A History Lesson

Worship Study Prayer

Wednesday morning–at 1am to be more specific–I took an Uber to the Cleveland Amtrak Station and boarded an eastbound train, headed to Philadelphia.

I’m Josh, the Presbytery Office Administrator.

The purpose of my trip to Philly is not in search of the best cheesesteak (although I scratched that itch, too…) but instead to visit the Presbyterian Historical Society.
For those of you who don’t already know (or who don’t have easy access to Wikipedia), the Presbyterian Historical Society is the longest running continuous denominational historical society in the U.S. Many know them because someone from the Presbytery staff brings them up when a church closes. As in, “We’re going to send all the registers and session minutes to the Historical Society.” Once there, they are catalogued in their new home in the Society’s 32,000 cubic feet of archival records in Philadelphia. Their collection includes personal papers, Session minutes, paintings, rare books, and other curios and treasures.
So did I go there? I visited the Society as a continuing education opportunity. I got a tour of the facility, used the archive to do some research for a member of the Presbytery, and perhaps most importantly: it was an opportunity to learn more about the history, structure, and workings of the PCUSA.
Some of you may be snickering a little to hear me wax poetic on the subject of learning more about the history of the denomination. Around the office, I can frequently be heard saying things like “I don’t care what the form looked like last year,” or “‘It’s always been done that way’ is not sufficient reason to continue doing it that way,” or “I know there’s a biblical basis for changing this process–something about wineskins.” Given all the changes I’ve championed over the past two and a half years, it may be hard to believe that I have a strong connection to, or interest in, history.
Change can be a hard pill to swallow–for anyone, although I have found this to be especially true in church work. So when I came parading in with Google, and electronic meeting registration, and digital records storage, I was not surprised to be met with some skepticism. I was the new guy, after all, and not even Presbyterian. How could everyone have been expected to trust me with the information and traditions of a Presbytery that goes back over 200 years? (That’s a long time–my family hadn’t even come to America yet at that point!)
But here we all are. And I think that through our work together over the past two and a half years, most of you already know this, but just in case you don’t: It’s specifically because I value the history and mission of this Presbytery and the PCUSA that I get excited about new and better ways of doing things, of gathering and distributing information, of being church.
I look at the legacy of an organization that knows at its very core that the way to be a community is to embrace our disagreements and find a way forward together. Indeed, one that believes debate between colleagues is the movement of the Holy Spirit. I look at that and think, Now this is a denomination that has something to say to the world we live in.
And I want you to know something else: I think of myself as a steward of this Presbytery’s historical records, and I take that stewardship very seriously.
I didn’t grow up in Presbyterian churches. I haven’t been an office administrator or church employee for my entire career–I’ve mostly worked in service or retail since I was 16. But between my various jobs and academic programs I’ve learned about communication, processes, and information technology. And I try to bring that knowledge to work every day and leverage it for the good of this Presbytery.
The world we live in is changing fast, and while the message of God has never changed, the ways we share that message has. And I’m very excited to be a part of that, to come to work every day and solve problems, in order to help build God’s world.
So I’m grateful for this strange, difficult, wonderful work. And I’m grateful for all of you, for going on this journey with me. And I’m glad we’re all a part of a church that’s committed to reforming, even when it’s hard. Especially when it’s hard.
I plan to write more about my experience at the Historical Society, once I’ve had some time to process it. Thank you for reading.
Peace.

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On Faithful Administration

Behind the Scenes, General Assembly

You may or may not know this about me, but I’m not Presbyterian.  I work for the PCUSA, I play drums for an Episcopal church on Saturday nights, I teach marching band part time at a Catholic high school, and I’m married to a UCC minister.  (I like to say that I am deeply ecumenical).  But most of the time I’m not interacting with other Presbyterians.

Let’s be honest, a lot of the time I’m interacting with people who can’t even spell Presbyterian.

And so every other month, when we’re gearing up for a stated meeting of the Presbytery and one of my friends asks me what’s going on at work, I usually have to give them a bit of background on the denomination before I can even begin to tell them about what all that means for my workday.  Because that’s the thing: all the governance stuff–the motions and seconds and quorums of it really aren’t my area.  They’re fascinating.  I do try to know as much about that stuff as I can.  But at the end of the day, I’m much more impacted by a case of network-but-not-internet-access than I am by one of voice-but-not-vote.

You may never have thought about a committee meeting or stated meeting of the Presbytery from an administrative standpoint.  And that’s OK, because it’s my job to make sure that you don’t have to think about that stuff.  I’m typically onsite by 12pm on the day of the meeting to get the projector and screen set up, Centsability cans on the dining tables, rooms prepped for pre-Presbytery events, registration computers deployed, name tag printer set up and tested–it’s a long list.  I actually have a document called “What Did You Forget?” that I keep with me on meeting days.

And that’s just the meeting itself.  We also have the preparation to contend with, and aside from that, the day-to-day operations of the Presbytery Office.

I’m not telling you all this to sound impressive or to fish for thanks and compliments, but to give you an introduction to what I think of as my ministry: a ministry of administration.  (I toyed with the idea of dazzling you here with my writing by calling myself an “elder of email” or a “priest of PowerPoint,” but thought it might come across as cheesy and a little bit tacky.  And let’s be honest: priest metaphors don’t play well with Reformed audiences).

But in all seriousness, I see my role in building God’s world as thinking hard about details, processes, and workflows, and developing tools that will help others do their various roles in building God’s world.  Sometimes that means emailing a reminder to a committee about their upcoming meeting.  Other times it means writing some code to automate putting ordination anniversaries onto a staff member’s calendar.  And still others it may just be a matter of making a giant pot of coffee when I get to the office in the morning.

And I love this job, because I have always been at my happiest when doing good work that helps others do good work.  I enjoy being a moderator of minutiae (that one was too good not to use, cheesy or not…)

As General Assembly approaches, I’m looking forward to going there and learning more about the workings of the PCUSA.  And as an administrator, I’m fascinated by the sheer scale of putting on an event like that.  (Thinking through the logistics behind the WiFi network alone would be enough to occupy me for a while!)

Over the next month and a half, you’ll be seeing more updates from the commissioners and staff about our musings and processes as we prepare for General Assembly.  You can subscribe, or just bookmark this link to see all the General Assembly-specific posts.  If you want to get in touch with us, send me an email at jdaum@preswesres.org, and I’ll be happy to point you in the right direction.

Thank you for reading!

 

Jesus on Lust and Divorce

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Matthew 5:27-32

Adultery

     27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ 28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.

Divorce

     31 “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

Today’s gospel reading deals with two issues that have traditionally occupied a lot of the church’s attention: sex and divorce. In fact, I think it would be safe to say that a huge proportion of the church’s public discourse in my life time has been on issues that had something to do with human sexuality. A lot of the time, the message that’s communicated to the world outside the church is that Christians think their primary calling is to combat abortion and homosexuality and sex education, even though as far as we know, Jesus never said a word about any of those subjects.

So what, exactly does Jesus say in this part of the Sermon on the Mount?

In the first part of the reading, Jesus applies to the subject of human sexuality the same principle he applied to bitter anger in the passage we thought about yesterday: that indulging in sinful thought is equivalent to physically committing a sin.

It’s important to understand what Jesus is really saying in this passage – and what he’s not saying. One part of the church has traditionally used a slightly twisted reading of this passage to manipulate people (and particularly men) to exert control by provoking guilt. That branch of the church has said that if you experience attraction to a person other than your spouse, you’re guilty of adultery. And by that standard, of course, roughly half of the population commits adultery every day.

However, that standard somewhat distorts what Jesus is saying here. What he is saying that it’s equivalent to adultery if you look at a person other than your spouse “for the purpose of lusting after them.” He’s not saying that experiencing attraction is the sin, but rather indulging in lust. Sitting on the deck to get a better view of the neighbor lady sunbathing, for instance. As we said yesterday when we were thinking about the passage about anger, if you indulge in that kind of lustful gazing, eventually you may act on that lust.

And what Jesus says here about gouging out an eye or cutting off a hand seems to be intended as a response to people who said, “Well, I can’t control where my eye goes, can I? I can’t control the impulses of my physical body.” Jesus seems to be making the case that we do have ultimate control over our bodies, so we can’t blame them for our immoral behavior.

The bottom line of this passage seems to be that while most of us will experience attraction just as we will experience anger, we followers of Jesus are called to restrain those feelings, not indulge in them. We’re called to lay them aside in favor of a way of life that’s consistent with the teachings and commandments of our master – teachings and commandments that promote peace and harmony and general flourishing in society. Unrestrained lust and anger obviously do not promote peace and harmony and general flourishing.

The second passage in today’s reading deals with the subject of divorce, which Jesus says is permissible only in case of infidelity. There are certainly parts of the church that forbid remarriage of divorced people. I recognize that these Christians are trying to be faithful to Jesus’ teachings, and that they believe that this strict interpretation will encourage stable marriages. And I think that encouraging marital responsibility is exactly what Jesus had in mind.

However, I think this strict attitude is misguided. Actually, I’d say it probably borders on the thought process of the Pharisees in Jesus’ time. For one thing, notice that this particular passage is directed exclusively to men, and has nothing to say about circumstances under which a woman might end a marriage. So it reflects the patriarchal culture of the time. In the ancient Near East, a divorced woman would have little recourse other than to begging or prostitution. And since experience shows us that a lot of the time men divorce their wives in favor of a ‘younger model,’ divorced women in the ancient world were especially hard-pressed.

I think it also needs to be said that the strict interpretation of this passage is used to pressure abused women to stay with abusive husbands. (That’s why clergy are not welcome at lots of shelters for battered women.) It’s also the operating principle in much of the Muslim world. But I suspect that even the strictest Christians would hesitate to say that the laws and mores of Iran or Saudi Arabia reflect Jesus’ teachings on marriage.

It seems to me the most faithful application of Jesus’ teaching in the modern world is that his followers should never take marriage casually, but rather should enter into it as a lifetime commitment before God. Sometimes, however, human sinfulness destroys a marriage. Occasionally only one spouse sins, but more often the sins of both lead to the divorce. And our understanding is that all sins are forgiven if we confess them. So it seems to me that those whose sins have led to their divorces, if they confess and repent of those sins, should be free to try again for the kind of committed marriage Jesus would want for them.

Let’s pray: Lord, in all things, including our most intimate relationships, strengthen us by your Holy Spirit to reflect the self-sacrificial love that Jesus himself demonstrated in his life and death. Amen.

Every Blessing,
Henry

(The other readings for today are Psalms 49 and 117; Exodus 34:18-35; and I Thessalonians 3:1-13.)

Thinking about the Ten Commandments

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Exodus 20:1-21

 The Ten Commandments

     1And God spoke all these words:
     2 “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.
     3 “You shall have no other gods before me.
     4 “You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.
     7 “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.
     8 “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work,10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates. 11 For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
     12 “Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.
     13 “You shall not murder.
     14 “You shall not commit adultery.
     15 “You shall not steal.
     16 “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.
     17 “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant or his maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”
     18 When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance 19 and said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.”
     20 Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning.”
     21 The people remained at a distance, while Moses approached the thick darkness where God was.

This passage from Exodus, which sets out the Ten Commandments, was the listed Old Testament reading for yesterday. It definitely seems too important to skip over – in fact, it’s the foundation of morality in the Judeo-Christian tradition. So I thought we should devote today’s Reflection to a few thoughts about the Ten Commandments.

Obviously, there have been tons of very scholarly books written about the Ten Commandments, and a short Reflection like this doesn’t allow the time to do much more than make a few very general observations about them. But there are four thoughts I’d like to pass along.

First of all, it seems to me that the Ten Commandments need to be understood as an expansion on the two “most important commandments” that Jesus named when a Hebrew theologian asked him about it. (Matthew 22:36-40) Jesus told the man, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” The Ten Commandments take those two commandments and give concrete principles for living them out in our life with God, and in our common life as believers.

You’ll sometimes hear people say that the first four commandments are about our relationship with God, and the last six are about our relationships with other people. I wouldn’t say that’s wrongs, exactly, but it does seem to me to sort of give the wrong idea. Because it seems to me that in God’s mind, the two can’t really be separated. How we deal with other people is an expression of our relationship with God. We can’t claim to really love God with ‘heart, soul and mind’ unless we also love our neighbor – because God surely does.

The second thought I’d like to pass along is that our Reformed tradition has always said that really obeying the Ten Commandments requires us to take an expanded view of what they mean. We don’t get to claim we’re technically obeying the Ten Commandments if we disobey their spirit. Jesus said having murderous anger toward someone breaks the commandment against murder, and actively lusting after someone other than your spouse breaks the commandment against adultery.

The Westminster Catechisms take this principle and applies it to all of the Ten Commandments. For instance, when it comes to the commandment against stealing, the Catechisms say it forbids false advertising and all kinds of other deceptive practices that go on every day. It’s pretty interesting reading – I definitely recommend reading the parts of the Catechisms that apply to the Ten Commandments. It makes you think.

The third thing I’d like to say about the Ten Commandments is that they were handed down by God after he made the covenant with the people of Israel. They were not conditions that God set if the people wanted his care and provision. The covenant God made with his people was not a contractual arrangement – it was a gift out of God’s grace.

Followers of Jesus tend to think that the God portrayed in the Old Testament is an angry and vengeful God of judgment and punishment. But that’s largely because the historical parts of the Old Testament are the result of theological reflection centuries after the events they describe. When you look closely, the grace of God is just as visible in the Old Testament as it is in the New Testament.

Finally, I think contemporary followers of Jesus need to remind ourselves regularly that the Ten Commandments were intended by God to be a blessing to his people, not a bunch of troublesome rule to spoil our fun. The plain fact is that the Ten Commandments offer the single best program ever devised to humankind to live happy, healthy and prosperous lives. The Commandments have sometimes become a political football in the struggle between liberals and conservatives over the separation of church and state. But that’s a shame, because all of us – liberals and conservatives alike – would live better lives if we would take the commandments more seriously – not just as a club to bludgeon other people over their lives, but as a guide to living moral lives ourselves.

Let’s pray. Lord, we thank you for the Ten Commandments, and for the program of living by love you and our neighbor they set forth. By your Holy Spirit, incline our hearts to live more and more in obedience to those commandments, to promote your glory and the flourishing of other people. Amen. 

Have a great weekend, and worship God joyfully on Sunday!
Henry

(The listed readings for today are Psalms 96 and 138; Exodus 24:1-18; Colossians 2:8-23; and Matthew 4:12-17.)

 

Earth Care Fair – Putting our Faith in Action

Caring for Our Environment, Rational Thought, Reformed and Always Reforming

Join the Earth Stewardship Action Network at Lyndhurst Community Presbyterian Church for an Earth Care Fair on Saturday, May 12th from 9am-12pm!  All are invited to hear and see how we can faithfully and practically serve our world today through earth stewardship.  Attendees will be provided copies or links to helpful information about Earth stewardship, including presentations, guidelines and grant forms.

Here is the schedule:

  • 9:00
    • Introductory remarks from Rev. Carmen Denise Cox Harwell
    • Keynote Speaker Rev. Jim Butler
  • 9:30
    • Earth Stewardship Panel of Witnesses
      Our speakers will share their passion for earth care, the moral issues involved and their sense of urgency to take action.
  • 10:00
    • How to become an Earth Care Congregation, presented by David Neff from Forest Hill Church, Presbyterian
  • 10:15 – Earth Care Congregations Fair
    • Our churches who have already become Earth Care Congregations will share their stories and actions.
    • Meet Alycia Ashburn from Ohio Interfaith Power and Light
    • Application for Earth Stewardship Action Network grants
  • 10:45
    • Energy Efficiency Workshop, focusing on low cost energy saving opportunities and the Energy Stewards
    • Video presentation by Katherine Hayhoe, climate scientist & Christian, hosted by David Neff — to be followed by a Q&A Session
  • 12:00
    • Closing prayer

Light snacks and beverages will be offered.  No charge to attend – Please click here to RSVP

A Reflection for Maundy Thursday

Seeking God Together

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Mark 14:12-25

 The Last Supper

     12 On the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, when it was customary to sacrifice the Passover lamb, Jesus’ disciples asked him, “Where do you want us to go and make preparations for you to eat the Passover?”

     13 So he sent two of his disciples, telling them, “Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him. 14 Say to the owner of the house he enters, ‘The Teacher asks: Where is my guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ 15 He will show you a large upper room, furnished and ready. Make preparations for us there.”

     16 The disciples left, went into the city and found things just as Jesus had told them. So they prepared the Passover.

     17 When evening came, Jesus arrived with the Twelve. 18 While they were reclining at the table eating, he said, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me—one who is eating with me.”

     19 They were saddened, and one by one they said to him, “Surely not I?”

     20 “It is one of the Twelve,” he replied, “one who dips bread into the bowl with me. 21 The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him. But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born.”

     22 While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take it; this is my body.”

     23 Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, and they all drank from it.

     24 “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many,” he said to them. 25 “Truly I tell you, I will not drink again from the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.”

This is Maundy Thursday, which is – or at least ought to be – one of the most important events on the calendar of the church. (‘Maundy,’ by the way is an old word that means ‘holy.’) On the evening of Maundy Thursday, followers of Jesus gather to remember together our Master’s Last Supper with his disciples, and to celebrate the sacrament he established on that night.

The other gospels add a number of details about that night. The Gospel of John gives an especially detailed account, complete with the story of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. But this account from Mark we’re reflecting on today is understood to have been reported personally by Peter, and also to be the one that was published closest to the time of the events it reports. So it seems important to look at what parts of the story seem most important to Mark and Peter.

First of all, it’s important for us to keep in mind that the Last Supper was a Passover gathering. So it was an observance at which Jesus and his disciples joined other Jews in remembering and celebrating the liberation of their people from slavery in Egypt. As you might be aware, the traditional Passover rituals have a bittersweet quality to them. The people ate bitter herbs to remember the bitterness of their bondage in Egypt. They ate bread without yeast to remember that they had to leave Egypt in a hurry – with no time to let bread rise. In fact, the Passover meal was always to be eaten with shoes on, for the same reason. And they ate lamb – a reminder of the lamb whose blood marked the homes of those who would be set free at the cost of its life.

For Jesus and his disciples, this Last Supper was also a bittersweet event. Not only were they remembering the ancient history of their people and its themes of bitterness and liberation through blood, but also it turned especially sinister when Jesus announced at dinner that one of them would betray him. And as his followers looked back in later years, they would remember these things about their final meal with Jesus before his arrest and trial and horrible death.

For us, nearly 2,000 years later, this sacrament remains a bittersweet event, one that we will celebrate twice in the next three days. Each time we observe the Lord’s Supper, we are reminded that our salvation was bought at the price of Jesus’ death – that his own body was broken and his blood poured out for us.

But three days from now, we will observe the sacrament again, but then with a very different emotional and spiritual tone to the observance. Then, on Easter morning, we will be remembering that by Jesus’ death on the cross, we have been rescued from our sins and made members of God’s own family. As members of that family, we will gather around a table in celebration.

For us, as for the Hebrews, the sacrament is always a bittersweet event – the sweetness of our liberation from slavery to sin and death always calls us to remember the bitter price paid to set us free. The body of Jesus was broken for us, and his blood was shed to establish a new covenant for those who love and follow him.

Let’s pray. Lord, on this Maundy Thursday, we remember with thanks the night when Jesus established the blessed sacrament we share around your table, and we remember also the great promise that sacrament represents: that all who follow him are adopted as members of your own family, and welcomed at your table. In his name we pray. Amen.

Grace and Peace,
Henry

(The other readings for today are Psalms 70 and 93; Lamentations 2:10-18; and I Corinthians 10:14-17 and 11:27-32.)

Seeing God Working in Hard Times

Worship Study Prayer

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Genesis 45:1-7

Joseph Makes Himself Known

     1Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, “Have everyone leave my presence!” So there was no one with Joseph when he made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard him, and Pharaoh’s household heard about it.

     3 Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph! Is my father still living?” But his brothers were not able to answer him, because they were terrified at his presence.

     4 Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come close to me.” When they had done so, he said, “I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt! And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will be no plowing and reaping. But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance.

Most of the time, our Reflections are based either on the gospel reading or the epistle reading listed for the day. It’s a little more unusual for us to base them on the Old Testament readings. But this particular reading from Genesis was the listed Old Testament reading for yesterday, and it strikes me as one with an important lesson in it, so I wanted to take time to think about it with you a little today.

If you remember the story of Joseph, he’s portrayed in Genesis as an arrogant brat who alienated his brothers so much that they eventually sold him into slavery. Or to be more precise, ten of his eleven brothers joined in selling him into slavery. Joseph’s ten half-brothers wanted to murder him, but his only full brother, Benjamin, spoke up to talk them out of it.

The historians, by the way, say that “fratricide” – the murder of brothers – wasn’t that uncommon in the ancient world, especially when one brother seemed to be favored by the father. And, as I mentioned, Joseph made no attempt to hide his understanding that God intended his brothers – and even their parents – to be subordinate to him. So at the very least, Joseph’s people skills left something to be desired. He kept telling the rest of the family about having dreams that he said were messages from God – dreams that foretold that the rest of the family would all bow down to him. As you might imagine, this news was not greeted warmly by the brothers. So they sold him into slavery, and he was carried off to Egypt.

In the subsequent years, however, Joseph did just fine for himself in Egypt. After a rough patch where he was thrown unjustly into prison, Joseph was brought out by Pharaoh, and eventually rose to be what we might call the prime minister of the Egyptian government, second only to Pharaoh himself. When a famine struck the land of Canaan, Joseph’s brothers went to Egypt to buy food, which had food only because Joseph had advised Pharaoh to store some up before the famine struck.

The brothers were brought before Joseph, but they didn’t recognize him. Habits of dress and grooming were no doubt much different among the Egyptian elite than among sheep herders in Canaan. And many years had passed, so it’s probably believable that they might not recognize Joseph, especially given the circumstances. For a while, Joseph sort of jerked his brothers around, making them travel back and forth and framing one of them for theft.

But now, in the reading we’re looking at today, Joseph reveals his identity to his brothers. As you might imagine, these guys are shocked and terrified to learn that they are now completely in the power of a brother they had sold into slavery. Quite reasonably, they expected Joseph to take this opportunity to get revenge for their treachery of years before.

But to their surprise, Joseph’s take on the events of his life is not at all what his brothers expected. Joseph sees God’s hand at work in the ordeal he had gone through. Joseph understands that God has placed him in Egypt, and elevated him through the ranks of the Egyptian government, so that he can protect the people (including his family) from starvation in this time of famine. Joseph sees that out of great injustice, God has brought salvation.

Obviously, we can see in this interpretation a kind of foreshadowing of the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross – salvation out of great injustice. But it seems to me we can also see in this story a lens through which we can view the bad things that happen in our own lives.

There are some people who would say that any time something bad happens in your life, it’s God’s doing – as they say, “Everything happens for a reason.” Personally, I don’t interpret it that way. Sometimes people do bad things – or bad things just happen – that are not “God’s will.”

But I do believe that in all the circumstances of our lives – even the most difficult – God gives us opportunities to be his agents in bringing good out of bad. It seems to me that looking for those chances to bring good out of bad can reveal God’s grace in our lives, and in the lives of others. Some people have been sustained in times of great suffering by the determination to bring good out of it – even if only to bear witness against the great evil they have gone through.

In times of hardship, maybe this example of Joseph can help to enact God’s saving grace in our own lives by reminding us that we can be instruments of that saving grace in the lives of others.

Let’s pray. Lord, when we face times of hardship, help us to look for ways that you might work through us to bring salvation, not just to us, but also into the lives of others. And sustain us in those times with the knowledge that even in hard times, we can be serving your purposes. Amen.

Blessings,
Henry

(The listed readings for today are Psalms 27 and 1471-11; Genesis 45:16-28; I Corinthians 8:1-13; and Mark 6: 13-29.)

 

Jesus is accused of insanity and Satanism.

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Mark 3:20-35

Jesus and Beelzebub

     20 Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. 21 When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.”

     22 And the teachers of the law who came down from Jerusalem said, “He is possessed by Beelzebub! By the prince of demons he is driving out demons.”

     23 So Jesus called them and began to speak to them in parables: “How can Satan drive out Satan? 24 If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. 25 If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand. 26 And if Satan opposes himself and is divided, he cannot stand; his end has come. 27 In fact, no one can enter a strong man’s house without first tying him up. Then he can rob his house. 28 I tell you the truth, all the sins and blasphemies of people will be forgiven them. 29 But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; they are guilty of an eternal sin.”

     30 He said this because they were saying, “He has an impure spirit.”

 Jesus’ Mother and Brothers

     31 Then Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him. 32 A crowd was sitting around him, and they told him, “Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.”

     33 “Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked.

     34 Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35 Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”

Today’s gospel reading is a passage from Mark that’s a little complicated, so you kind of have to trace the whole argument to make sense of it. So we’ll do our best.

The listed passage starts out by telling us that Jesus’ family was worried about him. It seems from the way the story is told that word had reached Jesus’ family that he had become so consumed with his ministry that he wasn’t stopping to eat or rest. So some of the family (apparently his mother and brothers) came to look into the situation. The text in Mark says they were afraid that Jesus was “out of his mind.” But it’s a little hard to tell whether the family really thought Jesus was acting ‘crazy,’ or whether they feared he would ‘drive himself crazy’ if he didn’t start taking care of himself.

After this part about Jesus’ family, the story shifts gear a little. Mark tells us that some of the Jewish religious leaders had come down from Jerusalem to look into what Jesus was doing and teaching, and these guys declared that Jesus was actually possessed by the devil. They said this was why Jesus was able to drive out demons.

It’s interesting that these two ideas show up next to one another here – the ideas of mental illness and demonic possession. I say it’s interesting because the line between the two was pretty blurry in the ancient world. Most people back then had no real concept of mental illness. As far as they were concerned, any mentally ill person was possessed by a demon. It seems quite possible that many of those who are described in the gospels as possessed by demons were really victims of mental illness. (That’s not to say there weren’t some actual cases of demonic possession. In some cases demons spoke to Jesus, and knew his true identity even before the disciples did. Mental illness doesn’t give you that kind of spiritual and supernatural knowledge.)

So why would the leaders accuse Jesus of being ‘in league with demonic powers?’ He had been preaching out of the scriptures and healing the sick and disabled. Why would that cause the leadership to declare him to be possessed by the devil?

It seems possible that the Jewish leaders were just cynically trying to think up something serious to accuse Jesus of. (Obviously, people do that to their enemies all the time. Just watch the news.) But it also seems possible to me that these Jewish leaders were making a mistake that people in power often make: They had come to think of themselves as ‘the good guys,’ so anyone who stood in their way might have seemed evil to them.

Of course, once the Jewish leaders accused Jesus of being in league with the devil, he points out the logical flaw in their accusation: If Satan was going to give someone power, he wouldn’t give that power so it could be used against his minions. And Jesus adds a little parable where he likens Satan to a strong man, and says that the only way a strong man’s house can be robbed is if an even stronger man comes in and ties him up. Jesus’ point seems to be that as God in human form, he is strong enough to overpower Satan.

Then Jesus says something that a lot of Christians find a little disturbing: He says that all sins can be forgiven except the sin of blaspheming against the Holy Spirit. Lots of Christians read that and they’re afraid they might have ‘blasphemed against the Holy Spirit’ without knowing it. Not to worry, I think. Most scholars seem to think Jesus meant to specifically address the Jewish leaders’ accusation that the healings and other works of the Holy Spirit were actually works of evil powers. It’s not likely the average follower of Jesus will accidentally ‘blaspheme against the Holy Spirit.’

Then the passage gets back to Jesus’ mother and brothers. They come asking to see him, and they send in a messenger. But Jesus responds by saying that all those around him are actually his family. At first blush, that sounds pretty dismissive of his family. But I think that misreads the passage. Jesus seems to have maintained close ties with his family. His mother and at least two of his brothers seem to have been involved in his ministry. Mary was there at the cross, and his brother James was one of the leaders of the movement after Jesus ascended to heaven.

It seems to me the real point Jesus was making wasn’t one of dismissing his biological family, but rather that all those who followed him in seeking and doing God’s will were members of his ‘spiritual family.’ That’s a principle we remember each time we celebrate the Lord’s Supper.

OK, so like I said, this is a complicated passage. But even though it makes a few twists and turns, it’s one that sheds some light on how his enemies attacked Jesus, how he turned aside their attacks, and the great promise we have that as his followers, we’re considered members of his own family.

Let’s pray. Lord, we thank you that in Jesus, you stood up to the vested interests who found you threatening, and that in him, you were strong enough to break the power of Satan and begin taking back what he had stolen. We thank you, also, that you have opened your own family to all who follow him in seeking and doing your will. Amen.

Blessings,
Henry

(The other readings for today are Psalms 91 and 145; Genesis 42:1-17; and I Corinthians 5:1-8.)

When Achievement Becomes “Rubbish”

Worship Study Prayer

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Philippians 3:4b-11

No Confidence in the Flesh

   If anyone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.

     7 But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. 10 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.

Today’s epistle passage continues the series from Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. And in this passage, Paul reflects on his achievements before becoming a follower of Jesus and being chosen by God as the leading missionary to the gentile world.

You might remember that before Jesus confronted him on the road to Damascus, Paul had been one of the most respected leaders in the Jewish religious establishment of his day. In today’s reading, he recites some of his qualifications. He was descended from a long line of Hebrews and a member of a prestigious tribe – the tribe of Benjamin. Paul was also a member of the Pharisees, which was a group of Jews who pledged to obey the law of God as strictly as possible.

But Paul’s credentials even went beyond what’s listed in this passage. What Paul doesn’t say here is that he was a student of the great Jewish scholar Gamaliel, so he was considered to have about the best education it was possible for a young Hebrew to get.

Paul was also a citizen of the Roman Empire, which was fairly rare for Jews of his time. The New Testament scholars say he seems to have been trained in Greco-Roman rhetoric, because his speeches and letters have the kind of structure taught in that discipline. Those speeches and letters also show that Paul had a pretty good background in Greek philosophy – good enough that he could use principles of that philosophy in his ministry among the Greeks.

On top of all that, Paul had been the leader of the Jewish persecution of the followers of Jesus. In the early years of the movement, most of those who followed Jesus were Jews, and most of them continued to observe the religious traditions of their people. Historians believe many of them went to the Jewish synagogues on Saturday and then participated in Christian worship on Sundays. Because they continued to practice the Jewish faith, the followers of Jesus were vulnerable to Jewish authorities.

Although Roman law applied throughout the area, the Romans allowed the Jewish leaders to enforce discipline within the synagogues. That meant Paul and the other Jewish leaders could throw Christians out of the synagogues, or even have them lashed or imprisoned. They could spread the word among Jewish congregations not to do business with followers of Jesus and harass them in other ways. And while the Jews weren’t technically allowed to execute people, if a Jewish mob occasionally stoned followers of Jesus, the Romans weren’t about to get too worked up about it. That’s what happened to Stephen, and while that stoning apparently wasn’t an ‘official action’ of the Jewish leadership, Paul stood by and watched the coats of the mob who killed Stephen.

So the point is that Paul was pretty much a big shot among the Jewish leaders of his day.

But now, Paul says, having encountered Jesus and become one of his most devoted disciples, he regards all those achievements of his former life as so much ‘rubbish.’ In addition to coming to a deep, personal faith in Jesus, Paul has also experienced a major change in his thinking. He no longer believes that he can accomplish ‘a righteousness of his own,’ by observing the law and following Hebrew practices and rituals. Now, Paul says, he has become convinced that his only way of being righteous in God’s eyes is by faith in Jesus.

Paul also believes that the ultimate source of Jesus’ great power is not his wisdom as a teacher (as great as that wisdom obviously was) but rather his suffering and death on the cross. And Paul expresses a longing to share in those sufferings, because that will allow him to share in Jesus’ resurrection, as well.

For those of us who are trying to follow Jesus 2,000 years later, it seems to me that Paul’s teaching – and his example – call us to embrace two ideas.

The first is that trying to achieve a level of righteousness through our own ‘religiosity’ is a waste of time. And not only a waste of time, but also dangerous. When we fall in love with our own ideas about what a righteous person should do and not do, we can end up failing to recognize real righteousness because it doesn’t match our preconceived notions. It’s important to remember that all the Jewish leaders who demanded Jesus’ crucifixion did it because they believed they were serving God and promoting righteousness. But they had come to mistake their own customs for real righteousness. That can happen among Christians, just as it did among the Jews of Jesus’ day.

The second important idea here is that as followers of Jesus, sharing in his righteousness means being willing to share in his sufferings. Almost none of us will be called to the same kind of suffering Jesus himself experienced. But if our lives don’t include any real and meaningful sacrifices for the sake of our discipleship, then we should probably ask ourselves whether God is going to regard that discipleship as real. If our discipleship doesn’t cost us anything, it’s probably not going to allow us to share in the righteousness of Jesus.

Let’s pray together: Lord, take away our desire to achieve righteousness by doing and saying religious things. Help us instead to follow Jesus more and more closely so that we can share in the true righteousness that comes only from him. Amen.

Blessings,
Henry

(The other readings for today are Psalms 5 and 51; Amos 5:6-15; and Luke 18:9-14.)

Launching an Earth Stewardship Action Network (and some steps YOUR church could consider)

Caring for Our Environment, Serving Those in Need

By Keith Mills

Our new Earth Stewardship Action Network has been given a mission of earth care and earth justice, and everyone in our Presbytery is invited to participate in this ministry in some way. Our intention is to be both faithful and practical; a specific example follows.

At a Presbytery of the Western Reserve meeting in early 2016, a vote was taken on a potential General Assembly overture that PC(USA) not divest from fossil fuel company investments, believing this move would be counter-productive and divisive. That motion carried, but with the strong recommendation that PCUSA congregations take action to reduce their carbon emissions, specifically though energy efficiency and renewable energy sources.

Therefore, all Presbytery of the Western Reserve congregations are invited to commit to decreasing annual building energy use by at least 10% over time. This is a win/win path that reduces church utility spending — which can be redirected to missions, programs and staff — and reduces our pollution emissions. One justice issue around air pollution is its link to poverty: pollution tends to most dramatically affect low income neighborhoods, as inner city rates of asthma and COPD are among the highest in North East Ohio.

Reducing energy use starts with simply turning off church lighting and equipment when not in use. Each church can restrict hours the building is open, by, for example, closing the church on one night.  Upgrading at least 80% of church lighting to LEDs and using motion sensors over time is recommended, as these investments fairly quickly result in reducing lighting costs. Using setback thermostats reduces heating and cooling costs when the building is unoccupied. Finally, tracking energy use over a period of time helps to confirm that we have actually reduced energy use, and takes weather differences into account.

This path has been followed by many congregations across the country, and is both faithful and practical.   A proposal to Committee on Outreach, if and when approved, will provide monetary grants for congregations who commit to moving along the energy reduction path. Any congregation can start small, installing 5-10 LED bulbs at a time.   Energy efficiency project loans for larger projects are available through PCUSA.

Please contact the Earth Stewardship Action Network at earthstewardship@preswesres.org if you would like to share an earth stewardship example that you are passionate about, or if you have questions for (or would like a visit from) one of our Network members.

Every blessing,
Keith Mills