Thursday, March 26, 2009

Ezekiel 36:24-28

The new covenant. This passage in Ezekiel is called The New Covenant. Throughout the Old Testament, God has made some promises, some covenants, with the people. God promised Noah that God wouldn't wipe out the world again with a flood, no matter how off track things were. God promised Abraham that God would bless him and make of him a great nation so that by him all the world would be blessed. God promised the Israelites in the desert that God would be their God and they would be God's people - and God gave them the 10 Commandments to help them learn how to be God's people.

Time and again God reaches out to the people to create a relationship with them, and time and again the people go astray. The people try to follow God's law, but they can't. It's just too hard. They fall into sin and greed. They fight amongst one another, creating civil war and chaos in the land that God gave them. It's just a mess.

So God needs a new plan. God needs to find a way to bring the people into relationship with God so that the people will be able to live into the harmony and goodness that God intended for creation. But how to do that? Ah...the new covenant.

In this covenant, God promises first to cleanse them, to forgive them. God will wash away all of their sins and start over again with them. Then, God promises to give them a new heart. They are all so scared and bitter and angry, their hearts are made of stone. But, God will melt away all that ugliness and give them hearts of flesh - hearts that can love again. And finally, God will put God's spirit within them. No longer will they have to find God in the law, no longer will God be available to them only in the rituals of the law, God will be within them. They will each have access to God and God's will for them right in their own hearts.

This is the promise, the covenant, that comes true in Jesus. In Jesus we are cleansed, forgiven. In Jesus we are transformed from scared, angry, and suspicious people to people who are full of love and gratitude. In Jesus we know God; each and every one of us can know God personally and find God's Spirit living within us. Thus Jesus says, "While they were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, ‘Take; this is my body.’ Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. He said to them, ‘This is my blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.’"

As we approach Easter, we prepare ourselves to embrace the new covenant. We spent time in Lent recalling our mistakes and our sins so that we can really allow God to forgive us, and in that forgiveness we find that we are transformed - our hearts are turned from stone into flesh, from filled with bitterness and anger to full of love. And as we consume the bread and the wine at communion we feel God's Spirit come directly into us.

Exodus 14:10-15:1

What were you thinking? Did you bring us out here into the wilderness to die? These are the questions that the Israelites are asking Moses as they see the Egyptians coming upon them in the desert. God sent Moses to free them from slavery, but now their captors are coming upon them and they are trapped. Surely they will die. Exhausted, confused, and full of fear the Israelites begin screaming at Moses, "Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt?"

Haven't we all had a moment like that with God? A moment when we looked to God and said, "What have you done?" "How can this be happening?" That moment when we just felt like everything was going wrong and there was no way out. It's in those moments that we wonder what God is doing, what God is thinking and we question our ability to trust in a God that seems to have left us stranded in desperation.

God's purpose in bringing the Israelites out of Egypt was to establish a relationship with them. These are Abraham's descendants, the heirs to the promise that God made to Abraham. But, they don't know God. They don't know about the promise. They don't have a relationship with God. And so God brings them out into the wilderness so that they can become God's people and God can become their God.

And, as they arrive in the desert, they aren't too certain about this God. So far it appears that God has taken them out of Egypt simply so that the Egyptians can murder them in the desert. The relationship with God is starting on rocky ground, to say the least. But, God is faithful. God is determined to show the Israelites that God will care for them and won't abandon them. As a demonstration of God's power and love for them, God parts the Red Sea and brings them all to safety. And thus begins a long relationship between God and the people where the people don't trust God and God takes care of them anyway. No matter how many times God proves to the Israelites that God will provide, they always grumble, moan, complain, and conclude that God is out to get them or that God has abandoned them.

Why is it that in the moments of desperation we wonder about God's faithfulness to us? Every day that we go about our life we are blessed. We have homes. We have jobs. We have food. As a general rule, we have access to decent, even good, healthcare. We have all that we need to survive. Yes, sometimes cruddy things happen. Sometimes we get sick, really sick. Sometimes we lose our job or our house. Sometimes our spouse or our children are in trouble - or are just causing us trouble. But in the big picture, the grand scheme of things, the long-term view, God has provided for us. God is faithful to God's promise to bless us.

And so in this journey of Lent, we ask ourselves if we trust God. Have we observed enough of God's faithfulness to us, and to those that came before us, to really really trust God?

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Genesis 1:1-2:2

"In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. "

The creation story. Well, one of the two creation stories in the bible. This is the first reading that we'll hear at the Great Easter Vigil service on the Saturday night before Easter morning. The first story we hear is the story of God creating the world.

As we read this story we notice some amazing things about the Hebrew account of creation that are quite different from other creation stories written by other peoples in the ancient near east (compare to the Enuma Elish, the babylonian creation story). In this creation story, God speaks and things happen. The things that happen are ordered in a logical way - God creates light, then God creates water, then God creates earth, then God creates, plants, animals, etc. Everything comes in the order in which it is needed: plants need water and soil, birds need fish and plants, animals need water and plants and other animals, people need all of those things - see how that works? The world is created in an ordered way as an ecosystem that works in harmony.

And every day that God creates something, God looks and sees that it was good. God created it good. Except on the day that God created people - on that day God saw that it was very good.

The Hebrew creation story makes a faith statement about God and who and what they believe God to be. The Hebrew people believed God to be all powerful: just speaking brought the universe into being. The Hebrew people believed that God provided for our needs and the needs of the world: every part of the system has what it needs to survive. The Hebrew people believed that God created the world to be good: it was good and it worked in harmony. The Hebrew people believed that God created humans to be very good - and that God gave us stewardship over the whole creation.

As we listen to this faith statement made by the Hebrew people, we must ask ourselves if we believe the same thing. The world does not give us much evidence of a good God who created a world that works in a harmonious way. What we see around us in the world is violence and fear and corruption. We see people taking advantage of each other and the world's resources. We hear a message of 'every man for himself'. And, probably worst of all, we hear from preachers on TV that God is exclusionary, that God only loves certain people that behave a certain way.

And so we begin this journey towards Easter asking ourselves what we believe about God and God's creation.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Looking forward to Lent

I have been looking forward to Lent this year. Lent is such a strange and tumultuous time. Spring is trying to make its way into the world, while winter does its best to hold it back. Kids are trying to bust out of school, while the calendar reminds them that there is still more time to go before spring break. And, by this time of the year, we're all ready for some new life. And that's what I love about Lent.

Lent is the time that we get to stop and notice that everything has died. It is not spring yet. The trees are still dead. The grass is still dead. The flowers have not grown yet. The world is still dark and dead. Lent is our time to stop and notice that we are dead too. We live in a world that draws us away from God's love and tempts us to chase after all sorts of things that only lead to despair: wealth, power, beauty, celebrity, etc. The world wants us to believe that those things will bring us happiness, but in the end, they just leave us wanting more. They leave us exhausted in our quest to obtain them and unsatisfied at our inability to acquire as much of them as we think we should have. And so we look at our life and we take stock of all the ways that we are trying to create our own salvation - all the ways that we are trying to heal our own pain - and we realize that we can't do it. And that eventually we'll just die trying.

And then comes Easter. Easter comes and Jesus reminds us that we don't have to save ourselves, because He saves us. Jesus bursts out of the tomb on Easter morning and proclaims the love of God in our midst. Jesus brings us to life again. Out of our despair, while we sit in recognition that we've been chasing after the wrong things, Jesus says, "No worries. I'm here. God is merciful and abounds in steadfast love." And we get new life. And we get new joy.

So I invite you this year to step into Lent. Step out of your place of complacency and really take a look at your life. Take a look at God at work in your life. The following "Invitation to a Holy Lent" is found in the Book of Common Prayer. I invite you to take it seriously and experience how amazing Easter is when it comes at the end of time spent in intentional reflection.

Dear People of God: The first Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a season of penitence and fasting. This is season of Lent provided a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church. Thereby, the whole congregation was put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith.

I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word. And, to make a right beginning of repentance, and as a mark of our mortal nature, let us now kneel before the Lord, our maker and redeemer.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

How Rich Are You?

In today's Adult Forum, I mentioned Global Rich List, a web site that will show you how rich you are in comparison to the rest of the world. All you have to do is enter your salary, select the monetary denomination (dollars, yen, pounds, etc.) and then click Show Me the Money. Have fun!

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

To Stand or to Kneel: That is the Question

A few people have asked me about standing and kneeling during worship, so I thought I would write a little something about it. Truthfully, I’ve had to do some research since I don’t know much about the history of standing and kneeling in worship. This is what I learned.

Marion J. Hatchett in his Commentary on the American Prayer Book notes that it wasn’t until the 13th century that some people in Western churches began kneeling during worship. He goes on to say, “Although various editions of the Prayer Book have specified kneeling for very few prayers, it has been the standard posture for both ministers and people during prayers of confession from the time of the 1549 Book [the edition of the Book of Common Prayer that was issued in 1549].” So basically, from a historical standpoint, the only time in the service that the Book of Common Prayer (BCP) consistently directed the people to kneel was when they were confessing their sins.

Now, on to the most recent edition of the BCP that was issued in 1979. The following are the directions for standing and kneeling during Holy Eucharist II:
  • At the beginning of the service, “The people standing…” (p. 355)
  • At the Lessons, “The people sit.” (p. 357)
  • For the reading of the gospel, “Then, all standing,...” (p. 357)
  • At the Nicene Creed, “...all standing” (p. 358)
  • Notice that there is no direction for Prayers of the People or the Confession of Sin
  • At The Holy Communion, “The people stand while the offerings are presented…” (p. 361)
  • At The Great Thanksgiving, “The people remain standing.” (p. 361)
  • After the Sanctus (Holy, Holy, Holy,) at the beginning of the Eucharistic Prayer, “The people stand or kneel.” (p. 362)
As a general rule, the BCP 1979 indicates that standing is the posture for most activities, offering the option to kneel during the Eucharistic Prayer.

What you might have observed by attending various Episcopal churches is that local practices around standing and kneeling vary widely. Almost always, congregations stand to sing, to hear the gospel read, and to say the creed. Many churches also stand for the Prayers of the People, the Confession of Sin, and for the Eucharistic Prayer, though some churches choose to kneel during some or all of these activities. It has been my experience that local custom tends to dictate when the congregation stands or kneels – what the congregation has done in the past is what they tend to continue to do.

You might notice that I rarely kneel. I have bad knees and discovered many years ago that kneeling was just too painful for me and often distracted me from actually participating in the prayer. While I have observed some people sit while the congregation kneels, I was never fond of that option. If a prayer is important enough to warrant kneeling, then I do not want to be in the passive posture of sitting while saying that prayer. As a result, I choose to stand, even when others kneel.

One of the great things about the Episcopal church and the Episcopal liturgy is that we have options. If you find yourself feeling the need to kneel during worship, it has probably been done by somebody somewhere at some time and it would not be inappropriate for you to do so. If you feel that standing is a more appropriate way for you to engage in prayer and worship, then the BCP indicates that you have the choice to do so.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Reconciliation - Do We Really Mean It?

And can we really do it? We talk about it. We try to practice it in worship - that whole "Peace be with you" thing is about practicing reconciliation. It is about offering peace to the people who are near us, so that we can go out into the world and offer peace to others. Though, the trouble is that it is really easy to offer peace to people in church, especially to people we really like and admire or to strangers who we don't know at all. Offering peace to real people in the real world is lots harder, particularly when those people hurt you.

As I reflect on the readings for this week, especially the Gospel passage which is Matthew 18:21-35, I am thinking about reconciliation in my own life; especially about a friendship that is currently in disrepair. In a moment of confusion and misunderstanding, a friend hurt my feelings and in reaction I have sort of recoiled and kept my distance. And, in this place, I wonder what to do now.

Reconciliation. How do we do it? The culture, and some of my friends, have suggested that my friend's offense was unforgiveable. Their counsel has been that I shouldn't stand for this sort of behavior and that I should just move on. But somehow that seems wrong to me. It just seems like that isn't what God calls us to do.

Reconciliation is not just something we talk about and practice, but we think it is important enough to make it a sacrament. Reconciling is something that has had traditions and rituals around it for thousands of years - read the OT, there are specific rituals for repairing relationships between people, and it was an important part of living in community. Jesus talks about it all the time, as is evident in this week's reading: "How often should I forgive, seven times?" Jesus says, "Not seven times, I tell you, but seventy-seven times." And then there is that "turn the other cheek" business. Forgiveness and reconciliation was not something that Jesus was ambiguous about, Jesus was pretty clear that we do it - we reconcile, we forgive because God does it. God extends grace to us because otherwise we would be a wreck without it. And if God can extend grace to us, then we can extend grace to others.

But dang, can it be hard. And especially when the outside world doesn't understand why we are doing it. It seems weak. It looks to the world like we are willing to be abused. It looks like we don't have any self-esteem. But really, I think it is the opposite. I think the easy way out is to just walk away - I think the weak are those that "just move on." I think it takes an incredible amount of confidence and courage to stay in the dialogue and forgive. Well, at least that's what it feels like to me. It's hard to reconcile, but how can we call ourselves Christians and not be willing to at least give it a try?