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.
Today St. John’s United Church of Christ in Rosenberg, TX, voted unanimously to have me as their new pastor starting 1 June 2014.
Also I serve as an Army Reserve Chaplain with the 450th Chemical Battalion in Houston, TX.
“I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God.”
The end of the year is fast approaching. So it is once again time to count views. Last January I had a three part sermon series about how the art of religion and the art of war are essentially one and the same thing. Those three sermons were particularly popular with my Youtube audience.
From the Holy Quran, from the Surat Al-`Ankabūt, which means The Spider: “And whoever struggles only struggles for himself.” (Quran 29:6)
“If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also” is not a commandment to surrender but a way of finding a position of strength!
Are you willing to pick up that wrestling with God? Do you have a goal in this fight? Have you seen gain from this battle? Are you willing to break the rules and spread the word about this fight club?
“Thank God I’m not like that guy!”
The Rev. Mirjam Haas-Melchior preaching on Reformation Sunday 2013
at Provo Community United Church of Christ.
Today I was sworn in as U.S. Army Reserve Chaplain (CPT):
I, Daniel Haas, having been appointed an officer in the Army of the United States, as indicated above in the grade of Captain do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservations or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office upon which I am about to enter; So help me God.
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