Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Songs of Israel: A Joyful Noise

Today’s Sermon Concludes the Sermon Series on the Psalms.

The sermon is an audio file but within the sermon is a link to a video. You can hear the video (a bit) on the audio file but my recommendation is to listen till I announce the video then watch the video, and go back to the audio file.

Text: Psalm 98

Psalm 98

1 O sing to the Lord a new song,
for he has done marvelous things.
His right hand and his holy arm
have gained him victory.
2 The Lord has made known his victory;
he has revealed his vindication in the sight of the nations.
3 He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness
to the house of Israel.
All the ends of the earth have seen
the victory of our God.

4 Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth;
break forth into joyous song and sing praises.
5 Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre,
with the lyre and the sound of melody.
6 With trumpets and the sound of the horn
make a joyful noise before the King, the Lord.

7 Let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
the world and those who live in it.
8 Let the floods clap their hands;
let the hills sing together for joy
9 at the presence of the Lord, for he is coming
to judge the earth.
He will judge the world with righteousness,
and the peoples with equity.

The Songs of Israel: A Joyful Noise

Audio File of Sermon

Video File

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

She Made it on Dr. Phil

A woman in Alaska was convicted of misdemeanor child abuse for squirting hot sauce in her adopted son’s mouth and putting him a cold shower as a punishment for lying. What made her story so public was that she had her daughter shoot a video of the entire thing and then sent to be on the Dr. Phil show. She was successful and the show aired last October. The video of her doing all of this went viral on You Tube, and outraged people reported her to the authorities.

People have debated about this. Lots of parents have been known to use the ‘soap in the mouth’ for lying or obscenities, etc. We’ve all laughed at the scene of Ralphie with the bar of soap in his mouth in the movie A Christmas Story, and didn’t find it outrageous. Many of said that a squirt of hot sauce was no worse. Others have argued that they’ve ordered food that was spicier than this. One can make all sorts of arguments about this.

There is, however, one issue that stands out. She sent the video to Dr. Phil. The punishment, it appears, was done in this manner to demonstrate that she was having difficulties with her child and that she wanted ‘help’ from Dr. Phil.

This one takes my breath away. Seriously.

Perhaps she does have legitimate difficulties with the rearing of her child. Maybe she is not really a bad Mom, but had an over the top day and perhaps she really does need assistance from a counselor. But she sent it to Dr. Phil because she wanted to be on her show. Just writing to the producers of the show saying she was looking to be on because of difficulties wasn’t enough. They needed a video of punishment. In fairness to them they didn’t say what kind of punishment, but her perception was that they needed something over the top. She provided something over the top and got on the show. I don’t know if Dr. Phil was helpful or not.

The disturbing part of this whole thing is that it is frighteningly reflective of a whole wave of issues. The show Survivor is one of the first ‘reality’ shows and it, from the beginning, was very unique. People were placed on a remote place and had to survive and win the game. It is unique and very different and, in its own way, very much a classic in television and is, in and of itself, pretty harmless.

But now there are shows based on heart break and degradation. All of the “Bachelor” shows have depicted deceit and seduction and manipulation in order to find a spouse. Rarely have these things worked out and often have people been hurt. And they’ve been hurt and humiliated on national television.

I don’t know if Dr. Phil is a good therapist or not. Oprah introduced him as one of her experts and he gave advice to people on her show. I found him pretty mean at times, but I’m not a therapist so I’ll withhold judgment.

Now he has his own show and people come on there and confess all sorts of things seeking help. And a woman from Alaska demonstrated her punishment technique on national television.

She was convicted of a crime. Her son is immortalized on You Tube being humiliated and punished not just in his own him, but for all the world to see. Dr. Phil’s ratings, however were good. And our society is eating it up. Humiliation is entertaining.

And that is, in and of itself, very sad.

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Songs of Israel: A Second Look at Familiar Words

The Songs of Israel: A Second Look at Familiar Words
Psalm 22
Rev. Dr. John E. Manzo
August 21, 2011

One day a man came home from work and walked into the kitchen. He saw the cat on the floor covered in red. He looked up and saw his wife who was holding a knife and also covered in red. His thoughts were dire....but then the cat stood up and began to walk across the room....

His wife explained that she was cutting vegetables for the salad and spilled a bowl of spaghetti sauce on herself and the cat. What the man thought he was looking at turned out to be something very different.

Which brings us to a scene in the Bible we are all very familiar with.

Jesus is dying on the cross and he says the words:

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

We read the words and presume something. Jesus appears to be saying he feels abandoned and forsaken by God. And it seems shocking.

Jesus could have fled Jerusalem or hidden, but he made no effort to flee and he made no effort to hide.

Jesus could have stood before Pilate and offered a defense, but he offered no defense. He even seemed to goad Pilate into crucifying him.

He professed his willingness to die and predicted that he would suffer and die.

So why is he professing a belief that God has abandoned him?

Or maybe he is not. What if he said these words:
All the ends of the earth shall remember
and turn to the Lord;
and all the families of the nations
shall Worship before him.
For dominion belongs to the Lord,
and he rules over the nations.

To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down;
before him shall bow all who go down to the dust,
and I shall live for him.
Posterity will serve him;
future generations will be told about the Lord,
and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn,
saying that he has done it.

Now, if Jesus had said these words we’d say, he was proclaiming that he was victorious and his death on the cross was a victory for God and him as the Savior of the world.

Which brings us to Psalm 22. This Psalm begins with the words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” and ends with the words I just read, “future generations will be told about the Lord, and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it.”

Jesus, as he hangs from the cross, is not professing a belief that God has abandoned him. In fact, it is quite the opposite. He is proclaiming citing a Psalm that begins with a sense that there is apparent defeat, but ends in triumph and victory. He is making a statement-----this death on the cross is not a defeat, but a triumph.

Psalm 22 is a victory Psalm. The words of Jesus on the cross are a direct reference to this Psalm.

Truthfully, we don’t always see that because we don’t know the words to all the Psalms. But ponder a moment:

If I said the words, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,” fill in the next line of words.

Or if I said, “Silent night, holy night,” fill in the next line of words.

Or if I said the words, “O beautiful for spacious skies,” fill in the next line of words.

They are songs and we know them. There are things we do each week that we do not need the words for. We pray the Lord’s Prayer each Sunday and the words are not printed in the bulletin. We know them. The Commission is printed in the bulletin but the majority of people do not read them. We know them.

When Jesus said these words from the cross the people around him would have known the words of the Psalm as well as we know the words of familiar hymns. Actually, they would have known them better. The average person did not read, they memorized. Every Jewish child would be taught the Psalms and would know how to sing every single Psalm in the Bible by heart.

So when Jesus said the words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” they would not have heard words of despair but would have known Jesus was declaring victory.

Which is why we have to have this second look at familiar words. Often what we think we are seeing may not be what is really there.

A second point that needs to be made is context. You probably read stories and have listened to sermons or gone to Bible studies and listened to me talk about ‘context.’

Here is what context is.

Perhaps you read a restaurant review.

“If your idea of a wonderful meal is eating canned ravioli that was burned, and canned green beans that were obviously on sale 10 cans for a dollar, then come to John’s Bistro for an amazing meal.”

So John’s Bistro advertises the next day quoting the restaurant review: “Come to John’s Bistro for an amazing meal.”

Or you read a movie review: “Adventures with John is one of the most tedious and boring movies ever made. John’s endless puns destroy any sense of enjoyment you can ever have. If your idea of a great evening is listening to bad puns and being bored, go see Adventures with John for a great time.”

And of course, the next day on an Adventures with John ad, it says, “Go see Adventures with John for a great time.”

One word. Context. Context is taking something and editing it or moving it, or using some words out of money, to make a point or prove a point.

The Bible is a library of books and songs, like the Psalms, that exist together in a coherent fashion. It is, however, not unusual for people to list a series of Bible verses, very often taken out of context to prove a point and demonstrate that this is what the Bible says. Often, however, if you put the verse back into the Bible, and read it as part of the larger whole, you see something else.

That’s the case with the words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” when spoken on the cross. Taken strictly by themselves we say Jesus feels abandoned by God. But placing them back into the context of where those words are originally found in Psalm 22, we find Jesus declaring victory from the cross instead of expressing abandonment. Context is important.

The last thing that needs to be said is this. With God there is always hope and there is always victory. God’s love always comes through and God’s love and goodness always win. Always.

The four Gospels can be very different from one another in many ways. They all, however, lead to the cross and seeming defeat-----and to the resurrection where there is the ultimate victory and the ultimate triumph.

The four Gospels mirror Psalm 22. From apparent defeat and abandonment by God, there is a proclamation of victory. There is always hope and even in death there is life.

These opening words of Psalm 22 are familiar words and many people do not know where they are from and what they mean. When taken in context they are triumphant and loving words of hope spoken when there is apparent despair. They are the ultimate reminder that as long as there is God, there is always love, and always hope, and always, ultimate triumph.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

The Songs of Israel: The Good Shepherd

The Songs of Israel: The Good Shepherd
Text: Psalm 23
Rev. Dr. John E. Manzo
August 7, 2011

One of the most beloved images in the Bible is the image of the shepherd. Shepherds pop up all over the place.

David, who was Israel’s most beloved king, started out as a shepherd.

Moses, after he fled Egypt was a shepherd.

Jesus called himself the ‘Good Shepherd.’

The word ‘Pastor’ is derived from the Greek word poimen which literally means ‘shepherd.’

And, of course, the most beloved Psalm of all is the 23rd Psalm where we say, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”

The image of God as our shepherd and Jesus as our good shepherd touches and warms our hearts immensely.

But it is a bizarre image. While we think of tranquil stained glass windows and church art showing Jesus holding a baby lamb or the shepherd in the field in the moonlight holding his shepherd’s staff, we often miss the reality of the shepherding profession. On the job status ladder, they were pretty much at the bottom rung of the ladder. We are talking dishwasher at the Waffle House kind of status. It is hard, honest work, but not one of great status.

Yet it’s an image that shows up repeatedly in the Bible and one we need to really look at with great seriousness. Shepherds give us a couple of very compelling images.

For one, this image of God reminds us that God is our guide.

Two men in a truck, neither one very bright, were passing through a small town. They came to an overpass with a sign which read, "Clearance: 11'3". They got out and measured their rig. It was 12'4" tall. As they climbed back into the cab, one of them asked, "What do you think we should do?" The driver looked around, then shifted into gear saying, "No police in sight. Let's take a chance."

Many people regard God as some kind of cosmic police officer whose rules are designed to cramp our style and cheat us out of good times. So if they get a chance to beat the rap, they go for it. But the opposite is really true. God is a loving shepherd who gives us guidance, and leads us from harm.

Think for a moment at the story of these two fools. Were they going to benefit? Their future was, obviously, going to be that their truck was going to get stuck under the overpass, they would tie up traffic for hours, they would receive citations, and ultimately be fired for their stupidity. The rule wasn’t there to restrict their lives as much as it was to keep them from harm.

The 10 Commandments, all those “Thou shalt nots” are seen as restrictive----and they are; but they aren’t because God is a cosmic police officer, but a guide who tries to keep us from getting into trouble.

For example. “Thou shalt not steal.”

Most people who steal learn this lesson. They find themselves in legal trouble, they lose jobs, they have criminal record, they often become estranged from families, and do great damage to their lives. The rule is there, more often than not, to protect people, often from themselves.

“Thou shalt not commit adultery,” is much the same. The oft running joke is that this is the commandment that is there to keep people from having fun----but it’s not a very funny joke. Many people who have committed adultery find that it has dramatically impacted their lives. Marriages are destroyed as, all too often, are families. Many women and children, after a divorce, have not been treated fairly and, sadly, there is a rising poverty rate amongst women and children following a divorce----and so many divorces come as a result of adultery.

It may be a rule, but it’s not a rule put there, by God, to keep us from having fun as much as to protect ourselves from ourselves.

Secondly, in dealing with the concept of God as our shepherd there is also the image of scarcity and abundance.

The United Church of Christ Scripture Scholar, Walter Bruggeman speaks to us about the beginning of this theme in the book of Genesis. The first 46 Chapters of Genesis speak to us about abundance, the creation and the abundance of God’s love, power, and grace. The, in Chapter 47, the Pharaoh begins to become stressed about famine and the idea of scarcity shows up in the Bible.

This conflict between scarcity and abundance works its way through much of the Bible.

Peter and Jesus walk on water. It’s a story about Jesus’ abundance of faith, and Peter’s scarcity of faith.

The multiplication of the loaves and the fishes; there appears to be a scarcity of food and Jesus makes it abundant.

The turning water into wine; there was a scarcity of wine and Jesus turned it into an abundance.

The idea of love and grace is a story of scarcity and abundance. Often God is viewed as one limits how much love God shares, yet grace teaches us that God’s love is abundant beyond our wildest imagination.

The story is much the same through the entire Bible. People see a scarcity where there really is an abundance.

In so many ways, the 23rd Psalm is a reminder, to us, of God’s amazing generosity, love, and sense of abundance to all of us.

In the first eleven days of November, this year, the United Church of Christ will embark on a project entitled Mission 1, which is an eleven day mission focus on feeding the hungry. It will be an opportunity for us to join with United Church of Christ congregations around the nation to provide abundance where there is a scarcity.

And today, as we gather at the table of the Lord, this Sacrament, Holy Communion, is a demonstration of abundance in an age of scarcity. Our Closing Hymn today, one of my favorites, reminds us It is a time to share a blessed meal, bread for the journey, to fill our hearts with God’s grace.

The 23rd Psalm is a Psalm that celebrate God’s guidance and celebrates the grace of God, leading us to safe places, and giving us the abundance of God’s love and grace.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

A Spiritual Crisis Perhaps?

Recently the nation went through the great debt limit debate. It was partisan and politically charged and angered the average person. Eventually the debt limit was raised with a bill that no one really like a great deal and everyone said was the best compromise possible. One can say there were winners and losers, but even the winners essentially have to deal with the fact that this was, at best, a Pyrrhic victory.

Let’s put the politics aside on this one, however, and look at something else. Is this perhaps a symptom of a spiritual crisis?

People are willing for there to be changes to Social Security, as long as those changes do not effect them.

People are willing for there to be cuts in Medicare, as long as those changes don’t effect them.

People are willing for taxes to be raised----on other people.

People are willing to cut Medicare for the poor until they learn that Medicare covers Mom in the nursing home and then they don’t want it to be cut any longer.

Entitlements, however they come to us, in terms of benefits from the government or tax loopholes exist and the people who receive them want them. Paying for them, however, is a whole different story.

Before we blame our politicians, however, we need to look at ourselves. Those in office attempt, it would seem, to do the will of the people. They all spoke about speaking to the American people, and listening to those people, and those people told them to do what they are doing. I suspect this to be true.

Our society has become a society of lust and desire and want, and I’m not talking in terms of sexuality. We lust, we desire, and we want for more.

Houses are bigger and more expensive than ever before. Many of them are empty because people over bought.

We want really nice, very fancy cars that cost more money than houses used to cost.

We go to restaurants and eat monstrous sized portions of food. It is not unusual for people to go through the drive through and have, in their bag, a pound of beef, a lot of cheese, a great deal of bread, a half pound of fries, and a quart of soda. It is called ‘lunch.’ And who really needs that much?

We have the latest computers, the latest versions of Windows, Ipods, Ipads, smart phones, 900 cable channels and high speed Internet. We are connected to everyone in the world 24/7. Televisions can be purchased that are the same size as the screen in a small theater with a resolution so great that we can see a zit on an actor from 30 feet away.

And I write all of this and profess my own guilt. In grappling with my own weight issues, what I know call ‘lunch’ has changed and, to be honest, I miss what I used to call ‘lunch.’ I love the technology and indulge myself in it. My home is nice, but modest by today’s standards and I drive an older car. But I’m as guilty as anyone in my consumption of stuff.

In recent years even much of Christianity has changed. Christianity is based on love and sacrifice. Now, it is easy to find churches that preach a Gospel of prosperity. If you have faith, God will bless you with riches... Several years ago a prayer uttered by Jabez, a very obscure character in the Bible to say the least, became a prayer of profit rather than opening one’s heart.

We desire much for ourselves. We believe we are entitled to it for whatever reason. We want what we want; we just really don’t want to pay for it. We lust for it all, but have little desire to sacrifice.

We can lament we have a political crisis. At its core, however, I think we are really facing a spiritual crisis. We are a culture that wants it all at no cost, no price to ourselves. We can blame others all we want. Perhaps it is time to look in our own mirrors to discover the problem.