Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Tired, Frustrated and Thirsty

Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves
to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and
inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all
adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil
thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus
Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy
Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

FYI: this is less recap and more like a lightly edited version of the preaching on Sunday.... so, it is bit more wordy and has a little more of the preacher's cadence and voice....

Texts (John 4 and Exodus 17:1-7)

Lead into Communion

In our texts before us this morning we meet people are who are tired, frustrated and thirsty. The Samaritan woman at the well has had a really difficult life; she is tired, frustrated and thirsty. She will guide us in a deeper understanding of grace during the homily. In our text from Exodus we meet a bit of a different sort of fatigue and frustration. God’s people have been freed from oppressive slavery in Egypt; freedom is at hand and more freedom is in front of them. But what about food and what about water? Earlier in this narrative they cried out in hunger and God gave them manna; now they cry out for water to quench their thirst but where is the water? There is no water in sight. There was water in Egypt and for that matter there was food in Egypt. There was plenty of food and plenty of water but at the cost of their freedom; here, in the wilderness, there is freedom, but water and food come only from God’s hand. Can he be trusted to keep providing? Will the one who provided yesterday provide today, or tomorrow? In Egypt there was water stored up in reserve. Make some more bricks; get some more food and water. Pharaoh’s grand empire would apparently never run out of food and water. Stay in your place and you will at least have food and water. Out in the wilderness it is a different story. Commenting on this passage, Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann, says this: “Moses obeys; Yahweh delivers. Israel drinks. The crisis is averted. The narrative tells all of this in one brief sentence.... no commentary.... no explanation... no embarrassment.... We are given only a simple bare act for all to see, a lean story for all to hear. It is a situation in which Yahweh sustained life but in lean, precarious, anxiety producing ways that require deep trust.”

Interestingly, this narrative is part of a time of Israel’s life that is cited in the Psalms and the New Testament as a time of unfaithfulness.... a time characterized as grumbling, complaining and doubting God. However, we should note that God’s response is still one of provision. To be sure, the response comes in the form of a “terse command, a lean promise, and life-at-the-last minute (Brueggemann)”, but it is a response none-the-less. “Israel is left to trust in miracles that the empire had deemed impossible” This is the God who is good but not safe. This is God developing faith and trust in us by always binding himself to us in life-giving ways - on his terms to be sure - but binding himself to us none-the-less. One is reminded of the passage from 2 Timothy that some New Testament scholars think might have been part of an early creed or hymn: “When we are faithless he is faithful for he cannot deny himself”. This communion table is for those who are tired, frustrated and thirsty. Like Israel of old we come wanting to trust in freedom but often leaning towards slavery. God though, for his part, is determined to make us free as he builds faith and trust in us. “Life-at-the-last-minute” was not God’s way of being capricious but his way of deepening faith. Bring your worst fears to God this morning; bring your frustration with him and this world; throw it at him and in ways that will almost certainly surprise you, he will meet you with grace.

From the homily:

And now we meet more fatigue, more frustration and more thirst in Jesus’ visit with the Samaritan woman. It is well known that Jesus shatters social, moral and religious categories by talking to this woman. (1. He should not be talking to a woman in this manner according to the conventions and guidelines of Judaism and the culture in general. 2. He should certainly not be talking to a woman who had a bad reputation - the fact that she was at the well at an odd time most likely meant that other women did not want to have anything to do with her. 3. As someone who was a rabbi, he should certainly not be talking to a Samaritan, who were regarded by Jews as half-breeds - they had intermarried during the exile - they were despised by the religious leadership of Israel.

There is an aspect of this story, however, that is often shied away from in the pulpit but I want us to explore it a bit. Jesus puts himself in a situation where anyone looking on would almost certainly make assumptions - assumptions that were not true - but assumptions. The assumptions would have been around what his motives were in talking to a woman and talking to her alone. Since society and religion had left no room for such a conversation to occur for any good reason, the only thing that would have occurred to most onlookers would have been that this conversation was illicit in nature and designed to lead to sex. In the previous chapter of John, we have a religious leader who seeks Jesus under the cover of nightfall, afraid of being openly associated with him. But here Jesus seeks someone who society frowns upon in a setting and interaction that to onlookers would have at first appeared tawdry, in order to make her an example of who God welcomes as worshippers. The thought has crossed most of our minds before whether or not Jesus would be happy to sit down with us wherever he were, no matter how much of a mess we might be in that moment. This passage should give us a great assurance that if Jesus were here in our time in the flesh he would be happy to talk with us anywhere and at any time, even if the whole interaction might look shady to cynical onlookers. You are the ones he welcomes as worshippers.

The Samaritan woman, with her history of pain, brokenness, likely often taken advantage of by men, maybe sometimes a willing adulterer - the text leaves these questions open - she is a lot like us. Like us, her past and present is characterized by a lot of pain and misgivings, and a future full of questions. She is tired, hungry, and thirsty. Her confession: "I have no husband" is met with Jesus' acknowledgment of her brokenness and an invitation to see, in him, a future of worshipping God in spirit and in truth. There is not a hint of moralism or religious elitism in Jesus' words. Instead there is an invitation for her to grow in God’s love and grace. The implication is clear; the way to human flourishing for her, and for us, is found in a deeper relationship with God and his healing love. The goal of God's love is to bring us to see ourselves in light of God's purposes for us in this life. To be sure, love wounds us as it opens us to the future that God wants for us, for it is always hard to come to terms with the truth, at least initially. But it is in the confidence of God's love for us and his desire for us to flourish that we find the courage to face that truth and seek the healing that comes through a deeper experience of that same love, here symbolized as living water.

Questions for Discussion:
Questions 1 and 2 will likely spark the same sort of discussion - you may want to take them together.

1. Can you think of times when you have been like the wilderness generation, grumbling and doubting? Can you think of an aspect of your life where you lean towards slavery but yearn for freedom? How does God’s provision for Israel in the wilderness help you when you think about leaning towards slavery?

2. Obviously, a goal of the Christian is not to be faithless. What are we to think about the passage in 2 Timothy 2:13, “when we are faithless, he is faithful for he cannot deny himself”? What is God wanting us to take away from such promises?

3. Does the gospel give you the courage to face yourself for who you really are? If God does not expect you to see the whole truth about yourself all at once what is your responsibility in seeking to deepen your understanding or yourself in light of the gospel? Do you ever send signals to others that you expect them to see the whole truth about themselves all at once?

4. How have you observed moralism and religious elitism to block people from encountering God? Have you ever been blocked by them?

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Promise To Abraham; The Promise To Us

Lent, to be sure, is a time of focused and intense reflection and repentance but as we have mentioned before it is not a time to grovel or imagine that the worse we feel about ourselves (maybe even the more we loathe ourselves) the more likely it will be that God will just maybe let us have a second chance. Now, we don’t for a minute want to suggest that we should be complacent about our sin whether it is almost wholly interior or the sins of omission and commission that so profoundly impact others. No. Complacency is not a mark of discipleship; complacency is not a mark of gratitude for God’s love. What we have been emphasizing, though, is that the gospel teaches us that our repentance is in response to the loving God and that our repentance has promise because of God’s promise. After all, God sent the Son not to condemn but to save (John 3).

The text from Romans before us this morning is full of so many theological ideas that it would be impossible to touch on many let alone all of them on one Sunday so I am going to focus on what I take to be the heart of this passage - Paul is concerned to explain to the church at Rome, a church of Gentiles but also of Jews, that the promise of God has always been for the whole world and not just for Jews. He makes this point by going back to God’s original loving initiative with Abraham. The promise is given to him that God will work through his lineage to bring about the salvation of the world, of the nations, and not just the Jews. In Paul’s argument the significance of when God’s promise is made to Abraham is of vital importance. The promise was made before Abraham was circumcised and before the law was given (Romans 4:9.13). This emphasis of Paul’s argument would be unsettling to many of the Jews of Paul’s day who not only took pride in their ethnic heritage but who had also come to rely upon that ethnic privilege as counting for privilege and righteousness before God. Some had even come to the point of despising the thought that God’s salvation would be for gentiles too; recall, it is the expansiveness of God’s love in the ministry of Jesus that always got him trouble with the religious leadership of his day. In telling the story the way Paul does he is not simply confronting a race trumps grace position that poisons the well of God’s love; he is also preaching the gospel, which is what he always does. He is saying: look here is good news. Before Abraham could do anything to move towards God, God moved towards him and claimed him for his redemptive purpose in the world, claimed him for his own; what you take pride in, your circumcision, not only robs you of a full relationship with the Gentiles but also obfuscates the truth about God’s unconditional love of you.

I don’t know if you have ever noticed this about yourself but I know it to be true of me. I don’t want to love other people when I doubt God’s love for me. One of the most important things you can do for those who love you and indeed for the whole world is to learn to cherish God’s unconditional love for you. The force of Paul’s argument for those who had come to value race over grace was based on a simple yet profound logic about when God’s love found Abraham.... God’s love found him as a sinner ( point that Paul drills home by citing Psalm 31 in Romans 4:7,8, in the midst of his discussion of Abraham: “happy are those whose sins are forgiven”.) A key to our spiritual formation it that we understand well the foundation of our relationship to God. God’s love for us is prior to and without respect to our good deeds, our bad behavior, or our religious life. It is when we are looking at the caller id on a phone call from a friend with whom we are angry and we decide to let it go to voice mail knowing that we will wait a long time before we call them back as a way of showing who has control.... as a way of punishing them..... it is when we are yelling at our spouse or our kids and wondering if life will ever look like we want it to look - these moments reveal us as God always knew us to be when we loved us for the first time!

Questions for discussion:

1. Paul says in Romans 4:16 that God’s great work of salvation got its start by Abraham responding in faith to a promise (though Abraham’s wife was barren he believe God could make him the father of many nations). Paul goes on to say that it must be this way so that God’s promise may rest on grace - not on the works of the law or ethnic privilege. Paul seems to be driven here and elsewhere to lay us bare before God, to take away from us anything that we could take religious or moral pride in. Why does he do this? What is he protecting us from? What is protecting the church from? Do you think that you think about this aspect of your relationship with God as much as you should?

2. When you catch yourself in a moment of sinful behavior or thoughts are you quick enough to think of God’s love for you? What slows you down from seeing God’s love in those moments?

3. From our John 3 text: if you had to put into your own words what Jesus meant when he told Nicodemus that he had to be born from above, how would you put it?

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

the grace of the One abounds for the many

Our text in Romans this morning invites us to see our life as moving in one of two directions. We are either moving towards fullness and human flourishing with Jesus or death and destruction with Adam. Now before you dismiss this contrast between life and human flourishing with Jesus or death and destruction with Adam as being too extreme, ask yourself questions like these? Have you yet loved others the way God has loved you? Have your actions ever broken the hopes and dreams of those who love you? Do you break promises that leave others picking up the pieces? What Paul is saying is this. With Adam, there was a trajectory away from trusting in God’s provision for humankind; with Jesus, there is a reverse of course and an open doorway to movement back towards trusting God.

According to the Biblical narrative, with Adam, there was a rebellion against God’s gracious provision in what began as a seed of doubt about the goodness and all sufficiency of God’s provision. With Adam, like the adulterer (whether adultery of the heart or adultery acted out in physical reality) there was a nurturing of an illicit lust and a greedy demand for more and more whatever the cost. In the midst of the serpent’s tempting words, the relationship with God appeared not good enough. There was a craving for the forbidden fruit. Adam left us with a separation from God’s love borne out of a misconstrual of and rebellion against God’s goodness. Jesus, in stark contrast, lived in full trust of God’s love and provision, even to the point of his own death on the cross and separation from God’s love. Jesus embraced his own death and the forsaken experience of separation from his Father as an act of obedience and love, trusting in God’s provision. In so doing he brought redemption and the promise of resurrection to the entire world: the grace of the One abounded for the many (Romans 5:19).

I suggest that a good way of reading Paul in this portion of Romans is to see the comparison and contrast between Adam and Jesus as setting up a framework in which we can understand better the dynamic of God’s grace at work in this world. What removes us from the destiny of Adam and unites us with the destiny of Jesus begins with a re-established honesty before God and a re-established trust in his goodness. Honesty and trust is what eroded in the first place with our primordial parents, Adam and Eve. Honesty before God and trust in his goodness is re-established in Jesus. However, on the other side of Eden honesty and trust have a different raw material to work with. The raw material that must be worked on in fallen people living in a fallen world requires us to bring to God the brokenness of our lives, our need for grace, mercy, and forgiveness. What is required of us is a hard-to-come-by honesty about who we are and what our lives are really like. Sadly, however, in little and big ways we signal to each other that we really don’t want honesty. We want happy faces and settled lives. We don’t want to embrace the reality and pain of ongoing struggles. The season of Lent reminds us in a very focused way that it certainly is obedience that God is looking for but that obedience begins with the obedience of honesty about who we really are and the obedience of ongoing repentance with regard to everything that robs us of God’s best for our lives. The list is long for each of us but the grace of God in Christ abounds through the One for the many. May God give us the grace to face ourselves honestly before him and then lead us to newness of life.

1. Before communion we talked about how the author of Hebrews words can be read as a theological and devotional commentary on the meaning of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11). (Hebrews 4:14 Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. 15For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested* as we are, yet without sin. 16Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.) What do you think it means to approach the throne of grace with boldness? Are you bold when you repent? Are you bold for others when they repent? Do you ever demonize yourself when you are being tempted? How about when you sin? Could the truth of this passage - if it soaked into you more - help you to not demonize yourself and others for struggling with sin?

2. Does it help you to think of the origin of sin (disobedience) as a breakdown in trust in God’s goodness and sufficiency towards his children. If so, why? If not, why not?

3. Do you send little or big signals to others that you don’t really want honesty; but that what you really want is a happy face and a settled life? Can you give an example, even if you fictionalize it a bit?

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Bearing Burdens; Not Growing Weary in Doing Good

Galatians 5:26-6:10
Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another.

6My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness. Take care that you yourselves are not tempted. 2Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. 3For if those who are nothing think they are something, they deceive themselves. 4All must test their own work; then that work, rather than their neighbor’s work, will become a cause for pride. 5For all must carry their own loads. 6Those who are taught the word must share in all good things with their teacher. 7Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow. 8If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit. 9So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest-time, if we do not give up. 10So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.

I have included the passage from Galatians above so it can be easily referred to below.

I want to start from the end of the passage before us and work backwards from that. At the end of this passage Paul exhorts the church in Galatia to not grow weary in doing what is right and to work for the good of all, especially the family of faith. I think that this exhortation is a little snapshot of what Paul sees church to be, a place where people who are forgiven learn to forgive one another, to care for one another, to bear one another’s burdens, as he puts it earlier. A church consisting of members who are being made by the spirit of Christ to be able to do just that will also be well equipped to act with a genuine no-strings-attached benevolence towards those outside of the church, thus bearing witness to the goodness of God.

Now let’s go back in this passage where we are exhorted by Paul to bear one another’s burdens. I would suggest that this exhortation is given in order to flesh out what it looks like for one Christian to help another Christian move forward in his repentance and restoration. Whether Paul had in mind “big sins’ or “smaller sins”, a specific instance or a general principle, does not make that much difference. What he wants us to understand is that a spiritually healthy church is one where restoration looks like one person bearing another’s burden. Bearing one aother’s burdens: what a striking image! This way of talking, of course, is Paul’s way of evoking the image of the cross. Luther puts it this way in his commentary on this passage; here is my paraphrase of him: Christians must have strong shoulders and mighty bones so that we might bear flesh, that is the weakness of our brothers and sisters; love therefore is patient and kind, designed to wink at many things and to bear them.

It should not surprise us that Paul marks out cruciform behavior as a sign a healthy community. As John Howard Yoder wrote: “God has the same shape as Jesus and he always has had. The cross is what creation is all about. What Jesus did was local of course, because that is how serious and real our history is to God. But what the cross was locally is universally and always the divine nature.”

Making cruciformity the measure of the sort of interactions Paul has in mind in this passage challenges us to think, perhaps, differently than how we usually do about spiritual maturity.

When it comes to restoring someone who has fallen into sin, church people often think of those who occupy the moral high ground reaching down and helping the weak come along. But this goes against the grain of Paul’s words and imaging in this passage. The one who restores

* should not see spiritual maturity in competitive terms (5:26)

* is a burden bearer (6:2) think of Christ bearing our burdens
* exercises a spirit of gentleness (6:1) there is no whiff of condescending here
* is one who should regard himself as nothing and should not think of himself as something (6:3)

As one person has put it, we heal by solidarity and not condemnation. Another way of saying that would be to put it this way: we don’t help others grow in grace by sharing stories that make us seem like our lives are all-buttoned up. Rather, it is by sharing our stories of God meeting us in our weaknesses that creates the kind of community where we effectively bear each other’s burdens and fulfill the law of Christ.


1. Can you think of a friend, associate, or loved one who you regard yourself as better than? Is there something that that person struggles with that makes you think that you are better than him or her before God? If so, do you see that as a problem?

2. Can you make up a hypothetical scenario, even if it is inspired by bits and pieces of real life events in your own history, wherein you can present what it would like to

* heal by solidarity, through demonstrating your weaknesses?
* and, what it would like to attempt to heal by talking down to the person?

3. Do you have enough (or any) relationships that are genuine and robust enough to offer occasions for true mutual burden-carrying? How can these relationships be fostered so as to avoid the sort of hierarchies that invite spiritual competition?

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Nearness of God

This Sunday we continued to ponder together the amazing truth that God delights in being near us. In deeply spiritual and mysterious language Paul talks about Christ living in us and that his life in us is our hope of glory (Colossians 1:25......)

I have been circling around this great truth the last three Sundays because I am convinced that we simply don’t ponder it enough; we don’t let it soak in. Of course, one of the reasons we are uncomfortable with the notion is because there is still a big part of each us who don’t relish the idea of God’s intimacy with us 24/7. I went so far this week to suggest that we are actually more comfortable with the idea of a God who is primarily motivated by a desire to punish people for wrong-doing than we are with a God who won't leave us alone until he has defeated every enemy of human flourishing that opposes God’s best for us. A God who delights in punishing and is primarily drive by a retributive pathos is a more familiar category for us than the God and father of our Lord Jesus Christ. The former concept is more at home in our world of broken promises, vengeance, and a culture devoid of a passion to forgive and be reconciled. The God of the gospel, however, is in our business, reminding us that we are too good to indulge sin. He calls us to repent so we might have a deeper experience of the joys that he provides instead of settling for the cheap substitutes we often revel in.

Amazingly, a lot of Christians, or many of us at one time or another, have had a sub-Christian view of God. We have imagined God as driven primarily by a desire to punish. On this view, Jesus takes the punishment and we are off the hook.... “Thanks God!!!!! See you in heaven.”. But God is not primarily motivated by a desire to punish but a desire to make people whole. C.S. Lewis in the Chronicles of Narnia is so very effective in helping us get a glimpse of this aspect of God’s character. I know so many of you know this story well but here are the quotes relevant to the point I want to draw out:
Lucy asks Mr Beaver is "Aslan a man!" said Mr. Beaver sternly. "Certainly not. I tell you he is the King of the wood and the son of the great Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea. Don't you know who is the King of Beasts? Aslan is a lion, the Lion, the great Lion."
"Ooh," said Susan, "I thought he was a man. Is he - quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion."
"That you will, dearie, and make no mistake," said Mrs. Beaver; "if there's anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they're either braver than most or else just silly."
"Then he isn't safe?" said Lucy.
"Safe?" said Mr. Beaver; "don't you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the king I tell you."

God is good but he is not safe. It is a risky business to meditate on the nearness, the intimacy, of God’s presence with us. When we do, pretty soon we discover that the parts of our lives we want to hide away from him are bare before him and we feel afraid. How should we respond to his relentless pursuit of us? Dare we ask him to take away our crutches and give us new legs to walk? How would we live with the real thing when we have dulled our senses with the ersatz pleasures of self-indulgence? Is the real thing big enough to satisfy? We all have parts of our lives we try to hide from God. This season of Lent, let’s be bold and ask God to tear us away from the God who leaves us alone and give us the God who won’t rest until we are perfectly human, robustly our true selves in Christ.

Questions for discussion:

1. Sometimes we don’t set something (sinful, self-destructive is what I have in mind) before God for him to work on for us because we can’t imagine living without whatever thought pattern or behavior it is. What can help us have the courage to bring it to God anyway? What are some of the lies we believe that keep us form bringing this sort of thing to God?

2. Are you getting more comfortable with the intimacy of God? Doe it seem too

3. If a friend of yours were to ask you what God wants to do in this world, what would you say? Would you talk about his desire for human flourishing? What examples and experiences could you offer form your life to illustrate your point?