Sunday, January 27, 2019

Power in the Pages: Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10 - Third Sunday after Epiphany

1All the people [of Israel] gathered together into the square before the Water Gate. They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the Lord had given to Israel. 2Accordingly, the priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding. This was on the first day of the seventh month. 3He read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law. 5And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. 6Then Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. Then they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground. 8So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.
9And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. 10
Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” (NRSV)
Scroll of Isaiah from Qumran, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. [retrieved January 25, 2019]. 
When I was in seminary, I attended a Friday evening Shabbat in a local synagogue with a number of my friends and classmates. Two things stand out in my memory about that experience… First, I never felt more welcome in any church than I did that evening as a Christian worshipping with Jews. Second, I was even more struck by how much of the service was conducted in Hebrew. At one point, a young man—no more than fifteen—stood up and read the Scriptures in Hebrew. Doubtless, he was a bar mitzvah—a son of the commandment—meaning that he was considered a full member of the congregation. Think of it like our confirmation—except that it’s exceedingly longer and more intensive. It’s likely this young man knows far more about the Hebrew Scriptures than even I do.

You can’t help but wonder: why so much focus on the Scriptures? Is it because they love God more than we do? Do they fear God more than we do? Or is there some other reason?

For clues, we can look to our first reading for today—in the little-thought-of Old Testament book of Nehemiah.

The year is about 400 B.C. The exodus from Egypt under Moses was 850 years ago.  550 years ago, Israel was at the height of its power under King David.  But by now, that’s ancient history.  What isn’t ancient history is the nearly 50 years of exile in Babylon. 

God’s prophets made it crystal clear that the exile was punishment for having neglected God’s Word.  They didn’t bother teaching it or listening to it—and their relationship with God unraveled, as did their society.

Then suddenly, Babylon falls, and the exile is over.  The new king permits the survivors to go home and rebuild Jerusalem—which is great—but no easy task.

For starters, God led 650,000 Jews out of Egypt across the Red Sea under Moses (Num 1:45-46).  But only 42,000 Jews are returning home from the exile (cf. Neh. 7:66)

Everything must be rebuilt from scratch—not just buildings but the entire economy and way of life. And of course, the temple must be rebuilt. The city wall must be rebuilt to repel enemy attacks. 140 years pass before they get to where they are today. Even then, this nation a shadow of its former—self in terms of its size, strength, and stability.

Nevertheless, all the survivors gather at the newly-built wall—and the priest Ezra reads the book of the Law of Moses. From early morning until midday. God’s Word is spoken and read, with interpretation. The people listen. They worship with their faces to the ground. They say “Amen, amen,” and weep as they hear the words God has for them.

Why does the reading of God’s Word get such a reaction?
For starters, I doubt they had been hearing it much, given the fact that they’d spent the last 140 years rebuilding everything. Furthermore, 97% of the population would’ve been illiterate and those who could read wouldn’t have owned private copies of the Scriptures.
In a larger sense, this entire nation had been to hell and back. They waited a long time for this day to come. On this day it was crystal clear that despite their forebears’ unfaithfulness, God had been faithful. God remained faithful to their generation as well. Now, they can face the future with hope.

Has God’s Word ever spoken to you so powerfully—that it moves you to tears or casts you down to your knees in worship? Does Has God’s Word ever been so powerful as to compel you to acts of love and generosity—and it feels like you’re not in control? Has God’s Word take your life in a completely new direction?

Remember that the bible is not a textbook. It isn’t a biography. It’s far more than just doctrines and laws. The bible is all about relationships. It’s the story of God in relationship with ordinary people like you and me—and the transformation that results within that relationship. This is why God’s Word is so important and so central in the Christian life: to nurture you in God’s love, which is realized in the family of faith.

So when our young Jewish friends spend years preparing for their Bar or Bat Mitzvah, and learning the Hebrew language, it’s not “works righteousness.” They do this to strengthen their relationship with God, with each other, and with the world God made.

Yes, the bible is mysterious and difficult to understand. Yes, it’s full of strange laws that don’t make any sense—and words you can’t pronounce. Yes, it can be boring, depressing, and downright frightening—just like real life.

But that’s where the church comes in. We listen to and study God’s Word together, and we make sense of it, together. We’re bound together not just by our baptism, but by the fact that we live in the same communities. Our children attend the same schools. We share the same struggles. We have the same hopes and dreams for our children. And it may surprise you to know that the people who will help you to make sense of the Scriptures don’t hold seminary degrees, TV shows, bestselling books, or $1,000 haircuts. They’re people just like you. And they’re our children.

Waiting in the pages of your bible are life-changing and world-changing relationships; freedom from sin and the rebirth of a new creation; a vision of life as it can be for the family of God and the people we serve. Together, you can face and overcome anything—because the joy of the Lord will be your strength.

God is gracious and merciful; slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. God speaks—and pain is turned to healing; their fear is turned to hope; helplessness turns to strength. The hungry are fed. God’s love lives in the community that clings to God’s Word.

So what are you waiting for? Open the pages and dive into brand new life.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Footprints in the Snow: 1 Corinthians 12:1-11 - Second Sunday after Epiphany

1Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed. 2You know that when you were pagans, you were enticed and led astray to idols that could not speak. 3Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says “Let Jesus be cursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit.
4Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; 5and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; 6and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. 7To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. 8To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, 9to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 11
All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses. (NRSV)
Necedah National Wildlife Refuge by Amy Bayer on flickr. CC BY-ND 2.0

Earlier this week, I saw a posting on my Facebook news feed presented about something called The Clergy Project. Curious, I clicked on it to discover that this is an online community made up of “deconverted” current and former religious professionals. In other words, it’s for pastors who no longer believe in God.

I read a number of heart-wrenching stories from men and women of all denominations who left the Christian faith for one reason or another: because they couldn’t reconcile biblical teachings with scientific facts; because prayers weren’t being answered as they had hoped; because bad things kept happening to good people.

Initially, my first impression about the project was that this could never happen to me—that I never could lose my faith. Yet, I imagine all of these persons believed that very thing at one time. We always say, “that will never happen to me.” “I’m too healthy to get cancer.” “I’m too hard a worker to get laid off.” “I’m too strong to become addicted.” “My spouse and I will be happily married for life.” But the unthinkable happens—and everything you thought you knew about yourself, about the world, about God—falls to pieces.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus turned water into wine. So why can’t (or why won’t) Jesus take away the cancer, repair the broken marriage, or provide that much-needed new job? I’ve prayed with many for Jesus to help them turn the wine back into water—and yet, the addiction persists. All the while, generations are walking away from the Christian faith and churches are closing their doors, save for the great big ones with stadium seating and rock bands.

And if any church needed a miracle, it was the fledgling Corinthian Church. I can describe it in three words: Christians Behaving Badly. It had become a hotbed of conflict, competition, and chaos. The Apostle Paul, who founded the church, spends the batter part of his letter lecturing the Corinthians and addressing many of the controversies. But by chapter 12, Paul is focusing on one unchangeable reality—that each member is given spiritual gifts for the common good.

The foundation of the Church is the Gospel: that we are made righteous before God through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Yet we are more than a bunch of people who read the bible and hold to a certain set of doctrines and beliefs. We are the Body of Christ, proclaiming his promises and taking part in his saving work. Jesus embodies himself in us. We are the ones through whom the invisible God becomes visible to the world.

There are varieties of gifts and varieties of services—because God’s people need them. It’s not the case that some gifts are more important than others. As far as each of you are concerned, the most important spiritual gift is the gift God has given you which your neighbor needs. And together, we accomplish more than we could ever do apart. We may not turn water into wine, but that’s not to say that we can’t make an eternity’s worth of difference in people’s lives—and that we aren’t playing an important role in connecting people to the living God.

Talking about this is the easy part. Where it gets tough is in living it out.

In every church that’s struggling, there’s a council or a board debating over how they can get more peeps in the pews and coin in the coffers. Christian discipleship is constantly taking a back seat to pressures from work, family, sports, social media, and the need to just have fun.  Then you see just how divided our country has become—and how the debate over border security can drive a wedge between families and friends. You see how much people are hurting, whether they’re part of the church or not. You have your own questions, your own struggles, your own doubts. The world and its evil ways do not encourage faith in Christ.

Yet what separates a dead church from a living church—and a stale faith from a vibrant faith—is the sharing of your spiritual gifts for the good of all. The God who feels so distant suddenly comes near. You can see it; you can feel it; you can taste it; you know it’s real. It’s in the 16,000 pieces of clothing that were shared last year. It’s the healing of the grief-stricken. It’s the sound of children singing their hearts out. It’s the people who walk in solidarity with you through the worst trials of your life. When the unthinkable happens and it becomes impossible to go on believing, you are there as God’s presence for them.

What I found to be most devastating about the Clergy Project stories I read was how horribly lonely those folks had been—and not just when they left the faith behind, but when they struggled with it, too. Perhaps one of the spiritual gifts we need most right now is the ability to listen and empathize with people and honor their faith journey, particularly when it’s unlike our own. Must adherence to a creeds and traditions be a requirement for belonging? Or do we see that we have been given a mandate to belong to the unbelonged? Can we appreciate that a person’s first spiritual gift is the gift of being your genuine self?
Footprints in the Sand by Tony Armstrong-Sly on flickr. CC BY-NC 2.0

You probably know the Footprints in the Sand poem—when two sets of footprints become one, it’s then that God carries you? It’s a pretty poem, and there is some truth to it—but the way it really happens is that the other footprints belong to your sisters and brothers in Christ—and when you can’t go on anymore, that’s when they carry you. That’s what God intended the Body of Christ to be, after all. Someone else needs your feet; they need your hands; they need your voice; they need your ears and your presence. And you’ll need theirs, too.

For as long as you are willing to share your spiritual gifts for the common good and not your own; for as long as others’ spiritual gifts make Christ real to you; and for as long as we help the young and old in faith to discover their spiritual gifts and empower them to use them, there will be a church. There will be transformed lives. And most especially, we’ll be witnessing the power that changes water into wine transforming fear, guilt, and shame into faith, hope, and love.

Prayers of Intercession

United as one body in Christ, let us pray for the church, the world, and all those in need.
A brief silence.
We pray for the church. Help us to raise up one another’s spiritual gifts for the benefit of all your children. Teach us to be the presence of Christ to all those who are doubting, despairing, and desperate for your deliverance. Lord, in your mercy,
hear our prayer.

We pray for the earth and its renewal. Give warmth and protection to all who endure the winter’s cold. Be with all who have been driven away from their homes by mudslides and rising seas. Lord, in your mercy,
hear our prayer.

We pray for all who govern nations. We pray for all who are impacted by the government shutdown, and for all seeking safe refuge in our country. Shelter communities stricken by violence and show us the way of peace. Lord, in your mercy,
hear our prayer.

We pray for all who lack employment and living wages, and all who are burdened by with debt. We pray for all who suffer with chronic pain, all who grieve, and all who are ill (especially). Lord, in your mercy,
hear our prayer.

We pray for the congregations of our community, that in times of change and transition, you will guide us in the stewardship of your gifts and decisions we make.  We pray that you will bless us with growth in Spirit and members.  Provide us new and creative ways of leadership and ministry. We ask this also for the congregations of our cluster, especially Sons of Zebedee in Saltsburg, and Pastor Keith McCutcheon. Lord, in your mercy,
hear our prayer.

Receive our prayers and fill us with the radiance of your love; through Jesus Christ our Lord.


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