Monday, August 30, 2010

Each Monday I send out an email to members and friends of Bethlehem with announcements but more importantly questions about the text for the coming Sunday.  Below is this week's Monday Morning Church

Good Morning!

Happy first day of school to many of the students and teachers who are starting today or later this week. I hope and pray that the year is exciting, you are able to have patience in learning and teaching, and that the wisdom you gain may help change the world.

I also have exciting news to announce: Sune & Ringa Gronlund are now proud grandparents of Leo Thomas McCullough, son of Tanja and Matt. Leo was born on August 25th.  We rejoice and celebrate Leo's birth and give thanks to God for the gift of new life.

Last Sunday after worship, the social committee met to plan some events and collections for the upcoming fall. Please mark your calendars.
Senior Lunch, September 9th at noon. This month we will be meeting at Chuck's Steakhouse in Danbury, all are welcome regardless of age.
Rally Day is September 19, breakfast will be served, crafts for all ages, and a food collection goal has been set of 102 items for Bethlehem's 102nd year of ministry.
The Fine Things in Life, a women's bible study will begin on Wednesday September 15th at 7:30pm. Come enjoy a glass of wine, some chocolate, possibly the fire if the weather is nice and hear the word of God.
Pasta Dinner on Saturday September 25. Tickets will be on sale this coming Sunday, proceeds go to remodel the church basement. You can also volunteer to help by seeing the sign up sheet in the community room. Watch for more details in the newsletter.
Book of Faith Puzzler:
Last week’s puzzler was: Which ailment did Jesus NOT cure: leprosy, stuttering, blindness, or crippled hand? Jesus did not cure stuttering. Jesus cured many people of leprosy, see Matthew 8:1-4 for one story. He also cured many blind people, see John 9:1-41 for one account. And Jesus cured a man with a shriveled hand in Mark 3:1-5 with similar accounts in other gospels. Congratulations to last week's winner, Carl Russo.
This week’s question: What did Lot’s wife turn into when she looked back on her home when fleeing? Think you know the answer? Email me your answer by noon on Wednesday. A winner will be chosen from all correct answers received. The winner will be announced in worship next week.

Now onto the text:

Our first reading is Deuteronomy 30:15-20. he Lord gives an if/then command to the Israelites and tells the consequences if they do not obey. If they obey then they shall live and become numerous and will be blessed. But if they do not obey and turn from God, they shall perish. Often parents give similar structures for rules to their children: if they clean their room they will get to have a friend over; if they don't then they can't watch TV. For you personally, do you obey such rule structures in order to avoid punishment or in order to receive the reward? Why do we need both rewards and punishments in order to obey rules, both God's rule and others?

The second reading is Philemon 1-21 (not that is not a typo, Philemon is only 25 verses long and therefore does not have any chapters). Paul is writing to Philemon to both encourage and commend him in his faith but also to get Philemon to receive his runaway slave, Onesimus, back as a Christian. When has a third party put in a good word for you? Maybe a job opportunity a dating situation, a college reference, or some other time? How does the word of a third party, especially one who is well respected help out? Does it ever hinder the situation?

The gospel lesson is Luke 14:25-33. Jesus tells the crowd that one must hate "father, mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes even life itself" in order to be his disciple and that you must carry his cross. Jesus says that being his disciple his costly. How is being Jesus' disciple costly for you? Is it? Should it be? Our lection ends with Jesus saying that we cannot be his disciples if we do not give up all of our possessions. What possessions are you still holding on to? What possessions are you not willing to give to God?

Do any of these text challenge you? Do they confuse you? Or upset you? How do you think the three relate to each other? What do you want to hear more about with text? As I start to form my sermon for this week, these are the questions I have on my mind and I would love to hear your answers, or even your questions.

I hope you have a wonderful week,

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Where to Sit?

Today was the first Sunday since I started memorizing the gospel for biblical storytelling that I did not memorize the text.  I went camping this weekend and forgot to bring a copy with me to practice on the drive (which is how I normally memorize the gospel) and while I tried going over it a few times yesterday, it just didn't stick.  It also didn't help that my brain wasn't really working during worship today because the dogs woke us up multiple times this morning starting at 5am.

I feel a little disappointed in myself that I didn't memorize the text, but also realize that it is not the end of the world.  I know that I'm one of very few pastors that memorize the gospel every week in order to tell the story in a more dramatic way.  But after so many positive comments about how people have heard gospel lessons in new ways because of how I tell the story and not just read the text, it is a little hard on the ego to admit that you can't do it one week.

The gospel text in question was Jesus' parable on hospitality in Luke 14.  I also referenced the first reading, Proverbs 25:6-7, which is pretty much the Reader's Digest version of the gospel lesson.  Below is my sermon for these text.  It is not my best sermon.  Earlier in the week I had a hard time connecting to the text and I thought that I should maybe even ditch this sermon and preach extemporaneously, but again I refer you to the dogs waking us up at 5am and therefore not having the mental capacity to do so this morning.  

So if I didn't connect to God in preaching this morning where did I?  It was in the laughter of the congregation after the worship assistant prayed for the lame and the bland (not a typo for me, but it was for her) and I felt God's presence as we gathered around the altar to communion each other and finished our worship singing and praying around God's table we were are all invited.

Enjoy the sermon, and remember that you are welcomed to Jesus' table.

Well isn’t that good advice. Really isn’t Jesus’ parable just basic advice, almost a “no duh” situation. Of course you don’t want to sit at the head table only to be told on no you can’t sit there, and by the time someone tells you to move the only spot left is way in the back. Instead sit in the back and be invited forward.

An in case you can’t remember the entire parable of Jesus, hopefully you can remember the Readers’ Digest version that we hear in Proverbs: “Do not put yourself forwards in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great; for it is better to be told, ‘Come up here,’ than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.”

So is that it? Is that our gospel, and our sermon for the day: it is better to be honored than be put to shame. Well yes it would be if our gospel stopped at verse 11, but Jesus continues after his parable. He turned to his host, the person who had invited him to the dinner he was now attending and told him that he shouldn’t have invited all the people who were in attendance – his friends, siblings, relatives and rich neighbors. Instead that man should have invited the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind.

Now just imagine that you are at a party, one of the guests is someone who you have heard a lot about, people either love him and seek out his advice, or they think he is full of ____ and causes trouble wherever he goes. Well this guest gets up and starts telling a story, it starts out normal, a simple story of advice, but then he tells your host that she should haven’t invited you, since you are her friend/sibling/relative/rich neighbor. Instead the host should have invited a nobody off the street. Now think about it. Did this guest just insult you? Did that guest just tell you that you are not good enough to be invited to this party, but a homeless person would be good enough?

Did Jesus just offend all the guest at the party he was at? Yes!

And not only did he offend them by saying that they weren’t worthy of being invited to begin with, he waited to tell his story, his piece of advice after everyone else was already seated. Luke says “when he noticed how the guest chose the places of honor, he told them a parable.” If you were one of those guests in a place of honor, at the same table with the host, wouldn’t you be squirming a little in your seat during this story, expecting the host to say that someone more important that you needs to sit there and therefore you need to move?

And instead of just making the few people be uncomfortable about where they are sitting, he made everyone uncomfortable by saying they all are unworthy.

What then does this have to do with us? What does Jesus’ offensive advice and lack of regard for social ranking have to do with us, especially when we are able to honestly look at ourselves and realize that most of the time we are given a high social ranking?

This may be hard to hear, but Jesus doesn’t care about your social ranking. Jesus doesn’t care if you normally sit at the head of the table. Jesus doesn’t care if you normally are given a place of honor. Jesus doesn’t care if you are 40 years old and still sitting at the kiddy table at Thanksgiving. Jesus doesn’t care if you are asked to eat outside or if you aren’t even invited to the party to begin with. Social ranking and all social orders are not of God, they are constructs that us humans have created. And in the kingdom on God there are no pecking order, we all will sit in places of honor, we will all be invited to the ultimate party in heaven.

And this idea is offensive to many people. Why does that person get the same rewards as me, I work harder, I give more money, I am a more upstanding citizen, I am more respected, I am the better Christian……..So then why are they also invited to the same party and given the same gift.

The gospel is offensive, the good news that Jesus Christ has given to us, breaks away from our preconceived ideas about what is right, about what is nice. Jesus did not come to play nice with everyone, Jesus did not come to pat people on the back and tell us that we are doing a good job. No Jesus came to upset, to turn the world upside down.

And when we are too concern about being nice, about not offending, about making sure that everyone gets along with us and that no one, especially the people with the deepest pockets, is made uncomfortable, then we are not preaching the gospel.

But when we preach the gospel, people, including us, are caused to squirm in our seats, are we in the right seat? Are we giving as much time and money back to God as we are able to and as God is calling us to? Are we hearing God’s word in our lives? Are we seeing Jesus in others? Are we allowing the Holy Spirit to move in our lives or are we blocking it at every moment we get?

But the good news is that Jesus does have a place for you at his table. Jesus has a place at the table for you that is equal to everyone else, no one is put higher, no one is put lower. Jesus welcomes everyone to the table, sinners, saints, strong believers, people who aren’t really sure about who he is, people who willing accept his invitation, people who might need to be invited a few more times, people who may never accept the invitation are still invited to the table.

Jesus invites us to his table, and everyone is a guest of honor.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Books, Books and More Books

Two friends posted this meme on their blogs and I thought I would play along since my reading patterns have changed since becoming a pastor.

1. Favorite childhood book?
I loved Amelia Bedelia books, she was just crazy.  And a family favorite story, though I never saw it in a book till I was a teenager, was Icky-icky-stam-bo-no-so-ram-bo-holl-y-boll-y-bos-co-icky-non-newy-non-holly-rolly-tambo (or at least that is how I remember his name being said)
2. What are you reading right now?
For Fun: Gave up on The Zookeeper's Wife last night, don't know what I'll pick next
For Bible study: finished the book of Judges yesterday, so onto Ruth tonight.
Ministry related: UnChristian 

3. What books do you have on request at the library?
Don't have anything requested at the library, I do have a bunch on my wishlist from PaperbackSwap

4. Bad book habit?
I'm an underliner, especially in ministry related books.  Often with notes in the margin.  I also buy more used books than I'm ever going to read.  

5. What do you currently have checked out at the library?
Nothing currently from the library.  I only really use the library for audiobooks while on car trips. 

6. Do you have an e-reader?
nope, not sure if I want one either.  

7. Do you prefer to read one book at a time, or several at once?
I used to be monogamous in my reading, other than school related reading.  But now I normally have one "fun" book (mainly novels) and one ministry related book going at a time.  

8. Have your reading habits changed since starting a blog?
Yep, see above.  I also have less time for reading.  Where I was working before being called to Bethlehem, I would read during breaks and when I was done with work for the day (it was a union job, when I was done with my job I just had to hang around until my work hours were up)
9. Least favorite book you read this year (so far?)
My Horizontal Life.  I was so sick of Chelsea Handler's self obsession that I had to give up after 50 pages.  
I also gave up on The Shack, I just didn't get it.  
10. Favorite book you’ve read this year?
Toss up between The Seamstress and Honolulu.  Both great stories.
For ministry, I loved Take this Bread and Giving Generously

11. How often do you read out of your comfort zone?
Not too often.  I might read a ministry book in a field I'm not as interested in or a novel if someone highly recommends it.  
12. What is your reading comfort zone?
II love a good novel, especially something that is historical or seems timeless.  

13. Can you read on the bus?
Used to read all the time when I took the bus last year.  
14. Favorite place to read?
In my Adirondack chair or in bed. 
15. What is your policy on book lending?
When I'm done with a book I normally give it away.  Occasionally I ask for it to be returned, even more rarely has the book not been returned.   

16. Do you ever dog-ear books?
17. Do you ever write in the margins of your books?
For ministry books or text books yes
18. Not even with text books?
Sometimes too much 

19. What is your favorite language to read in?

20. What makes you love a book?
A good story with writing that flows well and characters that are realistic.  Or a book with information that I can take from it and directly apply to my ministry context or brings up issues that are thought provoking and bring an issue to a new light for me. 

21. What will inspire you to recommend a book?
If I think the person will enjoy the story, it reminds me of them, or if I think it will be helpful to them.  

22. Favorite genre?
Memoirs, historical fiction, chick lit (for an easy read).  

23. Genre you rarely read (but wish you did?)
Science, religious fiction, 

24.Favorite biography?
Can't think of one off the top of my head.  
25. Have you ever read a self-help book?
Not really.  

26. Favorite cookbook?
How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman, though I really want to get his "How to Cook Everything Vegetarian" 

27. Most inspirational book you’ve read this year (fiction or non-fiction)?
Take this Bread

28. Favorite reading snack?
Friends don't let friends eat and read. 
29. Name a case in which hype ruined your reading experience.
Eat, Pray, Love.  I thought the book was okay when I read it over a year ago but didn't get how excited people were for it.  Now with all the hype over the movie, it makes me like the book even more, because it just wasn't that great.  

30. How often do you agree with critics about a book?
I tend to try to get books that are given between 3 & 5 stars on Amazon, sometimes I agree, sometimes I don't but I don't pay a lot of attention to that.  
31. How do you feel about giving bad/negative reviews?
Most of the time if I don't like the book it is because of the writing not the plot.  Why shouldn't I be honest that the book was difficult to read?
32. If you could read in a foreign language, which language would you chose?
I have never thought about this before.  
33. Most intimidating book you’ve ever read?
The Book of Concord, only because my professor was one of the translators and foremost Melanchthon scholar in the US.  I conversation with him would go like this:
You: I had a question about something on page 342
Him: (without looking at the book) Okay the Small Catechism...
You: The 3rd paragraph
Him: (again not looking at the book) So the Third Commandment, Luther's explanation... 

34. Most intimidating book you’re too nervous to begin?
I've had Dante's Inferno on the shelf for a few years that I have yet to pick up yet.  

35. Favorite Poet?
Dr. Suess

36. How many books do you usually have checked out of the library at any given time?
None, maybe one audio book.

37. How often have you returned book to the library unread?
The main reason why I don't like libraries, you are on a deadline to return them. 

38. Favorite fictional character?
Amelia Bedelia, I also loved some of the characters in Uncle Tom's Cabin
39. Favorite fictional villain?
Probably the ones that aren't actually villains but seem like they should be, Professor Snape from the Harry Potter series is one such examples. 

40. Books I’m most likely to bring on vacation?
Something light, Jodi Picoult, Christopher Moore, Chick lit, or just whatever I'm reading at the moment. 

41. The longest I’ve gone without reading.
In recent years, maybe a few days, 
42. Name a book that you could/would not finish.
Just this year: America America, The Shack, The Zookeeper's Wife, My Horizontal Life.
43. What distracts you easily when you’re reading?
People talking, the dogs wanting to play. 
44. Favorite film adaptation of a novel?
I try not to watch movies based on books that I have read, I'm almost always disapointed.  

45. Most disappointing film adaptation?
Walk to Remember!!!!!  It was called Walk to Remember because she wanted to walk down the same aisle her mom walked down for her wedding, and that is NEVER mentioned in the movie, in fact she didn't even walk down the aisle but was pushed in the wheelchair.  How can you base a movie on a book and never mention why the book/movie is titled what it is, especially when it is key to the plot.  Okay I'll get off my soapbox now. 
46. The most money I’ve ever spent in the bookstore at one time?
For seminary books, probably $300 a semester, though I bought a lot of books used on line.  
47. How often do you skim a book before reading it?
For ministry books, most of the time, especially if it is more research related.  I at least read the chapter titles in more of those books.  For novels or fun reading, hardly ever.  
48. What would cause you to stop reading a book half-way through?
Poor writing or just not connecting with the story.  
49. Do you like to keep your books organized?
In my office, the shelves are arranged by general topic.  At my home I have three shelves: The top shelf is ministry related, the left half read, the right half not read.   The middle shelf is all too be read and in random order, most of which are fun books.  The bottom shelf is mainly read, the left half to give away, the right half to keep, occasionally some of the not yet read books make there way down there.  

50. Do you prefer to keep books or give them away once you’ve read them?
Fun books I almost always give away through Paperback Swap or I give to friends.  Ministry I mainly keep as long as I found the book useful in some way. 
51. Are there any books you’ve been avoiding?
Not really avoiding as much as not gotten to yet and not high up on the next to read list. 
52. Name a book that made you angry.
Some of the scenes in The Girl Who Played with Fire made me upset or disgusted mainly because I know scenes like that do occur.  
53. A book you didn’t expect to like but did?
The Seamstress, don't know why I didn't expect to like it, but I loved it. 
54. A book that you expected to like but didn’t?
The Zookeeper's Wife.  In all fairness I thought it was historical fiction, but it is more historical with some fiction thrown in to fill in the gaps.  But it was really distracting to be reading something that is written in a fictional way and then have "she later wrote in her diary about that moment stating..." or "some pictures from that time show him..."

55. Favorite guilt-free, pleasure reading?
Christopher Moore - humorous, at times heretical, goofy reads that are completely for fun.  

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

A Day in Rhode Island

This past Saturday I woke up WWWWAAAAAAAYYYYY too early for a Saturday, 5:45am to be exact.  Faith, the pastor of the local Covenant church, invited me to join her for a worship conference that a Covenant Church in Rhode Island was hosting.  Fortunately, Faith's husband Dan, who was also attending the conference, has his pilot's license and had his plane in Danbury.  So instead of having to leave at 5am we were able to leave a bit later and fly up.

The flight was gorgeous!  The sun was barely up when we left, there were a few clouds and the amount of trees in Connecticut was astounding.  It was amazing looking down from the sky at this fairly populated area, in many ways you would never know how many people lived there.  

The conference was on worship, especially using blended worship techniques and the arts and it consisted of three workshop sessions and an opening and closing worship.  I normally do not get to worship in a "contemporary" manner, and I enjoyed singing along with a band and learning new songs.  But the worships were blended, we sang Blessed Assurance to guitar, some songs were played on piano, they were wonderful worship services.

The Covenant church is much more based in scripture and word and less sacrament than the Lutheran Church (which I find interesting because most Lutheran churches read more scripture during worship than the average Covenant congregation, but basically the sermons are longer and communion not as frequent).  So there is a larger emphasis on music with multiple songs/hymns being played in a row with maybe a verse of the psalms being disbursed between songs.  

The three workshops I attended were on worship leadership, blended worship and the arts in worship.  I feel like the first two workshops just started the conversation for me in many ways.  I have been a worship leader for years now and have gone through worship wars, but one of the presenters put this conversation in a new light for me.  He basically said that worship is about finding ways to speak God's word to as many people as possible, and when you visit a 90 year old in the hospital you will bring with you a different set of prayers and music to comfort her than if you were visiting a 16 year old.  In worship, we need to find ways to help the 90 year old and the 16 year old better understand and speak to God.  

The last workshop on the arts was very inspirational about how to use art in worship to set the theme for worship.  It also made me realize that things that Bethlehem does, from decorating for Christmas and Easter to the origami doves on Pentecost is art and not just crafts and decorations.  I already have ideas about what to do for some festivals coming up this fall and winter.  

But my day in Rhode Island did not end there.  At the end of the conference, Bob met me at the church and we went to Newport for Newport Winefest.  Bob had won tickets when he entered a contest (though he didn't realize that he entered) by registering for The Day a newspaper in New London.  Unfortunately the tickets were for a Saturday night and I'm a little busy on Sunday mornings, so we were not able to enjoy everything at Winefest.  But we did enjoy some of the many wine, beer, liqueur, cheese, hummus, chips and other samples that were offered.  We also enjoyed walking around Newport for awhile before we drove home.  On our previous trip to Newport we spent more time near the big houses and not much in the more commercial area where Winefest was at.  

All in all, it was a very wonderful day in Rhode Island, but it was also and extremely LONG day.  I think I'm still recovering from the lack of sleep.  

Monday, August 23, 2010

MMC: Questions About Boasting and Loving Money

Good Morning Everyone!

I hope that you are enjoying this dreary Monday morning and that your basements are still dry.  

A few announcements 
  • If you are interested in attending the Women of the ELCA convention September 10-12, please talk to me for more details.
  • We are putting together a photo directory, you can sign up to have your picture taken at the church or you can email a photo to Ellen at
  • The Book of Faith puzzler for this week is: Which ailment did Jesus NOT cure: leprosy, stuttering, blindness, or crippled hand?  If you know the answer email me by noon on Wednesday to be put into this week's drawing.  
Now onto the text:

The first reading is the extremely short Proverbs 25:6-7.  oasting about yourself is considered not only the norm in our society, but what you must do in order to get into a good college or get a good job.  In boasting about ourselves we put ourselves forward in the king's presence.  When have you been humbled because someone more important than yourself was the focus of attention instead of yourself?  Who do you know that is truly humble?  What is it like to be in their presence?

The second reading is Hebrews 12:1-8, 15-16.    Verse 5 warns us to "Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have".  This is something that is difficult to do and it seems over the past few years as the economy has taken a nose dive, more people have struggled with.  Fortunately it seems like a few have even succeed.  How have you struggled against the love of money?  How are you content with what you have?  How is Jesus a constant in your life?  How is your relationship to Jesus changing?  

The gospel is Luke 14:1, 7-14.  Where do you sit during a family meal?  Where do you sit when invited to someone's house for dinner?  Do you invite people to your home or out to eat, expecting the gift of hospitality to be repaid to you?  How do you think this lesson ties into the first two that warn us against boasting and loving money?

Hope you all have a great week and see you Sunday!

Pastor Becca

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Free From "Ought To"

Today's sermon was based on the healing of the bent over woman in Luke 13:10-17.  I really enjoyed using this text with biblical storytelling.  The hand actions and body positions that I was able to do both helped me remember the text better and I believe helped convey the meaning of the text to the congregation. 

Enjoy the sermon!

Jesus heals a woman! How could anyone be upset that Jesus healed a woman who had been disabled for 18 years? But instead of joining in on her praises to God for the miracle that they just saw occurred, the leader of the synagogue and other witnesses to Jesus’ miracle start to grumble and complain. They are shocked!

But they aren’t shocked and filled with awe over how awesome God is, no they are shocked and appalled. They are shocked that Jesus did work on the Sabbath, God’s holy day. They are shocked that he touched a strange woman, something that just wasn’t done in polite society. And not only did he touch a strange woman, he touched a woman who had a spirit within her that crippled her. He could now be infected by that spirit, he could now carry with him whatever sin and evil that caused that woman to be so stooped over.

The witnesses to this miracle were so outraged by the taboos that Jesus broke that they were not able to see that God was standing there in front of them.

And aren’t we like that at times? We have our set ideas about what is proper, especially in a house of worship, especially on our day of worship that we are not able to see the needs of those people or that God is in them. Can you remember the first time you saw someone wear jeans to church? Or if someone wore flip-flops. We get caught up on these things and many others that they distract us from worship. Oh no, the pastor is not wearing vestments, or the communion bread was crumbly and pieces fell on the floor. Or the candles didn’t get lit, or worship started 2 minutes late. Or the kid in the back is crying.

I have to say overall, we at Bethlehem aren’t that bad at this. The organ has cut out, and we just keep singing. The wrong prayer gets read, oh well. And my personal favorite worship memory: Ellen has a spider crawling on her during communion, freaks out, nah we all laugh.

So maybe we aren’t caught up about how worship should be, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have our other hang ups about what is right and how things need to be done. Many of those are personal, and I can’t stand here and name them for you. But I can name mine: Parents who don’t watch their kids while at restaurants really frustrate me. Drivers who cut me off, especially when there is plenty of room to merge properly, make me want to either give driving lessons or be able to pull them over and give them a ticket. People in the self checkout lines at the grocery store who have no clue how to operate the machine make me roll my eyes and start eyeing the checkouts for shorter lines. Why can’t people recycle? Why do people insist on behaving such a way? Why can’t people just behave exactly like me?

We are in bondage to these things. We are in bondage to what we feel we ought to do and what we think other people ought to do. And when people do not do what they “ought to do” it annoys us, it upsets us, and it can ruin our day, drive, meal, trip, or worship. Just like when Jesus did not do what the synagogue leaders wanted him to do, he ruined worship for them.

But Jesus did not come to ruin worship for people, that was not his intent. He came to free that woman from her bondage. And in freeing the woman from her bondage, Jesus also freed the crowd from their bondage of Sabbath laws. He freed them from their preconceived idea of what ought to happen on the Sabbath, from their ideas about how one is to behave. He freed them from their restrictions on when God’s work ought to happen.

Jesus came to free that woman from her bondage, and Jesus came to free us from our bondage. Jesus came to free us from our preconceived notions. Jesus came to free us from our ideas of what is right. Jesus came to free us from the shoulds, oughts, have tos, musts and needs to.

The Sabbath is not about what we ought to do in order to appropriately worship God. Nor is it about what we should NOT do that would offend God on the holiest day of the week. Instead the Sabbath, and any day really, is about what God has done for us and by recognizing that we realize what we can do for others in God’s name.

Because of God and God setting us free from the things that bind us, we are able to see that people are still able to worship God in jeans and flip-flops, if that is what they choose to wear. Because of God setting us free from the things that bind us, we are able to love the children running around in a restaurant and enjoy the joy for life they bring to any situation. Because of God setting us free from the things that bind us, we are able to take a deep breath when someone cuts us off and drive a little safer so that we do not cut off another driver. Because of God setting us free from the things that bind us, we are able to offer to help the person in line in front of us and help them through a process that could be new or frustrating to them. Because of God setting us free from the things that bind us, we are able to see Jesus’ presence in the face of everyone we meet and show them God’s unconditional love and grace, just as others have shown us God’s love and grace.

Jesus came to set us free! Free from the bondage of this world, free from the bondage of sin, free from the bondage that we impose on ourselves.

Monday, August 16, 2010

MMC: Attitudes about Faith and Worship

Each Monday I send an email to members and friends of Bethlehem with some announcements and thoughts on the text for the upcoming Sunday.  Below is this week's email. 

Good Morning!

Is it really Monday again?  Where did the weekend go?  

Some announcements and reminders as you go about your week.  
  • Due to travels and busy schedules, the weekly bible studies are canceled for the rest of the month.  Look for details about their return in early September
  • If you like to cook or have a favorite dish you like to prepare, consider signing up to make and deliver meals to our homebound members and others in need of a good meal.
  • We are in the process of creating a photo directory, you can sign up to have a family picture taken by Ellen after worship one Sunday or you can email her a picture 
  • This week's Book of Faith Puzzler is: Who lived the longest: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob or Joseph? If you know the answer (even if you have to do a little research to find it) email me the answer by noon on Wednesday to be entered into our weekly drawing. 
Now onto the text:

Our first lesson for Sunday is Isaiah 58:9b-14.  The beginning of this passage promises that if you stop speaking evil about others and offer your food to the hungry, your despair will go away.  When have you helped another and ended up receiving more in return?  Starting in verse 13, the passage talks about if you honor the sabbath "then you shall take delight in the Lord."  How does your attitude about worship effect how you worship?  When have you changed your actions in order to change your mind?  

The second lesson is Hebrews 12:18-29.  In all honesty, I had to read this passage 3 times just to gleam a general meaning.  The passage begins by saying that faith cannot be touched.  Does it ever annoy you that faith is not tangible?  Or is faith not being tangible something that comforts you?  The passage ends by saying that since our faith and the kingdom of God cannot be touch, therefore it cannot be shaken and for this we should give thanks through worship.  How do you give God thanks for your faith?

The gospel lesson is Luke 13:10-17.  Jesus healed on the sabbath (and in a synagogue to boot) much to the dismay of the leader of the synagogue.  Jesus response by saying the woman's ailment was a bondage and just like any animal she should be freed from her bondages on the sabbath.  How have illnesses been a bondage for you?  What else keeps you in bondage?  How does worship help free you from these bondages, even if only temporarily?  How else do you become free from those bondages?

I hope these questions start to bring some thoughts and discussion to your mind and with others.  Please feel free to respond with either your answers to these questions or your own questions on these text or faith in general.  

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Faith Brings Division

Today's sermon was primarily based on the gospel, Luke 12:49-56 with references to the second lesson of Hebrews 11:29-12:2.  I ended up using a combination of the NRSV and The Message for the gospel
And you can find my entire reasoning for doing so here at yesterday's post.  But this is the actual text that I used for today:

Jesus said: I’ve come to start a fire on this earth

and how I wish it were blazing already.
 I have a baptism with which to be baptized
and what stress I am under until it is completed!
Do you think I have come to bring peace,
to smooth things over and make everything nice? 
No I tell you.  I’ve come to bring division, to disrupt and
From now on, five in one house will be divided,
                Three against two, and two against three
                Father against son and son against father.
                Mother against daughter
and daughter against mother
                Mother in law against daughter in law
                                Daughter in law against mother in law
He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising
in the west you immediately say “storm’s
coming”  and you are right
And when you see the wind blowing from the south,
you say “There’s going to be scorching heat”
and you’re right. 
You hypocrites and frauds! 
You know how to interpret the appearances of the earth
and sky, the changing of the weather, but why do
you not know how to interpret the present time?”

Enjoy the sermon:

Oh this is not the Jesus we are used to. Can we please speed up to or reserve back to December when we get text and hymns with messages like “Peace on Earth goodwill to men”?! That is a much more comforting message, one that is filled with hope, one that little children sing songs about “I’ve got peace like a river.” Instead it is August, and we have a gospel text where Jesus proclaims, announces, declare, pronounces that he is not here to bring peace, to smooth things over and make everything nice. No instead he is here to bring division, to disrupt and confront. This isn’t the Jesus that we know! This isn’t the Jesus that we love!

But maybe it is the Jesus, the God, that we love and worship. Jesus didn’t come to maintain the status quo. He tipped over the money changers’ tables. He ate with tax collectors, prostitutes, and other well known sinners, the people the rest of society gossiped about. He offended the religious and political leaders of his time by disputing their authority. He caused more things to overturn and disrupt that he did to heal and smooth over.

And Jesus still brings division today! Denominations do not get along with other denominations. Congregations do not get along with other congregations, even in their own denomination. Christians do not get along with other Christians, even in their own congregations. There are divisions as a result of our faith in Jesus. And because we follow Jesus there should be division.

When we follow Jesus, when we put God first in our lives, we are putting others second, our family, our friends and that causes division. We are no longer fully devoted to them. When we follow Jesus we are announcing that we will stand up for what is right, even if it means standing along. Now that doesn’t always happen, but it is our hope in Jesus, our hope in faith that we will be able to do what Christ wants us to do instead of what society wants us to do. Can you see how division happens?

But we don’t always have conflicts. We play polite; we get along for the sake of others, and in many cases that is good. It is human nature to avoid conflict, to let people get away with doing wrong because you don’t want to cause a scene. To do the “Christian thing” and silently forgive or at least let bygones be bygones. But yet here is Jesus saying that he is coming to cause conflict, so maybe we need conflict in order to be Christian. We need to disagree with society, with the community at large and even with each other so that we can do God’s work in this world. Because it is when the status quo is upset that faith happens, that people are able to prophesy God’s word in this world and that people are able to hear God’s words and do God’s work.

Maybe one of the worse things that could have happen to Christianity is that Christianity became the status quo, Christianity became the norm. It became mainstream to be a follower of Jesus, and you were banished for not being a regular worshipper much less a non-believer. Because when Christianity became the status quo, and following Jesus means upsetting the status quo, following Jesus meant upsetting the church that Jesus is the lead of.

But now in this new millennium, in this post-modern society that we are a part of, this age of the internet and social media, Christianity is no longer the status quo. Yes Christianity is still the most popular religion in the United States, with 76% of Americans identifying themselves as Christians, but as few as 20% of Americans actually attend worship on any given week. Christianity is no longer the status quo, so maybe it is time that we, Christian, we followers of Jesus, upset the status quo.

We are being called to follow in Jesus’ footsteps. To point out and loudly proclaim against the hypocrisy that exist in society, to invite sinners and outcast into our homes and our sanctuary, to offend religious, political and community leaders by disputing their authority and fighting for those who voices so often go unheard. To create the division in society that Jesus himself created so that faith can happen, so that we are able to prophesy God’s word in this world, so that people are able to hear God’s words and do God’s work, so that Christ may be proclaimed, so that God’s grace can be known to all people.

This is scary, it is hard to be an outsider, to be a proclaimer of God’s words. We might end up like those people that we heard about in Hebrews, the people who were tortured, mocked, flogged, chained and imprisoned as a result of their faith. People who were stoned to death, cut in two, killed by the sword. People who hid in disguises to keep from being destitute, persecuted and tormented. But yet for all those people, faith kept them. Faith kept them alive with Christ. Faith kept them in their hardest moments, faith kept them knowing that what they were doing was right.

And faith will keep us. Faith will keep us when we are mocked and persecuted for our beliefs. Faith will keep us alive with Christ. Faith will keep us knowing God’s will for this world and doing what is right. Faith sustains us during division, especially division that is a result of faith. For faith is a gift from God. Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. And we are saved by grace through our faith, regardless of what divisions are created because of Jesus.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Wrestling with The Message

This last week I have been wrestling with the idea of reading this Sunday's gospel, Luke 12:49-56 (NRSV link), from Eugene Peterson's biblical paraphrase The Message.  (Luke 12:49-56, The Message) Normally, Bethlehem uses the NRSV and the verses are printed in Celebrates, a bulletin insert provided by Augsburg Fortress.  The NRSV translation is what I use for biblical storytelling, granted I almost always change a word or two because it is easier to memorize, or I add "Jesus said" or change a pronoun to a proper noun in order to clarify for people who are listening to a portion of the text instead of the full story.  And overall I'm satisfied with the NRSV.  

But I also look that The Message for personal use.  I read from The Message Remix for my personal devotion and bible reading since it reads a little smoother and it has also allowed me not to gloss over the text since it is not the same translation I have heard all my life.  When preparing for my sermons, I almost always read The Message version of my key text in order to gain new insight into the read, (granted I often look at multiple translations and my Precise Parallel New Testament is a wonderful resource for that).  I have even used The Message before in worship, (but it was a youth worship service that while I preached at, I wasn't the main worship planner).  

Overall I find looking at a variety of translations to be helpful in preparing for preaching or general bible study.  

But that is the problem, The Message is not really a translation, more of a paraphrase or transliteration, and even if you call it a translation, it must be prefaced that it is not an accurate nor ever intended to be.  So their is something that holds me back with wanting to bring it into worship.  And even this text is an example, but there it is also an example of why I want to use it in worship.  

So maybe I should start with my specific reasons against using it first.  

  • There are times that The Message changes verses in ways that don't make a lot of sense 
    • For example verse 50 in the NRSV is "I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! " but in The Message is "'I've come to change everything, turn everything rightside up—how I long for it to be finished!"  Those are far from the same verse! 
  • I believe it is important to stick to the Greek or Hebrew.  
    • It we each write our own paraphrase or transliteration we can make the Bible say just about anything that we want.  
  • It seems sacrilegious to change scripture in worship, especially to something that is not a translation.  
  • On a practical level, even though the majority of the congregation does not read along when I say the gospel, for those that do because they listen better that way, I don't want to confuse them by using a different translation, even if I do warn them that what is written is not the same.
But I also have many reasons for using The Message in this case.
  • Verses 54 and 55 are much more "down to earth."  They sound like something people would actually say.  
    • You say "This'll be a hot one" (The Message) not "There will be scorching heat" (NRSV)
  • The descriptive words in verse 51 have more meaning for me.  
    • "Smooth things over and make everything nice" compared to "bring peace on earth" and "disrupt and confront" instead of "division"  
  • The Message is often easier to understand.
    • Such as in the example of verse 50 above, the NRSV takes background information and study to understand while The Message is easier to understand without additional information. 
  • We hear the NRSV so often that it is easier to tune out, glaze over, since we have it partially memorized.  This partial memorization is also why the gospel has less of an impact than it should.  We already know what it has to say.
    • Really this is how I passed Greek so easily in seminary, once I figured out about three words from a sentence I was able to recall the rest of the verse.  
  • I think often The Message keeps to the heart of Gospel message more even if the text is not accurate
    • In last week's gospel, Luke 12:35a is an example of this.  The NRSV's "Be dressed for action" doesn't quiet get to Greek's essence which is more accurately translated "Gird your loins," but The Message's "Keep your shirt on" does keep that essence a bit more.  But notice that neither are an accurate translation.  
  • I kinda want to use The Message in worship primarily because I have been told not to do it! 
Yes I am that kinda of person, do something just because I was told not to.  See I put up on Facebook my dilemma about using The Message, and I got back fairly strongly from my pastor friends to either not do it at all because The Message has no place in worship or to read the NRSV during the normal gospel time and then start off my sermon with rereading any key verses in The Message and maybe say why I like The Message more for that verse.  Well I don't agree with the former and the later seems repetitive and like a lecture in biblical translations instead of a preaching on the text itself.  

But I also asked the same question on chat board on Raverly, an online community for knitters and crocheters that I belong to.  On the chat board, made up of liberal Christians from around the world, many of which are not pastors, the people who replied to my post were divided in their answer (hmm maybe this week's text about Jesus bringing division is at heart here).  Most said that they enjoy hearing from different translations but do like a heads up if it is a different translation than what is printed.  The others said that they prefer a more accurate translations but admit that they have studied Greek and therefore it is important to them.  And one person was absolutely against The Message, saying it inspires revulsion in her.  But there were two people's responses who brought back to me why I'm struggling with this.  

The first said "Jesus used colloquial language. He wanted to be understood. The most important point of the sermon is to be understood." And the second said "Ask God. See what He leads you to do."  Hmm The Message is using colloquial language and is easier to understand than the NRSV at times.  And I must be struggling with whether or not to use The Message because God is leading me to figure out how this text can have the most meaning for the congregation on Sunday.

So what am I going to do?

Well after much internal and external debate, a mini-fight with my husband, asking others, asking God through prayer, thought and reflection, I have decided that I really don't like either translation for use in this Sunday's worship service.  Instead I'm combining the two - yes I know I'm a heretic, I'm sure the bishop's office already knows but in case you would like to report me here is the phone number for the synod office: 508-791-1530.  

So here is my version Luke 12:49-56, a combination of the Message and the NRSV, which will be printed in the weekly announcements so anyone who would like to read along can.  
Jesus said: I’ve come to start a fire on this earth
and how I wish it were blazing already.
 I have a baptism with which to be baptized
and what stress I am under until it is completed!
Do you think I have come to bring peace,
to smooth things over and make everything nice? 
No I tell you.  I’ve come to bring division, to disrupt and
From now on, five in one house will be divided,
                Three against two, and two against three
                Father against son and son against father.
                Mother against daughter
and daughter against mother
                Mother in law against daughter in law
                                Daughter in law against mother in law
He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising
in the west you immediately say “storm’s
coming”  and you are right
And when you see the wind blowing from the south,
you say “There’s going to be scorching heat”
and you’re right. 
You hypocrites and frauds! 
You know how to interpret the appearances of the earth
and sky, the changing of the weather, but why do
you not know how to interpret the present time?”