A Reflection on being a scandalous people

The First Reading for May 16, 2016 is 2 Chronicles 6:12,14-21.

Scandal. Do you watch it? This television show is a hit among some of my family and friends. I’ve see it a few times and, every week, the scandal on the show increases. The show tires to up the ante on what came before. The impossible, the unbelievable, and the shocking just keeps happening. The show is downright exciting.

Did you know that scandals are also at the center of God’s story? One way to sum up the two parts of God’s story that we proclaim is to see what’s scandalous in the Old Testament and what’s scandalous in the New. The Apostle Paul and the Gospels point to the cross as the scandal of the New Testament. The fact that God’s Son died just doesn’t make sense. Why would that happen? How can God die? Why would God live a human life? Why would we kill Jesus? These are the questions of the New Testament. The story is so familiar to us that we struggle to see how scandalous Jesus Christ is. But when we take a step back, look at what Scripture shows and tells us, the Cross is a scandal because, from our perspective, it doesn’t seem possible.

In the Old Testament (or Hebrew Scriptures as I sometimes call them), the scandal isn’t what people do. The scandal is that the God of the universe, the God that created everything, decided that the Israelites will be God’s people. The Israelites were slaves in Egypt, with no power, or armies, or wealth. They had nothing yet God chose them to be God’s people. The Israelites never develop an empire, they never matched Rome or Alexander the Great or even the United States in wealth, power, and authority. But the Israelites are God’s people and God chooses to live with them.

So how can we respond to this scandal? In our first reading today, Solomon is dedicating the Temple as God’s house. His prayer can only point to the scandal and admit that God’s choice is beyond understanding. God’s promise to be with who God chooses doesn’t depend on what the people do. It only depends on God’s promise. And that’s who we are – a people who depend on God’s promise. We live through a God who lives with us and who died for us. We are, in someways, a scandalous people.

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for 5/15/2016.

A Reflection on the Ark in Jerusalem and the Book of Chronicles

The First Reading is 1 Chronicles 16:23-34.

The book of Chronicles is a bit of a time-warp for us. In our Year with the Bible reading, last we showed us the destruction of Jerusalem. The very next book in our bible is 1 Chronicles which begins with Adam’s genealogy. In someways, we’re starting over. Scholars argue that 1 and 2 Chronicles was written after much of the Hebrew Bible (otherwise known as the Old Testament) was put together. The book rely on the Torah (the first five books of the bible), 1st and 2nd Samuel, and 1st and 2nd Kings to tell its story. But the author of 1 and 2 Chronicles included other sources and information that wasn’t included in the prior books (and sometimes contradicts it). Why does scripture include different books that sometimes tell competing or different stories? One reason that makes sense to me is that Scripture isn’t afraid of a wider story. Scripture includes all the stories and traditions because, without them, God’s story would not be as big as it truly is. Our desire for one authentic, historical, and “correct” storyline isn’t scripture gives us. Instead, scripture wants to tell all of God’s story which is bigger than we can imagine.

Today’s poem takes place when David brings the Ark into Jerusalem. It’s a composite piece, pulling together several different psalms to praise God. Think of it as a mixtape to God, with Psalm 96 and Psalm 106 being used together to describe who God is. And this is what praise is: telling who God is. When we gather together to worship God, we’re not gathering because God needs our praise or God needs to be flattered. We gather to tell God’s story, to share what God has done, and how God is with us. Praise is proclaiming and sharing that God is good and howe we can live in God’s goodness. When the ark enters Jerusalem, David’s words of praise are about living in God’s goodness because “his steadfast love endures forever” and that love is for me, you, and the entire world.

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for 7th Sunday of Easter on 5/08/2016.

A Reflection on the Fall of Jerusalem

The First Reading is 2 Kings 25:1-6,8-12.

We’ve been reading the bible since January 1st and we finally reach the fall of Jerusalem. The kingdom Saul established and David grew collapses under an assault by the Babylonians. Babylon, located 60 miles southwest of Baghdad in Iraq, grew an immense empire that ruled much of the Middle East for 70 years. As they grew powerful, they attacked Jerusalem many times, looting God’s Temple and sending the rich and powerful into exile. The leaders in Jerusalem try one final rebellion against Babylon but are defeated. As we hear in our text today, the city is taken, the king captured, and a large fire consumes Jerusalem. Only the very poor are allowed to remain. Everyone is taken and led to live in the capital of Babylon.

This movement of people from Jerusalem to Babylon is what we call the Exile. The followers of God are taken from the promised land and forced to live in the capital of their enemy. They watched as their homes were burn, their army defeated, and the house they built for God (the Temple) is destroyed. I imagine the survivors of this ordeal felt an incredible sadness. Everything they knew was gone. It appeared as if Babylon, with their own gods, somehow defeated the God of the universe. The book of Lamentations was probably written in response to this tragedy. In the face of despair, the only thing the people could do was cry tears.

But we know that the story of God’s Chosen people does not end at Babylon. Even while located in the heart of the enemy capital, the Jewish people retain their identity and relationship with God. They connect with each other, continue to teach the faith to their children, and even start to standardize the biblical text as we have it today. Even though they were exiled from their homeland, they were never Exiled from their God. God is present in the hardship – and is still making things new.

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for 6th Sunday of Easter on 5/01/2016.

A Reflection on Elijah

The First Reading is 1 Kings 17:1-16.

The kingdom that David founded is now split in two. After Solomon’s death, the Northern Kingdom and Southern Kingdom split. In book of Kings (1st and 2nd Kings) shares the history of both kingdoms. Both Kingdoms will ebb and flow in the world of politics. They will occasionally fight against each other, unite against common enemies, and sometimes sit on the sidelines while the other kingdom is at war. Located in between the large empires that develop in what is now Iraq and Egypt, the kingdoms are always at war. And it’s in the middle of this reality that Elijah appears.

Elijah appears suddenly. We don’t know he’s coming until he shows up. We know nothing about his childhood and we’re still not sure exactly what town he came from. Instead, he heads to the Northern Kingdom and visits King Ahab. He stands before the king and says, because of the Northern Kingdom’s idolatry, no rain will fall. He’s pronouncement made, Elijah runs for safety while a drought and famine strike the land. He then receives a word from God to leave his hiding spot and cross into enemy territory. He heads to Sidon (in modern day Lebanon) and meets a widow at the entrance to the town. Her food supply is short but Elijah demands that she share. She does and her oil and grain refuse to run out. God not only provides for Elijah. God also provides for this foreigner and her child.

Elijah and his student Elisha are the center of the story of the book of Kings (1 and 2 Kings) Elijah is a larger than life figure who becomes the herald to the Messiah (see John the Baptist). His prophetic voice and story will focus on who the God of Israel is. This God, for Elijah, is a God who provides. In the prophetic battles between Elijah and the prophets of other gods, the God of Israel always provides while the others do not. Elijah’s mission, in some ways, is to turn people away from themselves and towards the one who provides life. His mission is still our mission as we struggle to turn ourselves towards the source of our life. May Elijah’s voice continue to speak to us, turning us to Jesus, our center and our life.

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for 5th Sunday of Easter on 4/24/2016.

A Reflection on Numbers: Rebellion, Moses, and more.

The First Reading is Numbers 20:1-13.

It doesn’t seem fair that Moses doesn’t make it to the promised land. He was chosen by God to free the Israelites. He faces Pharaoh. He is the mediator between God and the people. And when God desires to affirm their relationship by revealing God’s face to Moses, God even shields Moses so that Moses will not die. God continually protects Moses. But in our reading from Numbers today, Moses disobeys God. The people are thirsy and are complaining. Moses talks to God and God tells Moses to command a certain rock to give water to the people. Moses leads the entire people to the rock. They gather around it. And then Moses strikes it with his staff. Water comes forth and the people drink but Moses has sealed his fate. God said to speak. Instead, Moses struck with his staff. And now Moses, like the other leaders in our reading from last week, will not enter the Promised Land.

So what are we supposed to do with this text? In fact, what are we to do with all of the rebellion texts in Numbers and the rest of the first five books of the bible? One way to frame their presence is to examine what happens in many of the cases. The turning away from God is usually tied to an example of idolatry. Now, idolatry can mean many different things. For some Israelites, it meant creating a golden calf and calling it a god. For others, it meant not trusting God’s promises and reverting back to their own strengths and fears. And, for still more, it mean putting something other than God at the physical (and spiritual) center of their lives. Wealth, knowledge, pride, and fear are all examples of idolatry. Anything that convinces us to put our trust in ourselves, our resources, or something other than God is just an attempt for us to try to be our own gods. And, like we saw in the Exodus story, the people didn’t free themselves from slavery. God did. God brings freedom and life. Everything else, according to the earlier books, just brings us back into a type of slavery and death.

This explanation isn’t designed to excuse the violence in these texts. The violence in the bible is something I will always struggle with. But the question of what gives us life, energy, and purpose is an important one. What’s at our center and does it feed our soul or devour it?

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for 1st Sunday in Lent, 2/28/2016.

A Reflection on Numbers: war language and temptation in the Desert

The First Reading is Numbers 1:1-16,44-46. The Gospel Reading is Luke 4:1-13.

As we read through the bible in an entire year, today we’re four books in. We call this book Numbers but it’s Hebrew name is Bemidbar, “In the Wilderness.” And that’s a good title for this book. Since the last third of Exodus, the Israelites have been camped at Mt. Sinai. They escaped Egypt, received many different teachings from God while at Mt. Sinai, and they are now about to journey to the land of Canaan (modern day Israel, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan). We call the book Numbers because the book, as we see in our first reading, starts with a census. They want to know how many soldiers they have for war. The journey into the promised land requires moving through territory filled with people who do not want the Israelites to be there. The people are heading to war.

I’ve always struggled with the war imagery that is part of Scripture’s story. War is violence and that’s never been part of my experience of Jesus. Wars involve struggle, loss, hardship, and the death. They involve entire nations and peoples committing themselves wholly towards a goal of victory against their enemies. There is excitement, energy, and a huge amount of resources that are devoted to a goal of victory. Soldiers, their families, civilians, and innocent bystanders are required to make, and sometimes be, a sacrifice. Even necessary wars, where evil is fought against and destroyed, are costly. So when we hear stories about God’s people being an army with descriptions of God as a general (‘the hosts of heaven’ means ‘the armies of heaven’), I struggle with what I hear. God’s army is on God’s side but why does God need an army in the first place?

Our gospel reading today might help with that. The story of Jesus’ temptation by Satan can be framed as a moral struggle. Satan is trying to trick Jesus into making an amoral choice when Jesus is weak from hunger and thirst. But what if Satan is trying to do something more? What if Satan wants Jesus to make a choice that denies who Jesus is and what Jesus came to do? Jesus’ journey involves the Cross and Satan offers him away out. Jesus doesn’t fall for it even though Calvary isn’t far away. Jesus doesn’t make a moral choice; he makes the only choice necessary to save the world. I don’t know why God needs an army and I don’t have a satisfactory answer for why this kind of violence happens. But I do know, through Jesus, God does what is necessary to love the world. Numbers has an army. Jesus will be killed by one. God, in so many ways, is a mystery and this season in the church called Lent is an invitation to ask these kinds of questions even if no satisfactory answer comes to us.

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for 1st Sunday in Lent, 2/14/2016.

A Reflection on Ash Wednesday

When you get home tonight, I invite you to not wash your face right away. Instead, do your normal evening routine. Put the kids to bed, wash the dishes, and watch your favorite shows on Netflix. Have a late dinner or an early snack, continue that book you read, or if you’re reading the bible in a year, try to catch up on your reading. I invite you to be yourself after church tonight because, even in your normal evening routine, Christ is with you.

Ash Wednesday is a day when we make Christ’s promise to us visible on our foreheads. When this congregation baptizes an infant, child, or adult, we mark each baptized individual with the sign of the cross on their forehead. The pastor takes a little oil, places it on their thumb, and gently marks their head. The oil doesn’t last long. The water from the baptism usually makes the oil hard to stick and, in the pictures and celebration that follows, the oiled cross vanishes. But even though the visible sign vanishes, the promise doesn’t. When we are marked with Christ’s cross, we are marked with the promise that God is with us. Christ’s willingness to live and di for us is given to us even if we never step foot in a church again. We might give up on God but God promises to never give up on us. This seal is ours forever and the ashes on Ash Wednesday serve as a visible reminder for God’s eternal promise.

Tonight kicks off the season of Lent. This is the night to remember who we are and who’s we are. When the time comes to wash your face, to remove the ashen cross from your forehead, let the water remind you of our baptism and that God’s love is all around you.

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for Ash Wednesday, 2/10/2016.

A Reflection on Holy Circles

The First Reading is Leviticus 19:1-18.

Leviticus is a biblical book is one of those biblical books that can be difficult to have a healthy relationship with. The book is in the middle of the Torah, the first five books of the bible (with Moses claimed as its author), and contains very few narrative details. We don’t have the grand stories of Genesis and Exodus with people moving to new places, arguing with each other and with God, and with visuals that would make any summer blockbuster movie proud. Instead, we have a lot of words, delivered by God to Moses while Moses and the Israelites are camped at Mt. Sinai. The story stops but the words from God don’t.

And these rules can be weird, especially to our reading. It’s easy for us to focus on the language that has filled recent social debates (such as the debate on human sexuality) but skip over the volumes devoted to animal sacrifices and what they do. We might want to remove text from Leviticus so we can use it in the way we want but we really shouldn’t. This text should be taken as a whole with the parts we claim to understand kept alongside the parts we don’t. We don’t get to cherry pick Leviticus.

So what do we do with Leviticus? One way that helps us is to draw circles. As you read the book, imagine a blank page with God as a dot in the center. Then draw concentric circles outward. Each circle represents a boundary of holiness. We see this in the story of creation (i.e. the 7 days) and in the construction of the tabernacle (the holy of holies in the center). The closer you are to God, the closer we (and the world) match God’s divine sense of order and purpose. These rules about what to eat, drink, dress, and sacrifice help us get a sense of which circle we’re on. Much of this language is focused on the action of the priests, the ones who mediate between God and people. The overall goal is to try to match God’s sense of order. That’s why Leviticus is so concerned with boundaries. By establishing boundaries, Leviticus works to establish a sense of order and purpose that helps match our lives up with God. Boundaries and order help us stay in tuned and in touch with God.

But how do we read Leviticus in light of who Christ is and what he did? If boundaries are important, what do we do with a Savior who crosses boundaries, ate with the unclean, conversed with the unwanted, and even appointed Gentiles as his disciples? There is an order to God’s creation – but just what does that order look like?

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for Transfiguration, 2/7/2016.

A Reflection on Malachi and the Lord showing up

Today’s first reading is from Malachi 3:1-4.

Do we really want God to show up suddenly?

When God shows up, according to Malachi, God is doing more than just acting on our behalf. God isn’t a superhero, moving us from danger and letting us live like was always have. When God shows up, God’s intervention grows. Being with God is like being a lump of rock taken to a blacksmith shop or smelter. From God’s first interaction with us to our last, God is busy refining that lump of rock into something new. When we’re claimed by God in our baptism, we’re tossed into a refiner’s fire. This experience isn’t easy. We rarely want to feel like we need to be refined. We might admit to a few problems we have or rough edges but we assume God can take a little sandpaper to us and, in a few moments, smooth us out. But refining takes more. It involves struggle and conflict, doubt and fear, joys and confusion. It can involve tough questions and tougher experiences. We can turn from God only to be turned right back, finding ourselves facing God face-to-face. This is an experience of God that is difficult to put into a stain glass window because when God shows up, God refines and purifies.

But what is God refining and purifying us into? That question is part of the mystery of this season. The description of God’s presence above fits well into an image of God as powerful and strong, molding us in a blacksmith shop that’s filled with steam, flame, and iron. But, when God shows up on December 25, God isn’t iron. God is a babe. This is who will refine us. This is who will change us. This is who will get us to be honest with ourselves and our need to be refined. This Christ will make us uncomfortable but we won’t be left there. Once the refining begins, we can’t be left where we were. The good news, as Professor Anne Stewart writes, is that we “will be reformed and refined” and to become, as Martin Luther shared, a Christ for our neighbors and our world.

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for the 2nd Sunday of Advent, 12/06/2015.