June 14, 2008

“Will Our Faith Have Children?”

Filed under: Faith Matters — Pastor Tim @ 9:37 pm

Then the LORD said, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son.”  Genesis 18:10

Abraham and Sarah laughed at the prospect of having children in their old age.  (Actually, it sounds as if they may have laughed at the prospect of having intercourse. v. 12)  But God was faithful and gave them Isaac, so the promise of becoming a great nation could be carried on through him.

Today many congregations struggle with a limited number of younger members.  We worry about no one being in the church when current generations have passed away.  We don’t want to promote the idea of having children simply for the purpose of saving the church!   But we do need to listen to the story of Abraham and Sarah to find ways towards our future.

Years ago, a book was written called Will Our Children Have Faith?  [John Westerhoff III, New York: The Seabury Press, 1976]  It was an important book concerning how the church would need to address Christian education at a time when many young people were beginning to experiment with alternative lifestyles.  However, a decade later, a seminary professor turned that book’s title around in a speech he gave.  [Walter Brueggemann, Hope Within History, Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1987, “Will Our Faith Have Children?” first presented at Eden Theological Seminary, St. Louis, 1983]  By twisting that title, he invited the church to focus on how we live in ways that trust God’s ability to bring about a future that we cannot yet imagine.

He suggested we need to truly grieve the death of some methods of being church in our culture.  Then we need to embrace the dying of those old ways of being church.  And finally we be able to embrace new opportunities to live our faith with integrity.

A couple of decades later, I’d like to suggest that we are still working at grieving the loss of institutional religion and at embracing truly inclusive community as the way to identify our lives of faith.

I don’t have any easy answers for working at this.  (Modern music may have brought more young people to our institutions, but it doesn’t automatically shape disciples for inclusive community!)  Yet we do still have the story of Sarah and Abraham.

May their laughter give shape to our hope in God’s providing new life, new birth, new future!

June 4, 2008

Holy Interruptions

Filed under: Faith Matters — Pastor Tim @ 10:10 am

As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, “Follow me.”  Matthew 9:9

While [Jesus] was saying these things to them, suddenly a leader of the synagogue came in and knelt before him, saying, “My daughter has just died; but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live.”  Matthew 9:18

Then suddenly a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years came up behind him and touched the fringe of his cloak.  Matthew 9:20

You know how frustrating it is.  You sit down with your family to enjoy a nice, warm piece of baked chicken, and the phone rings.  “The extended warranty on one or more of your cars is about to expire.”  In actual fact, the warranty on your car is good for another two years, or it has expired five years ago.  But someone thinks they can make some money, so they program their company’s automatic phone dialers to intrude upon your meal time.

In this week’s gospel reading, first Jesus is the interrupter - calling Matthew from the midst of his efforts to balance his tax books.  But shortly thereafter Jesus is the interruptee - he is speaking to disciples of John the Baptist when a synagogue leader intrudes to get him to attend to his dead daughter; then as he’s traveling with this leader, a hemorrhaging woman imposes upon his journey as she seeks healing for herself.

“Life is what happens while we’re busy making other plans,” goes a popular saying.  We must make plans and schedules, but we must also be ready for them be interrupted.  Indeed, many of life’s greatest blessings have to intrude and redirect our lives:

  • A baby blesses the life of a parent, but also disrupts all the familiar routines
  • A committed life-partner provides support through life’s journey, but also imposes his/her own life-situation on one’s own
  • A job opening provides expanding career opportunities, but also carries requirements for new learnings and for taking on new responsibilities

Not every interruption is the call of God, of course - especially not those mealtime telemarketers!  But a major part of our spiritual growth needs to be the developing of the ability to recognize God’s intrusions.  The call to make a contribution of time or talent or treasure towards some new ministry often feels like an interruption; but it is often how God seeks to work in our world.

Until God is finally finished shaping our lives, God will have to intrude upon our other plans.  May we find the grace to welcome these interruptions.

May 30, 2008

Rain, Rain, Go Away!

Filed under: Faith Matters — Pastor Tim @ 9:42 am

The rain fell on the earth forty days and forty nights….  And the waters swelled on the earth for one hundred fifty days.  Genesis 7:12,24

A number of years ago in the Peanuts comic strip, it rained and rained.  Charlie Brown stood outside, soaking wet.  And he looked up to the heavens with baseball and ballglove in his hands.  As loud as he could, he shouted, “Rain, rain, go away!  Come again another day!”  But still it poured.

The spring flooding we have received in our portion of the Midwest this year hasn’t been as bad as some other years; but there have been more tornados - many of the deadly - associated with many of these storms.  At times I have wished we could stand outside and yell at the clouds and make them stop raining.

The rains that came during the time of Noah were attributed to human corruption that led God to seek to wash away the evil with a flood.  Nowadays we tend to frown upon the suggestion that God tosses around curses when things aren’t going as God had planned.  Yet I suspect there is some sense in which God permits the consequences of human greed and apathy to flood the earth.  I believe the weather is affected to a greater extent than we usually wish to acknowledge by our practices of extracting as much energy as we can from the earth to supply our insatiable appetites for protection and comfort and speed. 

But in the end, the God who permits storms to damage the earth is also the God who tells Noah to build an ark.  The God who is unhappy with many of the decisions that we humans make is also the God who feels the pain of our condition.  The God who curses, if you will, is also the God who rescues humankind and provides for a fresh start.

We may not be able to shout (or pray) away the storms from our lives.  But we are able to place our trust in the One who created heaven and earth, and we are able to turn our lives toward compassion for others.  When we do so, then we find that we are yet embraced and nurtured by God’s promise of new life.

May 25, 2008

Overtaken

Filed under: Faith Matters — Pastor Tim @ 8:56 am

So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own.  Today’s trouble is enough for today.  Matthew 6:34

Once when I was a volunteer chaplain in Quincy, Illinois, two different patients arrived in the ICU, having recently suffered heart attacks.

As I met with the woman, she told me straight out that she was worried.  She asked me to tell her a story about heaven.  So I told her the story of the people who didn’t have elbows, but who lived on a lush island filled with the most delicious foods.  It was hell for them if they tried only to feed themselves, but it became heaven for them when they learned to feed one another.  After I told the story, she immediately called for the nurse and asked if she could have ice cream.

As I met with the man in the ICU, he refused to look me in the eye.  I suggested that having a heart attack must have been a pretty frightening experience.  All he would say was, “I’m not scared.”  I wondered if he was a bit uptight being attached to so much medical equipment in a dark, dreary intensive care unit.  He forced himself to say, ”If I die, I’m going to heaven, so I shouldn’t be worried.”  And with that he used every bit of will power he had to keep from showing any signs of emotion.

A couple of days later, I saw both of their pictures and both of their names on the obituary page.  I remembered my last vision of each of them: him, holding his mouth and eyes closed, working hard to appear calm; her, eagerly slurping a chocolate milk shake.

I don’t want to suggest that either of them had a better death than the other.  But I don’t think Jesus means it is a sin to worry.  Worry is a sign of caring, and we need more caring people in our world.  Lack of worry can be a sign of apathy.

Perhaps Jesus means that it is a sin to let worry rule your life.  When we let our lives get overtaken by worry, we lose our lives trying to save them.  But when we live, in spite of our worries, we experience that gracious Presence that’s been sustaining us all along.

May 16, 2008

The Name of God

Filed under: Faith Matters — Pastor Tim @ 4:12 pm

“…baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”  Matthew 28:19b

The first name ascribed to God in the Bible is YHWH, a Hebrew word meaning “I AM WHO I AM” (See Exodus 3).  I understand that to be an UN-name.  That is, this name is proclaiming that there is no name by which the utterly free God can be trapped.

In the New Testament, we get a new formula for the name of God: “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”  This has caused all sorts of anguish through the generations, as outsiders have accused Christians of having three different gods.  It has also caused all sorts of creative attempts at explanation:  Ice, Water, and Steam all bear the same chemical form and hence are one, though they occur in three distinct ways; A clock in a tower has different faces on each side, but one and the same set of workings on the inside; If you poke your finger into the pointy end of a peeled banana, it breaks into three long, but relatively equal parts, though it is still one banana; etc.  Many explanations are provided to help folks to uplift this formula as God’s name.

But I wonder even our most creative explanations don’t miss the possibility that God (and the Church) are still playing the same game started in Exodus - namely, that God is simply too mysterious to be be trapped within any name.

So on Trinity Sunday, maybe we ought not get hung up on questions of the logic behind this identity.  Perhaps, instead, we can celebrate the One who is present around and under and in each and every one of us creatures who have been shaped in that divine and mysterious image.

May 10, 2008

Wind of the Spirit/Breath of the Spirit

Filed under: Faith Matters — Pastor Tim @ 7:53 pm

“And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.”  Acts 2:2

“… [Jesus] breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’”  John 20:22b

Many of us are aware of the two accounts of creation.  In the first, the universe is created in six days, with human beings created the very last (Gen. 1:1-2:4a).  In the second, the first human is created before there are plants or animals (Gen. 2:4b-24).  They are different stories, each carrying their own bit of spiritual truth.  So each are included in our sacred texts.

Many of us are also aware that there are two different accounts of the birth of Jesus.  In Luke’s gospel, angels tell shepherds to find the family of Jesus keeping the Christ child in a manger in Bethlehem, because there was no room for them in the inn (Luke 2″1-20).  In Matthew’s gospel, Magi from the east follow a star to find the family of Jesus staying with the Christ child in a house in Bethlehem (Matthew 1:18-25).  Each story was judged inspired, so both are included in scriptures though they are different.

Did you also know that there are also two stories of the Holy Spirit coming to give birth to the Church?

In the familiar story in the second chapter of Acts, the Holy Spirit comes as a violent wind on the day of Pentecost.  The disciples are empowered to proclaim the gospel in every tongue so that thousands join to follow the Way of the Christ on that first day.  It is a wild and raucous party, with people thinking that everybody is drunk!

But the less familiar and much, much quieter story is told in John’s gospel.  The disciples are gathered in a locked room.  They encounter the risen Christ, who speaks words of peace to them.  Then the Holy Spirit comes to them as a breath.  They are empowered by this breath to spread acts of forgiveness to the world.

We preachers tend to emphasize the wild, windy Spirit when we want our congregations to be moved to change the world!  But I wonder if the breath of the Spirit might nurture transformations that are just as powerful.  Sometimes it takes a gentle, quiet confidence to provide power.

Whether as Wind or Breath, may the Holy Spirit blow on us to empower us to share the love of the Christ.

May 1, 2008

Up, Up, and Away!

Filed under: Faith Matters — Pastor Tim @ 12:13 pm

“When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.”  Acts 1:9

In the Apostles’ Creed, we affirm that “[Jesus Christ] ascended into heaven.”  But I admit that the story of Jesus’ ascension makes me want to giggle.  I just read in the i.UCC Daily Devotional (available through i.UCC.org) about a set of statues in the Chartres Cathedral of people looking in the sky, and hanging from the ceiling above them there are two feet, representing Jesus being lifted into the clouds!  This is one of those passages of scripture that doesn’t make a lot of sense to me when read literally.  Heaven is not someplace we can get to by flying above the clouds.  Yet I believe this is a profound story of our faith.

Forty days after Easter Sunday, the disciples are asking the risen Jesus if he’s ready now to defeat the Romans and to restore the kingdom of Israel.  Jesus answers by telling them there is no way to know when the kingdom of heaven will arrive, and by promising them the gift of the Holy Spirit.  Then he “disappears,”  and angels come to tell the disciples to quit gawking at the heavens.

This story suggests that the situation in our world isn’t going to get any better if we are always only sitting around waiting for divine intervention.  In fact, the Divine has already intervened!  This has taken many forms, including, but not limited to, these: the act of creation; the rescue from the flood; the exodus from slavery; the return from exile; the intervention of the prophets; the birth, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus; the coming of the Holy Spirit.  The Divine will intervene again, but we are called to tasks other than passively waiting for God to fix things up.

The ascension of Jesus opens us to receive the coming Spirit, and the coming of the Holy Spirit empowers us to be the Church, i.e. to be God’s work of intervening in the world.  The Church is called to intervene for God where the powers of domination, despair, and death - the powers of Rome, if you will - are still trying to assert their control.

April 9, 2008

Who Is My Shepherd?

Filed under: Faith Matters — Pastor Tim @ 11:06 am

The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.  Psalm 23:1

To live in a community (flock) that knows and follows God as shepherd is to know the satisfaction of abundant gifts.  But most of us do not live in such flocks, at least not most of the time.  A number of years ago, I wrote the “Consumer Capitalism Version” of the 23rd Psalm:

  • The Free-Market Economy is my shepherd, 
  • I shall always want more.
  • It maketh my cities sprawl across green pastures,
  • It leadeth my factories to pollute still waters.
  • It restoreth my greed.
  • It leadeth me down longer grocery store aisles for the sake of corporate profits.
  • Yea, though I walk on the brink of bankruptcy,
  • I fear no new debts.
  • For thou sendest another credit card offer to me;
  • Thy free gifts and thy temporary low interest rate, they comfort me.
  • Thou preparest a computer screen before me with Internet access to my creditors.
  • Thou floodest my e-mail Inbox with spam.
  • My e-mail capacity runneth over.
  • Surely bills and a credit rating shall follow me all the days of my life,
  • And I shall have job security until the next corporate merger.

How different would life be, if our true Shepherd were at the center of all we did?

April 4, 2008

In the Breaking of the Bread

Filed under: Faith Matters — Pastor Tim @ 10:30 am

“When he was at table, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.  Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him.”  Luke 24:30-31a

Two of Jesus’ followers were walking to some now unfamiliar location, Emmaus.  Its obscurity leads us to trust that the risen Christ can appear on the road to anywhere.

But the risen Christ’s presence, and the recognition of his presence are two different things.  Upon reflection, those followers of Jesus remembered their hearts burning within them as they encountered this stranger.  Upon reflection, they remembered his discussion of the Bible as one which reopened their world after it had been slammed shut by Jesus’ death.  Upon reflection, they could see how the divine presence had been alive with them on their journey.

Recognition happened later, however, as they broke bread with a stranger, and as he took over and became host of the meal.  As he had done at the feeding of the 5000, and again at the Last Supper, he “took, blessed, broke, and gave” the bread.  This particular sequence with the bread reflects the birth, the baptism, the crucifixion, and the resurrection of Jesus (according to Henri Nouwen).  Thus the resurrected Jesus was “made known to [those followers] in the breaking of the bread” [Luke 24:35].

Thus we encounter the body of Christ in these actions at the Communion Table.  The table provides an opportunity to reflect upon our lives, upon whatever road to Emmaus we are traveling, and upon how divine presence has been alive on our journey.

What encounter with a stranger has left you surprisingly blessed?  Which stories of faith have been told in ways that have opened up parts of life that had otherwise seemed to be dead ends?  When has your heart “burned within you,” with enthusiasm and joy?

March 22, 2008

Darkness

Filed under: Faith Matters — Pastor Tim @ 11:16 am

“Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark,…”  John 20:1

It always begins in darkness, doesn’t it?  The gift of new life wouldn’t be a surprise if it didn’t begin in the darkness.

Resurrection begins in the darkness - a darkness that can linger for days.  Darkness came over the land on noon on Friday, according to the synoptic accounts, as Jesus hung from the cross, as he suffered, and as he died.  That darkness continued through Saturday in the tomb where the body lay.   Before the sun had risen on Sunday morning, Mary arose to go to the tomb.

When she arrives and finds that the body is missing, her first thought is of more darkness.  “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” [20:2]  Resurrection light arrives, but it continues to look like darkness.  It is only after Mary hears her name spoken, that she recognizes the new light that is shining.

So, too, I trust that resurrection light is shining in our world in places that appear to be drenched in darkness.  May we learn to linger with our grief in the darkness until we hear our names spoken, until we can recognize resurrection light, until we can join with Mary to say, “I have seen the Lord!” [20:18]