Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Paid in Full

Romans 4:1-12
Wednesday, 25 June 2008

I don't pretend to be an economist. I'm just a sister trying to stay afloat in a complex and scary economy. And I'm responsible enough to pay attention to what's going on around me and savvy enough to understand that we are up to our necks in debt and about to go under. I don't just mean individuals. I mean the nation as a whole. Everything about our lifestyles from our cars to our wars costs more money than we have on hand (for the next couple of decades). Individuals are stressed.

Our text for today is full of monetary metaphors, beginning with the distinction between "wages" and "gifts." It is a discussion of Abraham's righteousness and the law, making the most significant point that Abraham's account came out in the black, not because of his work but because of the gift of God. God balances our budgets, takes on our debt, and pays it off. But this fact gives us no cause for selfish boasting since it is not our doing, nor even does it arise as a response to something we have done. All praise and glory belong to God.

Considering the enormous debt that we owed for our sins and the generous gift of God in Christ to pay that debt in full puts in perspective our entire lives. And although the natural economy may often be against us, the spiritual economy is all good. Thanks be to God!

Sing, "Jesus Paid it All"

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Without Exception

Romans 3:21-31
Tuesday, 24 June 2008

I had always been a good, even excellent student when I put my mind to it, so when I discovered that the seminary I attended did not give letter grades, I was a bit taken aback. There were only three possible grades, credit, no credit, or credit with distinction. Most people passed and received credit, but few broke through to a "distinction." Even I had some difficulty getting those exceptional grades. Most of the time I just blended in with the rest of the group. I'll be honest; I didn't like that.

There are several points that Paul makes in this section of his letter to the church at Rome, the most important being that no one person or group has an advantage where God's favor is concerned. No one is righteous. No one earns a distinction. And even though the Law had been given to one group of people, because grace is a gift and cannot be earned, knowing or even attempting to keep the law brings no advantage. All who believe have access. Just as all of us, without exception, have sinned, all of us have the opportunity to be set free from our sin through Jesus Christ.

This reality is difficult for us to embrace fully because we humans have a tendency to desire to be exceptional. We like to have an advantage to lord over other people. We like to belong to the right crowd, to be accepted at the right school, to get the best grade. And sometimes we even manufacture symbols of status in the church in order to recreate the sense of distinction or advantage that we had in the world. But we have to remember that to grasp a sense of ourselves as better than others is to misunderstand and even cut ourselves off from the wondrous grace available to us through faith in the only truly exceptional person ever, that is, Jesus Christ.

Sing, "Glory to His Name"

Let us pray:
We confess, God, that our sinful pride sometimes still rears its ugly head as we judge one another and try to create distinctions among us. Help us to remember that just as all have sinned, all have received access to the gift of grace through Jesus Christ - no excuses, no exceptions. Make us aware that our confidence and our boasting can, thus, never be about us, only about you. Amen

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Baptism Matters

Romans 6:1-11
Sunday, 22 June 2008

Although it is no longer the case, as it was during certain eras in Christian history, that the method your church uses for baptism can get you killed, the ins and outs of baptismal mode and formula remain contentious issues within Christianity. Most all us feel strongly about our baptism, especially those who regard believers' baptism as essential. And we will argue vehemently that baptism matters, but we seldom remember what really matters in baptism.

This week's epistle calls our attention to the ongoing meaning of baptism as the preeminent symbol of regenerated life. Having been introduced to the super-abounding grace of Christ in chapter 5, the grace that looks beyond our faults, we encounter the challenge in Romans 6 of living the new life which that grace makes possible. Our death to the old life frees us from its sinful bondage. Our baptism is the rite by which we are initiated into Christ's burial. Having been united in a crucified death, we hope for resurrection in a glorified life. How many times and in how many ways can God tell us that the Christian life is a radical break from what we were before?

So much of the debate about baptism is a struggle to define what it means to come into the door, at the same time that it loses sight of what it means to live in the house of God. Don't get me wrong. Baptism is important enough to take seriously and to handle rightly. Baptism matters, indeed, but it matters because it marks the break between our old, sinful ways and our new, redeemed life. This life is made possible only by and in Jesus the Christ.

Sing, "Take Me to the Water" and remember your own baptism, reaffirming the covenant you made with God and before the community to live a new life in Christ Jesus.

Let us pray:
Life-giving Savior, although for many of us the occasion of our baptism has long passed, the reality of our new life in you remains before us. Teach us how to walk in the newness of life that our baptism symbolized. Refresh us again by a baptism of your Spirit. Make us new. Make us whole. Make us yours. We pray, in Jesus' precious name. Amen

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Who Do You Think You're Talking To?

Numbers 11:1-23
Wednesday, 18 June 2008

I'll admit that I am not always as careful as I ought to be when it comes to my "tone." This has been an issue all of my life, with especially tricky consequences during my teen years when I was speaking to my parents. More than once my parents responded to my questions, requests, and even answers with the their own question "Who do you think you're talking to?" It seems in life that there are times when it's not so much what you ask as how you ask it.

The Israelites' wilderness experience has become more treacherous in today's lesson.

In addition to all of the challenges inherent in the desert, the murmuring in the camp has angered God. The text begins with a description of God's burning anger at the peoples' incessant complaints. Whining, murmuring, complaining, accusing, griping - God simply got tired of hearing it and sent a fire at the edge of the camp to remind the people how bad it could be. Meanwhile, "the rabble" develop a "strong craving." Their appetites create a stirring that God's food ("manna") does not satisfy. Rather than appreciating the miracle of constant food in a desert, they wax nostalgic about their past lives in Egypt. Conveniently, they discount the fact that in Egypt they were slaves, burdened and serving in oppression. All they remember is the scrumptious and diverse foods of the Egyptians.

I have to believe as I read this text that, as is usually the case with the Israelites, their problem is not so much what they want but how they ask for it. How could they forget that God loves them and has borne them on eagles' wings? How could they forget that God released them for a purpose and is leading them to a wide and abundant place? How can they be so focused on the inconvenience of the moment? It's all about the boredom. "Give us meat!" God speaks to Moses and says, "I'll give them meat until they are sickened with it,until it comes out of their noses and ears."

Brothers and sisters, boredom is dangerous, especially when it is accompanied by spiritual amnesia and ingratitude. And when you add to it murmuring against the God who knows, sees, and hears everything, it is only worse. Don't get me wrong, I believe that God cares enough to want to know how we are feeling. We don't have to be afraid to be honest with God. At the same time, we must never forget that God is God. Asking for what our hearts desire is not a sin. Craving the things that belong to the worldly life is.

Sing, "Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah"

Let us pray:
God our Provider, even though we sometimes live with the deprivations of the wilderness, we give you thanks for freedom from the oppression and bondage of sin. We thank you for the daily bread, the manna that you provide each morning with the dew, to nourish and sustain us in our current state. Keep our minds clear so that we never mistake the world's smorgasbord for a nourishment. Help us to dine daily on the delicacies you provide at your table. Bread of heaven, feed us till we want no more. Amen

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Showing the Love: A Celebration of My Dad

Romans 5:1-11
Father's Day
15 June 2008

I am not much of a holiday person, for reasons too numerous to list but that boil down to the fact that I think the reality of holidays rarely lives up to the hype. Still, I recognize the importance of celebrating the great people and events who have influenced or made our lives possible. Thus, I am offering a tribute to my dad Leonard M. Callahan. My dad was commendable for many things: he was a faithful provider (more than 40 years mining coal to make his family's ends meet); he was an honorable man who was a leader in the community; he encouraged me and celebrated my accomplishments; and he showed me the value of faith and family. In so many ways, I am his child. One thing he wasn't, though, was verbally affectionate. He was of the "old school," a stoic man who believed in showing rather than telling feelings. Day to day, week to week, month to month, and year to year, with clockwork consistency he showed his family how incredibly loved we were.

As I read this text from Romans 5, I couldn't help thinking that God too shows more than tells us of God's love. Oh, that is not to say that the scriptures lack verbal expressions that God loves us, but really the way in which God proves God's love is the fact that Christ died for us, so that God could live in us. Far more perfectly than any human parent, father or mother, God daily provides all that we need - new mercies emerge every morning.

I guess my dad really knew what it meant to be a Christian, to love not in word only but also in deed. After all, the scriptures teach us clearly that we are to grow up into the image of our God and learn to be followers of Christ as dear children. We too are called to show the love.

Sing, "Great is Thy Faithfulness"

Let us pray:
Precious Lord, on this day set aside to honor our earthly fathers, our minds center on your unending faithfulness. As good as some of our dads may be, none of them is perfect. And so we remember and rejoice that we have you, even when our parents forsake us. Grant us the grace to resemble you and your loving ways more and more, so that others may come to know your grace and mercy, upon which we so rely. Amen.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Not Until They're Filled

Matthew 15:29-39
Tuesday, 10 June 2008

Jesus has completed three jam-packed days of ministry to the multitudes. Among the crowds a catalog of illnesses and maladies have presented and he has healed all of them. The mute speak, the blind see, the lame walk, and the maimed are whole after three days. The kingdom has been proclaimed with word and demonstration of power. The disciples and Jesus are exhausted. It's time for the crowd to go their way and for Jesus to go his. But wait, a stomach growls. Eyes glaze over in the heat. They multitude is hungry.

At this point in the story it would be easy and understandable for Jesus simply to send the crowds away. After all, his healing and restoring powers have ensured that all will be fit and able to work for food when they return home. He has already done more for them than they could ever thank him for. The healings alone represent more glory than they had ever seen in one place. Jesus could simply have sent them away and told them, "As for food, you're on your own." He could have berated them for their poor planning and left them to fend for themselves. But he couldn't allow them to go away hungry because they might not make it home. He had compassion on them.

Beloved,in addition to the realization that Jesus has the ultimate capacity to stretch a few resources into a feast, we observe in this scene that Jesus cares too much about us to let us go without anything essential. And following his example, we understand that our role as his disciples is to hang close enough to distribute the good he provides until everyone is filled.

Let us pray:
Jesus our Savior, you alone are the source of all of our provisions. We thank you for ministering to all of our major needs. We see with new eyes, ear with new ears, understand with new minds. But you don't just handle the big things. You notice the growling of our stomachs and attend to the more mundane things that would cause our strength to fail. Help us likewise to attend to one another for your name's sake. Amen

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Get Out of Your Own Way

Romans 4:13-25
Sunday, 8 June 2008

I have been trying to play golf for about two years. I knew I was hooked the first time I went to the driving range, but I also figured out that because so much of golf is counterintuitive, I needed lessons. So I took lessons. Now the problem is that when I am actually out on the course, I have to avoid being so focused on thinking about golf that I can't actually play it. I have to trust that my muscles will remember what I have practiced. I have to learn to get out of my own way.

Abraham is known as the father of the faithful for a reason. Every success in his life required extraordinary faith because every promise God made him was a promise against all odds. If Abraham had considered his own circumstances, if he had focused on his own body, then he would have wavered in is faith. Rather than focusing on himself, though, he paid attention to the promise of God. Paul expresses it this way, in one of my favorite passages of scripture, "No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised." In a word, by centering his attention on God and God's ability, Abraham got out of his own way and into God's plan.

We all have the ability to take ourselves too seriously. We zero in on our own gifts and limitations, our own possibilities and liabilities, and in so doing we actually trip ourselves up. The time has come for us to practice and train ourselves simply to trust God. Thus we can open ourselves up to the miraculous promises of God's working in our lives.

Sing, "Standing on the Promises"

Let us pray:
Loving God, create in us hearts and minds that trust your ability even in the midst of our disability. Allow us to move out of our own way so that you can have your way. We pray, in Jesus' name. Amen

Friday, June 6, 2008

How did I get here?

Galatians 1:1-24
Friday, 6 June 2008

I am privileged to serve on the Advisory Board of The African American Pulpit, the premier journal for reflecting on preaching in the Black Church. During the Hampton Ministers Conference earlier this week, the Advisory Board met over lunch. Included at the table were some of the most prominent and gifted pastors and preachers in the nation, including Hampton's outstanding, anointed Morning Preacher for this year, Rev. Dr. Gina Stewart. On the board, but not present at lunch, are a veritable "Who's Who" within the Black church. After lunch upon reflection, I asked myself, "How did I get here?"

Anyone who pays attention to the writings of Paul will notice that the title by which he refers to himself is that of "apostle." While it may now seem obvious to us that he would consider himself an apostle, since the word literally means "one who is sent" and Paul's life in ministry consisted of a series of journeys orchestrated and plotted by the God, Paul's apostleship was constantly under attack by people who couldn't figure out how he got so much play. As Paul himself notes in our lesson, his identification with the gospel of Jesus Christ came unexpectedly, since he began his career as an ardent persecutor of the church. Nevertheless, the question of his right to preach and of his position as an apostle was not one that could be answered by a resort to any human authority. In a word, Paul established the source of his life and his apostleship not in the will of other apostles in Jerusalem, but in the will of Christ. Paul says, I got here because God sent me.

Beloved, it seems to me that the whole challenge of life is to recognize in ourselves and honor in others the activity of the Spirit, even when it defies human logic or wisdom. Often, I am made to wonder at what God has done and is doing in my own life. Sometimes God sends us into situations that we would rather avoid. Sometimes God send us into situations and others wonder how we got in. And sometimes God opens doors, such as the Advisory Board, that represent unimaginable blessing. The point for us is to understand that in all things, all spaces, all times, and most importantly all of us, God is to be glorified.

Sing, "Glory to His Name"

Let us pray:
Sovereign God, we do not always understand why or how you work with us, but we are grateful for your kindness and grace. When we say that you have brought us a mighty long way, we are not just engaging in idle talk. Now we ask only that we may cease from asking you how we got here and begin in earnest to seek your will for us in this present time and space. Allow, we pray, our lives to redound to your praise. Yes, God be glorified in us, through Jesus Christ. Amen.