my good deeds are like a tampon…

In this week’s lectionary readings we find a prayer from Isaiah 64.  The tide has turned in Isaiah’s (or second Isaiah’s) thoughts and no more are there promises of destruction… now there are promises of salvation and pleas for God to act.

“If only you would tear open the heavens and come down!” Isaiah cries. 

It is a lament, for Isaiah looks at himself and at his people and knows why God is not answering.  The people have sinned and turned their backs.  So God is waiting. 

As I read this prayer today with my lectionary group, I was unprepared for the next line in the scripture.  As I remember the translation there was always something about filthy rags… but as I read along in my new Common English Bible, the verse leaped off the page:

“We have all become like the unclean; all our righteous deeds are like a menstrual rag.”

To be unclean – ritually unclean – means that a person is temporarily unsuited to take part in holy activities like prayer, sacrifice, fasting, etc.  Temporary is the key word there.  A ritual impurity, such as that caused by contact with bodily fluids or menstruation, are not permanent states of being. 

In order to become clean again… a ritual washing is required.  Sometimes just the hands, sometimes full emersion.  But washing none the less.

When Isaiah uses this concept in the passage, he is connecting the hearts of the people to their worship.  He is connecting a physical reality to a spiritual one.  Because of their sins, they have defiled themselves.  God doesn’t want them in the presence of the divine right now.  Like it will later say in Malachai 1:10 –

“Who among you will shut
the doors of the templec
so that you don’t burn something
on my altar in vain?
I take no delight in you,
says the LORD of heavenly forces.
I won’t accept a grain offering
from your hand.”
When our lives are filled with sin, good deeds mean nothing. They can’t earn us a place in God’s heart.  In fact, the hypocrisy of them only serves to anger our Lord more, because they cover up the truth… that we need to be washed clean. 
That we need to be transformed from the inside out.
That we need our Holy Potter to take our misshapen clay and to form us once again. 
Come, Holy God, tear open the heavens and wash us clean.

Ghenna

One of my favorite things to do as the weather warms up is to get outside and play some disc golf.

A week and a half ago – before winter decided to come back and pay us another visit – I was able to play my first round of the year at Jones Park in Cedar Rapids.
We always begin our rounds at Jones on tee 15. The parking is better by the hill top pavilion, and there are convenient bathrooms there for when you are waiting for other friends to arrive.
That’s where I found myself on that Wednesday afternoon. The sun was shining, the air was warm, and as I waited for a friend to join me, I sat on the grass and soaked in the warmth for the first time of 2011.
Looking out from that hill, you can pretty much see the whole park. The pond, the golf course, the playground and the pool, and oh yeah, just over the tree tops, Mount Trashmore.
For a while, I thought Mount Trashmore was simply the name my friends and I affectionately called this heap of trash. But apparently, the city’s former mayor coined the term decades ago and “Mount Trashmore” has remained as this landfill’s unofficial name.
It is located on the southwest side of town, and was officially closed in 2006 as work was being done to cap off the heap of waste… allowing green grass and vegetation to grow over it. But all of that changed in 2008 when flooding necessitated the use of the landfill for all of that flood debris.
Three years later, dump trucks are still making their way around the landfill and it keeps growing and growing and growing, high above the city’s treeline.
That heap of garbage reminds me of another dump – one mentioned in our scriptures for today.
Unfortunately, due to some poor translating, most of us don’t know about this lovely little waste pile that was once located on the southwest side of Jerusalem….
Will you pray with me?

Today, we begin to look at the third section of the sermon on the mount contained in Matthew. Here, Jesus moves from our attitudes and our witness to the world, and he dives into some teaching about how we behave – how we act – and in particular, how we treat one another.

This whole section actually contains Matthew 5:17-48. Jesus talks about what we should teach one another, talks about anger, and adultery, divorce, promises, revenge, and how we should treat enemies. And we are going to get to the meat of that text – the relationships – next week.
Before we get there, however, I think we need to spend some time with a certain four letter word.
In most of our English translations of the New Testament three greek words are translated into one English word – Hell. These three are hades, which refers to the greek place of the dead, tartaroo – which shows up only once in 2 Peter 2:4 and refers to a dark abyss within Hades where the supremely wicked are punished (again from Greek thought), and gehenna – a word used 11 times by Jesus throughout three of the gospels and once in the book of James.
That word, gehenna, shows up three times in Matthew chapter 5 alone.
Each and every single time it shows up, Jesus warns us that unless we change our ways, unless we do something, we are going to end up there.
So – before we look at those relationships in our lives, I want us to think about what “there” is…
The greek word gehenna is actually made up of two Hebrew words… one meaning valley or son (as in child) and the other is a proper name. So this word gehenna means either the son of Hinnom, or the valley of Hinnom.
The Valley of Hinnom is a real place just on the southwest side of Jerusalem. It is mentioned multiple times in the Old Testament – both in the setting of borders for the tribes of Israel and also in describing the religious practices that took place there. The Valley of Hinnom was in most cases the site of despicable actions. Pagans and even some of Israel’s kings had made child sacrifices there in the valley by offering them up in fire. As time went on, the Valley of Hinnom became not much more than a garbage dump on the edge of town.
That is presumably what it was at the time of Jesus. A place of trash and waste. A place to throw unwanted things. Continual fires burned there in the dump to consume the garbage and to prevent pestilence. In John Wesley’s notes on the Matthew 5, he reminds us that if any criminals were burnt alive as punishment, it was there, in that horrible place.
As I researched this valley, this place called Gehenna, I read that some think the poor, the unwanted and criminals were actually buried here, rather than in nice and expensive tombs that a good burial would have entailed.

Gehenna is a place for garbage. It is a place for that which is unwanted. It is a place to destroy waste and filth.

Let’s forget, for just a moment, that for two thousand years we have translated this greek word Gehenna into little tiny four letter word like hell. Let’s instead put ourselves in the shoes of the first century Jews who might have been sitting on the hillside listening to Jesus teach – as he does here in Matthew.

Let’s, for the sake of argument, pretend that they can see that valley of garbage, gehenna, somewhere off in the distance… much like I could see Mount Trashmore from the hill top in Jones Park.

Maybe it is just the rising smoke from the smouldering fires. Maybe it is just the faint smell of burning garbage that lingers on the air. Maybe you can actually see the heaps of trash, even from far off, just outside the gate of Jerusalem.
Imagine you are there… and then hear again these words from Jesus.

21“You have heard that it was said to those who lived long ago, You shouldn’t commit murder, k and all who commit murder will be in danger of judgment. 22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with their brother or sister will be in danger of judgment. If they say to their brother or sister, ‘You idiot,’ they will be in danger of being condemned by the governing council. And if they say, ‘You fool,’ they will be in danger of gehenna (fiery hell). 23

…And if your right eye causes you to fall into sin, tear it out and throw it away. It’s better that you lose a part of your body than that your whole body be thrown into [gehenna]. 30 And if your right hand causes you to fall into sin, chop it off and throw it away. It’s better that you lose a part of your body than that your whole body go into [gehenna].

Do you hear those passages differently, knowing about this burning garbage heap just outside of Jerusalem?

As Jesus used this word, gehenna, with his followers, their minds immediately drifted to this valley where the waste of their world was destroyed.

Time and time again, Jesus uses everyday and common things to help the people understand some ultimate truth about God. He talks about flowers and yeast, seeds and vineyards, buildings and rocks and even garbage.

Each of those common, everyday things used in his parables are more than what they seem.

And so when we hear about this continually burning garbage dump… we put a word to it – hell.

But before we add layer upon layer of meaning – before we take two thousand years of church tradition and meaning and pile it all up on that little four letter word, let’s look at what Jesus is using it for right here.

First, Jesus never says that those who break the commandments go to hell. He doesn’t even refer to it anywhere in Matthew 5 as a place of punishment.

No, Jesus is talking about garbage, waste, unwanted things. Useless things.

Jesus starts by talking about our attitudes and continues on with the witness we bear forth in the world and then Jesus starts talking about the law and the kingdom of God.

As he speaks, he tells us: As long as heaven and earth exist, neither the smallest letter nor even the smallest stroke of a pen will be erased from the Law until everything there becomes a reality… unless your righteousness is greater than the righteousness of the legal experts and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

All of it is about the kingdom. Kingdom attitudes, Kingdom witness, Kingdom behavior.

In this whole next section, Jesus is talking about what is useless, unwanted, cast out of the Kingdom of heaven…

Not about eternal punishment in some fiery place… but about what cannot, will not, be a part of the kingdom.

He’s talking about the garbage that has to be cleared out of our lives in order for us to be a part of the kingdom.

He’s talking about the trash that gets in the way of us truly living like Kingdom people.

He’s telling us that unless we are willing to throw those behaviors and attitudes and feelings away, unless we are willing to clean house and transform our lives… we might as well just throw our whole selves out there on the garbage dump – because we are useless to him. We are useless to God. We are useless to the kingdom of heaven.

If we are not honest about our failings and our missteps then we are throwing ourselves out with the trash.  By refusing to examine our lives, we live out there in the dump all of our own free choosing.

What does it take to live differently?  What does it take to be a part of the Kingdom of God?

You have to be willing to let go of that thing which is holding you back from God’s transformative grace and love. Cut it off, throw it out, put it where it belongs… on the trash heap, out with the garbage, never to be seen again.

God wants you to be a part of the Kingdom.

You.

Not the garbage of your past that you cling to.

You.

Fully redeemed, made clean and whole by his love and grace.

Are you going to hold on so fast to the sin of your life so that you can’t enter?

Will you let it hinder you?

Or will you throw it out where it belongs?

On the southwest side of town there is a garbage heap… take out your sin and leave it there… and come join us in the Kingdom of God.

what we are saved from matters – or – what if Rob Bell has a point?

I’m just a small voice, but I have a two cents to add to the pot on this whole “Rob Bell Universalism” controversy.

Before his book is even out, folks are making all kinds of assumptions about what it says.  And there are probably enough indicators in the youtube preview of “Love Wins” that you can say a whole lot.

But I want to back the question up a little bit.

What I think Bell is pointing out is that soteriology matters.  What we believe we are saved from is important.  Who is saving us means something.  What that process of redemption entails determines a whole lot about how we treat other people and how we live our lives.

Soteriology matters.

If God has already condemned all of us to a place called Hell because of the actions of a man and a women in a garden thousands of years ago… and then God saves us from that condemnation… we might think and act and worship a certain way.

If, however, our actions then and our continued actions now are themselves “hell-making”… if we are creating the conditions of hell each and every time we hurt one another through our action and inaction and if we dishonor our relationship with our Lord by turning towards the darkness rather than the light… then salvation looks different.  Then, maybe Christ saves us from ourselves… and then the Spirit empowers and sanctifies us to live the way God intended.

There are subtle differences in those two concepts (and they are only two among many!), but the differences are important.

Historically we have at least three major ways of understanding what Christ does for us:  Christus Victor, Substitutionary Atonement, and the Moral Example theories of Abelard. All three have a basis in scripture.  All three say something very different about what is wrong with humanity, about what hell looks like, and about how salvation is imparted into our personal and corporate lives.

Last summer, my congregation and I explored these various understandings of atonement and found all three of them interwoven in the book of Hebrews.  Christ is the priest who lays down his life as the final and perfect sacrifice.  Christ is the prophet who calls us to a different way of life.  Christ is the king who triumphs over the lesser kings of this world and conquers for us.

It gets complicated… but it matters.  Where we end up on these questions of salvation change how we interact with our brothers and sisters in this world. It changes our relationship with the one who does the saving.

And, I might also add, our inability to fully understand and agree about salvation ultimately says more about us than it does about God.

As I read the “good book” from beginning to end… as I look at the scope and span of the scriptures… no matter how we fail and get it wrong, no matter how strong the forces for darkness are in this world – in the end, love does win.
That is the firm hope that I stand on.
If God doesn’t win… if love and life and light don’t have the final say, then all is for naught.
I have many good friends who are reformed theologians of the Calvinist flavor.  And I understand their predilection towards preserving the sovereignty of God Almighty.
But what I want to know is why can’t that preservation of God’s sovereignty also leave space for the hope that God’s power is so great that it can transform and redeem everything?

Jurgen Moltmann once said in regards to claims he might be a universalist:

I’m not a Universalist because there are some people I don’t want to see again – but God created them and would certainly like to see them again.  Universalism is not only to speak about all human beings, but to speak about the universe, the stars and the moon and the sun and the whole cosmos.

If I were to summarize Moltmann’s statement it would go: I’m not a Universalist, but God might be.

Moltmann reminds us that at the end of the day, this is God’s story… not ours.  Who are we to tell God who can be saved and who cannot?  Who are we to limit the story of salvation to humans or a sharp distinction between a place called heaven and a place called hell?

When I read Revelation and Isaiah and whole host of other scriptures… I find a story in which not only people, but the whole creation groans for salvation. I am invited into a story of recreation, of redemption, a story where a new heaven and a new earth are realized and where God dwells among us.  And the way I read the story… love does win.

How we get there matters… but what really matters that the one who made us wants to redeem us… and has the power to do so.

celebrations and transitions

This Sunday is when we celebrate the Transfiguration and after five weeks of exploration on the Lord’s Prayer – I am more than ready for something new in worship.

I have been thinking a lot about what the Transfiguration symbolizes for the life of the church. Besides simply being a remembrance of the event witnessed by the disciples, besides being an affirmation that the law and the prophets were fully behind the ministry of the Son of God, the Transfiguration comes at an important juncture in Mark and in important juncture in the church year.

In Mark, Jesus is setting his face towards Jerusalem. Life as it was for the disciples would never be the same. And in many ways, we too are setting our faces towards Jerusalem as we enter the season of Lent.

But I think that the Transfiguration also serves as a transition point in which we need to remember where we have been and let that be seen in the light of God’s glory, but then set it behind us and move forward. The disciples got the glory part, but they wanted to enshrine the moment, build tabernacles, and stay in that moment. We need to take a moment to sit in the glory of what we have accomplished, but then let it go and realize that our journey has only just begun.

So that idea of celebrating a moment and then moving on is really in the back of my mind.

In our congregation, we have a lot to celebrate. We just had a hugely successful dinner to raise money for our youth ministry. We gave money to many valuable missions in the last year. We increased our involvement in worship and other activities. And the thing that amazed me, we paid our apportionments 100% for the first time in years.

But we can’t say – oh, well, we accomplished that, look how great we were, and be done. We have to keep working. We have to keep seeing what changes need to be made. We have to keep following the guidance of the spirit. And that means coming down off of the mountain top, rolling up our sleeves, and getting to work.

Who Would Jesus Smack Down?

This morning one of our small groups met and I started Joyce Rupp’s “The Cup of Our Lives” with them. It thought it went really well! I’m also now up to 5 youth and a male chaperone besides myself who are able to go on our youth mission trip this summer. Which is fantastic!

I ran some errands – including buying some good nutritious food to stock the fridge with, and then sat down for lunch with my computer. And came across this article:

Who Would Jesus Smack Down?
By MOLLY WORTHEN
Published: January 11, 2009
The Seattle minister Mark Driscoll is out to transform American evangelicalism with his macho conception of Christ and neo-Calvinist belief in the total depravity of man.

I know I said that I would be commenting on “The Shack” soon… and I hope to… but for some reason I stumbled across this today and just sat there with my jaw dropped staring at the screen.

I didn’t know anything about this church before I read the article and there are some things about how it is portrayed that make my blood boil and there are other things that really resonate with me. And so I’m going to talk about them in no particular order.

First of all, the Calvinist theology. It’s not me. I’m a die-hard Methodist. And while there may only be a hair’s breadth between Calvinism and Methodism, I would say that it’s a mighty thick hair. And to be fair to Calvin, this New Calvinism takes his attempt to hang on to the sovereignty of God and just runs with the unintended implications much more than Calvin ever would have. There is a determinism there that is extremely uncomfortable for me. Not because I’m a “limp-wristed liberal,” but because I want to leave room for God to do what God wants – and that includes redeeming the irredeemable.

Secondly, along with the theology comes an interpretation of the bible that is ironically more refreshing that traditional conservative literal evangelical spin… because it takes seriously the New Testament messsage that prohibitions against things like drinking and dancing just don’t jive with what Jesus tried to teach… that attempting to live righteously by the law is to live like a Pharisee. But, the interpretative framework doesn’t leave any room for the contextual explanations of Paul’s comments on the genders or leave room for the call of God to teach and preach to come to women. And I have a huge problem with that since I am a woman and have experienced that call. (Perhaps this is where I stick in a not so subtle comment about Wesleyan theology and the quadralateral of biblical interpretation: scripture, tradition, reason and experience.)

Third, and this is related to the gender discussion, Driscoll wants to basically save Jesus from the theology that has emasculated him. I want to both agree and disagree here. There is a lot within theology that does paint Jesus as the soft and gentle one who loves us. And there are some interpretations of the crucifixion that want to see pacifism as weak, as Christ’s refusal to fight back or stand up for himself as a feminine way of being (Not my interpretation). BUT, why are feminine attributes so negative in Driscoll’s eyes? Why can’t Jesus embrace both the traditionally masculine and feminine aspects of humanity? And the whole argument supposes that Christ’s form of resistance to power… his refusal to give in AND his willingness to die for sinners… is what has made Christ weak, or in the words of the article:

has transformed Jesus into “a Richard Simmons, hippie, queer Christ,” a “neutered and limp-wristed popular Sky Fairy of pop culture that . . . would never talk about sin or send anyone to hell.”

On the contrary, the true power of Christ in my theology is described in terms of kenosis – of emptying himself – of pouring out himself for others. In doing so, he fully took on human existence and redeemed it, once and for all. He gave up everything in order that none would have to be condemned to hell. But, there is still a choice involved. Christ, God the Father, the Holy Spirit, continues to reach out to us but it is up to us whether or not we respond. That’s not weak. That is what love and relationship look like.

Fourth, I love the way that the church meets people where they are and believe that God is found everywhere within the culture. I can totally relate to the description of the people as:

cultural activists who play in rock bands and care about the arts, living out a long Reformed tradition that asserts Christ’s mandate over every corner of creation

I have no complaint here and applaud their ability not only to reach out to those who would be uncomfortable in a mainline church, but also to challenge them to live differently. In the words of Anne Lamott (or someone else if it came before her) “God loves you just the way you are, and loves you too much to let you stay that way.”

Fifth, the idea that to question authority is to sin. OMG. seriously. That paragraph in the article about made me scream. To start off with, since Calvinism is a REFORMED tradtion… there was some questioning of authority somewhere along the way. That being said, I have no tolerance for authoritarianism. (haha, i made a joke) Questioning is what makes us human, it is the gift of the Holy Spirit that allows the body of Christ to discern what is the will of God. I must admit here that Mr. Wesley himself could be fairly authoritarian in his own day, and he made some bad choices as a result of which (see his love life in Georgia for example). But to shun elders within the church because they opposed the new organizational structure? Are you serious? I guess that’s a long way from the idea of Christian conferencing that became a part of the Wesleyan tradition… Or maybe I’m just being limp-wristed again. GAH!

being true to your beliefs…

This morning I was approached by a congregation member who wanted to invite me to join him for a gathering of the Methodist Laity Reform Movement. This is a group within our conference that wants to promote a more conservative reading of the social principles but also is looking for more grassroots reform of the whole conference system. There are some things in their agenda and principles I can agree with, but not everything – particularly the views on homosexuality. While I hate to say that is the only issue that would keep me away from it, the fact that half of their “issues” on the website were regarding whether gays and lesbians can be ordained or members or on Supreme Court rulings regarding homosexuality, I have to take a step back.

I have not yet stood up and shared my opinions/beliefs on the subject. I do have a Human Rights Coalition equality sticker in my office and a number of books in my marriage and relationship counseling section – if anyone is interested in looking that would announce where I stand on the issue.

I guess the question I have for other pastors is how do you start to broach the subject? Do you wait until asked specifically, or in the case of this group, should I have said up front that was the reason I wasn’t interested? I did say that there are many reform movements and caucuses in our annual conference and that it wasn’t one I was interested in participating in, but I left it at that.

I want to be true to myself, but I also want to be pastoral and help the congregation wrestle together with this issue. It relates to one of my last posts regarding truth and perception. I have a position on the issues that I can’t impose as fact upon others. I need to listen to them, as much as they need to listen to me. And we all need to open up space for the Holy Spirit to guide us.

And it all has to do with understandings of scripture. Ironically, my mom called me just yesterday. She said that a co-worker knew that I was a pastor and so he came up to her and asked if I had read 1 Timothy 2. She didn’t really know what he was referring to (and didn’t stop to check), but passed along the information to me. One of the reasons that we (or many of us) don’t take verses 11-15 seriously today is because 1) we have been revealed other truths by the Holy Spirit… ie: we have witnessed women’s ability to lead and teach men and 2)we are able to contextualize that passage, look at where and why it was said and we also judge it against other scriptural passages.

So, i guess I’m just waiting to have this conversation and wondering if i should be the one to initiate it.

lusting whores in Ezekiel…

Well. I’ve been going to a bible study that meets at the church… not necessarily a bible study really… they gather to read the bible together, out loud, and have snacks.

Yesterday morning, Ezekiel 23 happened to be where we were (they are reading straight through… I think they might have started with Jeremiah)… and holy cow! I have never read that chapter before… and I don’t think that any of them had either! The chapter talks about two sisters who are whores… an analogy for the cities of Jerusalem and Samaria… but if you aren’t reading with a careful enough eye or a critical enough spirit, you don’t quite get that right away. I’m not quite sure how they would have preceeded through that chapter without me! And while I tried really hard this morning to keep quiet… mostly so I could observe what normally happens in this group… this chapter was just too difficult!

One thing that I have learned from this group however… well, from the church members in general… is that I need to learn how to love the Bible. I think there is a book by Peter Gomes – The Good Book – and I’m going to try to read it sometime soon. I realized that when I go to the bible to read it, I’m looking for the themes, I’m looking for the historical connections, I’m looking at it academically and critically, thinking of it most of the time as a message for people a long time ago and hoping that with the Holy Spirit’s help that something might apply to my life today. The people I have met in my congregation just love to read the bible. One homebound member actually said that she doesn’t really understand the bible, it gets all confusing, she just loves to read the words. She said – all of that figuring the message out – that’s not for us lay people. And that mindset really confuses me! There is a sort of simpleness too it and part of me wants to challenge them and teach them to learn from the depths of the text. That kind of simple-minded reading of the bible leads to a lot of proof-texting and quoting verses without paying attention to the context. On the otherhand, this group is so passionate about reading the word of God, whether they understand it or not, that they gather each week to read it aloud to one another.

As I thought about it today, I wonder if a lectio divina method would work well with this group. I think that it might add just a little bit of structure to their reading and allow them to focus on smaller isolate chunks and really absorb them deeply. It would give them a chance to lift up phrases that speak to them and help them to look more closely at what is going on.