Devotional -Leviticus 19.1-2

Devotional:

Leviticus 19.1-2

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.

Weekly Devotional Image

Before I became the pastor of St. John’s, I had a meeting with other clergy from the Virginia Conference who were all about to start at their first appointments. We represented a number of different seminaries and all of us were nervous in some way, shape, or form about what we were about to embark upon. A few of us were about to serve as deacons connecting the church to the world through youth ministry positions and hospital chaplaincy, a few of us were going to large churches as associate pastors, and a few of us were being sent to serve a church all by ourselves.

After a few ice-breakers designed to build bridges between us, we were all asked to answer the question: “What are you most worried about?” I remember someone jumping right in to say, “I am terrified of having to do funerals.” Another person said, “I have no idea what it takes to create and implement a church budget.” Another person said, “I’m nervous about being single and whether or not people will respect me for who I am.” And my friend Drew ended with, “I just want to be holy.”

217387_578604105493543_912821730_n

We all listened and offered advice to one another, but Drew’s comment has always stuck with me. While the rest of us were nervous and anxious about specific and practical matters, Drew was thinking about his holiness. How in the world can pastors lead people to holiness when they feel unholy? What does it even mean to be holy in the first place?

Some might say that to be holy means going to church every Sunday. Others might say that holiness comes with reading the bible every morning. And still yet others might say that you can only be holy if you pray to God every night before you fall asleep.

Holiness, however, is about living a life of total devotion to God. That might manifest itself in showing up to church, and reading the bible, and talking to God, but it also entails a fundamental commitment to the Lord in everything we do.

It means that when we encounter the stranger we see them as a brother and sister in Christ. It means that when we spend our money we reflect on whether or not it is bringing harm to someone else. It means that we strive to take nothing for granted because tomorrow is never promised.

Being a Christian is not a hobby, or something to be turned on and off whenever we choose. Being a Christian is about living a life of holiness and being totally devoted to God.

So then we must ask ourselves: What am I currently doing that is unholy? What relationships are preventing me from being totally devoted to God? What idols am I being consumed by instead of committing myself to the Lord? How can I be holy?

God Said It, I Believe It, That Settles It

Deuteronomy 23.12-14

You shall have a designated area outside the camp to which you shall go. With your utensils you shall have a trowel; when you relieve yourself outside, you shall dig a hole with it and then cover up your excrement. Because the Lord your God travels along with your camp, to save you and to hand over your enemies to you, therefore your camp must be holy, so that he may not see anything indecent among you and turn away from you.

1 Corinthians 14.32-35

And the spirits of prophets are subject to the prophets, for God is a God not of disorder but of peace. As in all the churches of the saints, women should be silent in churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.

 

 

We have a problem. I’m sorry that I have to use the pulpit to bring it up, but this is the best way to reach the highest number of people. We, as a church, have fundamentally broken one of God’s laws and we need to do something about it. We need to pray for forgiveness. We need to seek God’s mercy. And, we should get moving on this issue quickly in order to establish our faithfulness before the Lord.

We need to stop using the church bathrooms.

Now, some of you might be thinking: What in the world? Stop using the bathrooms? We’ve heard him say some strange stuff from the pulpit, but this has to be the strangest!

But scripture is pretty clear. We are supposed to have a designated area, outside the church, where we shall go when nature calls. We are supposed to keep a trowel with us at all times so that when we relieve ourselves outside, we can dig a hole and then cover up our excrement. We need to do this because the Lord is with us when we are in church, therefore this church must be holy and we can’t let the Lord see anything indecent among us.

So, after prayerful consideration, the trustees have voted to permanently close all the bathrooms in the church building, and we will construct some outhouses on the edge of the property for excrement disposal.

Just kidding.

lexica

Have you ever heard someone preach on Deuteronomy 23.12-14? I haven’t, nor have I even encountered it during a bible study. But in the 1880’s, churches and bathrooms were quite the topic of sermonic conversation. The advent of indoor plumbing had arrived and the question about whether or not to have bathrooms in churches started to pop up.

By the logic of the Old Testament, churches were seen just like the Israelite encampments and because of this the same rules about where people could relieve themselves were applied. Many preachers used this argument from their pulpit more than a century ago to fight the growing trend to build bathrooms in churches!

Today, when designing a new church, one of the first questions isn’t what the sanctuary should look like, or what kind of design will enhance the altar, or even how many people can fit in it, but how many bathrooms should there be, and where should they be put.

How do we understand the Word of God? Do we believe that all scriptures have been inspired by God and are useful for teaching? What does it even mean that God inspired the writing of scripture?

Years ago I was invited to participate in a bible study that met once a week. At the time we were going through the gospel of Matthew when one of the women in attendance interrupted with a dilemma for the group. Her son told her that he was thinking about getting a tattoo and she knew that God forbids this kind of behavior in the Old Testament. It was clear that she was looking for approval from the rest of us, but I opened my big mouth and said something like, “Well, I don’t think its that big of a deal” To which she replied, “If God says it in the bible, then the issue has been settled!”

I should have stopped right there, but I couldn’t help myself. “So, you don’t eat pork or shrimp? And you are going to rally the community together to stone your son to death for rebelling against you? And you didn’t mean to wear earrings today because you know the bible forbids them as well?”

This sort of extreme biblical literalism is problematic, and basically impossible. If we try to live by the Word with extreme rigidity, we would not be allowed to wear clothing with blended fabrics, we’d have to completely rethink our diets, working on the Sabbath would get us killed, and men would not be allowed to trim their beards. Ever.

            God said it, I believe it, that settles it.

This is another one of the trite and cliché Christianisms that float around in conversation. When Christians get into an argument about a particular biblical precept, like prohibitions against tattoos or homosexuality, they will take a verse and use it like a weapon against the person they disagree with. God said it, I believe it, that settles it.

But, whether we admit it or not, rarely do we read the bible and think, “Okay, that settles it then.”

Today, no one worries about whether to build a church without a bathroom, we don’t hear preachers belabor biblical dietary restrictions, and we neglect a great number of scriptures while at the same time we use scripture to attack others.

There are all sorts of rules and regulations in scripture that, if we’re honest, we pick and choose to emphasize.

bible-and-its-interpretation

As we read earlier, Paul is clear in more than one letter that women should not speak in church. And yet, this church had a female pastor for a number of years, and our liturgist this morning just read out loud from the bible! Heaven forbid! A woman speaking in church! Can you believe it?

Of course, some churches still believe that the words about the subordination of women are the gospel truth. In those church, women are not allowed to serve in leadership positions, they are not allowed to teach Bible Studies where men are present, and they are not allowed to serve in any capacity that would require them to speak in front of the congregation.

I’ll tell you right now, this church would not be here if women kept their mouths shut. We are as faithful as we are because the women in our midst have been brave enough to speak what God has placed on their hearts, and because we have listened.

So what are we to do? We can’t just throw out the bible, but at the same time we can’t live by every single word within it.

Like the apostles and disciples before us, we read scripture and we hear God speaking through it. But we also ask questions of it. We consider context. We wonder if God really intended women to remain silent in church. We recognize that things like slavery are counter to God’s will, despite more than 200 verses that support it in the Bible. We don’t preach and teach that having bathrooms inside churches are offensive to God.

We follow Jesus’ example.

Jesus, Son of Man and Son of God, did not adhere to strict biblical literalism. He had different interpretations of the Sabbath restrictions, he had stronger opinions about divorce and adultery, and he regularly disobeyed the Law by eating with those deemed unclean.

Living as a Christian, reading the bible, it’s all about interpretation. And, to be clear, interpretation does not mean to change the text, or to ignore it, but to proclaim it for this time and for this place.

Even the Bibles in our pews are themselves a work of interpretation. Someone, and more often than not some people, made particular choices about how to translate particular words from Hebrew and Greek into English. This might not seem like a big deal, but if you take something like one of the most beloved of all scriptures: For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believe in him may not perish but have everlasting life. The word for “perish” in Greek is apollumi which can mean perish, but it can also mean to die, to be destroyed, to be lost, killed, or ruined. Each of these translations can change the meaning of the text slightly, and are therefore a product of interpretation.

So whenever we take up a bible, whenever we flip to a specific passage, the work of interpretation started long before our eyes flow over the English translation. But nevertheless, even the best translations leave us to continue the task of interpretation.

How do we do it? Well, we don’t do it in isolation. We don’t read our bibles in our living rooms never to speak about the words again, we don’t listen to a sermon only to have that be the only time we encounter the words.

We interpret God’s Word in community. We go to bible studies, we send emails to our friends and to our pastor, and we do what we need to do in order to comprehend that which is often incomprehensible.

And we let Jesus help us interpret. In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. As the definitive Word, Jesus helps us to understand the words of scripture. We read from the Old and New Testament alike through the lens of Jesus and we begin to wrestle with how these words continue to live and breathe in our lives today.

But that requires a lot more work than “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” It compels us to actually take up our bibles, read them, and talk about them. It challenges us to ask hard questions and produce new ideas. It requires us to believe that this book is in fact the living Word of God and that it continues to speak truth in new and exciting ways, perhaps in ways we cannot even imagine.

This last week has been filled with controversy from the Oval Office. In their first week, the new administration put forth a number of executive orders including a call to begin construction on a wall at our southern border, a gag order for the EPA, and the halting of refugee migration from a number of countries.

c3nffwbxaae5lbr

On the same day we celebrate the liberation of the concentration camps in Europe, our country said, “we don’t want them” to people fleeing persecution and destruction.

Now, no one has said that this has been done because of scripture, but the bible should have played a role in the decision if our politicians are going to keep claiming their Christian allegiance.

Moses was a refugee after fleeing from Egypt.

            Ruth was a refugee after her husband died and she followed her mother-in-law to a strange new land.

            The entire Israelite people were refugees in Babylon.

            Jesus, the one we worship here in church, was a refugee. Jesus, like people in the Middle East today, had to flee his home out of fear of violence, persecution, and even death.

And yet, we tout these certain stories from scripture and hold them over people’s heads about behavior and identity. But when we start actively preventing the oppressed from entering the country, we forget all about the story of our Lord and Savior.

People have used this book, with understandings like “God said it, I believe it, that settles it,” to attack and belittle people for far too long. It has been used to justify the horrific practice of slavery. It has been used to subjugate and relegate women’s rights. It has been used to rationalize physical violence and aggression toward people of different religions. It has been used to incite fear and terror in those who do not believe. It has been used as a weapon again and again and again.

And now we, the people of God, join together to say “no more!”

“No more!” to the use of scripture like a weapon to oppress the weak and the marginalized. “No more!” to the complacent Christianity that stands idly by as people are attacked for whom they are. “No more!” to the backwards ways of the past that lose sight of God’s grace here and now.

“No more!” to God said it, I believe it, that settles it.

Devotional – 2 Timothy 2.8-9

Devotional:

2 Timothy 2.8-9

Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David – that is my gospel, for which I suffer hardship, even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But the word of God is not chained.

Weekly Devotional Image

A few of my friends recently embarked on a new venture into the world of podcasting. They call themselves “Crackers and Grape Juice” and they regularly interview people about their faith in order to share the conversations with others through the Internet. One of their regular interviewees is Fleming Rutledge, a retired Episcopal priest, who truly has the gift of preaching. In a recent interview they asked Fleming about her love of scripture and her response was powerful: “If I love scripture, it is because my grandmother read me those stories when I was a child. The role of someone we love, loving us enough to read us scripture, makes all the difference.”

1200x630bf

What do we think of the bible? Is it a text that we are called to master like a subject from school? Should we memorize the facts and dates like a work of history? Should we analyze the literary techniques like a famous work from Shakespeare?

Today, in the lives of Christians, the Word of the Lord is often chained to the realm of the church. If we want our children to learn about the bible, we send them to a Sunday School classroom. If we have a friend grieving the loss of a spouse, we recommend that they go speak with a pastor. If we are unsure about how to encounter a troubling topic, we ask to hear a sermon about it in worship.

But, as Paul reminds us, the word of God is not chained! The bible demands our attention and our affection. It yearns to be read and savored. It should not be relegated to the confines of a church building and should instead sit at the heart of what it means to be a family and what it means to be a community.

Can you imagine how all children would feel about scripture if someone they loved took the time to read them the stories? Can you imagine how differently you would feel about the bible if someone took the time to read it to you when you were younger?

The call of Christians, all Christians, is to remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead. We remember the great stories of the bible when we gather together in worship on Sundays, but that is not enough. We remember the greatness of the risen Lord whenever we share his gospel with the people we love: our families, friends, and neighbors. We remember the acts and grace of God whenever we sit down with one of our children and grandchildren to tell them about how Jesus changed our lives. We remember the resurrection when we believe the Word of God is unchained and worthy of our time.

On Why Christians Should Not Read The Bible

A reflection on Stanley Hauerwas’ Unleashing the Scripture:

I was 9 years old and sitting in one of the front pews at Aldersgate UMC in Alexandria, Virginia when I was called up to the altar and given a red hardback copy of the New Revised Stand Version of the Bible. I can remember feeling the thin pages in my fingers while I flipped between the Old and New Testaments and ignored whatever the preacher was preaching about. I knew it was the same bible as the one sitting on the back of the pew in front of me, but there was something different about it being my bible. From that point forward, whenever I grew tired or distracted by whatever was going on in the pulpit, I always knew I could open up the book in front of me and enter the strange new world of the bible.

I still have that bible that was given to me almost 20 years ago; it sits on one of my shelves next to the never-ending row of different translations that I have accumulated over the years. I had it with me in college when I grew frustrated with different campus ministries, I had it with me in seminary while I was helping multiple churches, and I still have it now while pastoring a church. For years I came to rely on that bible’s words to reveal something to me about the nature of God, particularly when I felt like worship was not making the cut.

This is why, according to Stanley Hauerwas in Unleashing the Scripture, we need to take the bible away from North American Christians.

Hauerwas

Most American Christians believe they have a right and obligation to regularly read from the bible. Ask almost anyone in the church I serve and they will tell you about how important it is for them to start their mornings by reading scripture. As Protestants we celebrate the great availability of the Bible and regularly call for individuals to read it on a daily basis. But through the privatization of scripture we have transformed our understanding of the bible into it being treated like any other book, rather than the living Word of God.

The scriptures we affirm as the holy and living Word of the Lord cannot be properly understood outside of the church community that gathers around the Word every week. Or, to put it another way, to read scripture in isolation without the community of faith assumes that the text of scripture makes sense separate from a Church that gives it sense.

Reading in isolation, or believing that having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ revealed through scripture alone (sola scriptura) is enough, has led to some of the most profound abuses of scripture through a practice called proof-texting (Cherry-picking particular verses to make a singular argument).

Inductive-PF

The collection of both the Old and New Testaments contain a remarkable number of stories and teaching that make it difficult to treat as a whole. Whenever someone makes the comment, “The Bible says…” I am always thinking of another place in the Bible that says something contrary to the first point. The bible is a strange and beautiful thing that cannot be limited to a handful of verses.

However, this is exactly what many Christians do when they want to argue a very specific position. For instance, there are passages in both the Old and New Testaments that advocate for the subjugation or lower status of women (ex. 1 Corinthians 11.8-9), but these verses can only be properly understood in the light of scripture as a whole and within the worshipping community. Because only in a worshipping community can the scriptures be read, debated, and proclaimed. Only in a worshipping community can a differing opinion be brought forth and used to consider the first scripture at hand. Only in a worshipping community that gathers at the table are we forced to confront the deep and profound truth that we (men and women) have been created in God’s image, that we (men and women) are invited to partake without cost, and we (men and women) are offered the body and the blood of the Lord.

Similarly, proof-texting has been used to advocate for the horrific treatment of members of the LGBTQ community by reading verses from the likes of Leviticus and the letters of Paul without confronting the fact that Jesus never says anything about homosexuality in the four gospels. It is only in the community of faith that we are challenged to read the scriptures that go against our opinion and then, through the power of the Holy Spirit, are we able to take steps forward in faith.

The temptation to read our bibles in isolation results in the Scripture being broken up as separate texts, commandments, and opinions. The Church, as the body of Christ, is the corrective to this temptation and is the place where scripture lives and becomes incarnate in the way we live.

It is good and right for us to have our own bibles and to read from them from time to time. I’ll admit that to call for the Bible to be taken away from individuals who wish to read the Word of God is an absurd proposition. Yet, in the Church’s current situation, the overwhelming opinion that every person has the “right” to interpret scripture has led to the fractured and divisive nature of the Church.

Instead, we are most faithful when we turn in our bibles together in the midst of worship, when we pray for the Lord to speak to us once again through the Word, and when we wrestle with what God is saying as a community.

How Can We Be Biblically Wise?

1 Kings 3.5-12

At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, “Ask what I should give you.” And Solomon said, “You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant my father David, because he walked before you in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart toward you; and you have kept for him this great and steadfast love, and have given him a son to sit on his throne today. And now, O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in. And your servant is in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted. Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?” It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this. God said to him, “Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, I now do according to your word. Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you.”

xlba-00052

This morning we conclude our sermon series on Questions. After polling most of you about your queries regarding faith, scripture, and the church, I compiled three of the most prevalent questions: What Are Angels? What Does The Bible Say About Divorce? And How Can We Be Biblically Wise? Though there are no simple, black and white, answers to any of these questions, we have strived during this series to bring clarity to our wonder. This morning we finish with “How Can We Be Biblically Wise?”

 

 

Three men were trapped on a deserted island. During the months of their stranded captivity they learned to rely on one another for survival. Without entertainment, they told each other stories and grew very close together. Each day one of them was responsible for making minor repairs to their shelter, one was tasked with scavenging for food, and the last one had to comb the beaches for anything helpful that might’ve washed up.

One particularly beautiful morning, the third man was walking along the beach when he discovered a strangely colored bottle sticking up in the sand. He quickly procured it with his other discoveries and brought them all back to the shelter. Later that night, while they were looking through all the goodies from the beach, one of the men accidently rubbed the bottle and a genie popped right out!

Because there were three men present, the genie explained that he could grant each of them one wish, rather than giving each of them three wishes. The first man wasted no time and declared, “I miss my family and I wish that I could be back with them!” The genie snapped his finger and poof; the man disappeared.

The second man thought for a moment and said, “You know, I was engaged before I got trapped on this island, I wish I was back with my fiancé.” The genie snapped his finger and poof; the man disappeared.

The third man was now alone with the genie and he thought long and hard about his wish. After all, it’s not like you run into a genie everyday. So he stood there with the genie thinking about all of the things he could wish for when he causally said, “Geez, I wish my friends were back here to help me make my wish.”

Be careful what you wish for…

Solomon was young, inexperienced, and about to rule the kingdom when God showed up in one of his dreams. Almost like a genie, the Lord asks Solomon to make a wish. And, like a preacher in a bad sermon, Solomon over-explains his wish: “God, you were great and loving to my father David because he walked before you in faithfulness, righteousness, and in uprightness of heart. Throughout his years you kept your great and steadfast love for him, and now you have given him a son to sit on his throne; you gave him me. But God, I am only a little child, and I don’t know the first thing about taking care of others. I am in the midst of the people you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be counted. So Lord, if I can ask for anything, give me an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between what is good and what is evil. Give me wisdom.

the_god_kind_of_wisdom_std_t_nv

It pleased the Lord to hear Solomon wish for wisdom. God then replied to Solomon in his dream: “Solomon, because you have asked for wisdom, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked to be able to discern what is right, I now do according to your word. Indeed, I will give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been for you and no one like you shall arise after you.”

Of all the things Solomon could’ve requested: wealth, prosperity, and military victory… He chose wisdom. As a young ruler of God’s chosen people he selflessly asked for the knowledge to lead God’s people in the ways that lead to life.

Godly wisdom, or biblical wisdom, pleases the Lord when it is not self-serving, but other serving. Solomon’s desire for wisdom, because it was for the betterment of others, is what inclined the Lord to dispense it generously. It is in our willingness to use wisdom for others that we begin to experience God’s grace in the world around us.

Fred Craddock is widely regarded as one of the greatest preachers in recent history. His command of scripture is evident in his sermons and he captivated anyone with ears to hear. But before he became a great preacher, he was a normal Christian just like you and me.

During the height of the Civil Rights movement, Craddock found himself driving across the country. He was making his way through northern Mississippi early one morning and needed to stop for a cup of coffee and some food. He found a no name diner in the middle of a town and made his way in for breakfast. It was early enough in the morning that Craddock was alone in the diner with the cook and he ordered his food and coffee. While he was sitting at the counter, a black man entered and sat down a couple stools away and ordered a coffee. The cook turned around and said, “Get out! We don’t serve your kind here!”

The man patiently responded, “My money is just as good as his” while pointing at Craddock. But the cook continued to point at the door and said, “The sign says ‘Whites Only’ so get out before I put you out!

The black man sighed and slowly removed himself from the stool and the diner.

Craddock continued to finish his meal, paid, and left. But right before he was about to get back in his car, in that still and quiet morning moment, he heard a rooster crow in the distance.

Are any of you feeling chills? Some of us will immediately understand the significance of this moment: Craddock, after sitting and witnessing the racism and bigotry mere feet away from him, realized that he had just denied Jesus as Peter did right before his crucifixion. But some of us did not catch the meaning; we did not have an emotional response to the conclusion of Craddock’s little narrative. If we missed the power of the rooster crowing in the distance, it is because we are unfamiliar with the ways God works in the world.

I had a number of you request, for this sermon series, that I preach about biblical wisdom. I can summarize the whole answer to the question in one sentence: “How can we be biblically wise?” “By reading our bibles!”

Image of an old Holy Bible

If Craddock was not as familiar with scripture as he was, he easily could’ve entered his car after hearing the rooster crow, and would have missed the power of what God was trying to communicate to him. God used a particular moments to speak large and powerful words to Craddock and God does the same thing in our lives. But if we are not familiar with the ways God has communicated in the past, then we will probably miss the ways God is trying to speak to us right now.

To be biblically wise implies a willingness to bring our souls into alignment with God’s ways. Yet we, as broken and flawed people, have a propensity to become out of alignment with God’s ways. To reorient ourselves, to turn back to the ways of God, we do so by reading scripture.

If we’re here in this sanctuary then we are already on the right path. It was only a few minutes ago that God’s Word was read to us in this place. By taking the time to listen to scripture in a sanctuary we are taking the first steps down the path that will bring us back to the kind of wisdom God desires for us.

But just coming to church is not enough.

We can do some incredible things in this space on Sunday morning, we can re-enter the strange new world of the bible, we can see ourselves in the biblical characters of the past, we can learn about how God uses things like roosters to shock us in the midst of our lives, but it is not enough.

One of the things that Christian people do, is read the bible. The bible is completely unlike any other book that we might read. Any of us can pick up a piece of literature and say, “This is a nice story.” However, the bible is not “a story’, it is “our story”. Our lives began with Adam, Noah, Abraham, and Moses. Our history goes back to the very beginning. When we read these stories, whether in church or in our daily lives, these stories are about our family.

A strange thing happens when we start reading our bibles and to see them as the living Word of God. When we get to the point where we can let the Holy Spirit bring us inside scripture we begin to really recognize it as our story. Suddenly all of these bizarre and exciting figures from the past look us in the eyes and we recognize our own reflections. We begin to see that we are like them and they are like us.

God is speaking to us all the time. Though not necessarily as the big booming voice we often see portrayed in movies and stories. God uses things like people, scripture, and even roosters to speak the truth into our lives. We can listen all we want, but until we are willing to become a people of the book, then God’s words will fall on deaf ears.

If we want to be biblically wise, we have to read our bibles. Amen.

 

Devotional – Mark 9.47

Devotional:

Mark 9.47

And if your eye cause you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell.
Weekly Devotional Image

I was sitting in a classroom at James Madison University when one of my peers raised her hand to ask a question. The lecture had been focused on the reliability of the New Testament writers/witnesses and a debate had erupted over whether or not to take the bible literally. I sat patiently near the front of the class watching the comments fling back and forth like a ping pong match between the students and our professor when the girl finally raised her hand.

She said, “I just want everyone to know that I take the bible literally because Jesus is my savior.” The rest of us stared at her and then slowly turned to watch our professor’s rebuttal. “Really? You take the entire bible literally all the time?” he asked rhetorically. The silence was palpable. He continued, “Well then, let me ask you this: Are you a sinner?”

With an obvious look on her face, she said, “Of course I am, but Jesus died on the cross to save me from my sins.” The professor responded, “Yes yes, but do you sin, even though Jesus died for the world?” “Duh,” she said, “everyone sins, and that why we need to let Jesus into our hearts.”

The professor then sighed and brought the point home, “So you say you’re a sinner, but I notice that you have two hands, two legs, and two eyes… Jesus told his disciples that if their hands or feet cause them to sin, they should cut one of them off, and if their eyes cause them to sin they should pluck one out. So you see, I’m having a hard time understanding how you take the bible literally, affirm that you’re a sinner, and still have both your hands, both your feet, and both your eyes all at the same time.”

I don’t remember the girl’s name, but I will never forget the way she looked as she slumped back down into her chair thinking about what our professor had said.

Image processed by CodeCarvings Piczard ### FREE Community Edition ### on 2015-05-18 22:39:16Z | http://piczard.com | http://codecarvings.com &

The bible is full of different literary forms that give it life. There are epic poems that retell the great story of the past in order to teach a lesson to the present. There are long genealogies that connect different characters throughout the centuries. There are parables of everyday situations that are meant to leave us scratching our heads in wonder. There are metaphors used (just like we do) to convey meaning in a way that is memorable and effective. There are proverbs, psalms, and poems that contain wisdom beyond their literal words.

The bible is not a historical narrative to be analyzed and redacted like a modern textbook. It is not a perfect collection of rules to live life. The bible is not a text to be read literally all the time in every situation; otherwise we would all be stumbling around with missing appendages.

The great beauty of scripture is that it opens up the strange new world of what it means to be in relationship with God and with our fellow human beings. The greatest moments in our lives cannot be conveyed in simple words to be taken literally, but are in fact so profound that we must use differing literary forms to even begin conveying what our experience was like. The bible is full of wonder and that’s why we keep coming back to it every day and every week to learn more about who we are, and whose we are.

This week, let us open up our bibles to discover the strange new world of God’s kingdom, and start letting it become incarnate in the way we live.

Devotional – John 6.60

Devotional:

John 6.60

When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”

Weekly Devotional Image

We have a great lectionary bible study at St. John’s. Every Thursday at 10:30am a dedicated group gathers to pray for one another and then read and discuss the four lectionary readings for the week. The group was started with a simple suggestion, and has grown to become one of the most life-giving teaching ministries of St. John’s.

The group is made up of both members from church, and from other churches throughout the community. With such a diverse background in church experiences, we have come to grow in faith by learning from other traditions, as well as our own.

A few weeks ago, after reading through the week’s Gospel section, one of our most faithful attendees threw up her hands and declared, “How can anyone do all this stuff?” I think that after weeks of hearing Jesus’ commands to the disciples, she was overwhelmed by how much is expected of discipleship and how consuming it can really be.

Her question is one that Christians have been asking themselves since the very first disciples. After a particularly long discussion on being the bread of life (John 6), the disciples throw up their collective hands and say, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”

Fotolia_54007866_XS

In our contemporary culture, many of us want grace without expectation, we want to leave church on Sundays feeling good about ourselves, and we are ready to commit so long as the commitment is limited. We, like the first disciples, are confused by Jesus’ words when we are asked to start living accordingly. We feel good about sacrificing our time at the Food Pantry, but we refuse to forgive that person in our pew who started a hurtful rumor. We feel good about seeing children in Sunday School, but are easily annoyed by the cries from babies during worship. We feel good about the scriptures that affirm our lifestyles, and use other passages to persecute and oppress those who are different according to our world view.

Jesus’ teachings are difficult, and ask us to sacrifice nothing short of our very lives. But Jesus also offers us something greater than any political promise, social status, or monetary moment; Jesus offers us eternal life.

What teachings do you struggle with? Where do you need support in following the call to discipleship? We can grow in faith by joining bible studies that allow us to wrestle with difficult teachings in community. We can grow in faith by reaching out to the seasoned Christians in our lives and seeking their advice. And we can grow in faith by bringing our struggles to the Lord, and praying for wisdom.

Devotional – Ephesians 3.16

Ephesians 3.16

I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit.

Weekly Devotional Image

Pre-marital counseling is the best. It is one of the few places where I am actually allowed to ask the questions I have racing in my head: What was your last fight about? How do you feel about your soon-to-be in-laws? Why do you deserve to marry each other? Similarly, it is one of the few places I feel comfortable being completely candid about the church’s role in marriage and how the covenant is not just between the couple, but it also incorporates the gathered body and the Lord.

At some point during the pre-marital counseling, I challenge each couple to go back to scripture and pick a passage that reflects their relationship for the wedding ceremony. My one caveat is that (unless they can demonstrate how necessarily important it is to them) they are not allowed to pick the part in 1st Corinthians about love being patient and kind, nor are they allowed to pick the part from Ephesians about wives being subject to their husbands. So it is with those few directions that couple have been forced to go back to their bibles and find something indicative of their relationship.

A few months ago I had the privilege of bringing together Chris and Chelsea Frumkin into the joy of marriage. I challenged them to pick their scripture and they quickly replied with Ephesians 3.16: “I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit.” This verse had a particularly special meaning to the couple, because Chris has Ephesians 3.16 etched into the inside of Chelsea’s engagement ring.

11221675_10204258142484714_1762300626060138752_o

What a dynamic and perfect scripture for a wedding ceremony! When we stood together before their family, friends, and the Lord I made mention of the fact that their relationship had led to such a beautiful wedding precisely because they had prayed for one another. As a couple they were not content with the status quo. Instead, they consistently went to the Lord to discover renewed strength in their relationship.

The longer I spend time in ministry, the more I realize that scripture no longer holds the great value that it once did. Instead of a people defined by the Word of the Lord, many of us are content with knowing a handful of verses that make us smile, or would be worthy of a print that we could hang on our wall or Facebook page.

As we prepare to take steps into a new week, let us reflect on the great gift that scripture is for us: What stories from the bible have shaped who we are? Is reading the bible a priority in our lives, or a last resort? If we had to pick a verse that defined our character, what would it be and why?

monkimage

Devotional – Mark 8.31-32

Devotional:

Mark 8.31-32

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.

Weekly Devotional Image What character from the bible do you identify with the most?

I love asking that question. Whether in the middle of painting a house surrounded by middle-schoolers on a mission trip, or in the midst of a counseling session with a member from the community, identifying with people from the bible can be eye-opening. For instance: Middle-school age boys almost always say they identify with David (during the fight with Goliath) probably because of their current physical changes and the pressures of school and social developments. Middle-school girls often identify with Esther probably because they want to establish their independence and unique responsibilities for taking care of others.

bibleheroeswJesus

The question was first asked of me during a Clinical Pastoral Education session. Our group leader wanted us to begin understanding our own limitations and strengths when it came to meeting people in the midst of suffering, so we began with acknowledging our perceived biblical counterparts. At the time I was getting used to seeing the world through a scripturally shaped imagination and had already paired up my group members with people from the bible. I was therefore thrilled when some of them identified with the characters I had imagined for them. When it came time for me to answer, I responded without hesitation: “Peter”

Ever since I was a kid I have been fascinated by the stories involving Peter from the New Testament. I loved imagining Peter mending the nets on the boats to then being brought to his knees in humble reverence for the Lord in his midst. I loved picturing him jumping off the boat to meet Jesus walking on the water. I loved his willingness to speak up and act first while the other disciples remained quiet in the background.

As I have grown older my identification with Peter has taken truer form when I spent time with the more embarrassing stories of his life. I truly fear that if I was placed under the same kind of pressure I would deny Jesus three times. I wonder how similarly I would have responded if I had been on top of the mountain during the transfiguration. And I am ashamed knowing that if Jesus had explained the need for his death prior to resurrection, I probably would have pulled him aside to rebuke him for making such claims.

I identify most with Peter. I see myself in him when I read from the New Testament and therefore have learned how to respond to God’s grace in my life in a way so as to not make the same mistakes that Peter once did.

Who do you identify with in scripture? Are you going through something in your life right now that aligns with a particular story from the bible? How can you use the living Word to help shape and mold the direction your life is heading?

Believing > Understanding – Sermon on Isaiah 40.21-31

Isaiah 40.21-31

Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in; who brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing. Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown, scarcely has their stem take root in the earth, when he blows upon them, and they wither, and the tempest carries them off like stubble. To whom then will you compare me, or who is my equal? says the Holy One. Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these? He who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name; because he is great in strength, mighty in power, not one is missing. Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God”? Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

Isaiah-40-31

I have witnessed, read, and heard lots of sermons. From as far back as I can remember I was in church on a regular basis listening to people like me stand at the front of church and talk all about the bible. During seminary, I learned about the importance of attending different churches to hear from a variety of preachers. Listening to different pastors helped to cultivate my own sermonic style, and show me what not to do.

I once heard someone preaching about the wonderful story of David and Goliath. He read the corresponding scripture, prayed for God to be with him in his preaching, and then began the sermon with these words: “The stench of war hung in the air like a pungent fart…

There was a time where I heard a young woman preach on the sacrifice of Isaac from Genesis. As a sweet and endearing theologian, she frightened everyone in the room by continuing to beat on the pulpit in rhythm; first the rhythm of Abraham’s heart as he pondered the fact that God called him to sacrifice his son, second the rhythm of Abraham’s axe falling on the wood to prepare for the fire, and then latter the frightening sound of the blade falling in Abraham’s imagination. It shook everyone to their cores.

Right before I was appointed here at St. John’s I heard a pastor from the Eastern Shore preach a sermon on one of the psalms. He stood up before the gathered body and explained that he had felt convicted by the Spirit that week to rewrite the psalm as if he was one of those slam poets, and then proceeded to perform his new rendition for all of us. I can’t remember precisely what he said, but it sounded like this: “My heart beats beats beats, O God my heart beats beats beats. I will sing along to the beat, and make the beat my melody. Awake to the rhythm of my heart beat beat beat. Give thanks for the beating heating sleeting of my heart. For his steadfast love, is like a perfect dove, in the heavens so high, up in the air where the birds fly. Listen to the beat beat beat…” He went on like that for twenty minutes.

Sermons, at their best, make the Word incarnate again so that we can live it out in the world. There are as many styles as there are preachers, but hopefully we all ground what we say in God’s Holy Word. A common rule of thumb for preaching is that the text from scripture should determine the style of sermon. For instance: If the scripture lesson is a letter from Paul to one of the early churches, the sermons should function in a similar way to the church that is listening. If the scripture is a narrative, then a story should be used to help reveal the Good News from the text. If the passage is a parable, then the sermon should leave the people scratching their heads in the same way that the first Christians probably did when Jesus said something like the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed.

Is40.28-31

Our scripture today, though from a prophet, is a poem.  The Babylonians had scattered the Israelites throughout the region and they feared for their existence. They continued to grumble about their situations and constantly blamed God for their misfortunes. Like Jesus praying before his crucifixion, the exile was their Garden of Gethsemane, in which they would pray for the cup to pass from them.

Instead of telling a harrowing tale from Israel’s past, instead of offering a parable about their situation, Isaiah speaks into their situation as a poet. It is now my challenge to do the same.

—————————

Have you not known? Have you not heard? Have you not read about this in your bibles? Have you not experienced it in worship and in your daily prayers? Has it not been told to you week after week since the very beginning of your faithful journeys?

God is the one who sits above all things, He is the one who reigns over us. All of us, the people and inhabitants of the earth, we are like insects who come and go.

God is the author of salvation, he has opened up creation for us, dwells besides us, and hopes with us. God is the one who tears governments down, and makes the rulers of the earth fall away like leaves in autumn.

Like flowers in a field they are rarely planted, their roots descend but to not take hold, and when God blows upon them they float away. Crops come and go like the seasons, new plants reach up to the heavens only to disappear, flowers bloom only to wither, but God remains everlasting.

To what, then, shall we compare the Holy One? What kind of associations, experimentations, delineations shall we use to understand the one on high? What kind of metaphor will bring God to light? What kind of story points to his glory?

Lift up your eyes and see!

Look around you at the people in your life, at the blessings of food, function, and faith, at the wonders of God’s creation. God is the author of salvation, the teller of your tale, the sower of your seeds. He brings about life for all creatures then and now. It is only because of God’s great strength and glory that not one thing is missing from your story. 

So, people of God, why do we say and believe that “God does not care about my life!” How can we even utter such an abominable accusation about the author of salvation?

Have you not known? Have you not heard? Have you not read about this in your bibles? Have you not experienced it in worship and in your daily prayers? Has it not been told to you week after week since the very beginning of your faithful journeys?

The Lord is the everlasting God, the creator of the ends of the earth. Strength will rise as we wait upon the Lord as we wait upon the Lord as we wait upon the Lord. Our God reigns forever, our hope, our strong deliverer. He will not faint. He will not grow weary. His understanding is unknowable.

The Lord is the everlasting God. He gives strength to those who are weak, he empowers the powerless, and loves the unlovable. When we look out and see destruction, God sees incarnation. When we experience death, God sees life. When we believe God is missing, He is the one carrying us through our shadow of darkness.

Even the young people, with their strength and vision for the future, they will fall and be weary. The people in church and society that we so admire will crumble. They believe that life is a sprint instead of a marathon. But those who wait for the Lord, those who believe in the power of patience, shall have their strength renewed. They shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall soar from the highest of heights, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

If you can’t fly, then run. If you can’t run, then walk. If you can’t walk, then crawl. If you can’t crawl then pray and pray and pray. But whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.

The Lord is the everlasting God.

—————————

Believing is greater than understanding. I’m not talking about the simple belief that God exists, I’m not talking about believing in God. I’m talking about believing God. Believing that He is everlasting, that he creates and commands that stars in the sky, and hopes for us when all things feel hopeless.

The captives were afraid that what they held so dear would disappear to the sands of time. Many of us fear the same thing about what we believe is precious: values, morality, ethics, the church, society, love, hope, patience. But why should we be frightened? God the everlasting remains when all others things are swept away. Kings will reign, politicians will run for office, we will live, grow, and die, but God is the one who remains.

tumblr_nfmkc6gBLv1s91yx0o1_500

We are so tempted to get caught up in the here and now that we are unable to see things from God’s perspective. Our humanity prevents us from seeing God’s divinity. We look around and see all the failures of life around us and we fling our “why?” at God; but we should first challenge ourselves. What can I do to make this world better? How can I serve the needs of my brothers and sisters? What can I do to help show people a little glimpse of heaven on earth?

To wait for the Lord requires patience. We will all spend so much of our lives in vain trying to understand all that God has done when all we are called to do is believe.

“What is the text saying?” My professor asked of our class. We had our bibles open to the corresponding verses and began to argue about what it meant.

Some people, who desperately liked hearing the sound of their own voices, waxed lyrical about the historicity of the text and mentioned elements like fragments of papyrus and the corresponding dates of discovery.

Some people, who were more evangelical than others, went on and on about the infallibility of God’s Word and declared that we must take every single word literally and live them out.

Some people, who clearly were not paying attention, skirted around the issues in the text and talked about broad subjects so as to make it appear as if they had done their reading, when in fact everyone could tell they had not.

My professor practiced his patience and let us all argue it out for a while before he raised his hand to indicate silence. “You’re all wrong,” he began, “because you are operating from a false assumption. All of you believe the bible is about you.” He then said something that I will never forget: “The bible is always primarily about God, and only secondarily about us.

This poem from Isaiah is a humbling reminder that we are not nearly as important as we think we are. We are not the center of the universe. We can strive to work as hard as we can for our church and our community, but ultimately God is the one who brings about true transformation here on earth. What we pray for and work toward is worthy of our time, we just have to learn to trust that God will bring it about according to his will. Only an everlasting God could have the patience necessary to see the world turned upside down.

We are people of faith. We are people of belief. Let us not give in to the temptations of the world’s expectations of immediate gratification, and instead believe that God is the everlasting perfecter of patience, now and forever. Amen.