+ Swing Low, Sweet Chariot... + + Therefore my heart is glad... because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead +

The good news is, death has been conquered! We shall not sleep away into dust and forgotten-ness. We shall share the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Old Testament provides some good places to reinforce the Easter message that people forget long before the dog days of summer. My favorite is Job 19:23-27:

 

“Oh, that my words were recorded,
    that they were written on a scroll,

that they were inscribed with an iron tool on lead,
    or engraved in rock forever!

I know that my redeemer lives,
    and that in the end he will stand on the earth.

And after my skin has been destroyed,
    yet in my flesh I will see God;

I myself will see him
    with my own eyes—I, and not another.
    How my heart yearns within me!”

 

Then, there is the story of Elijah being carried off to heaven in a chariot of fire (2 Kings 2:1-14). Because Elijah does not die, he is allowed to make a cameo appearance in the New Testament. I feel it is my duty in preaching to stitch the New and Old components of the Bible back together. Many in our churches have fallen into the Marcion heresy of dismissing the Old Testament and its, supposedly, wrathful Hebrew god. Such Gnostic gibber-jabber is running amok in today’s church and preventing people from grasping the full joy and mystery of the Gospel we proclaim.

 

For: 
June 30, 2013
Psalm 16:9-10
2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14
Pentecost 7

One of my favorite questions to ask lay people attending my workshops is, “What made you choose this church?” If the person has made a church change in the last few years, I will ask followup questions. I want to get into the mind of church shoppers. I also want the other people at the workshop to hear the factors that real people are weighing as they choose a place to worship. We live in a religious free market. People are no longer required to remain in their parent’s parish and most Christians have one or more occasions to truly church shop.

 

After winnowing out the family and friends factors in church choice, I’ve come down to three questions that I think church shoppers are serious about:

Elijah on Sinai gets earthquake, wind, and fire. Sounds like the Weather Channel this spring. The prophet doesn’t find God on the Weather Channel, but in the soft, "sound of silence" that follows. It's like looking for the holy in the static that used to exist between the channels of our pre-HD TVs. We all tend to look for God is the traumatic. We expect God to do a miracle and prevent the Tsunami from hitting Japan. We expect the tornado to blow around the good churches of Oklahoma. We expect the fires to skip over the worshiping families of California and Colorado. God is not in the earthquake, wind, or fire.

 

Natural events, like terrifying illnesses, are not where God is as a direct cause (James 1:13-17). They are the random occurrences that mark our world’s fallen nature. They happen to good people, as well as, to the bad. They remind us of the heavenly debate that begins the book of Job. If God puts a hedge around his people and lets no fire or flood hurt them, then people will have faith for the wrong reason. 

 

For: 
June 23, 2013
1 Kings 19:9-18
Pentecost 6

Is your church grieving? Recently, I heard a clergy person describe the depressed and change resistant state of her church as a form of grief. It made sense to me. From time to time, congregations become overwhelmed by the loss of  a specific individual or family. I also know of churches that for years have mourned their loss of status in the community. Loss happens. Both individuals and congregations go through periods of grief.

 

There is an interesting debate going on these days about whether American public schools can teach values without accidentally or illegally teaching religion. I no longer have a personal stake in that fight, but I do have an opinion about its opposite. I believe that you can’t teach my religion without speaking about values. The story about Naboth’s Vineyard (I Kings 21:1-19) is a good place to climb out on a limb and question the ethical values church goers are cultivating and displaying in today’s world.

 

The story begins with the wicked King Ahab wanting to buy the land that Naboth’s family had passed down from father to son, since the time of Joshua. In biblical times, holding onto inherited land was a sacred trust and a subset of family values. Even though you may be poor, living on and cultivating the same parcel of ground for generations fostered a sense of rootedness and simplicity of life. One thinks of the small family farms that are disappearing from our landscape. What values do we possess in today’s world that are similar? 

 

For: 
June 16, 2013
1 Kings 21:1-19
Pentecost 5

It is the season of the year when one quarter of all United Methodist clergy will be packing their books, pianos, exercise equipment, etc., and moving to greener pastorates.  A similar percentage of Presbyterians, Lutherans, etc., move each summer, and anxiously enroll their children in a new school district. We all wish that pastorates were longer. There is a high cost to moving; not just to those who pay the bills and those who mourn the loss of a favorite pastor, friend, or healthcare provider, but also, in the lost momentum of congregations that are feeling their way in a changing religious marketplace.

Elijah providing pancakes for the Darfur Duo is undoubtably one of the great under-told stories of the Bible. No, Elijah doesn’t flip the flap jacks, but he does give daily bread to a hungry widow and her son. And no, the story doesn’t take place in Darfur, but in Syria (currently Lebanon). Still, note the coincidence, Darfur and Syria, two misery riddled war zones led by (unrelated) dictators named Bashir. In both places, hunger walks among the innocents stealing children from their mother’s arms.

But, I Kings 17:9-16 has enough handles to be relevant without my fictionalizing it further. Jesus, himself, makes use of the story in his inaugural sermon in the Capernaum Synagogue (Luke 4:24-27) to battle his peoples’ prejudice against foreigners. Jesus has just announced that God is bringing peace, justice, healing, and salvation to all peoples. The crowd responds by saying, “Yes, yes. Now stop sending all of that to far away places and give us some magical pancakes, too.” The good people of our churches and synagogues often act as if the suffering that occurs in other countries is not their concern. They ignore Darfur, Syria, Bangladesh, and East LA. They somehow think that they don’t need to feel pity for those who starve there. It is convenient to think of these people as being somehow different from ourselves.

For: 
June 9, 2013
I Kings 17:9-16
Luke 4:24-27
Pentecost 4
Nike Spam
Good blogs generate fun and helpful comments. Your comments are appreciated, but you need to register first. Recently BillKemp.info was hit with a rash of robots trying to sell shoes in the comment box. To remedy this, I added a captcha and some additional requirements to insure that users are human. From now on User Names must be your real name. Church affiliation and general location are now also required.  Please allow a day or so for me to validate your registration. - Bill

In last week’s blog I speculated on how productivity varies over the thirty odd year career of the average clergy person. Let us be blunt; the United Methodist church, and other mainline denominations, are moving towards a system that reduces professional productivity down to one factor, the capacity to add members or grow a church (sometimes called ‘metrics’). Elsewhere I have cautioned that we need to read this as an institutional concern, which may have little correlation to God’s calling on a particular pastor’s life or the God-given vocation of the church that they are serving.

 

+ I have not found such great faith even in Israel +

“The Great Gadsby” is really about faith and character. Nick seems to be searching for something to believe in, a guiding-principle for his life. He has left the stable confines of his mid-western upbringing. New York is chaotic in its rebellion against prohibition. New York is problematic in its failure to deal with social issues or provide an examples of great persons living noble, charitable, lives. Nick begins the book (or the movie) in need of a Christ-figure. This is what makes it a good launching off point for discussing people like the centurion, and ourselves, that put their faith in Jesus. 

 

Nick’s first New York friends are Tom, Daisy, and the golfing pro, Miss Baker. He observes with horror their lack of faith and their failure to develop anything that approaches an ethical system for life. In a great quote, F. Scott Fitzgerald writes:

 

“They were careless people, Tom and Daisy -- they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made"

For: 
June 2, 2013
Luke 7:1-23
Pentecost 3

The life cycle of a congregation is often described a bell curve, mapping out membership growth over time. Martin F. Saarinen (The Life Cycle of a Congregation -Alban.org), and others, chart how a congregation is born with enthusiasm, has significant yearly growth for a decade or so, enters into a long period of stability, then falls into decline, leading in time to death. My first response to seeing this curve was to ask, what about Canterbury Cathedral? Obviously there are outliers, that is churches whose lifespan is so unexpected that it skews the chart.

We know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. +

This passage gives us the great equation of life; suffering leads to perseverance, this persistent patience then leads to our having an improved character, this, in the end, leads to hope. The three terms of the equation can be variously translated and this is one of the passages of the Bible that becomes more transparent when you look at a variety of translations. There is a form of group wisdom (mass Holy Spirit group-think) when you lay the various words side by side. Paul is reaching to describe something that is so universal that a single English or Greek word cannot contain it. Yet each committee when they translate brings some aspect of the jewel to light.

 

Suffering is probably the best word for the first term. Though some Bibles use tribulation, troubles, or trials, suffering is universal. As the Buddha would say, the human condition is defined by suffering and we only become enlightened when we face it head on. I like Scott Peck’s bluntness, “...you must be willing to meet existential suffering and work it through. In order to do this, the attitude toward pain has to change. This happens when we accept the fact that everything that happens to us has been designed for our spiritual growth.” I think we need to be honest and open about the indispensable role that suffering has had in our personal lives.

For: 
May 26, 2013
Romans 5:1-5
Pentecost 2

Jesus said, “Consider the lilies...” (Matthew 6:28) Why?  Please note that these flowers have three strikes against them:

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place... tongues of fire separated and came to rest on each of them +

I went to a large used book sale this past Saturday. Reading is such an individual thing. I usually get in trouble when I read over someone’s shoulder or read my book out loud when others are trying to sleep. So, when I shop for books, I shop for my personal enjoyment. Yet, as is often the case, my book shopping this weekend was very communal. I had four other family members with me. As we rambled through the aisles we kept separating and coming back together in little clumps of twos and threes to compare finds. Together, apart. Apart, together. The mix and match of the Kemp family’s communal love of books.

The day of Pentecost was a group experience with an individual dimension. As you read Acts 2, you bounce back and forth between the communal and the personal. The first Christians are all together, yet the spirit falls upon each individual as a personalized tongue of flame. The disciples go out on the balcony to speak to the crowds on the street. Yet each hearer experiences the Holy Spirit’s communication in their own language. This really should be known as the gift of individual ears rather than as the gift of a common tongue.

For: 
May 19, 2013
Acts 2:1-21
Pentecost 1

Most things that fail in the church, do not fail for lack of trying. They fail because the groundwork was not done to prove the project worthy of the required effort.  Here is how it goes; one or two leaders become excited about a new program for their church. They work hard to get the votes needed to initiate it. There are stories told about how well this program worked elsewhere. It sounds like fun, and perhaps a little mysterious. The vote passes through council and money is set aside for it. The innovators wipe their brows, thinking the hard part is over. The new program now requires broader support. The various church leaders who ‘liked the idea’ before, back away. They didn’t think this thing would require anything from them. Who understands the next step?

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