How much are you worth dead or alive? For Billy the Kid that question was answered by the Governor of New Mexico: $500. It did not matter if bounty hunters brought him dead or alive. Well, I guess it did matter to William H. Bonney and his parents when he was in fact shot dead at age 21. Would you rather live or die? Would you prefer your kids to live or die? Those sound like crazy questions. Yet here comes the Apostle Paul:
“For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.”
(Philippians 1:21 – Watchword for the Week of Sunday 21 September 2014)
Really? Dying as a good thing? Wouldn’t every sane person chose life over death? Is Paul suicidal?
As a matter of fact, we all say those things from time and to time and they make perfect sense in the right context. When comforting the bereaved phrases like “She’s in a better place now” are perfectly true. Ultimately we have to say both:
1. God put me on this planet to live and bloom where I am planted.
2. And when I wither, I am just as much in God’s hands as I have always been.
Dead or alive you are priceless to God and the price that was paid for you goes by the name of Jesus Christ.
When I sneeze one thing really gets me every time – someone responding with a big, fat, friendly “GESUNDHEIT!” In a context where I do not expect to hear my native German I am caught by surprise. Most people will say “God bless you!” anyway. After a little research I found that the ritual of blessing someone after a sneeze dates back to the plague of 590 AD. Pope Gregory I ordered that everyone receive an instant special blessing after they sneezed. A sneeze was one of the early symptoms and so the church tried to do its part in containing the epidemic. The blessing after a sneeze is – not surprisingly – a prayer for Gesundheit i.e. health.
“Bless the LORD, O my soul, and do not forget all his benefits.”
(Psalm 103:2 – Watchword for the Week of Sunday 14 September 2014)
Blessing one another sounds like an easy thing to do but this word commands us to bless God. How can we do that? Shouldn’t that be the other way around? We need God’s blessing! God is Almighty! How could we tiny, imperfect creatures possibly bless the Creator of heaven and earth?
What is it we actually do when we bless one another or when we ask God to bless us?
It’s about wishing someone well: May your health get better.
It’s about hoping the best for someone: I wish you luck.
It’s about supporting someone: That’s a good cause. I’ll help you.
Can you see the picture? God really does need our blessing. We are God’s hands and feet in this world. If we are not here to spread faith, hope and love, who is? We need to help God and support God’s ministry. And we should also want God to feel well. After all can you imagine what that would look like if the creator of heaven and earth were to sneeze? Bless God!
The way to someone’s heart is through their stomach. Yes, I do believe that is true for all genders alike. Who wouldn’t enjoy a nice dinner? God has known that for, well, probably eternity. The love relation between Jesus Christ and us has always had food in its center: the wedding at Cana, the 5000, the last supper, you name it. God’s love has been brought to us through our stomachs. The lesson learned here is this: Body, mind and soul are one. Loving relationships depend on all three to flourish.
At times the church has forgotten that and started singing: “Lord I want to be a Christian in my heart!” Jesus is being reduced to a feeling. “As long as I have Jesus in my heart…” or so goes the excuse. That heart-felt faith all too often serves as an escape from the harshness of life. That Jesus is sweet and provides sanctuary. That Jesus is there to fill an emotional gap when life doesn’t give the satisfaction people were hoping for.
In Western culture we have gotten used to separating body, mind and soul. Aristotle introduced us to a distinction that was never intended to turn into a division. No, love is not limited to stomach and heart. By the way, when you read “heart” in the Bible you have to keep in mind that the Hebrew really refers to the seat of the intellect. So heart really means brain the way we understand it today:
“Give me understanding, O God, that I may keep your law and observe it with my whole heart.”
(Psalm 119:34 – Watchword for the Week of Sunday 7 September 2014)
Give me understanding, O God! That’s what God does: to provide us with understanding, resolve and courage. Taking heart is not just about a warm fuzzy feeling but clear analysis and action as well.
That’s why we are invited to at the Lord’s table: through bread and wine Jesus Christ seeks to enter our hearts, our minds, our bodies. Join us for Holy Communion on Sunday.
Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.
(Matthew 16:24 – Watchword for the Week of Sunday 31 August 2014)
Nobody in their right mind likes following Jesus. For the first disciples that meant giving up everything: family, home, job, their very lives. Jesus was a radical prophet who thought kingdom come was right around the corner: “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” (Matthew 16:28). That is not a life I would want to live and every year there is one sect or the other proclaiming “the end is near”. Jesus told his disciples they will live to see kingdom come, really?
And this whole self-denial thing? What is that supposed to mean? The end of summer is such a wonderful season to affirm one’s own identity with all the labels we attach to ourselves: the schools we attend(ed), the sports teams we support, the party we support in the upcoming elections, you name it. Why would anyone want to give up the wonderfully crafted self-identity that took so much work to develop?
As a church we just can’t afford this kind of radicalism: Imagine Jesus were to rush into the sanctuary one Sunday, yelling at everybody to get out of their pews and follow him into the streets and proclaim kingdom come. Dear Lord Jesus, please check the bulletin: The service doesn’t conclude until the postlude, sit still and be a good Christian at least for this one hour on Sunday morning.
Maybe Jesus just isn’t a good Christian. And how could he be: He was a first century prophet expecting the world to end as soon as the Roman occupation of Israel was thrown off. He just didn’t have the experience of “doing church” for over two-thousand years. We had to learn to live with the fact that life as we know it, that our earth, that people with all their flaws, that institutions are just going to stick around for a while. We have created a home for ourselves, both physically and spiritually.
But then again: Maybe we just aren’t good followers of Christ. Thank God we have those ancient stories to keep us on our toes. A verse like today’s is a constant reminder, that we ought to be more than what we already know about ourselves: Don’t take yourself too seriously, allow your assumptions and your knowledge to be challenged by the still-speaking God.
Karl Barth (Theology of the Word of God), Paul Tillich (the Philosopher among Theologians) and Rudolf Bultmann (not interested in the historicity of Jesus) vacation together at Lake Zurich. They rent a boat and head out. The sun and heat are brutal and they get thirsty. “I’ll go get a few beers”, says Karl Barth, gets out of the boat and walks across the Lake to the city of Zurich. It’s a beautiful day and the beer is quickly gone. “Paul, you go get us another round of beers”, says Karl Barth. Paul Tillich gets out of the boat and soon returns with a six-pack. The sun is hot and they get thirsty again. “Rudi”, says Karl Barth, “it’s your turn!” Rudolf Bultmann gets anxious. The others start mocking him: “What’s up Rudi, it’s the easiest thing to do!” Bultmann tips his toes in the water. He doesn’t want to be a wimp and takes a big courageous step out of the boat. And Splash! He sinks! In shock Tillich turns to Karl Barth: “Karl, you suppose we should have told him where the stepping stones are in the water? Karl Barth replies: “What stones are you talking about?”
That is a joke that circulates in divinity schools. In reality though I have a certificate that I did walk on the water. I earned it at the Sea of Galilee at one of the spots that claims the be the one where the Jesus story happened. There are dozens of them all around the Lake because bus loads of tourists from all over the world want to make that experience of being like Jesus. Yes, there were stepping stones. I don’t have super-powers. Nobody can walk on water. The disciples knew that and they were scared when say saw Jesus in the dark on the lake. They thought he was a ghost.
This week’s watchword is Jesus’ response to their fear:
But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
(Matthew 14:27 – Watchword for the Week of Sunday 10 August 2014)
Barth is right: It doesn’t matter whether there are stones or how that worked with the walking on water. What matters is the spoken Word: Take heart!
God’s Word does really work miracles when spoken into the right situations and it’s okay that stepping stones may be involved.
People are set in their ways. There is a certain rhythm to the things we do. We follow traditions and schedules. We like things to be repetitious. It’s comforting to know that school or work starts at a certain time every day. It’s a good tradition to worship every week. The annual cycle of vacations and holidays gives structure to the year. That youth follows childhood shows us we are growing up and when adulthood turns into retirement we have to learn to relax again. One thing follows another and that makes life easier.
This week’s watchword applies the same logic to God. At first glance it almost looks like it says: “Because you have always blessed me, please just keep doing so.”
What is true about that is that God is also described as a creature of habit. The creator of heaven and earth has something in common with us little creatures. We are not alone in this and people have talked about God’s rhythms from “the beginning” in Genesis all the way to the end of all times in Revelation. But this watchword is not actually part of that train of thought. Here we are in the longest Psalm of the Bible which has one purpose: To sing the Glories of God’s Law.
“Turn to me and be gracious to me, as is your custom toward those who love your name.” Loving God’s name needs to be a custom just as God’s being gracious is a custom. This kind of loving is celebrated in the middle of a celebration of the Law – a book of stories and songs and regulations that help people not being stuck in their old habits and ways but empowers them to grow beyond themselves, to try and not be stuck in the daily rut of doing things the way they’ve always been but following a fresh new call that God gives anew every day. The love of the Law as Psalm 119 sings it is not about an ancient book but the love of being challenged anew every day in a variety of ways. Maybe I’ll drive a different route to work next time to shake things up a little.
All too often people say: I should read the Bible more. The problem here is expectation management: Reading pages after pages of anything is a time consuming activity which hardly anybody does regularly anyway. Now add the desire for spiritual fulfillment coupled with moral (self-) pressure: That cannot work.
I am glad that since 1731 the Moravians have published the daily watchword as an ecumenical ministry that transcends confessional, political and racial barriers of all kinds. That is a nicely packaged biblical devotional for every day 365. It consists of one verse from the Old Testament, one verse from the New Testament and a prayer. All three follow a common theme and get reflection going by just briefly reading them. You can get the Moravian Daily Texts as a book, per email or on Facebook. They are a very good daily practice.
For church use I like an added feature: the watchword for the week. Going forward I will base this weekly reflection on the watchword and let it speak into our situation at St. John’s United Church of Christ. The watch word for July 20th fits the purpose of our congregational meeting:
“Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel, and his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts: I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god.” (Isaiah 44:6)
Twice a year we get together to learn the state of the church. The mid-year meeting is all about the money: How’s the budget doin’? On this occasion Isaiah reminds us that
1. Money is not everything but God is the Alpha and the Omega.
2. Mammon is no God and cannot be worshiped.
That is certainly not limited to our congregational finances: Your own budget at home reflects your values as well. Can God see how good a Bible reader you are based on your bank statement?
“I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God.” (Deuteronomy 30:19)
Independence Day is all about making your own choices. As a country we have decided that we want to have a say on how to govern ourselves. As individuals we have decided that we want a liberty that sets us free but also enables us to mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor. I have made it my habit to actually read the Declaration of Independence to commemorate July 4th. And every year this old document manages to shed some light on a thing or two that I am witnessing right here right now. This year it made me look at the choices we make. Deuteronomy calls that blessing and curse.
Picture this: My family and I we are very outdoorsy, having enjoyed the awe-inspiring Rocky Mountains for the past six years. Now we are down here at the Gulf Coast and loving it. One big thing for us this summer is going to the beach. That’s where it gets messy – literally. A huge number of people just don’t seem to be able to manage living in freedom. They just dump there garbage all over the beach, the parking lot, you name it. Honoring God’s advise to make good choices and managing our liberties in a healthy way to me means: Don’t mess with Texas! There is no freedom to litter just as it is not free speech to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater.
If you want to live by the Declaration of Independence and pledge your sacred Honor to your neighbors here are a couple of suggestions for you: When you go to the park, to the beach or a Fourth of July Parade…
… Put your trash in the trash can!
… Pick up extra trash to leave the place in better condition than you found it!
… Report a Litterer: When you see litter thrown out of a vehicle take down license plate number, make and color of vehicle, date and time, location, who tossed the litter, and what was tossed. Then fill in this form.
TxDOT will send the litterer a Don’t mess with Texas litterbag along with a letter reminding them to keep their trash off of our roads.
Some people just need official reminders to manage their freedom more responsibly.
Happy Fourth Y’All!
Just as I was finishing up this article I came across the following picture of Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson working on the Declaration. Look at the floor!
Here is a great resource that lets you pick a hymn fit for the occasion from the Church of England.
If your officiant makes you pick a Bible verse like I do here is an About.com cheat sheet.
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