Thursday, June 30, 2011

An Introduction to the The Parables of Jesus Sermon Series



Reflections on the Parables by Pastor Duncan:
This Sunday we begin a summer long series of sermons based on the Parables of Jesus.  Many of these are familiar to us as a good part of Jesus’ teaching was in parables.  So what are parables – they are stories which lead the listener to a new place or a new way of thinking.  Jesus’ parables would have been at times shocking and offensive.  The characters behave in ways that are socially unacceptable for 1st century Judeans.  Take for example the Parable of the Good Samaritan – the idea of a Samaritan offering assistance to a Judean would have been terribly offensive; or the Prodigal Son – the reaction of the father who runs out to greet his wayward son would have been scandalous.  Sometimes the characters in the parables behave in ways that go against common sense: the shepherd leaving the 99 sheep and going in search of 1 lost one (risking his entire flock and livlihood in the process) or even today’s parable – paying those who worked one hour the same as those who worked the whole day…. Well, what business man would do something silly like that?
So what is Jesus up to?  Well all of the parables are stories of the Kingdom of God, which is now present on earth through Jesus.  Each one of these parables give us a glimpse of the Kingdom and each of these parables demonstrate that we can experience God’s Kingdom now in our lives.  So what are some of the lessons?  Well, the Kingdom is radically inclusive and there are no divisions between Judeans and Samaritans and not only that, but the purity laws (that prevented the Priest and Levite from helping) are not as important as human kindness and grace; the Kingdom is a place of forgiveness and acceptance – the wayward son is received back with open arms by the father, but can we get beyond our prejudices in order to accept it, or will be sulk and refuse to accept God’s abundant love and grace, like the older brother?  The kingdom takes risks on behalf of grace (the searching for the lost sheep) and for today human definitions of fairness don’t count, God showers abundantly his gifts of love and grace on all of God’s creation.
The parables are a gift to us.  If we are open to hearing what they have to teach us they can lead us into ways of being in the world that are unique and filled with God’s love and grace.  The problem is that too often we are like the older brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son.  We offer this sermon series as an opportunity to learn and grow in our life of faith.

Friday, June 24, 2011

A New Devotional Website

One of the most wonderful gifts that comes to us through the ancient monastic tradition are the orders for daily prayer which have been and continue to be prayed daily in many communities.  Last summer I spent almost a week at St. Meinrad's Archabby and it was wonderful to prayer the daily office (as it is called) with the monks.  The services are: Lauds at 3:00 AM (times are approximate and vary from location to location); Morning Prayer at 6:00; Noon Prayer at 12:00 noon; Evening Prayer at 6:00 and Compline at 9:00 PM.  Now the ancient tradition also included other brief services at 9 AM and 3:00 PM.  Our hymnal - Evangelical Lutheran Worship and also the Lutheran Book of Worship before it, contained beautiful settings of the office services of Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer and Compline.  Evening Prayer and Compline are especially popular in Lutheran circles.  Episcopalians use Morning Prayer with a bit more regularity.  Every night at Lutheran Summer Music at 9 we sand Evening Prayer, and it was glorious.  My daughter came to love EP so much that she insisted we sing it in the car driving home from LSM after her 1st summer there.  At Peace we do Morning Prayer every Wednesday morning at 9:00 AM.

So, why do more folks not participate in the services of the Daily Office?  Well, our schedules are all so crazy that it is very difficult to do so.  Who wants to get up for Lauds at 3:00 AM (not me - even though I did it at St. Meinrad); and mornings are so hectic with going to work, and evening is filled with activities and then when we finally get home we are tired. 

So - here is a wonderful solution: An ELCA congregation in Hawaii has created a daily office website.  You can go there at choose which service you want to pray - click on it and it is all there.  All the texts which are appointed for the day - including the texts for feast days and commemorations (I just finished praying Morning Prayer and today is the Birth of John the Baptist and all of the appointed texts are there).  I encourage you to check this out.  It is a wonderful site and a great opportunity to lift your hearts in prayer for a short amount of time.  Here is the link:  Enjoy:


Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Thy Kingdom Come.... The Justice of God and Budget Making....


First, some preliminary comments:
1. This blog post is in response to a comment posted on one of my former student’s Facebook page.  The student (we’ll call him “Brad” – names have been changed to protect the innocent, though those who know him will know who I am talking about) had posted a quote from Dom Crossan to the effect that the Bible – both testaments – is very forthright and unapologetic in its call for “distributive justice.”  This is laid out in the Torah very clearly, and then bluntly reenunciated by the prophets. Jesus also picks up the theme and is unapologetic about it – especially in the Gospel of Luke.  Among the comments to this post of “Brad’s” was a friend of his who curtly dismissed the quote as being warmed over “communism” or “socialism.”  Brad politely disagreed.  Well, I will not be quite so polite in my response to the silly and uniformed comment.
2. Herman Melville was one of America’s greatest writers.  My favorite of his short stories is “Billy Budd,” which was adapted into one of the 20th century’s greatest opera librettos (not to mention the music – which makes it one of the all time greatest operas ever written, but that is a real digression).  E.M Forster and Eric Crozier are the librettists and as the plot is cascading towards its cataclysmic climax the Master-At-Arms (John Claggert) requests permission to speak to Captain Vere on the Quarterdeck.  Tensions are high and so are suspicions and fears.  The H.M.S. Indomitable is in French, enemy waters.  The fleet has been hit by high profile mutinies at Spithead and the Nore.  The crew for the most part have been pressed and so they are hostile to the officers.  It is an explosion waiting to happen.  Claggert suggests to the Captain that a very popular sailor, named Billy Budd, is disaffected and is leading others astray.  He is, says Claggert, “ripe for the crimes of Spithead and the Nore,” he is turning men’s hearts to, “dare I mention that foul word – mutiny!”  “Mutiny!  Mutiny!” Responds the Captain abruptly, “Mutiny, Mr. Claggert, I am not to be scared by words!”  That is the point of this digression.  Just throw in a hot word – like “mutiny” into the powder keg of late 18th century navel discipline – or “communism” and “socialism” in the context of early 21st century political and economic discussion and the result is an end to any hope of intelligent conversation. 
3. So, while I usually do not venture into politics, as I feel my calling is not to be political but to be faithful to my calling to follow Christ I begin this short reflection on budgets and justice with a categorical rejection of these silly hot words which most people do not understand.  And besides they are completely irrelevant to any discussion of the Gospel.  The Gospel emerged in the 1st century while these economic positions emerged in the 19th century philosophically.  So to Brad’s commenter I would simply say, go study up before you start throwing words around that you do not know or understand.  I am not to be scared by words.
4. This is not a partisan rant.  Both parties in my view are responsible for the current mess; there are leaders of both parties who have provided courageous and visionary leadership; and there are politicians and business leaders of both parties who have been petty and greedy and have done everything they can to further their own agenda at the expense of the nation.  I will lay out my cards here though.  I long for real republicans to step forward and oppose the hijacking of their great party by this group of pseudo-republicans who are really libertarians in disguise and whose economic philosophy seems founded on greed and self-interest.
So, we – as a nation – are in an economic mess: unemployment is at its highest levels in years, there is a housing crisis and the national debt has grown to astronomical size.  What is the solution?  Well, one group of politicians seems to have devised a perfect solution: cut entitlement spending, cut education spending, cut spending on programs that provide a life line for thousands of American men, women and children and at the same time cut taxes; maintain current tax cuts and find new ways to exempt the wealthiest individuals and companies from paying taxes.  Does that make sense?  Well, no – not to me it doesn’t.  This approach, which is spelled out in the budget offered by Representative Paul Ryan is nothing short of immoral and would have a devastating impact on thousands and thousands of individuals and communities.  And, as the “1000 Pastors for a Moral Budget” letter states (see below), as open hearted and well intentioned as many Americans and churches are, they simply cannot provide the level of assistance that is needed.  Do thousands and thousands would be thrown into poverty without a life line, children are abandoned to starvation - all of this if the house libertarians have their way.
So, what is the solution?  I am not an economist but I know enough accounting to know that you cannot keep spending what you don’t have.  So I agree that the deficit is a serious problem.  It is a serious problem that has been contributed to by many quarters of the society and political spectrum over a number of years.  So the first thing is that we need to stop pointing fingers and playing the blame game.  The deficit is not only Obama’s fault.  There is plenty of blame to go around.  Let us not forget that when Clinton left office the budget was balanced.  The tax cuts and the military ventures of the following administration of George W Bush have also contributed to this terrible deficit mess. 
So, then what to do?  The congress seems to have determined that the way to deal with the deficit is to cut, cut, cut and cut.  And what are they cutting?  Well, primarily entitlement programs, programs that provide food and clothing and education.  Politicians claim they are going to cut fat.  But it has gotten to the point that there is no more fat to cut in some programs and we are seeing muscle cut and programs gutted.  These kinds of cuts are simply immoral. (Aside = They also want to cut the NEA and NPR and PBS and other cultural programs.  These cuts would also have a devastating impact on the lives of millions of Americans, additionally they would create more problems then they would solve.  Support of the arts actually provides an economic incentive and puts money and jobs into the economy.  To make these cuts would be counter-productive.) 
What other alternatives are there?  Well, why is it that there has developed this senseless and destructive libertarian attitude about taxes?  The new republicans in the congress (who are hardly republicans at all – they are libertarians in republican garb) seem to be ready to destroy the lives of millions, gut the economy and allow the country to be destroyed just so they can avoid paying taxes.  Tax rates need to be raised!  We need to go back, at least, to Clinton era tax rates and all of the tax cuts for everyone which were ridiculously extended by the congress and signed into law by Obama need to be rescinded.  The no-tax attitude of this group does not make sense.  It is simply selfish. We Americans expect our government to provide a lot, but we do not want to pay for it.  It is time to grow up and be responsible.  It is time for republicans to start being republicans again and not libertarians. 
Back in the 80’s when Ronald Reagan was first running for the presidency one of his catch phrases was: “Are you better off now than you were 4 years ago?”  That I have always believed is the wrong question.  The question should be – “is my neighbor better off?”  Is there enough food to go around?  Is there housing and shelter for everyone?  Do those who are ill have access to quality health care?  What are ways we can help folks find employment?  These are the questions we need to be asking? 
As a Christian, I believe the New Testament and the ministry of Jesus, into which we are called as Baptized Christians to enter call on us to put the care of our neighbor above all and to work for distributive justice.  In the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke, Mary, a poor village girl receives a visit from the Angel who tells her she will bear God’s son.  Later when she visits her cousin she can no longer contain herself: My soul magnifies the Lord, 47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…  51He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty…   This is a vision of the Kingdom which has come into our midst in Jesus.  Jesus affirms this in chapter 4 when he opens the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and then proclaims that Today this saying has been fulfilled in your hearing.  We who claim to be Christians have a responsibility to care for “the least of these.”  We who claim to be Christian have a responsibility to stand up to the economic philosophy of greed, otherwise known as libertarianism, and denounce it.  Because we are called to care for our neighbor, to love our neighbor as ourselves and if our neighbor is suffering, then we are suffering too.
So, don’t go bandying around words that have no meaning; try to look beyond your own selfish and self-centered concerns and see the pain and need that is all around you and then reach out, in anyway you can.  This is our calling as Christians and as we do this we do experience the Kingdom of God come into our midst.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

1000 PASTORS FOR A MORAL BUDGET


1000 PASTORS FOR A MORAL BUDGET

We are local pastors. Our lives are committed to our churches and communities. Every day we work to preach and live the Gospel of Christ. We challenge our congregations and parishes to live lives of personal responsibility and encourage them to live good and righteous lives. This also means calling our communities and nation to live up to corporate responsibilities.

In every one of our congregations we have programs that help those in need with jobs, clothing, food, or counseling. We gladly take up the challenge of encouraging our congregation members to give more, but in these past few years, it has been difficult for us to watch the need around us rise while the resources we have diminish. We work, pray, and do whatever we can to remain faithful to the responsibility of every Christian to help the poor. Still, we can't meet the crushing needs by ourselves. We do our best to feed the hungry, but charitable nutrition programs only make up 6% of total feeding programs in the country while the government makes up 94%.

In every one of our congregations we have members who receive much-needed support from government programs. We have seen this support allow young people to be the first members of their families to get college degrees, ensure mothers can feed their children a healthy diet, enable those with disabilities to live fulfilling lives, give much-needed medical care to those who can't afford it, support seniors, provide housing for families, and help people in finding a job.

SNAP, WIC, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, Head Start, Pell Grants, and Community Development Block Grants aren't just abstract concepts to us; they serve the same people we serve. There are changes that can be made or efficiencies that can be found, but every day we see what government can do. There is more need today than Churches can meet by themselves. This is why we join in the “Circle of Protection.”

As Christians, we believe the moral measure of the debate is how the most poor and vulnerable people fare. We look at every budget proposal from the bottom up--how it treats those Jesus called “the least of these” (Matthew 25:45). They do not have powerful lobbies, but they have the most compelling claim on our consciences and common resources. The Christian community has an obligation to help them be heard, to join with others to insist that programs that serve the most vulnerable in our nation and around the world are protected. We know from our experience of serving hungry and homeless people that these programs meet basic human needs and protect the lives and dignity of the most vulnerable. We believe that God is calling us to pray, fast, give alms, and to speak out for justice.

As Christian leaders, we are committed to fiscal responsibility and shared sacrifice. We want to support you in reducing the deficit. Small business and job growth are essential part of the path to prosperity for all Americans. We are also committed to resist budget cuts that threaten the well-being and, in some cases, the lives of the neediest among us. Therefore, we join with others to form a Circle of Protection around programs that meet the essential needs of hungry and poor people at home and abroad.  We urge you to prioritize them, and we pledge our support and prayers for you in doing so.

Affirmed and signed by,
Pastor S. Blake Duncan
Jun 17, 2011

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Reflections on The Feast of the Holy Trinity


I want to give attribution right off for some of the information that I am going to share today – the Feast of the Holy Trinity.  At the conference I attended in Minneapolis I had the opportunity to hear Dr. Diana Butler Bass speak and it is to her that I owe some of these thoughts, along with Dr. Marcus Borg (his new book "Speaking Christian").
When I was serving at a previous congregation, before coming to Peace, I had a member of the congregation tell me once that every time she said the creed she crossed her fingers behind her back.  Why, I asked.  Well, the creeds were all about the Trinity and how could she say she believed something that she didn’t understand. Hmmm – well.  So, is that what the creed is? Is the creed just series of statements to which we are to assent and affirm as if we were going down a list? Trinity is ultimately a mystery, as are several other things mentioned in the creed, including the Resurrection, the descent into hell (or “the dead”), the “sitting at the right hand” and so forth.  What do we do with mystery?  Is there no room for questions or even doubt?  And if we have questions or doubt does that mean we should abstain from confessing the creed?
“We Believe…” (Nicene Creed); “I Believe….” (Apostle’s Creed).  These words seem to be the sticking point for many.  I would suggest that we in the church have, over time, changed the meaning of this word “believe,” and that in its original form it was not a word of affirmation or assent, but rather a word of commitment and relationship.  In its original form the Latin word that begins the Nicene Creed is the word CREDO – which means We Trust.  This matches the New Testament Greek word for Faith (pistis) that also means Trust.  There is a different Latin word that is used for mental assent, or agreeing with a statement as if to say – “yes, I agree that is true” (Which is what “believe” has come to mean).  This word was not used, instead the word which means “trust” was used.  Think through the creed and insert the word “Trust.” How does this change the meaning of the words of the creed for you?
That is not all though. When the committee that worked on the translation of the Bible that eventually became the King James Version was meeting.  They began to fish around for a word to use to translate passages like John 3:16 which uses the Greek word for faith as a verb (pisteo).  How to translate this?  What word to use that captures the sense of active trust, the commitment and relationship implicit in the Greek?  So, the committee settled on an Old English word – Be louf; which is related to a German word – Belieben.  And what does Belieben mean?  It mean: Be-love.  Here is my literal translation of John 3:16, with the word “be-love” used instead of the more common “believe:” For in this way, God loved the created world, so that He gave His one and only Son, in order that everyone who Be-loves into Him will not perish, but will have eternal life.
So then we return to the Creed. How does it change our confession of the words of the creed if we understand “believe” and “be-love?”  “We be-love God” – who is that? “…the father, the almighty,” – why? “because he is the maker of heaven and earth.”  “We be-love Jesus Christ” – who is that? “…God’s only Son, our Lord,” – why? “because he was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary…. Etc…  “We be-love the Holy Spirit,” – who is that? “The Lord, the giver of life…”; why? “… because he proceeds from the Father…. Etc…”  The creed now is an affirmation of commitment and relationship and trust.  It is no longer a checklist that we have to run down each week.  The creed is an affirmation that I am committed to and are in a relationship with Jesus, Christ – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  And if I have doubts or questions, I can still affirm my commitment and relationship.  There is thus room for questions and doubts, there is room to search for answers and explore the mystery of the Holy Trinity. 

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Reflections on Pentecost - "You Got the Power" - Acts 2:1-42

Read the story of Pentecost here: Acts 2:1-42
The rushing wind – the tongues of fire – the speaking in other tongues! This story of Pentecost is well-known to us and we have heard it many times.  It is such a dramatic story!  And then Peter gets up and preaches.  Wow! Peter!  The same hard-headed disciple who never could quite understand what Jesus was talking about and who, when the chips were down, drew his sword to fight (completely against Jesus’ orders) and then he turned right around and denied Jesus three times.  THIS Peter preaches in the public square on Pentecost.  And this is no ordinary sermon.  This is the best sermon ever!  At the end the text tells us that three thousand come to believe in Jesus.  And then what?  Our lectionary Pentecost text is heavy on the spectacle but it cuts off during Peter’s sermon and we never get to hear the result.  So here it is – verse 42 – which concludes the Pentecost story:
They devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
So what is Pentecost all about?  It is about the creation of community in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.  God did not send God’s Spirit upon individuals.  The Spirit is sent to the community – the church.  And how do we tap into God’s Spirit?  By devoting ourselves to the Apostle’s teaching as contained in the Bible – that is, immersing ourselves in the Word; Through breaking of bread – that is, regular participation in the Sacrament of Holy Communion; and through fellowship and prayer – that is, being together, reaching out to others, caring for others, lifting other’s needs to God – all of that is what it means to be in prayer.  The power of God is showered upon us who are a part of the community of Christ through the Holy Spirit.
We will celebrate the confirmation of 5 of our young people today.  What exactly is confirmation?  Well, confirmation is not graduation – it is an opportunity for the young people to confirm their faith and to say publicaly before the entire congregation that “yes, I want to be a part of this community.”  They will be asked to promise that they will regularly participate in worship, they will study the Word, they will share in the Sacrament and that they are committed to being vessels of God’s Spirit in the midst of this world (that would be – prayer and fellowship).  Notice that the promises sound a lot like verse 42.  It’s not an accident.
      In making these promises and confession these young people will affirm the Baptismal vows that their parents and sponsors made on their behalf when they were newly born.  This also gives us the opportunity to affirm our own commitment to the Baptismal vows that we made at our own confirmation and to recognize that one of God’s greatest gifts to us all is the gift of community.  In our very individualistic consumer-oriented culture the verses quoted above may sound odd and out-dated.  But in fact, they are one of God’s greatest gifts to us.  The church may not be perfect – but it is the community of Christ and this gift to us gives us grounding and allows us to plug into the Spirit.  It also enables us to recognize that the church is not yet another institution.  Rather, WE are the church – the community of Christ – “called, enlightened, sanctified for the work of Jesus Christ.”  Amen!

 

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Reflections on Ascension - Acts 1:1-11 - "Left Behind"

Read the Ascension text here: Acts 1:1-11


            Several weeks ago a "Rev." Harold Camping announced and a number of believers were truly expecting the end of the world.  May 21 – absolutely – it can’t be wrong.  All the calculations pointed to this date.  So, huddled and expectant they waited.  In a way they were gazing into the heavens watching and hoping and expecting.  And it was evening and it was morning – no rapture!  This is not too surprising actually.  There have been any number of predictions going back to the 19th century and they have all been wrong.  And, I can myself predict with certainty that future predictions will also be wrong.  Why?  Well, for starters Jesus specifically commands folks NOT to even try predicting.  But there are other reasons as well and these reasons all come together around the Feast of Ascension.
            First, one assumption of these predictions is that the world is so evil that God will destroy the world.  This is the first mistake.  In fact, this is completely non-biblical (as is the entire Rapture theology for that matter).  When God created the heavens and the earth, at the end of each day we read that God looked on what God had made and saw that it was good.  Actually the Hebrew is the word “TOV.”  God pronounced the work of creating the earth and everything that is as being TOV – fantastic – amazing – awesome.!  The word “TOV” implies excitement; it implies that God was so excited by God’s work of creation that God could hardly keep from dancing!  And throughout the Old Testament – despite the problems – God constantly reaffirms God’s love and commitment to this amazing creation.  In fact God is so filled with love and commitment for the creation that God is born in Jesus.
            Second, the Acts text is one of my favorite New Testament stories.  Jesus leads the disciples out to Bethany, says goodbye and ascends to heaven.  The disciples stand there watching, gazing into the heavens.  Finally an angel (messenger) tells the disciples to stop gazing into the sky, to lower their gaze, look around and get to work.  How often are we tempted to gaze into the sky looking for God?  How often do we miss God at work in the midst of the world all around us because we are looking in the wrong place – into the sky.  Like the disciples we need to lower our gaze, look around at God’s creation and get to work.
            Finally, what is this work that we are called to?  It is everything that we are engaged in – what we do day in and day out.  Any work that contributes to the community, builds up others, provides sustenance – that is the work of everyday life: our vocations, family life, play, civic involvement, volunteer work – all of it honors the Father who created this world TOV.  This is why we have been "left behind" – and this is a good thing (it is TOV) – Jesus leaves his disciples behind for the good of the world which God loves so that they might do works of love and grace and be open vessels of God’s love in the midst of this wonderful creation.