Monday, June 20, 2011

The Chore List

Holy Trinity Sunday, Year A
19 June 2011

Genesis 1:1-2:4a; Psalm 8; 2 Corinthians 13:11-13; Matthew 28:16-20

            For me, this is the “most wonderful time of the year” because it’s my favorite Sunday. As most of you know, I love the concept of the Holy Trinity. The Three-in-One and One-in-Three God. A relational God whose love outpours in a variety of ways- creating, redeeming and sustaining the world. We have the Father who brings us into a holy and eternal family, the Son who is our brother in faith, and the Spirit who is our advocate.

            I spend a lot of time thinking about the Trinity- possibly more than you do. In fact, I worry that when I mention the Holy Trinity, your eyes glaze over and you stop listening because it is a difficult concept. Thinking about God is challenging enough. Thinking about God in Three persons can seem nearly off-putting.

            So, let’s back off from the idea of the Trinity for a minute and just think about God. Or rather, what do you think God thinks about us? It’s often taken for granted that God thinks about us. We think of what we believe about Jesus and the Spirit. Believing that the coming of Christ and the presence of the Spirit are signs of God’s love for us, then surely God does think about us.

            But the question that the psalmist (the writer of the psalm) asks today is why should we expect God to think of us? When we considered the sky and the stars, for us in Alaska the ever-present sunshine this time of year, when we think of the depth of the ocean and the expansion of creation… why should we assume at all that God thinks of us? Who are we, but blips in human history, in creation history?

            But loving fathers, loving parents, remember each of their children. So surely God does remember us and does think on us. How can we know that? Well, one of the pressing memories I have of my dad is the Saturday chore list. We’d get up on a Saturday morning and there would be a list of things to do on the dining room table. Some of them were standard (clean the bathrooms, wash the sheets, vacuum, etc) and some of them were unusual or depended on the season (stack wood, move the chicken coop, turn the compost pile).

            Here’s the thing with a chore list. In order to write it, my dad had to think about my siblings and me- what he knew we could do and we couldn’t. We might not have always wanted to do the list. We might have thought it was unrealistic or unfair and maybe sometimes it was. Nevertheless, the list meant that our dad was thinking of us. He could have done these things himself, but then we wouldn’t have learned how and we wouldn’t have understood what it means to work together as a family.

            Similarly, we know that God is thinking of us because God gives us a chore list. God could do these things without our help, but that’s not how God decided to work with people. The psalmist notes that from the beginning, what we heard in Genesis, God has given us the responsibility of caring for the earth. This is chore list of stewardship, of creation care. We are charged with caring for animals and plants, for helping the earth to produce and for using what is before us to its fullest and healthiest extent.

            From God, we have a chore list that extends into our life in Christ. The risen Jesus tells his disciples to train others in the way of the godly life, in the way of discipleship. They are charged with extending the care of creation into caring for their neighbors. Caring for them means helping them to understand the realities and possibilities of abundant life in Christ, of joyous life in God.

            We know that God thinks about creation and about people because we are charged with carrying out these activities in the world. When I remember back to the chore lists of my youth, I recall that my siblings and I spent a good amount of time yelling at each other to do more work and pointing out who wasn’t doing their fair share. Now where do I see that behavior repeated…?

            Ah, yes. Many times, that’s how God’s faithful people use our time and talents- pointing out who isn’t holding up their end. We know what the chores are. We haven’t been asked to do things that are out of the realm of our possibility. God could do everything without our help, including making disciples, but then we have no role and, furthermore, we won’t understand what it means to work together as a family.  Without our chore list, our relationship to God and to one another is limited. We just exist, our tasks having very little meaning except to move us to the next day.

            Being given responsibility for creation care and for sharing the good news of Jesus means that God knows us and trusts us. It means that God is thinking of us and trying to include us in the building of the kingdom. Having a list of things to do bring us into a working relationship with God and with one another.

            In the story of creation, all things are relational. Nothing exists on its own. The day has the night, the sky has the heavenly bodies, the land gets the water, and the living things work together. Nothing that is made is declared good until it has a relational counterpart. Those counterparts work together for good, for wholeness.

            So it is between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The Three-in-One God works together for good, for wholeness. There is a relationship there that may well be beyond our understanding, but it exists because of the love that burst forth from the heart of God. There is not, there cannot be, one expression of that love and God has three expressions… a Loving Creator, a Healing Redeemer and an Ever-present Inspiration. The chores of being God are shared between the members of the Trinity and the love in that relationship flows forward into God’s relationship with us.

            It is easy to feel overwhelmed by what it seems like we are called to do, but it’s a short chore list and it’s specialized to what God knows we can do. God has even given us the gifts to do these things- to care for creation and to share Christ with all whom we encounter. We are able to do these things because of the grace we have received through Christ. We are invited to do these things through the urging of this Spirit. We must do these things for the sake of God’s name in the world.

            What did Jesus tell his disciples when he gave them their chore list, that Great Commission? “I’ll be with you as you do this, day after day after day, right up until the end of the age.” (Message) You aren’t doing this alone. You’re not even doing it just with other people. The amazing grace of Jesus Christ, the extravagant love of God and the intimate friendship of the Holy Spirit is with all of you!

Amen. 

Friday, June 17, 2011

Born of the Spirit

Day of Pentecost, Year A
12 June 2011

Numbers 11:24-30; 1 Corinthians 12:3b-12; John 7:37-39a

            How many of you expected to hear a different reading today? What did you think you would hear? (The story of tongues of fire on the disciples and the different languages) Can it still be Pentecost without that reading from Acts 2?

            Certainly it can. Pentecost means 50 days. It was already a Jewish festival, the Festival of Weeks (Shavuot), where people celebrated fifty days from the original Passover event in Egypt and the gift of the Torah- bringing the Hebrew people together as a nation to serve God. For us, it is still 50 days since Easter, since Jesus passed over from death into life and brought the reality of new life with him. We celebrate those fifty Easter days and come together for this festival and celebrate a new understanding of the Holy Spirit, drawing people together and inspiring them in God’s service.  

            I have some problems with that reading from Acts. The first is we sometimes forget that the Spirit existed before that day in Jerusalem. The shy member of the Trinity was present at the formation of creation with the Word and the Creator. The Holy Spirit came in a new way on that Pentecost Day, though, bringing the comfort and the challenge of the risen and ascended Christ.

            My second issue is that when we hear the traditional Pentecost text, it is easy to think of the gift of the Spirit as one of power and triumph and a gift that comes to God’s chosen few. The Spirit is a gift that comes to God’s chosen, but not to a few. The Spirit blows when and where it will, on whom God chooses. We don’t control it. We can’t control it.

            What the Spirit brings to each of us is an awareness of God in our lives. Sometimes, God’s peace. Sometimes, God’s challenge. The Holy Spirit alongside us and sets us on fire… for what?

            It’s my birthday today. We tend to treat the years that end in 5s and 0s as big deals. And they are. They are milestones of achievement for our lives. But does our age define us- the actual numbers? We are defined by how we use our days and our years. What we do with the moments and the gifts we have.

            In thirty years, I have some accomplishments and some failures, some wasted time and some well-used moments, some dark valleys and some glorious peaks. What’s going to happen to me from this point forward? I have no idea. I have some plans and hopes. I also know that God may well have some plans and ours might not line up in quite the same direction. But on this day, I celebrate the life I have and what I have known.

            And that’s not a story that’s totally about me. It’s about my family and this church, about my son and my husband, where I grew up and where I am now.

            In the same way, the Pentecost story, the coming of the Spirit, is a story that’s not about us. It’s not about you or me, specifically. On the birthday of the church, we celebrate God. God’s gifts, God’s plans, God’s wind and fire. We celebrate the life we have in God and the life to which we are called. We celebrate the gifts that are among us and we anticipate, with joy, the time that is to come.

            When I say the “time that is to come”, I don’t mean whatever happens after this life, I mean the time that is to come this afternoon, tomorrow and next week. The time for which God is preparing us right now, feeding us right now, calling us to… right now.

            The danger of our Pentecost celebration is that we can make a big deal about the Spirit coming and forget that the Spirit has been with us all along. We don’t skip from Pentecost to Pentecost anymore than we do from birthday to birthday. The road to 31 started on the same day that the road to 30 did for me. Just so with the church, the road to our future with God began at the cross and goes out, with the help of the Spirit, to where God leads.

            And we don’t simply receive our gifts for ministry on this day of the year. We receiving gifts for faithful living, through the Spirit, every day of our lives. Each of us has much less in common with Moses and the seventy elders than we do with Eldad and Medad. We weren’t in the tent of seeing Jesus in person, we weren’t in the tent of hearing Peter or Paul preach, we are outside the original camp. And yet the Spirit has been promised and delivered to us as well. Each of us has gifts from God to use for the sake of the world and God’s kin-dom.

            On our own birthdays, we tend to make assessment of our lives and make promises about the year to come, God willing that we see it to completion. So we should be on this birthday of the church. We have received the gift of the Spirit, who helps us to believe and go out with the risen Christ- on this day and all days.            

We should look at one another, at the feast that is before us, at the possibilities of learning through both failure and success. We should look at those things and we should feel on fire, not just the disciples or the elders or the priests, but each and every one of us should feel renewed and reborn and ready.

Happy birth day to you!

            Amen.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Unity in Silos

I've been slowly introducing the idea of the Narrative Lectionary (NL) to my congregation. The NL is a fairly quickly paced romp through the arc of Scripture from Abraham and Sarah to Acts (September to late May). Each Sunday, the congregation focuses on one scripture passage that reveals the work God has done. Through the lens of that story, in its Scriptural setting, we move to more fully comprehend the work God is doing now.

In order to use the NL, we will have to drop out of formal use of the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) for about nine months. It is my hope that during this time our congregation will labor together and come to a better understanding of the narrative thread of what we believe. How are the Hebrew Scriptures connected to our understanding of Jesus? How do we see ourselves as children of Abraham? What are the lessons of the Exile?

These are important themes and stories that don't quite make into the heart of the RCL. Arguably, they could be covered through Faith Formation activities, like Christian Education, Confirmation, Bible study... etc. However, I have to be realistic about the habits of my congregation. The majority of people are here on Sunday morning. Some can't, some don't and some won't come to other things during the week. So I have to take seriously the teaching portion of my call and bring the mountain to Mohammed, or something like that.

In this month's newsletter, I published the proposed schedule of the NL and asked for comments or questions. I received my first today from a clergy colleague in the Lutheran Church- Missouri Synod. I consider this pastor a friend and an inspiration and I know he was somewhat teasing in his email, yet some portions of it really hit home. We discussed it on the phone, but I'd like to stir the pot a little with his comments.

He noted that by using the Narrative Lectionary, one could see the ELCA as moving either farther away from the Church catholic and, possibly, from its Lutheran roots.

Holy revelation, Batman!

Have we come so far that a desire to cover more Bible makes me less orthodox and, yea verily, less Lutheran? Say it isn't so.

First, the use of the Narrative Lectionary is a choice and is neither endorsed or encouraged by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. (It isn't discouraged either.) One might consider the Book of Faith initiative to be an encouragement into deeper Biblical work, but that's a different post/rant/exploration. Bringing broader and deeper biblical understanding to people in pews (and streets) is, last time I checked, at the heart of Lutheran self-understanding. It's right up there with Christ and him crucified. (It is, in part, how we know about Christ and him crucified.)

My pastor friend pointed out that the RCL or even a standard three-year rotation gives pastors of a variety of stripes some common ground to discuss our sermon preparation, to share ideas and from which to wade into deeper theological matters.

True enough, the RCL puts me on same pulpit plane, so to speak, with the majority of United Methodists, American Baptists, Episcopalians, LC-MS, WELS, Roman Catholics and many others on any given Sunday. Since our table fellowship and ordination practices are often dividers, the Common Lectionary can be a tie that binds our hearts in Christian love.

Ah, but there in lies my problem. I fail to see how a deeper understanding of Scripture is going to lead the congregation of Lutheran Church of Hope away from the Church catholic. I would think (!) it could only help. (Said the young ELCA pastor with optimism.)

Besides, I don't think it is my proposed nine months in the NL that is causing an ideological divide between some of my LC-MS brethren (and sistren), WELS, Romans Catholics and some Orthodox.

If we decide to explore the Narrative Lectionary, we will still:

Affirm our faith using the Apostle's Creed (except when we use the Nicene)
Baptize in the name of Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) 
Believe in Scripture as the inspired, written Word of God
Believe in the saints, alive and gone before as our cloud of witnesses
Trust in the Real Presence of Christ in Holy Communion
Understand God as having acted on behalf of creation, continuing to do so and planning to do so until the end of time

If we can't be united to the Church catholic through our faith in God's work of salvation in Jesus the Christ and through the things above, it doesn't matter how we study the Bible.

If we can't define ourselves, in the positive, by some unity in these things, then we are about as useful as the fig tree (Mark 11:12-14). Where is our fruit?

My hope in using the Narrative Lectionary (which has its own flaws) is to begin to deepen and build on the biblical foundation of the majority of my congregants. I hope that they will be energized by new hearing, new discussion and new understanding. In general, I think this is what all pastors work toward and pray for- across the Church catholic.