Lenten Reflection 4.7.12

Psalm 118 begins:

O give thanks to God, for God is good;
God’s steadfast love endures forever!

Psalm 118 ends:

O give thanks to God, for God is good;
God’s steadfast love endures forever!

On this last day of Lent, referred to as Holy Saturday in some traditions, remembered as the day that Jesus was in the tomb, this psalm reminds us of all that we need to know. At the beginning, at the end, a good and loving God. Whatever our life circumstances, God is good, and God’s love is eternal. Whatever mess we have made of things, God is good and God’s love is eternal. Whatever happens in the world, God is good and God’s love is eternal. Whether we live or die, God is good and God’s love is eternal. Whatever the great mystery beyond death, God is good and God’s love is eternal. This is the grounding of people of faith throughout the centuries, and it was certainly the bedrock of the life of Jesus.

It’s really all we have to remember: God is good, and God’s steadfast love endures forever.

Prayer
Sometimes we get so caught up in our own drama. We let our lives get self centered instead of God centered. With God at the center, at the beginning and at the end, we have all the assurance we need to face the joys and sorrows of the journey. God is good, and God’s love is eternal. This awareness sustained Jesus through his life and his death. May it sustain us as well. Amen.

Lenten Reflection 4.6.12

This week I read about an 80 year old woman who safely landed a twin-engine Cessna plane when her 81 year old husband had a heart attack and died at the controls. WOW!!! Their son was on the radio giving her direction and she had taken some flying lessons about 30 years ago. Even so, how amazing is that? Just the challenge of a safe landing is a lot to manage, let alone under those circumstances. It is such an unlikely outcome for the situation.

In Psalm 118 the writer tells us:

The stone that the builders rejected
has become the chief cornerstone.

This verse refers to an unexpected outcome as well. For Christians, this verse is a way of seeing the ministry of Jesus. We see him as one who was rejected by the leaders and authorities and many others of his day. He was not only cast aside, but put to death in a cruel, humiliating manner. On Good Friday, the day we remember the crucifixion of Jesus, he certainly was rejected. Those responsible for Jesus’ death thought they had put an end to him and his subversive teachings. But there was an unexpected outcome.

The fact that millions of people around the world will commemorate the crucifixion today shows how wrong they were. In fact, Jesus’ death added to his power and drew attention to his claims. By killing him, those who rejected him, added fire and passion to his movement. They inadvertently fanned the flames of the community he had established. They drew attention to his message. As church forebear Tertullian observed in 197 C.E., “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” The stone that the leaders of the day thought they were rejecting became the cornerstone of a tremendous movement which has significantly impacted human history.

This should not surprise us because this is the heart of Jesus’ ministry. He surrounded himself with people that no one thought would amount to much. Yet look what they did. He reached out to those who were considered of little or no value by society, and they became faithful witnesses continuing Jesus’ ministry of healing, comforting, feeding, and forgiving. They were bold in their service and in their invitation to others to find new life in this unlikely fledgling movement.

Many of those who were part of the origins of Christianity were what could be considered “rejects.” And yet they built the church which we have inherited today. And this is still how Christianity works. People who are considered nobodies becoming somebodies through self-giving service to others. That is the heart of the Christian message. Self giving service ennobles the one serving and the one served. It is the one way that each and every person can have access to full humanity and dignity and integrity. Feeling low? Beaten down? Useless? A failure? Do something for someone. Help someone. Volunteer in an organization that is working for good in the community. That is the essence of the Christian movement. That is how the stone that those in power reject becomes the cornerstone of something good, true, purposeful, and lasting.

Prayer
This day our hearts are heavy as we remember the crucifixion of Jesus. Yet even from that devastating tragedy, good came forth. We are heirs of that legacy. May we continue to work for good in the world whatever our circumstances or however dire the situation, for there is always good that can emerge even where least expected. May we help to build a world where everyone is valued and needed and no one is cast aside. This is the way of Jesus. Amen.

Lenten Reflection 4.5.12

Today is designated as Maundy Thursday in the church. The word Maundy comes from the Latin mandatum which means mandate or command. This refers to the commandment Jesus gives to the disciples the night before he is crucified in the Gospel of John: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” [John 15:12]

Yet when we reflect on the stories of the last days of Jesus’ life, his friends and followers do not exactly fulfill this commandment. There is the story of Peter betraying Jesus three times. There is the story of the disciples falling asleep when Jesus asks them to pray. There is the story of Judas betraying Jesus with a kiss for 30 pieces of silver. The tradition tells us that all but the women fled and deserted Jesus at the end. So much for love one another as I have loved you.

In Psalm 118, we are told again and again of God’s faithfulness. The writer cries out in distress. Guess what? God delivers. Surrounded by enemies, God comes through. “God is on my side to help me,” we are told. “I was pushed hard, so that I was falling, but God helped me.” “The right hand of God does valiantly; the right hand of God is exalted.” In every situation imaginable, God comes through. God delivers. That message resounds again and again in the Psalms and throughout scripture.

We may be fickle. Our faith may be weak. We may betray. We may loose heart. We may give up. God? Never. God is always faithful. God cannot be anything but steadfast or God would not be God. On this day as we remember the stories of the desertion and betrayal of Jesus, may we remember that God is always faithful. God cannot betray or desert.

Prayer
Sometimes in life we may feel God’s distance or absence, but God is there. God cannot betray or desert us. God is always faithful. Steadfast. We may waiver. We may bend on what matters most. We may betray ourselves, God, and others. But God remains faithful which means God is always forgiving. God is always waiting to welcome us back, even when we have been unfaithful. May we trust God’s mercy to redeem us. Amen.

Lenten Reflection 4.4.12

Separation of church and state is the bedrock of the rich and varied religious life of the United States. Developed countries that have state sponsored churches have much less participation than the US which does not have state sponsored religion. We have found that freedom of religion has fostered dynamic and engaged religious participation.

While mandated by the Constitution, separation of church and state has still proven a thorny issue, sometimes difficult to enforce and define. There are different ways of construing religious freedom and no government support of religion as we have seen recently in the debates about health care. People are religious and the same people are citizens so keeping things in separate spheres can be hard. Then there is the challenge of applying the concept of separation of church and state to all religions equally. So while this constitutional separation is fundamentally good for religion as well as society as a whole, it can be complicated to sort out.

In Bible times, our concept of separation of church and state was unknown. Religion and government were merged. Religion offered the framework for society and kept the community together. There was basically one system. So in the Bible, religion is government and government is religion. If one kingdom overtakes another, there is a new governmental system as well as a new religion imposed. The Roman Empire maintained its power and authority through required religious devotion to the Emperor as a god. The religious state defined social values and relationships. It dictated morals and mores. So everything religious had social/political implications and vice versa.

In Psalm 118, we see many references to this combined infusion of religion and state. As the psalm begins, the writer demands: “Let Israel say. . .” Israel was a social/political/religious entity. There is a reference to princes. Again, what we would see as governmental authority. Then the writer declares, “All nations surrounded me.” There is a clear sense of threat to the community. With the help of God, this threat to the nation by another nation is put down. Even here in this psalm, before we get to any more historical books in the Bible, there is very much a combining of religion and politics.

While we endorse separation of church and state in today’s world, we are still confronted with the challenge of integrating our religious values into our lives as citizens. And this has political implications, or it should have political implications. For instance, one of the strongest ethical imperatives in scripture is concern for the plight of those made poor. We see this in the Hebrew scriptures as well as in the teachings of Jesus. As Christians we are ethically obligated to be concerned about those made poor. That concern will then be reflected in our participation in society as citizens. We may not agree on the best way to eliminate poverty, but this should be a common concern of all Christians. And it should influence how we vote. We should want to vote for candidates that we feel are concerned with addressing the issue of poverty in our country. We should be voting our values, as we say in the UCC.

I know some people say they don’t like to mix politics and religion, but it is mixed on every page of the Bible, given that there was no division between the two as we have today. And our religion should influence and impact every aspect of our lives, including our citizenship and our participation in society and our voting. The church should not advocate for specific candidates or parties, but it should advocate for certain values and then for specific initiatives which embody those values. If you aren’t willing to entertain a lively dialogue about politics and religion, then you may not want to open your Bible!

Prayer
Our faith teaches us to live compassion and generosity. It teaches us concern for others and a commitment to peace. May we learn to live these values more deeply in our individual lives. May we also express these values in society at large and work to make our world a place where everyone experiences justice and peace and compassion. This is the dominion of God that Jesus shows us. Amen.

Lenten Reflection 4.3.12

I am grateful for the safety net that our society provides, especially Social Security and Medicare. Our family has had dealings with the Social Security Administration related to an issue over 10 years ago. It’s quite a tale. At one point they seemed to think we owed them money. There was a review and we were absolved of paying. That happened again several years later. Same result. Then, recently, we got notification again that we owed money. We were not absolved this time. We paid. Wages were garnished anyway. This resulted in overpayment. We were then told they owe us money. Whew! Then we get a notice that we still owe several thousand dollars more, after supposedly overpaying and not getting a refund. The latest notification tells us we are getting some money back. Of course, we don’t want to pay any more that we have to. But the greater concern is the constantly changing story with virtually no justifying explanation for the whole situation. It doesn’t give me much confidence in the government and its ability to properly administer a program that supports millions of people. And I am one who believes that we should be able to count on the government to be fair and competent in its dealings. I think we should be able to fully trust the government not to take advantage of people because the government is not driven by the profit motive or greed.

In Psalm 118, we are told:

It is better to take refuge in God
than to put confidence in mortals.
It is better to take refuge in God
than to put confidence in princes.

As I said, I am by nature a trusting person and think that we should be able to have confidence in the government as well as others. But human institutions and individuals are always prone to error if not corruption. Greed and self interest can win the day over honesty and ethics. The writer of the psalms knows this, too. This is simply part of the human character. Thus, the psalm encourages us to put our full and complete trust only in God.

I agree with this advice. But it invites comment on the nature of God. If the concept of God is a judgmental, mercurial, unpredictable, vengeful God, then I might hesitate about that trust. There are other concepts of God that I would find equally objectionable. The point is, if you are going to put your full and complete trust in God and orient your life around that trust, then it really matters what that God is like. Putting your total trust in one kind of God could have a completely different result from putting your total trust in another kind of God. Our concept of God really does matter if we are putting our total trust there.

If we feel hesitant about putting our total trust in God, maybe part of the problem is the way we are thinking about God. Perhaps our understanding or definition of God needs revision so that we can put our total trust in God. I think a valid working conception of God should be far more that the typical superhero supernatural God rescuing people and doing favors for them when he is not punishing them. That kind of image does not work for me. That is not a God that I could give my total trust to. The more we make God in our image, the less trustworthy that God is in my view.

As this Lenten season draws to a close, we may want to spend some time thinking about our conception of God. How do you think of God? How do you experience God? How do you define God? How do you talk about God? Then ask yourself if you are putting your trust in God. If you trust God, then your behavior should reflect that trust. Does it? Do you trust God more than you trust other people, social institutions, the government? I certainly want to be able to trust God more that I trust the Social Security Administration, even though SS can seem just as mysterious as God! People and human organizations will inevitably let us down at times. God, while mysterious, should always be steadfast.

Prayer
We pray that we keep our commitments and can be trusted by others. We want to be honest and dependable adding integrity to our society. Yet, at times, we will disappoint ourselves and others. May we seek the forgiveness we need and to be forgiving of others. May we keep God at the center of our lives for God is truly worthy of our trust. In this, as in all things, may Jesus be our guide. Amen.