Theology 101: Idolatry

Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16

Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured. Let marriage be held in honor by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled; for God will judge fornicators and adulterers. Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” So we can say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?”

Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.

Through him, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.

Luke 14:1-14

On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.Just then, in front of him, there was a man who had dropsy. And Jesus asked the lawyers and Pharisees, “Is it lawful to cure people on the sabbath, or not?” But they were silent. So Jesus took him and healed him, and sent him away. Then he said to them, “If one of you has a child or an ox that has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on a sabbath day?” And they could not reply to this.

When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place’, and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

 

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Politics and Religion.

Those are the two things that are off limits at my mother’s dinner table. You can burp the alphabet, tell an off color joke, you can come to dinner dressed in the clothes you woke up in. But you start talking about religion or politics, and You. Are. Done.

Perhaps this is because my mother is a good southern woman who was raised to keep conversation polite.  Here’s what I think: it is because these are the two topics that are most likely to start an argument. Because we don’t all think the same things, do we? In my family, we are all across the map—Baptists sitting next to atheists, sitting next to Republicans, sitting next to whatever Bernie Sanders people are calling themselves these days. So the potential for conflict, when it comes to religion and politics, is high. And once the door is open, everyone has an opinion. Better to keep the door closed. Better to keep things safe.

Which makes for some really polite, but incredibly boring dinner parties. Because let me tell you, the dinners I remember best aren’t the ones where everyone behaved themselves. I bet you know what I am talking about. In my family, there are some pretty epic stories about individuals who broke the rules, resulting in some pretty heated conversations.

Luke’s Gospel this morning describes one of those “memorable” dinner parties. One of those parties that didn’t exactly go as planned. Because Jesus showed up.

Who knows why the Pharisee invited Jesus to his dinner party—maybe he was just trying to be friendly, maybe he was curious about the new rabbi in town. Maybe he figured this new guy would play it safe, stick to the rule-book, not ruffle the feathers.

Maybe he figured that, just like we do, Jesus knew what the rules were and cared about them. Because that is what we all really want right?  When I have a dinner party, I expect people to behave. And when I go to a party and don’t know everyone there, then I try my best to behave too. I stand quietly in the social area. Maybe I say hi to a few folks. And if we get to talking, we stick to “safe” conversation: “What do you do?”” Where do you live?” “Tell me about your kids.” You get the picture.

Not Jesus. It quickly becomes clear that Jesus is “that guy”—you know, the guy at the dinner party that everyone can’t stop staring at, or listening to, because he is making a scene.

A-Woman-With-DropsyIt all starts with a sick man. There is a man at the party with Dropsy. Anyone know what dropsy is? It is severe edema. Probably caused by severe heart failure. The man is swollen up like a balloon. Makes you wonder what he is doing at a dinner party—edema can be incredibly painful, and was essential as slow, painful death sentence in Jesus’ Day—people who suffered from it slowly drowned in their own bodies.

So of course, Jesus draws their attention to this man, whose suffering is on full display while they eat and make merry on the Sabbath. He asks them—if your child or your ox was drowning in a well, would you save them on the Sabbath? What about this man, who is drowning in his body? Is there a difference?

But Jesus isn’t done. He just can’t help himself. He moves on to the guests themselves. All of a sudden we are getting advice from the Rabbi about seating assignments and guest lists. He is like the ancient Jewish version of Ms Manners, only none of these people asked him for advice.

Whenever they ask prospective presidents who they would like to meet someday or have a meal with, and they say Jesus—I think of this dinner party. Because clearly, Jesus isn’t interested in playing by anybody’s rules. Jesus isn’t going to behave and be polite. He is going to speak truth. To the poor and the sick, and to the wealthy and powerful. Doesn’t matter who you are, Jesus is going to say what needs to be said.

And what is the truth that needs to be said?

Perhaps we need to hear that we have spent a lot of time worrying about things that don’t really matter.

Let me explain. A friend of mine was sharing this week that she HATES this text, because Jesus seems to single out all of these people based on their social statues or health status. For her, this just seems wrong. Aren’t we all just people, she asks? But of course we do this all the time. If we are really honest with ourselves, we are constantly sorting ourselves against the people around us, ranking ourselves based on who seems to have the most, or the least; whose life seems better or worse than our own. And if we are honest, most of us would prefer to find ourselves, if not at the top of our pecking order, at least above the median.

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Why? Because many of us have been raised to believe that these are the things that define us. That our job, our house, our stuff, even our health are the things that matter. That our worth is roughly equivalent to our investment account or the appearance of our home. A fellow clergy person shared with me recently that when he was young his dad raised him to grow up and take care of his family. So he did. He got a job, and he lived at his job. Barely saw the family that he was trying to provide for. He was just doing what he had been taught.

And perhaps you may notice as well that these are things that we think we can control. We decide what we do, where we live, what car we drive, whether we work on at the gym every morning. And if we can control them, it can be tempting to believe that others can too. So we judge the poor, the unemployed, the sick. Can’t you just get a job? Can’t you stay out of trouble? Can’t you just take care of yourself? How quickly grace evaporates when we think we have control. We do this. We do this.

But not Jesus. Jesus will have none of that. For Jesus, dinner tables aren’t just dinner tables. They are practice grounds for the great banquet of the Kingdom of God, and in the Kingdom of God, everyone is invited to the dinner party. All of our jockeying, all that sorting that we waste our time worrying over, none of that matters in God’s house. If we are honest, those things can be a weight around our necks, pulling us down and away from what really matters. And what really matters? Paul perhaps said it best when he said: let mutual love continue. What matters is the community that gathers at Christ’s table—not where we sit, but that we are there. Together. What matters is that the Jesus who sat at that table and pissed off the Pharisees didn’t preach anything he didn’t also do himself—for Jesus built a ministry out of welcoming the lonely, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, whether those people had everything or barely enough to get by.

And guess who we worship?

Not success.Martin-Luther-idolatry.jpg

Not money.

Not comfort.

Not power.

All of those are false idols. False promises of a secure life.

We worship Jesus, who entered this world poor and weak and small so that he could teach us about a love that doesn’t rank or divide, or exclude.

We worship Jesus, who doesn’t care who you are or what you have—he just bids you come.

We worship Jesus, whose table is open to all of us, because whatever we have, we all get hungry and thirsty, and God would feed us.

We worship Jesus, who is the same today, yesterday and forever.

We worship Jesus.

And that is enough.

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Holy Monday

John 12:1-11

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.

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illustration by the Rev. Eliza Buchakjian-Tweedy, pastor of 1st UCC Rochester

I suppose that it should come as no surprise that we find Jesus at a dinner party in the days leading up to his death.  Even as, in the words of John’s Gospel, the powers that be conspire against him, Jesus takes time to gather with friends (and with enemies, too) for a meal, for fellowship, and, ultimately, for communion.

And as Jesus sits at table with his not-dead friend Lazarus, we are treated to a surprise (then again, it seems as though there was always a Monty-Python-worthy “something completely different” moment about dinners with the Messiah).  Here, suddenly, is Mary.  The same Mary who sat at Jesus’ feet while Martha labored in the kitchen now arrives with a jar of costly perfume, and pours it on her Master’s feet.

Let’s just take a moment and consider this moment: here you are, sitting with your friends and waiting for dinner, when along comes another friend, who proceeds to dump a bottle of Chanel No. 5 on your feet and wipe your feet with her hair.

What are we to make of this moment?

Judas, whom we were not aware of until this moment, interprets this action as a waste.  He makes a mental calculation and concludes that Mary has wasted the perfume.  He’s like the over-achieving kid in the front of the class (for the record, that was me as a kid) who knows what the answer is supposed to be and almost seems to delight in pointing out the mistaken logic of her classmate.  “But Jesus,” he cries.  “Shouldn’t we have sold that perfume and given the money to the poor?”  Isn’t it always better to give than to receive?  Haven’t you taught us that the poor are the center of your Kingdom, and therefore the most important concern?

And he isn’t wrong.  Certainly, Jesus spends his brief and remarkable preaching career railing against injustice, particularly when it is directed at the poor.  According to the Gospel of Mark, it is on this day that he enters the temple and overturns the tables, effectively shutting down the Temple’s activities as he rails against the collusion between the religious authorities and the political powers of Rome.  His life is a constant witness to remember the orphan and the widow, to care for the sick, and to befriend the stranger.  His ministry is a witness to the power and the  challenge of God’s call to live in communion with all of God’s created people.

But in this moment, at this table, surrounded by friends, Jesus cuts Judas short.  “Leave her alone,” he commands, and we  can almost feel Judas recoil in surprise.  And then Jesus reminds us that life, for him, is not an unending dinner party–he is headed somewhere.  To Jerusalem. To judgement, condemnation, suffering and death.  On a cross.  Even at this table, in this moment, he will not let his disciples–his deepest and closest spiritual friends–forget that his journey leads to death, and that his days are numbered.

For what it is worth, I do not think that Jesus is discounting the poor at this moment in John–instead, he almost seems to be saying to Judas and Mary that they are both right.  That the poor will always be there, and that we will always be called to serve and minister to the poor. But we must also take the time to worship the God who gave us hearts with the capacity for compassion for our vulnerable brothers and sisters.  Worship becomes an opportunity, a portal through which we can walk and remember our call to serve the poor, the vulnerable, and the outcast.  Worship opens our hearts and our eyes and our ears to hear and see and taste again the Good News we have discovered in Christ, so that we may be encouraged for our ministry with the poor, who are with us.

 

We need moments of worship. Because there will always be those whose forced are aligned against us.  Those who tell us that the poor are lazy, that the hungry had it coming, that “it just isn’t our job” to help those who struggle.  There will always be those who deny the Kingdom and everything that it represents, perhaps because they worship other Gods–money, power, fame–or perhaps because they are frightened by what Christ represents–justice, righteousness, freedom for all of God’s good creation.

So on this Monday of Holy Week, let us pause and reflect with Jesus.  Let us kneel down and worship with Mary.  And let us remember that our ministry of service in the world finds its heart and its soul and its sustenance when we bow our heads at the foot of the cross.

 

Prayer for the day:

Holy God, Friend, Teacher, and Savior- we praise you.  For like Lazarus you have drawn us out of the snare of death, and have set our feet on the rock.  You have sat with us at table, have gathered us into community, and have called us your friends.  You have taught us that it is good and righteous and pleasing to God to serve the hungry and the thirsty, clothe the naked, house the homeless, visit the sick, tend to those in prison. And you have sustained us by the presence of your Holy Spirit as we gather in prayer and praise.  During this Holy Week, sustain our worship.  Strengthen our hearts, that we might draw near to you, falling down before you like Mary and offering the gift of our very selves.  Help us to bow our heads and bend our knees, so that we may have the strength to stand and walk the way of the cross with you, confident of of the hope of Resurrection.  In Christ’s name we pray, Amen.

On Retreat: Day One

“God doesn’t answer prayers; our prayers are answers to the prayer that God has already started”

The alarm buzzed irritably from the window where I had left it the night prior.  Morning, I thought to myself.  How swiftly we are plucked from the warmth of our beds to greet the day.  Earlier than I would ordinarily rise, I lifted myself out of the warm blankets and began the process of waking up.  There was running to do before class could start, one week left in an extended process of disciplining myself into health.

A brisk run in the fog, a quick shower, and I am back and dressed at the breakfast table, a bowlful of granola and mug of dark coffee in hand.  Morning devotions are at 8:15, and so I am out the door by 7:45, having only once to return to the car for whatever I have left behind.

SFTS is a quick drive from my husbands’ parents’ home, and so it is that I arrive in the parking lot with little trouble and plenty of time to spare.  Settling into the pew, I marvel at how peaceful it feels to sit and to rest in the knowledge that this is retreat time, that I am away from the noise of my life, if only for the briefest moment.  It is praying time, spirit time, reading time, re-charging time.  It is good, and it is well, and it is welcomed.

I must say that I am quite excited about the format of this space—a time to pray and live more fully than I would otherwise in the life of the Gospel Text for next year’s lectionary.  It feels good to dwell in this Scripture, to sit with Matthew, the synoptic with which I am least comfortable, and to let it become a part of my daily rhythm.  To be honest, it almost feels good for me, but more like homemade granola than vitamins or annual exams.  I relish the flavor of it, the diversity of community that has gathered here in the shadow of Mt. Tam, and I hope that here is space that has power, if I but let God have a crack at it.

So I sit in the silence of the chapel, weaving my voice into the melody of the chanted music, entering the mystical space of our worship as it enters me.  I try to focus all of my self and my intentions in the act of prayer, and though it is difficult, it feels good.  It reminds me of conditioning exercise, and I hope that some of it will stick with me when I return to the parish.

Today we speak of lenses and perspectives, of what we see and what has authority, and I am struck by the words of my colleagues.  One speaks of the Scriptures as representing the “arc of human potential,” and of their authority resting in this fact.  I find it intriguing, for certainly it is the case that Scripture offers portraits of the best and the worst that we can offer to God.  It seems meaningful then that these stories hold so much water for us—they are not merely God’s story, but our story as well, and we repeat them in our daily lives, in differing and wildly diverse combinations, with manifold results.  In this sense, the Word is living because we are living it, not only in our extraordinary moments, but in our most mundane.  The Spirit is within us all, it would seem, and the “meaning potential,” as Blount might say, is only as limited as we choose to make it.

That this is the point at which we begin our time together and the entry point for our study and prayer upon the texts is a great blessing to me.  I appreciate that this is a time for deepening relationship with God and Scripture, for open dialogue with willing colleagues, and for intentional devotional space, rather than a race to plan a year’s worth of sermons.  That I may rest rather than write restlessly is a gift, one that I believe more of us pastors need to give ourselves, for it is what we ask of our community, is it not?  That they stop, that they pay attention, and that they respond to the Word that defines us?  And how can we model this for our congregations, if we are not making it a priority for ourselves?

P is for Praise

Praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord from the heavens; praise him in the heights!
Praise him, all his angels; praise him, all his host!
Praise him, sun and moon; praise him, all you shining stars!
Praise him, you highest heavens, and you waters above the heavens!
Let them praise the name of the Lord, for he commanded and they were created.
He established them forever and ever; he fixed their bounds, which cannot be passed.
Praise the Lord from the earth, you sea monsters and all deeps,
fire and hail, snow and frost, stormy wind fulfilling his command!
Mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars!
Wild animals and all cattle, creeping things and flying birds!
Kings of the earth and all peoples, princes and all rulers of the earth!
Young men and women alike, old and young together!
Let them praise the name of the Lord, for his name alone is exalted;
his glory is above earth and heaven.
He has raised up a horn for his people, praise for all his faithful,
for the people of Israel who are close to him.
Praise the Lord!

Psalm 148

I have been fascinated this week by the words of praise offered by the Psalmist above… drawn almost viscerally to the images of everything from sea monsters and topography, weather and celestial bodies singing praises to God.

It got me thinking about praise, ultimately, and its role in Sunday worship.  I know, at least for myself, that the first image that comes to mind when I hear the word praise is praise bands, conglomerations of too-happy pregnant women with one hand in the air as they sing and pimply teenagers rocking out to cheesy love songs for God, all in the name of contemporary and “lively” worship.

But praise has such a richer texture than my, and not doubt many others, gut reaction to the word. The word praise actually comes from the Old French preisier, which means “to value” or to set a price to something. Which I find interesting, since the word worship, from the anglo saxon wurdscip,traditionally indicated reverence given to something that is worthy, or worth its value.  Taken together, then, the words praise and worship seem inseparable:  Worship consists of praise, and praise is the essence of worship, which offers us a strong clue as to what we ought to be engaged in on Sundays.  We ought to be praising God.

Of course, that sounds deceptively simple.  Many of the things we do on Sunday seem obviously praise-y, while others are more difficult to connect to the concept.  Add to that that each person finds meaning in different aspects of worship, and we arrive at a place where people are asking one another:  if it is all meant to lead to praise, then why do we do the boring stuff, or the stuff that I don’t like?

Well here is where I like the Psalm above.  The psalm doesn’t tell us what each part of creation does to offer praise, but it does offer a vision that I think is worth emulating in our worship: the value of both unity and diversity offered in the praise of God.  Certainly mountains and sea monsters could not offer praise in the same way, and I imagine that the heavenly host’s means of praise is completely different from that of the snow and the frost.  Nonetheless, when each offers their true voice to the project of praise,  the harmony is strengthened. In a similar way, our worship offers innumerable ways for each worshipper to find a voice to praise God with.  Whether that person needs to praise God for the act of gathering, or for the grace that comes with sin forgiven, or needs to be reminded by hearing the word, or simply wishes to belt out a hymn by literally singing, each aspect of worship is a path towards praise.  They may not all work for every person every week, but the opportunity is there, waiting, every time we gather.  And what is more, when we gather together we are reminded in song, in spoken word and in prayer that we do not praise God alone, but are joined by our neighbors and the heavenly choir which sing praise eternal.  We can even find comfort in knowing that even the sea monsters sing with us.

Pretty awesome if you ask me.