I woke up this morning with the open windows and birds chirping. What a way to wake up. Nature always has this almost magical effect on me that on a nice day I can and often do get lost in the beauty of God’s creation. When you think about it, sometimes it can be overwhelming to think about the intricacies of the world around us and the fascinating balance within our world.
This Sunday the Christian churches celebrate Palm Sunday and the next Sunday there is the Easter Celebration. Something seems strange when we take the celebration of Palm Sunday and the celebration of Easter and miss the passion of the betrayal, abandonment, conviction, humiliation, and crucifixion. We, somehow, are unable to see the fullness of the resurrection, and are marked as unable to see the fullness of the sacrifice that Christ made by suffering through the passion.
Understanding the passion and Christ’s suffering are important because the empty tomb is rendered meaningless if we do not know and understand how Christ was put in the tomb to begin with. Missing Holy Week is like winning a race that was never run. Or, in other words, it is meaningless without the struggle.
The struggle is important. Unfortunately, as a society, we have all-too-often cut out the struggle. When crafting games for children, political correctness has allowed the struggle to be cut in order to “make everyone a winner.” In life, if we don’t like our place we can move. If we do not like a person we can avoid them. If we don’t like our job we can search for a new one. If we don’t have money we can borrow it. We can do many things to elevate ourselves from the suffering, and so could Christ.
In another way, it is similar to our secular life. The freedom that we have as a people is due in great part to the suffering and struggles of those who came before us. In the same way there are many who, because of the struggles of their parents, are able to live better and more comfortably than any prior generation in their family. Thus, history plays an important role, but the struggles of our previous generation shape us in who we are.
This is true in my life. Growing up, I never received an allowance. If I wanted something I had to work for it (mowing lawns, babysitting, washing cars, etc.), or save birthday and Christmas money. Though my parents could have afforded to give me much of what I wanted, they did not. Both grew up in families that were poor and struggled. Both went to college and both worked hard to make it to the tops of their chosen professions, much through the hard work they had learned of in overcoming struggles. In knowing their history and learning the importance of hard work, I am able to be that much more grateful for the life that I have.
The same is true of our faith. It is in the struggles of Christ that we understand the importance of the resurrection. God’s choice to send Christ into this world allows us to see God through Christ as fully human and fully divine. We know that he felt the same pains that we feel. He got sick, as we get sick. He was tempted, as we are tempted. And he suffered as we suffer. Thus, he suffered so that when we suffer we know that he is suffering with us. Furthermore, he did all this out of love; he did this so that we may receive his grace and have life.
The other day I was up in the mountains by Big Basin and I saw a deer. It had been a couple of years since I had seen one, and this one was so tame with about a dozen steps I could have touched it. Now in no way was this the first time I had seen a deer; in fact, in New Jersey one of my Dog’s favorite pass times was pulling me on the leash while she chased them, a daily occurrence. In fact, there are times when I saw deer as much more of a nuisance than an object of beauty, especially driving through central Jersey where they loved to congregate on the roads and with the Jersey stubbornness, refused to move!
But here there was something of awe when I saw this beast. It was like seeing an old friend. We stared at each other and I recognized the deer and the majesty of its creation. The power in its thighs; the beauty of its horns; the thought in the eyes; were awesome in perfection. As we parted ways I watched it bound back to its herd with grace and ease looking like it took no effort at all, though I knew it must have.
This made me think of how we think about Gods creation. Often when things are annoying or in our way, when issues are difficult, or other people are just frustrating we often stop seeing where God is inside them or around the situation. This is very problematic because when we stop seeing God, we also lose respect for how God wants us to deal with or understand the situation.
In fact, I might argue that this is the root of many of the controversies that are present in our world today. From feuds we see from time to time between neighbors to wars and genocides: they start when we stop seeing the presence of God.
This is why Christ reminds us over and over about the need to love God and love our neighbor. They are integrally connected because by loving your neighbor you see and show your love for God. They are also foundational for a healthy society because it is hard to hate when you let God be your guide. Unfortunately, it is too easy some times to forget that, and often things that are truly beautiful are lost to the frustrations, anger, annoyance, etc. of this world.
As we think about Lent and continue this journey, my challenge this week is to think about those who it is hard to see God inside of, those whom you might have called names or said disparaging things about. Ask yourself if can you see the good beyond the bad? Ask yourself what their role may be in God’s Kingdom? Most of all, ask yourself how often you see the bad before the good and what seeing the good first might do for your relationship with God!
This week we engage with the passage from Jeremiah that is one of the more unique passages in the Old Testament; Jeremiah 31:31-34. I say that it is unique not in its meaning, but in the fact that it is the only place in the Old Testament where there is the promise of a New Covenant.
Covenant is a central understanding that is found in the Old Testament. In the Old Testament the understanding of covenant was foundational for the ordering of society. It held the theological basis, liturgical order, and gave direction for the community.
It was foundational for society and became what people would proof text against. Thus, the law that was written was done so out of the covenant, but anything new or out of the ordinary begging the question: “does________ live up to the covenant.” As you know, the original covenant was something of an intellectual thing, or at least that is how it was received. It was based and resulted in laws, which were written. But the intent of God with the covenant was not that direct or narrow. As Walter Brueggemann states:
In its largest sweep, the covenant affirms that the God of all creation has made an abiding commitment of fidelity to this chosen people, Israel. This commitment, moreover, is not grounded in anything other than God’s own resolve to be in the relationship. (Brueggemann: Reverberations of Faith, 37)
Relationship being the foundation and connection being the guide, here in the passage we have the suggestion that a new covenant is coming but this covenant, while still being about that relationship with God, will be fundamentally different. Instead of the covenant being something of the mind, this covenant was going to be written on the hearts of all the chosen.
For the post-exilic Hebrews this is an important change since time and experience had taught them that the law was more of a goal than something which could be followed; thus, if the covenant was written on their hearts, the law was relegated to the role of how we live together as community, but salvation was guaranteed through God’s love for us and his desire to be in relationship.
No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, "Know the LORD," for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more. (Jeremiah 31:34)
As you prepare for worship this week think about the covenants that rule your life. God is at work offering forgiveness, showing mercy, and giving knowledge of life, death, and salvation. Where is God enacting that new life within or around you? What in your life must die so that you may flourish? What must fall away so that you can rise again in Christ?
It is amazing how understanding children are when it comes to theology and faith. Sometimes it is because their view of the world and sometimes it is out of ignorance toward the greater world. As children we can often grasp the sense of grace because our age has not yet weathered us to believe that God would want anything other than to accept and care for us.
Here a Rebbeca writes her pastor “Deer Passter, I am a good Chrischun but i can’t spel and add to good.” What an incredible faith statement. It says more than what you might think when you first read it. You may not realize in the first reading that Rebbeca is relaying a foundational assertion of our faith, that Christianity is not based upon ability. Even if we are imperfect in the eyes of the world, we can be perfect in the eyes of God.
It works like this: think back to when you were learning to read, write, add, etc. Most likely it did not come easily at first. For some it got easier, for others, they would struggle for the rest of their life, but for a child of seven, starting school, they are often defined by and define themselves by what they can and cannot do.
As adults, our issues seem to be so much more than the simple problems of our youth. We often forget how we have made it through times in the past and we will continue to make it into the future.
It is interesting when we think to specific moments of our lives. Four hours before finishing this letter I was finished with this letter. Unfortunately, my computer did not like it too much and decided I needed to write another. So, it was lost. At that moment the last thought on my mind was God or even grace that I might have the mind to write another, it was wrapped up in the utter and complete frustration of the moment. Yet, I was able to step back, take a breath and write another.
Philip Gulley and James Mulholland, both pastors, wrote in their book If Grace is True, an open discussion of how they came to the point in their ministry where they realized that Grace was neither exclusive nor temporary to this world. “God will seek, as long as necessary, until he finds us (p.185).” They also speak of Salvation as “. . . no longer the sole possession of a specific culture, religion, denomination or person. Salvation belongs to God. It is what God does in the lives of all his children.”
Sometimes we are called to participate in grace, giving room to allow it to happen realizing that it is not ours to dole out or judge, but to support and witness. It is interesting, but most people can relate to a time or experience, which lead them to understand grace.
For me, I am thankful for that grace. When I think of grace I think of the teachers that helped me when I was Rebbeca’s age and throughout my life. The people who prayed and supported me through my various journeys and those who if I had not met in my journey I would never be here. I am thankful for the grace of God that allows me, an imperfect man, to serve this fine church filled with such wonderful people. It is out of this sense of grace that I base my life in service and stewardship to God through thanksgiving and joy.
You have to know that I have an interesting family. Three boys all around the same age will do that. My oldest brother is a great guy, but is somewhat of a character. At my ordination he had, to my mother’s embarrassment, written on a piece of cardboard “John 3:16” just like you used to see held up at sporting events. It was a good laugh, but I also thought about what John 3:16 is actually talking about.
I remembered years earlier, in college, when we were starting to learn Greek and were translating the passage. The professor, my first real mentor, showed us how the passage is often taken out of context and used “wrong.” Grammatically he said that John 3:16 out of context is virtually meaningless, because without the second half the call to action is cut off or muted. As he walked us through the whole pericope, John 3:16-21 we began to see that this statement was not a gushy fact or sign of salvation; rather, it was a strong statement which established certain actions.
The first reality is that God chooses us. This is the John 3:16. We could get into an existential debate about whether or not it is possible for God to choose not to come back, but this passage clearly states that out of love he chose to engage this world.
The second reality, and maybe the more important one, is that we MUST make a choice. For the writer of John there is no half way about it, we must either choose to accept this gift or we reject it by default. The basic assumption is that people have rejected God because they have become more stewards of themselves than of God.
This hits a third reality that is informed by the rest of the pericope, is the reality that when we live away from God we cannot fully live. Just as a person who only is awake at night cannot see the fullness of the world. When we live in the darkness we are more preoccupied with moving around than living fully.
But the Judgment that comes from our desire to keep parts or the whole of our life in the dark is not a final judgment. This is summed up by William Countryman “However much it may have become estranged, it is not God’s objective to take up vengeance on it, but rather to call it back into that right relationship which is true and everlasting.” As Countryman shows, the judgment that God gives is both not without reversal or help. In fact, it is God’s desire to see people recommit and find their way back to a more full relationship. He goes on to say “to be deprived of God is to be deprived of our own existence.” In other words, for any of our life to be kept hidden is to separate us from God.
I could go on about this passage; I know many dissertations have been written on it. For us this week, as we prepare for worship in the context of Lent, we must think about John 3:16 et. al. and reflect on what the passage says about our lives. How have we become estranged from God? Are there things that embarrass us in our relationship with God that we try to keep hidden? Do we stay hidden because we are unsure of our faith? What would be different if everyday we lived into the fullness of the promise of John 3:16?
Alone for the first time, in a strange city, in the middle of nowhere, I sat waiting to board a bus. It was a hot Midwestern summer day in southern South Dakota, and I had just flown from Chicago and was waiting for the Greyhound that was to take me from the smallest city I had ever seen to Sisseton, South Dakota, to do something I had no training for other than about a 15 minute explanation. More than that, the description of the job was simple, you have $X.XX and we would like you to set up our adult mission that will be out later in the summer, but really you just need to be open to what God is calling you to do.
Sitting in the bus terminal preparing to meet people I did not know and heading off to a place as foreign as any other, my mind was full of images and fantasies about what I was going to encounter. I remember the nervous excitement, as I sat there. Looking back, I realize how wrong those images and fantasies were. I also realize how the people of Sisseton were far greater missionaries to me than I was to them.
As an 18-year-old, I thought that I was going to bring something new and powerful to the “Indians,” but what happened was that the Dakota people taught me what it really meant to be a Christian. Karl Barth spoke of the Missio Dei, something that has become a standard understanding for our relationship with God in the contemporary church. This understanding says that as the church God invites us into mission with him and everything we do, as a church or individually, is Mission. As some know, this was my Master’s Thesis. But I did not first learn about the Missio Dei from studying Barth; I learned it from the Dakota people.
After staying with an elderly woman one evening, we sat down for a hearty breakfast of oatmeal and bacon. She started to tell me stories, ancient stories from the Dakota tradition, and then she showed me how they also taught what Christ taught. These stories taught that for the Dakota people, stewardship and hospitality were central to their very being. But then she did something very interesting; she went and found stories in the Bible that taught the same lessons.
She said “the problem with the church is that we have lost our role. We go to church like it was Wal-mart, looking for what we want and only paying for what we get. But that is not church, faith, or community; as a Dakota woman and a Christian, my job is to care for the world and be a friend to others. You see, it is not what I get, it is what I give.”
I then joked with her about me being a good missionary because I was letting her give me so much; while we laughed, she said that basically I was. I cannot say that my stint as a missionary was successful; I doubt many would even remember that I was ever there. However, the mission that the Dakota people did on me changed the way I look at the world and how I understand my role with God.
Going into that time I could have never guessed what was going to happen, but there you have it, God had a bigger plan and the truth was, I needed to be missioned to more than they did. But this gets back to the basics of being in mission with God. You never know how God is going to use you or even what God’s plan is, and to be honest, that really does not matter. What matters is that you recognize that God is using you and be constantly listening for the ways in which God is calling you.
Imagine for a moment a bunch of kids playing in an empty field. They are running around playing tag, laughing and giggling as kids do. All of a sudden, one of the boys trips on a rock, falls and gets hurts. He was not hurt bad, but the game stops anyway, and everyone begins to gather around the boy to see if he’ll be ok. When the game resumes something changes; instead of running without a care in the world the kids start to look down, slow down, and genuinely act more careful. The block the boy tripped on changed the dynamic of the group; they saw their world differently and reacted to it as such.
The question many would ask in this scenario is whether or not the stumbling block was good or bad. On first sight, a parent would probably make the argument that the stumbling block was bad in that it got someone hurt but ultimately good because it taught the children about safety. But the children would probably come back and say that it was bad all around because not only did someone get hurt but, the game was just not as fun. Who would be right?
Paul talks a lot about stumbling blocks; my guess is that this is because he had a lot of them. We know from his writing that he had a “Thorn in his side,” though, we can only speculate what that was. We also know from his writings, he was probably a very poor speaker. This is interesting because he was so crucial for the spread of the gospel to the Gentiles, you would think that he spoke like Billy Graham, but apparently that was not the case.
You would think that poor speech would change the way he did his ministry, even maybe stop him from doing it, but it seems to not get in the way. Fundamentally, while stumbling blocks might bring awareness, they cannot hold you back from doing what you are really supposed to be doing. Sometimes it does not really matter, as in the case of the kids playing, but often we find that stumbling blocks keep us from doing what we are called to do.
I know this is something that I have had to work on. Like many professional speakers I grew up with speech issues, spending a lot of time with speech therapists to get my speech to be understandable. It was hard work, but looking back I realize that what I was doing in the speech classes was reprograming my brain around the stumbling blocks built in, creating new paths of understanding.
In the passage this week, Paul highlights some stumbling blocks. But unlike the rock, or issues speaking, the stumbling block that both the Jews and the Gentiles have is the very nature of who they are. For the Jews it is the constant search for signs, the desire to have a checklist that all which has been prophesized had been completed. For the Gentile it is the knowledge, education and all that comes with that. In both cases their nature makes them overly cautious and skeptical of the other’s understanding, and causes them to discount or discredit that which is foreign. By doing so, they make the choice to follow their ways over God.
This is like the kids that are now far more concerned about the rock than their play. What Paul says is that we are set free from our stumbling blocks and must relearn our ways so that we can grow in faithfulness to God. He does recognize that this is foolish, but he also says boldly “For God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God's weakness is stronger than human strength.”
As you prepare for worship this week, think about what your stumbling blocks are in life and ask yourself how you maneuver around them. Do you look foolish to others as you do this? Do you care?
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen