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Saturday, April 21, 2012

Author Matthew Cook

As an amateur writer working on a non-fiction book and harboring hopes of one day writing a novel I always appreciate the dedication and skill it takes to finish a story.

Getting it published is something else altogether.

A friend from grad school's husband (say that three times fast) is an aspiring author. I've read one short story by him and he just got another one published in a magazine. The excerpt is excellent and makes me want to purchase the magazine so I can see how the story is resolved.

Of course, here at Chasidic Calvinist, I especially appreciate the author's understanding that religion does matter because it shapes  how we see and interact with the world. And a neo-Anabaptist in space? Priceless.

Click the link, read the interview, read the excerpt, buy the magazine and enjoy.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Pastoral Theology IV: On the Mount

As a New Years resolution I decided to read the Sermon on the Mount every week for a year. I was captivated by an image of what my life might look like if my way of thinking and living was shaped by this body of teaching.

The fruition of that image still eludes me.

But today while reading through Friday's portion of the sermon, a passage stuck out that is very germane to a question I have been wrestling with for a few weeks. Namely, "how can I discern what ministry God is calling me to do here at this church as opposed to doing what is good and sounds good but really isn't God's will?"

A hefty question.

The passage is Matthew 7.21-23. This is the second to last thing Jesus has to say when he is delivering his sermon on the mount. After all of the new standards, after the Law has been reinterpreted and the bar raised; after the disciples are encouraged to be authentic in their faith and do so many different things in this world Jesus adds, "Oh yeah, don't count on this being what gets you into heaven."

The passage jumped out at me this morning because I have really been wrestling with that question as of late. There are many things that churches and ministers can get caught up doing that sound like a good idea and may even have a positive impact on the community but are they actually in line with the will of God?

I easily imagine that the those who were delivered from the bondage of demons felt that what the disciples did was a good thing; so too, I imagine that those who received healing (i.e. mighty works) praised God. All good things. To which Christ responds, "I never knew you."

I'm not overly worried by his declaration, at least not at this juncture in my life, but I am worried about their statement. "We did these things in your name" they claim. They actually claim the refuge of his name three times. The church, ostensibly, does its work in his name. But are we doing his work? The more I wrestle with this question...the more I feel like I'm just going in a circle. It is a bit of a sick-cycle carousel only not as enjoyable.

Specifically for pastors--how do we handle this work of discernment? I'm really looking for feedback on this one. How can we tell if what we are about is the will of God or really our will sugar coated in "good work"?

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Pastoral Theology III: House Cleaning

I apologize for the absence of posting but I don't want to post for the sake of posting.


I attended a funeral today. I arrived shortly before it was about to start and took my seat quietly in the back. The funeral director introduced the pastor to officiate and an wizened man with white hair stepped forward. He read off a plethora of Scripture and then took his seat. A family member stood and read a eulogy and then the pastor stood back up. Then he preached a sermon that I want to never forget.

In my very short time as pastor I have done quite a few funerals. Too many. The unfortunate part about being a pastor is I am learning on the go and I am learning through the triumphs and failures that take place in the lives of others from the decisions I make. It is a heavy burden at times. But this pastor stood there and told all of us it was a heavy burden all of the time because the pastor has a very important job: he has to make sure our houses are in order before we die.

He preached on Isaiah 38.1-2. Then he launched into his sermon by stating quite boldly, that we were all going to die and it was his duty to warn us to put our houses in order before we died. He told us to all imagine that we owned an 8 room house, 4 rooms upstairs and 4 rooms downstairs. The upstairs rooms each related to an aspect of our relationship with God and the 4 rooms downstairs each related to an aspect of our relationship with one another here on earth. What condition were these rooms? He repeatedly asked if we died after leaving this funeral would we go to heaven? At one point he even said that our blood was on his hands, a clear allusion to Ezekiel 3.18.

Afterwards, I went up to him and said, "That was a powerful sermon." Then I told him how I was just starting out in ministry and I appreciated the wisdom that he brought into the topic. He shrugged and then said, "You know, that isn't how I normally do funerals. I'm doing one later today that will be completely different. But I felt a strong pull today..." He shook his head. "You know, there are people who come to funerals who will never hear that message again."

Pastoral Theology Insight #3: Unless Christ returns soon (which he might!) everyone is going to die. Every day, with every passing minute, people move closer to death. They may die of old age, of disease, or from a tragic accident but everyone will die. How are we preparing our flock for death? Do our funeral sermons reflect our theology? Do we offer sentimental platitudes from the pulpit during a funeral and preach something different on Sunday or is the message consistent?

Our job is the same as it was for Isaiah. We must not mince our words when it comes to living and dying. We need to make sure people understand their house must be in order at all times because he is coming like a thief in the night! We have a duty, a responsibility, to remind people that they should live like they are dying because they are. But we also have a duty to remind people that to "live without regrets" is a recipe for disaster when all is said and done. We must point them to Christ. To encourage them to spend some time thinking about the one thing that matters and not all of the other stuff that fills our mind that we can't even take with us. We must point them to the only one who can truly clean their house of all the filth they have done, the only one who satisfies in life and in death.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

What the Pharisee Heard

This is my sermon from my first Palm Sunday.

Focus text is Luke 19.28-48

Simon bent down and selected a brown stone from the ground. Rising, he placed it to his ear and strained, trying to hear something.

“Simon! What do you think you are doing?” Abner asked him frowning.

Simon lowered the rock from his ear, but he didn’t drop it before responding “I was testing him Abner. Or rather, I was testing his words. You were there, you heard as well as I did what he claimed would happen. I do not hear the sound of anyone praising him now, so I thought I would see if the stones are crying out.”

Abner quietly regarded Simon before asking, “So tell me Simon, what did you hear?”

“Nothing.”

The two stood in silence for some time. They were both lost in thought over the dramatic events of the morning. The large crowds, Jesus on the donkey, the shouts of “Hosanna” were a recent memory. Now, the road was nearly empty as the heat of the day was over powering. Everyone with any common sense had run for shade. But Simon had ventured out, despite the weight of his robes to find a stone and gather his thoughts.

“You know” Simon began after some time, “He may be the one. The Messiah, the King we have been longing for who will deliver us from the Romans.”

Despite the solitude, Abner quickly looked around to make sure no one had heard. “Simon you are acting like a fool! Such talk! Beside, the Messiah would support the religious objectives of our brethren Pharisees. He would not ridicule our customs. He would not mock the length of our phylactery as this one has. He consorts with sinners. His disciples do not obey the Sabbath…”

“But he has the power to heal! He has done miraculous healing and some of those whom he healed followed the Law of Moses and came and presented themselves at the Temple for the healing to be verified by a priest! And anyone with half a brain can tell that his choice of twelve disciples is a deliberate acknowledgement that he is in favor of the kingdom of Israel!” Simon responded.

“Come Simon, we must not speak of such things here in the open. Let us find some shade” Abner said as he walked away.

Shortly they came upon a quiet grove of olive trees with a splendid view of the Kidron Valley. The cool shade from the trees was a welcome relief from the intense heat. Abner lowered himself and leaned back against one of the gnarled trunks. “Simon you are letting your emotions getting the best of you in this matter.”

Simon held his tongue for a moment before responding. “No Abner, I’m not. You and I know that we Pharisees exist because we desire more than anything to restore the kingdom to Israel. We separate ourselves from this polluted culture, we adhere to the Torah, we take on disciples and train them in the way of life, we have nothing to do with the gentiles and hold no regard for Rome, unlike our brothers the Sadducees” at their name he spat in the dust. “We do all of this out of the hope that by restoring the true identity to Israel we can bring God’s blessing down upon his people again. You know as well as I do, Abner, that we are supposed to be watching for the Messiah and the Messiah is supposed to make use of us! You remember the Baptizer, John? The one who baptized all of those people in the Jordan River?”

“You mean the one who was beheaded?” Abner asked.

“Yes of course. We sent a delegation to him to see if he was the one promised in Scripture because we are supposed to be on the look out for the Messiah.”

Abner grunted at this and then said, “What does any of this have to do with you putting a rock to your ear?”

“I was testing his words! Maybe he is the Messiah after all. Maybe we have been looking in the wrong place all this time!”

“But Simon, he is from Nazareth. You know the saying, ‘Nothing good can come from Nazareth!’”

“He has supporters among us—more so than any other pretender before him.”

Abner sat in silence. Of course he had heard the rumors of the various circles of Pharisees who did actually support this Jesus of Nazareth. No one ever claimed to do so publically and the rumors were just that, rumors...curiosity got the best of him: “Who?” He finally asked at length.

“Nicodemus met with him.”

“Nicodemus! Do not say such things!”

“But it is true” Simon insisted. “Nicodemus met with him one night to see if he would be the one to restore the kingdom to Israel but Nicodemus said he began speaking gibberish about only those who are born again can enter into the kingdom of God.”

“Born again?” Abner asked incredulously. “How can a man be born again when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”

“Nicodemus said much the same thing. The confusion aside, Nicodemus seems to regard him with some respect. And then there is a member of the Sanhedrin, Joseph of Arimathea.”

Abner snorted. “Joseph has more money than he knows what to do with. It is an impediment to his devotion to God.”

“Then the two of you have something in common! I heard it said that this Jesus told a rich man, ‘It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God!’”

“Listen to me Simon! He is not the Messiah! He cannot be the Messiah. Despite the demonstration today, with the crowd calling out Hosanna and waving their palm branches and his overly coordinated entry on a donkey—these things do not automatically make him the Messiah! Do you not understand! God would not send a Messiah who would criticize us, the Pharisees! We have been the faithful adherents to the Law of Moses since we were allowed to return from Babylon! We have follow the commandments of God and teach others to do likewise, both in word and deed.” Abner paused and adjusted his tallit as it had become disturbed in his sudden out burst. “He doesn’t even respect the Sabbath, Simon, the Sabbath! It is one of the Ten Commandments!”

Simon was at a loss. What Abner said made sense. Simon had been attracted to the Pharisees because he had a zeal for the Lord and saw in this body of believers that zeal reflected in an every day lifestyle dedicated to preserving the holiness of God. With all of his being he yearned to see God restore the kingdom to Israel and reject the Roman occupation force. But he felt this was a work which God would do through his Messiah. The Messiah would be a High Priest and King, he would work with the existing Temple and along side the Sanhedrin. Or though it had always been believed.

Yet so many in the Sanhedrin despised this Jesus of Nazareth. He had not endeared himself to them; he certainly was not like the Roman senators—always saying the right things to the right people—he expressed himself honestly. Too honestly. Simon could respect that but wished he would not so openly rebuke so many of the sacred traditions of the Pharisees.

And then this morning, during his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, to say the things he said. To publically rebuke the Pharisees and then weep over Jerusalem and predict doom and destruction! He should have been predicting glory for God’s holy city Jerusalem and doom and destruction instead for Rome! Yet the people seemed to love him. In this carpenter from Nazareth they saw something that evoked passion within the multitudes. They followed him everywhere. Simon had even heard a story of people tearing away a roof to lower a sick friend down into a room where they thought Jesus was staying. If that story was not incredible enough, it was said he then healed this man based on the faith of his friends.

Suddenly, a group of four Pharisees ran into the olive grove. The one in the lead spoke first, “Simon and Abner—we have been looking everywhere for you! The chief priests and scribes have called a meeting! It will soon be starting you must come quickly!”

“What is this all about?” Abner asked.

“Have you not heard? It is about this Jesus from Nazareth! After his entry this morning he went straight into the Temple and then he attacked it!”

“He what?”

“He attacked the Temple! He made a whip out of chords and drove the money changers out, overturned their tables and had the audacity to pour the coins out upon the floor! Then he had the audacity to claim that he could rebuild the Temple in three days time! He mocks our customs, he flaunts our authority and disrespects the sacred space of our house of worship!”

“He must be stopped” Abner declared!

“That is why the chief priests have called this meeting. This foolish so-called prophet’s time is nearing its end. Come brothers, the meeting will be starting shortly.”

The Pharisees turned and left the grove with Abner following them. Simon looked down, surprised to see he still held the stone from the road. He lifted it to his ear but heard nothing and dropped it, angrily, into the dirt and followed them.

_____________________________________________________________________________

As it is recorded in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus confronted the way the Pharisees adhere to the tradition of their elders and disregard the Word of God by saying, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.”

All of this—all of this is a tradition of the elders: our order of worship, our pews, our stain glass windows, our choir, all traditions that we have grown accustomed to. Even Palm Sunday is a tradition of our elders. There is no biblical commandment that says “On the Sunday prior to Easter the congregation of the Lord shall gather together, wave palms and remember Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem.”

Today I want to leave everyone with a question: if Christ were to walk into this church, enter our sanctuary what is it that is untouchable? What long established tradition can Jesus not touch? If Jesus were to walk in here and start overturning established traditions like he overturned those tables would we too switch from shouting out “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord” and instead cry out, “Crucify him”?