Monday, January 13, 2014

Reflections on Noah, Getting Ready to Journey with Abraham and Sarah

Thank you again for your participation in our journey to read through the entire Bible in 2014.

For Week Three (Monday, January 13th through Saturday, January 18th), please read the following:

Genesis, chapters 12 through chapter 25, verse 11.  These chapters tell the story of the Life and Journey of Abraham and Sarah.

How do Abraham and Sarah react when they are told that they will have a son?  
What does the name "Isaac" or "Yitzak" mean in Hebrew?
Would you characterize the faith of Abraham and Sarah more as a noun or as a verb?

Last week we read Genesis 4-11 and Psalm 69:

Here's a trivia question based on last week's reading.  Where in the Flood narrative does it state how the people made fun of Noah for building the ark?  

.... That is something of a trick question, because that detail isn't explicitly mentioned in Genesis but is hinted at in New Testament accounts about the "Days of Noah."  (See Matthew 24:36-39 and Luke 17:26-27).  As we read through the Bible this year, we will see how later biblical writers reflect upon and build upon the earlier stories.

Did you notice that in the entire account of the Flood, God speaks several times, but Noah doesn't speak at all.  Instead, the book of Genesis simply notes that "Noah did as God commanded him."  When Noah does finally speak directly near the end of chapter nine, it is regarding a mysterious incident with his grandson Canaan and not in direct response to something that God has said.  

Still, in the entire account of the Flood narrative, the primary actor is God.  In other ancient accounts of a Great Flood, including "the Epic of Gilgamesh," the Flood is a result of infighting among the gods with humanity caught in the middle.  In contrast, the Genesis account focuses on the actions of one God, describing the broken heart of the Creator and the Creator's subsequent promise not to flood the earth again.  

Psalm 69 on a first reading may have seemed like something that might have been expressed by a victim of the Great Flood. Traditionally, the 69th Psalm, after the 22nd Psalm, has been one of the Psalms most often interpreted by Christians to be a reminder of Jesus' sufferings during the Passion.  I also hear it as a prayer for anyone who might feel flooded or overwhelmed.

Thank you again for joining us on this journey through the Bible.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Reading the Bible in 2014

As you may have read in the January 2014 edition of the Broadcaster, we are inviting members and friends of Westy Pres to join us in reading the entire Bible in 2014.

As Julie Andrews sings in the Sound of Music, "Let's start from the very beginning."  For the first week in 2014, let's read the following texts on Creation:

Genesis 1:1-2:4a
Genesis 2:4b-3
Job 38-41
Psalm 8
Psalm 104
Proverbs 8:22-31

For each text, ask yourself the following four questions:
1)  What does this text say about God the creator?
2)  What does this text say about the creation itself?
3)  What does this text say about humanity?
4)  What does this text say about humanity's response to God the creator?

Note that we've included six different texts on creation and not just the usual Genesis, chapter one.  Each of these texts will help us answer the four questions in slightly different ways.

One advantage of committing to read through the entire Bible in a year is that it can give us a new appreciation for the witness of the entirety of scripture, and not just the favored passages that we go to again and again.

Please feel free to use the comments section of the blog to post questions or thoughts about each passage.


Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Standin' In the Need of Prayer


Text:  Luke 18:9-14
A Sermon by Jack Cabaness

Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost                                                         October 27, 2013

            There’s a story about a Sunday School teacher who taught the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax collector to her class, and then, without any apparent self-awareness or sense of irony, ended the class by saying, “All right, children.  Let’s say a prayer, and thank God that we’re not like that Pharisee.”[i]

            It is easier to hear this parable if we pretend that the Pharisee is not like us.  I must confess that I have my own tendency to sugarcoat this parable.  It’s much easier for me to listen to this parable if I imagine that the Pharisee is a real smug, holier-than-thou type,
who is always putting other people down and that the tax collector is basically a good and humble person who only got into the tax collecting business to pay for his wife’s medical bills and to send their oldest child to college.

            But if we want to experience the full impact of this story that Jesus told,
we need to take it straight up, without any sugar.  The truth is that the Pharisee really is a good man.  It’s the Pharisee who pays for his wife’s medical bills and the oldest child’s college tuition and who still faithfully tithes.  It’s the Pharisee who works two jobs to get all the bills paid, and who still fasts during the lunch breaks.

            And it is the tax collector who drives up to the Temple Mount in his stretch limousine, the floor of which is littered with mini bar bottles and other evidence of the previous night’s excessive carousing--all of it, of course, at tax payer expense.[ii]

            What makes this parable difficult to accept, what makes it truly shocking for Jesus to say that the tax collector went home justified but the Pharisee did not, is that the Pharisee really is every bit as good as he claims to be, and that the tax collector really is every bit as bad as he claims to be. 

            We sometimes imagine that the Pharisees were exceedingly legalistic, that for them justification was mostly a matter of good works.  We assume that there wasn’t much room for grace in their theology.  But biblical scholars like E. P. Sanders and others have helped us to understand that those stereotypes weren’t entirely accurate.[iii]

            The Pharisees were careful students of the scriptures.  They could quote chapter and verse out of Deuteronomy, when God is granting Israel the land of Canaan, particularly the part where the Lord says, “Do not say to yourselves, it is because of our righteousness that God is giving us the land to possess.”  (Deuteronomy 9:5ff)  The Pharisees understood themselves to be the chosen people, not because of any inherent goodness on their part, but because of God’s grace.  God had graced their lives so that they might be a blessing to the whole world.  They knew that.  They understood that.

            And so when this Pharisee goes up to the temple to pray, he goes there in a spirit of gratitude.  But at that precise moment, the stretch limousine pulls up to the Temple Mount and out stumbles the tax collector.  The tax collector was the ultimate traitor, someone of Jewish birth who collaborated with Rome to extort money from God’s people.  And the tax collector lived off the excess.

            The Pharisee’s mood darkens.  But then he remembers where he is.  He is standing in the Temple Mount, a powerful symbol of God’s enduring presence.
He may have even recalled a passage of scripture from the prophet Joel:

                        You will know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I am the Lord                                     your God—no other exists; never again will my people be put to shame.                                      (Joel 2:27)

The Pharisee takes heart.  That tax collector standing over there, that collaborator with Rome, does not have the ultimate power to put God’s people to shame.  Even though the Pharisee has to work hard for everything he has, while the tax collector lives a life of leisure and ease, there is coming a day when there will be abundant rain and the threshing floor will be full and God’s people will never be put to shame by the likes of that tax collector.  (Joel 2:23-24, 27)

            And so the Pharisee prays, and in his prayer he gives thanks to God.  I imagine the Pharisee casting a sidelong glance at the tax collector and saying essentially, “There but for the grace of God go I.”  The Pharisee is thankful that he has not betrayed those closest to him, and he is especially thankful that, unlike the tax collector, he has not betrayed his entire people.

            I could be wrong in my portrayal of the Pharisee.  After all, the Gospel writer Luke introduced this parable by saying that “Jesus told this parable to certain people who had convinced themselves that they were righteous and who looked on everyone else with disgust.”  (Luke 18:9)  And when the Pharisee prays, he does only pray about himself.  Perhaps he really is smug, arrogant, and self-congratulatory, vainly trying to conceal his self-righteousness by addressing his prayer to God.  Maybe sometimes even when we say, “There but for the grace of God go I,” what we really mean is “Dear God, I thank you that I am not like other people.”

            But if I listen only to the parable that Jesus told without the benefit of Luke’s introduction, I hear the prayer of a faithful and frustrated man who resents the way that his people have been treated.  I hear the prayer of a man who did almost everything right.  Almost.  What he did wrong was that he presumed to know the limits of God’s grace.  He presumed that he was more entitled, somehow more deserving of God’s grace, than the tax collector.  When the Pharisee casts a sidelong glance at the tax collector and says essentially, “There but for the grace of God go I,” he is saying more than he can possibly know. 

            Many people attribute the saying “There but for the grace of God go I”
to the English Puritan John Bradford.  He was imprisoned in the Tower of London during the reign of Mary Tudor, a.k.a. “Bloody Mary.”  It was a time when many Protestants were being put to death.  John would watch as other prisoners were taken to their death, and he would exclaim, “There but for the grace of God goes John Bradford.”

            But for John Bradford, it was only a matter of timing.  When he said, “There but for the grace of God goes John Bradford,” he was not trying to imply that somehow his life was more graced than someone else’s.  He was simply saying that by the grace of God, he, John Bradford, had another day to live.  But eventually came that morning when John Bradford himself was taken out of his cell in the Tower of London to the place of public execution where he would be burned at the stake.[iv]

            If we say, “There but for the grace of God go I,” because we are pondering the mysteries of life, that’s one thing.  When I was in college I had a friend who flew on Pam Am Flight #103 the day before the tragic crash over Lockerbie, Scotland.  “There but for the grace of God go I.”  Even then, I don’t think we want to take that famous saying too literally.  Do we really mean to imply that those who lost their lives in a plane crash were outside the reach of God’s grace, or would we rather affirm with the Apostle Paul that in life and in death we belong to God?  (Romans 14:8)

            And if we are ever tempted to say “There but for the grace of God go I” because somehow we think that we are better than someone else or somehow more deserving of God’s grace than someone else, then we especially need to be careful.  In that case, we haven’t understood what grace means.  Because the moment that we think that we are entitled to grace, then it is no longer grace!

            Our chancel choir sang as their anthem last week the old gospel hymn “Standin’ in the Need of Prayer.”
                        It’s me, it’s me, it’s me, O Lord, standin’ in the need of prayer.
                        Not my brother, not my sister, but it’s me, O Lord,
                        standin’ in the need of prayer.
            Notice that there is no comparison with the brother or the sister.  The singer does not sing out, “Dear God, I might mess up sometimes, but I’m so thankful that I’m not like my brother.”  That’s not the spirit of the song!!

            The second verse is much like the first:
                        It’s me, it’s me, it’s me, O Lord, standin’ in the need of prayer.
                        Not the preacher, not the deacon, but it’s me, O Lord,
                        standin’ in the need of prayer.

            Now, this particular preacher, I’ll tell you, is standing in the need of prayer.  But please don’t presume that I am somehow more in need of prayer than you are, and I won’t presume that about you, either.

            The proper prayer, the proper song, is simply:

                        It’s Me, it’s Me, it’s Me, O Lord, standin’ in the need of prayer.

            All glory and praise be to our God.  Amen.

The Rev. Dr. Jack Cabaness, Pastor
Westminster Presbyterian Church
Westminster, Colorado



Notes:

[i] Fred Craddock, Luke in the Interpretation Commentary Series (Louisville:  John Knox Press, 1990), 211.

[ii] I’m in debt to the late Robert Farrar Capon for the creative anachronisms.  See Robert Farrar Capon, The Parables of Grace (Grand Rapids:  Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1988, 1996), 179.

[iii] E. P. Sanders makes this argument in his books such as Jesus and Judaism and Paul and Palestinian Judaism.

[iv] Bartlett’s Book of Quotations credits John Bradford with the saying “There but for the grace of God go I.”  I’ve gleaned other facts about Bradford’s life slowly over the years, but I must confess that I also relied on Wikipedia to check my memory.  “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Monday, September 30, 2013

With Eyes to See and Ears to Hear


Text:  Luke 16:19-31
A Sermon by Jack Cabaness

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost                                                   September 29, 2013
In the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus is quoted as saying that it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God.  Through the years that saying has made many of Jesus’ followers squirm.  Since at least the 15th century and possibly as early as the 9th century, there was a popular story about the “Eye of the Needle” gate in Jerusalem, which opened after the main gate had been closed.  A camel could only pass through this smaller gate if it was stooped and had its baggage removed.  There’s no evidence that such a gate ever existed, but perhaps the story was invented because it sounds a lot less daunting than trying to get a camel to pass through the eye of a sewing needle.

            My favorite take on the camel passing through the eye of the needle comes from a National Lampoon cartoon from a few years ago.  The cartoon was a spoof of an old
Medici rose window from the cathedral in Florence.  It depicts a laughing camel leaping with ease through the eye of a needle.  The caption beneath the cartoon reads,
“A recurring motif in works commissioned by the wealthier patrons of Renaissance religious art.”  The Latin inscription on the window itself reads, “Dives vincet,” which is translated, “Wealth wins!”[i]

            That Latin word “Dives” is sometimes assumed to have been the Rich Man’s name, but it wasn’t.  It is simply a word that means riches or wealth.  Nevertheless, through the years the fate of the Rich Man “Dives” has captivated the imagination of Christian preachers.

            The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther, King, Jr. once offered his own spiritual diagnosis of Dives at a gathering of Presbyterians in Montreat, North Carolina in August 1965.  He began with an apology.  He was supposed to have spoken the night before, but he had been delayed because he was in Watts, Los Angeles, meeting with government officials, trying to quell the riots there.  In his speech, Dr. King challenged the Presbyterians to take a clear, consistent stand against segregation.  And then he turned to the issue of poverty.  He pointed the assembly to the gospel text we just read this morning.

            “There is nothing in that parable,” King said, “that states that Dives went to hell because he was rich.  Jesus never made a universal indictment against all wealth.”  King named the story of the rich young ruler, but said that in that story,when Jesus tells the man to go, sell all that he has,and give his money to the poor, Jesus was “prescribing individual surgery, not setting forth a universal diagnosis.”

            King returned to the Parable of Lazarus and Dives.  King said, “Dives went to hell not because he was rich, but because he passed by Lazarus every day and never really saw him.  Dives went to hell because he allowed Lazarus to become invisible, because he failed to use his wealth to bridge the gulf that separated him from his brother Lazarus.  In fact, he never realized that Lazarus was his brother.”

            In essence, King challenged the assembly to see the humanity in each other, even if it seemed that they were viewing each other across a great chasm.  There he was, an African-American preacher, and a leader of the Civil Rights Movement, and there they were,a gathering of nearly all white Presbyterians at Montreat.

            King went on to say, “I submit this is the challenge facing the church, to be as concerned as our Christ about the least of these, our brothers and sisters.  And we must do it because in the final analysis we are all to live together, rich and poor, lettered and  unlettered, tutored and untutored.  Somehow we are tied in a single garmet of destiny,
caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.”

            King concluded, “I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.  This is the way God made the world … we must all learn to live together as brothers [and sisters] or we will all perish as fools.”[ii]

              If Dr. King was right, and I believe that he was, today’s parable is about vision.
We have eyes to see, but do we take the time to look and really notice the person in our line of sight?

            Twenty-two-year-old photographer Michael Pharaoh recently exhibited a series of photographs of the homeless in Hollywood, California.  The photos were also shown in an online article for the Huffington Post.[iii]  What struck me immediately about the photographs were the subjects’ eyes.  In the comments one reader even criticized the photographer for “romanticizing the homeless” in the way that he emphasized the eyes, as if the subjects were models for glamour shots, but that was not my impression.  I was immediately drawn in, and I wanted to know each person’s story.

            When you encounter a homeless person in downtown Denver or even here in Westminster, how often do you notice the eyes?  Do we take the time to make eye contact, or would we rather avoid eye contact and maintain that chasm between us and them?

            Years ago I took a youth group from Kansas City to Chicago.  We learned about homelessness in Chicago from a group called the “Night Ministry.”  We heard about groups of homeless teenagers who would congregate at a Dunkin Donuts just a few blocks from Wrigley Field.  The teens in our own youth group were encouraged to walk into business establishments and ask permission to use the restroom just to see what kind of reception they would get, and then try to imagine what it would be like if that were the only way you could find access to a bathroom.

            In the debriefing that followed, the youth in our group asked honest, probing questions about whether it was ever appropriate to give money.  The advice that followed was whether you choose to give money or not, look the person asking you in the eye, and say, “yes” or “no.”  Do not ignore.  Do not pretend that the homeless person asking you for money does not exist.

            We sometimes have homeless guests at our Third Thursday Community Dinners,
and I believe that we are friendly and welcoming.  But being friendly and welcoming might not be enough to bridge the chasm.  If we fall into the trap of relishing the role of being a provider to someone else in need, we are not doing enough to bridge the chasm.  We risk thinking that the other person is in debt to us, and we render ourselves incapable of receiving the gifts that they have to offer us.  But if we acknowledge each other’s neediness, then we are able to receive the gifts that others are willing to share and the chasm begins to close.

            We have eyes to see, but do we take the time to notice the person in our line of sight?  We also have ears to hear.

            In the parable the Rich Man begs Abraham to send Lazarus to warn the Rich Man’s five brothers before it is too late.  But Abraham says, “No.  They have Moses and the Prophets.  Let them listen to them.”  The reference to Moses and the Prophets is a reference to Scripture.  Moses refers to the five books of Moses, the Torah:  Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.  The Prophets refers to the prophetic books, such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Amos.

            It’s possible that the Rich Man believed that he had listened to Moses and the Prophets.  After all, there are verses in Deuteronomy that state that blessings result from obeying God and curses result from disobeying God.  Most of the original hearers of Jesus’ parable would have assumed that the Rich Man was blessed because of his faithfulness, and Lazarus was cursed because of his disobedience.[iv]

            But the command to listen to Moses and the Prophets means listening to the entirety of Moses and the Prophets.  For example, in Deuteronomy 15, there is this admonition:

                        "You shall open wide your hand to your brothers and sisters, to the needy                                     and to the poor..."  (Deut. 15: 7-11)
            And from the Prophet Isaiah there is this:
                         "What does true fasting mean?"  Is it not to share your bread with the                                     hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the                                     naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?                                      (Isaiah 58:6a, 7)
            We have ears to hear, but are we listening?

            Genesis 15 makes mention of a servant of Abraham named Eliezer.  Some rabbinic legends feature Eliezer walking around the earth in disguise, reporting back to Abraham about how his children are doing with the Torah’s prescriptions for taking care of the widows, the orphans, and the poor.  Translate the Hebrew name Eliezer into Greek, and you end up with the name Lazarus.

            At our monthly Community Dinners, each person walking through the door is given a nametag.  Look closely.  One of these days one of those nametags might say
“Eliezer” or “Lazarus.”

            I’d like to conclude with a prayer written by the late Ernest Campbell, who was a Presbyterian pastor.

Let us pray.

We pray today for those among us, and in the world around us, who are burdened not by too little but by too much:

            those who have so much power that they have grown indifferent to the rights and             claims of others, and are fast becoming what they do not wish to be;

            those who have so much health that they cannot understand the sick or reckon             adequately with their own mortality;

            those who have so much wealth that they prize possessions more than people, and             worry into the night about losing what they have;

            those who have so much leisure that they move like driftwood on the surface of             existence, lacking any cause larger than themselves.

O Thou who art able to save us from abundance or poverty, meet the strong in their strength.  Posses them in the fullness of their powers, that what they have and what they are may be conscripted for Thy service, wherein is peace.[v]


            All glory and praise be to our God.  Amen.

The Rev. Dr. Jack Cabaness, Pastor
Westminster Presbyterian Church
Westminster, Colorado


Notes:

[i] From a sermon by Bob Dunham, preached at the University Presbyterian Church, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, September 30, 2007.

[ii] From a sermon preached by Chris Tuttle on the Day 1 Network on September 29, 2013.  Chris Tuttle’s father found the August 1965 King speech in archives at the Montreat Conference Center. 

[iii] “Seven Gripping Photos of Homeless Los Angelenos Will Change the Way You Look at a Stranger” in Huffpost Arts & Culture, www.HuffingtonPost.com, September 23, 2013.

[iv] See especially Deuteronomy 28.  See also an excellent sermon by Lutheran pastor and preaching professor Barbara Lundblad, “Closing the Chasm,” preached on the Day 1 Network, June 20, 2010.

[v] Ernest T. Campbell, Where Cross the Crowded Ways, 30-31.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Life on Mars



According to Facebook, this was the first picture that the rover Curiosity took after landing on Mars in August.  (And for those of you who did not have a 1970s childhood which included Saturday morning reruns of classic Warner Brothers cartoons, that's Marvin the Martian peering into Curiosity's camera.)

The Oh family of Pasadena, California had their own taste of life on Mars this summer.  David is a NASA engineer and the flight director for Curiosity.  During the month of August David and his entire family structured their schedule according to Mars time.  A Martian Day is 24 hours and 40 minutes long, so after a short while the Martian day, or sol, was out-of-sync with an Earth day.  In trying to follow Martian time, the Oh family found themselves having a picnic on the beach at 1 AM Pacific Daylight Time, or going bowling at 4 AM.  David's thirteen-year-old son Braden blogged about the family's experience of living in Martian time.  http://marstimr.tumblr.com  When school started again in September, the Oh kids reset their clocks to Earth time.

I loved reading about the Oh family's experience of living on Martian time last month, but it also seems to me that 4 AM excursions to the beach or to the bowling alley fail to capture the sense of actually living on Mars.  Somehow I imagine that life on Mars would be more like living in a rust-colored Antarctica with no penguins.  (And no Marvin, either!)


Belden Lane, in his book The Solace of Fierce Landscapes, speaks of the desert fathers and mothers of the fourth century who withdrew to the desert "to seek the face of God in a landscape of emptiness." (p. 186)  Compared to the empty Martian landscape, the Libyan desert west of the Nile must seem like the rain forest.

Part of me wonders whether space pioneers of the future will intentionally choose the desert landscape of Mars as a spiritual refuge.  What would it be like to live in a cold, rust-colored desert in which your former home--your former life!--appears no larger than the evening star?  





I also know that we don't always choose our desert experiences.  Not too long ago I visited a member of our congregation who has been undergoing a long and difficult rehabilitation.  "The days are 36 hours long," he told me.  That's significantly longer than either a Martian day or an Earth day, but the salient and poignant point is that his days are radically out-of-sync with everyone else's days.  (No one goes bowling at 4 AM pretending to be a rehab patient who can't sleep.)

To quote Belden Lane once again:  "Desert and mountain places are often associated with the 'limit-experiences' of people on the edge, people who have run out of language in speaking of God, people whose recourse to fierce landscapes has fed some deep need within them for the abandonment of control and the acceptance of God's love in absolute, unmitigated grace."  (p. 6)

What lessons have you learned in the desert?  What has it been like to "seek the face of God in a landscape of emptiness?"





Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Ash Tuesday



There was a story on NPR this morning about the lower-key ceremonies that were marking the 11th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.  In New York City, for instance, no big-name politicians spoke.  As the names of the victims were read and the bagpipers played, there were hundreds gathered, whereas in years past there have been thousands gathered.

One surviving family members said, "Somehow, I feel more normal this year," and Charles G. Wolfe, another surviving family member, said, "We've gone past that deep, collective, public grief."  (As reported by Steve Inskeep and Renee Montagne).

Perhaps it is time for quieter commemorations, for lower-key ceremonies evocative of Ash Wednesday worshippers donning ashes in remembrance of their common mortality and in acknowledgement of their collective grief, which might be less public but is still just as deep.

How have you commemorated this anniversary?  If you were to adopt a Lenten-like discipline or practice as a way of safeguarding the memory of 9/11, what would it be?  What would you (or have you) resolved to do?


Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Some Food (no pun intended) for Thought on the Chick-fil-a Day

My facebook feed has been full of Chick-fil-a comments today, both pro and con.  I found the following blog post by Rachel Held Evans to be particularly helpful and potentially healing:

http://rachelheldevans.com/chick-fil-a#.UBlDiawaqzU.facebook

The last two paragraphs alone are worth the price of the blog (which is free):

"As Christians—conservative and progressive, gay and straight, activists and slacktivists—we must direct our efforts instead toward bridging this divide, which is going to take a lot of hard work, a lot of disappointment, a lot of tears, a lot of compromise, a lot of honesty, a lot of mistakes, a lot of apologies, a lot of listening, a lot of forgiveness, a lot of meal sharing, a lot of gospel. 
In other words, it’s going to take a heck of a lot more effort than either eating or avoiding a chicken sandwich. "