Bible Study — September 10 for Worship September 23

Bible Study – September 10 for Worship September 23

Mark 9:30  They went on from there and passed through Galilee. And he would not have any one know it;

31  for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of man will be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him; and when he is killed, after three days he will rise.”

32  But they did not understand the saying, and they were afraid to ask him.

33  And they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you discussing on the way?”

34  But they were silent; for on the way they had discussed with one another who was the greatest.

35  And he sat down and called the twelve; and he said to them, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.”

36  And he took a child, and put him in the midst of them; and taking him in his arms, he said to them,

37  “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.”

COMMENTARY

In ancient Israel so many children died of early childhood disease, the culture didn’t really begin to even count them as persons until they had gotten past the measles, the mumps, chicken pox, and survived to the age of 9 or 10.  When Jesus said to the disciples, “you must become as a little child,” he was not only referring to the issue of trust, trusting God like a little child, he was also the referencing the willingness to be a non-person in the eyes of hierarchical society.  The disciples struggled with this first and last business.  Even at the Last Supper they were arguing about who would become the Prime Minister in Jesus’ new government.

To place our story in context, Jesus and his disciples were returning to Capernaum after the transfiguration and the healing of the epileptic boy.  While they were on the road Jesus reminded the disciples for the third time they were going to Jerusalem for the Passover.  Jesus would be arrested and executed.  His followers couldn’t seem to hear him, because their imaginations were full of power and glory.  We should also note that on the road Jesus used the messianic title “Son of man.”   Son of man is a term used in the Hebrew scriptures varying from an ordinary human to a divinely appointed ruler.  References can be found in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel and some of the Psalms.  Most of the literature employing the term can be traced to the time of the exile or post-exilic work.

When the company arrived in Capernaum Jesus invited the disciples to join him in the house.  Jesus would not embarrass them in public, and he wanted an object lesson.  So he began with a question:  “What were you discussing on the road?”  As soon as they were confronted with the question, the disciples knew they had been caught.  So they remained silent.  Once again Jesus reiterated his teaching, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.”  Jesus was about servant leadership.

Leadership is for the purpose of serving the needs of others rather than self.  Too often we see leadership abused, leadership that is self-serving.  The Commonwealth of God inspires servant leaders, men and women who use their spiritual gifts to minister to the needs of others.

In the last line of the story Jesus commends his followers to embrace other people regardless of hierarchical status.  “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me. . .”  Once again Jesus bids us throw off the ways of the world where money, power and status count.   We are all children of God equally loved.  As our society becomes increasingly stratified by income and social status Jesus calls upon all those who follow him to subvert the system.  Come to the Sharing Table, where all are welcome and all are equal.

LET’S ASK SOME QUESTIONS OF THE TEXT

1. When the text reads, “they went on from there and passed through Galilee,” is it possible to determine where “there” was?

2. What prediction about his own fate did Jesus make on the road?

3. What do you think the title Son of man meant to Jesus’ disciples?

4. How do we know what the disciples were discussing on the road?

5. Where did Jesus question his disciples?

6. What did Jesus say about being first?

7. How did Jesus illustrate his point about status?

8. How old was the child?

9. What was the point of receiving a child?

LET’S ALLOW THE TEXT TO ASK QUESTIONS OF US

1. If you had been with the disciples and you heard Jesus say, “The Son of Man will be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him,” what would have been your impression of that statement?

2. Do you think anyone could have understood the additional statement, “and when he is killed, after three days he will rise?”

3. What do you think is the best interpretation of the term “Son of man” in our passage.

4. Have you ever found yourself “caught” be Jesus?

5. What do you think are the most important forms of hierarchy in our American society today?

6. For you what would be the best application of Jesus’ teaching “for anyone who would be first, he must be the last of all and the servant of all?”

7. What is your greatest challenge in becoming a “servant leader?”

8. How might the church be different, if the church took on the role of “servant leader?”

9. How has the status of children changed since the first century?

10. Do you think our culture still values children?

Week of September 17 – September 23:  Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost – Mark 9:30-37 – First in Caring – Wisdom of Solomon 1:16-2:1, 12-22, Jeremiah 11:18-20, Psalm 54, James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a.

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Wisdom and the Convergence of Science and Spirituality

Wisdom and the Convergence of Science and Spirituality

What is wisdom?  Is it common sense?  Is it academic smarts?  Is it a good business sense, or native shrewdness?  Solomon thought he was worldly wise, politically shrewd, and possessed a better than average business sense that helped him to become rich, but he failed in the wisdom department.  He failed to discern the spiritual dimensions of life that lead to true greatness.  He eliminated everyone who might challenge his power.  He had his older brother, Adonijah, executed.  Then Solomon ordered the commander of the army, Joab to be assassinated, while he was holding on to the horns of the altar in the Temple.  Some might say this was shrewd politics, but it set the tone for a dynasty that would end in murder and assassination.  He failed to discern the disastrous spiritual course he was setting for the Kingdom.

Solomon was also astute in foreign relations. He sealed treaties with the surrounding Kingdoms and Empires by marrying princesses from those royal courts. And when those foreign wives brought with them foreign gods Solomon was broadminded about allowing the worship of their idols in Jerusalem. Again he failed to discern how the behavior of the royal family would lead the rest of the nation into idolatry. Solomon also became vain, and in his ambition to build Jerusalem into a first class capital City, he employed forced labor and levied heavy taxes upon the tribes of the North. By the end of his reign the ten Northern tribes revolted, broke away from Jerusalem and set up their own rival Kingdom. Wisdom is as wisdom does. And so while Solomon was wise in worldly ways, he failed to discern true spiritual wisdom.

During September and October around the Sharing Table we will explore some of the convergences between science and spirituality that might lead to greater wisdom.  And this morning allow me to introduce the topic of consciousness.

One of the books I will be using is entitled, The Physics of Consciousness.   I have some excerpts from the book available this Sunday, and if you want a copy of the book it is available on Amazon.  The author, Evan Harris Walker, a physicist, postulates that consciousness is real, and he claims the reality of consciousness in the “observer” is the only reasonable solution to Bell’s Theorem.  I cannot enter into a complete explanation of Bell’s Theorem or Walker’s argument here, and let me acknowledge that his thesis is not universally accepted, however, the implication of the argument is that consciousness interacts with the physical world.  Consciousness is real.   Materialism the belief that only acknowledges physical objects as “real” misses the mark.  The world as it appears to our senses is not the truth of reality.

For instance the pews we are sitting in this morning appear to be solid.  Take your knuckles and rap on the wood — feels solid, sounds solid.  But that solid wood is made up of billions and billions of atoms, and the atoms are made of protons, neutrons and electrons.  And even within the atom there is more empty space than there are particles, and even those particles are made up of still smaller things until all we really have is energy.  Matter is made of energy, and consciousness is energy.  Is it possible that our prayers as well as our pews are real?  And if consciousness interacts with the physical world, then maybe we can listen again to Jesus:  “If you have faith you can say to this mountain move, and it will move.”  Jesus was using overstatement as a teaching tool, but maybe our imaginations and our prayers are more important than we might have supposed.  Is it possible that our prayers as well as our pews are real?

Several contemplative spiritual traditions including Christian mysticism have made the claim that at some fundamental level all things in the Universe are connected.  The Universe is one.  We are all part of one universal energy system.  Jesus said that if we are to find ourselves, we must be willing to lose ourselves, and I take that to mean that in order to find ourselves in relationship to the rest of the Universe, we have to be willing to make a change in consciousness and give up the illusion of the ego dominated “I,” (me, myself and I) that wants to see ourselves as separate and over against the rest of creation.

When we experience ourselves over against the rest of creation, we are led into four manifestations of false consciousness.  The first expression of false consciousness is that we must see others as competitors and enemies.   We relate to others with hostility and seek conflict rather than harmony and resolution.

Two brothers were left a large piece of property by their father.  For months they fought over how the land should be divided. Finally, they brought their problem to their rabbi and asked him to solve it.

“Come back tomorrow,” said the rabbi, “and we’ll talk.”

The next day the sons returned and the rabbi gave them his solution.

“Toss a coin,” he said to one of the brothers. “You call it, heads or tails,” he said to the other. “The one who

wins the toss, divides the land.”

“That’s no solution,” said one of the brothers. “We’re right back where we started from.”

“Not so,” said the rabbi. “The one who wins the toss divides the land; but the other gets first choice.”

Selfishness is another manifestation of the false consciousness that accompanies viewing ourselves over against the rest of creation.   The Gordon Gecko character in the film Wall Street was the pre-eminent example of the false consciousness of selfishness.

“The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good.  Greed is right, greed works.  Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit.  Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind.  And greed, you mark my words, will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA.”

A corollary to the false consciousness of greed is the need to accumulate – to accumulate because there is never enough.   If I am over against the rest of creation, then I will not share, and there is never enough.   I must continually accumulate against the day, when there may not be enough.  In the Parable of the Rich Fool Jesus points out the foolishness of accumulation:  “‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’  So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.”

Perhaps the most dangerous manifestation of our false consciousness is our exploitation and destruction of our environment.   If we are going to survive on this planet, we need to discern how to live in harmony with the earth.  Our environment is not a thing, an object to be exploited, rather we are part of the very ecosystem we inhabit — a living breathing organism.  If we cannot learn to live sustainably, we will become extinct.

Despite our numbers we human beings need to begin to think of ourselves as an endangered species – endangered by our own false consciousness.  Jared Diamond in his classic study, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, documents how civilizations in the past have undone themselves by living unsustainably.  I take this as a very clear warning for our consumer economy and the whole world.  Our environment is a living, breathing, fragile organism, which can only tolerate so much abuse.  We are approaching a tipping point with climate change, over fishing, deforestation, overpopulation.  We may have even gone past the tipping point, and the world is in free fall already.  We just don’t know it yet.  We also threaten our own existence with nuclear weapons.  Unless we can re-orient our ego dominated over against the rest of creation consciousness to appreciate that we are a part of the whole, we are one, we will not survive.

Like Solomon we believe we are so smart, but we are not wise.  We are all connected.  We are all one.  That’s not socialism, it’s wisdom.  Jesus invites us to offer up self-consciousness in prayer and embrace Christ consciousness – God consciousness.

If we are going to find ourselves, we must be willing to lose ourselves, and in the process we might save ourselves and the whole world withus. 


Shaping Community

Shaping Community

Despite all of the mythology about Woodstock, and the current buzz about on-line societies and virtual groups, community doesn’t just happen – at least not face to face communities. The fabric of relationships requires time, care and attention. After all 90% of life is showing up. When everyone is feeling good about a group, little effort is required to maintain it. Over time, however, love, understanding, listening, forgiveness, honest sharing, and careful monitoring of gossip and back biting are all necessary to keep a faith community healthy and whole. The reward for sustaining honest committed relationships are a covenant community where people pray with and for each another, sustaining one another in illness, grief, and disappointment, working to share in the mission of Jesus Christ in the world and sharing the joys and triumphs of life. We are not alone. God is with us in community.

I am sometimes mystified by the number of people who express annoyance over the amount of energy and care necessary to nurture and sustain life in community. People seem to believe it should just happen. Sort of like they should be able to come together for Worship, and everyone will get along and like one another and agree with one another, because after all it is about God. And God is supposed to make regular deposits in the church’s checking account, and food is supposed to magically appear on Sunday mornings, along with new members. That’s like believing that people should be able to recite their marriage vows or form a partnership, and then live happily ever after without doing anything to sustain the association. Any worthwhile relationship requires an emotional invest of time, energy and commitment in order to survive over time.

I was reminded of the importance of communication by a story. While attending a marriage seminar on communication Tom and his wife Peg listened to the instructor declare, “It is essential that husbands and wives know the things that are important to each other.”

He addressed the men, “Can you describe your wife’s favorite flower?”

Tom leaned over, touched his wife’s arm affectionately and whispered, “Pillsbury All Purpose, isn’t it?”

The rest of the story is not pleasant.

Or consider the story of a couple who were driving down a country road for several miles, not saying a word.

An earlier discussion had led to an argument and neither of them wanted to concede their position. As they passed a barnyard of mules, goats, and pigs, one of them asked sarcastically, “Relatives of yours?”

“Yep,” the other replied, “in-laws.”

Any worthwhile human relationship requires an emotional investment, and that is also true of faith communities. So how do we invest in our relationships in the church?

First, showing up! A face to face community means we have to show up. I know we are all busy. Many of us travel for work, or take Sabbath weekends away. And we can use e-mail, texting, Facebook, and other virtual means of communication, but followers of Jesus are intended to be the Body of Christ. We have to be embodied with one another to do that – we have to show up! Please continue to e-mail, text or call in prayer requests, when you cannot be here on Sunday morning, but show up at least once in a while, to pray with and for your brothers and sisters in Christ.

Showing up also reminds me of the importance of showing up with God, daily. That daily prayer time is important in our relationship with God, and in our relationships with one another. We share a connection with the divine, and when we are all praying something happens that is larger than any one of us and all of us together. Attending to our daily need for prayer is another way we can nurture our relationships in the Body of Christ. If I am praying for someone on a regular basis, prayer changes my relationship with that person. When I pray for someone regularly it is hard to harbor negative thoughts and feelings about that person, and in prayer God will encourage me to seek to resolve that relationship. So the second way we can nurture the Body of Christ is by showing up in prayer.

The third way we can nurture our relationships in the church is by sharing food – the Bread of Life. Jesus made the center piece of worship for his followers the act of sharing food. The early church insured that everyone would be fed by holding a daily meal where, people were fed and the life and love of Jesus were remembered – do this, eat, in remembrance of me. I believe it is unfortunate we have divorced the celebration of communion from a communal meal. A sip of grape juice and a cube of wonder bread while we are looking at the backs of other people’s heads, does not engender the same feeling of community, when people are sitting down together at a table eating and facing one another. Next Sunday we will celebrate our summer communion, and I will again ask everyone to form a circle, because if we can at least look into each other’s eyes, we can celebrate the presence of Christ in each other as well as the circle of caring.

The Sharing Table on Thursday evenings is another time we come together to eat, study, pray, and share the Lord’s Supper around the Sharing Table. Anyone who shows up is fed. Jesus invites us to the Sharing Table – the lived expression of the commonwealth of God in this world. We are becoming the followers of Jesus, his Body on earth.

The fourth way we nurture our relationships in community is by communicating. Paul in our scripture was writing about face to face communication in community. Speak the truth with your neighbor. Go ahead and be angry with one another, but work it out before the sun goes down. Work it out face to face. Don’t give opportunity to the devil by going home and calling five other people to talk about the person with whom you disagree. Don’t invite Satan into your fellowship by sending out angry e-mails about one another. Don’t promote gossip by claiming confidentiality and then secretly talking about other people behind their backs. Paul was talking about communication, because people had been triangulating one another, and gossiping about each other, and failing to communicate honestly with each other from the very beginning of the church. Why? Because we are human, and living in community, and sustaining those relationships is difficult. Communicating constructively in community is hard. Get used to it. In the end like in a good long term relationship the results are worth the investment.

The fifth way we can enhance our relationships in community is by seeking to claim a common purpose. Developing a common commitment to a mission within an organization is always a challenge, and it is especially difficult in a community as diverse as United Church. No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey allows for diversity, but it makes the development of a common sense of mission difficult.

This last week I was attending a conference in Atlanta about applying the concept of Return on Investment to not for profit organizations including churches. Two challenges for companies are to figure out what business they are in, and to decide what measures of results they will apply to their business.

A good example of how a company can misunderstand what business they are in is Western Union. The leadership of the company thought they were in the telegraph business, rather than the communication business. When the telephone came along, and then the internet, Western Union missed out on the greatest business opportunities of their time. Churches who think they are in the business of providing church the way we have always done it, will likely miss the future, and go the way of the International Buggy Whip Corporation.

The problem of deciding how a business measures results, can be seen in companies that fail to invest in their future, because they are too closely focused on the bottom line. Profit and loss are important measures, but not the only measures of success, especially for the future health of the company. Market share, new product development, employee morale, customer loyalty, good will, are all important factors in the future profitability of an enterprise. Pinching pennies until the creativity is squeezed out of the organization will ultimately lead to failure.

One of the problems organizations face in choosing data to measure the return on their investments of time, energy and money is defining the purpose of the organization. If a church is unable to focus on a mission statement defining its purpose, then there can be no agreement on the measures of success or failure. For instance if one group focuses on an outwardly driven mission, while another group is focused on providing services to members, there will be no agreement on the measures of the return on the investment. So we often become disappointed and burned out, because the effort to sustain the community doesn’t seem worth it. I want to encourage our Moderator Greg Kamback to continue working on the visioning and planning process, because if we can ever come to an agreement about the mission of our community of faith, we will begin to experience greater satisfaction in the results we will see for our investment of time, energy and money.

Community doesn’t just happen. It has to be encouraged, shaped, and nurtured with care. As we embrace the mission of Jesus Christ in the world, we become the Body of Christ, and we are not alone. God is with us in community.


Bread of Life

Bread of Life

Our scripture this morning is part of the larger narrative of the feeding of the multitude. If we try to separate the statement, “I am the bread of life,” from the sharing of the loaves and fish, we will miss the point of Jesus’ metaphor.

According to John the feeding of the multitude occurred just before the Feast of the Passover, probably at least a year before Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem. The association of the feeding of the multitude with the Passover is to remind us of the Last Supper, and the early church’s practice of connecting with the living power of Jesus by gathering at the Sharing Table. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of the Sharing Table in the life of the early followers of Jesus. The setting for the feeding of the multitude was in Galilee.

Large crowds were following Jesus hoping to get a glimpse of a miracle, a healing, looking for a sign, something spectacular, more than listening to what Jesus was trying to teach. John tries to help us understand that one of the problems of working miracles is that people will follow you for the wrong reasons. They are looking for the next magical trick, the next dazzling performance, rather than listening and learning the truth about, forgiving, sharing, loving, living in community – the miracle that love heals.

The feeding of the multitude was like the sharing table. Everyone who was hungry was fed, because they shared. In the story before Jesus blessed the five barley loaves and the two dried fish, he told his disciples, “Make the people sit down.” When people are behaving like hogs at the trough, some folks will gorge themselves while others will go away empty. Sharing is about making sure everyone gets enough – not more than they need but enough. “Give us this day our daily bread – not tomorrow’s bread or next week’s bread but enough for today. So what Jesus was trying to help the people learn was sharing and enough.

That reminds me of a story about the two authors Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller. They were attending a party on Shelter Island, a private island, given by a Billionaire Hedge Fund Manager. Looking around at all of the lavish facilities, luxurious food and exotic entertainments Kurt Vonnegut asked Joseph Heller, “Joe how do you feel, when we think that our host made more money in a single day, than you’ve made on your book Catch – 22?

Heller thought for a moment and replied, “It’s o.k., because I have one thing he will never have.”

“What’s that?”

“Enough.”

Jesus wants us to understand enough, because when we learn the meaning of “enough,” then we are able to share – not trickle down, but really share, giving to others so they might have enough. There is sufficiency for everyone’s need, but not for everyone’s greed. Live simply, so that others may simply live. The Commonwealth of God becomes a reality in our midst, when we learn to share.

But very much like today, the people of the Galilee of the First Century were looking for a sign, a leader who would do it all for them, who would supernaturally lead them in throwing the hated Romans out of their home land. Look at John 6:14-15:

After the people saw that everyone had been fed, they began to say, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.”  Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.

The people just didn’t get it. “Let’s make him the leader, and then everyone can be fed.” They didn’t get it. It’s not the leader, it’s the sharing and love that bring the Commonwealth of God into the present moment. It’s the sharing that makes enough possible.

After Jesus slipped away from the people he made his way by night back to Capernaum. When the people came to Capernaum looking for him, he said to them: John 6:26 “Truly, truly I say to you, you seek me not because you learned to share and have enough, you seek me because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not labor for food that perishes, but food that endures for eternal life – love, faith, hope, community.” These are the signs of the Commonwealth of God.

Because Jesus embodied the love of God, we can say, Jesus is the bread of life. But if all we do is say, “Jesus is the Bread of Life”, if all we do is praise Jesus without learning to come to the sharing table, without learning the meaning of enough, without learning to give to others and embrace the way of Jesus in community, then we have missed the bread of life – the Commonwealth of God.

I ran across a story about sharing.  A young man saw a very elderly couple sitting down to lunch at McDonald’s. He noticed that they had ordered one meal, and an extra drink cup.  As he watched, the gentleman carefully divided the hamburger in half, then counted out the fries, one for him, one for her, until each had half of them.  Then he poured half of the soft drink into the extra cup and set that in front of his wife.  The old man then began to eat, and his wife sat watching, with her hands folded in her lap.
The young man decided to ask if they would allow him to purchase another meal for them so that they didn’t have to split theirs.
The old gentleman said, “Oh no. We’ve been married 50 years, and everything has always been and will always be shared, 50/50.”
The young man then asked the wife if she was going to eat, and she replied, “It’s his turn with the teeth.”

Maybe there are some things we don’t need to share. If we are going to make it on this increasingly crowded planet, however, we all need to follow Jesus to the Sharing Table. We need to recognize we are all in this together and stop screaming socialism every time we are encouraged to contribute to the common good.

And that reminds me, if you look in your latest copy of the Reflections there is an article from Sharon Youngkin about a critical need for monetary donations and volunteers to keep Meals on Wheels going in North Alabama. Let me share it with you.

Meals on Wheels currently delivers daily meals to 218 senior citizens in Huntsville, 35 in Madison and 50 people in New Sharon, New Market and New Hope. The support from its traditional volunteer and funding base is dwindling at a time, when Meals on Wheels needs to expand service to include rural Madison County. The Meals on Wheels Program has a yearly budget of $1.2 million, was down 15% – $11,000 – as of May in projected revenue from donations and fundraising. The approximately 550 volunteers, many who have served since the late 1970’s are getting older, and some can no longer make deliveries. So a new group of volunteers willing to deliver meals once a month are needed.

During this recession many churches have cut back their donations of money and volunteers. The program is in a crunch both for cash and volunteers. The City of Huntsville gives Meals on Wheels $325,225 a year, the Madison County Commission gives $43,379 and the Top of Alabama Regional Council of Governments donates $196,624. That still leaves $500,000 that needs to be raised from program revenues and fundraisers such as the Senior Expo in September.

Meals on Wheels is like the Sharing Table writ large. Not only does Meals on Wheels provide older partially disabled people a meal, it also provides someone check on them at least once a day. And that can make the difference to help people remain in their homes and avoid for themselves and society at large the expense of assisted living. In a time when Congress is talking aggressively about cutting Medicare, Medicaid and even Social Security, Meals on Wheels is an important form of community sharing a way of caring for one another with dignity.

I saw a cute story about a daughter who had just helped her 90-year-old mother through the strain of moving from the family home into a new unit in a senior apartment building.  The daughter was trying to tidy up all the arrangements and tactfully said: “Mom, what about Meals on Wheels?” To which her mother replied: “No, dear, I don’t think I could volunteer for them anymore.”

Meals on Wheels can only work, if there are volunteers – people willing to go out of their way to help other people. The Commonwealth of God becomes a reality in the present, when people are willing to go out of their way to help other people to the Sharing Table. “Do not labor for food that perishes, but seek the food that endures for eternal life – love, faith, hope, community.”