?"  The drunk replies, "No."  The preacher shocked at the answer, dunks him into the water again for a little longer.  He again pulls him out of the water and asks again, "Have you found Jesus my brother?"   The man again answers, "No,”  By this time the preacher is at his wits end and dunks the drunk in the water again -- - but this time holds him down  until the man begins flailing his arms and legs, and then the preacher pulls him up and again asks, "For the love of God have you found Jesus?"  The drunk wipes his eyes and catches his breath and says to the preacher, "No, are you sure this is where he fell in?"

Today we celebrate the baptism of Jesus, and so I thought it would be the appropriate time to teach you more about baptism then you’ve ever known, and maybe more than you’ve ever wanted to know, in help us understand what baptism is and what it does so that it might begin to make more sense and give more meaning to us.

So where did baptism come from and where did it begin?  Most people’s answer is that it begins with John the Baptizer, as we have in today’s scripture.  John is calling people out to the Jordan River to be baptized in repentance of their sins, but baptism, or at least a similar practice, is older than John.  In Judaism, in order to be ritually pure, people, both men and women, would have to enter into what is known as a mikvah in order to be ritually cleansed.  There were actually mikvah at the entrance to the temple in Jerusalem that people would enter so they would be ritually clean when they entered the Temple grounds. In addition, some Jewish sects required that gentile converts not only be circumcised, but that they must also take a ritual bath in order to be cleansed and die to who they were and be reborn into something new.  Orthodox Judaism still requires this for converts.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Three People from Somewhere

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Matthew 2:1-12:

Today represents the last vestiges of Christmas.  Kids go back to school tomorrow, and adults who have been off for the holidays return to work.  People have taken down their trees and the ornaments and decorations have been packed up and returned to storage, or maybe like me everything has been piled in one location waiting to be packed up.  The surprises and the excitement of the season are gone, along with the songs and the decorations, and yet today we celebrate epiphany, which represents the official end of the Christmas season, this is another one of those times in which the church is out of sync with culture.

Some of you have heard me say this before, as much as Fox News might like to talk about a war on Christmas, I have to be in agreement with Diana Butler Bass that it’s not a war on Christmas, it’s a war on Advent, because Christmas doesn’t end on December 25, Christmas begins in December 25, and it officially ends tomorrow with Epiphany.  Epiphany, means appearance or manifestation, and it commemorates the arrival of the wisemen as the manifestation of Jesus to the gentiles.  In many cultures, especially in Latin countries, Epiphany is more important of a Holiday than is Christmas and is celebrated through gift-giving and parties.  In the Orthodox church, it is the third most important day of the year following only Easter and Pentecost, and for many years the Orthodox church celebrated Christmas not on December 25, but instead on January 6 and there are still some churches which follow that tradition.