Saturday, May 26, 2012

Reflections on the text: Ezekiel 37:1-14 - "Boneyard Lives"

Boneyard Lives
Whenever I hear this vision of the valley of the dry bones from Ezekiel I think of the scene from “The Lion King” where little Simba and Nala are tricked into wandering into the elephant graveyard.  It sounds like such a cool place, until they actually get there and then they realize that there is more to that place than just a bunch of old bones.  There is danger and they are in risk of loosing their lives in this place!
There is a sense of danger that pervades this well-known text as well.  But it is a different kind of danger.  Simba and Nala faced physical danger in their valley of dry bones, but Ezekiel’s valley holds a different kind of danger: the danger of giving up; the danger of despondency; the danger of accommodation; the danger of hopelessness.  Let me set the scene.  Ezekiel is perhaps one of the most difficult prophets to read and understand in the entire Old Testament.  He certainly was a strange man and lived an equally odd life.  If he were alive today he would probably be diagnosed as a sociopath.  The book of Ezekiel was considered so strange in antiquity that the Rabbis had a rule that no man under the age of 30 was allowed to read it.  And women were not allowed to read it at all.  Some of his images are downright strange and offensive, but even so there are moments of brilliance – like the “throne vision” of the chariot (Ezekiel saw da wheel, way up in the middle of the air…) (Ez. 1:4-28 – pew bibles OT p. 597) - and our lesson today – the vision of the valley of dry bones in chapter 37.
Ezekiel was born into an aristocratic priestly family in Anathoth (the same city where Jeremiah was born) and served as a priest at the temple in Jerusalem until he and his family were driven into exile in Babylon when King Nebruchadnezzar besieged and eventually overran Judah and destroyed the city of Jerusalem in AD 597, leveling the palace and the temple in particular.  Those who went into exile with him were faced with some serious questions.  How do we make sense of what has happened?  Does this Babylonian victory mean that the gods of Babylon are more powerful and greater than YHWH, the God of Israel? How do we live – do we turn our backs on our faith and traditions and become Babylonian?  Or do we try to maintain our distinctive traditions?  These are the questions that Ezekiel addresses in his visions and prophecies.
"Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely" (v. 11).  Israelites in Babylon are living boneyard lives.  They see no hope.  They take no pleasure in anything.  Many of them are giving up on their tradition and embracing a new Babylonian way of life.  Many of them spend much of their time in the pursuit of pleasure to dull the pain of the loss of their very identity.  One can hardly blame them.  But Ezekiel’s vision emerges from the complaint.  The dry bones of the people’s lives and their traditions and all that they loved and gave their lives meaning are bleaching in the hot sun.  There is no life anymore.  There is no hope.  But wait.  They have not considered the power of the Spirit (Heb. – RUACH – which appears 10 times in this passage!).  The Spirit, the wind, the breath of God can still bring life, even in the midst of desolation.  The Spirit, the wind, the breath of God can still bring hope from hopelessness and life from death.  A new meaning can emerge from seeming meaninglessness.
Fast forward about 400 hundred years to that locked upper room in Jerusalem which is occupied by a despondent and confused group of Jesus’ disciples and followers.  Now, Jesus has promised the gift of the Holy Spirit (whatever that is).  Jesus has told them they were to be his witnesses and they were to proclaim the coming of the Kingdom into this world in Jesus.  But, they cannot see any possibility or hope.  They cannot get past the separation.  They are living boneyard lives.  And then suddenly there is the rush of a mighty wind and tongues of flame ignite these men and women and they are driven out of their safe, locked room and they begin to proclaim the Good News that Jesus is risen; that dry bones can live; that life comes from death and in Christ there is always hope!
The Spirit – the Ruach – the Wind – the Breath of God still is upon us, 2000 years after the disciples had their Pentecost experience and 2500 years after Ezekiel told the hopeless people of Israel a vision about boneyard lives that can become filled with life and hope and potential because of this Spirit of God. What about the dry bones that we encounter in our individual lives and in our lives as a community and as a people?  Shall we just give in to the hopelessness, the scapegoating, the fear-mongering, the blame-game, the greedy grasping for ME and MINE, the violent acting out which seems to characterize our society?  Is this how we should deal with the serious issues that confront us as a nation and as a people? Do we really have so little faith that we allow the dry bones to define our lives and like the Israelites in Babylon look either to selfish pleasures or giving up and making do?  The mighty wind, the Ruach, the breath, the Spirit of God that engulfed the disciples and drove them into the streets is still at work in our world bringing abundant life to boneyard lives and communities.  Can you see it?  Do you experience it? The Spirit is at work in your life; in this church, parish and community calling us to stop gazing into the mirrors of our self-pity and to open our hearts and our eyes and respond to God’s call and begin reaching out in the power of the Spirit to do the work of the Kingdom to which we are called.  
An audio recording of this sermon is posted in the media section of the website for the Wartburg Coorperative Parish. Click here!

Monday, May 21, 2012

Why Worship?

The following is a portion of my 2012 Annual Report to the congregation and is inspired by my attendance at the Valparaiso Liturgical Conference and a workshop sponsored by the Lutheran School of Theology in St. Louis presented by Thomas Poelker.

Why Worship?
Why do we worship?  More specifically, why do you worship?  There are probably as many answers to these questions as there are Christians who worship, and I think it is fair to say that there really can be no “correct” or “incorrect” answer to these questions.  Even so, over the past 50 years or so there are two approaches to worship that I think deserves some reflection. The first approach casts God as an audience.  The point of worship is pleasing or entertaining God. What is important then is our performance, our sincerity and enthusiasm.  If there is any benefit that comes to the worshipper in this understanding it is a secondary concern and happens because the Spirit is reflecting back in a way that lifts and encourages the worshippers.  But make no mistake, God is the audience of this approach.
A second approach casts the congregation as the audience and it looks for meaning and edification to the Pastor, the worship leaders and God to speak through worship to them.  In this approach worship is a very passive experience.  We, the congregation, sit and listen and pay attention.  We may participate, to some extent, in the singing, in the litanies and so on.  But the focus is on “what am I getting out of this service?”  And this question may be addressed to the worship leaders, Pastor and even to God.
I would like to suggest that while there are elements in both approaches that are important, an exclusive focus on one over the other will lead to a worship experience which is not very edifying or spiritually strengthening.  If God is the exclusive audience then we first of all, run the risk of falling into a form of works righteousness where all of our efforts to please God then become an end in themselves. If God is our exclusive audience, then why do we need the sermon or the Sacraments?  Do we really think God is so vain that God needs to be constantly entertained or are we so insecure in our relationship with God that we need to regularly remind God of our strong devotion and commitment?  And if we are the audience then worship becomes a piece of entertainment, which we can turn on or off depending on our mood and view.  If I need to be entertained in worship then worship is all about me.  What about you?  Do you fall into either of these groups, even partly?
I want to suggest another approach.  When I was little we would have parades every so often in the little town I grew up in. We all looked forward to these parades, because we all got to be in them.  In fact, there often were very few people watching the parade, because everyone was in the parade.  In the same way, worship should have no audience, only participants.  We all may participate in different ways, but we all participate in one way or another and the Holy Spirit works through our participation. As I pray with the Pastor, sing the hymns, listen to the choir, experience the sermon, receive the Sacrament I am an integral point of the worship event. This is why it is so important for the community – the whole community as much as possible – to be together for worship.  And why it is so essential for us, in our community of Peace and the Wartburg Parish to make a commitment to participate in worship so that we can experience Word and Sacrament on a weekly basis.  Through this we experience God’s presence; that is, we experience God’s presence in each other and we need you here so that others might experience Christ in you.
The word for weekly worship used in German is Gottesdienst.  This means God’s service.  Through worship we are serving God, by serving each other.  It is in this way that we experience Word and Sacrament as a Foretaste of the Feast to Come.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Reflections on Ascension – Acts 1:1-11

Read the text here: Acts 1:1-11

Have you ever wanted to escape?  Just get away from it all?  Probably.  There are times when we all think about wanting to get away from the stress and struggle of our day-to-day lives.  This is particularly true for us when we are confronted with something really difficult – the death of a loved one, a significant loss, health troubles, loss of a job and so forth.  What do we do? Well I suppose most of us continue on and try to move forward the best we can.  But perhaps some of us may give in to the temptation to dream about a heaven that is completely removed from our earthly lives. 
Well, we are not alone in this.  For centuries going back to the early church conflicts believers have envisioned a heaven (and a hell) that was very, very different from earth and one that was, for all intents and purposes, an escape.  Some great literature has taken great pains to describe a heaven that was very removed from earth and was filled with glory and joy.  The best example of this is probably Dante’s “Divine Comedy” which is in three parts: “The Inferno,” “Purgatory,” and “Heaven.”  Even if we have never read this work, we have all been influenced by it.  Virtually every literary, poetic, musical and artistic interpretation of the joys of heaven or the agonies of hell is based on Dante’s vision. I remember once when I was in college and having some struggles going to a friend who was very religious and sharing my struggles with the friend.  His response to me was in essence, just wait, some day you will be in heaven and you won’t have to worry about it anymore.  And then he proceeded to describe to me what he thought heaven was like, which I now realize looked a lot like Dante.
Now, “heaven” is a part of our tradition and a part of New Testament teaching.  But you might be surprised to learn that it is not as important or as central as we sometimes like to think.  In fact, Jesus is constantly working to refocus his disciples right here on earth.  The Kingdom of God (or, in Matthew, the Kingdom of Heaven) is not a far away place you go to after you die.  It is here and now and we disciples of all ages are called upon to be citizens of this Kingdom now, reaching out and touching others in Christ’s name.  The most important characteristics of this Kingdom are unconditional grace, love, acceptance, forgiveness and inclusion of all. And it is now! It is not here among us in its fullness, but it is now, here already.  And we experience a foretaste of the banquet table of heaven whenever we feel the wetness of water in Baptismal remembrance, when we take bread and wine in Holy Communion; when we reach out and touch another human or are touched by God’s love and grace.
But yet we persist in still looking into the heavens longingly.  In the Ascension text from Acts 1, Jesus takes his disciples out to the Mount of Olives one last time to bid them farewell.  Now Jesus has been with these disciples for around 3 years and has repeatedly tried to teach them that the Kingdom of Heaven/God is here and now and that they are called to be workers in this Kingdom.  He reminds them of this even in the resurrection appearances.  But yet when Jesus ascends what do the disciples do?  They stand there gazing into the heavens, completely lost and confused.  It is as though they haven’t a clue what to do next.  The Messengers (Angels) who first announced the resurrection have to again remind the disciples to lower their gaze and get to work! 
And still they don’t know what to do.  They return to their locked room.  They elect a replacement for Judas and otherwise do nothing, until that day when the Spirit of Christ invades their locked seclusion and drives them back into the world that God loves so incredibly.  This Spirit is still with us calling us to lower our gaze and get to work.  There are people who need to be cared for, supported, loved and visited.  There is terrible injustice in our world and nation which needs to be addressed, people need to be fed and clothed and provided with health care and housing. People are still being excluded and rejected based on things like race, ethnic origin, sexual orientation and social status.  What are we doing to bring God’s love and grace and acceptance to these situations? The words of the Angels ring out loudly: “People, why do you stand gazing into the heavens?”  There is work to do.  God calls us all to the work of the Kingdom.
Below you will find a woodcut of the Ascension.  Look at it carefully.  Do you see the Jesus’ footprints?  Pastor Barbara Lundblad has this to say about this woodcut:

“Not long ago I saw a wonderful picture of Jesus' ascension. It was a black and white woodcut print finely etched. In the picture Jesus is rising up as the disciples watch him disappear into the clouds. If you look closely at the picture, not in the clouds, but on the ground, you can see footprints on the earth. The artist has carefully etched Jesus' footprints down on the level where the disciples are standing with their mouths open. Perhaps the artist was simply imagining a homey detail that isn't in the text. Or, perhaps, the artist is pressing us with the old question, "Why do you stand looking up into heaven? Look at these footprints here on the earth." Jesus' muddy footprints are all over the pages of the gospels.
·      Can you see Jesus' footprints in the wilderness? Each time he was tempted to claim earthly power and glory, he reached up and touched the words of Torah. One does not live by bread alone. Worship the Lord your God and serve only God.
* Can you see Jesus walking on the wrong side of the street with the wrong people?
* Can you see Jesus walking up to a sycamore tree, then looking up at Zachaeus, the tax collector, perched in the branches? "Come down, Zachaeus," Jesus said, "let's walk over to your house for dinner."
* Can you see Jesus walking, then riding, into Jerusalem?
* Can you see him stumbling toward Golgotha, loving us to the very end?

“…Centuries later Dietrich Bonhoeffer kept the message going. "The body of Christ takes up space on the earth," he said. That is, the Body of Christ makes footprints.
"Why do you stand looking up into heaven?" Sometimes it's still easier to look for a pure world up there or out there, especially if we think of the church as the body of Christ. We see so many blemishes, so many things wrong. Perhaps you've said, "Show me a church where ministers aren't self-serving, where people aren't hypocritical, where love is genuine, and then I'll become a member." Well, we'll wait a long time, for such a church takes up no space on this earth. Or perhaps such a church lives only in our memories, a time when disciples believed, when faith could move mountains, when motives were pure….   There is no one but us, not in this time and space. We can stand looking up into heaven or we can believe the promise of Jesus: "But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you and you will be my witnesses!" You will make footprints in and through ordinary, imperfect communities of faith that seldom get it right. Ascension Day is not a call to look up. It is to trust that Christ's promise is down and in and around us. We are not alone-you and I who dance and climb, who run and get knocked down, we who lie on the grass or sit watching the late-night news. We are not alone. The Holy Spirit, promised by Jesus, surprises us at every turn, saying, "Guess who?"”

So, why do you stand looking up into the heavens?  Time to get to work!

Dr. Barbara Lundblad – DayOne -

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Reflections on the text – Acts 8:26-40

Read the text here: Acts 8:26-40

Measuring Up
            Does it sometimes feel as though life is nothing but a series of evaluations?  From the time we are young we are constantly being evaluated and compared with others.  It seems like we are always preparing and dealing with auditions, try-outs, competency exams or competitions of one sort or another.  Even into adulthood we often find ourselves being compared with and evaluated against others.  In the last few years there have even been a whole slate of reality TV shows that are nothing but intense competitions.  We simply cannot get away from it.  Do you measure up?  Or not?
            Our story this morning of the encounter between Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch is also a story about measuring up.  But it takes on a different approach than we might expect.  For, in a way, both of our main characters are outsiders to one degree or another.  First we have Philip. Now this is not the Philip from Bethsaida who was one of the twelve and who appears in the Gospel of John. This Philip was a Greek in Jerusalem and one of the seven deacons who was appointed (with Stephen) to serve the needy of the community.  In this opening part of Acts there is at least one incident which hints that Philip was not really on the inside and that is previous to this story Philip is sent to preach in Samaria.  But when he is successful he is actually replaced by John and Peter.  It is in returning from this assignment that the encounter in Acts 8 occurs.  It appears that because of his Greek background Philip did not really measure up to the rest of the disciples.
            Our other main character is described only as the Ethiopian eunuch.  But there is some additional information about him that helps us to understand a bit more about who he is.  So what do we know about him?  First, he was an African from Ethiopia, which is south of Egypt. In antiquity it was believed that Ethiopia was at the edge of the earth. So not only is this man a foreigner, he is really far from home. 2nd, he was powerful enough to ride in a chariot, and indeed we are told that he was an official in the court of the Candace of Ethiopia, the official in charge of financial accounts.  (Note: “The Candace” was not a name but rather a title referring specifically to the Queen Mother). 3rd, he himself was wealthy.  He owned a scroll of the prophet Isaiah.  Scrolls were usually jointly owned by a town, community or large group for use in their synagogues, and they were very expensive. Only a very few extremely wealthy individuals would have been able to afford to purchase his own scroll.  It is also significant, in a day and age when almost no one learned to read and write that he was actually reading this scroll. 4th, he was a eunuch.  This means he was sexually incomplete and inferior.  According to the Law of Moses eunuchs were impure and could not participate in temple worship (Leviticus 21:18-20; Deuteronomy 23:1-3).  Luke mentions this 5 times, so this was obviously important and a major part of the point he is trying to make.  Lastly, it seems that this Ethiopian was a God-fearer; that is he was a foreigner who was interested in Judaism, but who was not permitted to participate in the rites and rituals of Judaism.  He was, in short, an outcast.  He did not measure up.
            So, God brings these two men together on the road.  The Ethiopian is reading the scroll and trying to make sense of it and thus invites Philip to ride along with him to provide guidance to understanding the scripture.  Both men are open to each other and thus, the Spirit works through them both: the hospitality of the eunuch and the inclusivity and grace of Philip.  At the end this man, this foreigner who has been excluded throughout his entire life because of his sexuality is brought into Christian community through Baptism.
            The book of Acts in general and this story in particular make it very clear that all are welcomeGod calls all people into community through God’s amazing gracenothing excludes! Nothing excludes a person from being a part of God’s community in Christ – not race, not social standing, not wealth, not poverty, not ethnicity, not sexuality – Nothing? Baptism is available to all – saint or sinner, slave or free, conservative or liberal, men or women.  All are embraced by the Holy Spirit and brought into the community of Christ.  We in the church have been too quick down through the ages and even to our own time to place conditions on inclusion and grace.  We are the ones who have determined that in order to measure up to God’s standards we have to __(fill in the blank). But this story in Acts counters this and calls on the church and believers and followers of Christ to see that to set up conditions and to judge others and to exclude anyone is to work counter to the Spirit.
            Finally I would encourage you to take some time during worship this morning (during the prelude or the offertory or communion) to read through the companion story to this in Luke 24:13-35 - the Story of the encounter of the disciples on the road to Emmaus.  Note all of the similarities.  But in particular note that despite doubt, or despondency, or running away, or race, or sexuality or being excluded, in the end both stories conclude in Sacrament – an experience of the presence of the risen Christ – in the breaking of the bread in Luke and in baptism in Acts.  Both stories end in an encounter with the Lord who was crucified and risen to ensure that we would always measure up.
The Baptism of the Ethiopian Eunuch by Rembrandt

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Lessons from Acts

Have you ever noticed how sometimes the weekly lectionary – that is the schedule of lessons which are read at worship each week – kind of jumps around a lot.  This year in Advent we started with Mark 13 and then jumped to Mark 1 and ended up have the same Mark 1 passage in the lessons somewhere around 5 times as we made little run-outs to other parts of the Gospel here and there.  Because of this it is sometimes difficult to get a sense of the flow of the story.  And having a sense of the stories of the Bible, especially the story of Jesus life, ministry, passion and resurrection, is important to us.
Well in the coming months we will be preaching on stories.  Through the season of Easter we will be preaching on the Acts lessons that tell the story of the Early Church.  The mini-series is called “Lessons from the Early Church.” What happened to the Disciples after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension?  Jesus charges them with the work of proclaiming God’s love and grace in word and deed to the ends of the earth.  How do they do this?  Unfortunately there are not enough lesson or weeks in Easter to get very far into this but we can see a couple important things.  The key verses are Acts 2:44-47:
All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
From this we can glean a couple very important things.  1st Community was essential and they were a true community.  They supported each other financially and they shared their possessions with each other.  This may strike us a odd in the context of our very commercial and self-focused society.  But the fact is that the commitment to serve others is above all, and certainly more important than our own contemporary tendency to acquire things. 
Second – they shared meals and broke bread often.  In Luke (and the Luke who wrote the Gospel is also the author of the book of Acts) the phrase “break bread” is a code that refers to sharing the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper (See Luke 24:30).  Coming together as a community and sharing in the Sacrament of Holy Communion on a regular (at least once a week) basis was critical to the spiritual health and their ministry.  It is also critical to ours as well.  We all need to participate in Holy Communion as often as we can, at least once of week.  In this way we are strengthened spiritually for ministry by the presence of Christ received through bread and wine.
Third, and last they praised God in all that they did.  This includes prayer, this includes reaching out to share God’s love and grace with others by caring for those in need or by speaking a word of love and grace.  Praise does not consist of just songs or words.  Like most of what we are called to as disciples of Jesus, the most important way we can praise God is through following him and living lives which are faithful to his calling and that are responsive to others.  These are some of the themes we will explore during the season of Easter.  We could also call this series “Living a Resurrection Life” because ultimately that is what we are called to.
Coptic Manuscript of Acts 7:40-43 and 11:24-28 - from the Shøyen Collection, London/Oslo