People often ask me how you know right from wrong. Personally, I think this is one of the most important questions of all humanity. It spans generations, philosophies, religions, and yet the answer is often illusive because of the relative nature of the problem. In other words, what is right for me is not always right for you and vice versa. We have seen this in many of our recent wars where people fought to bring a utopian reality to life.
Hitler’s motivations aside, the German people signed on because they felt that they could create a better community by following the tenets that were laid before them. This means that if you went up to the average German and asked if they were doing the right thing, they would have answered “of course.” That is for those who knew better and were able to apply the Pauline formula, recognizing what is right from wrong and being able to find the strength to stand up for what is right.
The Pauline formula for knowing right from wrong is simple and based in love, the litmus test being found in the question, “does this build up the body in Christ?” This means that for Paul the answer for finding what is right in any situation is to ask how this does or does not build people up. Now the reality is that this often does not make it any easier; in fact, just being put in the position of having to discern impact can make it innumerably more difficult. So there is another tool for discernment, and that is Love.
We all know the golden rule, “do to your neighbor as you do to yourself.” But often we put parameters on that; I will love my neighbor if . . .” The problem is that once room is made for a qualifier, Love is no longer shown because the action is not about love; it is about our own comfort. This was ultimately the Nazi problem; they loved their neighbor, that is, as long as their skin, thoughts and actions were deemed appropriate. We know that this is not love. We also know that while this is an extreme in the Nazi example, we see this all the time when social service groups make their way into a community and neighbors fight to keep it out. There is a name for that NIMBY (not in my back yard). Sadly, this happens all throughout our country today.
In San Jose, we are at the point of a real crisis. We have made decisions and put things into motion that were the right thing to promote wealth and money in our community. But in so doing we have not done the right thing to build up the community since many who work here cannot live within our borders, and those who try are barely making it. To give you an idea of our homeless situation, a friend sent me an article from London, England concerning the Hotel 22 (the VTA bus route 22 which is the only 24hr route and is used by homeless as a warm and safe respite) that runs in front of the church. Let me bring this home; our homeless problem in San Jose is talked about in Europe the same way we used to talk about the famines in Sub-Saharan Africa, the irony being that unlike Africa we have every tool to fix the problem at hand, but we make the choices not to use them, often because those who have the means choose to back a system that incentivizes the wealthy and does not allow for those who do not have the means access where it is needed.
I recently was out with some friends, and at the table next to me I overheard two software engineers having a heated discussion, one of those that should never be done in public because everyone around cannot help but be brought into it. It was over a piece of software they were working on, and, quite frankly, I could not understand a thing about what they were talking about. What was interesting was at a certain point the argument switched from the software to their own personal superiority to the other. It was a sad display and after a few minutes when we realized it was not going to stop leaned over and said the “you do realize you’re in public” line, making both go red.
I start here because the passage we have this Sunday banks on conversations that the two software engineers were having; both were obviously smart and well educated, but somewhere they lost sight of each other’s humanity in order puff up their own egos.
The passage we have this Sunday is similar to this fight, but a software program is not the issue, it is the dietary laws. It is hard for us to think that the people in the early church would fight over such a thing, but this was a big deal. and really the battles over the dietary laws would split communities, even lead to abuses, superiority, and other problems much worse than the embarrassment faced by the two engineers.
We start the passage this week with one of my favorite sayings “Now concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that "all of us possess knowledge." Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. (1 Cor. 8:1)” The translation is very accurate, playing off the understanding that knowledge has the ability to create arrogance. Its concern really being that because we have a lock on knowledge, in this case the proper dietary laws, we think we are right, creating the arrogance.
This, of course, is pointing to Paul’s theology and calling for us to live in love, and that will all come later in the month. But for now, as we think to the service this Sunday, my challenge for you is to think about the last five arguments that you have been in and ask three questions: First, what were they over? Second, why were they so important, and Third, was there love to be found in them and where? I think if you spend some time thinking about this you will hear a very interesting response this Sunday.
As a child, I was always excited when the topic of Jonah came up in Sunday school. As a kid I did not know every story in the Bible, but I knew the Jonah story, forwards and back. Having two brothers, I suspect that my parents may have spent more time with that story to teach the three of us that we need to listen and do as we are told because no matter how hard we try to not do it, we’ll still have to. But that is only speculation. The thing about Jonah is that there are a couple very important things that go on, that are actually far more important than the fantastical things that often become the story’s focus.
One thing that is very evident is that Jonah is a brat. I know that is brash, but there is no way around it; Jonah is a brat of the first degree. He is headstrong and so self-righteous that he refuses to do what God is asking. This is important for what eventually happens in the story.
There is an interesting play that is going on between Jonah and the people of Nineveh. Jonah is perfect, at least in his mind (the brat thing). The people of Nineveh are admittedly sinful and lost. God picks Jonah to go and tell the people their fate, but Jonah who has such contempt for their sinfulness does not even want to go. And the fantastical journey commences.
The pericope that we have this week picks up here as Jonah, having no other way out, commences to give the decree to the people, a rather harsh decree mind you. Interestingly, the story takes a turn in that the people are very quick to repent. As the scripture says, this quick repentance is surprising even to God, so much that he changes his mind.
In the NRSV it uses changes his mind, but the Hebrew actually could be translated as a change of heart. The connotation being that God felt sorry for the people of Nineveh and had some level of regret concerning his decree, so much so that he chose to spare their lives, giving them a moment of grace.
This does not make Jonah happy, and if we were to continue the story we would see Jonah’s sad demise because he was so into himself that he could not open up to the fact that people can change and that God recognizes that and can change too.
As you think about worship this week, think about times in your life when you have lost your way, maybe so much so that you could not even realize it and needed someone to let you know. Now ask yourself if you listened and made the change? Did you completely stop your ways and repent, or did you keep doing things the way you always have?
Or think about if you have ever had the moral indignation for someone that you could not see any redeemable value in them? That you thought they were so far gone they deserved whatever punishment they could get. If God called you to extend them grace, would you, could you?
One of the aspects of Baptism of the Lord is that it is the beginning of the first cycle of Ordinary time in the Liturgical year. Personally, I always held a little bit of frustration with the title because it just did not seem special, and in a way, everything in church should be special. But the world as it sits within the liturgical year becomes a pointer to the way a service is structured.
In a typical Sunday morning service, our worship is made up of two things, Ordinary elements, the things that don't change like the Lord’s Prayer and the Passing of the Peace, and the Proper elements, the things that do change like the prayers and sermons. The balance between the predictable, ordinary, and the changing, proper, elements is a spiritual practice that will both feed and challenge individuals.
I remember a few years back when we had left out the Lord’s prayer during a communion service, to this day that was the most complained about thing I ever did in worship. After worship one by one over a dozen people came up to me to let me know how much they missed reciting it. One person summed it up when he said that as a new Christian it was his ‘Rosetta Stone’ to help him understand the message and the rest of the service. This was a clear witness as to how the ordinary elements help us to understand the proper ones.
In the same way, the liturgical year is made up of many seasons but two types of services (no, not contemporary and traditional, that refers to style); you guessed it, ordinary and proper. In our tradition, every Sunday is meant to be a celebration. Unlike some traditions that place a big emphasis on individual repentance or spirituality, and others that are calling for pious acts and solemnity, we see worship as a celebration; yes, some may say that we even see it as a party to celebrate our lives with Christ!
The Proper seasons focus us on specific aspects of our faith. For instance Lent and Advent call us to look inwardly asking how we might prepare our hearts and the Easter season, which calls us to ask how we are living out our salvation. The Ordinary seasons (between Epiphany and Lent and again between Pentecost and Advent) have no specific focus. While there are “holy days” (Baptism of the Lord and Transfiguration in the winter and Pentecost and Christ the King in the summer) every Sunday of ordinary time should focus on themes and connections found in all of the proper times. In other words, Ordinary time should help us to see the full picture of God, which will help when we focus into the proper seasons.
Like the man who spoke of the Lord’s Prayer being his Rosetta Stone, Ordinary time services fill in the pieces that are needed when we focus on the special service. Think of it this way: if you only came in the Proper times of Christmas or Easter you would understand God very differently than you do when you come year round. So, yes, this time of year is Ordinary, but when it comes to our faith it is anything but ordinary, it is an important time to focus on hearing and seeing the whole picture of God and to grow so that the Proper times are even that much more meaningful.
Back in college, as I sat in my class on Hinduism and Buddhism and the Professor was explaining the Bhagavad Gita, I had a moment where my mind began to wonder and a moment of clarity overtook me and I realized that God had called me to ministry. Granted it would take a few more years to figure out exactly what that meant, but I know starting that day that God had a plan for me. Now that was not the first time I had heard God’s call, nor was it my first pledge to become a minister, but it was the first time that I had a clarity of understanding that let me know what my future would hold.
This Sunday we celebrate the call of Samuel in the worship service. I really like this story because there is a lot within it that I wholly identify with, especially the times that God calls and you think it is someone else. In fact, for me a big part of the Solidification for my call was Linda Jo Peters, the associate pastor at the church next to my college, and my professor who taught me to listen to the call, which they had already known about, just like Eli already knew about Samuel’s call.
The thing it that sensing a call is not easy, just go to any seminary. Many people are called to seminaries, but the number who graduate and choose an ordination track is very different. This has nothing to do with ability or intellect; it usually has to do with call. Sometimes, as in my case, it was confirmed, and others find that what they thought was a clear calling was actually to something very different. But that is the nature of calls in that it is not just the individual hearing, but also the community’s witness as well which confirms it. This is very important in our understanding of calling, because call is not or should not be equated to status or power; rather, a calling is the humble submission to the will of God.
This is seen in the pithy recognition from Eli to Samuel “It is the LORD; let him do what seems good to him." (1Sa 3:18 NRS) which in English seems almost like a “blow-off” statement, but in Hebrew has an ultimate understanding that he will do what he wants because it brings him great joy with an understanding that the Joy being derived from Samuel accepting God’s call and allowing God to use him as he sees fit.
NOW, this does not mean that Samuel blindly follows God in a never-questioning sort of way; we know from the call of David that Samuel has some issues and struggles with God, though, every time he goes back to follow God’s plan.
In the morning service this week, as it were planned this way . . . we will be ordaining Pat DeWhitt as an Elder, recognizing her call, which is very much a recognition of call and how our community endorses that. At the Gathering we will be talking about our plan for the coming year and see where God is calling us as a worshipping community.
What is Baptism?
This Sunday we celebrate Baptism of the Lord Sunday. This is the commemoration of the day Jesus meets John in the waters of the Jordan insisting that John baptize him. There are many significant aspects of this story that really set a foundation for the ministry that Jesus begins to embark on.
Though Matthew and Luke start the Gospel narrative with the birth and very brief glimpses into his childhood, all four Gospels mark the baptism as the beginning of his ministry. Found in Matthew 3:13-17; Mark 1:9-11; Luke 3:21-22; and John 1:31-34, Jesus acknowledges the role John makes in preparing the way and in so doing claims alliance with those whom John had already baptized. This also signified an important transition in the life of Christ.
But to understand this transition it is important to understand a little about baptism and its role in the culture at the time of Christ. Contrary to what many have thought baptism was a common practice, though it was not compulsory. Like many spiritual practices today, baptism at that time was very much about the individual choosing to be more devout or trying to connect on a deeper level with God.
The roots of baptism can be seen in the Yom Kippur traditions and the theology around the “Day of Atonement,” obviously, with influences from the Greco-Roman culture that was pervasive at that time. Yom Kippur is a call to seek repentance and spiritual renewal and is the end of the holy days, which follow Rosh Hashanah, the New Year (the Celebration of which will happen between September 13 and 22 recognizing year 5776).
Obviously, the reason for Christ’s need to be baptized was not for repentance or to seek a new purity. This is something that John clearly points out in the exchange. But this is where baptism and its role fundamentally changes.
In Jesus’ baptism he was attested to be the Son by the Father and was anointed with the Holy Spirit to undertake the way of the servant manifested in his sufferings, death, and resurrection.
God’s faithfulness signified in baptism is constant and sure, even when human faithfulness to God is not. Baptism is received only once. The efficacy of baptism is not tied to the moment when it is administered, for baptism signifies the beginning of life in Christ, not its completion. God’s grace works steadily, calling to repentance and newness of life. God’s faithfulness needs no renewal. Human faithfulness to God needs repeated renewal. Baptism calls for decision at every subsequent stage of life’s way, both for those who Baptism attends their profession of faith and for those who are nurtured from childhood within the family of faith.
Both believers and their children are included in God’s covenant love. Children of believers are to be baptized without undue delay, but without undue haste. Baptism, whether administered to those who profess their faith or to those presented for Baptism as children, is one and the same Sacrament.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen