Food for Thought-Reflections on 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

Paul says some very important things in the opening of his letter to the Thessalonians.
The first thing that always strikes me each time I read this word and I must say that it impresses me that Paul wants his hearers, above all else to know this information, it’s this, “We (not I) give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remember before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.”

He begins by acknowledging the work, ministry, and prayers of those around him. Paul’s ministry was more often than not a team effort. He wanted the churches to realize and understand this. Their ministries also needed to be cooperative. Paul’s work was never just about Paul. In this case, Silvanus and Timothy were part and parcel of his success and known to the Thessalonians as missionaries and teachers. Acknowledging each other is an important action in role modeling an important behavior but it also lets the people you work with how much value and care for them. Paul knew this.

Secondly, Paul is living a life of gratitude. “We always give thanks to God for all of you,” Paul says. Plainly put, that’s called being grateful. He’s grateful for the people he knows, has come to know, he works with, his extended Christian family, and those he is in a relationship with. This is different from prayer. We’ll come to that in a moment. This is about living a life of gratitude and showing that gratitude in ways that let people know you value them and the contribution they make to your life. Those things which he’s grateful become the basis he build his prayers around.
Paul is always giving thanks to God for something. How is it possible to live that way? Do you put yourself on some kind of list for a happiness transplant?

What do we have to be grateful for (to the same degree that Paul is)? Where do we start if we want to live a life of gratitude like Paul’s? Here are five easy prompts to get you going each day when considering the things you are grateful for in your life. A word or two about any or all of these five is a great place to begin. Put them in a journal or some kind of place you can come back to. Remind yourself of your blessings. It sounds too easy to remind ourselves of something so obvious. But it is the obvious things we most easily overlook and ignore. That’s why it is good to remind ourselves of the basic and most important parts of our life-the parts that shouldn’t change.

1. Your life, your health, your well-being.
2. Your most meaningful relationships. (like your family or friends)
3. The fact you have food to eat and clean water to drink.
4. You are not homeless.
5. You have people who love you.

Then, as I mentioned, Paul takes these things he’s grateful for; the churches the people, the people he share mission and ministry with and lets them shape his prayer life. Do you see what happens there? If you move into this constant awareness of gratitude, you’re writing a few things down, you’re telling be how grateful you are, you always have a ready source of something to pray about; you’re never at the point where you say, “God, I’m just don’t know what to say or what to talk about.” You’ve always got somewhere to start the conversation.

The final point Paul makes is this, “our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit.” It came to them, as I like to say, “Beyond the quotation marks”. The word of God is so powerful in cannot be contained by this book alone. Nor can it be contained by what people say about this book, our quotes and explanations about the Bible, such as what I’m doing now. It’s hard for anyone to do justice to the Bible other than the Bible itself. We can try. We can and do help facilitate the conditions for understanding and growth. We do that each week but as Paul says, the message also come not by words but by the work of spirit, in the reality of the words, deeds, and actions of people prompted by spirit. I’m talking about us having the opportunity to see the scriptures and the ideas of the Bible go from being 2 dimensional theories to a 3 dimensional living reality where people are making Christ’s words and teachings come alive. In the case of the Thessalonians, they made it real. They were doing things that no one else was doing. Not content for classroom learning experiences only, they wanted to take it to the streets. That’s what they did. Paul thought it was important remind them of how far they had come in such a short period of time.

He ends up with this message. The Thessalonians story is telling itself. Their story has become its own missionary. In verse 8, Paul says, “For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia but in every place where you faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it. When Paul, Silvanius, and Timothy arrive somewhere new, people have already heard of the great work and faith of the Thessalonians and their church. He doesn’t have to preach that sermon. It’s a “been there and done that” moment for Paul. Their gratitude and devotion to God has spread to church communities all around the eastern Mediterranean and people are inspired by their story.

Is our story going ahead of us? Do people know of our faithfulness, devotion, and gratitude to God beyond the place we call home? Is there no need to speak of us because our faith has become known? What can we do better to help our story become a missionary in and of itself this morning?

Food for Thought-Mission Statement Update

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I am about an unapologetic assault on the mediocrity, boredom, and conventional wisdom that have come to define contemporary American Christianity (and my own denominational tradition). I want to call into question the theological and institutional inertia that seems to prohibit our congregations living vibrant lives rooted in an authentic Biblical vision.  I want to aggressively challenge the norms which we’ve carved in stone to create sacred cows and the practices that have no basis scripture which date only to the recent past.  This is a big part of what I am about.

Food for Thought-A Look Ahead to Reformation Sunday

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An Early Look at Next Week’s Lectionary Passage (Reformation Sunday)

“What do you think about the Christ?” Matthew 22:42

How would Jesus respond to that question, a question he asked (in the days before his betrayal, arrest, and execution), were he to pose it to the Pharisees of our day and time? Would he take the course of Judas Iscariot and betray himself? Would he still allow himself to be betrayed?

Or might he do something different and betray the institution we have built in his name? Would Jesus plan the downfall of Christianity in all the many forms that surround us today?  Would that be the next modern reformation?

In order to be faithful to Christ must we demand a moment of betrayal to the institution created in his name?  Doesn’t betrayal pave the way for redemption? Christianity is always at war with the images it creates of itself. Whether it’s Judas’ betrayal or Christ’s betrayal of contemporary Christianity we live inside a paradox created by this tension.  To paraphrase Christ’s question, “What do we think about ourselves?”

Like Luther, must we betray Christianity if we are to be devoted to Christ?   I’m starting to think so. The systems we have created to worship him and his identity is mutually exclusive. One must be betrayed if we are to remain faithful to the other. This is the fundamental question at the heart of Reformation Sunday.

Food for Thought-Text Messaging the Gold Calf

I’m in this thing somewhere,
That’s me,
Right there,
Beside that golden cow,
Looking at the reflection,
Holding up my index finger,
As if I’m trying to write my name,
Or send a message,
To this bovine God,
Or an unseen friend,
While I wait,
For this “Moses”
Who will never return,
From his powwow with God,
What do I say,
What shall I write,
In this text,
OMG,
DO I REALLY EXPECT
A COW TO DO SOMETHING
GOOD FOR ME?

–Richard Bryant

Food for Thought-First Thoughts on Exodus 32:1-14:Chopin and the Golden Calf

There are two vital elements at the heart of the “Golden Calf” story:

1. Vital Melancholy

2. Unspeakable Joy

The question is how to move ourselves between a melancholy which is so attractive and with each moment eats away at our souls and is so vital to our existence. The Golden Calf isn’t really important. It is the existential question it forces us to ask when we confront its glimmering reality.

What will take us from the impatience of this moment of mulling madness to that point where we may simply be with the God not bound by time, eternity, and the worship of things?

From the beautiful melancholy of Golden Calf (the golden calf in your drive way, the golden calf you’re wearing, the golden calf you send messages on) from within that place of permanent impatience, there is a path to pure joy where you’re forced to encounter a God you can’t caress or touch. The only way to know this God is to listen.

One man who charts the journey from melancholy to joy, like no other, is Frederic Chopin. By listening to a moment of Chopin, you can hear the sadness, the impatience, and the joy of this story come to life. This, for me, is how God become real. This is how idol are shattered. Things you can touch go away. Yet when we remove our hands from the golden calves of our lives and simply listen, we are then able to be with God.

My wish is that we would have a small glimpse of that reality as part of our individual and collective journeys. I also believe that the best way to actually learn to listen is to listen.

As Moses is leading the Israelites on their journey through the wilderness, Chopin will join us this morning to help take us to where we need to go-away from our golden calves. Like the Israelites, we must be led there. It is a journey.

In a moment I am going to play a series of impulses, sounds of impatience and melancholy. Like our Israelites sisters and brothers, this is where we begin. One by one, those impulses will begin to change. From this discordant b flat, which doesn’t seem to stop, like something is wrong with the note itself, coming from some distant sad place in us as we walk around our own golden calves over and over again. We have no idea how to break out of the pattern we are in. We need a way out. We need a way home; a way back to where we ought to have been in the first place.

I’m going to play the Chopin Number 4 in E Minor for you now. I want you to listen. I’m going to stop along the way and point out a few important transitions.

I’m going to play it again, this time all the way through. Listen carefully for the steps on that journey. I want you to think about your Golden Calves. What is it that we worship when we grow impatient with God not acting fast enough in our lives? What are those things we hold fast and secure to as a tangible substitute for the intangible reality of God? Who are the people around us and are they looking to us to be role models when it comes to Golden Calf time? When they guy shows up with the bucket saying are you in on the calf project and people look to you, what will you do? Will you set the trend or stop the insanity?

Think about the assumptions the people around us, in our neighborhood and community hold about the church. Do they see us as golden calf people?

Are we ready to lead them on a journey and help move them closer toward being in a relationship with God toward the spiritual home they are seeking?

Prelude Number 4 in E Minor

Food for Thought-Richard’s Daily Prayer for October 2nd, 2014

Richard’s Daily Prayer
October 2nd, 2014

What a day! Center our hearts and minds as we go into this evening after the business and chaos of this day. Bring our focus around to you. May we take a moment of silence to listen to your words of direction and guidance for our lives this evening. We thank you for being there, one step ahead of us, during each minute of this day. As we reflect on the day that has passed, may we focus on the positive, the good, and the places where you worked in our lives today. Prepare us tonight for service and ministry tomorrow. We love you God. Thank you for loving us.

Amen

Food for Thought-Matthew 21:33-46 I Despise This Parable

I despise this parable. I really do.  And there are better ways Jesus could have discussed being rejected, much better.

You would think that after the first set of slaves were killed; red flags would have gone up all over the place. The authorities would have been called. Arrest warrants would have been issued. What kind of fool would send more people, once again into the breach, after others have been killed, to simply die over the acquisition of produce in the form of rent? Is one life worth a single fig, olive, or grape? When the bloodshed has now spread to a Jonestown, Waco, name your mass murder like level, instead of calling of this insanity, instead of calling in the army, the riot police, or some overwhelming mass force to exact vengeance on those who murdered his slaves and now hold his fruit hostage, this crazed land owner decided to send his son to be murdered. We actually see the irrational thought processes at work in this madman’s head. Surely, these people who have already decapitated and massacred dozens of people will respect the life of my son. Don’t they know who I am? The people who have no respect for the life of slaves will surely respect the life of my son. Then, the bloodshed will end. The figs and grapes will be freed and the bloodshed will end. The madness of slaves being murdered by tenants will surely stop because these people who have committed such acts would never do the same thing to my son because they clearly understand he is my son.

I’ll tell you what we clearly understand. The landowner is as insane as the wicked tenants doing the killing. The old fool doesn’t grasp this reality: for some people, the people he initially hired, life his no value. He was a poor judge of character and the blood of his slaves and his son will ultimately be on his hands. Secondly, the landowner is a coward. Why is he the last to go? If he’s so big and bad, if he want his money, why doesn’t he go first?  Or is he too much of the fat cat landowner?  He’s got slaves and help for that.  Mister landowner man doesn’t do things like the help are supposed to do, does he?  Why didn’t the landowner go as soon as the first slave was murdered? Why is it that the landowner is only the punishment of last resort? He will “put those wretches to a miserable death”. Had he really be concerned about his rent, his fruit, his employees, and his family, he would have never left and gone to “another” country in the first place. Had he really cared, he would have taken action when the first slave was murdered. Had he really cared, he would have never sent his son to do the job he should have gladly done in the first place.

I despise this parable.

Food for Thought-Moral Calculus:Understanding the 10 Commandments

One of the functions of Calculus is to provide a means for determining the variations in an object’s (or substance’s) acceleration or deceleration at any given moment.  How fast did the car break before it hit the other car?  How fast did the swimming pool fill or drain with water?  With the right numbers, Calculus can help you answer those kinds of questions.

The 10 Commandments are also a type of Calculus question.  The question at hand was this:  How fast would a society decelerate into total anarchy, violence, disorder, and chaos without some degree of structure and order?  At what rate rate per second would chaos replace order?

That are approximately 613 commandments (laws) in the Hebrew Bible.  We have come to focus on ten out of six hundred.  Why?  Because (though many are repeated in some form or another in the other 613) these 10 steps create the basic outline for a functioning, civil society.  These 10 ideas provide a moral equation which results in a paradigm of basic human decency and compassion.  The 10 Commandments are not about God.  They have everything to do with how we live with each other, how we treat each other, and what or who will be our God.  We will choose the idolatry of every bright and shiny thing under the sun or will we be in relationship with the one who made us?

Food for Thought-What Does Kill Me Makes Me Stronger-A Sermon on Philippians 2:1-13

We were flying home.  It was on the plane from Dublin to JFK.  Jordan and Caroline were off to my left, in two seats, across the aisle.  Mary, Mackenzie and I were sitting in the center section.  I was in the aisle seat, Mackenzie, then Mary.  Beside Mary was a random Irish guy we didn’t know.  We had all done our own thing for most of the flight.  Considering the fact we almost missed the plane due to the extra screening I received as a potential drug dealer (they thought my fountain pen collection looked like needles in the x-ray) and the Department of Homeland Security’s subsequent follow up in a “holding area”, we were glad to have seats and made the flight.  We were already exhausted from the previous day’s train journey and the ordeal of checking in a dog and hundreds of dollars worth of extra baggage.

After I had finally relaxed enough to think straight, I started to browse through the movie and television selections on offer.  Not much caught my eye other than the 8 part HBO series called “True Detective”.  I hadn’t seen though I had read some good reviews of the acting and writing.  What the heck, I thought.  I’m going to be here for the next several hours, why not dive in?  So that’s what I did.  I watched every gritty minute back to back.  I lost all track of time.  As we were preparing to begin our approach into New York, the last episode was about to finish. I tell you now, I started to cry.  I mean really cry.  Yes, I was tired.  Yes, I was emotional at the idea of returning to the United States.  But I had never seen television like.  I had just watched an HBO series tackles some of the deepest philosophical and theological questions ever posed.  I was moved.

Soon Mackenzie and Mary noticed me crying.  What’s up with Richard?  Richard is crying!  I just pointed to the screen.  I really felt unable to describe what I had witnessed or my emotions at that moment.  All I could manage to say is, “you have to see it from the beginning, you have to watch the whole thing, you have to understand the entire story to get what’s just occurred in these last few seconds of the show?” Have you ever been in a similar situation?  Has someone walked in your moment and seen you reacting in a certain way, and just not got it?  (Mary says the same thing when I walk in on her and a Nicholas Sparks movie.) You have to see it all to get it, don’t you?

That’s how this Philippians passage makes me feel.  I’ve just seen the whole movie about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  I’ve ridden every mile, walked the duty steps, witnessed the crucifixion, and stood at the empty tomb.  At the end, this man, a convert to the story, perhaps even the man who narrated the whole movie, comes at the end to summarize (as many films do) the meaning of what you’ve just witnessed.  To do this, he reads a poem, the form of a hymn.  The words he shares will tell you what you’ve just seen and explain the most crucial question which remains, why did an innocent man die for me?

And it is not until that moment, when I hear and absorb these words that I get it and everything starts to make sense to me.  That is the moment I start to cry.  Now is when my ability to speak vanishes.  The people around me realize something is wrong.  Richard is crying!  What’s the matter with Richard?  And the only thing which I can say is this: “You have got to see it from the beginning; you need watch the whole thing.”   Philippians 2:1-13 is that moment.  These are the words that explain the grit, dust, grime and blood and give them meaning you never knew existed.

This is the part of the movie you don’t want to miss, the part that ties it altogether.  It may reveal some uncomfortable realities we’ve wanted to ignore all along, realities that involve death, suffering, slavery, abuse, isolation, and loneliness.  Yet, in reopening those painful parts of the story, we begin to realize we can’t look away, we can’t pretend they didn’t happen, or that they ultimately don’t matter.  Unless the narrator comes back and says this is why and this is what it all meant; don’t turn away and look at these words, we may miss what we came to see in the first place.

When things get uncomfortable, when we become self-conscious of our emotions, we would much rather shut down, shut off, and walk away.  Not today; not with this story.

The narrator says this is the point of the story:  “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”

The same Jesus was nearly flogged to death prior to his execution?  Jesus who carried and dealt with unbearable physical and spiritual agony?  He was tortured.  Jesus was executed as a common criminal.

You want that same mind to be in me?  You want me to readily embrace a life of pain and suffering for others?

Pain, suffering, and the true mind of Jesus (Jesus who divested himself of everything he could rely on to become a slave and die a gruesome human death) aren’t too high on our Christian priority list these days.

Our lives are devoted to avoiding pain.  We take pain-killers by the handful.   Everyone over a certain age lives with some degree of chronic pain.  The insurance industry and the medical profession are wealthy today because if we’re not in pain, they’ll go broke.  We don’t like to be hot; heat can cause pain, so we all have air conditioners.  Disease and sickness cause pain.  We go out of our way, with things like flu shots and hand sanitizer to eliminate the risk of disease and sickness; as such, more pain.  The irony is that we hand sanitized ourselves to death in some cases, fostering the evolution of superbugs that are immune to drugs and antibacterial treatments.

No one wants to live a life of pain.  People do it but you don’t want to live that way.  It’s only human and perfectly natural to avoid pain.  That’s a concept we learn pretty soon in childhood.

And haven’t we been taught in the church (and by the church) that Jesus came here to meet our needs, help us out, and generally make it possible for us to steer clear from pain? Isn’t that something we’ve come to believe is true?  Didn’t Jesus come to make people feel better?

Though this narrator from our film, let’s call him Paul, seems to have a different idea. He says we should have the same mind, outlook, life plan as Jesus, who, “humbled himself and become obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”  He appears to be saying we should run headlong into the pain and not just any old pain, but a pain like crucifixion.  And that should be ok with us.

Why does Paul do this? Think about this way.  Paul’s not saying anything that Jesus himself hasn’t said before.  “Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me.”

Paul is just the echo of what Jesus has already said.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer summed it up way; Jesus bids each of us to “come and die.”

That’s a surefire way to get people into church, isn’t it?  Come and die.  It’s Biblical.  It’s exactly what Jesus and Paul said.  But it’s not reflective of what the church as a whole says today.

Imagine Joel Osteen or any of a number of other popular purveyors of Christianity who, instead of saying, “Come and Get Your Best Life Now”, said come and die.  How soon would the stadiums go empty or the satellites go dark?  Overnight.

A few years ago, a study by the National Study of Youth and Religion at UNC-CH, interviewed more than 3000 American adolescents. They found that the faith of most adolescents in mainline Christian denomination churches could best be described as “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.”  It is summed up with beliefs like these: God is watching over us from a distance, we should be good, and the most important thing is for me to feel good.”

There are probably many adults who feel the same way.  They believe in the Bette Midler, “from a distance” God and faith is about affirming their self-esteem.  Moralistic Therapeutic Deism or MTD; there are lots of people infected with MTD.  A cure for that would be something the church ought to consider creating a race for.

Here’s where you might ask, “Didn’t Jesus make people feel better?”  And I would say yes.  He spent most of his days making people feel better by alleviating pain and suffering.  From the opening chapters of Mark’s gospel, Jesus is healing people almost 24 hours a day in the town of Capernaum.  Then he moves on to a new village and does the same thing again.  Healing lepers, the blind, the handicapped, and exorcising the demon possessed that was all he did for most of three years.

So what’s with the contradictions?  Are we in the pain alleviation business or are we to embrace pain and suffering?  What’s this movie really all about?

Look again at verse seven and eight.  “But emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death-even death on a cross.”

Born in human likeness, found in human form, and humbled himself-do you see what’s behind all those words?  It’s the idea that Jesus came to share our lives, our joys, and our pains WITH us.  He came to be one of us.  Emmanuel, God with us.  Paul is saying that the point of the story, what sums it all up in the end, is this:  Jesus stepped into the world to share our pain with us.  In turn, we leave this theatre, this summation, by going out into the world to share in the pain of others.  We step into their lives alongside them, when they are dying, lonely, lost, hurt, oppressed, beaten, and tortured because Jesus did this for us; he showed us how it’s done.  He is our role model.

The Good News, the Gospel, is an invitation to enter into the pain and suffering of others.  Not to look away, avoid, or ignore what may be painful to consider or seem to run contrary to the conventional therapeutic deism we’ve been led to believe is Christianity.  It’s about engaging with the world, in the midst of that suffering and pain, so the people in pain can have a better, happier life.

Paul’s message is that we all have an opportunity to confess Christ with our lives.  We can make that confession most clearly when we’ve emptied ourselves of those things that prevent us from sharing in the pain and struggles of others.

So if people ask you, why are you crying at the end of this movie, just say this:

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, 2make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. 5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 6who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, 8he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.9Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, 10so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Say, “He did that for me so I can do it for others.  That’s why he came in the first place.”

Then tell them story from the beginning.