Belonging to the Body of X

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Exod. 33:1-23; 1 Thess. 2:1-12; Matt. 5:17-20

What does it truly mean to lose one’s life?  What does it mean to follow Christ?  How far do we have to go?  What does it really mean to belong to and support community?

Paul describes this new way of life today in 1 Thessalonians: entrusted with the gospel and defending his motives.  Paul does not act out of greed or trickery, but does all this to please God.  In a sense, he too is speaking of abandoning his agenda for Christ’s.  He demands action at times, but is gentle as well: “But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children.  So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves.”

This is the heart of the gospel.  The good news is not just a message of Christ crucified, but one of Christian community.  It is a belonging into the body of Christ, which continues Christ’s mission and has experienced a peace that goes beyond the grave, because death has been stamped out.

I don’t know how many of you are familiar with Benedictine spirituality.  One of the central tenets is Christ in Community.  It isn’t so much a question of what “God is telling me to do” as discovering how God is at work in each of us, and being guided and tested within the community to keep our hearts in check.  This is why I love the Rule of St. Benedict, and why I am such a follower.  So many of the popular “spiritualities” today are all “God and ME.”  It is all about a personal relationship, when few of the biblical texts regard individuals.  God is encountered in every aspect of life, personally as well as communally.

Here in our texts today this is especially true.  And as we seek fidelity to the gospel, my prayer is that each of us can share our burdens and our joy, for in doing so, we will be tending gently to the flock, as Paul cared for the Thessalonians, and as God cares for us.

May your reflection lead you deeper today into an understanding of community, and the body of Christ.

-Matt

Empty Chairs

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A deluded and deranged miscreant.
Rode in a rented Ryder truck,
Sadistically opposed to his government,
He delivered a two-ton bomb.

After parking the fateful vehicle,
With time fleeting and fuses lit,
He fled to his car,
Parked, not far away.

Hearing the explosion, he made his escape,
With a gleam in his eye.
One hundred sixty-eight victims died,
Leaving countless loved ones behind.

April 19, 1995,
A date that lives in infamy.
The guilty one was caught that very day,
And eventually paid his life for the reprehensible deed.

The Oklahoma City National Memorial
Now graces the ground
Where the Alfred P. Murrah
Building once stood.

A lone American Elm tree
Survived the blast,
A symbol of resilience,
And the will of mankind.

Hopes of closure for the victim’s families
Followed the perpetrator’s death six years later.
But closure will not fill the empty chairs
Left in the footprint of the building.

Empty Chairs – James Tate

Wake up! Geesh.

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Exod. 32:21-34; 1 Thess. 1:1-10; Matt. 5:11-16

The Bible is filled with memorable, fantastical, wonderful, often troubling stories, but always stories that reveal God’s deeper truth.  Today’s Old Testament passage is one of them – it is one of the most troubling in all of scripture.  After Moses catches the people worshipping the idol, he confronts Aaron, who had helped the people make the idol.  Today everyone is held accountable, and it appears to our eyes to be brutal tactics.

Moses calls the sons of Levi and says “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, `Put your sword on your side, each of you!  Go back and forth from gate to gate throughout the camp, and each of you kill your brother, your friend, and your neighbor.’”  They did as he commanded, and Moses declares that now the possibility of atonement for their sins is possible.

What amounts to the slaughter of 3,000 of the Israelites is somehow part of God’s plan.  What bothers me most is these folks don’t even have the Ten Commandments yet and somehow they are accountable to them.  Moses was just coming down the mountain with them.  And then this?  What is going on?

It is a reminder that this story is for our reproof, education, and memory.  It is not about actual events.  (OK, don’t freak out at this point…read on!)

Some have argued this is a passage about the Levis being consecrated for cultic service here, later to take on the rites of the temple sacrifice.  Others have said this is about the “ordination” of all the people, almost literally a baptism by blood.

To me this is a fantastical story about God’s expectations of all of us.  After Moses heads back up the mountain, God declares, “Whoever has sinned against me I will blot out of my book.”  The Lord does not strike them dead in the here and now.  In that sense, the Lord has more compassion and forgiveness than Moses, only plaguing the people because they had made the path.  And so, with talk of “the day will come when they will get their punishment” God clears lays out expectations of work and worth.  In other words: Following God is a matter of life and death.

Some people ask me if I believe Adam and Eve existed, and whether all of the Bible is true.  Once again I answer with the same answer as here: “I believe God provides us with fantastical stories about God and God’s wishes.  They all contain truth for our lives.  So, yes!”  And so did Adam and Eve actually exist as two individual people?  That is not the point!  And neither is whether or not God stamped out 3,000 of his own people here.  The point is that this story is a wake up call, and it is a memorable story to show that God can do what God wants, and we need to walk in the ways of the Lord.

I can just imagine Moses 20 years after this happened saying, “Remember the day we had that blood bath because you people were idiots?  Don’t make me get out my sword again!”  I am sure the people were listening.  This story provides a wake-up call to many generations.

What a story!

-Matt

Living the Faith

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Exod. 32:1-20; Col 3:18-4:6(7-18); Matt. 5:1-10

I find it amusing when folks suggest that politics and religion are total opposites and do not inform each other.  Have they even read the Bible?  The prophets?  They are always monkeying with the political establishment.  Today’s passages, especially the New Testament where Jesus goes from preaching to meddling, are going to be difficult for folks of that branding.

Our Old Testament passage is rich in imagery and theological underpinnings today.  The Israelite people make for themselves an idol, made of the gold off their own ears.  This calf is the ultimate worship of self, while not cast in the likeness of the people, made from the adornments of the people themselves.   The Lord tells Moses how stiff-necked the people are and how fiery hot his anger is.  Moses goes into damage control and actually talks God out of it.  The text says that God actually changed his mind!

It gets more intriguing.  Moses comes down the mountain, sees the people worshiping the false idol, is so furious he breaks the tablets at the foot of the mountain, takes the idol, grinds it into a powder, puts it in the drinking water, and makes the Israelites drink it.

In the New Testament Jesus lays out the beginning of his sermon on the mount with the Beatitudes.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  Often we find Jesus talking about caring for the poor and feeding the hungry.

These days I feel like the whole world has gone insane.  I barely recognize it from the world that existed just a few years ago.  The political extremism and backbiting is almost overwhelming.  It goes well beyond filibusters over nothing or denials of climate change.  Just look at our Presidential candidates.  Other than Hillary Clinton who is a fairly mainstream Republican (let’s say a Goldwater Republican) and maybe John Kasich, we have a lot of extreme candidates these days, from socialists to fascists.

Many of my friends have thrown in the towel.  They have such a hatred of politics and ambivalence in general, that I wonder if we are on the cusp of society fragmenting. I have friends who not only dislike the news, but deliberately avoid it – so disenchanted, that they are literally shutting themselves off.

It is a world gone insane.  Like Moses and God in our passage, many of those I hang around have changed their mind politically or ecclesiastically, making dramatic shifts about their religious or world views.  This is all fine and good.  Change is inevitable.

We need a revolution.  Like all revolutions, we need to be aware that there are some aspects of our life that we need not overturn.  We must keep our eyes turned upon Jesus.  Are we laying a foundation of care and compassion for the “least of these among us”?  Are we seeking out the lost, the afflicted, and the helpless?  Because if we alienate ourselves from the world around us, it will be more and more difficult to live out Jesus’ injunction.  We cannot be distracted by political theater or idiots with a microphone.

Only when we come down from the mountain, and only when we live in the muck will we be able to help the Beatitudes to come to fruition.  Oh we might have to put up with more than just immigration issues and struggles over natural resources.  We might have to endure another idiot Presidential candidate with a microphone.  We might have to smash idols of our own making.  We might have to get involved more so than before – stick our neck out, and potentially get it cut off.  Oh, we will face greater challenges than this election cycle.  Imagine when we actually have to start talking about real issues?  Oh my.

Living the faith these days means listening not to the one with the mic who is sowing fear and hatred, but looking to that trusty ol Bible once again for guidance.

I look back on Christian history and realize some have been martyred for their faith.  Are we prepared to live out the beatitudes to that end?  I hope so.  We follow a Master who did the same, speaking out against the leaders of his day with his very life.

Let’s speak up and speak out.

-Matt

Rising Together

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Exod. 24:1-18; Col 2:8-23; Matt. 4:12-17

Our story in Matthew is one of the obscure rising to prominence.  It is the story of the lowly, forgotten, and powerless seeing hope rise:  “When Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to the Galilee.  He left Nazareth and made his home in the lake region in Capernaum.”

“To Galilee?  Capernaum?  What is Jesus thinking, going to the rural countryside?  I thought he wanted to be a prominent teacher….Well, forget about being king,” reads the notes in the margins.  This is how I feel when my friends on the East Coast hear I am serving in Oklahoma.  “Oklahoma???” they say, “Do you all live in teepees?  Do you have cable TV?”  Wow, get a grip folks.  We may be a bit off the beaten path, but we are hardly on the margins of US culture.  (Although if you watch our government officials acting like baffoons it is easy to make the mistake.)

This shift of Jesus from the Galilee may not sound like much to those who do not know the land, but this marks a significant shift in ministry, and a strange one at that.  John’s ministry was one isolated in the wilderness.  He may have been associated with the Essences, who were interested in purity and separation from the corruption of the Temple guard.  Nazareth on the other hand was in the Galilee.  It was mainly farmers and shepherds, with some artisans interspersed.  But by going to Capernaum though, Jesus sets a tone that says something even more radical: Those who shall see the great light are those who have sat in great darkness, and now on them light has shined.  Those who have fallen into obscurity will be the first to learn of the greatness of God.

And who are these folks?  The most unlikely.  Fishermen, tradesmen, and foreigners.  Around this lake are the outcast of Hebrew society.  It is pure Greco-Roman life colliding with Jews, and the furthest thing from the temple imaginable.

This passage all but says God’s rule is coming to those you least expect.  Brace yourself for a bumpy ride, because this story gets crazy.  Indeed it does.  Not only does the Messiah die on a cross, but the inheritors of the kingdom are a rag-tag bunch of misfits, many of which came from this region.  These people were the salt of the earth, literally connected to its land.

This passage, while cloaked in esoteric language and code, stands as a beautiful descriptor of the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  It is much like saying, “And now, even those in Oklahoma will see the great light!”  In the most unimaginable place possible, grace and glory shall rise.  From a state that in many ways was a dumping ground to try to isolate and oppress native peoples, to being a land where the value was so low they were giving land away, we sure did rise together, didn’t we?

May the glory of God shine into all the distant and dark regions of your heart this day.  May you find the good news in the least likely of places.  Like the graphic today of a phoenix, that great mythical bird, may you rise out of the ashes of your past to new life today.

-Matt

Who is your god?

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Exod. 20:1-21; Col. 1:24-2:7; Matt. 4:1-11

The Ten Commandments are given in today’s Old Testament reading.  I have always loved the prologue to them: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you would of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”  These are not just 10 good rules to live by, but a deeply covenantal understanding of what is expected of individuals to a God who acted first.

Sometimes I wonder if we are ready as an American culture to take these seriously, and follow them.  Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy.  Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land.  You shall not covet your neighbor’s house.  American culture in general is lucky to follow 5 or 6 of the 10 on a normal day.  I would doubt very few of us follow all 10, somehow deciding that Saturday is no longer a Sabbath, but a time to cut the grass, run errands, and do laundry.

In our Gospel reading, Jesus is tempted, but not to break the Sabbath (although he does that later in his ministry).  His is much more dark.  The devil takes him to a high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world.  He casts the devil away.  Immediately he heads to begin his ministry.  It was almost as if his temptation in the wilderness was a hot branding iron that sent him into the world with a wake-up that people were broken and needed hope.

In the context of his temptation, he quotes the summary of the first 4 commandments: Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”  This is the biggest challenge in our culture.  In a place where material possessions are our lord: money, power, prestige.  I have often said that the most holy deity in American culture is self.  Jesus demands a looking beyond.  His entire ministry is hinged on it – faith and hope in a better life.  Giving up the god of self and following a new way.  His movement is one away from self, and a building of community.

Pick up those Ten Commandments today!  Discover again where God is saying yes in our lives, but also where God may be drawing a line and saying no.

-Matt

We Will No Longer be a Welcoming Church

I’m in! And this is a powerful read. He’s serious too.

Neighborhood Church

We’ve decided to quit being a welcoming church. No kidding. We’re giving it up. It won’t be easy, but we’re committed to it. We’ll have to do it in stages, easing our folks into it step by step. We’ll have to deal with the fear of something new, the challenge of venturing into the unknown. But we’ll do it. It will take motivation, leadership, and constant reminders. But most importantly, it will take total commitment in embracing a new focus.

Like so many churches, we’ve sunk an amazing amount of time and energy into becoming a welcoming church. We changed worship styles, we trained greeters and ushers, we wore name tags, we percolated coffee, we went to workshops on hospitality, we put our friendliest people in the most prominent places on Sunday mornings. But we’ve realized we’ve been misplacing our emphasis. So we’re no longer going to do it.

Here’s…

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