The Way to Life

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Lam. 1:17-222 Cor. 1:8-22Mark 11:27-33

The Tuesday of Holy Week brings with it stories that foreshadow the end of the story.

Jesus’ authority is questioned by the chief priests, scribes, and the elders today.  In the course of a few short days, Jesus has irritated every major political group in Jerusalem.  Yesterday he upset the money changers tables, irritating the Sadduccees (and obviously the money changers!).  The day before it was the Romans, by riding in as the new political leader, with palm branches waving, a clear sign he was to be the new king.  He even irritated his own disciples with the cursing of the fig tree.

Today it is the rest of the Jewish authority – the Sanhedrin and other priestly officials.  They ask him a question – he dodges their bullets and turns the question around to trap them.  Then he refuses to answer the question.  Resistance.

Soon all his friends will be gone.  He will be alone, arrested and beaten.  He will end up on a cross, rejected by his own people.

This all provides quite a new spin on the words “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”  So many these days want to spend time tying this to salvation and how Jesus is the unique way and everyone else is “going to hell”.  I find this to be a ridiculous rabbit hole to head down.

What if Jesus meant all this more literally in his present reality than in some future eschatological sense?

What if the events of this week are the way, the truth, and the life?

What if the truth gets you killed?

What if the Via Dolorosa is the way to life, and that this way to the cross is the beginning of a journey of life?

The March For Our Lives organizers have made it plain – our reality has been getting us killed.  And with the amount of threats and backlash they are getting, the truth may get them killed too.

The way to life is never easy.

Be praying for one of our youth today as she heads to a Town Hall meeting with Tom Cole to do this very thing, along with her #NeverAgain group – set the truth free, ask the tough questions about gun violence, and do her part to follow the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

-Matt

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Visions of the Future

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Lam. 1:1-2,6-122 Cor. 1:1-7Mark 11:12-25

Palm Sunday began a bumpy and difficult journey for the liturgical cycle.  If you thought yesterday’s readings were intense, wait until you pull out the Lamentations passage!

The loneliness and mournfulness of Lamentations captures the emotions that surround this journey.  This series of five poems represent a building expression of grief over the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile to Babylon.  But it also captures the thoughts of Holy Week, the rejection and suffering that surrounds the procession to the cross.  It is a lonely and isolated time.

This week we are offering something new at FPC-Duncan.  I encourage you to come to the Maundy Thursday service at 6:30pm on Thursday, and then the Good Friday Tenebrae at Noon on Friday.  The way these two services are structured somewhat mirror a Stations of the Cross service, journeying with Jesus through those last hours of betrayal and arrest, and the rejection and suffering of Via Dolorosa.  It many ways this is our church walking along with Jesus, and experiencing the depth of emotion he must have felt.

“Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?  Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow, which was brought upon me, which the Lord inflicted on the day of his fierce anger.”

In Mark, we see the shift from the shouts of Hosannas, which immediately precede today’s reading, and many churches read for Palm Sunday.  The darkness of Holy Week creeps in, with Jesus cursing a fig tree and cleansing the temple.

The cursing of the fig tree has been one of the more troubling actions of Jesus for me.  Later the disciples find the tree withered, and remember him cursing it earlier.  Jesus launches into a speech about having faith.  It is hard to put two and two together here without a little context.

First, why does he curse a tree that is not producing fruit?  This is part of God’s good creation!  This tree isn’t producing because perhaps it is dormant, or it is old.  Is that reason enough to curse it?  As if Jesus was angry with it.  Because of the tie in with faith, I have to assume that Jesus is meaning for the disciples to produce fruit, through faith and forgiveness.  Jesus even makes the allusion that the Romans have more faith than the Jews.  It is gutsy and edgy talk.

I also believe, that paired with the cleansing of the temple, Jesus shows that anger and isolation can be used to the glory of God when channeled properly.  And if one knows the Old Testament, these two stories clearly work together.  The abundance of disillusionment with the establishment rings forth!  The fruitless fig trees of the Old Testament prophets comes to mind: Jeremiah, Hosea, Micah, and others.  The temple represents the old guard as well.

Jesus is announcing a withering and destruction of the old ways.  He is inciting and shaking up the order.  Holy week is in full swing and it is only Monday!

May this week be one that rattles your foundation, brings a new vision of Christ at work in you, and restores in you a vision of new life and hope for the future.

-Matt

Listening

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Exod. 7:8-242 Cor. 2:14-3:6Mark 10:1-16

Listening is such a key part of life.  We listen to each other.  We listen for God.  We listen to our own bodies, when we are sick, when we are healthy, when we are pregnant.

Lately, we have become a people who rarely has time to listen – to others – or even to ourselves or God.  We live in a world bombarded by messages, from our cell phone, and everywhere.  We fill our lives with such hurriedness I wonder if we have time anymore to listen to our bodies, our souls, our spirits.

The Bible is filled with stories of people who listen, or who clearly don’t listen to God or anyone else.  In Exodus today Moses and Aaron begin their display of tricks.  Pharaoh does not listen because his heart is hard.

The Lord tells Moses and Aaron to go before Pharaoh, and Aaron is told to throw down his staff.  It becomes a snake.  So everyone throws down his staff.  They all become snakes!  Aaron’s snake eats all the others.

Pharaoh does not listen.  He refuses to let the people go.  We learn of the disaster life can be when we do not listen to God.

And so we begin the Ten Plagues.  The first is the water turning to blood, reminiscent of Pharaoh throwing each Hebrew boy into the Nile.  Now the tide has turned.  The very life-blood of the community, the Nile, has ironically turned into life – into blood, which makes it useless for human sustenance.

I got to thinking this morning about another kind of listening – our listening to scripture.  One of the many rifts in the Christian community is wrapped up in how the different approaches to scripture lead to different views.  Some believe the Bible literally – which you have heard me rail against, because it leaves no room for metaphor, myth, parable, and story.

Today’s readings pose many problems for the literalists.  As the Ten Plagues are recounted, we realize that not even scripture agrees with itself.  In other places in the Bible, namely in two Psalms, there are only Eight Plagues.  Which is right?  In Mark, the teaching about divorce is final – there is NO room for exception.  In Matthew, there is to be no divorce UNLESS there is unchastity.  Then it is permissible.   So which scripture is right?

So how are we to listen to scripture?  Furthermore, it is not just “listen” but how we listen that becomes important.

For one, I wish we would all admit straight away that the Bible contradicts itself in many areas.  To say this is not heresy, it is declaring the obvious.  But that does not mean that the Bible is not any less true or relevant.  It means it is a large, complex book.  And when Jesus spoke in metaphors (i.e. “I am the bread of life” or “I am the door”) he did not mean he was actually turning into a loaf of bread or into a door.  He meant to say something deeper to us.

I am much more interested in that “deeper” message.

As part of that, I am much more interested in what the Bible principally teaches.  What do these words mean for my heart to do?  Just like Pharaoh, I believe we have hardened ourselves to God’s word at times, more intent with fighting with each other than having its word permeate deep into our souls.

For me it is OK that there are two recollections of Jesus’ teaching on divorce.  It is like getting two witnesses to an accident – their stories are always a little different.  To me that means it is probably a true story!  If everyone’s perception of these events was identical, I think any police officer would tell you it was probably a staged story.  Not everyone sees the same details or remembers the events in the same order.

I invite our world to open itself up to the reading and hearing of scripture once again.  To put down our Bibles and stop looking so intently – looking for ways to disagree with our neighbors.  I invite the world to stop and LISTEN to scripture, and hear the story each in our different ways.  (When I was 15 and heard these stories, they meant a lot different things than they do today.  I hope when I am 45 I hear yet different things.)

So listen with fresh new ears today.  And ask yourself, “What is God telling me this time?”  Your imagination may wander from the text altogether.  That’s OK.  What is God up to in your life today?

-Matt

Pickle Yourself! Well, Sorta

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Exod. 5:1-6:11 Cor. 14:20-33a,39-40Mark 9:42-50

Today’s gospel reading is super troubling if you are in “biblical literalist mode”.  If your hand causes you to sin, you are instructed to cut it off.  If your foot causes you to sin, cut it off.  If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out.

What am I supposed to do with this?

This kind of radical self-sacrifice is very curious, literally laming one for the work ahead.  The last verse provides some help to the context.  “For everyone will be salted with fire.  Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it?  Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

Well this passage once and for all puts to rest the biblical literalists’ arguments – for if they really meant what they said the world would be full of lame people with no hands, eating teaspoon after teaspoon of salt because the passage says “have salt in yourselves.”  Well, we all know it is much deeper than that, a metaphor for radical discipleship and self-sacrifice.

In our fast food nation it is difficult to see the meaning of these words.  We think of salt as something to season our food to enhance the flavor.  In biblical times it was too precious to be wasted like this.  Salt was used for pickling, in a time when there was no refrigeration.  Salt was a necessary preservative in a land where drought could go on for years, and stores of food were essential.  If something was not salted, not preserved, it could go bad quickly.  So here, salt has a duel metaphorical purpose – for sacrifice as well as preservation.

We must preserve our bodies and spirits against the temptations of sin.  We must keep ourselves salted in the Lord, salted in the Spirit, and salted in the fire.  Purity for the sake of peace becomes an important key.  Pickle ourselves?  No, preserve ourselves so we can endure!

This all comes in the midst of a number of stories amplifying our imperfection.  The disciples are squabbling over who is the greatest.  And following this passage is a dealing about divorce.

Jesus is encountering the broken world, and witnessing the stumbling blocks of humanity.  The point is to more than just pepper our lives with good will and humility, but to literally change our very make up, change our lives (that’s what pickling does), and live into a self-sacrificial life where individual physical essentials are secondary to the community’s need for peace and understanding.

In a world where most of Jesus’ concepts of new life are foreign and contrary to American ideals, we are challenged as New Testament people to step into a new life in Christ, where the norms of society are turned upside-down.  We are challenged to live out our baptisms, which call us to die to ourselves, and take up a life past the grave, which looks out on the horizon and embraces a new order – one with limitless possibilities of grace and peace.

-Matt

Trump, Chaos, and Drowning

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Exod. 2:1-221 Cor. 12:27-13:3Mark 9:2-13

Today in Exodus, someone draws Moses up from out of the waters of the Nile to save him.  You may remember the story of this little baby Moses in a basket in the reeds, abandoned on the bank of the Nile.

Water plays central roles in the Bible, not the least of which is new life in baptism.  This is a common image in the Bible: being drawn from the water, out of the chaos into new life.  From the creation, to our own baptism, our story is one of being lifted to new life.

Think about biblical times.  Water was the life-blood of the community.  From droughts to plagues, from watering crops to changing water into wine, to be drawn out of the water is to be drawn from the source of life itself.  And so it is fitting to have Moses, a part of this story too, and from the Red Sea parting, to that basket in the Nile – for salvation comes from the water.

Oh how we need to be washed as a country, and drawn out of the water again.

Nationally we have drunk the same wine of power that our leaders have drunk, idolizing politicians who lie and boast about lying.  They grab for power and covet those who have more power.  They sleep with prostitutes and lie to world leaders and we fail to hold them accountable.  The self aggrandizement I see is nothing short of idolatry, and somehow we seem to think it is great, holding them up as “strong leaders” when in reality they are mired in sin and idolatry.

How many of the 10 Commandments are optional these days?

Then we turn to our state leaders, who cheat and steal and abuse their power, mishandling money like teenagers with their first credit cards, kicking the can of debt down the road for the next generation to pay.  The latest proposal to increase pay for our teachers fits right into this  narrative, where the attitude is “to hell with fiscal responsibility and budgets – let’s just say what is politically attractive in the moment.”  This too is sin.  Not only are we drowning in debt, but drowning in our own fantasies that we can have our cake and eat it too.

We need to be washed – cleansed – washed clean of our thirst for power, and our eagerness to fix things quickly.  We need to drink from the well of humility, patience, and peace.

Power comes from the water.  This will not simply be a cleansing, but something that ties us to our past and our future.  From Jesus’ baptism to the Creation story, to Moshe, to the Nile, to the Red Sea too – out of the chaos will come hope.

Out of the depths, new life and new possibility breaks forth.  Water will bring about a renewal of the power of God among us – a sign of salvation, and that the drought of our lives has ended, flooded with newness, vitality, health, and wholeness.  Then and only then will we realize we have all been drawn from the water, wrapped into God’s magnificent handiwork, and called forth into daring new adventures, washed as new people, given a new chance, and drown away are the evils of the past.

Come up out of the water with me today.

-Matt

You Are the Messiah

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Exod. 1:6-221 Cor. 12:12-26Mark 8:27-9:1

It has been another crazy week!  The incredible administrative assistant at the presbytery office, Sue, had surgery.  Holy Week is bearing down on us.  Then there is the usual empowering of new leaders.  Some days I question whether it is possible to keep up.  And yet, we do our best, and plod along, slowly.

It was a blessing this morning to be able to pause and turn to scripture in this harried time.

In Exodus, the new Pharaoh does not know Joseph and turns against the Israelites.  They are oppressed and the male infants are ordered to be drown in the Nile.

Paul continues his exploration of spiritual gifts with one of the most articulated metaphors in the Bible – that of the one body with many members.  “If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be?”

Mark recounts Peter’s confession.  Jesus asked them, “But who do you say that I am?”  Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.”  And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

Did Peter really believe what he said?  Do we truly believe Jesus to be the Messiah?  That is not just a fancy saying.  It means that we believe Jesus to be the Anointed One who saves the world.  Sometimes I worry that we in the West have fallen short of that belief, declaring instead that Jesus is a “nice guy” but no more.  If Jesus is truly the Messiah, should not our lives radically change?

When are we going to leave our lives behind to follow this newly anointed king?  When are we going to leave the world behind?  Do we really believe that Messiah coming is “good news”?  Or is it disrupting and terrifying?

These are the questions before us as following of Christ.  They demand our attention and are worthy of reflection.

How are our lives to change if we are going to follow Christ, the one who died on a cross because of the world’s standards?

-Matt

The Power of Ritual

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Gen. 49:29-50:141 Cor. 11:17-34Mark 8:1-10

Rituals fill our readings this morning.

In our Epistle reading, Paul discusses the Lord’s Supper, speaking of abuses, factions, and the importance of examining your motives as one comes to eat the body and blood.

In our Gospel reading, Mark tells of the feeding of four thousand.

But this morning I want to spend a little time with our Old Testament passage.  In Genesis Jacob has given his final words to each of his sons.  The legacy of God’s double promise of land and progeny is expanded greatly as he passes it off to the next generation.  Now we recount his death and burial in Canaan at the Machpelah cave.

Mourning and lamentation fill this passage.  Joseph throws himself over his father’s face and wept over him and kissed him.  He instructed his physicians to have his father’s body embalmed.

Connecting this to the other two passages today, all involve the ritual of coming together.  Here it is not for miraculous food or heavenly togetherness, but it is close!  To embalm the body is thoroughly Egyptian, not an Israelite practice, and yet it becomes an opportunity for all these different people to come together – the servants of Pharaoh, Pharaoh’s family, the elders of Joseph’s household, the elders of the land of Egypt, as well as all of Joseph’s brothers and their household.

In a strange encounter that foreshadows Moses’ repeated requests to depart to Israel, Joseph goes to Pharaoh to ask for permission to ritually bury Jacob all the way back in his homeland.  In their grief and loss, the community is able to come together.

Not surprisingly, after this time, Joseph is able to purge his own soul and forgive his brothers.

The power of ritual should not be overlooked.  Ritual has the power to capture imagination and transform perspectives.  It allows God to work in our lives and knit together a new story for our future.

Whether it is the feeding of many thousands, the mystical union of the Lord’s Supper, or the burial of a loved one, it gives us time with one another and with God.  It is where the mystery of faith and the reality of God’s presence become more real.

What rituals do you have in your daily life?  Family?

Need one?  See you at church Sunday.  We have lots and can help you connect with the mystery of faith and with God.

-Matt