Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Discernment and Sacrifice: Proper 8 Year A

A Preface
There's been a lull in posts because of all that's happened in the life of Danville, KY and Trinity Church.  

The week of Pentecost was the Great American Brass Band Festival.  Every year, several churches come together for the Sunday morning community service.  Pastor Jerry Shepherd is the fearless leader and preacher of the service.  And, as he says, "we all deserve a Sunday off..."  I felt blessed to be a part of the service.  The most amazing part was listening to the reading from Acts read in Ebu while watching it be interpreted in American Sign Language: a whole new insight on the reading.  

The week after was Trinity Sunday.  Known as the Sunday when no pastor likes to preach (defining the Trinity is a slightly arduous task), it is our namesake (obviously).  It was my desire to lead this wonderful community into a vibrant celebration of us and our place in God's kingdom.  So, we did: brass instruments, banners created by the kids, and a blessing (by the children) of some historical books that contain the first roles of membership.  It was a great day and I celebrated by offering a children's sermon comparing the Trinity to the apple (you know: the whole three-in-one aspect).  

On to this past Sunday, as the first Sunday in ordinary time, it welcomed us with some difficult scriptures.  I decided to take the Genesis reading head on.  A note: I've decided to the leave the format in its preaching format (it's easier for me that way and, yes, I am that lazy :-) )

I'd love your comments and any ideas you have for preaching on the Trinity (I imagine I'll be preaching on the Trinity for years to come and welcome your perspective).

Peace be with you,


During the season of Ordinary Time
(the season that follows Pentecost),
the lectionary offers us some choices. 
We can either walk semi-continuously
through some stories in the Hebrew Scriptures. 
Or our readings can be more typological:
marrying the Hebrew Scriptures with the Gospel. 

When I sat looking at today’s choices,
I was tempted to avoid the reading from Genesis. 
Indeed, I initially chose the reading from the prophet Jeremiah. 
And, I could not avoid the Genesis text. 

As I studied this week’s texts,
I was drawn deeper and deeper
into Abraham and Isaac’s story. 
It became clear to me
that I had to make a different kind of choice. 
I could avoid the story altogether
and, therefore, avoid begin uncomfortable. 
Or, we could share the story,
be uncomfortable together and wonder about its significance today. 

And so,
it is with trepidation that I invite us
to consider and study the story of Abraham and Isaac.

Abraham was a nomad whom
God called to be ancestor of a great nation. 
The relationship between Abraham and God
relies on one command: Abraham’s faithfulness. 
As Abraham follows God’s call, he marries Sarah. 
Sarah, though, appears to be barren. 
We might wonder how Abraham can lead a great nation
if he has no children. 
Sarah, in her anxiety, convinces
Abraham to father a child, Ishmael, with Hagar, his concubine. 
(I'm uncomfortable
Eventually, though, Sarah does conceive
and gives birth to Isaac, their only son.  
With Isaac’s life, God’s promise is fulfilled:
Abraham and Sarah become the ancestors of a great nation.

Now, it is not uncommon for scripture
to tell us that God tests the faithful, the most famous being Job.  And so it is that God tests Abraham:

“Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” 

To be clear,
sacrifice means bind and kill on an altar dedicated to YHWH.   
It appears that God asks Abraham to give up his only child,
the fulfillment of God’s promises. 
This makes me, and I hope you, uncomfortable. 
At this point, our minds should be full of questions,
Why would God ask Abraham to commit such a violent act, especially to their only, beloved child?  
Where is Sarah;
where is the community holding Abraham and God accountable? 
Why does God test Abraham in this way;
why does God test Abraham at all? 
Do we believe that God tests the faithful?

All of scripture is story. 
Most of the stories in scripture
offer us comfort, courage and strength. 
Some of them, though,
paint a portrait of the brokenness and violence of creation.  
Either way, each story sets out to explore truth:
truth about God and truth about us, God’s creation. 

And the truth is violence is a part of our world. 
Every day children are beaten, even killed,
by those who care for them,
sometimes in the name of God. 
Trust me;
this truth is as hard for me to say as it is for you to hear. 

And maybe we don’t want to talk about these things in Church. 
Perhaps we wish to preserve church for the comfortable stories, the comfortable words of Jesus. 
Perhaps we wish to shut the violence
of those beautiful red doors. 
Surely the writers of Genesis wished to ignore
and avoid these stories. 
Yet, even so, there are many stories in scripture
that witness to the violent brokenness of the world. 
They are part of our scriptures for a reason;
they hold great value. 
When we tell these stories,
we journey on a path towards understanding God and our lives.  

So, what does the story of Abraham and Isaac say to us? 
How does it relate to our lives and relationship with God?

Some claim that this story is about obedience and faithfulness. 
Others say that this story is about trust. 
Still others say that Abraham and Isaac’s story
is a preface to Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. 
Each of these claims contains some truth and wisdom. 

To me, the heart of the text lies in discernment and sacrifice. 

We don’t talk a lot about either of these in our culture. 
Indeed, we work hard to avoid them. 

Discernment takes time. 
It takes prayer and contemplation. 
We often move quickly from one decision to the next. 

Sacrifice is painful;
it requires us to give up something,
usually something we value. 

Put them together and we discover
that the life of discipleship is hard work. 
Jesus says,

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. 
For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9: 23 – 25). 

To follow Christ,
to believe in God,
requires giving up our whole lives. 
This is what discipleship requires: sacrifice. 
To make these sacrifices,
we must listen for God’s call on our lives. 
These are crucial aspects of our lives with God
and we cannot follow Christ without them.

This is true for individuals and for communities. 

Remember that story from Acts
where the entire congregation holds everything in common.  Surely this required sacrifice within the community
and from each person. 
It is also required discerning hearts:
a willingness to trust that this call benefited God’s kingdom
not just the people. 

All of us
must diligently seek God’s call and discern the sacrifices
we must make:
in our own lives and as a church.

The story of Abraham and Isaac
depicts the struggle between discernment and sacrifice. 
There is no doubt that we are responsible to God, our creator.  In response,
we must be responsible caretakers of our lives and creation. 

The story of Abraham asks us:
are we listening and are we ready? 
Do we hear God’s call in our lives
and are we ready to make the necessary sacrifices? 

Let me be clear:
(My husband says I should print this sentence twice...)
I DO NOT believe God asks us to violently sacrifice
the life of creation, especially children

I DO believe God entrusts them to us,
depending on our care and mercy. 

Indeed, I believe all of life is a gift
and we must consistently care for all of God’s creation. 
To live this way requires sacrifice
and we can be sure that God will show us how. 

This is the good news of the story. 

The angel of the LORD comes to Abraham and says,

“Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God…And Abraham looked up and saw a ram…” 

Abraham finds himself poised over the life of his son,
on the verge of acting in radical violence. 
God meets him there and reveals a different way:
the way of mercy. 
It turns out that the sacrifice Abraham must make
pales in comparison to what he imagined. 
In the end, Abraham’s story reminds us
that God asks one thing from us: 
our faithfulness. 
This will require sacrifice
and our sacrifice will always be met with God’s mercy:  Thanks be to God!

Monday, June 6, 2011

Easter VII Year A: ExtraOrdinary Faith

Well, it’s been a busy week in the church world.  Wednesday was the feast of Justin Martyr; Thursday was the Feast of the Ascension; and Friday was the Feast of the Uganda Martyrs.  Unless you are an avid follower of the church calendar, none of that may have meaning in your world. I’m quite sure your world was busy in its own way.  

These feasts, though, mark important aspects of who we, the Church, are.  Justin Martyr was a philosopher who, in the second century, became a Christian.  Justin, along with six of his students, was put to death for refusal to renounce his faith.  On June 3, 1886, thirty-two pages of King Mwanga of Buganda were put to death.  These men refused to renounce Christianity despite the threats of the king. Their deaths marked the beginning of a martyrdom of over fifty men in the King’s Court. June 3, 1886 was also the feast of the Ascension. This feast happens forty days following Easter and is the day we celebrate Jesus’ bodily rising into heaven. Jesus’ ascension brings his life full circle: his entire life returns to God. Our faith hinges on several moments: that Jesus came from God (the incarnation), rose from the tomb (resurrection), and returns to God (the ascension). The link between our celebrations of the saints and the ascension is our beliefThese are extraordinary people and an extraordinary moment that compel us to an extraordinary faith.

The first letter of Peter was written to the churches in Asia Minor sometime in the 1st century. It was written to support the Church, especially in times of persecution and suffering.  The letter reminds the faithful to root themselves in Christ’s ministry and live lives of integrity.  They are encouraged to risk suffering and alienation because of their faith in Christ.  They are to practice endurance, hope and good works as transparent witnesses to Christ. Most of all, the letter seeks to guide, inspire and embolden their faith.

During every week of this Easter season, we have heard only portions of this letter. If you study the Bible regularly, I invite you to sit down and read the whole letter. Be warned, there are some cultural markers that irritate our modern ears: slaves submitting to their masters; wives submitting to their husbands; the glory of enduring suffering. These portions irritate us because they have been (and sometimes still are) used for oppression. We must remember as we read these texts that we cannot change the culture of the text.  We can, however, glean from the text important wisdom and discernment for our world. We must bring to the text a willingness to forgive the misuse of the letter and a desire to learn. When we read the whole letter at once, in this way,
we share the experience of those first churches.

The readings from chapters one, two and three over the last several weeks form a certain theme. They teach us that when we practice hope, love and endurance together we form a holy community. We have hope because we are witnesses to the resurrection: the power of life over death. We know love because we have experienced God’s love and compassion in the life of Christ. Jesus brought these two, hope and love, to our broken world and, ultimately, to the cross. They also sustain us as we endure the trials of our broken world.   We do not, though, live in a vacuum or on an island. We live in relationship. As we share these gifts, hope, love and endurance, with one another, we form a holy community: a community rooted in faith that stands as a witness to God’s grace and mercy.

In many ways, I feel like today’s portion of First Peter was written for us: “And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you…” We all know and testify to the reality that Trinity Church has had its fair share of trials. I know that many of you have recently experienced great trials in your own lives. And over the last few weeks, I have felt Christ’s love and hope, and our endurance at work. 

Today marks my sixth Sunday. It’s hard to believe. In many ways, I feel as though I have been here my whole life.  And yet, I know we are at the beginning.  Most of all, I’m pleased that we have the Easter season at the beginning of our life together.  Easter is a time for rebirth, new life. It is a time for Christ to renew, inspire and encourage us and our holy community.

Next Sunday we will celebrate Pentecost and begin ordinary time. I love that we call the season of Pentecost ordinary time.   It is the longest season of the Church year and the one that most resembles our lives. For the most part, our lives, our faith, are pretty ordinary: it’s not every day we celebrate extraordinary moments, like Easter, new calls, new babies, or graduations.  Most of the time, we strive to be faithful during ordinary moments: getting to school and work,  caring for our homes and family, serving at church and in the community. The season of Pentecost celebrates the everyday of our lives.
Yet our readings from First Peter oblige us to weave the Easter season into our ordinary lives. The lives of the saints compel us to witness to our faith in bold and daring ways. The truth is, few of us, if any, will face the choice between our faith and our lives. Yet, it is our faith that binds us to the church in Asia Minor and the saints. Our witness to the incarnation, resurrection and ascension binds us as a holy community. And, we remember: we can live lives of extraordinary faith in the midst of ordinary times.
Over the next few weeks, months and years, we will enter a more ordinary time together. There will continue to be extraordinary moments. And a wise person once said, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. As we continue to weave our lives together, the story of our holy community will emerge. This holy community will reveal our hope, our love, our endurance. This holy community will guide us in an extraordinary faith.

Easter VI Year A: Love One Another...

Quick: How many songs can you remember that speak to the power of love?  Let’s see: Love is many a splendered thing; Love is all you need; Can’t Buy Me Love; Stop!  In the Name of Love…I’ll take that as a cue and you get the point: there is a modern day obsession with love.

In our modern culture, love is defined, primarily, as a feeling. The Encarta dictionary defines this love as “tender affection or desire for somebody.”  Think about all those pictures we’ve seen of H/HRH Kate and William. No matter your interest in royal weddings, those images evoke a particular definition of love: the love that exposes an emotional bond between two people.  This is the link in most relationships and is often used as a reason for intimacy, including marriage.  I’m not implying that there is anything wrong or bad with this understanding of love. Indeed, this kind of love is often the beginning of another definition of love:  this is the power of love to overcome obstacles and sustain us in difficult times. The emotional force of love to bind us to one another is the profit of each relationship.
Our Gospel reading today, asks us to reflect on lovethe love between Jesus and the disciples. Jesus says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments…They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me…”  The word commandment turns our minds to the Ten Commandments or some other moral code.   However, if you search through John’s Gospel there is no such code. Instead, we have only Jesus’ words in Chapters 13 and 15 of the Gospel: “love one another as I have loved you.”  What does it mean to love as Jesus loves and commands?

The greatest influence on my life was probably the life of my grandfather. My dad’s father was born the oldest of twelve in rural Ohio. At some point in his young adulthood, he discovered the local Lutheran church, a small, rural church. As an adult, he married his one and only love, my grandmother. They had three children and were actively involved in the lives of their nieces and nephews. When I turned 6, I began spending my summers with my grandparents: half the summer with one set, half with the other.  So, for at least 7 years, 4 weeks of my life were guided and directed by Grandpa Joe.

As I mentioned, Grandpa was a Lutheran. He was an active member of the church, including acting treasurer for at least 15 years. Every Sunday, we would get up and head to church. After coffee hour, we would head home for lunch and count the money. On Monday, we would make the deposit and bring the deposit slip to the Church. There, Grandpa and Pastor Lyerly would discuss theology for hours. I did everything with Grandpa from mowing the lawn to visiting folks in their homes. We would swim at the beach and play cards with their friends.  A good portion of our time was spent with their church community, a community that I knew loved me.

Grandpa had one other important characteristic: he had never met a stranger. I never saw him be rude to anyone. He taught me to smile and be gentle with even the hardest people. He taught me to care and offer kindness to everyone. By offering himself in service to everyone, he taught me to love.

Earlier this week, I had the privilege of sharing communion with Mary Eaton Williams and her brother, Mickey Robertson. Mary Eaton and Mickey came here when their mother decided to move to Danville. Their father was in the tobacco business and was away a lot. 

Mary Eaton raised two children and her daughter died several years ago from cancer.  Mary Eaton, Mickey and his wife, Judy, are faithful members of Trinity. Mary Eaton doesn’t get around very well anymore and depends on the kindness of others.

When I arrived, Mary Eaton’s home was full of people. These were her neighbor’s daughter, husband and family visiting from Germany. After they left, Mary Eaton told me more about her neighbor. Several years ago, Mary Eaton’s old neighbors were moving; she and her daughter were concerned about who her new neighbors would be. They soon discovered that an older, single man would be living there.  Mary Eaton was concerned that he would have loud friends and be insensitive to his neighbors.  Instead, this gentleman has come to be one of Mary Eaton’s regular care givers. He helps her with her mail and getting her trash cans to the curb and back.  He calls her every day and brings her groceries. In Mary Eaton’s words, “he is one of the many unexpected blessings in my life; he loves me.”
We often think of John’s Gospel as the “mystical Gospel.”  It’s characterized as spiritual and known to be focused on the spiritual experience. Yet in today’s reading, Jesus is very practical, connecting the eternal with our everyday life. 

One aspect of John’s Gospel is the intersection between Kairos, God’s time, and Chronos, our time. These are those moments when there is a revelation of God in the midst of human experience. At the risk of repeating myself, let’s revisit some characteristics of John’s Gospel I mentioned last week. In John’s Gospel, Jesus performs five miracles: water into wine, healing the sick and blind, feeding thousands with five loaves and two fish, and raising Lazarus. These miracles or signs serve one main purpose: revelations of God’s activity in the world so that we will believe Jesus is the Messiah. These miracles are those moments when Kairos, God’s time, is experienced now in, Chronos, our time. 

The primary example of this experience is Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension.  During this time, God offers God’s self, through Christ, on behalf of creation. It is the ultimate offering. And, through these actions, God’s eternal work happens here, in our world. This is how Jesus loves: living a life in service to all of creation.  These are the moments when Kairos and Chronos intersect. The same is true of our lives. When we offer our selves in service to others, we are revelations of God’s love and work in the world. It may not require our lives; it does require that we, like Jesus, give up ourselves.

Over the last few weeks, our world has been overwhelmed with natural disasters. I find that in the morning when I wake up, my first thought is to wonder what happened in the nightIt is a strange and disturbing feeling. We become fatigued by the news and compelled to respond. A dear friend of mind is from Missouri. This week he posted on his Facebook, I know the people of Missouri . . .Joplin will probably set a new gold standard for a community recovering from disaster.” We know what he means: the capacity they have for compassion will remind us how to love.  AND: We don’t need a disaster to love; at any moment, we can care for and serve one another. 

I hope this week we will all take some time and notice when we love as Christ loves. I hope we will also notice those times when Christ loves us through others. This is as simple and easy as caring for our family and friends. It is also as great and difficult as offering help and compassion to the stranger and, even, our enemies. We can be assured that these are the moments when Kairos and Chronos intersect. These are the moments when the kingdom of God breaks in and we experience the presence of Christ. This is when we know love.