Monday, March 25, 2013

Blog Review: Slacktivist's Bonfire/Quilt/Mosaic

In the world of Facebook and news sites and RSS feeds, it's becoming easier and easier to surround ourselves with people and information we find comfortable and familiar.  But as far as I'm concerned, getting to know people who are different from me is a matter of faith- I feel called as a Christian to truly get to know people from all walks of life and to recognize their status as a beloved child of God, equally worthy of God's love as I am.

And in this world of mass communication on a scale never seen before, the Internet is a great place to do that.  Blogs in particular offer a chance to get to know the authors rather well.  But the Christian blogosphere can start to feel a little stuffy after awhile, and there's a lot of feedback.  And it overwhelmingly feels dominated by straight white men.

Which is why, a little while ago, Fred Clark of Slacktivist put together three lists.  The Bonfire is a list of Christian blogs written by women.  The Mosaic is a list of blogs written by Christians who aren't white.  And the Quiltblogs are written by Christians who aren't straight.

I know I got really tired of reading the horrible things a lot of powerful dead men had to say about women long before I finished seminary.  So seeking out living Christians to counter those dusty voices has been an ongoing process.  Because the Holy Spirit is active in the world, God is with us, and is speaking through people we'd never expect (as God always has).

I'm proud that this blog is listed on the Bonfire.  It's no mark of distinction- all I had to do was to tell Fred I'm a Christian woman writing a blog, and he added the link- but seeing this place listed with all those other Christian women is a strong reminder of the community I'm a part of- of all the Christian women who have gone before and who will come after me.  Thanks be to God!

Friday, March 22, 2013

Lutheran Look: Suggestions?

I have plenty of ideas for these posts, but due to not currently being in a ministry position, I don't get asked questions like these as often as I used to. So, since I want to post on topics that interest people, do you have any suggestions?  Questions you've always wanted to ask?  Offbeat topics you'd like to see addressed more often?

Ask away!  I'll try to link to this post every so often to keep the suggestions coming.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Lectionary Post: 3/24/2013- Palm Sunday (C)

Prayer of the Day
Sovereign God, you have established your rule in the human heart through the servanthood of Jesus Christ. By your Spirit, keep us in the joyful procession of those who with their tongues confess Jesus as Lord and with their lives praise him as Savior, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

On Palm Sunday we are surrounded by joy and triumph, but we know what's coming.  We've known since the beginning of our Lenten journey where we are going, On this Sunday, we turn the corner from Lent into Holy WeekThis Sunday, the story is about to change.

Procession with Palms - John 12:12-16
The next day the great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord— the King of Israel!” Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it; as it is written: “Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!” His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him.

Jesus enters Jerusalem, triumphant!  And yet humble, riding on a simple donkey rather than a warhorse or a more noble steed.  He's surrounded by adoring crowds, shouting "Hosanna!" and calling him King.  Though this is not the Messiah they were expecting- the Old Testament is full of talk about the Messiah, and most of it involves expectations of war and conquering and probably a certain amount of riches.  Jesus has avoided conflict, gathered no armies, and lives simply.  For that matter, Jesus doesn't really sound like the kind of savior we'd expect today, in our culture that worships wealth and popularity.

If this were a movie, we might expect this part to be the ending- Jesus was born, grew up, started his ministry, wandered around Judea for a few years healing people and performing miracles, gathered some followers, got a lot of death threats.  And finally arrives triumphant in Jerusalem, surrounded by cheering crowds!  But we who know the story, we who have been here before, know otherwise.  The story is about to turn.

Isaiah 50:4–9a
The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher,
that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word.
Morning by morning he wakens— wakens my ear
   to listen as those who are taught.
The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious,
   I did not turn backwards.
I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.

The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame;
   he who vindicates me is near.
Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together.
Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me.
It is the Lord God who helps me; who will declare me guilty?

As Christians, we often see this passage as a direct reference to Jesus.  After all, we have a teacher whose words bring comfort and who speaks with God.  We have a person who does not rebel against God and who practices nonviolence- the parallels to "turn the other cheek" are obvious here.

So the next few lines are rather surprising- if it's Jesus we're talking about, he was not disgraced?  He was not shamed?  We aren't to the crucifixion yet, but we know it's coming, and it was the most disgraceful and shameful way a person could die in that time- so much so that full citizens of the powerful Roman Empire could not be put to death that way.  It tells us something about Jesus' death, and his path to it, that there is no disgrace or shame involved, no matter the intentions of the other people involved.  And what an appropriate ending line- who will declare Jesus guilty, indeed?

Psalm 31:9–16
Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress; my eye wastes away from grief,
   my soul and body also.
For my life is spent with sorrow, and my years with sighing;
my strength fails because of my misery, and my bones waste away.

I am the scorn of all my adversaries, a horror to my neighbors,
an object of dread to my acquaintances; those who see me in the street flee from me.
I have passed out of mind like one who is dead; I have become like a broken vessel.
For I hear the whispering of many— terror all around!—
as they scheme together against me, as they plot to take my life.

But I trust in you, O Lord; I say, ‘You are my God.’
My times are in your hand; deliver me from the hand of my enemies and persecutors.
Let your face shine upon your servant; save me in your steadfast love.

Here we have a Psalm about persecution, one which reminds us of what kind of situation Jesus really is in.  Because while he was welcomed just a few minutes ago (in the service) into Jerusalem to the shouts of crowds, in a festival atmosphere, in less than a week the crowds will turn on him.  We are on our way to Good Friday, and this is a Psalm written by someone who understood what it meant to not be able to trust the people around you.  Soon people will flee from Jesus in the street, the whispers all around will come.

And yet, in the end, we will find parallels between the Psalmist's reaction, and Jesus'.  But that's next week.

Philippians 2:5–11
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God
   as something to be exploited,
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.
Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name
   that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend,
   in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
   to the glory of God the Father.

This text is commonly known as the Christ Hymn. As I mentioned earlier, during the processional text, Jesus did not fulfill all of the expectations of the Messiah who would save the Jewish people.  He was humble where sovereignty was expected, he was peaceful where war was expected, and his parables never quite meant what the disciples first expected.

Here we also have a bit of the "first shall be last and the last shall be first" theology that we're going to hear about much more in the Easter and post-Pentecost Sundays. But Palm Sunday, a day of reversal, is a very appropriate time for it.

(Luke 23:1-49)
This text, when I was a kid, was strictly understood as optional on Palm Sunday, because this was before the whole Passion Sunday idea became a... thing.  It's become more encouraged to do this text as well (or an even more extended version!) in addition to the processional text as the years have gone by.  But I won't do it.  No.  I refuse.  See, if you look this text up in the Bible (which, by all means, I encourage!) you'll notice it's the Passion story.  It's the crucifixion.  And the idea that's been getting more popular these days is that lots of people won't come to the Three Days services (Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Vigil/Holy Saturday) so you may as well tell the story on this Sunday too.

And that's the kind of thing that gets right up my left nostril, frankly.  I don't think I could keep it up for the entirety of Holy Week, but I would rather hold a Good Friday service every two hours until past dinner on Good Friday, than to tell the Passion story on Palm Sunday.  Because it messes with the narrative, and it messes with the Lenten journey, and that's not something I'm willing to do.  We've spent weeks upon weeks getting up to this point- I'm sure there were a few Christmas sermons that mentioned this, so months of time, getting to now- and I will not ruin the journey we've been on this whole time right at the end.  If a movie messed with pacing like this at the very end, after a complicated and riveting plot, you'd leave disgusted, wouldn't you?  I won't do it.

So, read this text, certainly, please do.  Study it, pray with it.  But I'm keeping Palm Sunday about the procession, here- there's plenty of sermon there, lots of both Law and Gospel, it's a necessary part of the journey.  I will not skip it.  We will get to Calvary at the proper time.

Go in peace, remember the poor.  Thanks be to God.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Book Review: Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief

I've always made a point of getting to know people who think and believe differently than I do, and reading about a variety of people and belief systems.  The reading in particular was always mainly the cheaper option to international travel, but now that I'm entering the clergy, I'm taking it more seriously as a part of my call to the ministry, because more and more I find that reading and learning about things I disagree with helps me clarify my own beliefs and understandings.

Which was why I wanted to read this book as soon as I saw Lawrence Wright (the author) interviewed on the Colbert Report a few weeks back.  I'd heard a few things about Scientology over the years, but nothing really concrete.  I wanted to learn more about it, but what little I did know led me to take the things the "church" said with a large grain of salt.

So, having read it: I think this book was very carefully researched and written- everything is cited, every piece of information the author gives you, he tells you where and from whom he got it.  Every item that has been denied by the people or groups involved, he tells you that, too.  There are a lot of footnotes (though most of them are very short).  I found this book very readable- the chapter that's essentially the biography of L. Ron Hubbard drags a bit in the middle, but the rest is all vivid and suspenseful.

It paints a picture of an incredibly disturbing cult- one that involves child abuse, indentured lifetime service that essentially turns into slavery, forced divorces and abortions, physical, emotional and spiritual abuse, and an incredible amount of in-group-out-group pressure.  It painted such a disturbing picture, in fact, that afterward I did a little digging on the Internet to do a bit of my own fact checking.  Scientology has its own website, which I won't link to, but you can find if you're interested.  Those of you who have some experience with psychology, sociology, or just weird group dynamics will probably find it fascinating in a bad way.  I also found a website called which has a lot of information as well, from another point of view.

And if you're looking for just one fact to check up on- Scientology has had one leader since L. Ron Hubbard died.  That leader has been married to the same woman since before LRH died.  She has not been seen in public since her father's funeral in 2007.  Missing persons reports have been filed to no avail, and her husband won't talk about it.  Does that sound healthy to you?

So, certainly a fascinating read and a well-researched piece of journalism.  Thanks to reading this book, I'm going to be adding a few things to my list of ideas for future posts- including how to recognize a group or a leader as just bad news.  And add a few things to my readings list.

Which reminds me: seminary friends, I remember there was a book on cults and how to recognize them that was very popular in seminary, and I think came out either while we were there or just a few years before.  I had a chance to browse it in school, but never actually read it, and always wanted to.  But I can't remember enough of the title to find it now.  It had five or six primary characteristics that each had a chapter focused on it.  Can anybody help me out?  Thank you!

Friday, March 15, 2013

Lutheran Look: Why membership?

My apologies for missing the lectionary post this week, life has been unexpectedly hectic (in good ways!).  Back on track now, though.

I've been asked this question a lot: Why bother being an official member of a congregation?  What's the point?  In today's world, where you can sign up for social media in a minute with an email address and a password, why bother with the actual paperwork it almost always takes to sign up for church membership?  (I think a lot of congregations could change the paperwork part up pretty easily, but adjusting to technology in a systemic fashion like that is hard.)  Especially since you can attend services just fine without.

There are a lot of reasons for church membership, though.  I think a lot of reasons for it are implicit in the differences between spirituality (and its growing popularity) and religion.  Both seek a connection to the divine, both explore what's beyond our immediate senses- but spirituality is inherently individual and ultimately isolating, and religion is naturally communal and relationship-based.  Therefore religion is messier than spirituality- when your relationship with God is tied up with your relationship with a bunch of other people, none of whom are perfect and perhaps quite a few of whom you don't like, keeping up a relationship with God is harder, because you also have to keep up your relationship with those other people.

And yet Christianity insists on community- where do you think the word "Communion" comes from?  We are called by Christ in the two great Commandments to love God with all our heart, soul and mind, and to love one another as God loves us.  We see God in each other, because we have each been created in God's image.  The Bible is filled with stories of community and rules for community and illustrations of faith through community, and if all that weren't enough, God came down and was one of us to be in community with us, as Jesus Christ.  We cannot separate our faith from our community with one another, no matter how hard we try.

So, in recognition of that, we gather in community together in congregations, and we publicly acknowledge our commitment not only to God, but to each other, by maintaining membership in our congregations.  By doing that, we acknowledge our needs for mutual support and instruction, care for young and old, sick and downtrodden, and relationships which comfort us in our grief and celebrate with us in our joy.

However, if you prefer a short, practical list of what membership does, here goes.

  • Public affirmation of faith.
    • To the congregation: by becoming a member, you are telling the other members that you want to worship with them, and you want to support them and be supported by them.  There may be some days when you arrive at church and find yourself nurturing someone, there may be days when you're the one being nurtured.  By seeking official membership, you're signing up for this.
    • To your community: this tells your family and whoever else you tell (coworkers, friends, random people in the grocery store who you're inviting to join you for services- you do that, right?) about it that you've made a decision about your faith, what kind of faith community you want, and where you're going to go (well, one of the places) to grow and mature your faith.  Congregations are often known for various traits in a community; often, telling someone where you go to church will tell them quite a bit about your priorities.
  • Planning for the larger denomination.
    • Membership Numbers:  knowing how many members each church has determines a lot of things.  The ELCA is broken up into 8 regions; those regions contain 65 synods around the country (and the Bahamas); each synod is broken up into conferences, all for infrastructure and planning purposes.  Membership numbers help the ELCA keep up with population trends, and what areas will be needing more pastors soon, and the like.
    • Financial Planning: as mentioned below, the denomination has many ministries going on at any one time, and having an accurate idea about membership (and what that membership is interested in!) helps plan the future of those ministries.  Some of that planning is, by nature, financial.
    • Decision Making:  Membership helps the ELCA keep the conferences and synods approximately even in population, which helps when it comes to choosing delegates for the General Assembly.  The Assembly makes the major decisions about the direction of the church, and each conferences selects a delegate to go.  The delegates vary each Assembly, and are about 40% clergy and 60% lay people.
  • Planning for the congregation.
    • Time and Talent: look, the Sunday School teachers, ushers, lectors, and committee members have to come from somewhere.  You didn't think that worship service or Bible study planned itself, did you?  The members of a congregation drive its mission, and its ministry.
    • Financial Planning: we get nervous talking about this part, but membership also helps the congregation know where it's going in terms of financial planning.  Often, congregations ask members to "pledge" their giving (which just means the member tells the congregation in advance how much they expect to give each year) so they know what resources they have to devote to various ministries in advance.  Just as you wouldn't get in the car without your GPS (or a map, at least) for a cross-country trip, congregations can't plan their next few years without an idea of what their budget is going to be.
    • Recordkeeping: congregations also keep track of church records- including attendance, funerals, weddings, and other special events.  These church records are hugely popular with genealogists, but also used for more prosaic purposes as well, by the congregation itself in understanding their history, and by churchwide in knowing what congregations are up to.
    • Decision Making: members can vote in annual and special meetings.  These meetings often make major decisions in the life of a congregation, such as which pastor to call, other church staff hiring decisions, and decisions about which ministries to support and how to run them.
I hope that helps in understanding the point of membership in a congregation.  Community may be messy at times, and a denomination as large as ours does require some pretty prosaic infrastructure, but when we put all those members and all those ministries together, we can do enormous good in the world, and spread the love of God to all people.

Go in peace, love and serve the Lord.  Thanks be to God!

Monday, March 11, 2013

Podcast Review: Day1 Weekly Radio Broadcast

So, I currently have a temporary position at a company that shall remain nameless, which allows me to listen to my mp3 player (which won't remain nameless for reasons I'll expand on in a moment) during my shift.  So as you might imagine, I've been exploring podcasts a lot lately.  I've run across several I enjoy, some of which are religious in nature, and I thought I should probably add them to my list of reviews, in case others are also looking for audio content.

So, Day1 is a website that's fairly well known among the clergy I know, and it turns out they have a podcast.  Their website has a lot of sermons, based on the RCL, from various mainline Protestant pastors.  Once a week, they do what they call their "Radio Broadcast" (I dunno, perhaps it does go on the radio somewhere, but the Christian radio stations I know wouldn't touch it) and that is available for free online:  It is also available for free on iTunes, which outs my mp3 player as an iPod.

I've looked at the Day1 website on a regular basis while prepping sermons for some years now, and I've been listening to this podcast for a few weeks.  Each sermon I've heard has been brilliantly written and stirringly preached.  There's also a time before we hear the sermon when we hear the pastor talk a bit about their context, history, and current charity work and ministry, and then a time afterward when we hear about their preparation process.  Also, the text the sermon is written on is always read, by the pastor, before the sermon as well. 

All in all, it's a wonderful resource, and I've found it devotional as well as good background for sermon prep.  I would absolutely suggest it to both pastors and lay Christians who are looking for a little extra reflection on the week's reading.  I hope you find it helpful!

Friday, March 8, 2013

Lutheran Look: Do I really have to honor my parents?

And what does that mean, anyway?  The Forward Thinking prompts over at Love, Joy, Feminism by Libby Anne seem to be great starts to exactly the postings I want to do anyway, so you may start to see them regularly here; fair warning, we'll see.

I find this is exactly the kind of post where you have to state your own context up front, so: I love my parents, they have always loved and supported me, they always believed I could do anything I put my mind to, and they took the trouble to get to know me and tailor their parenting styles to me, which helped a lot, being an only child and all.  Parts of my childhood were less than ideal, but not the parts that involved them, and they got divorced in the middle of all that, so that's saying something.

That said, I know perfectly well how lucky and blessed I've been.  I have friends, and I know other people, who were not so blessed.  Whose parents didn't see them as potentially independent adults, but rather extensions of themselves and their desires.  Or tools to their own ends.  Or decorations for their lives.  Who did not recognize their humanity, and their rights, and their status as a fully formed child of God who deserved their love and the very best of care.  And, yes, I know a few whose parents saw them as punching bags.

Which is why I hope to never be one of those pastors who falls back on the easy sermon on Mother's Day weekend, or Father's Day.  Which is why I do not talk about the universal characteristics of a mother's love, or the protectiveness of being in a father's arms.  Because we live in a broken world, and there is nothing universal about parenthood except that the parents (or guardians) are, for a few years at least, in absolute power over the child's life.  And you know what they say about absolute power.

And to those who would say that speaking of such things speaks against family values and traditional Christian understandings of the world, I would say that Jesus spoke very strongly for the powerless, not the powerful.  And if they wanted an example of "traditional" understandings of family, I have a number of Bible passages to point them to.

So, what do we owe our parents?  What does "Honor thy father and mother" truly mean?  Well, being Lutheran, one place I might start is Luther's Small Catechism, which discusses each of the Commandments, among other things.  However, both there and in his Large Catechism (written for pastors, whereas the Small is written for everyone) he starts from the assumption that all parents wish their children well, are loving and nurturing toward their children, and never ask their children to do wrong.  These days, we're more willing than Luther was to acknowledge that that isn't always true.  But life has changed a lot since Germany in the early 1500s, and many of his views on authority also require us to remember that there was no such thing as democracy at the time, and Divine Right of Rule was still an accepted concept.

In the end, Luther's explanation of the Commandment boils down to a few main points: don't abandon your parents when they're elderly, even if they have dementia; don't beat them up; treat them with basic respect; and when you're a child, obey them.  The first three points I have no problems with: Christianity instructs us to care for the helpless and treat all people with basic respect, which certainly includes not beating people up.  The last point, however, has some potential problems.  So, to examine that more closely, let's have some case studies, and talk about what "honor" means in each case.  All of these are based on real life situations I've run across (none of them happened to me).

Case Study A: Alicia, an adult who has moved out of her parents' home but still lives in the same town as them, has recently noticed that her father's driving is getting steadily worse, but her mother isn't willing to confront him about it.  His driving is beginning to get dangerous, and she's worried not only for her parents' safety but the other people on the road. Should she:
  1. Respect her father's wishes by not doing anything about it.
  2. Go down to the local precinct and start the process of having his license taken away without consulting her parents.
  3. Sit down and have the difficult discussion with both her parents, after having done some research, and talk about alternate transportation ideas that won't put anyone at risk.
Case Study B: Brandon, a 10 year old, is in the checkout lane with his mother when he sees her put a pack of gum in her purse without paying, and motions to him to hide some candy in his jacket.  The cashier hasn't noticed. Should he:
  1. Steal the candy like his mother told him to.
  2. Ask "Mom, why did you just put that gum in your purse?" really loudly so the cashier will hear and his mom will have to put it back.
  3. Refuse to take the candy and try to return the gum to the display rack, and then talk about the incident later.
Case Study C: Carly, in her early teens and starting to think about what she wants to do with her life, tells her dad she's thinking about being a pastor.  Her dad tells her women can't be pastors, and walks away.  Should she:
  1. Put the idea of being a pastor out of her mind forever.
  2. Yell at him a lot and cut him out of her life as fast as she can.
  3. Try to maintain a healthy relationship with her dad while growing up, and then, if she is so called, becoming a pastor once she's an adult.
Case Study D: Danielle, an adult, is just starting her career and also getting married.  Her parents offer to help pay for the wedding, but after having given the money without mentioning any strings attached, start adding their friends to the guest list and insisting she follow some wedding traditions she can't stand because they're helping to pay. Should she:
  1. Have the wedding her parents want: they're paying.
  2. Have the wedding she wants: it's her wedding.
  3. Sit down and talk all this out with them, perhaps making some small, reasonable concessions but also explaining that it is her wedding, and perhaps offering to return the money. 
These multiple choice options are simplistic, I know, and certainly do not address the complexity of human relationships, let alone parent-child relationships which are usually more complicated than your average one anyway.  But I'm trying to use them to illustrate a larger point- what does honor mean, anyway?  Mindless, thoughtless obedience?  Knee-jerk contrariness?  Or something a little more... mature?

See, as far as I can tell, not being a parent myself, the baseline goal for parenting is getting the kid to a point where they can function on their own as an independent adult.  Now, sometimes those goalposts move- in cases of severe mental of physical disability, for example, or deeply communal cultures where independence is not as prized as in American culture.  But most parents I know personally try to get their kids to a basic level of resourcefulness, "common sense" and knowledge of the world where they can live on their own if they have to.  Or at the very least expect their kids to get there without the parents having to put in a lot of effort at it.

That requires a certain amount of critical thinking, and the ability to make judgment calls, and to have an opinion.  None of those are well fostered by either blind obedience or blind rebellion in the childhood and teenage years.  The ability to hold a reasonably polite, rational conversation about a difficult topic with people you care for deeply requires all of those in large amounts.

So, let's turn this around: when a parent honors their child?  It's most often by treating that child as an adult.  As a person who is capable, mature, and trustworthy.  Why shouldn't that be turned around?  Certainly, with younger children who don't yet understand all the forces at work around them, the scales tip more towards obedience- especially in emergencies.  With adults the scales tip more towards independence, and the sometimes-difficult teen years are often centered around this very balance.  But if the child treats their parents (within  reasonable bounds of safety according to the situation) as a capable, mature, and trustworthy adult?  That sounds like honor to me.

And sometimes, when we're interacting with capable, mature, reasonably trustworthy adults?  The best way we can honor them is to share our opinions, our concerns, and to follow our own conscience, even when it does lead to disagreement, or worse.  But I have to believe that sometimes, honoring one's parents means confronting them about their lies, their bigotry, or their criminal activity- because all of those things are done by parents, somewhere, and if the alternative is ignoring or enabling it, well, those don't sound very honorable to me.

So: following this commandment may, for many people, be more complicated and difficult than we'd think at first.  But ultimately, are the ways in which we honor our parents going to be all that different than the ways we honor our friends, our mentors, our coworkers?  Perhaps not.

God bless.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Lectionary: 3/10/2013- 4th Sunday of Lent (C)

Prayer of the Day
God of compassion, you welcome the wayward, and you embrace us all with your mercy. By our baptism clothe us with garments of your grace, and feed us at the table of your love, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

This week we continue talking about how God's ways are different from ours.  We particularly examine how God's concept of forgiveness is strange to us in the parable of the Prodigal Son.  There are theme of coming home and trust that expand on this as well.  Also, we have some hints that Easter is coming!

 Joshua 5:9-12
The Lord said to Joshua, “Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt.” And so that place is called Gilgal to this day. While the Israelites were camped in Gilgal they kept the passover in the evening on the fourteenth day of the month in the plains of Jericho. On the day after the passover, on that very day, they ate the produce of the land, unleavened cakes and parched grain. The manna ceased on the day they ate the produce of the land, and the Israelites no longer had manna; they ate the crops of the land of Canaan that year.

The first couple lines of this reading sound odd and disconnected to our ears, so they require a bit of explanation.  The word "Gilgal" is a name, which sounds very similar to the Hebrew phrase "I have removed".  (And no, I'm not going to try to sound that out for you, my Hebrew is legendarily terrible.)  This happens a lot in the Bible, all sorts of places get named after things that happen there, but it's harder for us to tell because, of course, those names are in Greek or Hebrew.

This reading is from the end of the Israelites' wandering in the wilderness.  40 years before they had been enslaved in Egypt, until Moses led them out (through the Red Sea), and they wandered in the desert for a few decades for reasons that would take awhile to explain.  During this time, Moses received the Ten Commandments from God, and the Israelites complained about not having enough food for long enough that God started providing them with manna every morning- food that appeared miraculously on the ground every day but the Sabbath.

Anyway, the Israelites have now arrived in Israel, they have raised a set of crops, and they have, for the first time, eaten of those crops.  So this is officially the end of their wandering- they are home.  And God recognizes this by ending the manna, because, not being wanderers, they don't need it anymore.  It's also interesting to note that this happens as they celebrate Passover, which, if you remember the ten plagues from their time in Egypt (or it's easy enough to Google), that is the remembrance of the last plague, that of the first born, which is what prompted their leaving Egypt.

Psalm 32
Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.
Happy are those to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.

While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long.
For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Selah

Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity;
I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord’, and you forgave the guilt of my sin. Selah

Therefore let all who are faithful offer prayer to you;
at a time of distress, the rush of mighty waters shall not reach them.
You are a hiding-place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with glad cries of deliverance. Selah

I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you.
Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding, whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle, else it will not stay near you.

Many are the torments of the wicked, but steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the Lord.
Be glad in the Lord and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart.

There are some lovely themes in this story, but the one that strikes me right off is the implicit trust in God.  We can be honest with God about our sin, because we trust God.  We can take shelter in God's love, and find God as a refuge, because we trust God.  We can be glad and shout for joy, because we trust God.

And near the end- we find that God contrasted with a "bit and bridle".  It sounds to me like the Psalmist is saying that God is not controlling us, as an unthinking animal must sometimes be controlled.  Rather, we are capable of (some amount of) self-control, and because of that we have a different kind of freedom.

2 Corinthians 5:16-21
From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

Here we have a bit of Easter come early (of course every Sunday is a celebration of Easter, even during Lent) with all things being new in Christ.  And in this passage we're given a short, pithy definition of Christian belief and practice: just as we have been reconciled to God by Christ (that is, our relationship with God has been made right by Christ), we have also been given the "ministry of reconciliation"- we also seek to make relationships right, as Paul says, as ambassadors for Christ.  We are forgiven, and so we forgive; we have been appealed to, and so we appeal.

The concept of reconciliation and "do-overs" is going to get a bit of a workout in the Gospel text.  But I will note here that the "all things being made new" is also a theme that pops up in the book of Revelation, and if you connect it to what's being said here, and has been said elsewhere, it sounds a lot less scary than what some people I've heard of have tried to turn it into.

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable:  “There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 

But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate. 

“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’” 

Every time I say this, I am met with blank disbelief, but here we go again: I almost kind of hate this parable.  It drives me up the wall.  Often, when I've heard it preached, it turns into some kind of morality tale about the purity and strength of a parent's love, and that makes me recoil in horror.

Look, I am not about to discuss my family's personal history on the Internet, but let's just say that from the very first time I heard this story, which must have been about age 6 or 7 at the latest, I found it perfectly right and natural to side heavily with the older brother.  Not so much about the "I want a party too" part, but certainly about the "You're celebrating this guy's return? Seriously?" part.

This is the kid who, by asking for his inheritance early, was asking his father to sell half of all he owned.  And his father did it.  And then this kid went into town and spent everything, and came back.  And the father celebrates this?  This is not an example of good boundaries, of healthy relationship, of a parent teaching a kid anything about the world, or indeed parenting.

So being lazy about this parable is one of the fastest ways to get me to stop listening to you.  Because what few people mention, is that this is not an example of good parenting, or indeed what we're supposed to be like.  This parable is surrounded by others where what's happening is bizarre or unthinkable.  We do not throw an expensive party when we find a quarter we lost, we do not risk our entire livelihood when we've lost one small part of it.  And so, when someone has shown themselves to be incapable of planning, budgeting, or in fact basic people skills, we do not throw more money at them and have parties when they show up.  This is not who we are.

Jesus tells story after story of bizarre reactions for just that reason: these stories (and by all means, look them up, this is by far the longest) sound weird and strange to us.  We don't operate that way.  But God does.  This is not a parenting lesson, this is a lesson in how different God's ways are from ours- seems to be an ongoing theme this Lent, doesn't it?  With God, we are home as the Israelites were when they no longer needed the manna.  With God, we can trust and be honest and sheltered as the Psalmist sings.  With God, all things are made new in Christ.  With God, we are forgiven and welcomed, whatever the reason for parting.  All of these sound strange to us, because they aren't what we're used to, or how we're used to working.  But God's ways are strange to us.

Go in peace, love and serve the Lord.  Thanks be to God!

Monday, March 4, 2013

Blog Review: Rachel Held Evans- Sunday Superlatives

I'm not actually going to review Rachel Held Evans' entire blog here- for one thing, she is incredibly popular already and probably doesn't need my help getting new readers.  But she has a habit that I've especially grown to appreciate- every Sunday she posts a list of "Sunday Superlatives", the best posts and stories from around the Internet she's found (or been recommended) about a variety of topics.  The posts she lists, always with a little context, are from a variety of viewpoints and are written by people from all walks of life, but they have one thing in common- they are always well-written.

If you want to think about current events from a point of view you never considered before, wander over to Rachel's blog on Sunday nights.

If you want to see faith journeys and encounters with God that you'd never manage to imagine for yourself, check out these weekly posts.

If you want to find new blogs to read, new thoughts to consider, new people to meet, this is a great place to go.

I know other sites and blogs that do posts like this on a regular basis, but this one is different.  On many of those sites and blogs, there's a streak of anger and cynicism that touches every list.  And the anger is certainly often justified, and the cynicism sadly is too, but that emotional tone tires me out after awhile, and I find I don't go back unless I'm looking for something specific.

This list is different.  The Superlatives, while, yes, sometimes include an angry or cynical post, consistently have a thread of life to them we often forget.  There is always room for hope in these collections, and that's what brings me back week after week.  Thanks be to God.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Lutheran Look: Why the lectionary?

So, most congregations in the ELCA choose their Sunday Bible readings according to the RCL, Revised Common Lectionary, which is a three year cycle of readings chosen in advance for each Sunday of the year.  It's designed to give congregations a chance to hear a good variety of Bible passages, and so that each Sunday has readings relevant to that time of the church year (hearing the Christmas story on Christmas, for example).

The name of the lectionary tells us a couple things- it's been revised, and it's shared in common between a lot of Christian denominations.  The earlier Common Lectionary had an Old Testament reading, a Psalm, and a Gospel reading for each Sunday, the RCL has added a New Testament reading as well.  This Lectionary is used by a lot of denominations, including the Episcopalians, the Methodists, the Presbyterians, and the Reformed churches.  The Catholic church uses a slightly different one, so that very often they will have the same readings as the RCL, but occasionally will have a one that's different.

If you've ever mentioned to a friend, "Oh, my pastor preached on this story last week" and your friend said, "Hey, so did mine!" it's very likely thanks to the RCL, or another lectionary.

So, why the lectionary?  Well, it does a lot of things.

  1. It saves time.  Most pastors I know take about one full day out of their work week to write their sermon as it is.  Choosing texts on the fly would make that a lot harder.  Also it helps a pastor keep track of what sermons they've preached where, so they can keep some variety going.
  2. It makes sure readings fit that Sunday.  The Bible is a very large book, as you've likely noticed, and choosing three related readings and a Psalm that also flow with the church year, what was read last week, what will be read next week, and everything else is a complicated project.
  3. It keeps pastors from fixating on one topic for too long.  There's an old legend I heard once, which probably isn't true, about a newlywed pastor who preached for three straight months (about a hundred years ago) on what made a good wife.  I can't even imagine being that wife (or, for that matter, that pastor!).  Pastors are as likely as anyone else to get a "bee in their bonnet" and this keeps them from obsessing too long on one thing in the pulpit.
  4. It does a pretty good job of cycling through the Bible, and so helps educate the congregation about the Bible.  Like I said, it's a three year cycle- each year focuses the Gospel readings on either Matthew, Mark, or Luke, and readings from John are spread through all three years.  The other readings are also varied.
  5. Professional discussion.  Many pastors take part in weekly Bible studies, where they look at the readings for that week and talk about what they plan to preach on.  For many pastors I know, this is a necessary part of their professional growth, a great networking opportunity, and also a deeply appreciated social outlet.
Of course, if there's good reason, a pastor can certainly change a reading here or there.  And the RCL is not the only lectionary going- there's increasing interest in a variety of Narrative Lectionaries going around, and the Eastern Orthodox churches have their own lectionaries as well.  Essentially, a lectionary is a useful tool for congregations, but is not a rule so much as a guideline.