Monday, December 12, 2011

The Decorated Pastor... like a gingerbread house

Unfortunately I forgot my recorder yesterday so I did not get my sermon recorded, but something else happened.  The leader of the youth group asked if I would come to the meeting since it would be my last opportunity.  I agreed and then she told me to wear something I wouldn't mind getting messy.  I was thinking paint, maybe a pie in the face.  Nope. 

I have heard of people who were decorated.  People of distinction in various arenas.  Now I can say that I too have been decorated.  The youth group decorated me like a big gingerbread house.  As a farewell, I am pretty sure it will be one of, if not the most memorable farewell.  The youth had a blast.  I am sure they will remember it for much of their lives.  After all, it isn't every night when they get to cover their pastor's face in icing. (NOTE: in the event that you think this might be something you'd like to do, a word of caution... After a few minutes, my eyes were starting to be irritated by the icing.  A little burn was developing.  Buy a cheap pair of swim goggles and decorate around/over them.)

Here are a couple of videos that were taken.  In the first one, the youth were trying to erect the gingerbread house on my face. In the second, they had given up and just went to smearing my face and hair with icing and candy decoration.

After I went and cleaned up from this, they also sat down with me to give me a book of photos and comments.  In the end, I cried. A wonderful evening with them.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Smashing Ice with Rob Bell

Back on Nov. 25, I saw Rob Bell in Pittsburgh for his "Fit to Smash Ice" Tour.  I had seen some of his stuff online and on DVD.  I had never read any of his books, although Love Wins is sitting on my shelf in my reading queue.  I went partly to experience him live and continue to feel out what his draw is.  I wanted to see what his delivery was like and what sort of people came out to see him.  I am not a fan per se, but I do think he gets some things brilliantly right even though he gets some things just as wrong.  And here he was in Pittsburgh on the night after Thanksgiving when I would be at my parents' house just north of Pittsburgh.  My wife and I could attend and we would have free babysitting.  So we went.

The crowd was small compared to the hall we were in.  The Carnegie Library Music Hall in Munhall, PA is a medium-size hall, but the crowd only filled about half of the lower level.  Mostly everyone was young and white, although a few older couples were there... older even than my wife and I. It seemed like a church group was in attendance since one couple (coincidentally the only African-American couple, I think) walked in close to the beginning and half of the people in front of us all waved and greeted them.  A group of four young folk in the row in front of me had note paper out.  One young man had even separated his paper into three areas: inspire, offend, confuse.  The young woman next to him just wrote almost constantly during the time.

Monday, December 05, 2011

2nd Sunday of Advent -- Good Beginnings

Mark 1:1-8
We read the beginning of Mark's gospel as he sets the stage for the story of Jesus, who is himself the good news. 

An excerpt:

This story is meant from its outset to pull its readers and listeners into it… The story is clearly bigger than itself.  We might mistake the opening verse as nothing more than an introductory verse if we translate it as “The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”  We are so familiar with “gospel” as a literary genre, we might forget that at its heart the word means “good news.”  And we need to get rid of the “about Jesus Christ.”  Those six Greek words require some interpretation… but to pull us into the story, the good news can’t just be “about” Jesus the Messiah.  And one way to interpret and translate those words is to read it “The good news who IS Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”  The good news is precisely Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God is on the scene.  

Read it here

Or listen to it. 


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Thursday, December 01, 2011

1st Sunday of Advent -- Apocalypse and Revelation

Mark 13: 24-37
Advent is a season to ponder Christ's return in glory.  No longer hidden, Christ's glory will be revealed for all to see.

Unfortunately I had no manuscript for this sermon.  I just went off of some notes, so here it is to listen to.



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Scooby-Doo, Monsters and Real Life

A friend of  mine, Ralph Hanson, shared a link on Facebook to an incredibly interesting column over at the Comics Alliance.  In the column, Chris Sims answers questions weekly.  Last Friday he was asked, "Q: On Scooby-Doo, do you prefer the monsters to be real or people in costumes? -- @heythisisbrian"

 Chris' answer is fascinatingly brilliant.  In short, he says that the monsters on Scooby-Doo must be people masquerading as monsters because the world is full of bad people who lie to kids using superstition to scare them.  Scooby Doo teaches them that the best thing to do in the face of fear from superstition is to think. 

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Nativity Sets: The good, the bad, the kitschy

Ok... no good ones... but over at Mark Oestreicher's blog, he posted his list of the 27 worst nativity sets he has found.  They are amazingly bad. 

One person's comments showed a Star Wars nativity set... it is fantastic. Wrong but fantastic.

The bacon/sausage one is clearly my favorite.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Thanksgiving Service 2011 -- Praise and Thanksgiving

Luke 17:11-19
The story of Jesus healing the ten lepers, but only the Samaritan returning is often used as a morality lesson for giving thanks.  The story though is more about Jesus' identity.  Our praise and thanksgiving is rooted in that identity.

Listen to it.


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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Christ the King Sunday -- Power and Rulers

The text from Ezekiel 34 has the Lord railing against the leaders of Israel for their selfish outlook.  Jesus echoes the refrain of judgment as he tags the leaders of the nations for their treatment of the "least of these."  

Here is an excerpt:
The bigwigs in Israel are clearly not looking out for the best of all but just themselves.  Now I realize that much of the discussion so far has been of rich and poor, rather than dealing with rulers… and Ezekiel is dealing with rulers… but one of the stark realities that the Occupy movement is attempting to bring to light is precisely the notion that money is power.  The Supreme Court has ruled that campaign contributions are protected free speech.  Today to be rich is to wield power that most of us have no access to.  Ezekiel’s opening of chapter 34 is a brief theological summary of politics.  Those who wield political power is an opportunity to exercise righteousness.  They can be a part of ordering a community that is based on mutual love.  But in the end they reject that opportunity and seek their own good.  And the sheep are then subject to forces that treat them as prey.  The flock scatters. 

Or read it here. 
Or listen to it. 


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22nd Sunday after Pentecost -- The Joy of the Kingdom

I'm a little behind on posting this sermon, I know.  But here it is. 

In telling the parable of the talents, Jesus nears the end of his eschatological discourse.  Here he focuses on judgment and narrow thinking of one servant.  The servant thinks from a scarcity viewpoint.  The life of a disciple is one of joy, Jesus teaches us.  And there is more joy to come. 

An exccerpt from my sermon:
The focal point for Jesus is the perspective the servants have toward the talents.  The third servant is afraid because of the view he has of the Master and the talent. For this servant, the talent could only be lost or used up.  The talent becomes then, not a gift, but a possession.  He views the talent through a lens of scarcity.  The other two servants on the other hand see the talents not as possessions, but as the gifts they were meant to be.  Securing the gifts would be to lose them.  These two servants then use the talents in that spirit… gifts that are meant to be given. 

Read the whole thing here

Or listen to it. 


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Thursday, November 17, 2011

Final Things: Leaving a Call and Eschatology

So the word is out... I am leaving my call at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Morgantown, WV at the end of this calendar year and will be beginning a new call as the chaplain at the Lutheran University Center in Pittsburgh.  As the calendar goes this year, that means my last Sunday will be Christmas Day.  I begin January 1, 2012 a the campus ministry, although there is no service that day since the campuses around the chapel will not be in session.

I have been struck more by the things that are ending.  I keep running into "final things": the last newsletter, the last calendar review... soon it will be last Thanksgiving service then last midweek Advent service and sooner or later, last service.  I have been surprised by the grief.  While I am excited about the new possibility I am moving through lots of little deaths.  This congregation was my first call.  It was where I was formed as a pastor at least as much as seminary formed me.  This congregation is where my family was started.  My oldest was six months old when I began.  I now have three children, the youngest of which is almost 17 months. 

But I reflected on the upcoming readings for the lectionary... Christ the King and Advent... all eschatological readings that put these in a new context for me.  I wrote these reflections up as my final newsletter article...

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Obedience and Scandal: Football, Military, Church

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and theologian made a connection in the life of faith between believing and obeying.  To believe is to obey. To obey is to believe.  There is an inherent trust in the act of obedience.  The practices and habits of developing the virtue of obedience will also likely tie people very closely to the ideals of the organization but also to the structure of the organization itself.

There are a number of organizations that seek to develop obedience.  This has become clearest unfortunately in the aftermath of scandals.  The church, the military and football programs, most recently and horribly at Penn State University.  These organizations seek to develop obedience because trust or faith are important aspects of the life of these organizations.

The church seeks to develop obedience to God and this can hardly be accomplished without some structure around it.  Whether there is a distinct authoritative structure or a less authoritative structure, as people develop their obedience to God, they become enmeshed in the structure itself.

The military seeks to develop obedience so that the organization may move smoothly even in times of great stress and crisis.

College football programs seek to develop obedience so the players will perform at an incredibly high level.  People I have spoken with who have played top level college football say that in those programs the coach's word is akin to the word of God.

I have pondered the situation at Penn State, and have been surrounded by the sex abuse scandal in churches (when I was serving my internship, I ended up going to court to support a refugee member of the congregation and it happened to be the same day that the John Geoghan was having one of his first hearings in the Cambridge courthouse).  I am convinced that the issue is our understanding of authority.  Clearly the priests who abuse children, as well as Jerry Sandusky allegedly, have misunderstood their authority and taken advantage of it.  But what about Joe Paterno?

I had been placing his failure to do more in the light of hearing allegations from a graduate assistant/former player who said something about a close friend he has known for quite a while.  Joe reported what he needed to and nothing more.  It boggles all of our minds as to why Joe did not do more.  Part of it might be due to his friendship with Sandusky, but I think there is more, but not necessarily with any nefarious intent on Joe's part.

Joe served Penn State for decades in a position where he wielded incredible authority.  If football coaches speak with a god's authority, then Joe has existed in a position where he does not wonder if people will do what needs to be done.  They just do it.  I have heard of tales where Joe was able to bar then President Spanier from the locker room and the board backed him up.  Joe speaks and players, coaches, and just about everybody else listen.

Except of course the administrators who are not part of such an environment where obedience is unquestioned.  They are less worried about obedience and try to cover up any scandal so the school is not tarnished.  Many steps were taken but not proper ones.  The administrators misunderstood their authority to be a subordinate authority to the government and believed they could save the school's reputation.  If they understood their authority properly they would have hopefully done what was required.  They mistook their authority to be greater than what it was and in the end the institution was rocked by a far greater scandal and they are going to pay a price as well.

None of this reflection should be understood as an excuse for the inaction by Joe or the cover-up by the administration, campus police and likely others.  There is surely something to be learned here for organizations that exist with structures of authority and obedience.  Soldiers cannot simply rely on "we were just following orders" anymore.  Football coaches and priests cannot understand their authority outside of the particular relationship each holds with its institution.  And when their institution must interact with others who do not hold such a high view of obedience and authority, they must not take for granted that everyone will share the same perspective.

All in all, the authority of any human being cannot own the obedience of any other when it seeks to thwart justice.  In the end, while many questions have been raised and much needed conversation will take place, not everyone will receive the appropriate human justice.  We can trust that God's authority will eventually be heeded when judgment is executed. 

In the meantime, I will pray for all involved: the Penn State community, the perpetrators and the victims. 

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Zombies are Us

I have recently begun watching AMC's series, The Walking Dead on Netflix.   I can only watch it in moderate amounts.  No blasting through episodes one after the other. It is not because they are scary... well, not in the normal sense.  The walking dead are gross and creepy.  What scares me is the surviving community of humans.  They live on the edge of devouring themselves...

I wrote a reflection on the show, "Are You What You Eat?," for Mediation, a blog at The Other Journal.

And I ran across an interesting book on zombies over at Google Books. Zombies are Us: Essays on the Humanity of the Walking Dead by Christopher Moreman and Cory James Rushton.  Interesting looks at humanity and zombies.

Monday, November 07, 2011

All Saints' Sunday -- A Vast Multitude

John the Seer reports his vision of a vast multitude gathered around the throne praising God, "Salvation belongs to our God who sits upon the throne and to the Lamb!"  People from all over, gathered into one body for one purpose. 

An excerpt from my sermon:
John gives us a vision of a crowd, a multitude so big no one could count them all and despite being gathered and praising God and the Lamb, they were from every nation, tribe and people, all speaking different languages.  While the many are gathered into one, one people singing the praise of God, the differences are not seen as competitive or destructive.  Rather, the unity is constructive and mutually reinforcing.  Each person gathered around the throne is freed to be uniquely the person they were made to be.  One biblical scholar has written regarding this passage, “Gathered around the divine throne, the tongues of all creatures are loosed to find their own peculiar parts in the cosmic song.”  

Read the whole thing here. 

Or listen to it: 


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Wednesday, November 02, 2011

All Saints' Sunday and Revelation

As I prepare for All Saints' Sunday this week, I am focusing on the text of Rev. 7:9-17 as the basis of my sermon.  The gospel text, the Beatitudes, were done in depth earlier this year when the lectionary went through the Sermon on the Mount.  I read those texts in close conversation with Bonhoeffer and Hauerwas. I feel like I have gone over those texts rather fully for my preaching and I am afraid that I might just be repeating myself even with the lesser festival to add a different context. 

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Reformation Sunday -- Abiding in the Word

Jesus said to the Jews who believed in him, "If you abide in my Word, you are truly my disciples."  Following Jesus is more than just creating a checklist to be followed or knowing doctrine backward and forward.

An excerpt:
When Jesus says “you shall know the truth and the truth shall you free,” again he is not talking about propositional truths.  He is once again pointing to his own reality.  In chapter 14, Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth and the life…”  Jesus opens a new way of knowing truth, a relational knowing where truth comes and dwells with us.  Jesus encounters people who are inquisitive about him “Where are you dwelling?” they ask him.  “Come and see,” Jesus answers.  He doesn’t ask them if they have it all figured out beforehand.  Jesus doesn’t ask us if we have it all figured out before he claims us.  Jesus claims us hoping that over time as we come to know him, we will work on figuring it out.  Jesus comes to us first.  That is the heart of our transformation.  That is the heart of our being made right with God, the heart of our justification. 

Read the whole thing, here.

Or listen to it.


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Friday, October 28, 2011

Lead Us Not Into Temptation Facebook

Since Facebook has begun running many ads on users pages and not just the little ones along the side, but in the newsfeed and up on the top, I have been getting seriously concerned.  Routinely I get ads with barely clothed women on them.  They're falling out of their bikinis, tugging off their bottoms. Today I saw one that apparently involved video.  I surely am not clicking on it to find out.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

19th Sunday after Pentecost -- Commanded to Love

Matthew 22:34-46
Jesus faces his final challenge from religious authorities before his death.  Here Jesus gives his summation of the Law.  Love God and love neighbor.  The whole law and prophets hang on the commandment to love.

An excerpt: 
Humans are far too likely to love God unreservedly if and only if that God is in their image. Sin finds an entry point into this reality when humans desire to put themselves in the place of God.  Humans, according to the Small Catechism, are then unable on their own power to rightly fear, love and trust the God who made them, let alone their neighbor.  We find it far too easy to turn inward.  To let our neighbors starve while we hoard our resources.  We find it far too easy to chase after false images of the true God, trusting in subordinate powers, like the government or the invisible hand of the market or power or money or human reason or even our selves.

Or read it here.

Or listen to it.


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Friday, October 21, 2011

An Interview with Leymah Gbowee

I ran across an interview with Leymah Gbowee, a recipient of the most recent Nobel Peace Prize and a Lutheran woman.  The whole interview can be read at Reader's Digest.  It is from the October 2011 issue. 

Her peace-making efforts flow out of a sense of what God has done for her. Two responses to Dawn Raffel's questions:

Where do you get your courage?
My faith. I have come to one conclusion: All that I am, all that I aspire to be, all that I was before, is by the grace of God. There are so many women in Africa, and outside Africa, who are more intelligent than I am.

You put yourself in danger too.
Leadership is standing with your people. People say you have to live to fight another day, but sometimes you have to show you are a true leader. If those women were out in the blazing hot sun protesting, I, who put the group together, should be out there, too, instead of sitting in a very boring conference.
Out on the street, we danced! Women parked their cars and joined us. The military could not believe it, because the king sent armored vehicles. But we danced in their faces. Sometimes I do fear death, and I fear for my children. But the one thing I have never been afraid of is standing before important people and speaking my mind. I represent women who may never have the opportunity to go to the UN or meet with a president. I’m never afraid to speak truth to power.

I think I might find her memoir, Mighty Be Our Powers, and give it a read. 

Thursday, October 20, 2011

18th Sunday after Pentecost -- Death and Taxes

Jesus is tested by religious leaders regarding paying taxes to Rome.  Jesus does not answer their question but reframes the debate, looking at God's sovereignty over the world instead.  Ultimately Jesus fulfills both sides of his clever statement "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's and unto God the things that are God's."
I am indebted to my colleague and former classmate Matt Musteric for the emphasis on the passion.

An excerpt: 
And now Jesus reframes the entire debate by uttering the line “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.”  The reality that we all too often fail to face is what in the world belongs to God and what belongs to the emperor?  The quickest way to answer is to quote the 24th psalm, although there are plenty other verses that could support that.  Psalm 24:1 reads “The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein.”  Put simply, God made it all and it all belongs to him.  Therefore to be faithful to Jesus’ words, we owe everything to God.  Everything that is, except for the idolatrous coinage that makes some false claim on the truth.  That can be sent back to the Emperor where it belongs.  

Read the whole sermon here
Listen to it:


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Tuesday, October 11, 2011

17th Sunday after Pentecost -- Saying Something While Saying Something Else

The parable of the wedding feast closes off a series of parables that seem to be Jesus' answer to the question from religious leaders "By what authority are you doing these things and who gave you the authority?"  

An excerpt of my sermon:
Now Jesus is not just telling these parables to continue his teaching which was interrupted by the challenge of the religious leaders.  He is saying something while saying something else.  In the first, Jesus tells the parable to show the challenge he presents to the rule of the religious leaders.  Jesus tells them that their authority is disappearing because they are the second son who pays lip service to the father, but does not do his will.  Tax collectors and prostitutes will enter the Kingdom before them because they have heard the invitation to repentance and obeyed.  The religious leaders are afraid to even take a stand on where John’s baptism came from.  

Read the whole thing here

Listen to it:    


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Friday, October 07, 2011

Liberian Lutheran Leymah Gbowee Lauded

One of the Nobel Peace Prize winners is Leymah Gbowee, a Lutheran woman from Liberia.  The Lutheran reported:
Gbowee, a peacemaker, activist and mother of five, led an interreligious group of thousands of women to defy warlords, government officials and male relatives to carry their country out of a long, bloody civil war to peace and democracy in 2003. She is a member of the Lutheran Church in Liberia. Her home congregation, St. Peter Lutheran in Monrovia, was the site of a July 30, 1990, massacre of 600 people.
Blessed are the peacemakers.

Read the whole article at The Lutheran.  

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

16th Sunday after Pentecost -- Commitment and Relationship

In the reading from Philippians (3:4b-14), Paul highlights his achievements as Jewish man.  Paul also turns and counts these reasons for boasting as nothing when compared to Christ's actions toward him and his own subsequent response.  

An excerpt:
We want possibilities and choices, but ultimately life lived in potentiality is not life.  Life is lived in actuality.  When we make new commitments, build new relationships there is a distinct break with the past.  And it can be unnerving.  Plenty about the old life of possibility seems safe and familiar.  We like it. We know it.  It can bring a sense of security.  But the new relationship, while bringing risk and uncertainty, can bear unimagined fruit, even with the loss of possibility.  
 Read the whole sermon, here.

Or listen to it.


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Monday, October 03, 2011

D to the O to the H... DOH!

For the past few months, we have been writing our own prayers of the people instead of just using the prayers out of the Sundays and Seasons resource. During the latter half of the summer, Jono, our Project Connect immersion experience student was writing them (and well I might add).  When his time ended, I picked up writing them again.  This past Sunday, I realized that my writing left something to be desired. One of my petitions said,
Compassionate God, sustain all who suffer with your promise of new life.  Strengthen those who are oppressed, heal those who are ill, comfort those who are afflicted.  
 I didn't pick the problem up when I wrote it.  I didn't pick the problem up when it was prayed in our service on Sunday morning.  I picked it up when I prayed it at the evening service at the Lutheran Campus Ministry at WVU

The problem is that first line.  I realize that everything hangs on whether you suffer FROM or WITH something.  We generally suffer FROM diseases and ailments, but we can indeed suffer WITH them as well.  So it struck me as odd when I prayed "sustain all those who suffer with your promise of new life."  I suppose my intent was to pray "Sustain with your promise of new life all those who suffer."  That would have been better writing.  

Maybe it struck me as odd because we had just read in Philippians (3:10), "I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death," where the promise of the resurrection is linked with suffering.  Perhaps unintentionally, I prayed for all of us who suffer with this promise that brings suffering.   

We want Christ but maybe not any suffering, even though the way Paul writes they go together.  Luther marked suffering as a mark of the church.  This mark, this verse, is a challenge to us who live comfortable lives.  It is awfully easy to rationalize taking the path of least resistance... even when we are usually fairly faithful. 

So maybe my prayer was right. Unintentional... but right.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

15th Sunday after Pentecost -- Fathers and Sons

The first reading and the gospel reading last Sunday both dealt with issues of fathers and son.  Two sons who were less than model sons, and three generations of men.  In that latter tale in Ezekiel, God makes it clear each person is judged on his or her own merit not on what family they are born into.  Righteousness trumps inheritance. 

An excerpt:

You see, back in the Ten Commandments, when God declares the first commandment, “You shall have no other gods,” God also says, “I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me.”  For much of the history of Israel, it was understood that to follow the Torah, or not, was to have consequences not just for the one who kept the Law, or not, but for later generations as well.  As people who belong to a culture that is almost exclusively centered on the individual, we might find the notion that subsequent generations pay for the sins of former sins incredibly offensive.  Nonetheless there is the reality that there are ways that sin is communal.  Precisely as fathers form their children, sin can be formed in successive generations.  We know that there are genetic patterns that can be passed down from father to child in things like addictions.  Destructive and abusive behaviors can be passed down just through repeated behavior.  But also, we see that some things that are begun decades before can have devastating consequences for later generations.  When we understand ourselves to be part of a community extended through time, this perspective is not all that difficult.

Read the whole thing here

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Thursday, September 22, 2011

Pastoral Duties to the Deceased

A friend of mine recently wrote a blog titled "When Do You Cease Being Someone's Pastor?"  This question has nothing to do with people and voting membership or when they cease attending worship.  Charlie deals with the question of pastoral duties at the time of death. 

Very often I think folks generally think that the pastor is there for the living, not the one who has died.  It is true that it is holy ground to speak the gospel in those times surrounding the death of loved ones.  Charlie also raises the issue that as pastors we have duties to those who have died as well. He writes:
What I'm saying is that I still have certain duties to a member of my congregation after they die.  I am to comfort those who loved them with the word of the Gospel.  I am to pray (along with the deceased!) for the welfare and eternal salvation of those who survive.  Finally, I am to give Christian burial to the deceased.  I am to proclaim what Jesus did for them in their earthly life.  I am to proclaim what is still coming.  I am to lay to rest the person's body... the body baptized into Christ's death and resurrection.

I am the person's pastor until they are in the ground.  That's when my duties to them cease... not before.
 If we only think of the pastor as necessary to speak to the living with no duties to the deceased, then we are likely to not care who officiates at funerals.  Now I admit, I have more flexibility with ecumenical partnership than my LCMS friend.  However, the notion that any pastor will do, or other eulogies can supplant the place of the pastor's sermon is a great misunderstanding of the role of the pastor and the pastor's place in the community of faith.  Charlie gives several good examples of these sorts of situations.

Thankfully nothing like this has happened to me.  But Charlie's question is important in many ways.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Lesser Lament For the Lectionary

I love the lectionary.  Really I do. To have a three-year cycle of readings that leave me with a plethora of preaching opportunities is pure gold as far as I am concerned.  I simply do not know what I would do if I were part of a tradition that did not take advantage of the lectionary.  Trying to come up with sermons week after week where I needed to pick the texts would likely result in me preaching on my favorite topics. I love that by using the lectionary, I am forced to address texts that I might otherwise avoid.  And by using those texts, week after week, year after year (I am now in my third trip round the lectionary preaching weekly with almost eight years under my belt as a pastor), I have come to love those texts that force me to wrestle with law and gospel, our situation and God's good news in Jesus.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

14th Sunday after Pentecost -- Jonah

After finally arriving at Nineveh, Jonah reluctantly delivers the judgment against that great city.  But when God shows mercy on Nineveh, Jonah is angry enough to die.  God's mercy can be scandalous when it gets extended even to our enemies.

An excerpt from my sermon:

Then again the Lord tells Jonah to go to Nineveh.  This time he goes.  And when he gets to Nineveh, Jonah walks most of the way to the center of the city and preaches the shortest sermon on record.  Eight words “Eight days more and Nineveh will be overthrown.”  It is lacking on so many levels.  While many might rejoice if I gave a sermon of eight words, Jonah does the bare minimum, living by the letter of the law and certainly not the spirit.  He does exactly what God wants him to do and tell Nineveh that God is going to destroy them because of their wickedness.  Well he doesn’t tell Nineveh exactly that GOD will do it… he just says that it will be overthrown.  And now having fulfilled his duty he goes outside the city to sit and wait and watch the fireworks begin.

Except that they don’t.  because somehow someone heard him and his weak proclamation… and the story tells us that “the people of Nineveh believed God.”  This proclamation goes viral.  The people start talking and spreading the news.  They consecrate a fast.  Soon the king himself issues a decree that people should repent… that even the animals should repent.   And God sees that people have turned from their evil ways and God relents from punishing.  God extends not justice but mercy upon Nineveh.  And this has Jonah really angry now.  After all, THIS is Nineveh.  These aren’t God’s people.  They aren’t special.  They are not the ones that the Lord has made a covenant with.  These are the enemies of that people.  Jonah is so angry, because God is “slow to anger and abounding in love.”  “Mine first!” he objects.  

Or read the whole thing here.
Listen to it. 


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Thursday, September 15, 2011

13th Sunday after Pentecost -- 9-11 and Forgiveness?

Not having preached over a few previous Sundays, I lost track of posting my sermon to both my podcast and blog.  Finally I am getting a round to posting it.

The gospel text, Matthew 18:21-35 is the classic text of Peter asking Jesus how often he should forgive a brother or sister who sins against him.  Jesus turns everything over and gives us the parable of the Unforgiving Servant, which requires us when talking about forgiveness to refocus our understanding.  We are not primarily the one sinned against, and can therefore dole out forgiveness as we choose.  We are first and foremost the one forgiven.  That is the primary lens with which we should view forgiveness. The stakes are ratcheted up a little higher on this day when we also remember the 10th anniversary of 9-11.

Here is an excerpt:
And I fear that with this parable there are those who are looking at the attacks and speaking about a forgiveness that lets attackers off scot free.  This is not, by the way, me calling out for vengeance, but justice.  I refused to rejoice when bin Laden was taken down.  But the question of forgiveness implies repentance and transformation.  We cannot simply throw out some blanket statement of forgiveness without doing some work first. 
Forgiveness is hard work.  We have to pray for it after all.  We have various notions about forgiveness that are in fact wrong.  Forgiveness is not just about forgetting and letting things go.  Forgiveness is not about hearing the words “I’m sorry” and replying with “Oh, it’s okay.”  We have tried those approaches in other heinous acts and they did not work out so well. 
Read the whole thing here.

Or listen to it. 


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The Postmodern Pat Robertson

Maybe in an attempt to gain traction with a younger audience, Pat Robertson, it seems, has gone postmodern on us.  Evidently on a Q&A session on the "700 Club" Pat told a caller that divorce in the case of a spouse having Alzheimer's is just fine.  After all, Alzheimer's is "a kind of death." (read one report here)

Seriously, who would have thought that Pat Robertson would end up here?  He focused on the phrase in wedding vows "until death do us part."  Robertson redefines Alzheimer's from a subjective standpoint.  Alzheimer's is in fact NOT a kind of death, but a tragic illness.  The portion of the marriage vows that he should have turned to was about promising to be faithful "in sickness and in health."  That's appropriate. 

I suspect Pat will start catching flack, and come out and try to make some explanation or such, and it will all pass away quietly.  I can only hope that this will be the final move making Robertson irrelevant as a voice for Christianity in the United States. 

I cannot help but think of one woman in my congregation who faithfully stood by her ailing husband for years, getting help from the congregation until he did in fact, truly die.  Her example of faithfulness is an example of the gracious faithfulness of God who stands by us all even when we are not the most loveable.  When we are in fact sinful.  That same woman continues to this day, a number of years after the death of her husband, to advocate for spousal caregivers of Alzheimer's patients.  She perseveres for those who are still engaged in the struggle and need support to remain faithful to their mariage vows.  Thank God that she did not listen to Pat Robertson.

Monday, September 12, 2011

An Evening with My Wife and "The Guys"

The other night my wife and I had an adult evening together.  I would call it a date but it didn't end the way all of our official dates end, with a stop at the supermarket.  Nonetheless, we had an evening together with dinner out, followed by a staged reading of the play "The Guys" by Anne Nelson.  The play was put on by the Vintage Theater Company, directed by Jason Young and starring the two-member cast of John and Linda O'Connor.  John is a professor of theater at Fairmont State and Linda does some costuming there as well.  In addition, Jason Young is a Fairmont State alum.  The Fairmont State connection is important since my wife is a professor there as well.  If there had been no Fairmont State connection, we likely would not have gone at all, and I would have been poorer for it. 

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Happy are they who...

well.... don't seek happiness.

Not that folks should be unhappy, but happiness is as one's primary goal in life is misdirected.  I finally got around to reading my July/August issue of The Atlantic Monthly and found the article "How to Land Your Kid in Therapy" to speak to our situation.  As a parent I fear often that I am too hard on my kids.  And while this article is not a call to become parental tyrants, the idea that we as parents have to make our children happy all the time might be devastating to them in the long run.

There are plenty of things that we do in our lives that bring us happiness.  But happiness is not the primary goal of such activity.  Trying to provide for our child's happiness by constant praise, or navigating the troubled waters our children find themselves in, might even have more to do with the parents not wanting to let go than anything else. One notion that was raised as a possibility for parents not wanting to let go was the nature of community and most people's removal from it.
“There’s a difference between being loved and being constantly monitored,” Dan Kindlon told me. And yet, he admitted, even he struggles. “I’m about to become an empty-nester,” he said, “and sometimes I feel like I’d burn my kids’ college applications just to have somebody to hang around with. We have less community nowadays—we’re more isolated as adults, more people are divorced—and we genuinely like spending time with our kids. We hope they’ll think of us as their best friends, which is different from parents who wanted their kids to appreciate them, but didn’t need them to be their pals. But many of us text with our kids several times a day, and would miss it if it didn’t happen. So instead of being peeved that they ask for help with the minutiae of their days, we encourage it.” 
 This article was a very sobering look at a number of issues that face not just the world but the church as well, particularly as wee seek to teach virtues that have nothing to do with common conceptions of happiness and instead have much to do with suffering and discipleship.  Yet throughout the history of the church many have found happiness precisely in those endeavors.  Happiness perhaps resides in the wrestling and the overcoming. 

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

10th Sunday after Pentecost -- Sacrifice

After laying a theological foundation that re-orients the identity of God's people, Paul turns to the living out of that identity.  Paul uses the language of sacrifice but turns it so that it is rooted in the life of Christ rather than death.

An excerpt from the sermon:

But why do we Christians so easily accept notions of sacrifice?  For Christianity the final sacrifice of death was that of Jesus.  In the midst of the sacrificial system set up in Israel, Jesus was raised up to be God’s final answer to sin and death.  God did not make the hard decision  of having another pay, but chose to put himself on the line in the person of Jesus, his Son.  And Paul makes much of this clear in Romans.  Paul begins with the complete power of sin in the world.  Sin holds everyone captive.  Jew, Gentile, everyone both inside and outside of God’s chosen people.  “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” he writes in chapter 3.  But that also means that all are placed in right relationship with God (that is, God undoes the power of sin) in Jesus, whom God has put forward as the sacrifice once and for all. 

Read the whole thing here.

Or listen to it. 

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Friday, August 19, 2011

Barna Group and the State of the Church

Recently, George Barna's research group put out a report that looked over the past twenty years and marked some significant changes.  Relating to six key religious behaviors, they found:

  • Bible reading undertaken during the course of a typical week, other than passages read while attending church events, has declined by five percentage points. Currently an estimated 40% of adults read the Bible during a typical week.
  • Church volunteerism has dropped by eight percentage points since 1991. Presently, slightly less than one out of every five adults (19%) donates some of their time in a typical week to serving at a church.
  • Adult Sunday school attendance has also diminished by eight percentage points over the past two decades. On any given Sunday, about 15% of adults can be expected to show up in a Sunday school class.
  • The most carefully watched church-related statistic is adult attendance. Since 1991, attendance has receded by nine percentage points, dropping from 49% in 1991 to 40% in 2011.
  • The most prolific change in religious behavior among those measured has been the increase in the percentage of adults categorized as unchurched. The Barna Group definition includes all adults who have not attended any religious events at a church, other than special ceremonies such as a wedding or funeral, during the prior six month period. In 1991, just one-quarter of adults (24%) were unchurched. That figure has ballooned by more than 50%, to 37% today.
Barna also continues on in a six-part series that outlines the State of the Church, which covers many differences including generation, gender, racial, ethnic and so on.  It is interesting and raises some issues for mission.

Begin with Part One of The State of the Church here.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

9th Sunday after Pentecost -- Table Manners

Jesus encounters a Canaanite woman who won't take "No!" for an answer.  Jesus ignores and insults.  He abuses theology.  Jesus' behavior is difficult to stomach here.  But his behavior is, seemingly, for the benefit of his disciples who simply want him to send her away.  Yet the woman is persistent, enlarging the picture of Jesus' mission for his disciples.

An excerpt:
When Jesus sends us away, he sends us away from the realm of sin and death.  Too often our choice is to keep people there.  We ignore or insult or abuse scripture to keep from extending the grace shown to us by Jesus.  Grace is not a commodity that will run out.  It flows out of Jesus’ identity as the messiah, the one who comes to humanity to set us free.  He becomes sin so that we might become righteousness.
Read the whole sermon here.  

Or listen to it.

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Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Hauerwas, America's God, and the Church

I saw that Brian McLaren had a quote by Stanley Hauerwas over on his blog.  That quote had a link to a longer column over at ABC's religion page titled "The Death of America's God."

In typical fashion, Hauerwas points to the reality that the faith most Americans have is deeply shaped more by our political notions,  than who Jesus is.  Hauerwas wrote:
Protestantism became identified with the republican presumption in liberty as an end in itself. This presumption was then reinforced by an unassailable belief in the commonsense of the individual. As a result, Protestant churches in America lost the ability to maintain those disciplines that are necessary to sustain a truly free people - people who are capable of being a genuine alternative to the rest of the world.

For those who are familiar with Hauerwas, this sort of writing is nothing new.  I did find however his discussion about marriage to be interesting.  He begins writing about how the notion of liberty plays itself out.  Human beings are presumed to be rational creatures with the ability to make "free choices."  The problem as Hauerwas sees it, is when accountability is brought into the equation.  We want accountability and responsibility, but at the same we demand that we know what we "know what we are doing." He says that most Americans do not think someone should be held accountable for something if they do it when they do not know what they are doing.  And here is where marriage becomes problematic, he says. He writes:
But the problem with such an account of responsibility is that it makes marriage, among other things, completely unintelligible. How could you ever know what you were doing when you promised life-long monogamous fidelity? That is why the church insists that your vows be witnessed by the church, because the church believes it has the duty to hold you responsible to promises you made when you did not know what you were doing.

I am not sure I agree with Hauerwas' suppositions. I think most Americans want to hold others accountable for things even if they did not know what they were doing.  But if we ask individuals if they should be held accountable when they did not know what they themselves were doing, then maybe. But his discussion rings true as I consider some friends who just could not see themselves ever getting married.  One discussed it with me after a break up with his long-time live-in girlfriend.  He could not ever see committing to one woman because he just didn't know what else was out there.  In other words, he wanted to know what he was doing before he made a decision where didn't know what he was doing.  I am fairly certain that my friend will never marry... or he might once he realizes the hopelessness of his situation. 

Hauerwas' column is not as clear as it could be and he likely preaches to the choir.  But he is on to something here.  Watching the incommensurability of political discourse in America today, it is clear that the three antithetical threads he names in America are beginning to fray.  An April survey by Public Religion Research Institute showed that most Americans believed Christianity and capitalism to be at odds with one another.  Several prominent Congressmen and Congresswomen who claim to be Christian also espouse Ayn Rand's atheist philosophy.  Hauerwas is clearly on the right track.