Resources from Lent

The Psalms of Lent was our theme for the season at Woodridge United Methodist Church. as we prepare to enter Holy Week, I thought it would be fun to collect all the Psalms we used in one place…so I did.


Each Sunday in Lent we first heard the Psalm from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) through the sung Psalter in our UM hymnals. Then we heard the lectionary text from a different translation to give us another experience of it. As we’ve seen over and over again in our weekly bible study, hearing the text from a variety of sources really helps us engage. We hear and notice different things or react to the text in completely different ways depending upon particular word choices.

February 10, Ash Wednesday: Psalm 51 — New Living Translation

Have mercy on me, O God,
because of your unfailing love.
Because of your great compassion,
blot out the stain of my sins.
2 Wash me clean from my guilt.
Purify me from my sin.
3 For I recognize my rebellion;
it haunts me day and night.
4 Against you, and you alone, have I sinned;
I have done what is evil in your sight.
You will be proved right in what you say,
and your judgment against me is just.[a]
5 For I was born a sinner—
yes, from the moment my mother conceived me.
6 But you desire honesty from the womb,[b]
teaching me wisdom even there.
7 Purify me from my sins,[c] and I will be clean;
wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
8 Oh, give me back my joy again;
you have broken me—
now let me rejoice.
9 Don’t keep looking at my sins.
Remove the stain of my guilt.
10 Create in me a clean heart, O God.
Renew a loyal spirit within me.
11 Do not banish me from your presence,
and don’t take your Holy Spirit[d] from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and make me willing to obey you.
13 Then I will teach your ways to rebels,
and they will return to you.
14 Forgive me for shedding blood, O God who saves;
then I will joyfully sing of your forgiveness.
15 Unseal my lips, O Lord,
that my mouth may praise you.
16 You do not desire a sacrifice, or I would offer one.
You do not want a burnt offering.
17 The sacrifice you desire is a broken spirit.
You will not reject a broken and repentant heart, O God.
18 Look with favor on Zion and help her;
rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.
19 Then you will be pleased with sacrifices offered in the right spirit—
with burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings.
Then bulls will again be sacrificed on your altar.


February 14: Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16 — The Message

You who sit down in the High God’s presence,
spend the night in Shaddai’s shadow,
Say this: “God, you’re my refuge.
I trust in you and I’m safe!”

Yes, because God’s your refuge,
the High God your very own home,
Evil can’t get close to you,
harm can’t get through the door.
He ordered his angels
to guard you wherever you go.
If you stumble, they’ll catch you;
their job is to keep you from falling.
You’ll walk unharmed among lions and snakes,
and kick young lions and serpents from the path.
14-16 “If you’ll hold on to me for dear life,” says God,
“I’ll get you out of any trouble.
I’ll give you the best of care
if you’ll only get to know and trust me.
Call me and I’ll answer, be at your side in bad times;
I’ll rescue you, then throw you a party.
I’ll give you a long life,
give you a long drink of salvation!”


February 21: Psalm 27 — The Voice

The Eternal is my light amidst my darkness
and my rescue in times of trouble.
So whom shall I fear?
He surrounds me with a fortress of protection.
So nothing should cause me alarm.
The psalms provide us with a way to think about and pray through the various threats we face. Our enemies today may not be the same as in biblical times, but they are no less real. Consider the threats on the horizon. Some may be national. Others may be more personal. Still they come to surround us and destroy us if they could only get the chance. The reality is there are times when our enemies appear to have the upper hand and our cause is lost. But wait and listen to the psalm! All is not lost because, ultimately, God is our light and salvation. The darkness will lift, and our Savior will come. He will settle all scores, and we will live in the beauty of His presence.
2 When my enemies advanced
to devour me alive,
They tripped and fell flat on their faces into the soil.
3 When the armies of the enemy surround me,
I will not be afraid.
When death calls for me in the midst of war,
my soul is confident and unmoved.
4 I am pleading with the Eternal for this one thing,
my soul’s desire:
To live with Him all of my days—
in the shadow of His temple,
To behold His beauty and ponder His ways
in the company of His people.
5 His house is my shelter and secret retreat.
It is there I find peace in the midst of storm and turmoil.
Safety sits with me in the hiding place of God.
He will set me on a rock, high above the fray.
6 God lifts me high above those with thoughts
of death and deceit that call for my life.
I will enter His presence, offering sacrifices and praise.
In His house, I am overcome with joy
As I sing, yes, and play music for the Eternal alone.
7 I cannot shout any louder. Eternal One—hear my cry
and respond with Your grace.
8 The prodding of my heart leads me to chase after You.
I am seeking You, Eternal One—don’t retreat from me.
9 You have always answered my call.
Don’t hide from me now.
Don’t give up on me in anger at Your servant.
You have always been there for me.
Don’t throw me to the side and forget me,
my God and only salvation.
10 My father and mother have deserted me,
yet the Eternal will take me in.
11 O Eternal, show me Your way,
shine Your light brightly on this path, and make it level for me,
for my enemies are lurking in the recesses and ravines along the way.
12 They are watching—hoping to seize me.
Do not release me to their desires or surrender me to their will!
Liars are standing against me,
breathing out cruel lies hoping that I will die.
13 I will move past my enemies with this one, sure hope:
that with my own eyes, I will see the goodness of the Eternal
in the land of the living.
14 Please answer me: Don’t give up.
Wait for the Eternal in expectation, and be strong.
Again, wait for the Eternal.


February 28: Psalm 63:1-8  — Contemporary English Version

You are my God. I worship you.
In my heart, I long for you,
as I would long for a stream
in a scorching desert.
2 I have seen your power
and your glory
in the place of worship.
3 Your love means more
than life to me,
and I praise you.
4 As long as I live,
I will pray to you.
5 I will sing joyful praises
and be filled with excitement
like a guest at a banquet.
6 I think about you
before I go to sleep,
and my thoughts turn to you
during the night.
7 You have helped me,
and I sing happy songs
in the shadow of your wings.
8 I stay close to you,
and your powerful arm
supports me.


March 6: Psalm 32 — The Message

Count yourself lucky, how happy you must be—
you get a fresh start,
your slate’s wiped clean.
2 Count yourself lucky—
God holds nothing against you
and you’re holding nothing back from him.
3 When I kept it all inside,
my bones turned to powder,
my words became daylong groans.
4 The pressure never let up;
all the juices of my life dried up.
5 Then I let it all out;
I said, “I’ll make a clean breast of my failures to God.”
Suddenly the pressure was gone—
my guilt dissolved,
my sin disappeared.
6 These things add up. Every one of us needs to pray;
when all hell breaks loose and the dam bursts
we’ll be on high ground, untouched.
7 God’s my island hideaway,
keeps danger far from the shore,
throws garlands of hosannas around my neck.
8 Let me give you some good advice;
I’m looking you in the eye
and giving it to you straight:
9 “Don’t be ornery like a horse or mule
that needs bit and bridle
to stay on track.”
10 God-defiers are always in trouble;
God-affirmers find themselves loved
every time they turn around.
11 Celebrate God.
Sing together—everyone!
All you honest hearts, raise the roof!


March 13: Psalm 126 — The Voice

Remember when the Eternal brought back the exiles to Zion?
It was as if we were dreaming—
2 Our mouths were filled with laughter;
our tongues were spilling over into song.
The word went out across the prairies and deserts,
across the hills, over the oceans wide, from nation to nation:
“The Eternal has done remarkable things for them.”
3 We shook our heads. All of us were stunned—the Eternal has done remarkable things for us.
We were beyond happy, beyond joyful.
4 And now, Eternal One, some are held captive and poor.
Release them, and restore our fortunes
as the dry riverbeds of the South spring to life when the rains come at last.
5 Those who walk the fields to sow, casting their seed in tears,
will one day tread those same long rows, amazed by what’s appeared.
6 Those who weep as they walk
and plant with sighs
Will return singing with joy,
when they bring home the harvest.


March 20: Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29  — Common English Bible

Give thanks to the Lord because he is good,
because his faithful love lasts forever.
2 Let Israel say it:
“God’s faithful love lasts forever!”

19 Open the gates of righteousness for me
so I can come in and give thanks to the Lord!
20 This is the Lord’s gate;
those who are righteous enter through it.
21 I thank you because you answered me,
because you were my saving help.
22 The stone rejected by the builders
is now the main foundation stone!
23 This has happened because of the Lord;
it is astounding in our sight!
24 This is the day the Lord acted;
we will rejoice and celebrate in it!
25 Lord, please save us!
Lord, please let us succeed!
26 The one who enters in the Lord’s name is blessed;
we bless all of you from the Lord’s house.
27 The Lord is God!
He has shined a light on us!
So lead the festival offering with ropes
all the way to the horns of the altar.[a]
28 You are my God—I will give thanks to you!
You are my God—I will lift you up high!
29 Give thanks to the Lord because he is good,
because his faithful love lasts forever.


March 25, Good Friday: Psalm 22 — Contemporary English Version

 My God, my God, why have you
deserted me?
Why are you so far away?
Won’t you listen to my groans
and come to my rescue?
2 I cry out day and night,
but you don’t answer,
and I can never rest.
3 Yet you are the holy God,
ruling from your throne
and praised by Israel.
4 Our ancestors trusted you,
and you rescued them.
5 When they cried out for help,
you saved them,
and you did not let them down
when they depended on you.
6 But I am merely a worm,
far less than human,
and I am hated and rejected
by people everywhere.
7 Everyone who sees me
makes fun and sneers.
They shake their heads,
8 and say,
“Trust the Lord!
If you are his favorite,
let him protect you
and keep you safe.”
9 You, Lord, brought me
safely through birth,
and you protected me
when I was a baby
at my mother’s breast.
10 From the day I was born,
I have been in your care,
and from the time of my birth,
you have been my God.
11 Don’t stay far off
when I am in trouble
with no one to help me.
12 Enemies are all around
like a herd of wild bulls.
Powerful bulls from Bashan[a]
are everywhere.
13 My enemies are like lions
roaring and attacking
with jaws open wide.
14 I have no more strength
than a few drops of water.
All my bones are out of joint;
my heart is like melted wax.
15 My strength has dried up
like a broken clay pot,
and my tongue sticks
to the roof of my mouth.
You, God, have left me
to die in the dirt.
16 Brutal enemies attack me
like a pack of dogs,
tearing at[b] my hands
and my feet.
17 I can count all my bones,
and my enemies just stare
and sneer at me.
18 They took my clothes
and gambled for them.
19 Don’t stay far away, Lord!
My strength comes from you,
so hurry and help.
20 Rescue me from enemy swords
and save me from those dogs.
21 Don’t let lions eat me.
You rescued me from the horns
of wild bulls,
22 and when your people meet,
I will praise you, Lord.
23 All who worship the Lord,
now praise him!
You belong to Jacob’s family
and to the people of Israel,
so fear and honor the Lord!
24 The Lord doesn’t hate
or despise the helpless
in all of their troubles.
When I cried out, he listened
and did not turn away.
25 When your people meet,
you will fill my heart
with your praises, Lord,
and everyone will see me
keep my promises to you.
26 The poor will eat and be full,
and all who worship you
will be thankful
and live in hope.
27 Everyone on this earth
will remember you, Lord.
People all over the world
will turn and worship you,
28 because you are in control,
the ruler of all nations.
29 All who are rich
and have more than enough
will bow down to you, Lord.
Even those who are dying
and almost in the grave
will come and bow down.
30 In the future, everyone
will worship
and learn
about you, our Lord.
31 People not yet born
will be told,
“The Lord has saved us!”


Finally, one non-Psalm resource to share: some interesting neuroscience research. Here’s a part I quoted on Feb 28:

Here’s what brain research says will make you happy:
•Ask “What am I grateful for?” No answers? Doesn’t matter. Just searching helps. Boosts the neurotransmitter dopamine, just like antidepressant drug
•Label those negative emotions. Give it a name and your brain isn’t so bothered by it. activate your prefrontal cortex, which reduces the arousal in the limbic system, reduces emotion
•Decide. Go for “good enough” instead of ‘best decision ever made on Earth.” Trying to be perfect overwhelms your brain with emotions and makes you feel out of control. recognizing that good enough is good enough activates more dorsolateral prefrontal areas, which helps you feel more in control
•Hugs, hugs, hugs. Don’t text — touch. It makes you more persuasive, increases team performance, improves your flirting … heck, it even boosts math skills. Touching someone you love actually reduces pain.

I admit I was very nervous when, after I shared some of this, I looked up and our congregant with a doctorate in psychology was talking with mental-health professional colleague…so I asked her (in the midst of the sermon, because that’s the way we roll) if it rang true. I was relieved when she replied in the affirmative.

As you read through these Psalms again, what stands out? What do you notice? What moves your or bothers you? What questions do they raise? What thoughts and emotions do they evoke?

“Eat the Bread…For a Stronger, Kinder Faith: Redefining Liturgy, part 2” Oct.7 sermon

Here’s my sermon from Sunday (October 7). As I’m sure you’ve figured out, I called it “Eat This Bread…For a Stronger, Kinder Faith: Redefining Liturgy, part 2.” Part 1 was last week. Part 3 drops next week (October 21) at our Evening Worship. Again, this sermon was inspired and informed by my reading of Brian McLaren’s new book, Why Did Jesus, Moses, The Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?

Our text was John 3:16-17. Big thanks to my friend and tech guru, Chris McConnell for providing the video.

Eat This Bread…For a Stronger, Kinder Faith: Redefining Liturgy, part 2 from Dave Buerstetta on Vimeo.

Jonah, Jesus & Us: Jan. 22 sermon “Changing Speech, Speaking Change”

I always feel inadequate when it comes to posting my sermons. Most all the blogging pastors I know are great at posting brilliant manuscripts, and most of them manage to do so by early Sunday morning.

Meanwhile, I usually don’t have a manuscript. But that’s ok because I think sermons are auditory (and visual) events to be experienced more than they are papers to be read. I’d love to post a video of my sermons. But we don’t video record our worship gatherings, so that’s out. We do, however, record all our Sunday worship services on audio cd, so I should at least be able to do that, right? Well, for the longest time the whole service (usually about an hour-long) was all on one track. Now though, thanks to our faithful and talented sound engineer, Chris, we at least have a few tracks on the cd’s.

Then there’s the whole question of which of our two services to post. No two sermons are exactly alike. This week for instance, listening to both sermons I thought the first time was a bit tighter. But I forgot to mention that Jonah, son of Amittai means “Dove,” son of “Faithfulness.” I remembered that the second time, but the audio quality wasn’t as good. What to do, what to do… (a first world problem, to be sure).

So I’m trying a hybrid today. Here’s the audio of my sermon (beginning with our Deacon Beth storytelling the gospel reading). Below that are the notes I used along with the two slides I showed. Rev. Russell Rathburn’s The Hardest Question posts and John C. Holbert’s reflections on Jonah helped shape my thoughts. (Along with memories from my favorite seminary class: Jonah & Ruth with Dr. Julie Duncan.)

Texts are Jonah 3 (though really the whole book) and Mark 1:14-20.

Hope you find it engaging. I’d love to hear your comments.

This is the only time in the whole three-year Lectionary cycle that we read Jonah, which is one of my favorite books, so there’s no way I’m passing up this chance to spend some time in this delightful, confounding, silly, challenging book. Plus, I think it will help illuminate the gospel reading.

Close your eyes. You go into work tomorrow and are given the worst assignment possible.
…What is it? Anyone willing to share?
I’d guess we’d eventually hear funny stories, poignant stories, dangerous stories, even maddening stories.

Well that’s what happened to Jonah: he showed up to work one day and God gave him the Worst. Assignment. Ever.

“The word of the Lord came to Jonah, ‘Go at once to Nineveh and cry out against it, for they are wicked.”

In other words, God said, “Go to the capital city of your greatest enemy, the Assyrians – people who don’t know the Lord, people who are known throughout the ancient world as ruthless killers – Go to them and deliver the message I give you.”

We’ll get into Jonah’s reaction to that word from God, but first we need to rescue Jonah. Rescue him from the whale that is the Sunday School pabulum we’ve been fed all these years. What’s the one thing most everyone knows about Jonah? The whale.












I think we confuse him with other whale riders like Pinocchio or maybe even Rudolph in that ‘70s classic, Rudolph Saves Baby New Year. The whale is probably the least important part of the whole story! Here’s how we’ll rescue him: by paying attention to genre.

Genre matters. We know this. It’s probably just harder for us to apply that knowledge to the bible. Think about it like this: what’s the difference between a 10:00 NBC 5 news cast and a Saturday Night Live skit? Do we approach a Tom Brokaw Greatest Generation program the same as we do an episode of the Simpsons or South Park?

We need to similarly approach scripture. Jonah is the Colbert Report of the bible – whip smart, wickedly funny, and overwhelmingly satirical.

It seems to me, knowing that can help us make some sense of Jonah’s actions and words…and help us see just how darn funny this book really is.

Jonah is here, in Jerusalem. God tells him to go to Nineveh, here. So Jonah, whose name means, “Dove” son of “Faithfulness”, does exactly as one so named would do. He flees in the exact opposite direction! Tarshish is most likely in southern Spain. The exact opposite direction and the edge of the known world.

Do you know where Nineveh is today? What modern-day country? Iraq.
Maybe Jonah isn’t so crazy after all.

Jonah, the prophet, the mouthpiece of God, speaks not a word but flees instead, getting himself into many strange, and even funny, entanglements – worthy of a TV sitcom!
Maybe we need to do a study on Jonah, there’s so much here:
-He meets some pagan sailors
-Ends up inside a great fish
-Offers a prayer so sanctimonious it causes the fish the vomit
-Finally goes to Nineveh where he gives one reluctant, half-hearted sermon – a mere 8 words! – and suddenly everybody repents! I mean EVERYBODY: the people, the King…even the animals.
-even the animals are wearing sackcloth. Again, sounds like something right out of a Simpsons episode.

First the pagan sailors, now the awful, violent, enemies in Nineveh do what the prophet of God never does in this story: offer sincere prayers of repentance and change their ways to follow God.
Which, of course, makes Jonah furious.

I understand Jonah, I really do. I don’t have to think long to come up with a few people whom I think need to get what’s coming to them.

“This is what humanness is: sometimes we want education and enlightenment and understanding, and sometimes we want confirmation of our biases and soothing for our prejudices.” – Between Two Worlds commenting on Ta-Nehisi Coates’ blog on The Atlantic

Jonah tries to flee from God’s presence and finds that’s not possible. God doesn’t just reside in Israel. Jonah wants to limit God’s mercy – after all, the Ninevites were vicious, awful, sinful people. They were the enemy. But Jonah suspects and then finds out that’s not possible either. There is no limit to God’s grace.

And that brings us to Jesus. As author Gary Wills puts it, “Jesus continually tells people – shows people – to their astonishment, that no company is beneath his presence.” People in jobs that are despised? Not beneath Jesus’s presence, he spends time with them.
People that are outcast, excluded, reviled because they are the wrong race or the wrong gender? Jesus spends time with them. Speaks with them. Eats with them. They are not beneath his presence.

Notice what Jesus says in Mark. What is the good news? “The Kingdom of God has come near.” “Repent and believe that God is here with you, among you. God is near.”

How do we change the things we see in the world that are wrong? There are a multitude of ways, I’m sure. In one way or another, don’t most methods for change involve using our voice?

How do we make change?
-Vote. That’s a form of speech, isn’t it?
-With our money, we fund efforts with goals similar to ours “put your money where? Where your mouth is.” Is that a form of speech?
-We speak. Online, through letters, in person (such as at a city council meeting or    a Congress member’s office. Or to a family member or loved one in need of help.)
-And sometimes, we tell stories. The Emperor is a pompous jerk? Tell the story of his “New Clothes”

People trying to limit God’s grace? Trying to keep God for themselves? Insisting that God’s favor is ONLY for them? – Tell the story of Jonah. But remember, sometimes we’re those people. At least I know I am. So then we tell the story of Jesus. God draws near.

If we are to learn from Jonah, if we are to follow Jesus, then today we need to say to any whom the church has made unwelcome, to any the church has made to feel unwelcome, unworthy, or unloved… to them Jesus through words and actions says, God draws near to you.

Can there be any doubt that those who currently hear that message of being unwelcome and unworthy more than any others right now are our gay sisters and brothers? If we are to learn from Jonah, if we are to follow Jesus today, then to our gay sisters and brothers we must say we repent of our lack of love. To them we must say, God draws near to you.

But Jonah teaches me something else too: sometimes we’re the ones limiting God’s grace. At least I know I am. So again we tell the story of Jesus: God draws near.

Who are the Ninevites in your life? Really consider that: who do you despise? Who do you want to see “get what’s coming to them”?

The word I hear from God through Jonah and Jesus is: whoever your Ninevites are, this week, go and tell them ‘God draws near to you.’ Find out how speaking those words changes them. Find out how speaking those words changes you; changes me; changes us. Amen.

Sermonating for Sunday…night!

This Sunday night is the first trial run for a new alternative worship gathering at my church. I’m definitely experiencing that typical emotional cocktail of excitement (We’re doing something new! An idea of mine that others have helped birth!) and nervousness (What if no one attends? What if we suck? What if we think it’s great but no one else does?).

This alternative worship is one answer we’re attempting to the question, What will WUMC do in 2012 to reach people unattached to a church? Of course it could also be an answer for people who are already attached to our church but are looking for a different worship experience than we offer on Sunday mornings. “Alternative” here does not mean all the music will sound like Rise Against or Young the Giant or Silversun Pickups. (Though, personally, I’d enjoy it if it did mean that!) Rather, “alternative” means it will look, sound, smell and feel different from our existing Sunday morning worship services.

What exactly will those difference be? We can’t know yet. Those answers will reveal themselves as we go. I hope. So, we giving it a go. Offering an alpha test. Pitching a pilot. Experimenting. But with an open audience. Anyone is welcome. We’ll offer feedback forms. We’ll evaluate and try again January 8.

As it happens, I ran across three separate posts thinking about these kinds of new ventures. I recommend all three to you. They are certainly informing my thoughts this week.

Darby Jones of United Methodist Communications offers 5 worship trends for the unattached. Money quote: “Constantly question the theology behind everything you do from song choices to the welcoming introduction to when the worshipers sit and where the leaders stand.”

My friend, Steve Knight, asks Are we on the verge of participatory church? Money quote (by Dr. Ryan Bolger):

“The shift from postmodernity to participatory culture means people find their identity through what they create as opposed to maybe what they consume. … Our churches are still structured in such a way that we do it to them, not inviting them to create worship with us. So, if that’s the case, there’s really no space for people who’ve been formed by our participatory culture in our churches.”

Finally, Magpie Girl, Rachelle Mee-Chapman, offers a response to Knight: Why churches aren’t relig-ish. (Even the hip ones.) Money quote:

I’ve been working with SBNR folks for a goodly number of years now, and you know what? I don’t know a one of them who truly feels comfortable in a church. Not an old school ritual-based church. Not a new-fangled pop-music-and-candles church. Lots of people do feel comfy in both of those settings. (Huzzah! More power to you!) And lots of SBNR folks do go to those kind of churches. They just don’t feel especially right-fit behind the double doors. It’s kind of like when you really want sushi, but you are in the middle of a corn field in a landlocked state, so you end up eating chicken-fried steak and eggs. It’s not bad. It fills you up. Other people like it a lot. But it’s not sushi.

If churches are so very interested in making space for the None’s/SBNRs, then why aren’t more of those folks feeling at home there? Because I know a lot of emergent pastors, and I know they are trying to makes space for “the other.” They really really are. So why isn’t it working? I’d like to offer 6 reasons, all of which I’ve observed over several years of working with just such a relig-ish population. First problem, The Other…

One practice we aim to embody in our worship experiment is a more participatory sermon time. But that means I need to provide at least some of what I’m thinking about. Before Sunday. But that means I must have thoughts before Sunday. Didn’t do so well with that this time. But, hey! At least I know what one thing we need to improve going forward!

Here’s what’s on my mind as I prepare a sermon I’m calling, Lifted Up?

Our text is Mary’s Magnificat: Luke 1:46-56. That’s the NRSV. Here’s another version I like called The Voice New Testament:

Mary: 46My soul lifts up the Lord! 47My spirit celebrates God, my Liberator! 48For though I’m God’s humble servant, God has noticed me. Now and forever, I will be considered blessed by all generations. 49For the Mighty One has done great things for me; holy is God’s name! 50From generation to generation, God’s lovingkindness endures for those who revere Him. 51God’s arm has accomplished mighty deeds. The proud in mind and heart, God has sent away in disarray. 52The rulers from their high positions of power, God has brought down low. And those who were humble and lowly, God has elevated with dignity. 53The hungry—God has filled with fine food. The rich—God has dismissed with nothing in their hands. 54To Israel, God’s servant, God has given help, 55As promised to our ancestors, remembering Abraham and his descendants in mercy forever. 56Mary stayed with Elizabeth in Judea for the next three months and then returned to her home in Galilee.

Here’s some notes from The Voice on this section of scripture, notes that I find especially cogent:

Mary is deeply moved by these amazing encounters—first with the messenger and then with her cousin, Elizabeth. Mary’s response can’t be contained in normal prose; her noble soul overflows in poetry. And this poetry isn’t simply religious; it has powerful social and political overtones. It speaks of a great reversal—what might be called a social, economic, and political revolution. To people in Mary’s day, there is little question as to what she is talking about. The Jewish people are oppressed by the Roman Empire, and to speak of a King who will demote the powerful and rich and elevate the poor and humble means one thing: God is moving toward setting them free!

Some thoughts and questions:

Have you ever been disappointed in a Christmas gift?

As a kid, was there anything worse on Christmas than opening up a gift that you thought was for sure going to contain a toy, and finding clothes inside instead?!?

Listening to our choir’s cantata last week, I thought about this scripture when they sang, “the Bread of Heaven fills the needy.” I thought, yes! That’s what God is supposed to do. Like Mary sang, “the lowly are lifted up…the hungry are filled with good things”

Then I thought, but wait… that’s not really the case right now, is it?

  •     Globally, 925 million people are hungry
  •     16,000 children die each day from hunger-related causes. That’s 1 every 5 seconds.
  •     In the U.S.A., almost 1 in 4 children live in households that struggle to put food on the table. That’s 49 million Americans, including 16.7 million children.
  •     Among African-Americans and Latinos, it’s 1 in 3 children.
  •     About half of all American children will receive SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, i.e. food stamps) at some point before age 20.
  •     Among African-Americans, it’s 90 percent.
  •     How about here in our area? 59,000 people go to bed hungry every night in DuPage County, 20,000 of which are children.
  •     In 2011, West Suburban Community Pantry fed 35,500 people, including 15,000 children and over 2600 senior citizens.

So you tell me, are the lowly lifted up and the hungry filled with fine food?

What do we do with this gap between how the world is and how God wants it to be?

What do we do when God disappoints us?

At least one way to resolve this conflict is to reject the note above, to take it out of the realm of the political, economic & social. We “spiritualize” the conflict in order to make it go away. That is, we say – and I actually heard someone say this this week – what Mary proclaims there is what happens in Heaven after you die.

Well, I don’t know about you, but I don’t find that satisfying at all.
In fact, it rather irritates me. Like the author of the note above, I’m convinced Mary was speaking of change in the real world. I’ve often said the Christian faith is inherently political – when our ancestors in the faith declared that Jesus is Lord, they were very clearly saying that Caesar is not. That’s treason!

Today, when we say, Jesus is Lord, we are declaring (or should be) that our nation is not. That capitalism is not Lord. That consumerism is not Lord. That the President is not Lord, nor anyone else who might be considered a leader.

That’s the political, social and economic world. The real world.

Again, what do we do with this gap between the world as it is and the world as it should be?

It seems to me, the answer is us. God seems to work in the world almost exclusively through people.

What do you do with the gap?

Sermonating for Sunday: Gleeful Outsiders?

The texts for this week (we almost always follow the lectionary) create an odd juxtaposition of themes. Matthew 22:1-14 seems, at least at first glance, to be yet another affirmation that God is capricious tyrant, a violent bastard with a terrible temper. Meanwhile, over in Philippians 4:1-9, Paul gently and beautifully reminds us to “rejoice in the Lord always, again I say, rejoice!”

How the hell do we pull off this mashup? I’m going to try it by pondering the possibility of “Gleeful Outsiders?”. (And, yeah, everybody’s favorite fictional show choir is auditioning for the part of pop culture reference in the sermon.)

Matthew offers a scary and violent parable that is hard to read, that makes us want to close our eyes and skip to the next chapter. Yet, as Walter Wink writes, “Parables are tiny lumps of coal squeezed into diamonds, condensed metaphors that catch the rays of something ultimate and glint it at our lives.”

So if we can force ourselves to consider it, this parable raises questions such as: What – and when – is this Kingdom of Heaven? Just who is being cast out? Where does all this leave us, today’s hearers of this tale?

Also shaping my thoughts this week is the engaging discussion of the Matthew passage happening at The Hardest Question.

Sallie McFague offers deep analysis of parables. A taste:

Just as the parable does not illustrate ideas better stated nonparabolically, and so become dispensable, so Jesus is not merely an illustration for the kingdom which can be more adequately grasped apart from him — say in mystic encounters or in abstract formulations. His task was not to impart correct concepts about the kingdom but to make it possible for men to respond to it. . . . He not only tells shocking stories but leads a shocking life toward a shocking end. Just as the parables have familiar elements in unfamiliar plots, so Jesus’ life has familiar features of Palestinian life in startling juxtaposition.

What do you think? How might this parable speak to our condition today?

Pondering Pentecost

As I continue to prepare my sermon for tomorrow’s worship – it’s Pentecost Sunday! – I seem to have a lot of different ideas swirling through my head. So I thought I would share them with you. Welcome to the chaos that is my brain function!

1. First of all there’s the scripture for the week: Acts 2:1-21.  At the Festival of Pentecost God’s Holy Spirit births the church in the followers of Jesus. The Spirit is made known and she is awesome & powerful!

2. Turning as I often do to The Hardest Question, finds the Rev. Russell Rathbun musing: “The church is born fifty days after the resurrection, (pentecost means “fifty”), which is also the gestation period of crocodiles, goats and green beans. I don’t think too much significance should be drawn from that, but there might be something there.”

Ok, I don’t really know what that means or has to do with Pentecost, but it sure is intriguing, no?

3. This comes, of all places, from an email ad from Paraclete Press (and really, could there be a better source for the coming of God’s Holy Spirit than Paraclete Press?!?)
“What if humanity came together in the light & spirit poured out at Pentecost? …In such a society all people would find their place, neither lost in the collective, nor alienated and alone outside of it. This ideal requires urgency in the age of globalization. Can we live together and touch the Divine?” – Fr. Seraphim Sigrist, A Life Together: Wisdom of Community from the Christian East

4. Pentecost as a disco ball! These thoughts from Steve Taylor via Clayfire Curator:

I shone a red spotlight on a rotating mirror ball.
So not only is the rock on fire, but red light reflects off the mirror ball.
And so as the mirror ball rotates, little red lights move all over the church, all over people.

And at the end of the OT, a prophet named Joel has a dream. That one day every person, old and young, men and woman, can have the Spirit.
And at Pentecost, the dream of Joel becomes real. The spirit falls on everyone in the church.
No longer do just special people get to lit the pumice rock. Now the red light of the mirrorball falls on everyone. Everyone has the Spirit.

(Read more here  Under Creative Commons License: Attribution Non-Commercial)

5. Over on Sojourner’s God’s Politics blog, Julie Clawson taught me a new word: acedia

My first thought was, “We own a vehicle that’s named after spiritual apathy? How the hell did I let that happen?!?” But then I realized that’s Acadia. Whew! Clawson writes:

It’s not that I don’t see tremendous value in contemplation or think that we all need to practice self-care, but that perhaps we need to alter the most basic ways we view ourselves in the world. We are not rugged individuals dependant on getting our own relationship with God right; we are members of the body of Christ, existing in relationship with God and others at all times. Our gifts are meant to be shared eucharistically in community. It is a way of living that the philosophy of Ubuntu that Desmond Tutu writes about refers to. It is living, not for oneself, but as a member of a community where one is “open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.”

The last thing the American church needs are more messages telling us to focus on ourselves. Guilt trips and shoulds don’t help much either, for our “it’s all about me” mentality knows how to resist anything that makes demands on our self. It will take a drastic change in mindset to move us past our “I think, therefore I don’t give a crap about anyone but myself” operating system. I think for the church to not only get over this plague of acedia, but to survive it, we must start thinking communally. As Ubuntu thought states, “I am because we are.” We belong to God which means we belong to each other. Embracing that relational identity may perhaps be our only hope.

6. Via Knightopia, Donald Miller tells us we must know our own story.

If you want to change yourself, your community, or the world, you must first understand the power of story. And the most powerful stories aren’t on television or at the movies, rather, they are the stories we tell to each other in the way we live our lives. If you understand what makes a good story, you understand what makes a good life.

Your story flows out of who you are, not who you ought to be. If you don’t know your own story, you are lost.

7. And just what is our story? On the United Methodist Worship blog, Dr. Heather Josselyn Cranson reminds us that God is saving and redeeming the whole creation, not just human beings! Thus we must consider our story in the midst of the whole of God’s story:

N.T. Wright, with much of historical Christianity, is clear about this: God’s goal for all things will be accomplished not by removing what is salvageable from “this present darkness” into some ethereal state, but rather by a new, physical creation in which sin and death are no more.
Resurrection of individuals leaves us hoping for a solely human future. What of the rest of the created order? Indeed, how can humans even be humans apart from our connections with the environment and the other creatures with whom we live and move and have our being? If bodily resurrection is proclaimed in our services without sufficient attention to new creation, can we be said to be proclaiming bodily resurrection at all?

It can help Christians see our calling to work for God’s kingdom both in the here-and-now as well as in the age to come.  And it gives a much-needed correction to our habit of seeing religion, faith, and death in terms of the individual rather than in terms of God’s entire cosmos.

8. and of course, playing behind everything…the soundtrack to my life.

So, who’s ready for an hour-long sermon? Yeah, neither am I, actually. Guess I’ve got some trimming/sorting/discerning to do!

What jumps out at you from these resources? What other Pentecost thoughts have you?

Mighty Waters

Greetings from warm and sunny Pasadena, California!

I am here for a conference called Mighty Waters: Preaching and Living God’s Passion for Justice.

If you know me at all, you can probably already tell why I was drawn to this gathering. I’m all about striving to understand ourselves as called to live in – to breathe in – God’s desire for justice for the world and then to act – to embody – that justice in all we do. You might say we are called to exhale that breath of God’s justice into the world!

Here’s a piece of how the conference coordinators, Mark Labberton (Director of Fuller Seminary’s Ogilvie Institute of Preaching) and Bethany Hoang (Director of International Justice Mission Institute), describe what we’re hoping for this weekend:

Our bold prayer is that God will use these days together in ground-breaking ways for both our ministries and our own lives as we seek to more fully live God’s character of justice in our world.

We believe God’s heart is fully and wholly committed to the shalom of each and of all. That is amazingly good news in a glorious but broken world.

We believe God uniquely and personally enacts this commitment through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is the hope of the world.

We believe bearing witness to and being evidence of that divine reality in our living, speaking, and acting is the ministry of God’s people today. This is our daily vocation as disciples. A renewed commitment to preaching and living God’s passion for justice is essential for lives of faithful worship and effective witness. This is why it matters that we are joining together these couple of days.

We are asking God to do a great work among us. Our prayer is that this time together will deepen our lives in Christ, so that in lives of worship, our passion for justice and that of our congregations, will more nearly resemble God’s. In so doing, we may live out the call to seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8).

Bold words! Bold hopes. But good words and needed hopes, it seems to me. How can you experience more of this gathering? Glad you asked!

I’m live-tweeting the event (that means I’m sending tweets about the conference as it is happening). You can check that out on my Twitter feed.  Or check out the Mighty Waters Facebook  and “like” it to see more.

Two examples of what I’ve heard already that moved me (both from the first night’s speaker, Mark Labberton):

God’s justice is human flourishing. We are meant for flourishing…and so is our neighbor.

A college student once asked me, ‘If I come to your church, will I meet people who are like Jesus?’

I hope you’ll join the conversation!

Sunday’s coming

16th century Russian icon of the Descent into ...
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It’s Saturday night. That means you’ve made it through Maundy (Holy) Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. For us pastor types it also means it will soon be time to share cogent, coherent thoughts in the form of an Easter Sunday sermon! That’s the mounting pressure, anxiety-inducing meaning of “Sunday’s coming.”

If you’re still figuring out what to share tomorrow, let me (one last time) commend The Hardest Question to you. What is that all about?

It’s a blog done midrash style. It’s curator, Russell Rathbun, describes it like this:

Questioning the text is important, because the Bible is the witness to the Living Word of God. We are called into relationship with God through Jesus the Christ, The Word. Relationships, at their best, are dynamic, growing, deepening, revelatory, generative and transforming. A primary way we pursue relationship with the Living Word is through the study of scripture, so it must be taken seriously, approached with a robust confidence and a passionate vulnerability.

We ask the text the hardest questions because we can. It does not break, it is not offended, and it does not judge our desire for understanding. The ancient rabbis say that when we study the Bible we release God’s mercy into the world. It is important to question the text, because the world needs as much of God’s mercy as possible.

As I’ve written a couple of times, I’ve had the honor of being the guest blogger there this week providing thoughts on the Easter texts.

Easter. Resurrection. God demonstrating to the universe that death and oppression do not have the last word, but rather the last word belongs to God and that Word is Love and Life. And that’s the other meaning of “Sunday’s coming.” It’s the back half of the famous refrain, “It’s Friday, but…”

If you haven’t already, I’d love for you to click on over to The Hardest Question for Scooby-Doo and Temple of Doom references, some Easter eggs and to read what lead me to these hardest questions:

Regarding the Acts text: How am I subverting God’s subversion of exclusivity?

As for the Gospel text: Why is it still so hard for women to get equal pulpit time in so many churches?

How do you read?