Food for Thought-Hunger Games in the Wilderness-a Sermon on Exodus 16:2-15

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I really do feel for Moses. I talked a couple of weeks ago at how difficult it must have been for him to initially relate the story of the burning bush to his family and fellow shepherds. Can you imagine explaining to a group of disbelieving Midianite relatives or shepherds? Shepherds you don’t really fit in with in the first place. They are professional shepherds since they could walk, you are an over educated culturally confused Egyptian claiming to be Jewish who’d never seen a sheep until you arrived in Midian fleeing murder charges. One day you tell them God spoke to you through a burning bush (which didn’t burn) and now you’re the one designated to lead the mission to free the Israelites from Pharaoh? People haven’t changed that much over the past three or four thousand years. If it sounds strange to us, it’s probably going to sound crazy to them as well.

Now all of that has been vindicated. He was the guy God called. Despite his meekness of speech and initial reluctance, the Exodus happened. God made massive demonstrations of his power to convince Pharaoh to let his people go. The Nile turned to blood, there plagues of frogs and locusts, and eventually the angel of death passed over and killed every first born Egyptian. To follow this up, God caused an immense natural body of water to divide itself, making it possible for the Israelites to flee an approaching Egyptian army. The army was subsequently destroyed when the divided water came back together, crushing and drowning the Egyptian army. You have to admit it, this is pretty amazing stuff. If you’re one of the Israelites on this initial stage of the journey to the Promised Land, you’ve seen God do things than no one else had ever seen or would ever see again. There should be no doubt in your mind about God’s seriousness of purpose or God’s ability to deliver and deliver big on God’s promises. Wouldn’t you agree?

Yes. I would. And this is why I feel for Moses, as a leader and simply as a human being. You would think that by this time his resume and God’s actions would speak for themselves. But that’s not the case. What the Israelites have seen and witnessed isn’t enough. Yesterday, God was killing Egyptian children and the Pharaoh was drinking blood from the polluted Nile. It seems, that no matter how dramatic and meaningful yesterday was they’ve forgotten it. Call it what you will, they’ve stopped connecting the dots, they are no longer thinking straight, they’ve simply ignored the realities of the past and can’t see anything beyond right now. That stinks, especially for Moses.

They might have been on the road for 60-90 days. At some point, relatively soon after they left Egypt, scripture tells us, “the whole congregation”, which means basically everybody started to complain against Moses and Aaron. Here’s the kicker. The complaints are not simple concerns. One might expect, “we’re hot, we’re tired, there’s never enough water.” Those are the kind of complaints one might and would even rightly expect. We’re dealing with human beings in hot, dry, and arid land. People will complain.

But that’s not what they said. Listen again to their words. “If we had only died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”

If you God, is what they are saying, had only killed us in Egypt, we would be better off, because there was bread in Egypt. Now Moses, you are trying to kills us with some kind of starvation death march. This is why I feel for Moses. He can’t win. Can you just imagine his level of frustration? He risked his life by going up in front of Pharaoh, he’s helped facilitate these massive displays of God’s power, with his brother he has helped organize every aspect of their journey and now they accuse him of trying to kill them with starvation? They have the nerve to publicly say it was better in Egypt. So not only have they forgotten what God has done for them they’ve completely idealized and romanticized what being a slave was about.

It would be like someone managing to escape from Auschwitz, Dachau, or Bergen-Belsen any concentration camp you can name and when they were far enough way but have to struggle between German and allied lines saying something like this to the person risked their life to free them, “Those Germans and SS guards sure were nice guys. Why have you brought me out here to the cold forests of Poland only to die of hunger and starvation? Why didn’t you kill me at the camp? At least they gave us rotten bread to eat on the way to the gas chamber. The gas chamber would be better than this.”

Do you see how ridiculous they are being? How insanely stupid they sound? How they have lost all sense of proportion and context?

This complaint to Moses reveals two important facts. First, they have trust issues with Moses. Secondly, they don’t trust God. Ultimately, it is really just about God. Because if they don’t trust Moses, that’s just the visible sign that they don’t trust God. And as Billy Joel said, it’s a matter of trust.

They think they are out there to play the Hunger Games. That’s not the case. Through Moses, God explains how he is going to provide for them on a daily basis. It involves giving them bread on a daily basis. I seem to remember us saying something earlier about, “give us this day or daily bread.” Well lo and behold this is where Jesus took it from.

God is going to provide bread from heaven each and every day they are on the road. There will only be enough for that given day. On the day before the Sabbath, so they can rest on the Sabbath, God will provide and extra portion, so they are getting two days worth on that day. There will be enough for everyone. No one will get more than they need but everyone will get exactly what they need. This is crucial to God’s plan: what they are getting will only last for one day. Anything leftover will rot away that night. So no one is allowed to stockpile or hoard food. They will get more on the following day.

Why is God doing it this way? Why is God using this daily bread option? Because they are going to have to trust him that something will be there tomorrow. The only way this is going to work is if they trust God. We only have enough food for today. This bread will only feed us today. We have no leftovers, supplies, or any for tomorrow. The only way we are going to survive is to trust that God will do tomorrow (provide for us) the same way he did today. We have to trust God (and his people on the ground, Aaron and Moses).

How many times in our own life have we reenacted this Israelite drama? You may not have seen a plague of frogs or Silver Lake split so you can walk across it but you have seen God at work in your life. God has done amazing things; sometimes spectacular and at other times exquisitely simple. Regardless of how grand or how small, God has moved in your life. How easy is it for us to forget how far God has brought us and what God has done in our lives? It is as easy as it was for the Israelites.

How easy is it for us to offer effusive praise and love to God on one day then doubt God’s love or presence in our lives the next? It is as easy as the last breath you took. So what do we do? How do we avoid playing the mental Hunger Games like a group of wandering Israelite pilgrims?

The first thing we do is look around. We remind ourselves of what God has done in our lives. Are you alive this morning? I hope so. There are no zombies in God’s house. Do you have food on your table? I doubt any of us are going hungry. Do you have family and friends who love you? Yes, because many of them are sitting right here beside you. I could go on. But I am here to tell you this morning that those things are evidence of God’s action, presence, and blessing in your life. You life is your Red Sea, you food is your manna from heaven. You family and your life is evidence that God has spared you from the Pharaoh’s of this world.

Now if all of that mercy, goodness, and grace surrounds you, let me ask you this: Did God bring you that far to let you down tomorrow? Did God walk with you up to this point to forget about you? We didn’t come this far to forget. We did make this journey to stop here. We didn’t overcome all of those in our lives to give up now. Fear and doubt may have knocked at your door. Will trust answer?

In the words of the old African American spiritual, “I Don’t Feel Noways Tired”:
I don’t feel noways tired
I’ve come to o far from where I started from
Nobody told me the road would be easy
I don’t believe he brought me this far to leave me.

We know the road’s not easy. Yet, he didn’t bring you this far to leave you.

The second thing both we and the Israelites need to do is understand the difference between our “shoulds” and our “musts”. We all know what we should do. But can we do what we must do? We know we should trust God. We see that God has a track record. We are living proof of God’s unbroken winning streak in keeping us alive. And we must not forget it. That is why we must remind ourselves by looking around at our world and our lives. That is why we must remind ourselves by coming to church and re-telling the stories of God’s goodness and saving works. This is why we sing the old hymns that talk about what God has done because we must remind ourselves for a coming tomorrow when we are prone to forget.

Food for Thought-Richard’s Daily Prayer-September 17th, 2014

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The morning prayers I write each day are posted on my church community’s Facebook page.

https://www.facebook.com/pages/Ocracoke-United-Methodist-Church/165833216776269

Please feel free to like us and follow along.  Audio versions of my preached sermon can be found there as well.

I thought I would share today’s prayer here as well:

Gracious God

You call us to pray in the darkened closets and distant corners of our lives. Far from the eyes of the maddening crowd, we speak with you about those emotions, events, people, and ideas which dominate our days. Yet, before the words form in our minds and the ideas become words, you are meeting our most pressing needs. Needs we know, needs we have yet to become aware of, and comforting those who weigh on our souls. As we remember those in our life today in need of your presence, we give thanks to you for remembering us. We praise you for not forgetting that place, that seat, that spot in your kingdom where we are made welcome.

As we move from the hidden sanctity of prayer, be with us as we step onto the street corners of reality. May our prayers be more than words. May they become Spirit bathed actions made real by the love they embody and represent.

Amen

Food for Thought-It’s Not Fair!-Initial Thoughts on Matthew 20:1-16

The way I want to approach this parable is by  putting it into our context; our day and time.  In order to do this, imagine you didn’t know Jesus was telling this parable.  Forget, if you can, this is part of the Bible and the Son of God himself is relating this story.

Now imagine you’re driving down the road, listening to your favorite whine and gripe talk station, when this guy calls up; one of the workers who feels he’s been slighted and cheated because he worked all day and got the same money as the people who showed up at the end of the day.  It’s one of the workers, hired first, telling the story.  Not Jesus.  You’re hearing the exact same things Jesus said but you don’t know anything at all about Matthew 20:1-16.  You hear this cold, from the first worker’s perspective.  How would you feel?  Would you find yourself automatically agreeing with the aggrieved worker?  I think most people would.  Today, the first worker would probably add something to the story.  Those who came late and were paid the same were probably immigrants.  This would have infuriated the first worker even more.  Stereotypes would be fed, anger fueled, “see we’re going to hell in a hand basket” would be said, Congress and the President would be blamed, and the vicious cycle of “it’s not fair” would begin all over again.

Then you remember, this is not some call on a radio talk show.  This is Jesus talking.  You’d realize your anger is misplaced.  Why is Jesus taking the side of the late comers?  Why is he on the side of paying everyone the same?  Is Jesus some anti-American socialist?

Jesus is not an American.   He believes in treating people equally.  Define that how you will.

The kingdom of God is not about fairness.  It’s about equality before God.  If it were about fairness, none of us would have a shot at any kind of future.

Judge your reaction.  How out of step would your reactions be to Jesus’ priorities?

How big is the gap you need to fill?

Food for Thought-It’s Hard to Be a Bigot When You’re Realize Jesus Loves Us All Equally-A Sermon on Romans 14:1-12

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I have a confession to make.  I am pathologically incapable of ordering food in a restaurant without first knowing and discussing what everyone else is planning to eat.  My first question is typically, “So what are you having?”  It is, as if, I can’t make my decision until I know what other choices are being made.  There’s something in my head that tells me, “We must have culinary variety.”  So if I’m leaning toward steak and I know you’re also thinking about steak, well then, I’ll have to change my mind.  Maybe I’ll get the fish or chicken.  In the food utopia I’ve created in my mind, two people can’t order the exact same thing.  What if I want to try what you’ve ordered?  Even though we’re not in a Chinese restaurant (a whole other ball of wax) and won’t be served communal dishes, I want to leave open the possibility of sharing. Then there’s that one person who orders something, weird, askew, and maybe a bit gross.  This throws the whole ordering process off.  Because then, everyone at the table has to comment on what an informed culinary selection has just been made or how gross “fondue squid” actually sounds.

No longer are people simply ordering what they want.  It’s now about approval, making a decision from the choices of others, and then judging what sounds strange of different to you.   If you’ve ever gone out to eat and had this experience, you’ve had a snapshot of what life looked like in first century Christianity.  People were big into food and they attached huge religious significance to what and how they ate.  Eating was a life or death issue and I don’t mean just for the cow, sheep, or pig on your plate.  And like any issue in the church, whether then or now, it was never all about eating.  There were much more important theological and religious concerns just below the surface.

Paul is writing a letter to the Romans.  The Romans are “the” Christian community to be a part of.  They represent the intellectual vanguard of the growing Christian movement.  In the capital of the most powerful empire the world had ever known, they represent the hope of the church in more ways than one.  If we were to enter the door of First Church, Rome, we would find Latin speaking Roman converts.  There are Jews who have heard Jesus’ message and believed.  You will find immigrants from all corners of the empire who have made it to Rome and now identify themselves as Christian.  They are multi-lingual, multi-ethnic, and some bring with them other Christian experiences.  Some have been to Jerusalem, Alexandria, or Damascus.  Others knew nothing of the Christ until they entered the fellowship.  And yet, they are all here, under this single roof, and claim Jesus as their Lord and Savior.

Their connection to the wider world and other Christian communities has been largely fostered by Paul.  Though Paul has never visited this church, he knows their mindset, he understands them, and is trying to support them as they become the disciples they have been called to be.  He anticipates making a journey to Rome and this letter is a word of encouragement written for their whole community.  When he gets there, he wants to meet them at their best.

Our letter and this snapshot from the 14th chapter, is an insight into the life of this early church and how Paul was attempting to guide them beyond a superficial faith into something more substantial.

Paul is giving the Romans, the church that really believed they had something going on by virtue of their geography, an extended lesson in how be welcoming, friendly, and hospitable.  He’s teaching them how to be better people, better Christians, and how to have a better church.

Paul’s first rule: Christians welcome everybody; especially those who are weak in their faith.  This is gesture of love and done in love.  We don’t welcome people to church, especially those Paul refers to as “weak in faith” (i.e. people who are in different places in how they understand what it means to be faithful) because we want to argue with them.  Paul wants the early Christians in Rome to see that differences of belief are something to be embraced and welcomed.   Clearly, he doesn’t want people be threatened by people who say or do things differently.

Here’s how he puts it (and he’s using a dietary example to make his point-which tells us that there were probably people in the new church who wanted to keep Kosher or follow Jewish dietary restrictions-a very important discussion-and those who did not.  There were people who believed that in order to follow Jesus one still had to follow certain Jewish practices.  Others did not share this belief.):  “Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables.”   So some were kosher and some were vegetarian.  He goes on in verse 3, “Those who eat must despise those who abstain and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat, for God has welcomed them.”  In other words, kosher people can be mean and vegetarians can’t be snobby-this is God’s party.  God gets to decide who is let in, not us.  And apparently, God’s got much bigger things to worry about than what people are eating.

Remember, “food” or “who ate what” was just the issue they used to mask the true nature of what they were upset about.  They might look like racists or bigots if they said, “we don’t like people because those jokers from Asia Minor because they speak a different language and they have darker skin.”  Instead, they said, “We’ll just get them on the food thing.”   So when the issue came up they said, “It’s not because you’re new and different, you just don’t eat right.”  Though everyone knew what they really meant.

So, if we were going to put this into today’s language, what would it look like?  Would we still phrase this as a discussion about food?  Is that the example Paul might use today?

He might say something like this.  “Some were straight, some were gay, some were republicans, and some were democrats, some were white, and some were black but in church and in life, those who are straight must not pass judgment on those who are gay, and those who are gay must not pass judgment on those who are straight, democrats must not pass judgment on republicans, republicans upon democrats, white upon black, and black upon white.”

As important and meaningful as those issues are to us today, people were living and dying by the same concerns Paul highlighted in his letter.

The same concerns that plagued the Roman church are also in our churches today, it’s just that the terminology has changed.   The issues of judgment, grace, and getting along with one another have not changed, they remain the same.

Paul goes on to say, and here’s where it gets really good, that in our own ways, our differences bring honor to God.  God honors our differences and our differences honor God.  That’s the second big point he’s making. 

He says some people have a more positive outlook on life, “Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike.”  In other words, we all have different perspectives.  That’s who God made us.

If you honor the Sabbath or a particular day over another, you’re doing that in honor of the Lord, Paul says.  “Also, he adds, “those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain (the vegetarians), abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God.”

Do you see what he’s saying?  If you’re acknowledging God as the root, saying thanks, whatever you do and how you do it honors God.  Are you genuine in how you live and give thanks to God?  Paul indicates that if your heart is in the right place, you’re honoring God?  That’s his big third point, “Who are we to judge other people?”  He asks this quite bluntly:  “Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister?  Or you, why do you despise your brother or sisters?”

Because, “we will all stand”, he says in verse 10.  Yes, it’s a verse about judgment but God’s judgment is based on our equality with each other.  People read that verse and go straight to that word judgment. Judgment is not our business, it is God’s business. God sees and embraces our differences while also saying, “We’re all equal.”

Our lives are about offering God praise.  Paul closes by telling us, “It’s hard to praise God on bended knee and with your words (your tongue) when you’re distracted by your definition of the sins of others and you’re using your tongue (your words) to judge people.

How about us?  Are we able to focus on worship, service, praise, and gratitude to the level Paul was encouraging the first church in Rome?   Are we able to say when something is not about the eating or whatever people want to call the issue of the day?  That being a person of faith is about not judging, forgiving, and living in community.  You can fight about anything.  The question is, are you willing to not judge the people you are fighting and remember that God died for all of us equally, no matter what issues we have deemed to be life and death or sink or swim?

So how do you praise God?  How does one worship God if your attentions are focused elsewhere?  It’s hard to worship and praise God if you’re too busy doing God’s job for God.  You can’t praise God and judge the people around you.  The two actions are mutually exclusive.  One cancels the other out.  This is what I want you to remember and hold on to today.

Food for Thought-Living a Schizophrenic Christian Life-Ignoring Jesus and Being Cool with Our Arrogance

 

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Inconsistencies: How What We Say We Believe and How We Live Don’t Match Up

1. Forgiveness. We are told to forgive an exponential number of times. To follow Jesus’ language to its logical conclusion, we are encouraged to forgive so often and so regularly, that we lose count of how often we have forgiven someone or something. Our usual answer is this: that’s all well and good for Jesus, but he doesn’t live in our world. There are so many things we claim we can’t forgive.  In fact, we use the term so loosely, it’s not uncommon to hear, “I can’t forgive politician “x” for what he or she has done to the country.” “Or I can’t forgive McDonald’s for habitually messing up my food order so I’m never going back.” We have so lowered the bar on what we believe requires forgiveness and turned our understanding of forgiveness into an action unrecognizable from the limitless gift Jesus describes.

We also mistakenly believe that forgiveness requires forgetting. By this I mean that many people mistakenly think one must forget the event, feelings, or action being forgiven. Jesus forgave his executioners, his disciples who betrayed him, and sinners alike. However, we do not forget the crucifixion itself. We must recall the event which we are forgiving, for the forgiveness to hold any meaning or value. If we discount this central aspect of Jesus’ teaching and life, we are discounting Jesus.

While it is more obvious in a discussion of forgiveness, this is only one example of picking and choosing the most palatable aspects of Jesus’ life for us to agree with and turning Christianity into percentage game. We’ve convinced ourselves there’s no reason to attempt to live up to Jesus’ hard sayings. We choose to follow a percentage of his teachings and still claim 100% of his identity. This is not a new observation. However, I am struck with how comfortable the church is becoming, year after year, living this schizophrenic existence. How can we ever be comfortable with such hypocrisy? How can we simply stop trying to be a holistic follower of Jesus when we deem Jesus’ actions out of step with our time and circumstances?  Because Jesus runs counter to the dominant culture we call home.  Plainly, it’s  hard way to live.  Why not embrace the totality of Jesus’ message and fail nobly (relying on Grace instead of the opinions of others) rather than ignore what our own arrogance deems as inappropriate?

2. Violence. It is illegal to use corporal punishment in most public schools in the United States. However, in many private schools, this action is still sanctioned. Why would we be ok not beating children in one setting but allow it another? Again, we’re thriving on a double standard. Our message: Jesus just doesn’t get it. It’s ok to say you oppose violence on one hand but allow it to occur, on the other hand, because the law allows such insanity. The question with the schools raises a larger point. There is so much violence around us. Jesus is clear about his position on violence. Jesus would be opposed to it in all forms. But while we decry abuses and torture around the world, we think nothing of allowing it to occur right under our noses. Why wouldn’t we want to apply the same ideas everywhere? Is it because Jesus doesn’t get the way we do business or how we interpret his Hebrew Bible and we condemn violence in other places because we feel morally (and religiously) superior to those in Africa or the Middle East? Don’t you think people notice this disconnect in how we live, what we say, and what we do? Maybe, maybe not. Could this be a reason evangelism is so difficult? Not that people are reluctant to worship with others who freely admit to being sinners and hypocrites. We’re all in need of redemption. Maybe people don’t want to come back to church (or come to church) because they see us as too comfortable with our inconsistencies, unwilling to discuss them and unwilling to do anything about them. Maybe it’s got nothing to do with technology, music, or worship style. It’s got nothing to do with you don’t have or programs you don’t offer. We read from a book and the words of a man who says, “live this way” and then we stop and say, “Isn’t he a nice young man from Galilee, I’ll have to think about what he just said.”  As a whole, have we just stopped trying? 

He doesn’t want us to think about it. He wants us to do it.

Why is it so hard to embrace the totality of Jesus’ message for the most ordinary parts of our lives?

I wish I knew.

Food for Thought-Morally Repulsive: The Canticle of Moses (Exodus 15:1-11, 20-21)

I have to admit it. I can’t mince words. This needs to be said. The Canticle of Moses makes me sick. It is blood-drenched, morally repulsive piece of scripture. Here’s why: It describes a divinely ordered and inspired orgy of violence where one group of people are massacred and another dance with joy. It makes me sick because we see identical events each night on our television. In scenes all over the Iraq and Syria, we see ISIS fighters shouting praises to the heavens at their newest massacres. We condemn these acts, as well we should. They too make me sick. But here, as if ripped from the New York Times, we have a scene that is no different from the ones we watch each night. If were to only omit the names and read you the reactions of Moses and the Israelites, and ask could you tell if these words came from the Koran or from the Old Testament, could you rightly tell? No, it’s nearly impossible, unless you know your Bible. Then if you do know your Bible, are you able to admit the uncomfortable similarities? Is Moses’ blood lust and supreme over confidence at doing God’s will OK because it’s our God, our understanding of the Judeo-Christian God that we’re dealing with? Do two wrongs make a right as long as it’s “our” interpretation of “our” God?

Has God become, for Moses, who Moses wants God to become? Is he singing a song or praise to his maddening idea of violence because that’s what he thinks reflects God’s priorities and actions? In reality, is Moses not having his own pre-Golden calf moment, dancing around and singing to a God he has made in his own image, reflecting his own opinions?

God said to Moses in Exodus 14:15, “Why is it you cry to me? You tell the Israelites to go forward.” That verse is left out of the lectionary reading. One way to read this is to say, “God is empowering Moses to be a better leader.”  That interpretation may work for leadership manuals and if you want to see your scripture in a moral vacuum.

Is God asking, “Why do you want me to do your killing for you?”  Is God putting some distance between himself and whatever Moses does next? This is your thing Moses. Is that a hint we’d much prefer not take? Do we want to keep dancing, feigning righteous indignation each time we turn on the news, or do we want to try to read a bloody story in a different way?

Not Appropriate for Sunday Morning or Those Who Don’t Like Blood-A Sermon on Exodus 12:1-14

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Today is the first Sunday of the month and is our custom, we are celebrating Holy Communion.  Our scripture lesson, which you just heard, recounted the events of the first Passover.  The Passover we heard about was the original one, where the angel of death “passed over” Egypt while the Israelites escaped into the desert.  Each year, our Jewish sisters and brothers recall the events of this first Passover by reenacting, in the form of a common meal, the story you just heard.  It was such a retelling, a Passover meal that brought Jesus and his disciples together on a night in Jerusalem, just prior to his arrest and execution.  So I want you understand, we are recalling a very specific Passover meal, the one Jesus celebrated with his disciples, as we gather around our table.  We, like Jesus’ first disciples are here not just to “do Passover”.  We’re here to see everything in a new light.  Because after the events of this evening, for us, the followers of Jesus, the way we understand Passover, the idea of a sacrifice, who God is, who Moses was, what our entire history has meant up until this point, will be changed forever.  This Passover changes our perspective, our history, our viewpoint, and our lives.

Robin Williams died a few weeks ago.  I even mentioned it from this pulpit.  One of my favorite movies, on that impacted me greatly was “Dead Poets Society”.  There is one scene where Mr. Keating (Williams’ character) asks each student to stand atop his desk.  He wants them to look around the classroom and see how by simply moving to a different location, sometimes only a few inches higher (or lower) than you are at the moment, everything looks different. You see and notice things you’ve never been aware before.  This morning, I want us to move to our metaphorical desks; our desks of the mind.  So we might look at Passover as we never have before.  And by doing that, we may understand Jesus’ words, at his Passover meal, in a way that illuminates the meaning and mystery of this cup and this bread.

Have you ever wished God would lay out the big plan?  Have you ever simply said, “God tell me what you want me to do?”  Lay it all out for me.  Here, in the 12th chapter of Exodus, God does just that.  In a way, one would be forgiven for thinking that God is giving some kind of divine PowerPoint.  God’s description of the “the plan” to Moses is incredibly detailed.  It leaves me wondering, if God came to you like that, would you want this much done for you?

When I say this is an all-encompassing plan, I mean it.  God starts off by telling Moses and Aaron they are going to have to redo their calendar.  The way they measure they seconds, minutes, hours, days, months, and years is starting over.  History is beginning again.  Everything else that occurs to you and your people will be measured from this moment in time.  God wants to reinforce the idea, that time and how we mark our lives depends on him, not on how we read and set the alarms and calendars we have.  He can start over in an instant.  So, our perspective changes automatically when our understanding of time, day, night, summer, winter, spring, and fall are altered.  God is moving us to look at the world in a different way.

In one way, this starts to resemble a cooking show.  God starts to outline, for Moses, the means of preparing the Passover lamb.  It’s systematic, orderly, and well thought-out.  Anything this orderly has got to have larger reasons behind it than, “just because” i.e. just because God said so.

What day, what time, all the people, broken down by household, and then how they lambs themselves are to be divided between the people.  In the middle of the section, you see part of the reason of God specificity to Moses.  God and Moses are concerned about public health.  They can’t have people getting sick (especially before an arduous journey).  So Moses warns them, in verse 9, “do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted over the fire.”  Don’t eat raw meat.  That’s how specific God is getting with the Israelites.  It’s to that level of involvement Moses is indicating God’s direction and concern.

God spends a great deal of time on the “what” of Passover.  He’s telling people “what” to do.  However, the “why” is just as important.  You can’t have one without the other.  If you don’t know and understand the “why “, the “what” becomes a meaningless ritual.  Let me say that again, if you don’t know and understand the “why “, the “what” is just a meaningless ritual.  I’m saying that twice because it applies directly to what we will do at this table in a few moments.  We need to understand what Jesus is saying, that “what” and the “why” about this table and these gifts, or it’s just a meaningless ritual.

He goes on, I don’t know if you caught this, but to even tell them “how” to eat.  They are going to eat in a rush, or “hurriedly”.  Moses tells them that God want them to be fully clothed while they eat and ready to walk out the door at a moment’s notice.  “Your loins girded,” that means your pants and clothes on.  “Your sandals on your feet and your staff in your hand,” this is the key to being ready to go when the other half of God’s plan goes into action.  Talk about minute planning and specific instructions.  Does anyone here wish God would tell you what to eat, when to eat, what to wear and how fast to eat your dinner?

Once all that is done, here comes the crux of the matter.  This is what makes Passover, Passover. It begins in verse 12.  “I will pass through the land of Egypt that night and I will strike down every first born in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals.”  Just so you’re clear, strike down means murder in cold blood the first born child and God tacks on the animals to drive his point home.  We’re talking about the wholesale slaughter of men, women and children; the vast majority who have had nothing to do with keeping the Israelites in bondage. On all the gods of Egypt, God says, “he will execute judgment.”  I thought there were no other Gods, only idols.  Why even give that much credit to the Egyptian religious system by referring to them as “gods”, if they are only a bunch of fake statues to nothing Gods who don’t exist in the first place.  Isn’t killing everyone enough?

Apparently not.  God wants the Israelites to take blood from the lamb they’ve eaten and place it on the house where they are living.  So when the angel of death passes over, he’ll say, “Ok, that’s a Jewish home, I’ll fly on to the next Egyptian home and murder them.”  Are you telling me that angels of the creator of the universe couldn’t tell the difference between their own people and the Egyptian, save this painted blood on the door post?

I told you I was going to step on the table and look at the story from a different perspective.  This story should raise all sorts of problems for us; problems we’ve never thought about or become comfortable ignoring.  Genocide is still genocide, whether it’s the bronze-age or the 21st century.  Innocent death is innocent death.

Here the fundamental issue, one that leads directly to Jesus and our own celebration this morning.  Why is it that for one nation to be freed from subjugation, slavery, and bondage another has to be destroyed?  Surely, given the infinite way God planned the Passover, he could have planned the Exodus without killing innocent people.

The Israelites had to get out of Egypt.  That was the plan, after all.  Liberation is a good thing.  Here’s my question. For God to liberate one group of people, did God have to subjugate and kill another?

In order for the Israelites to be freed by the thousands, innocent Egyptians had to die by the thousands.  On their way out of Egypt, the fleeing Israelites looted and plundered the homes and livestock of their Egyptian overlords.  These are the facts and they are indisputable.  Why wasn’t freedom enough, without the killing, bloodshed, and violence? They didn’t just leave.   They took God directed, God inspired, and God commanded vengeance.  Two wrongs (oppression and slavery) they tried to make into a right.

You hear echoes of this justified rage in today’s Psalm, Psalm 149.  It’s political poetry of the highest order.  “Let the praises of God be in their throat and a two-edged sword in their hand; To wreak vengeance on the nations and punishment on the peoples; to bind their kings in chains and the nobles in links of iron.”  So, let me make sure I get this straight; we praise God with our mouths; we carry a sword in our hands and wreak vengeance on the nations and punishment to the peoples.  It reads like it could have been taken verbatim from an ISIS press release announcing the beheading of a hostage.

It’s the same idea we saw in Exodus.  Rage, sacrifice, and liberation aren’t solely about life; it’s as much about death as it is anything else.  That’s what we’ve been led to believe.   That’s what we’ve come to believe.

Because here’s on the thing I know, if we’ve made God into somebody who hates all the same people and things we hate, we’ve made a god in our own puny, petty, and imperfect human image.  And what we’ve been reading is story of people who have made God and God’s commands a reflection of their own image, not clear representation of who God really is.

Paul, like Jesus, realized there were inconsistencies in how we understood God’s overarching and active presence in the world.  In Romans 13, Paul reiterates Jesus’ basic message, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  He goes on to add in 13:10, “Love does no harm (or wrong) to a neighbor”.  Love doesn’t need to kill its own neighbor in order to be free.  Love does no harm.  The swords and chains are taken out the equation.  Painting blood over your door is a thing of the past.  No harm, to human or animal.

Jesus, at his last Passover meal, stands as a stark repudiation of his own tradition.  Here’s the new understanding of the Passover that Jesus is sharing with us: Our freedom isn’t contingent on believing in a god who kills; our freedom is dependent on the ability to love our enemies and our neighbors as ourselves.  When Jesus says, “I’m your new lamb”.  It’s not because blood is the answer or ever was the answer.  Jesus is saying love is the answer.  I’m doing what I’m doing because I love you.  This wine is a new symbol of the love which flows through my veins.  This bread is my body which loves you so much I will allow it to be broken, for you, in love.  It’s a new promise, a new covenant, built on the echoes of the first Passover but remember this: it is a radical departure from every Passover of the past.  Through Jesus, God is laying out a new plan.  The new plan:  to expose the emptiness of death of giving his life in love.  That was always the plan, to expose and reveal the weakness of the world against the overarching love of God.

Jesus exposes the abnormality that has become standard operating practice in our world.  When Jesus does something; when he heals people and feeds the hungry, he’s not only doing it for that person or that group of people.  He’s exposing hunger as a problem for the whole of society.  He’s saying that how you treat your outcasts, is wrong, with each individual leper he heals.

With Jesus’ celebration of the Passover, he’s exposing the violence and killing that’s been holding everything together for centuries.  With him, the violence can stop; the empire built on a history of replacing blood with blood can crumble.  Why?  Because he’s so strong?  No, because he’s vulnerable.

This table marks the spot where his love for us and his vulnerability collided with the world.  And in that collision, you’ll find freedom from the Pharaohs of your lives.

Richard Bryant

Food for Thought-Richard’s Morning Prayer for September 3rd

Jesus-mercy-icon-3

Loving God,

You captivate us each morning with new ideas and images of the world around us. You bring us inside your kingdom; so we may see and understand more of your will for our lives. Help us today to grasp hold of every breath we take with wonder, awe, and amazement. We know that life is too short and our problems are too real to do any less. May we embrace this day for the gift that it is; an irreplaceable moment in time for living and loving our neighbors as ourselves and appreciating being alive.

Amen

Food for Thought-Does the Cross Make My Butt Look Big? A Sermon on Matthew 16: 21-28

Does This Cross Make My Butt Look Big?

A Sermon on Matthew 16:21-28

By Richard Bryant

Sometimes it seems (just from reading the Gospels) that we are more into evangelism, witnessing, and sharing the Good News than Jesus is.  I’m not kidding.  Just look at how last week’s gospel lesson ended.  (Now remember, even though it was only week ago these events only occurred seconds before what you just heard.)  “Then he (Jesus) sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone he was the messiah.” Now, I don’t know about you, but Jesus sounds like he needs to go back to discipleship school.  Jesus is not sounding very Christian.  He’s not coming across like he wants to “win” anyone over to himself.  Get with the program Jesus.  It’s all about the quarterly statistics we have to turn in to the conference office.

This is exactly the problem Peter sees.  Peter isn’t cool with Jesus not living up to the “winning” image of a Messiah who is capable of bringing back the dead and feeding thousands of people.  To put it mildly, it disturbs Peter that Jesus is being so negative and not riding the wave of his own popularity.  In addition, it’s not just that Jesus is keeping his Messiah-ness on the down low and under wraps, he saying that he’s going to die.  And it’s not that he’s simply referring to the end of his natural life.  Jesus is saying he’s going to be killed; he’s going to be killed, by the chief priests, elders, and scribes.  It’s going to be a gruesome and painful death.  It’s going to amount to serious suffering.  In conventional terms, the way we define the word, there is no way you could define it as winning.  In fact the world would collectively define it as loosing.  Then, on top of all of that, Jesus tells them that this suffering business doesn’t just include him.  No.  Not by a long shot.  It also includes his followers.  They will be subject to the same level of suffering. They too face this ill-defined punishment called “the cross”.

This is too much for Peter to bear.  The son of God isn’t supposed to talk this way  We’re winners.  Surely you’re just a little burnout, Jesus.  Maybe you just need some prayer.  Jesus please don’t be so negative.  Jesus, clearly you don’t get your own message.  Jesus, you’re supposed outgoing and positive, winning people to you and to our movement.  You’re never going to convince people to follow us with this level pessimism.  You can’t tell people this Jesus?  What will people think?  We can’t ask people to make this kind of commitment?  Death, suffering, following you, bearing a cross? Have you lost your mind?

These are the kinds of things Peter said and thought on that afternoon in Caesarea Philippi.

In case you’ve forgotten, let me tell you what Jesus said to Peter.

“Hey Satan, stand over there.”  You’re in my way, jerk.

That’s my translation.

Clearly, that’s not a sentiment or idea that Jesus is not too fond of.

So why does Jesus not want to let the cat out of the bag?

It’s what I call the “dancing with Richard theory”.

He didn’t want the idea of a savior to get ahead of the actual work of being savior.

Say I got to a club and I start dancing out on the dance floor.  I really show my moves to the hit songs of the day.  I demonstrate my ability to do things with my arms, legs, and hips to Beyonce, Jessie J, and the other first ladies of Pop.  People will be enthralled with my dancing abilities.  They will say, where, per chance did that fellow learn to move in such a rhythmic and seductive like fashion.  No one will be interested in my philosophical insights on Kierkegaard or Schleiermacher.

It’s the same thing with Jesus, if the word spreads that he is the Messiah and is just a miracle worker who makes tons of bread, do you think anyone is going to be interested in hearing the real heart of the message; the Good News about the coming kingdom of God, helping the poor, feeding the widows and orphans, and treating your neighbor as you treat yourself.  No, I say!  They are going to want Jesus to do it again.   That’s all he’ll be hearing.  Do it again, Jesus.  Do it again. Make more bread, Jesus.  Bring this person back to life Jesus.  I’m sick Jesus.  My foot hurts, Jesus.  And so on, and so on.

Now let me ask you a question.  Do you see why Jesus got upset?  Do you see why he became frustrated enough to compare his best friend to the prince of darkness?

Now let me ask you a second question.  We wouldn’t do that to Jesus, would we?  We wouldn’t bring him some long laundry list of concerns and lose sight of the bigger picture, the main message just so we could get our needs met?  We wouldn’t do that, would we?  Is there any degree of familiarity at all?  Isn’t this exactly how we treat our relationship with Jesus?  At times, don’t we regard him as some kind of divine vending machine?  Give us what we want, keep doing what we want, going the direction we want, saying what we want, regardless of your plan, Jesus?

The disciples were very insecure people, a lot like us, in some ways.  Never quite sure where they stood in and around Jesus and they were in physical proximity to Jesus.

We get so caught up in the style; i.e. trying to figure out what we need to do please Jesus (Jesus love you this He knows, he is pleased)-for Jesus, it’s about the substance of what he’s doing-not trying to us trying to prove how much we love him.  That’s why the message is more important than the miracles or even the titles for Jesus.  That’s what this passage is about.

For Jesus, the substance of the message and the embodiment of his message will ultimately define what makes a follower.  Let me say that again.  It is the substance of the message (the content) and the embodiment of his message when it comes in conflict with the power structures of this world that will define who becomes one of his followers.  I can’t stress enough how crucial that is.

The substance of the message is pretty clear by now.  Being God’s anointed means that you love the unloved.  That’s a given.  You make good on those promises you made in that first sermon, the one they ran you out of town for preaching, the one you did in your home synagogue of Nazareth.  You stood up and quoted from Isaiah.  You said you were here to bring a freeing, liberating news to the poor, to unbind those who were held in all forms of captivity, to restore sight to those living in the darkness caused by our world, and bring an overall sense of wholeness and restoration to everything which was broken and needed mending.  Chief among those things which need mending are human hearts.  The way to mend human hearts is through love.  That is the substance of the message.

How do you get love, show love, display love?  Now is where it gets hard.  He says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  Peter didn’t understand Jesus nor did the other disciples.  We rarely do.  We water down this expression.  We sanitize the cross.  To be blunt, we don’t want to go anywhere near following Jesus on the cross.  What does he mean?  Here’s what it means to me.  Here’s what I’ve come to understand.  Following Jesus means freely loving until it hurts.  It means forgiving Judas.  It means forgiving the people who crucify you.  It means loving until it hurts.  It means being willing and able to say Mr. Roman, please hit me again, I forgive you.  It means loving the thieves and criminals hanging next to you. It means extending compassion to those around as they watch you suffer.  That’s what it looked like for Jesus.

What does that look like in your life?  Brokenness and the need to love are still as relevant as ever.  It’s going to look different but there are going to be places and people where it hurts to love, especially freely and without reservation.

Being a Christian is not about being a religious, pious, or devout person; it’s about being a loving person.  Some of the most religious people I know, people who call themselves Christian, are also some of the most loveless, miserable human beings I’ve ever met.  In fact, I would rather have no religion than bad religion any day of the week. You can be religious and have no love in your heart.  Being a follower of Christ is all about living a life of sacrificial love. This is what Jesus is saying.

Why do you think Paul put such emphasis on 1 Corinthians 13?  Do you think he was just writing letters to churches and thought he’d write something that would be used at every wedding under the sun and loose all connection to Jesus’ message about the coming kingdom of God?  No.

The values created by love never fade, that’s what Paul says.  Jesus is saying that getting from here, to where those love values are permanent, is a difficult journey but a journey worth the effort.  Paul couldn’t make it any clearer-Everything that is not rooted in love will fail; that’s why the journey toward the kingdom like the one Jesus describes is so painful at times.  It’s not pretty as we bear the crosses called poverty, racism, sexism, and war (just to name a few).

So the question for today, for me, isn’t so much can you bear the cross?  It’s this.  Can you live the life of love?

 

Food for Thought-Richard’s 5 Evangelism Ideas

Richard’s 5 Evangelism Ideas

1. Emphasize we’re asking for one hour (or less) per week. That’s all. Put a basic church commitment into perspective for people. They give much more time to much less important stuff.
2. Lower expectations. It’s not going to be Mass at St. Peter’s or a mid-western mega-church. It’s going to be 100 or so if your neighbors singing, praying, talking, and listening. It will be like an interactive meeting where people aren’t afraid to laugh or cry. If people are afraid to laugh or cry, then I’m sorry, you might be doing something wrong.
3. If they haven’t been in a while, make sure they know church is nothing like it was when they were last there in 1979. If after attending, people do think it’s like it was in 1979, you might need to head back to the drawing board.
4. Try to make everything you do user friendly. You can do this without changing a bunch of names or eradicating concepts altogether. Use your head. Just give good explanations. Have decent signs. Answer questions clearly and concisely without going on for hours.
5. Invite people to church for the most regular and hum drum services. You want people to see you at your ordinary best.