Friday, October 31, 2008

Trunk or Treat

Tonight, we had the annual Halloween event known as Trunk or Treat at our church. Several members of our church decorate the trunks of their cars and fill them with candy for the kids from the neighborhood and from our church to enjoy as they trick or treat. We decorated and handed out candy from the foyer and hallway as well.

You can see the line up of trunks on the right. The trunk above on the left certainly won for the scariest. It was on the bed of Jim Wade's truck with only his hands exposed beyound the sheet. He lay motionless waiting for an unexpecting victim to reach in the bowl for some candy at which time he would reach out and grab them. There was one blood curdling scream loud enough to be heard inside the church.

There were a variety of costumes, some of which were camera shy and became bowl heads.

One of my personal favorites was Jordan Hendricker's costume. He was ME! You can see him here with jacket and tie and Bible in hand. And in case you can't read it, that name tag says "Rev. David Young (NO - I'm not still in college)".

Jess and I were pirates for Halloween and Hannah was our pirate monkey. However, by the time we got home, she had developed into a full blown pirate herself.

Now to preparing to preach my sermon all in "pirate". "Aye matey, make Jesus ye capin' or ye will find ye self adrift at sea. Ayyyeee!!!

Monday, October 27, 2008

A Prayer for Vindication

"Vindicate me, O God, and plead my case against an ungodly nation" begins Psalm 43. This is an entreaty in the courtroom of God by one who has been abused and neglected. To use modern courtroom parlance, the Psalmist calls upon God to be both lawyer (plead my case) and judge (the word translated "vindicate" means to judge). The Psalmist trusts that God will intervene and uphold justice as a righteous judge by finding in favor of the Psalmist and thereby defending him against the attacks of his enemies. In v.3, the Psalmist asks God to send out God's light and truth, as if they are the ones who will carry God's verdict into the world, as if they are the messengers of God's just verdict. This is turn leads the Psalmist to worship God and to have his hope in God revived because he trusts that God will be the righteous judge who will vindicate him against his enemies.

Of course, the image of God as judge carries very different connotations for most 21st century Americans. In our history, it has often been an image used to scare people into believing in God. We are reminded that we hang but by a single weak strand over the fires of hell as "sinners in the hands of angry God". The image of God as judge evokes wrathful images of a God who is eager to violently punish sinners and is only kept from doing so by the violent death of his son.

But this is not what this image meant to the people of Israel. The image of God as a righteous judge was a hopeful image because it meant that the weak and disadvantaged would not be mistreated and abused. Due to God's righteousness, he would not side with the rich and powerful as so many human judges always did. God would defend the cause of the oppressed against the ungodly. Righteous judgment, therefore, means liberation and deliverance from oppression.

The extent to which we fail to see this scriptural image of God as judge and deliverer is testament to the extent that we have failed to understand the social and political dimensions of the gospel. God wants us to seek his justice for our world. The inclusion of this Psalm in the Psalter shows that we can even challenge God on the matter. The Psalmist is an example for us of how we might boldly call upon God to enact his justice in our world. However, it is worth explicitely stating here that is must be his justice and not our own poor attempts at mere retribution. Truly placing our hope in God means that we will live justly but it does not mean that we will violently impose our understanding of justice on others. The Psalmist offers his bold prayer and then allows God's light and truth to lead him back to worship. Likewise, we must continually pray for God's justice to become a reality in our world and allow God's light and truth to lead us to worship him as we patiently await his justice in our world.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Firmly Planted Tree or Wind Blown Chaff?

The righteous faithful or wicked sinners. Blessed or not. A tree firmly planted by streams of water or chaff which is blown away by a simple breeze. Such is the contrast of Psalm 1. And it is not only a contrast of this first Psalm. This is a contrast common to the Psalms as a whole as this Psalm serves as a sort of introduction to the entire Psalter. It is even a contrast common to much of Scripture.

And yet this contrast bothers me. It bothers me because it seems entirely too black and white for the world in which we live. It seems too simple and straightforward to account for my every day experience in this world. Can we really split people into two basic categories; the righteous and the wicked? Doesn't that seem a bit extreme? It seems to me that we encounter varying levels of righteousness in every person we meet whoever they might be. I even find varying levels of righteousness and wickedness within myself from day to day. This simple black and white division of the world between the righteous and the wicked is certainly appealing in some ways. After all, life would be much simpler if everyone just had a sign to designate them as one or the other. This would help tremendously in knowing who we could trust and who we couldn't. But, of course, life just isn't that simple since there seems to be some saint and sinner in each of us.

This contrast also bothers me because it sounds like exactly the kind of assumption that Jesus continually worked against in his own earthly ministry. As the gospels tell the story, it seems that Jesus repeatedly encountered the assumption that misfortune in life (the opposite of the blessedness described in this Psalm) was the result of one's sin. It seems that Jesus' contemporaries were constantly trying to separate the clean and holy from the unclean and unholy. Jesus, on the other hand, seems to be constantly destroying such a simplistic division between righteous and unrighteous. Instead of separating holy from unholy, Jesus continually points out the unholiness of those who think themselves holy and continually goes to those who are seen as unholy and makes them holy. Furthermore, this kind of simplistic attitude which Jesus challenged in his own day seems to be the root of much of the Church's troubles today. When we divide people into the righteous and the wicked, it leads to an arrogance and complaceny among those who considers themselves righteous as well as an animosity or at least condescendence toward those considered wicked. Certainly, these are attitudes which sound very little like those of Christ Jesus.
And yet...

This Psalm speaks a truth that every person who has ever walked with God and meditated on God's instruction knows to be true. There is, indeed, blessing and delight in the law of God, in living the life to which God calls us. Living in God's will firmly roots our lives and places us beside streams of life that sustain us in a way that nothing else can. It does this in a way that is almost inexplicable. It is not that living the life of righteousness guarantees that you will become healthy, wealthy, and wise. But blessedness should also not be relegated to simply a feeling or emotion. There is something real and concrete about God's blessing and yet it is not easily quantifiable by most of the standards that our world uses to measure things.

Perhaps if we see blessedness through the lense of Jesus' life, we will see that even God's blessing can sometimes lead us to the cross. Perhaps we will be less likely to so quickly separate people into the categories of righteous and sinner, seeing that the cross of Christ somehow represents an unexpected uniting of the fates of the righteous and the sinner. Perhaps Psalm 1 can be an invitation to the sinner in each of us to allow God's rightesouness to grow in us so that we might delight in God's law day and night, so that we might be a tree firmly transplated by streams of water, rather than chaff that is blown away in the wind. Perhaps the way of the wicked in each of us can perish even from our own lives which will in itself be a blessing as we anticipate the day when all wickedness will be eliminated from our world. Psalm 1 simultaneously offers an honest portrait of the destructive patterns of our world but contrasts it with an image of what life lived in God's grace can be.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Some Civility and Comedy in Politics

Here are some clips of our presidential candidates setting aside their politics to laugh at themselves and each other. Enjoy!

Monday, October 13, 2008

Fall Fun

A New Song of God's Reign

Psalm 96, like so many psalms, is a call to worship. Repeatedly, its verses call upon Israel and all of creation to sing the praises of Yahweh. Specifically, this new song of praise is to proclaim the good news of God's salvation, to tell of God's glory, and to speak of God's wonderful deeds. All of creation is called upon to worship the Lord because of his unspeakable and unmatchable greatness. Yahweh is proclaimed as the one true God while all other so called gods are nothing but empty idols, "old rags" by one commentators translation. According to Psalm 96, Yahweh is so great that splendor and majesty are not only adjectives used to describe God; they "are before him" (v. 6) as if splendor and majesty were themselves servants of God, preparing the way before him.

This new song of praise is due to God not only because of God's own greatness and majesty but also because of his reign. V. 10 reads "Say among the nations "The Lord reigns; indeed, the world is firmly established, it will not be moved; he will judge the peoples with equity." It seems that the Psalmist sees Yahweh's reign as being connected with the very stability of the creation as well as the upholding of justice. The last verses of the Psalm then call upon specific parts of creation to sing praise to the Lord because God "will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples in His faithfulness." This Psalm boldly proclaims the establishment of justice and equality in accordance with God's righteousness and faithfulness as a foundational piece of what it means for God to reign.

This psalm also appears in 1 Chronicles 16:23-33 as a part of a larger psalm of thanksgiving. In that context, the psalm serves to give thanks for the arrival of the Ark of the Covenant in Jerusalem. The Ark had been a symbol of God's continuing presence with Israel and now David had brought the Ark to Jerusalem as a sign of God's presence in David's capital city. Therefore, in the context of 1 Chronicles, this psalm is connecting, at least to some extent, the reign of God with David's reign as king. Although David and all of Israel would have continued to affirm God's reign in all the world apart from David's kingship, the establishment of David's reign in Jerusalem was in some very real ways the manifestation of God's reign. It was up to David to continue to seek God and to seek God's justice and equality in the land of Israel. It was through David's just and equitable reign that God's reign of righteousness and faithfulness would become a reality. That is largely the role of the Messiah, God's annointed, which David was; to bring God's peace and justice to earth.

This Psalm, especially as it relates to David, is once again significant as we think about Jesus. Similar to last week's Psalm, we can see how this Psalm and others like it could have served to shape Jesus' understanding of his own life and mission as well as the early church's understanding of who Jesus was. I am not suggesting that the author of psalm 96 or Asaph (in 1 Chronicles) were setting out to write about Jesus, a future messiah, in some kind of prescriptive way. Asaph does not at all seem to be concerned about a messiah that would come hundred of years later since God's anointed one is already standing before him in the person of David. Instead, I imagine that Jesus, being made aware by the Holy Spirit that he was on a messianic mission, would have found insight into his own mission by reading Psalms like this one. Just as David's reign was seen as the manifestation of God's reign on earth, so also Jesus would come to see his own mission as the manifestation of the kingdom of God. This is, in fact, precisely how Matthew and Mark sum up Jesus' proclamation "Repent, for the kingdom of God (just another way of saying God's reign) is near." Jesus' life and ministry and especially his death did not at all appear as kingly as David's reign did but like David Jesus' presence is the manifestation of God's reign on earth. This reality is indeed worthy of a new song of praise.

Monday, October 6, 2008

A Banquet in Death's Shadow

This week I will be preaching from one of the most familiar passages in all of Scripture: Psalm 23. Of course, for most of us this Psalm is heard most often (for some, exclusively) in the context of funerals. This is an appropriate setting for this Psalm since it speaks of not being afraid in the valley of death's shadow because God is with us and comforts us. The imagery of the Psalm itself is comforting as it paints the picture of a place filled with life and tranquility, green pastures and quiet waters.
Despite the appropriateness of these words for times of tragedy, this passage should not be relegated to those circumstances alone. The steadfast trust and confident hope that the Psalmist exhibits in this passage is one that should characterize every aspect of the life lived with trust in God. The heart of this passage is not so much the Christian response to tragedy, as it is an appropriate metaphor for understanding who God is, even as we face the large and small calamities of life.

Our God is a shepherd, that is, one who defends us and cares for us in ways that we can not even understand. He is one that leads us to places of life and peace. God is continually turning us (that is the root meaning of the word translated "restore" in v.3), guiding us down his path to proper relationships for his glory. At times those paths may even lead us into death's shadow, as they did for Jesus, but even then there is nothing to fear because God is with us and his rod and staff are more powerful than the things that threaten us. It seems, in verse 5, that even the valley of death's shadow does not prevent God from presenting a banquet so overwhelming in its extravagance that the Psalmist's cup overflows. If God can do this, then certainly God's goodness and faithful loving-kindness will always follow the Psalmist. Even when we find ourselves in a valley filled with fear, we are also, in some sense, in the house of the Lord, since his presence continues with us at all times just as the shepherd remains with his sheep.

This is one of the most remarkable things about Jesus' cross. It demostrates just how far God is willing to go to be with us; even through the valley of the shadow of death. In Jesus, the Psalmist's words about God take on flesh. Jesus celebrates a meal that represents the liberation of Israel even as his looming death on the cross casts its shadow over that meal. Jesus, the anointed one, is able to eat a meal in anticipation of the kingdom banquet even in death's shadow because his confidence and trust in the Father run deeper than any fear or pain this life can offer.