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May 12, 2015

Jesus’ Father’s Day

Hiking tour on father's day.JPG

Thursday May 14, 2015, is Father’s Day. At least in my book. Since I live both the US and German cultures I get to celebrate two Father’s Days on different dates. This upcoming German variety has a powerful customary expression: A bunch of dads going on a hike without family – basically taking a day off from fathering. Instead they pull a little red wagon full of beer and get wasted in public places. It has been a tradition for over 100 years. Honestly I have never celebrated that way but it is a cultural icon you should be aware of.

All this daytime drinking is possible because German Father’s Day also happens to be a national holiday. The way most of us think about German culture it is totally within the realm of possibility to dedicate a national holiday to drinking beer in the park but actually it is a major Christian holiday: Ascension Day! Yes, churches do have a hard time filling the pews on a holiday where the guys prefer hiking. But at least the theme for the worship service is pretty clear: “Jesus goes back to his heavenly father”. So Ascension is truly Jesus’ Father’s Day. That’s the way it always has been. For almost 2000 years!

Then I moved to the US and this whole connection is gone because in America we don’t join those two celebrations. So I had to look at the more serious implications of Ascension. How do you celebrate Jesus going back to heaven when it is not linked to a Father figure waiting for him up there?

Jesus Christ is no longer among us. He is not dead, he is risen after all. But he is still gone, ascended into heaven. How do you maintain a long distance relationship like that? Ascension poses a challenge: There is this huge gap that remains between God Almighty, creator of the universe and us little creatures down here on Earth. For a brief time in history we had Jesus walking among us, preaching, and teaching, and healing. Then: Ascension! Pouf! He disappears just us quickly and unexpectedly as the angel had appeared to Mary announcing his birth to begin with. God’s presence among us is fleeting at best. Maybe that’s the takeaway from Ascension Day: God the Father will always be hiking through the Garden of Eden whether we see him or not and he’s got our back no matter what.

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Apr 21, 2015

Denominational Church

When I bake bread I use 1 1/2 cups of water. The bread turns out just right with a yummy crust when I follow my simple recipe that I developed a few years ago. Like any good recipe it doesn’t work if you don’t follow the measurements. You need to understand what 1 1/2 cups are. A half a cup is a fraction of a cup. The bottom number is called denominator. Of all the fractions the denominator tells you which numerators belong together.

Churches are the same way. We are all one and the same body of Christ that starts with water: the water of Baptism. After that things got messy and we divided ourselves into different “churches”. Ultimately we are all numerals on the same scale but we set ourselves apart.

Luckily we in the United Church of Christ hold on to the concept of the denominational church. We share a common denominator, a shared family name for all our more than 5000 congregations: United Church of Christ.

As the body of Christ is symbolized in a loaf of bread so the church is carefully crafted with a recipe that has worked from day one: Be in covenant with one another and have structures in place to live out that covenant. A local church works closely with its sister churches in the same Association – in our case the Houston Association. The Associations work together as a Conference – in our case the South Central Conference. And we all share in the missions and ministries of the National Setting. Every “level” of church life has its unique flavors and responsibilities but ultimately we are all numerators of the same denominator.

douglasandersOur Conference Ministry, the Reverend Douglas Anders, ministers to our churches in Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi. He will be giving the Sermon next Sunday, April 26 in our 10 am service at St. John’s United Church of Christ. Ultimately being part of a denominational church is about relationship: recognizing kinfolk and sharing time, talent and resources to make the world better as a whole. Because ultimately that’s where the whole thing is headed – that one day there won’t be separate denominators anymore but the one Body of Christ: 1/1

Apr 20, 2015

Pastor’s Weekly Links

Preparing for Sunday Services leads me to the following seven websites every week. Maybe you also will find it handy to have them all linked in one spot:

SAMUEL
A sermon preparation resource designed for use with the Revised Common Lectionary.

Worship Ways
Lectionary-based services for Sundays, festivals and special ecumenical or UCC observances.

Textweek
A wide variety of resources for study and liturgy based on the 3-year Revised Common Lectionary cycle.

Laughing Bird
Liturgical resources for the coming weeks.

Oremus
The Oremus Bible Browser.

Enter the Bible
A wealth of resources from Luther Seminary to help you grow in your faith, add depth to your Bible studies and truly discover the people, places and events of the Bible.

Academic Bible
The leading website for academic Bible study. It provides free access to the original Bible texts in Greek and Hebrew, published by the German Bible Society, in addition to English and German Bible translations.

Apr 13, 2015

A God Budget for Tax Day

Jesus said to them, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were utterly amazed at him. (Mark 12:17)

Today’s emperor is the Congress with its power of the purse and the IRS enforcing the rules. Your CPA or software tells you exactly what you owe them. They will want that this week. Paying your taxes is about paying you fair share but like with any institution federal and state budgets are mixed bags. My biggest complaint would be that we have not had a federal budget for the longest time. And even once we do everybody will find things in it they want to support. And of course you will find things that you don’t want to support. That’s all politics and politics are about the process. You don’t have to love the results but you have to honor the process. “Give to the Congress what the tax code tells you.” is Jesus’ straight-forward message.

The second part of that verse is a little more complex: “Give to God the things that are God’s.”
As a pastor I am not your spiritual bookkeeper that tells you how much you owe and there isn’t a software for that either. But I can suggest one mathematical approach nonetheless:
What do you owe God? – Everything!
In numbers that would be infinite. Because ultimately all of creation, all the blessings we receive in life are given and sustained by God. Ultimately we don’t own anything but are mere stewards in God’s vineyard. There is no hard and fast deadline for the giving Jesus is talking about here. Neither is it clear what should be included on that balance sheet. Maybe a good starting point would be to track your expenses and then as a second step you could become intentional about adjusting your “God Budget”. Here is a simple worksheet to get you started, not just financially. But please also include the time and the talents that you invest:
God Budget

Apr 7, 2015

He washed my sins away

Sister Act film poster.jpg
Sister Act film poster” by Source. Licensed under Wikipedia.

“Oh happy day! Oh happy day! Oh happy day!
When Jesus washed, oh when he washed, he washed my sins away”
I admit it: I just love Whoopi Goldberg in Sister Act. When that energetic, loving nun turns around that run-down neighborhood, her songs are an inspiration. Bringing Aretha Franklin’s tune to a broader audience also helps spread the message of Easter. The lyrics really contain everything you need to know from Good Friday to Easter Sunday, from Jesus’ death on the cross to his glorious resurrection. Have you stopped humming yet?

The image of washing our sins away with Jesus’ blood is somewhat disturbing because it sounds so archaic but hey, that’s what you get for basing your faith on ancient texts like this one:
“If we walk in the light as God is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.”
(1 John 1:7 –Watchword for the Week of Sunday 12 April 2015)

That’s what Holy Week is all about: He washed my sins away!
And actually that extends well beyond that one special week, because I will sin over and over again and I will need cleansing over and over again. It is literally the original vicious cycle.

But not only that: The song as well as God’s purpose for us don’t stop there:
“He taught me how to watch, fight and pray, fight and pray! And living rejoicing every, everyday!”
Remember how Jesus asks the disciples to keep watch while he goes out to pray? – They keep falling asleep! They don’t fight their inner laziness and they fail to pray when it is so crucial. And rejoicing every day? – That sounds so hard because some days are just so hard to bear that nobody would want to rejoice. My hope would be that, when you have one of those days, when rejoicing sounds like too much to ask, that God may send you a sister Mary Clarence who may rock your world and teach you to sing “Oh happy day! Oh happy day! Oh happy day!”

Mar 31, 2015

Easter Eggs

firstimperialegg
Once you dye the eggs for Easter they don’t contain any cholesterol anymore, or so goes the saying, right? Well, I don’t know about the nutritional value of Easter eggs but I do no that Easter is almost the only time of the year when I eat hard boiled eggs. It’s just something I usually don’t enjoy but since it matches the season and makes sense within Christian tradition I will crack open quite a few that Easter weekend.

So why have Christians adopted the egg for Easter? – It is a dead rock that comes to life!
An egg looks a lot like a rock that could be rolled in front of Jesus’ tomb. But when you give it some time eventually it will give way to life: When that baby chick manages to get its beak through the shell, when it eventually cracks it open all the way and makes its way out: Here is you symbol for resurrection that follows a time of death in that “rock”.

Eventually people fell in love with the egg for Easter and they started making them prettier: From simple finger paint to Fabergé eggs you can spend pennies or thousands of dollars on your egg collection. That’s where things get trickier: What does that have to do with the death and resurrection of our Lord and Savior? Isn’t that pure pleasure that does not match this solemn season? – Well actually, the solemn season of Lent is precisely over on Easter: For the first time since Mardi Gras, tradition allows the consumption of eggs, for the first time in seven weeks joy is the reason of celebration and chocolate eggs makes perfect sense. Christ is risen! Can you think of a greater joy? – It makes sense to take an ancient symbol and transform it into something fun, fresh, beautiful and yummy.

Mar 24, 2015

Expectation Management

The first official announcement for the 2016 presidential ticket of a major party is now on the books. Campaign season has officially begun. And like always we will hear a whole slate of people announcing their candidacy for their party ticket. And every single one of them will promise to do better than anyone else. They may promise to do away with whatever a predecessor may have done or they may promise to continue down the same path. “With me things are going to get a lot better.” They all have to say something to that effect because in the highest government executive office, we the people want someone who can get things done.

Israel had a lot of expectations for their new leader as well. For generations the land had been occupied by the Romans. There had always been revolts trying to cast off that yoke. Uprisings were commonplace and there was a lot of hope that some day a great strong leader may emerge and kick out the Romans once and for all. Somebody yelling: “With me things are going to get a lot better.” A strong leader who can get things done, who can fight and win our wars and restore liberty and justice for all. Maybe this concept of ancient Israel still applies today: Candidates still want to be the Messiah who saves the day. That’s why they promise heaven on earth if you just vote for them.

Well, here is what happened back then: Jesus was nominated to be the new king of the Jews. The media of the day had high expectations of this new and upcoming star. They wanted him to be the mighty warrior to restore King David’s Empire. They wanted him to lead the people into battle and free Jerusalem and restore Israel’s independence. News reports came in that he may join the Passover festivities in the capital this year. So reporters lined up along the main drag that led into town, vendors set up their booths with fan memorabilia, excitement was building. The people got curious: What’s going on? Who’s coming? What is this all about? Oh – a rally against the Romans? – Sign me up! Finally his presence was announced: Jesus has entered the final stretch and will be visible soon! What’s he gonna look like? Heavy armor? A mighty horse? Troops following behind him, well trained and equipped to march into the fight? Maybe even before the festival is over? Can he get this done swiftly and forcefully? Go Jesus! Go Jesus! Go Jesus!

Then he turns around the corner so everybody can see him in all his glory – sitting on a donkey!? And all of a sudden everybody starts realizing that their expectations had been off. When King David sent his son Solomon to his accession to the throne he had him ride on a donkey (1 Kings 1:33): No war machine, no military parade. The king of the Jews has always been a king of humility. What if our 2016 candidates announced like that: “Don’t expect too much from me. I’m not bringing anything special to the table. Things will not get a lot better because of me. I would just like to play my part in the system.”

What if we would manage our exceptions in a way that would enable us to live the life we have?
What if would would hope for fulfillment in our current situation without radical transformation?
What is life weren’t always all exciting but sometimes just hard work that never seems to end?
Because let’s not forget that the same crowd that yells “Hosannah!” today is bound to yell “Crucify him!” in just a little while.

Mar 17, 2015

A Celebration of Individualism

“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.”
(Psalm 51:10 – Watchword for the Week of Sunday 22 March 2015)

Me, me, and me! Unapologetically me! The Psalmist is not afraid in just one verse to three times refer to himself. He doesn’t care about the interconncetedness of all beings. He’s not worried about the state of the church or the state of the nation. He doesn’t want to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, or to care for the widow, or the alien or the orphan. He prays for his own benefit. He doesn’t ask for kingdom come and thy will be done, no, it’s all about me, myself, and I!

That’s where religion takes place: In an individual’s heart. It’s a place where God has spoken from the beginning. Individualism is not a bad thing. God calls prophets and apostles, not committees and representatives. No corporation, no institution, no state, no church, can live if it does not have individuals that take care of the logs in their own eyes before getting into everybody else’s business. “Create in me a clean heart, O God” also means: I am in desperate need of cleaning because it’s not pretty in there. Give me a fresh start this Lent – like a spiritual spring cleaning.

Sometimes the shortest word in a verse has the biggest impact. Here it is certainly the humble a: “put a new and right spirit within me.” It implies that there is a multitude of new and right spirits to be had. For me, I need only one of those for myself. My way is not the highway and if I think my path is the straight and narrow I can be certain that the God of hosts has a host of other paths that are just as viable. The me right next to me, the me across the street or on the other side of the globe has their own journey just as I do.

Mar 10, 2015

That’s Not Fair

A conversation based on John 3:16-17 and written by Rosemary Broadstock and Ann Scull.
john316cross

A: ‘For God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everybody who believes in him may not die but have eternal life’.
B: But that’s not fair!!! What about the likes of Hitler and Stalin – the people who start terrible wars and cause the death of millions of innocent people and cause the destruction of whole countries which take decades to rebuild.
A: But God has shown us how much he loves us – it was while we were still sinners that Christ died for us.
B: But that’s not fair either!!! Does that include the people who dominate powerless people? What about those who rip off the system and make us all pay more? What about people who are cruel?
A: This is what love is: it is not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the means by which our sins are forgiven.
B: Hey, come on, this really isn’t fair!! That can’t possibly include the thieves and the murderers, the people in our jails, the criminals, the liars and the cheats, the ones who abandon and mistreat their children and families, the ones who fight and drink too much.
A: Absolutely nothing will ever be able to separate us from the love of God which is ours through Christ Jesus our Lord.
B: But its still not fair!!!! What about the people who are self satisfied and thoughtless? What about those who gossip and are jealous, the ones who are selfish and lack compassion, the ones who break promises, the ones who are always critical, the ones who carelessly hurt other people’s feelings….. Come to think of it – it’s all of us really, isn’t it?
A: This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life. God didn’t go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again.

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Mar 3, 2015

The Foolishness of the Cross

“For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing,
but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
(1 Corinthians 1:18 – Watchword for the Week of Sunday 8 March 2015)

There are so many spots in my life that are marked with the sign of the cross.
Let me share with y’all what some of them are about:

When she first saw me in the uniform of an Army Chaplain my mother started crying. Yes, of course there was this whole “my son is a Soldier” thing but what disturbed her most was the cross on my chest. The love of God and a combat uniform do not naturally go together. The Army Chaplain Branch Cross is one of five insignia besides the Jewish tabloids, the Muslim crescent, the Buddhist wheel of life and the Hindu ”Om” syllable. They tell Soldiers where their Chaplains are coming from not where they are taking them. Luckily my mom understands that the love of God is greater than all religious distinctions and Christ has called me to be a servant to all.

Whenever our family has moved we have posted a cross over our front-door. You may call it a talisman or good luck charm. I think of it as a blessing of our home and everybody who lives and visits in it. A symbol of Christ’s presence. Maybe not so much through the symbol of the cross itself but very much so by the spirit which we strive to live. The crosses we have used over our doorposts over the years have always been very modest you may even say tiny. That way they have also been great reminders of humility. I wish the cross were used that way more often. Around Houston highways crosses are being abused as symbols of power and dominance towering up to 200 feet tall. The “emblem of suffering and shame” should not be used as a phallic symbol that strives to be bigger and stronger than everybody else.

The roadside crosses that I respect are the ones that remind us of our mortality. After the deadly crash of a loved one family and friends sometimes try to keep the memory alive at the scene of death – with a cross and candles or flowers. By that not only do they support their own grief process but they also help others in a similar situation. Driving past such a memorial site can work like a support group: I am not alone in my mourning. And on a pragmatic note it warns all motorists: A deadly crash happened here. This spot may require more attention and lower speeds. The cross gets that across more powerfully to me than any speed limit sign could.

In the parish hall at St. John’s United Church of Christ we have close to one hundred crosses on the wall. No, this is not bragging by numbers. This is a sign of diversity. Not two are the same. They are kids crafts, cowboy scenes, crucifixes, clothespins, artsy, rustic, kitsch and ancient, you name it, we got it. The blessing here is in the variety of the multitude. There is not the one correct cross. Our journeys are all different, our approaches to Jesus’ suffering and the season of Lent are all different. What is your cross style?

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