Monday, March 23, 2020

Sermon in Quarantine

Text: Psalm 23

This is the first time that we have met together as the church virtually, and it may not be the last. As many other communities, denominations, churches, and groups have complied with the self-quarantine recommendations from our federal and state government, a different mood has taken shape around us that may not be affirming or a blessing. We may not want this, but it is here, and we are still called by God.

       In our case, gone, for now, are the handshakes, the hugs, the warm words of support when prayers have been sought by another. Gone are the inside jokes shared between members and families, the gentle “ribbing” from one to another replaced by silence and the steadfastness of this situation. 
Today we will not see children embracing their parents and hear whispers of “I love you” passed so willingly, and so tenderly. Perhaps you will leave your home today and venture to the store only to find empty shelves or smaller stores closed all together and feel that this image is the physical, real-world, expression of what you feel inside—emptier, lonelier, isolated, maybe a bit dusty and unused. Frustrated that it has come to this.
       As citizens, we have engaged in defining what it means to be an “essential” business or gathering and, I can say, that the vagueness of this definition is hard to work with for many of you. I have listened to you struggle with what that idea means, or maybe, what you think it should mean. None of us have a completely good taste in our mouth because of it. 

       And right alongside of this “social distancing,” this conversation about “essential businesses” comes “distancing” of faith practices and gatherings that may feel forced upon you. 

The more I sit alone, or worship alone in the church, the more I wonder about what is missing? Where do we find, and how do we identify, “lack?” 

       Today we are going to walk through the most familiar Psalm we have in the cannon of scripture and see what new thing God offers us as we self-quarantine as families and the church? 

Move 1- Lack
       I like the way the New English Bible begins the Psalm when it says, “I shall want nothing.” Maybe you are more familiar with the traditional wordage of “I shall not want.” Either way, this is a strong statement when stop and consider it today. 

       New Testament professor James Howell says it this way when referring to Psalm 23:

We've read it, uttered it, delighted in it: but have we thought about it? Or lived it out in reality? I shall not want? Our whole life is about wanting: I want, I shop, I look, and when I have it, I want new stuff. In our consumer culture, I shall want, I shall always want. I shall never stop all my wanting because the mall entices me with ever new, shiny, unnecessary objects, and I am instructed from childhood on to want—and not merely to want, but to have.[1]

       That is a strong sentiment and it carries a theological construct to it also. We want. . . We want. . . a lot. That sense of wanting leads to the realization, or a choice to think, that I believe that I am missing something. I do not have what I want. I don’t want to worship in this way. I don’t want to quarantine like this. I lack. And so, if I lack then I take steps, sometimes drastic steps, to get what I want and get it right now. 

       Not to put it too lightly, but the physical manifestation of this lack, or the fear of it, is visible in those same grocery stores we have visited this week during the self-quarantine. I shall want… I shall always want. And more than just wanting. . . I shall do what I must to have. 
Now I am not making light of the need to buy food and supplies to provide for your family and their needs, but watching person after person push each other out of the way, and I did see this in front of the ground beef on Monday, makes me wonder about how we define “lack” and “need” and what God’s word says about that. It also makes me begin to think about how I define spiritual lack. 

But the meaning of this phrase goes deeper than needing extra ground beef, it moves in a spiritual/relational direction that can say something about my trust in God and God’s ability to care and provide when we are in a situation such as this.
The longer that I sit with the affirmation “I shall want nothing,” the more those words draw me into a place of introspection that is personal. In that place questions begin to surface if I sit in this place of apparent lack and reflect about how I did not anticipate this happening, and yet do I think that God is here? I begin to wonder, and perhaps you do as well: 

·     Does my life proclaim that because I am in union with God, I want nothing because God provide? 
·     Which of my choices are acted upon from a place of personal pride and selfish ambition and not from a place of intimacy in Christ based on a deep trust in God and God’s promises? 
·     Do I lack the perspective to believe that God is in control of the world, when those around me, and those I see on TV, and those I work with, and those whom I read about, affirm that the world is falling apart at its core? And so, steps are taken to control and manipulate.  

       Psalm 23 helps me affirm that “I shall want nothing” because God is providing for me in all areas of my life. That word does not diminish my need to provide for my family, but it helps me reorient my mind toward the message of this Psalm and away from actions that bring no glory to God because they do not support my affirmation that ‘I shall want nothing.’ 

Move 2- God provides
       Because if we are not careful when we act and speak, if we do not mind our thoughts and consider the implications of them in the lives of other people in our church community, we might just be guilty of confessing that God does not shelter me and therefore I must do the work myself. I must bend the world toward my desire and my feeling. 

       The grandeur of this passage is found in how the passage is formulated and constructed. 

James Limburg points out that, in the original Hebrew of Psalm 23, there are exactly twenty-six words before and after, "Thou art with me." Perhaps the poet was boldly declaring that God being with us is at the very center of our lives.
God is with us. We are not alone down here. The whole Gospel is that God is with us. Jesus was called "Emmanuel," which means "God with us." John Wesley's dying words were, "The best of all is, God is with us." God doesn't shelter us from trouble. God doesn't magically manipulate everything to suit us. But the glorious with is unassailable, unchangeable, the only fact that matters.[2]

       God is here even when I feel alone, isolated, separate from the community and the church body physically. 
God provides in a powerful, and yet, unexpected way in our lives. Even when we feel alone, isolated, forced apart against our choice, a choice we might not have made if it was given to us in totality, and I know some of you do feel that way, remember God’s with is in the process, and the habit, of providing his presence for us. 

Move 3- 
       One of the obvious struggles in times such as this is not only remembering and confessing this action of God in our lives, but also living it out for those who cannot find it themselves. This is a struggle based on trust in one form or another. 

       How many times have you heard, or said to another person, that trust is earned not given? But when we come to Psalm 23, when we are confronted with a theology of trust as this Psalm speaks of, where do we locate that trust in the Almighty? 
       Here God asks the church who comes to this Psalm for comfort and support to trust in God’s own ability to provide and care. We are not asked to confess it on our timeline or in a way that supports our will. Instead, can we, with clarity and trust, affirm that whatever is occurring in this time, is doing so with God before us? Can we trust in Him? 
We do not have to take extraordinary steps to act for our own lives, God is present to do that for us in these words.

We do not need to worry about wanting. There is no need to act as those outside of the church who work to control and manipulate to get what they want. God is with and we have to trust that.

Many years ago, a colleague of mine was sitting in bible study. She was shaken but did not share it with the group. Recently her father was in a near-fatal car accident. The driver of the other car fell asleep, veered into the wrong lane, and struck her car. The mangled car was pried off this woman’s father.
He would face a long road of physical therapy and recovery. There would be improvement and then decline in health. But the family, and this pastor, maintained that God was with them because her father was alive. 
Fast forward a few years back to this bible study. . . The topic was about how God cares for us and the pastor shared her story with the affirmation that God was with them because he lived. An old, chubby, gray pastor started to chuckle.
“My friend,” he said, “God would have been there if he wasn’t okay too.” And he smiled genuinely. 
The pastor was dumb-struck. After a moment she began to cry. It was then for her, and now for us in the world of the corona virus, that we trust in the God who is with us whether we are together in this building or not. Whether we are meeting or not. Whether we are at home, as I was quite a bit this week or not. 
Trust that God is with you and with us. This is the message of Psalm 23 that we hold fast too now.

       The challenge of this Psalm comes when we confront our lives of wanting and not lacking with the trust God places upon us. The grandeur of this passage is that God is able to provide for us in all areas of life, can we trust in that and not act to provide for ourselves as if we are the ones who need to do all the work? 

[1] accessed on 3/19/20. Emphasis in original commentary. 

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Lenten Series Week 4

Text: Isaiah 50:4-9

As many of our churches, and our families, face the uncertain prospect of the corona virus in this area, having, or hearing, a word from God can be challenging. It is not that God does not speak which makes this work hard, but instead, the challenge is found in how do we differentiate the voice of God from the voices in our world who are either offering fear or offering pragmatism? 
As Lent continues, I am finding myself asking the same question over and over, in one form or another: How do we find space to listen to God when every, single, moment of our day something else seems to be occupying the room, and energy, and by extension our faith? I wonder how are we going to be faithful to God in such uncertain times?

            Even in a quiet, still, room, such as the one I am in now, the noise of our culture is not easily silenced. I find my mind being drawn away over and over again. 
If you find yourself in that exact place, the this is where our reading from Isaiah 50 becomes helpful for us. For in Jesus’ passion we find the courage to speak, the willingness to be the church, and the ability to discern what God is calling us to do, to say, to become, and to believe in an uncertain time. 
            It is not that we do not want to be faithful, or practice faith, but as I said, it can be hard for us tonight.

Move 1- instructed tongue
            Our reading begins in verse 4 of chapter 50 with the affirmation that the Sovereign Lord has given the speaker “the tongue of a teacher,” from the NRSV, or in the NIV, we hear this same clause translated as an “instructed tongue.” There is a lot going on in those two words.

            This concept frames much of what is to follow in the pericope. 

            Let’s think for a second what the “tongue of a teacher” or an “instructed tongue” sounds like in Isaiah’s mind and how it is applicable to us. . . What could it mean for us in Lent this year? 

            Pressing into the text a bit, I find that this is the only usage of the word in this form in the scriptures. That conclusion tells us that what God is doing here, or what God is associating with this passage has not, and will not, happened before or again in scripture. This person, the speaker in the text, the one we associate with Jesus, is being given something important.

            He is first being given knowledge. When this root word is used again, it is identified with being a disciple or a being a teacher. The one who communicates information out of a place of authority and wisdom.
            Then when that idea is combined with the word we have for ‘tongue’ we hear something very important. This word means “language” or “speech.” 

            God is giving this person a place of authority over others, of wisdom in subject matter, the language to speak about what they have discerned from God directly. They do not need an intermediary; God has revealed something to them directly and they are sharing it in the rest of the passage. 

Move 2- The passion
            It is in the passionate suffering of Jesus where the knowledgeable speaker, the one who knows all things, because God has gifted them with this knowledge, transfers, gives us the same wisdom to act and to live. 
He gives us this revelation, this wisdom, this teaching, so that we might offer it to others. It is not something we hold back on; the spirit of this text means that we willingly do so—even when the life we know becomes more and more uncertain.
We are able to speak, we are called to speak, because of what happens later in this text in the life of the Christ. That ability to minister, that we receive from this text, comes with a great price to the Messiah. I am not going to re-read the list of passion-associated events or symbols. You know them already and you trust in them. But think with me about it once again:

            He endures for us.

            He suffers on our behalf.

            He is resolute. While he could walk away or stop the suffering all together. He stands fast because God is with him.

            He is confident as he suffers—a reference to his triune nature.

            All of these aspects help to define the person from our text—the Messiah—the one who has the divine knowledge and offers it to us as we believe in him. 

Move 3- 
            So, because the Messiah stands in for us, and blesses us with knowledge in this way, we must then receive and accept the confidence of God to stand together as the church, even in an uncertain time such as this. We are God’s people and that knowledge is more important than any other knowledge we might gain in our lifetimes. 
Sure, we are anxious. Not affirming this would be foolish. This word from Isaiah 50 does not minimize or trivialize that fact in any way. But as this sermon is being written, and preached to an empty room, that is a reality for us. Things have changed in this context. But again, the affirmation of this text, that Christ is with me, giving me knowledge, understanding, and long-term presence can provide hope for us. It should provide hope for us, and I believe, it was meant to do so.
That presence makes sense to me and it helps frame the struggle of this text. I have heard it said quite often that we will be only 1 degree away from the virus before this is over and that is a scary proposition. 
            But in the midst of that, we will be close to Jesus who suffers for us. He ensures that we are safe and that we do not feel completely alone. He is resolute. He is confident and he asks that we accept who he is in that way for us.

            So now as we come to the end of this message, it is time for us to reflect, to wonder, if you will, about what God is saying to us in Isaiah 50? 

            He has given you what you need to address these cultural issues. We may in fact feel uncertain, but the presence of God with us, provides a way for us to be together as the body of Christ.

Monday, March 16, 2020

The Woman at the Well

Sermon preached at Plains Presbyterian Church on March 15, 2020

         An unescapable part of our lives is that we like to do things our way. . . This statement is more than an affirmation of our ability to provide for ourselves, which is popular in our culture, it is a heart-felt confession. “I’ve got this. I can make the decisions I need that will order my life and lead me to the best possible outcome.” 
         If we are honest, this is also a bit of idolatry at work in us. I have said before that much of what we do is a sometimes-silent affirmation that I do not need God to be successful. But what if, that statement also relates to my failures and short comings? 

         I try so hard, without God next to me to prove my ability, that I fail. Then rather than learn from my failures, I press on in the same direction trying to almost force my success to come. I conclude that working hard will naturally lead to success, but does it in this situation? 
         And so, the woman at the well is important for us to consider in Lent for that very reason. She tried it her way, as we might, and she fail a lot. But rather than turn to God, she pushed on trying to make her life work out in her way. Consider this background that I found. . .

“The story of the Samaritan woman is a story of a woman that has had five husbands, and is currently living with a man who is not her husband— [number 6]. This is not a salacious piece of gossip [in this culture]. These details are vital to the understanding of the story. We are talking about five bad marriages and one uneasy partner.
[Six times she has tried it her way. And six times her way only lead to heartbreak, social and religious isolation, despair, and separation not just from the community but from the church. This is part of the reason she will go to the well when no one is around. As we know. . .] 
Samaritans and Jews had hated each other for centuries. Samaria was full of all kinds of ethnic groups with their numerous religious cults. It had been since the eighth century, when the Assyrians invaded the northern kingdom of Israel. Over time the Samaritans developed an uneven but bitter contest with the Jews. The Samaritans worshiped God on Mt Gerizim. The Jews insisted that the center of their faith was the Temple in Jerusalem, fifty miles to the south. [So how they ordered their lives was a problem at its root.] 
2 Kings 17 gives an account of the Assyrian invasion. [Interestingly], it lists five kinds of foreign peoples that worshiped idols in Samaria. Now the story starts to make sense. We can see the Samaritan woman’s five husbands as representing the five false gods the Samaritans had worshiped.” [1]
         The man she is said to be living with who is not her sixth husband, symbolizes Rome. The Samaritans in general, and this woman in particular, tried to live their lives in their way only. Worship as they like. They sought their happiness outside of God. 
Jesus is offering himself as the Messiah to her to be her, and our, 7th husband. He is not offering to marry her, but instead he offers to enter a relational union with her—one between Messiah and the person. She has tried it her way. She has lived as she thought was right. 

Move 1- worship
         So, the conversation between Jesus and the woman at the well, who is the symbol of how we try to manage our own lives, turns into a reflection not about marriage, but about worship and the living water Jesus brings to us in the context of worship.

         In worship, our lives are laid bare before God. In worship, we strive to appear as we are before God. Sure, we put on our Sunday-best faces when we come here, but deep inside of us, as we pray, sing, read, and think, we are bare before God’s eye. He sees the uneasiness that sits in the pit of our stomach. The hesitant sideways looks, God is aware of them. Worship creates the environment for Jesus to reveal something about himself and about us

In our story, this revelation takes place as Jesus reveals that he sees this woman for who she is and how she is living. His statement confirms that he knows that she has tried to live her way only to have that fail repeatedly. And so he offers her something different.   
As soon as Jesus ‘demonstrates’ his knowledge of her choices, that she has had 5 husbands, and is living with a 6thman, all in an attempt to please herself, the conversation shifts. She recalls her tradition, what she has been taught, but Jesus response is different. 

         Jesus is not concerned about where the worship occurs, either in Samaria or Jerusalem. That is because Jesus knows and equates the worship with a face to face encounter with God. You cannot hide yourself in your traditions, or in your ability to provide for yourself, or whatever mask you choose to put on, when you embrace Jesus as the Messiah. Worship is a choice to be one on one with the one who sees and knows. 

         This is very different from what this particular woman knew or how she lived before. Worship opens her up to God.

Move 2- Pain
         Once she is emotionally open through the act of worship, the reality of her pain comes into focus. The pain of this woman is multi-layered. 

         The most obvious pain relates the many divorces Jesus knows about that do define her in the eyes of the community she lives in. When we think about her divorce history, it is important to first realize what we are NOT talking about. History has allowed us to think of this woman as an adulterer. Her relationships are broken because she is unfaithful to her husband—why else would she come to the well alone? But that might not be the case at all. 
         According to Moses, adultery, that would lead to divorce, was punishable by death (Deuteronomy 22:20) on both sides of the relationship. If she was an adulterer, then ‘stoning’ was in play. Instead these divorces were not necessarily her fault. According to the Mosaic law, “if a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him. . . and he writes her a certificate of divorce,” then that ends the marriage. 
For example, remember what Joseph was planning on doing to Mary in Matthew’s gospel. He was planning on “divorce her quietly so as not expose her to public disgrace.” No where do we hear that she was going to be stoned because of this.

         So going back to our woman at the well, these divorces, which do serve to define, were likely not her choice alone. She is powerless to prevent the divorces and that is painful. As one who cannot provide for herself, one subject to another, with the potential to be discarded casually, Jesus’ presence stands in the face of this separation and pain. Jesus, by being at the well and willingly talking to her, is inviting a woman who is struggling with so much relational pain, to enter a relationship that will heal her.
         She does not have to be idolatrous. She does not have to feel alone when she filled her life with things and people, she values but do not satisfy her soul. Jesus invites her to grow.

Move 3- our invitation
         The Lenten journey invites us to stop and reflect on how God’s presence addresses key moments, events, or themes in our lives. In this case, the revelation begins in the discussion about worship at the Well.
         From that discussion, we learn that worship helps us address issues that will separate us from one another. I don’t know anyone who says today that they are not in pain. When we worship together, we find solidarity with each other is a possibility as well as union with Christ a reality. This then invites us to consider the times in our lives when we choose to fill ourselves with things that are not from God in order to make ourselves happy. But that really did not work out for us.
         When our weakness is exposed by Jesus it is not shame us, but instead to invite us into a different consideration. 

I wonder if it is possible that Jesus’ knowledge of me suggests a different pacing and course for my life? 

         I like to think that the woman at the well has a long-lasting ministry in Jesus’ name in her hometown, but we do not know that. Instead what we do know is that after her pain is revealed by Christ, and after she spends time with him, she is bold enough to see things differently. I wonder if the same could be said of us in Lent? 

[1] accessed on 3/10/20

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