How we need our religion to work

Jesus comes into Jericho and sees Zacchaeus up in a tree. As soon as Jesus speaks a kind word to this hardened tax collector, the man is changed. Zacchaeus becomes remarkably generous. His heart, like the Grinch’s, grows three sizes. If we (I say this with the collective royal “we”) as a congregation are Jesus in the world today, then this is how the god-forsaken should respond to us. Repentance is not held up by the stubbornness of the pagan’s heart, it is held up by the paucity of winsome examples of real goodness.

 

Sunday, October 30, 2016
Pentecost 24

Healthy Contrition

Jesus tells a number of parables of reversal — that is stories where the expected winner, loses. There is the farmer who has a bumper crop and tears down his barns in order to build new ones. Surprise! His name appears in tomorrow’s obituary (Luke 12:16-21). There are seeds that do well when first sown and then fail when the noon day sun burns down on them (Mark 4:3-8). And then there is the story of a good man, a Pharisee, who goes up to pray and the blessings of God skip over this paragon of virtue. Instead, a disreputable tax collector goes home knowing that his prayer is heard (Luke 18:9-14).

 

In matters of religion, we should expect reversals. Those who start out well, don’t always end well. Getting into heaven is not a matter of joining the right church or developing the right theology. Jesus tells us of a tax collector and a Pharisee who are praying at the same moment in the same church. Jesus says that success in religion is a matter of contrition.

Sunday, October 23, 2016
Pentecost 25

Clock Builders versus Time Keepers

Jim Collins’ book, Built to Last: Successful habits of Visionary Companies (Harper Business, 1994) speaks about how successful business leaders are “clock builders” as opposed to “time keepers.” That is, instead of merely trying to manage a situation, they set out to build a new reality. This new reality requires steady and selfless work.

The Inner Voice

Jiminy Cricket acts as a conscience for Pinocchio — does the Holy Spirit do the same for us? Pinocchio was written over a hundred years ago as a morality tale. Children were to be read Pinocchio so that they would know not to rebel, disobey, or lie. Disney toned down the rascally nature of the puppet and added Jiminy Cricket to keep the story from being too sad. Many people today are living the original version of the story, which doesn’t end well for the puppet (in the Italian version he is hung). All of us need an inner voice to guide us. Don’t swat away that cricket.

    In Jeremiah 31, the prophet who has been weeping for God’s people because they are about to pay the price for their sin and go into exile, looks ahead to a better time. Long after the prophet is gone, God will forgive his people. They will be restored. They will return to Palestine and once again live as a free people. This will be the Old Testament’s second Exodus. The second time in which God will reclaim his people after a period of imprisonment. On this trip back, however, God himself will be their Moses. They won’t have to stop half-way through the wilderness to pick up the Ten Commandments, for God will set his law within each person. Jeremiah sees the Disney version, complete with Jiminy Cricket.

Sunday, October 16, 2016
Proper 24

You want me to be nice?

Jeremiah hears God telling people to settle down, contribute their own sweat equity towards establishing of a healthy community, and be nice to the Babylonians. His actual words are, “Seek the welfare of the city.” God is speaking to his people. The same people who have just lost their home, seen their house of worship burned to the ground and their beautiful city invaded by the Babylonians. They have been rounded up like cattle and marched across the desert to Babylon. They are weary and resentful. They want to escape. They want to lash out and sabotage the plans of their captors. They have no spirit to be spiritual. They have no heart to be kind. As we saw in last week’s Psalm 137, they have hung up their harps and refuse to sing the songs that their tormentors ask for.  Being nice, doesn’t make any sense.

 

Sunday, October 9, 2016
Pentecost 23

Sparrows and Stakeholders

Every nonprofit organization or church has one or more stakeholders. These stakeholders may be wealthy individuals, major funding sources, or the charitable group’s home office. They are often the ones who contributed the lion’s share of the group’s start-up capital. They may be the distant foundations who provide grants or an ever-present Daddy Warbucks who shows up unannounced and demands things be run his way. Often the vision of these stakeholders is in conflict with either the cultural heart of the members, or the organization’s current reality, or both.

The 5 Stages of Psalm 137

Anger is one of Elizabeth Kugler-Ross’ 5 Stages of Grief , and as Scott Peck reminds us, grief is a part of every transition. Say, we lose our job. While adrift, we stew. “I gave the best years of my life…” In time, we move on to another career, or discover that God had a reason for it. We accept it as a blessing. Still, anger was a real stage in our transition. When someone we love dies, anger often lashes out at an innocent bystander. It is human nature to shoot the messenger. We may be excited about moving to a new neighborhood, but soon reality sets in. We may find ourselves alone, commuting further for work, and dealing with shoddy home construction. We may spend endless hours bemoaning the events and decisions that lead us to this new place. It is because Anger is a part of all transitions that the Bible retains even the final verses

of Psalm 137:

 

 By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept

Sunday, October 2, 2016
World Communion Sunday

Is Trump a Pharisee?

In Jesus’ day, Pharisees were well respected social leaders, involved in the political process. They had a specific agenda for making Israel great again. The fact that Jesus opposed them at every turn has caused the Pharisee movement to be vilified in western history. Jesus’ theology wasn’t that different from theirs — his opposition wasn’t a matter of their personal beliefs — it was their political agenda and lack of compassion towards the poor that made him lash out with some of his most pointed language.

Love of Money

Paul warns Timothy that loving money is deadly to the soul. He says, “If we have food and clothing we should be content with that” (I Timothy 6:8).  Is the ‘should’ to be read as an imperative? “Be happy with the bare necessities!” Or is Paul making a more universal statement about our human nature? “We should be happy with minimal comforts, but we are not.” I suspect it is a little of both. To Timothy as an up and coming leader in the church, he is saying this is the only way to be an effective Christian servant, be content with what you receive. There is no room in Christ’s church for leaders who want to live in luxury. Will there be any tele-evangelists in heaven? Perhaps. I believe, however, that they will be eternally ashamed of what they did. In heaven, the wealthy will all wish that they had lived more modestly.

 

Proverbs is helpful here:

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Why Process Matters

With all of the “secret” Trump supporters lately, I have begun to fear that he might win the popular vote in November, but lose the presidency in the Electoral College. This has happened four times in the history of the United States. In Bush verses Gore in 2000, over a half million more people cast their ballots for Senator Gore, than for George W. Bush. When the loss of Florida’s electoral votes tipped the balance towards Bush, Al Gore graciously conceded. This is not something I expect Donald Trump to do.

Things we take for granted

“Is there no balm in Gilead?” This is the moment after the iceberg has struck the Titanic when the fact that the boat will sink becomes common knowledge. Suddenly, the lifeboat that you dismissed when the “In the unlikely event of an iceberg hitting us…” lecture was given, becomes foremost in your mind. Is there really a life preserver under my cot? Or that moment after you accept the fact that your cancer diagnosis is terminal; is there no balm in Gilead? Jeremiah knows that the nation is about to be destroyed, the temple torn down, and the brightest of Judah’s youth to be hauled off to Babylon for seventy years.

 

Sunday, September 18, 2016
Pentecost 20

Skilled in doing Evil

The people of Jeremiah’s day were used to the late summer breezes blowing hard. They separated the chaff from their grain by tossing it up into this September wind. They weren’t used to storms coming in fall and bringing devastation. They were used to petty wars and raiding parties worrying their borders, they weren’t expecting the well disciplined armies of Nebuchadnezzar and the loss of their nation. In a similar way, people today are used to an occasional bout of bad weather, but we are slow to accept the global consequences of climate change. Further, we don’t admit that the political climate seems a bit polarized. Wise and moderate people fail to be elected. Lives given to public service are disparaged.  “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity” (Yeats, The Second Coming). Are these things just bad luck, or the precursors of a social hurricane, such as the one that gripped Europe a century ago?

 

Sunday, September 11, 2016
Pentecost 19

Seeing God's Hands

Prophets, like Jeremiah, are also known as seers. I looked it up, the word seer comes from the compound see and -er. God asks Jeremiah to go to the potter’s shop and see. As a photography nut, this has become important to me. Most people go to somewhere scenic and snap selfies on their cell phones. The camera in my iPhone is in some ways superior to the expensive camera with aspherical lenses that I use when I am seriously seeing. That’s the point, using a cell phone rarely makes one a seer.  Jeremiah is asked to go down to the potter’s shop and see. When we stop and simply observe — breathe… close your eyes… empty… breathe… now open your eyes —  release for a few days the need to post something to Facebook. 

 

Sunday, September 4, 2016
Pentecost 18

Jesus and Class

Next week, my wife and I will be attending a wedding for a distant relative. The reception is in a five star restaurant and I am not allowed to wear my jeans. As is the custom, the bride and her wedding planner are spending long hours planning the seating chart. Determining who sits with who and how far they are from the happy couple is an intricate art, full of inviolate rules and their exceptions. Imagine the chaos, if the couple decided to practice the Gospel lesson (which I hope they hear this Sunday), “When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” (Luke 14:7-14). 

 

Sunday, August 28, 2016
Pentecost 17

Remember Where You Stand

The old New English Bible that I used while I was in college falls open to Hebrew 12. The page is ratty, covered with ink underlines hued red, blue, and black; minuscule notations cram the corners, and a box brackets verses 18 to 29. This was the rock that I clung to throughout my transition from free-spirited teen, to married man, to seminary student. It says, simply, “Remember where you stand.” I learned during that quartet of years that surrounded my entry into a second decade, that religion, and life in general, offered a number of places to stand. It is not up to us to invent places to stand. A person caught in a crime might seek for a lie to stand on. Moses brought the people to a place where they could see the gulf that lies between our human frailty and the expectations of God. But this not where we stand. 

 

We stand on the border of eternal life. No matter what age we are, we are short-timers in this country. Life soon ends. Those with wisdom, look through the peep hole provided by scripture into heaven. They pray “Thy kingdom come, on earth as…”  They stand firm here because they trust what they have seen is coming. 

Sunday, August 21, 2016
Pentecost 16

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