Lectionary Readings and Reflections for Sunday, July 6

July 1st, 2014

Where in your life is Jesus offering you a yoke of gentleness and humility that will give rest to your soul? How might this yoke lighten your burden when, like Paul, you do not do the good you want, but the evil you do not want? How might being yoked to Christ’s gentleness and humility help open you to the grace, mercy and compassion of God the psalmist talks about?

This Month’s Message

July 1st, 2014

Greetings, people of new life in Christ,

My summer reading includes two very different but complementary books. One is Brian McLaren’s We Make the Road by Walking, which is a curriculum designed to go with the liturgical year that takes a fresh look at Christian faith for our time. We plan to use it at least part of next year (beginning in September) for Adult Forum and hopefully other small groups will get together to discuss the book and consider what McLaren says are vital re-discoveries about our faith tradition for a new era. I’ll also use some of the reflections from this book in worship on occasion as a way to encourage a broad (church-wide) and deep exploration of our Christian faith over the coming year.

The second book I’m reading is one I’ve already mentioned in worship – Real Good Church by Rev. Molly Phinney Baskette. Baskette has outlined the nuts and bolts of the decade-long rebuilding of a church she describes as having had 30 good members, a modest endowment and a bad (old) building when they started. Now they average 150 in worship and are passing balanced budgets for the first time “since anyone can remember.” To me, this sounds a lot like where our church is now and hopefully where we will be in another few years.

Pastor Baskette maintains that we are at the tail end of what many now call the Age of Christian Empire and that things will be entirely different for the church within a generation. She, along with most church renewal professionals, says churches that are either unhealthy (chronically conflicted or with inadequate human or financial resources) or inauthentic (those who primarily serve their own interests rather than being a vital asset to their wider community) will simply disappear.

Taking on what she calls her Doomsday Pollyanna persona, Baskette says something like 80% of our mainline Christian churches will quietly vanish within the next couple of decades. Sadly, she says, “It’s like staring at a sky full of stars, only some of those stars don’t know the truth: though we can still see their light, they’re already gone.”

Like Rev. Baskette and so many others (who know a lot more than I do about this), I’ve come to believe more strongly that time is short for small churches like ours unless we embark on a bold new adventure of renewal. An adventure that is true to who we are and that at the same time asks us to give up not only our comfort zone but our very life as church for the sake of the gospel. Losing their lives, and the life of their religion as widely taught and practiced, is what Jesus told his peers was needed 2000 years ago and I think it’s what the Spirit is telling us today, yet again in a particularly urgent way.

Last week I sent out a new spot for Iowa Public Radio that describes First Baptist as offering “worship that leaves it all on the field at 10:30 Sunday mornings; justice-seeking every day.” (I shamelessly stole the use of that sports phrase to describe worship from Baskette.) I hope you will join me in not only giving it all we’ve got during worship (do you come here on Sundays expecting to leave spiritually spent the same way you expect to be physically spent after a workout?), but also giving our all to co-creating with God a thriving First Baptist Church that will serve people in ever new ways for a long time to come.

Yours in Christ,

Pastor Dorothy

Sermon: A Welcome Peace

June 30th, 2014

Dorothy Whiston – A Welcome Peace

Sermon by Kristin Marrs: A New Way of Being

June 26th, 2014

It is really wonderful to be back with all of you at First Baptist today, having spent the last month away from home. I had the pleasure of taking a vacation with Patrick, and also of spending some time in Milwaukee, WI, studying the Alexander Technique. I learned a lot in my training, but I am really happy to be back home.
Three weeks ago today, I neglected to come to church because I was freaking out a little, trying to figure out just what to pack for my extended stay in Wisconsin. Did I need a sweatshirt or a light jacket? Maybe both just to be safe? Which sandals—the Keen’s or the Birkenstocks? I needed my yoga mat of course, but I spent considerable time hemming and hawing over whether to take my large exercise stability ball. Eventually the ball got jammed into the car, along with three suitcases and two boxes of books—most of which I never cracked open. I forgot to bring an umbrella, and yes, it rained the first day of my trip.

In today’s gospel, Jesus’s disciples are also taking an extended trip. Jesus, however, doesn’t allow his disciples any time to consider which pair of sandals to bring along. He is sending them out to preach and heal, and he is asking them to go without any physical means of supporting themselves—no gas money, no sweater or light jacket, no staff or umbrella for protection, no credit card for emergencies. This is in addition to the fact that the disciples had already left their jobs, their families, and their security. In the passage previous to what we read today, Jesus grants his disciples remarkable powers to heal, to exorcise demons, to cleanse lepers, and even to raise the dead. But in the same breath, Jesus is saying, that’s all you get; it is going to be an extremely difficult, challenging, at times heart-breaking journey. It’s already been hard for you, but guess what—it is going to get worse. You don’t get to take an umbrella, and if it rains and pours, you can’t just swing over to the nearest Wal-mart to purchase a new one.

While Jesus doesn’t give his disciples an umbrella, he does give them something else—a simple message of encouragement, which he repeats three times in this particular passage: “Have no fear, Do not fear, Do not be afraid.” Jesus tells his followers that the worst will happen, and—at the same time—he tells them that there is no reason to be afraid. To my ears, Jesus’s call to essentially “just have faith in me,” is a little hard to take, a little hard to believe, especially in light of what he says next: Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; 36and one’s enemies will be members of one’s own household… 39Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
This passage perplexes and disturbs me. This is not the Jesus I learned about in Sunday School! And weren’t Jesus’ first words after his resurrection, “Peace be with you”? Isn’t our faith founded in a message of unity and oneness with our neighbors? Don’t we celebrate communion by eating from one loaf and dipping into one cup? How does this passage about divisiveness fit in with what we know about our Lord?

Like so many of Jesus’ messages, we can’t take this word at face value; thankfully, it is not a black and white statement. We know through the stories about Jesus that he revels in paradoxes:
he feasts with sinners, yet claims that the path to heaven is narrow; he asks us to bear a cross, yet says that his yoke is easy and his burden is light. There is similarly a paradox within Jesus’s claim that he comes not to bring peace, but a sword. The disruptions that Jesus describes, however, are not images of war; they are the kinds of divisions that the disciples had undoubtedly already experienced in their decision to drop their fishing nets and follow a renegade preacher. I can just imagine how Peter’s family might have felt when he decided to stop casting out his fishing net—abandoning his sole source of income, and start casting out demons, with no promise to send home a check every month. And you may have experienced this in your own family, or noticed the way that you interact differently with friends from church and friends from work. When I am facing a challenge at home, I can pray with my husband for a resolution; when I am facing a challenge at work, I don’t instinctively run out of the office and find someone to pray with.

Aside from pointing to the sad reality of these kinds of divisions, I think this passage can also speak to us in a deeper, more personal and potentially transformative way. It is the kind of transformation that Paul describes in today’s reading from Romans. A little background: in the previous chapter in Romans, Paul states that we are all linked together as a human family by the Adam’s sin. He goes on to state that, because of the cross and resurrection, we are also linked together through salvation in Christ. The good news then, is that every occasion for sin is in fact an occasion for God’s grace. After stating this good news, Paul exclaims in today’s reading: “What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?” Paul’s answer is a resounding No!: “ 2By no means!” he says. “How can we who died to sin go on living in it?”

How can we who died to sin go on living in it? With this question, Paul is challenging us to refute a casual or hypocritical view of grace; this casual view was called “cheap grace” by the great theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. “Cheap grace,” says Bonhoeffer, “is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” Cheap grace is essentially the attitude that if I just go to church on Sunday, put some money in the plate, sing in the choir, or set up tables for coffee hour, I’ll be okay for the rest of the week.

Another paradox arises here: we know that grace is indeed free—it is a gift from God. But, say both St. Paul and Bonhoeffer, it is not cheap. Being a Christian is serious business, and perhaps more serious business we would often care to admit. If I am trying to take my Christian life seriously, or as Paul might say, if I am trying to take my sin seriously, what does that mean for me on a day-to-day basis? Well, I don’t think that the sin Paul describes is merely going through a checklist to see what bad things I’ve done—although there are certainly times when we are convicted to repent for specific sins. Rather, what Paul asks us to do is something much more mysterious, and I think much more serious and profound; it is a mystical entering-into-relationship with Christ. It is an identification with Christ, one which closes the gaps that exist between us and God. Paul states over and over that we are dying and rising with Christ, and that it is no mere partnership we are entering, but a symbiotic participation in the kingdom of God. We are entering one of Jesus’s perplexing and life-giving paradoxes: when our old self dies, we simultaneously make room for God to transform us into our truest selves.

When we don’t participate in the kingdom of God, we cut off the possibility for transformation, I think this is when we continue to live in sin. And here is where we get into the nitty-gritty, here is where the sword starts to cut us, where we go through the growing pains of dying to our old, false self. When we are, as St. Paul says, baptized into Christ’s death and then born again into the resurrection of a new life, the big question for us, as we leave the building today and go out into our daily lives, is: What does this post-baptism life look like? Or, what does a serious Christian life look like?

Sometimes the fruits of our Christian life manifest themselves in very concrete ways—we have better habits, a more consistent prayer life, we invest our finances more wisely, and we find peace in our relationships. But sometimes—perhaps a lot of the time—this doesn’t happen, or at least not right away. There is no big difference in how we live, in our relationships. I personally grew up in a Christian home and had no dramatic “born again” experience; I was also baptized as an infant and therefore I can’t readily compare my pre- and post-baptism lives.

Life, then, is very much the same pre- and post-baptism, and yet I also know that—because I am a Christian, because I have been baptized—life is also totally different. The struggle of living is still there—just as Jesus promised his disciples it would be as they embarked on their journey—but it is a different struggle. The struggle does not end in the instant of baptism, but becomes a kind of daily baptism, a daily dying and rising, a daily cleaving away of sin. This is what Bonhoeffer called costly grace: “Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life.”

Costly grace is the grace that not only blesses me, but cuts me, like sword. The sword Jesus promises is the inevitable pain of giving up my way of doing things, it is giving up my old self. When the sword of Christ’s message starts to cut me, I see how I do not want to let go of my normal operating procedures. I see how I do not trust that God will provide me with sandals and food and umbrellas as I go on my journey, and that it seems almost necessary that I spend time freaking out about packing the right clothes instead of coming to church. When the sword of Christ’s message starts to cut us, we sense how we do not trust God’s power to guide us, his eye to watch over us, and his ear to hear us. We notice how we refuse to open with God, open to the point where we can even wail in despair like Jeremiah does in today’s reading from the Hebrew Bible, open to the point where we empty ourselves completely. When the sword of Christ’s message cuts us, we begin to understand how sinfulness is not only a list of the things I’ve done wrong, but it is a way of being that separates us from God. It is a way of being that is incomplete, not whole. It is a way of being that is full of gaps—gaps between my way and God’s way, gaps between neighbors, and gaps within ourselves.

The blessing, the good news within all of this, lies in the words of St. Paul: “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” We have the choice, the free will, to live to God in every situation and every moment. God has sent each of us out on a Christian journey, promising that it will not be easy, but also promising that it will ultimately lead us deeper into grace, into love, and into peace. And if we commit to this journey—if we keep following Bonhoeffer’s model of asking for grace, of knocking at the door again, and again,
and again—we remember that we are in fact dead to sin and are now truly free to live to God. Transformation is not only possible, but it is the promised reality of our post-baptism life.

I’d like to close today by reading the Prayer of St. Patrick’s Breastplate, a prayer that I first heard at Lovely Lane UMC in Cedar Rapids, the church of my childhood. I love this prayer because, in praying it, it closes the gaps between us and God, between us and our neighbors, and it closes the gaps within ourselves. I love this prayer because it encapsulates the mystical oneness-in-Christ that Paul describes, a oneness that incorporates all of time, all in nature, and all of humanity. We can experience transformation, simply in its reading. Please join me in this prayer, as it is printed in your bulletin:

I bind myself to the strong virtue of Love,
in the obedience of angels,
in the prediction of prophets,
in the preaching of the apostles,
in the faith of confessors.
I bind myself to the power of Heaven
the light of the sun,
the brightness of the moon,
the splendor of fire, the flashing of lightning,
the swiftness of wind,
the depth of the sea,
the stability of earth,
and the compactness of rocks.
I bind myself today to God’s power to guide me,
God’s might to uphold me,
God’s wisdom to teach me,
God’s eye to watch over me,
God’s ear to hear me,
God’s word to give me speech.
Christ be with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ on my right, Christ on my left, Christ where I lie, Christ where I sit, Christ where I arise, Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me, Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me, Christ in every eye that sees me, Christ in every ear that hears me.
I bind myself today to the strong virtue of Christ.
Amen.

Lectionary Readings and Reflections for Sunday, June 15

June 10th, 2014

Trinity Sunday ~ Genesis 1:1-2:4a; Psalm 8; 2 Corinthians 13:11-13; Matthew 28:16-20
We’re called to celebrate the creation of the natural world, and our interdependent place in it, on Trinity Sunday. How might the three unique yet fully united persons of God guide our way of living in harmony with our planet and fellow creatures? With one another?

This Week’s Message

June 10th, 2014

“What does this mean?” is the question those gathered at the first Pentecost asked one another when they were overwhelmed by the power of the Holy Spirit. Hopefully, we’re asking that same question as we seek to allow the Spirit to transform us into the Living Body of Christ in the world today. One of most amazing gifts of the Spirit is the ability to communicate the good news of God’s unconditional love and mercy across any barriers that have arisen between people. Whose languages do we need to better learn so that we can share God’s love with persons and communities in ways they can understand? Shall we?

Sermon: What Does This Mean?

June 9th, 2014

Dorothy Whiston – What Does This Mean?

Lectionary Readings and Reflections for Sunday, June 8

June 3rd, 2014

Pentecost ~ Numbers 11:24-30; Psalm 104:24-34, 35b; Acts 2:1-21; John 20:19-23
What good news do you hear the church sharing today that sounds so outlandishly wonderful it might be discounted as intoxication, when in fact it is the Spirit of new life speaking in the language of universal love? What good news would you like to hear the church speak in our time?

Sermon: Living in Hope

June 2nd, 2014

Marsha Lowe – Living in Hope

Lectionary Readings and Reflections for Sunday, June 1

May 30th, 2014

June 1st – Ascension of the Lord — Acts 1:1-11; Ps. 93; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53
Reflection for Feast of the Ascension: How do you think Jesus’ ascension might affect our ability to follow Jesus in this world, being faithful to God in the same way he was? What gifts might the ascension bring to the church and to you personally at this time?

 

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