Tuesday, November 29, 2011

It's Advent, the 4 weeks prior to Christmas when we "get ourselves ready". It's my favoritest season of the whole year, on any calendar. But it isn't an easy one: the stories are of incredible (as in unbelievable) events: the upsetting of "natural order" at the end of time; a crazy baptizing preacher from the wilderness; pregnancy for women for whom pregnancy doesn't seem possible.

Maybe those are the things I like about the stories in Advent. I can't explain them, I don't know why God works in such illogical and messy ways, but that is where God seems to do the best work. These stories keep the mystery of God, rather than trying to be logical and understandable. HOW God is present isn't as important as THAT God is present, after all.

In Advent we live in this paradox time: the hope of what is to be in Jesus, and the confidence that it's already fulfilled in Jesus. Add it to the list of mysteries, I guess.

I'm listening to "To Kill a Mockingbird" by Harper Lee (somehow missed reading that before). There was a memorable quote today: "There are just some kind of men [sic] who are so busy worrying about the next world, they've never learned to live in this one." Advent is a time when we prepare to celebrate that God is present in THIS world, at THIS time, born again each year in Jesus--not that God needs a do-over, but we sure seem to need a reminder.

In the midst of tents being staked out and mobs descending at Wall Street and Wal-Mart, I invite you to remember God's presence and promise with us. The incarnation, after all, is about God finding this world "good"-- good at creation, and good enough to dwell in in Jesus.

I have for decades had a postcard on my wall, given to me by a friend in seminary: "Indeed! If God is really in this place, we know God is, we can't be in too much trouble now, can we?" (Thomas Merton)

May you be blessed in Advent, with discovering something about God and yourself, and with the trust gained by not needing to know more, which is one facet of faith.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

November Bible Study: Esther

We’ve talked a lot lately about the law as we’ve looked at Jonah, Amos, Zephaniah, and Malachi in the Hebrew testament. What we translate as “law”, Torah, is the instruction of God, mostly about how to live together well to preserve the identity and well-being of the community. The Torah sets a boundary around those who observe it: they are defined over and against other communities, nations, and religions. We tend to view Torah as rules and regulations; things you “have” to do or God will get mad at you. But I think Torah is more like customs that distinguish a group of people, as we might say, “Oh, those Germans drive so fast on their autobahn” or “Texans love brisket” (stolen from an ad I saw today!). These are not stereotypes (though they could be) as much as they are what’s “famous” about the group as a whole. Torah functions somewhat like this: God’s people keep Torah, know the laws, know how the relationship with Yahweh is structured; others do not.

In the book of Esther, there is more “over and against” defining of who God’s people are. Esther takes place after the divide into two kingdoms, after the Babylonian exile, after the return home and rebuilding of Jerusalem. But after a few generations of relocation, not everyone thought of Israel as “home”, so the Jews were scattered throughout the region, having established homes and families in foreign countries.

The city of Susa, in what is now Iran, was the winter capital of the king of Persia, which was a very diverse kingdom made up of locals as well as immigrants and refugees who had been taken captive or dispersed abroad under the Babylonian empire. The book of Esther provides a contrast between the rich and powerful Persians and the humble Jews, who seem to be trying to fit in and to remain faithful (although, interestingly, God is never mentioned in this book!).

The most striking contrast is between those who live by fate and those who live by faith. The Persians put stock in fate: casting lots (“Purim”) to determine significant days in the calendar (3:7), and attributing bad policy and the suffering of others to “fate” (1:15, 8:8). The Jews, however, trust that God will provide, and they take action on their own behalf to “make room” for God to intervene: Esther is put forward as a candidate for queen (2:8) giving her privilege and power she, or any Jew living as a foreigner in the country, would not have had. Her influence with the king in gaining an audience and exposing Haman’s plot can be seen as “divine intervention”, although God is not credited in the story.

Esther is one more story of God saving God’s people in the midst of imminent danger, when they are about to be wiped out—and a thorough destruction it would have been if Haman’s decree had been carried out. It is less explicitly Jewish than other books, in that “what it means to live as people of the covenant” is not described or addressed, and God is not even mentioned. It is a story about accountability as, and to, the community, by those in power on behalf of those on the margins (4:14).

Q: Does this story remind you of any others, in the Bible or outside the Bible?
Q: How explicit do we have to be about our faith in order to be considered faithful? Is the absence of God’s name a problem, considering this is a Biblical book?

Monday, October 3, 2011

October Bible Study: Amos, Zephaniah, Malachi

This month we’ll read books of three distinct prophets, to see how time and context shape their message. This simple timeline may be helpful:

1020 United kingdom (Saul, David, Solomon)
922 Split of kingdom (10 tribes of Israel; 2 tribes in Judah)
786-746 King Jeroboam, Amos
721 Assyrians defeat Israel; Jerusalem taken; temple destroyed
640-609 King Josiah, Zephaniah
587 Exile under Babylonian empire
538 Return under Persian empire
515 return to Jerusalem; temple rebuilt
After this, Malachi; no longer a king for the people
(If you have a Lutheran Study Bible, there’s a timeline on p. 30-32)

As you read each book, try to answer these questions for each:

--What is God / prophet upset about?
--Will there be punishment? What does it look like?
--Will there be reconciliation? What does it look like?
--Can you think of anything specific that happened that could have been interpreted as punishment or reconciliation?

Book details:
Amos writes before exile, and addresses the northern tribes of Israel primarily. He assumes they are familiar with the Torah, the Law, and so they’ll see the error of their ways and return to the covenant YHWH established with all twelve tribes (the split was their idea; they left the other two, Judah and Benjamin).

Zephaniah writes after the destruction of Jerusalem, the capital of the promised land and center of God’s kingdom; but before the Babylonian exile. There is concern for loyalty to YHWH, especially in the midst of other nations exerting their power over the Israelites; will they remain faithful, will they be able to find God, outside of Jerusalem? The name Ba’al means “master” or “lord” and is used as an honorific title, rather than referring to a particular deity. There were many “baalim” followed by “false prophets”, and were probably various local deities favored by a village. Remember that YHWH is a jealous God, and does not want the people honoring any other god as holy.

Malachi writes after the exile and return to Jerusalem, after the temple has been rebuilt and rededicated. The people are “home” again, with a new “home” for God, but things are still not right. The name “Malachi” means “messenger” and does not refer to a particular person, but is a general message to God’s people in a time of transition. Things are not the same and never will be, but in 500 years God will do a new thing (Matthew is next!)

Dates and locations for October:
(all Wednesdays)
10/5 6:30pm Rasmussen's (Kyle)
10/12 10:00am Living Word (Buda)
10/12 6:30pm Bouzard's (San Marcos)
10/19 6:30pm Marshall's (Buda)
10/26 6:45pm Just's (Austin)

See you soon! Of course you may bring a friend...

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Bible Study: Matthew 25-26

The thing I'm noticing as I read these last few chapters of Matthew is a feeling, and it's a little claustrophobic, a little intrusive. At the beginning of Matthew, the story starts at a point (Nazareth) and expands across the whole region, following Jesus and the disciples as they travel. Now it's starting to zoom back in, the scope of the story is getting smaller. In chapter 26 especially things get intense and start to happen quickly; I feel like a lens has zoomed in on Jesus and I'm noticing lots of small details.

Another thing I sense about these chapters is a call to loyalty: are you in or are you out? It's time to make up your mind. Are you ready to go, with plenty of oil (25:1-13)? Do you know what to do (25:14-30)? Have you learned what I've been teaching you, and have you been practicing it (25:31-46)? Saying you believe is not enough; Jesus has come to make the world new, to transform God's people and the very way we live together--does it appear that you are being transformed?

Chapter 26 continues episodes of dis/loyalty: The Roman establishment (chief priests, elders, high priest--although they are Jewish religious officials, they are also pawns of Rome) is not loyal; a nameless woman who anoints Jesus is; Judas is not; Peter swears he will be; Jesus himself is not sure about the whole thing.

Q: Is there a difference between loyalty and faithfulness when it comes to our relationship with God? If so, what's the difference? Is one more important than the other?

Notice the sequence of events in this chapter, and the sense that we are "zooming in" on the climax of the story. In one chapter, the plot to arrest Jesus gets formed (v. 4), a woman anoints him in an acceptance of his death (6-13), Judas agrees to betray (14), they celebrate Passover and the shift to communion is commanded (26-29), the disciples declare their loyalty, they go to Gethsemane, take a nap while Jesus prays, Judas kisses him, he's arrested, he heals an ear, the disciples flee, Jesus is interviewed by Caiaphas and the elders and convicted, and Peter denies him. Wow. There is no time for reflecting on events; only for reporting them.

The church year sets a rhythm for us to feel the story in this way. At this time, from Pentecost to Advent, we are in "ordinary time". We hear stories of what Jesus was doing in his "ordinary time". They are slower, stretching out over these lazy months, allowing us to keep pace with him. But in Lent, and particularly Holy Week and the "triduum" (three days, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday) there's this intense focus on just a few hours of Jesus' life, and death. We zoom in on this story, the way the story zooms in for us. We have been taught to focus on "Jesus died for our sins", but there's so much more to the story. What about the disciples and their loyalty, or lack thereof? What about the Romans, and the deals made between the government and the religious establishment? And most importantly, what about the rest of the story? For me, the important piece is not why Jesus died (for my sins, or because of the Romans); but that God did not let that death be the end of Jesus' influence, reign, and presence in creation. But, this isn't supposed to be a sermon, and we haven't got to that part yet... so tune in again next week.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Bible Study: Matthew 23-24

As you continue your reading in Matthew, are you getting a sense of Jesus demonstrating and contrasting what IS faithful and what is not? Jesus redefines, in some ways, what it means to be faithful or obedient, what it means to keep the law.
In ch. 23, for example, Jesus rages against the “scribes and Pharisees”, who probably cannot be faulted in their observance of the law, in a technical sense. Jesus knows that the law is given to provide a framework within which God’s justice is practiced in God’s creation for God’s people. The piety of the scribes and Pharisees (some, not all, of them) has been reduced down to a mere following of the letter of the law, without meaning. The law has become an end in itself for them, not a means to the greater goal of justice. And so Jesus chastises them with this list of seven “Woe!”s , and almost makes fun of their religious accessories (phylacteries and fringes)—which he may himself wear.

Q: can you think of an example of “official religion” or the institution following a practice or declaring a decree that makes it less credible, and consequently, makes God less credible? How do we know where the line is between “variety of religious expression” and unfaithfulness that may discredit religion/God? Whose responsibility is it to monitor that line or to call those who cross it to account?

Vs. 37-39 Jesus’ lament to the city, “Jersualem, Jerusalem!”, conjures in me Jonah’s question when he is sent to Ninevah: “why would you want me to go there? They won’t listen.” And here we see a feminine image of God: the mother hen who gathers the chicks safely under her wing. Yet Jerusalem has been the stray, chirping around unprotected, thinking itself invincible.

As we near the end of this gospel, we enter into what I think of as “the last chance”—there’s more for Jesus to teach and more for them to learn, and he’s trying to cram it all in. His speeches get longer and he moves around less. He uses many metaphors to talk about the change to come, and refers to Hebrew stories and scripture.

It is interesting to remember that the gospel of Matthew was probably written down between 50-60 c.e., and the temple was destroyed in 70 c.e. As Roman oppression increased to the point of revolt, the people increased their hope that Messiah would come and deliver them. They probably “saw”or witnessed many who seemed trustworthy but turned out to be false. They felt the pain of those birth pangs, of hoping with all their being for deliverance from their situation, for a new day that God would usher in. The language here is very strong and very full; these are real images and some of these things are happening right around them.

Q: these are some of the more frightening images of how the kingdom of God breaks in. Do you find them compelling? Helpful? Do they make you want to “straighten up your act” or give up? In what tone do you hear Jesus saying them: warning, frightened, matter-of-fact? Do you find yourself “making the cut” but worrying about others who might not? Will the coming of the Son of Man be a good thing, or maybe not?

Keep in mind the larger context of the gospel of Matthew: he is demonstrating to a Jewish audience that Jesus is Jewish enough to qualify as the Messiah. In a time of rebuilding the community--literally, after the revolt--he is advocating that the Way of Jesus is the best way to be religious. Remember when we read just a paragraph at a time, it's easy to misunderstand or misinterpret the point of the whole story.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Who We Are

Well, I missed an opportunity today.

Someone asked, "What kind of church is this?"

It's a fair question, sure enough. But I immediately went into defining over and against, who we are not, describing why and how we're not like some other Christian groups.

And I'm just tired of it--the "negative" or defensive approach to defining who we are. I just finished reading a book* about this "heaven and hell" theology that has defined American Christianity for centuries, how it's just part of the fabric of society and has crept into teaching and preaching when we don't really mean it (some DO really mean it, but some of us don't believe it).

I really, really like having so many denominations. Sure, it can be tricky to navigate around so many ideas and hopes and dreams and interpretations, with proper respect, language, and finesse. But I am glad there are so many ways to get to God, because I think more people can get to God. But I, for one, haven't done a great job of highlighting the way I prefer. Traditional, progressive, mainline Protestantism doesn't get much attention, yet here we are with something very positive and life-giving to offer.

So, the result of this missed opportunity today is my elevator speech. I've been thinking about it for years, literally years--what's my brief answer to the question, what would I tell someone about why this is important, in the time it takes to ride up an elevator?

We are a progressive community that focuses on God's love for all people and how we partner to do God's work in God's world.

That's it, for now. Not defensive, not full of theological jargon, not an attempt at full conversion--just a simple, positive statement that hopefully will provoke further conversation.

What's yours?

*the book is A Christianity Worth Believing by Doug Pagitt. Pretty good read.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Bible Study: Matthew 15 & 16

As we read through the gospel of Matthew this summer, I am noticing the movement of Jesus and the disciples: they are in the country, in the city, on the road, in the synagogue, outside, inside, at the sea, on the sea. Jesus is covering a lot of territory and crossing a lot of borders, in terms of geography, theology, tradition, and ethnicity.

Here in chapter 15 Jesus' ministry and purpose are expanding. In his conversation with the Pharisees and scribes (15:1-20)he expands the purpose of an old tradition and the understanding of a commandment. In the confrontation with the Canaanite woman (15:21-28) his own purpose is expanded, as she challenges him to include Gentiles in the vision of the kingdom of God. His healing ministry expands through a new crowd of people, and seven loaves of bread expand to feed more than four thousand people.

Q: how have you seen God expanding, at work in the world? Why is it hard to see, why do we miss it so often, when we believe it is true?

In chapter 16 the flow seems to reverse, as Jesus begins to focus his teaching, at least to his disciples, on finer points. "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" he asks in verse 13. The disciples have watched all this healing and feeding and arguing about the law, all things that define Jesus; so what does it mean, he wants to know. How are they processing this ministry in which they are taking part? "Who do YOU say that I am?" This is the "elevator speech"--how do we talk about our faith as a response to a question? How will the disciples respond when they are asked, or attacked, about following Jesus? The rest of the chapter becomes a warning about difficulties ahead, including Jesus' own arrest and death. It's time to have an answer ready.

Focusing on a detail at the expense of the expansive story of God's love can be very dangerous, and has been used for destruction, war, and abuse. Yet Jesus asks a basic question, that needs a basic answer, and the answer will likely be different for each person. A faithful answer, I believe, is based on an understanding of and love of the larger story. Our "elevator speech" is not a simplistic reduction of what God is up to, but rather a starting point for a larger conversation.

Q: Who do YOU, reader, say that Jesus is? Why do you say that? DO you say that (have you told anybody)?

Q: What does Jesus mean by taking up a cross to follow him (16:24)? How have you done this in your life? Was it worth it?

Reading through Matthew is starting to feel a bit like following Billy, from The Family Circus cartoon, to the mailbox. But we've learned a lot along the way, both what to do and what not to do. Jesus, the way, is showing us the way.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Bible Study: Matthew 9 & 10

In the Sermon on the Mount, chapters 5-7, Jesus teaches—a lot of information. In chapter 8, he is on the move, and here in chapters 9-10 he continues moving about the countryside, covering a lot of territory (by walking, remember!) and doing a wide variety of things.

The main things that are happening in these chapters are healing and calling of the disciples. In both of these things, there is a distinction, a setting apart: the kinds of things Jesus does in his ministry are different from what religious leaders have traditionally done, different from what the scribes and Pharisees do.

1. Jesus is a healer, and a very comprehensive one. Jesus heals leprosy, fever, paralysis, demon possession, hemorrhage, blindness, muteness, those near death, and “every disease and every sickness”. Without medical training or equipment, Jesus can make people whole with just a word and a touch.

Q: Do you think this catalog of Jesus’ healing feats is meant to convince us that God can cure the same things among us? Or does it show us the breadth of God’s care, how deep and broad is the arena in which God does wonders?

Many of these stories include an aspect of spiritual or communal healing that we may miss, in addition to the physical healing. Skin conditions and ailments involving blood were violations of purity laws in Jewish culture, which resulted in the ostracizing of those who suffered them. By restoring the skin or healing the wound or condition, Jesus also repaired the social and legal gap, enabling the person to return to community, including living among family, working in their trade, and participating in worship.

Q: How has Jesus healed you, physically, spiritually, or emotionally?

2. Jesus gathers people to work with him, and seems to be fairly lax in his standards. He does not invite the scribes and Pharisees--religious leaders—to do religious work with him. He invites ordinary people to be holy together, to be God’s presence in the world however they can do that. The fishermen bring what they know (those nets and boats get used a lot!), the tax collector brings what he knows, they learn together and do more things. But they aren’t just squeezing this work in on the side—Jesus sets them apart for a specific purpose, to follow him, not only where he goes but HOW he lives, works, moves, interacts in the world.

Q: What would Jesus ask you to “bring along” for ministry?

The “setting apart” is quickly noticed: the disciples and Jesus are criticized for doing things their own way. They don’t wash right, they don’t eat with the right people, they don’t follow the rules; they’re not very popular but they are very noticeable. In chapter 10, Jesus begins to warn them that the going will get rough, but it’s time to get going, nonetheless.

Q: What things do you do because of your faith that are not popular or are misunderstood by others?

Q: What “rules” does our church/tradition have that are more a hindrance than a help for God’s mission?

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Bible Study: Matthew 5 & 6, part 3

This section continues a pattern from 5:17-38 where Jesus radicalizes the law. Yet this section also represents a shift as Jesus turns from the internal relationships of the alternative community toward how the community will relate to others, especially hostile others. Jesus turns the community toward the abusive others and suggests strategies that will break the cycles of violence perpetuated by their enemies while asserting the community’s own dignity as children of God.
The title of this section is Holy Resisting, not Spineless Acquiescing! Walter Wink has done some fine work on the meaning of these instructions.# Jesus assumes in this section that his audience consists of those being harmed whether by being struck, sued, or forced by someone else. How might they respond to the violence being perpetrated against them?
The first issue involves being struck. The law had allowed “an eye for an eye”. This allowance did not originally serve as a rallying cry for vengeance as it does today. This law placed limits on retribution. An eye for an eye meant one could not, for example, take another’s life for striking out their eye. Punishment could be commensurate with the offense and no more. But Jesus radicalizes this command as he has with the others. Jesus suggests responses to Roman violence. Acts of violence carry symbolic value that sometimes surpasses the physical pain involved. Slapping someone less powerful with the back of the hand would not hurt physically as much as a fist to the cheek would, but it carried a psychological element that put “lesser” people in their place. Jesus describes someone who is backslapped since they are struck on the right cheek in a culture that only used the right hand in public interaction [since the left had unclean functions.] When Jesus says, “Turn the other cheek”, he calls for a situation where one stands up to one’s enemy and requires him to stop the violence or to at least strike one as “an equal” [right hand fist or slap to the left cheek.].
We too assign different meaning to different acts of violence. We respond differently to a parent who spanks her five year old than we would to one who punches her. When I ask a male student if he would rather receive a knock out punch at a campus party or have an enemy take him over the knee and spank him in front of everyone, his answer is clear. Though the physical pain is less, the shame carried in the spanking makes the punch preferable. Likewise in Jesus’ day violent acts could carry shame. In one legal code that Wink describes, an unprovoked punch by one of equal status is subject to a fine of four days worth of wages; but a slap levies a fine that costs 200 days’ wages and a backslap even twice that amount! Jesus says that in an undesirable situation where someone, probably a soldier, tries to put people in their place, they should stand up and reassert their dignity without themselves resorting to violence.
Jesus raises a similar strategy in two other cases. If someone rich enough to loan money takes them to court demanding their last resort collateral [their coat] then they should let that person know how destitute he leaves them by handing over every stitch of clothing that they have on! He must see how he robs them of everything. If a soldier conscripts them to carries his pack to the Roman limit of one mile, then keep carrying it a second mile so that the soldier must beg for it back or suffer the wrath of his superiors who know that the populace can only be abused so far before they begin to rebel. [Soldiers who forced peasants beyond the official limits might suffer loss of pay, food, or rank. Most often they would be publicly whipped.]
In each of these examples Jesus describes ways to challenge the way things run by refusing to accept that which seeks to humiliate! The alternative community refuses to accept their dishonoring by the powerful, knowing that God has declared them blessed! But they also do not take up weapons of retaliation. They offer holy resistance rather than violent resistance.
The remainder of this section speaks of the need to love enemies. The faithful resisters will respect the humanity of their abusers and not stoop to their level. Jesus demands that their love move beyond the community in solidarity. They must have respectful regard of all people without discrimination since God is perfectly consistent in caring for all people. The justice that they hungered and thirsted for is this greater justice for all people. In their quest to care they must be perfectly consistent, like God, in caring for all!

Bible Study: Matthew 5 & 6, part 2

Holy Reconciling: Matthew 5:17-37

Having offered his followers an identity very different than the one offered by the Roman appraisal of them, Jesus turns to the practices that he expects for the community gathered around this alternative vision. Jesus reaches into the law and the prophets to find the model for godly living. He has not come to set aside even a stroke of the law but has come to fulfill it (Mt 5:18). Yet this does not mean that things will continue as they have been operating. Jesus becomes the authoritative interpreter who will teach them righteousness or justice that surpasses the practices of the religious establishment (Mt 5:20).

Jesus is aware that those who have lived their lives under violent powers will be tempted to use the same violence toward others. Having been threatened, they may turn to people in their own community with threats; having been insulted by the powerful, they may use their power to degrade others. Jesus interprets the law radically identifying God’s intent: they are not to will harm for anyone in their community. At this point, the concern focuses on internal relationships, that is, how members of the community will treat their “brother or sister” (Mt 5:22). Murder is not only carried out by the sword. Abusive anger and scathing insults directed against other members of the community violate God’s command for life.

Worship also is to take place within the context of whole relationships. If a member has offended another, he must go and seek reconciliation with her before offering gifts to God. Right relationship with God should be sought within the context of right relationships with others in the community of faith. Gifts are offered to God only after one has pursued reconciliation with the parties that one has harmed. Thus worship and our offerings to God cannot be used to justify unjust and broken relationships. Followers of this new way must seek out reconciliation with those whom they have harmed before they find themselves morally bankrupt in the presence of a judge. To nurture old animosities rather than to seek healing with another again locks up people in prisons of their own making.

Jesus continues his mapping of communal relationships and his reinterpreting and radicalizing of the law. In each case he interprets prohibitions in light of their disintegrating effects on communal life. Adultery is not only about sleeping with those who are not one’s marriage partners; it is about making others into objects of one’s own fantasies. The use of others to satisfy one’s own base needs makes them into objects rather than people to relate to as fellow children of God. Such attitudes lead to hell and havoc for the community. Jesus calls for people to remove from themselves all that violates their integrity. He desires whole people holistically seeking the Empire of God. Hungering lustfully over others takes away from the hunger and thirst for justice on their behalf. Similarly, the practice of dismissing or divorcing the person whom one has pledged to care for leads to a break down of community. People are not objects to be disposed of based on personal whims.

Finally, Jesus challenges the interpretation of the law that suggests that one must speak truth when an oath is taken; but, that, therefore one may lie at other times. Integrity–that is the whole, single-minded focus–requires that one’s word be consistently dependable. When one utters “yes” then the meaning is always “yes”; when one declares “no” the meaning will always be a clear “no”.

In this section Jesus has offered his radical interpretation of the law that provides the grounds for healthy community living. Within the community of faith people are not to replicate the control and violence that they suffer in the broader world. They are to use words to build each other up rather than to tear each other down. They are to own up to the harm they have caused others and seek reconciliation with them. They are to treat each other with respect and not make objects of others. They are to care for each other for the long haul and not dispose of each other when conflicts arise. They are to live with integrity, totally dedicated to following their hunger for justice so that unrighteousness does not derail this utterly essential quest for wellbeing for all.

Bible Study: Matthew 5 & 6

Hey, folks, I'm at camp this week, so we're having a guest Bible study leader: Phil Ruge-Jones. He already wrote a study on this portion of Matthew, so I'm shamelessly pilfering it (with his permission). Thanks!

Holy Blessings: Matthew 5:1-18

As the Sermon on the Mount begins, Jesus, like Moses, reveals God’s will to his followers amidst mountain scenery. He explains God’s way of perceiving the world, focusing on all those who had suffered under Roman occupation. He begins his sermon not with imperatives of how they should act, but with a gracious declaration of that which Rome is unable to see–they are beloved children of God. Jesus blesses those beleaguered followers. Jesus declares various groups of people blessed. And in the hearing of his word, they know themselves to be blessed. Before Jesus starts telling them how to live, he gives them a sure and secure identity. You are blessed! Their new way of life begins by receiving the respect and gracious regard that God offers. Just as Jesus’ ministry began with God’s declaration, “This is my Son…”, their action will flow out of the solid, new identity that God offers them as a community. “You-all who are poor in spirit” are blessed “in the Empire of Heaven.”

The crowds who hear him say these words have already experienced the blessing of his healing power. This is what drew them to follow him (See Mt 4:24-25a). We can be sure that these people were poor by any standards we normally use. The vast majority of people in Jesus’ time lived from day to day. Subsistence rather than blessedness was the norm. Yet Jesus tenderly speaks them into a new realm.

The word repeated throughout this opening is “blessed” and this word brings about what it declares. People understand themselves as blessed in the very hearing of the word. Jesus declares that the poor in spirit, those at the bottom of Rome’s priorities, are central in God’s Empire. Likewise those who know tears now will rejoice. Also those who are meek, not the power players, will inherit the land. The first groups named are described in terms of what has been done to them–they have been left poor, grieving, and robbed of pride. This has created a longing for a different kind of world, a world Jesus is opening up to them through the word he speaks.

Jesus then blesses those who define their lives along alternative lines. To use the moving image of Gandhi, they have become the
change that they long to see in the world. Although they have been beaten down, their spirit is not destroyed. They hunger for the world made new in justice and righteousness. They act with mercy and single-hearted focus; they seek peace in the midst of the violence. Jesus is no idealist here. He understands that such a commitment is costly. They will be persecuted for their quest to create an alternative to the violence. Those who do not desire change will accuse the peacemakers of every manner of evil. Yet Jesus blesses them along with all the prophets whose ways they now follow.

Finally using images of salt and light Jesus again declares them into a new reality. He still is not commanding them to do something more. He is celebrating whom God has made them as a people. “You all are salt” “You all are light”. From the community of blessed peacemakers, from the community of those who have grieved and yet hope without bitterness, the light will shine forth.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Bible study, June 12 Matthew 3-4

Well, since last week, Jesus has totally grown to adulthood. We find him here on the banks of the Jordan River with John the Baptizer, introduced, of course, by a quote from scripture. Already in John's fiery speech we have the comparison between the religious establishment (Pharisees and Sadducees)and the new Way of Jesus.
Q: What expectations do you have for the religious establishment? How do you respond when they disappoint you?

John proclaims not to be worthy to carry Jesus' sandals, yet Jesus comes to be baptized by John.
Q: Is there a difference in motivation or theology between what John, the people, and Jesus think about baptism? Do the details of Jesus' baptism change the way you think about your own baptism?

Jesus is immediately taken from the river to the wilderness (quite a contrast of images right there!) for the purpose, it seems, of being tempted by the devil.
Q: What or who is the devil? How does that work in your theological thinking?
Note: the devil uses Hebrew scripture to tempt Jesus! This is a good example of scripture being used against God's purposes rather than for them.

Jesus relocates his home base (again, according to scripture) and begins to preach John's sermon (3:2 + 4:17) of repentance. "Repent" means to return, to come back to the way of life God had established with these (Hebrew) people in the covenant with Israel. It isn't necessarily feeling sorry or bad about something, although having strayed away from the covenant is reason to feel sorry. Repent is an active verb; not just a feeling, but "change your ways!", turn and go this way, God's way, not that way.
Q: does the sermon "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near" sound different from Jesus' mouth than it did from John's?

Jesus chooses some disciples, not based so much on a job description he needed to fill, but he asked them to bring what they knew and what they had and go with him, using those gifts in some way they'd figure out later.
Q: (you know it's coming!) Has God surprised you by using a gift of yours in some way you never connected with faithfulness, spirituality, or religion?

In one sentence Jesus does more than we will accomplish in our lifetimes. Look at all the verbs in v. 23: went, teaching, proclaiming, curing. Look on a map and see the territory he's covering. Read the list (v. 24) of healings. This is easy to overlook, but the magnitude is impressive. No wonder he has such a following already.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Bible study: June 5 Matthew 1-2

During the summer we'll be reading a "community book", the gospel of Matthew. Each week we'll read 2 chapters, and the preaching text during worship will be a pericope from those 2 chapters. So, chapters 1 and 2 for this week; here we go!

Matthew begins with a rather long genealogy; a lot of "begats" if you're reading King James Version (which I don't particularly recommend, unless it's your favorite and you're familiar with it). DO NOT SKIP the genealogy! You don't have to take in every name there, but read it to get a feel of the rhythm of the language and the weight, in importance, of the one to whom this genealogy leads: Jesus, the Messiah of God.

Q: How many generations back can you name in your family tree?
Q: Notice the names of the 4 women in this genealogy, when lineage was traced through fathers. What is the significance of these 4 women? Do you know "the rest of" their stories?

Matthew is writing to a Jewish audience at a time of upheaval and uncertainty in his world. His "slant" is almost a persuasive argument about why Judaism-pointing-to-Jesus is the best religious stance to take at this time. He's trying to establish the credibility of Jesus by showing us this fine line of Jewish leaders and heroes from whom Jesus is descended. You will notice throughout the book that Matthew is concerned with how the Jewish leaders act (scribes and Pharisees) contrasted with the New Way in Jesus.

Next is the birth narrative, verses 18-25.
Q: how is this different from what you think you know about the Christmas story? Who's missing? Note: Notice the angel in this story, and dreams; these are the first of many angels and dreams in Matthew.
Note: Notice, in v. 23, the quotation from Hebrew scripture; another way of establishing Jesus, and his new Way, as legitimately located in the Jewish tradition.
Q: What is the significance of JOSEPH being the one who names the child?

Chapter 2 brings us our first bad guy: Herod. Historically, Herod ruled from 37-4 BCE, which requires an adjustment in our "dating" of Jesus' birth. He was part of the Roman machine, loyal to himself and to the Empire; certainly wouldn't stand for a coup, even if the perpetrator was a newborn infant.
Q: what's different in this part of the story from what you know of the Christmas story? Why do you think Matthew does not include the registration in Bethlehem, angels, shepherds?
Q: what is the significance of "wise men from the East" traveling to see Jesus?

Another angel, another dream, and they are sent, ironically, to Egypt for safety. Remember the Jewish audience here; their minds would immediately return to Moses fleeing Egypt because of oppression; now they return to Egypt because of oppression. Rome is the new Egypt, Herod the new Pharaoh.

The slaughter of the innocents is a troubling episode, power and paranoia taken to extremes. Although there is no secular historical recording of the event, it is consistent with Herod's behavior of killing those he perceived to be a threat to him; and it stands here in the gospel of Matthew.
Q: why does Matthew keep this awful story?
Q: what are we, as people of faith, supposed to learn from it about God's saving activity?
Q: how do you feel about Jesus being saved when others were killed?

Notice there are 5 quotations from the Hebrew scriptures in these first 2 chapters.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Bible study, Easter 6/May 29, 2011

John 14:15-21

15 "If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. 17 This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you. 18 "I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. 19 In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. 20 On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. 21 They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them."

Chapter 14 of John's gospel is set in an interesting context: the Last Supper. In this long speech (that goes on for several chapters) Jesus seems to be telling the disciples several things he probably told them already, but this is his last chance to make sure it stuck.

Jesus has just told the 11 disciples (Judas has left the table to betray him) that he is leaving to prepare a place for them, and he, the way, the truth, and the life, will lead them there to be with him. In this part of the story, he promises that he will not leave them "orphaned" but that he will come back, AND another Advocate will also be with them.

There is a contrast here between those who are connected with/identified with Jesus (those who keep the commandments) and those who are disconnected ("the world"). Greek cosmology depends on dualism, and we see that creeping into the Christian Testament writings: Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, the flesh or the spirit. Here John labels those who are not connected to Jesus "the world", although of course those who keep the commandments and thus are connected to Jesus live in the world as well.

Christians have sometimes said "We don't need the law, we have Jesus" or "The Hebrew Testament and all those laws don't apply to us, we're saved". Jesus, a faithful and educated Jew, says no such thing; yet in our time, we Christians do not observe Jewish law (except for rather many of them which we know to be good for our life!)

What, do you think, is the role of God's law in the life of a person of faith, today? What does it mean to "keep" a commandment, and what do we do when we fail? How are we known as Christians--is it because we keep God's law, or by something else? Are there some commands that we have to keep, and others that are optional?

(To comment, click the "comment" button at the bottom of each post, and you'll be directed to a box for comments. Thanks!)

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Is There a Pastor in the House?

I'm always interested in, sometimes even amused by, people's response when "The Pastor" walks in. There's a range of responses:

"Hurry and stop sinning; the pastor's here and she'll tell God what we're doing."

These people obviously do not know me well, but if they'd give me a chance I might join in the so-called "sinning" (they could at least buy me a margarita, don't you think?). Besides which, God does not need me to tattle; nor do I stand in the place of God, certainly not to be judgmental about cussing, drinking, smoking, dancing, or playing cards (one of the many things I love about being Lutheran!)

Followed closely by: "Let's be polite, but not too nice; maybe she won't stay long."

A related story: when I was in seminary, one of my high school friends said, "I hope you'll forgive me, but if I ever see you walking around with one of those things around your neck, I'm crossing the street!" Well, I do wear a neckband clergy collar when I want people to know the pastor IS in the house; but hardly ever just for walking down the street! And not in my hometown.

"Guilty! How many reasons can I think of for not having attended worship for so long, and will she buy any of them?"
My role as pastor is really not to be an attendance clerk; you don't get an award for perfect attendance, you don't get penalized for less. I do take attendance, of course, for the purpose of pastoral care: if your worship pattern is different from "the usual", I might check in with you to find out why. Worship attendance is important to me because it's the only way I can be faithful. Left to my own devices, I would not remember to believe in God, but the community and the rhythm of the week, including Sunday worship, keep me accountable to my own spiritual well-being and my connectedness with the Divine. That isn't true for everyone, probably, but for some, yes. (I do appreciate hearing the reasons, by the way; good way to catch up, even in a store aisle.)

"Thank God, she's here!"

Sometimes, there is actually relief that I have arrived at all, even if the people don't know me, even if they weren't sure they wanted me there, even if they won't see me again. Funeral homes, hospitals, nursing homes, and other institutions can be scary places, and if you're there and you've called me, it probably isn't your best day. I have wondered why pastors become so important in those moments, what I can really do, what it means for people who are otherwise disconnected from me or any other spiritual community. But there is something about the official-ness of the pastor--we call it "the office of pastor"--that reminds people that God indeed is present. I didn't bring God with me in a way God was not before; but awareness is heightened, attitudes shifted, hope increased when I, a visual reminder of something spiritual, walk in. I do believe all of us who are faithful, who know, at least part of the time, that we belong to God, have this awesome privilege and responsibility. We carry Christ with us, living our lives in ways that Christ is made known, made visible, to people who so long to encounter him.

So don't be surprised to see me. I go a lot of places in the course of a day. You might want to practice your response, or think about why you respond the way you do, as I expect it has more to do with you than with me. I'll be around, and I look forward to seeing you.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Bible study, Easter 5/May 22, 2011

So, welcome to The Bible Study. I'm going to post some thoughts about the preaching text for this week, and rely on your comments to help me shape the sermon. So, please--make some comments!

Here's the story for May 22:

John 14:1-14

1 "Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. 2 In my Father's house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. 4 And you know the way to the place where I am going." 5 Thomas said to him, "Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?" 6 Jesus said to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7 If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him." 8 Philip said to him, "Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied." 9 Jesus said to him, "Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, "Show us the Father'? 10 Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. 11 Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. 12 Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. 13 I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.

I can only imagine how exasperating it must be for Jesus to have to keep answering the same questions, asked by the same disciples, over and over again. They still don't get it, and things are moving along at a fast pace toward his end.

Yet Jesus keeps these same people near him, still trusts them for the work he has called them to, even though it turns out maybe he should have called some references. But God has made some promises, and Jesus is here to fulfill them. For this sermon, I'm thinking about how God is loyal to US, how God keeps promises even when we don't keep ours or don't claim the ones God offers. Jesus is the way, the truth, the life; Jesus prepares a place for us to live with God; whatever we ask will be given. These are amazing promises.

Why do you think God bothers with us at all?
How have you seen these promises fulfilled in your life?
How do we still struggle with the "not yet/already" nature of God's promises, as Thomas and Philip seem to do?
What does it feel like when God "takes you back"?

Thanks for your input!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Labyrinth: A Walk with God

Well, today I began work on the labyrinth at Living Word. After a couple hours in the sun we have 12 concentric circles painted in the grass, but it's recognizable as a labyrinth. The neighbor came over to check things out and is very excited about having a labyrinth next door.

So, why a labyrinth? I got turned on to labyrinths at my first call theological education (FCTE) event--so turned on, in fact, that I have acquired several in many forms and sizes, and took a workshop to learn how to create them. A labyrinth is different from a maze in that it is one continuous path. There are no choices to make about which direction to go; once you're on the labyrinth, you just keep walking to the center. There are many metaphors for life on this simple circular path: sometimes you think you're headed one direction and end up turning 180 degrees. Sometimes a partner is walking parallel to you, then someone turns and you're going in opposite directions. You think you know how to get to God, but the way is longer or in another direction than you thought.

Some people do well to sit and pray quietly by themselves. I can do the quiet and the praying; it's the sitting I have trouble with. A labyrinth allows my body to be occupied so my mind can focus, much like rosary beads or knitting needles do. I don't have to focus on walking, and since my body is occupied, my head and heart can focus. In this way I pray, and since I have been known to take an entire hour to walk a full sized labyrinth, I even have time to listen (which is the better part of prayer).

The labyrinth at Living Word will be open to the public after Holy Week. If the gate's open, so is the labyrinth. We'll be developing the area around it with some plantings and landscaping, but when the basic form is ready, please come walk! (And in the next week, if you have some time, come and set some rocks in place to finish it!)

May you be blessed by some time walking with the Holy One.

Monday, March 21, 2011

First and Best Communion

Yesterday a young girl in our community took Holy Communion for the first time. Before the service I took her into the chancel, and we looked at the wine and the bread, and reviewed what we talked about in our class. Her mom said she was so excited, she woke up early and put on "just the right dress" she had picked out the night before. She was all smiles as she came forward, practically bouncing up the aisle, to receive a taste of God's love.

I serve communion to children as young as the parents will let me because I think the adults have it all wrong. We used to commune on the day of confirmation (9th or 10th grade); then we moved it to 5th grade, the (arbitrary!) "age of reason"; now it's the discretion of the pastor and the family. Our communion practices have changed to reflect more accurately our theology of communion: what is God really doing here? We used to think a person had to "understand" what was going on in communion before they could receive it.

Well, if we really believe the bread and wine are tangible means of God's grace to us; if they are really ONE MORE WAY God is reminding us of God's unfailing love for us that not even death can interfere with; if a sacrament is a holy act of which GOD is the subject... you get the point.

And if a 5-year-old bouncing down the aisle with a grin on her face isn't an apt expression of the joy we feel in being surrounded by God's love, then we are lost.

Maybe we should start communion earlier and take it away when we forget what it's all about.

When I asked her what she will always remember when she takes communion, she proclaimed excitedly, "GOD LOVES ME!!"

Amen, sister!

Monday, March 14, 2011

God knows!

Recently I was driving along the highway, minding my own business, when I was passed by a truck with this decal taking up its back window:

Kill ‘em all, and let God sort ‘em out!

My heart broke.

I am discouraged to know that someone in my community holds this belief, and holds it strongly enough to pay money to display it on a vehicle.

And I am heartbroken to know that people believe God thinks so little of humans. Are we, in God’s eyes, interchangeable, disposable, worth so little? Are the distinctions between individuals, which seem to be the cause for so much concern among us (gender, race, language, location, sexual orientation, etc) really unnoticed by God, that God would find any gathering of people expendable—just kill them all and let God sort them out?

And I am pissed off that people who don’t bother to know God so freely speak for God. For if this person did know God, s/he would remember something we all need to remember, which, fortunately, shows up in the readings for worship (January 16): The Lord called me before I was born, while I was in my mother's womb he named me. (Isaiah 49:1). God knows each of us, and loves each of us, and values us for who we are, which is, after all, who God created us to be.

When I was a campus pastor, we had a conversation on campus about “visual pollution”, which was bombarding the campus in the form of T-shirts which some people found offensive. We love to express our views in secondary discourse: T-shirts, bumper stickers, special apps for our Facebook pages. Sometimes we wear words we would not dare speak.

I’m not sure who “they” were, whom the driver was so upset about existing; perhaps “they” change from day to day. But I do know that God knows every “they” on the planet—the ones we know and love, and the ones we will never know, never love, and especially the ones who don’t seem to be known or loved by anyone. God has already sorted us out, and knows us each by name.

THAT is something worth declaring!

Here or Later

O God, the protector of all who trust in you, without you nothing is strong, nothing is holy. Embrace us with your mercy, that with you as our ruler and guide, we may live through what is temporary without losing what is eternal, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen. - Prayer of the Day for Sunday, November 14

This prayer came to me as a little bundle of grace as I sat in front of my altarcito at home. I actually stopped speaking mid-prayer to let it sink in: “that we may live through what is temporary without losing what is eternal”.

Being faithful in our time and place requires double vision. We see the world we live in, with its ups and downs, good days and bad, things we can control and things we cannot. In the US we look at the world through privileged lenses, still able to see what isn’t quite right but not in too much danger of it setting up shop in our own living rooms.

But we are also called to see the world as God sees it, which we glimpse through scripture and from experience, but we have to imagine a lot, admittedly. I believe God has both a vision OF the world and a vision FOR the world, and invites us to see both. God knows how we suffer, how we sin, how we hurt; when and why we rejoice and are well. But God also sees how things could be, if we lived differently with and among one another; God sees a world that gives life rather than taking it or wasting it through war, hunger, disease.

So on our way through “what is temporary”, we could get discouraged and wait for that land of milk and honey, the city of gold with the pearly gates, and simply bide our time here. But why wait? God gives us a vision of the way things could be, and we can see how we could be instrumental in getting them there. It’s one thing I love about being an ELCA Lutheran: we focus so much on being saved by grace already, so we don’t have to worry about that--we can spend our energy in this life not getting to God but getting into what God is doing here, now, among us, in this life, this world. It takes balance: seeing what’s and who’s around us for what it is, seeing what God calls us to be as communities, seeing what heaven might look like so we can build it here on earth. Why do the hungry have to wait to die to be satisfied, when we have the resources right now to eradicate hunger around the world? Why do people have to live in sickness when there is clean water running in springs below their feet? Geography is a blessing to us, but not an exclusive privilege. We are called to BE the body of Christ, which means to live as Christ lived. It isn’t easy, but it’s the right thing to do.


Welcome to the blog of Living Word Lutheran Church, mostly written by Pastor Lori Ruge-Jones (that’s me).

It’s an interesting thing to have the name “church”, because some people run TO it and some run AWAY. I’ve always been fascinated by those who run away, being wired to run to, myself—how far, for how long, and why the connection with a community of faith is severed.

So part of my hope in leading a community of faith is to make sure there are enough spaces for all kinds of people—intellectual spaces, personal spaces, physical and geographic spaces, spiritual spaces. That means a chair in the worship space as well as a place at God’s table. That means we don’t agree on everything, but we are willing to walk this part of the journey together. That means we are willing to suspend our fears and prejudices to make room for the Holy Spirit to move among and through us. It’s kind of messy work, when you try to avoid “we’ve always done it this way”, but it’s a lot of fun, and God continues to amaze and surprise us, as promised.

Confession: I’m not very disciplined when it comes to things like newsletters and blogs, so my entries may be sporadic. I’ll try. The media guy told me twice a month is good for a blog, so if I can keep to that, I’ll be doing well. Then again, I may be prolific and bother the cyberwaves more often than needed.

And I always like to pray.
Gracious and amazing God, bless us along this journey, that we may be faithful: to be kind to friends and strangers; to be brave enough to look where you want us to see, inward and outward; to discover what it means to live as a child of God with others, together the body of Christ. You are our God (thanks!) and we are yours (are you sure?!?). In this holy relationship we live and move and have our being. Amen.

Peace upon you++