Monthly Archives: March 2012

with the Word online Bible study: small things


Luke 13.18-21

Jesus asked, “What is God’s kingdom like? To what can I compare it? It’s like a mustard seed that someone took and planted in a garden. It grew and developed into a tree and the birds in the sky nested in its branches.”

Again he said, “To what can I compare God’s kingdom? It’s like yeast, which a woman took and hid in a bushel of wheat flour until the yeast had worked its way through the whole.”


What caught your attention in this reading? What made you wonder or have a question?

When you read this (try reading it aloud to hear it differently!), what images, music, or other scenes float into your mind?

Think about your week or your day. How does this scripture connect with what is going on in your own life?

The mustard bush is an invasive species–it takes over all the space in the garden and drives out other things. People tried to avoid getting mustard seeds in their garden. Why do you think Jesus uses this example to talk about the kingdom of God?

Similarly, yeast (or “leaven”) was reserved for non-holy breads. During festivals and holy days, only unleavened bread was allowed. So the kingdom of God is like yeast that corrupts the whole bushel of flour and makes it unholy? Why this metaphor? What does this tell us about the kingdom of God?

Both the mustard seed (the smallest of the seeds) and yeast (tiny!) are small things that change everything. They’re barely visible, you can’t see them working, until suddenly the whole garden or the whole bushel of flour is changed. How is that like the kingdom of God?

What is something small that you can do that will make a big difference in your faith or life? Or how can your life be like yeast, growing the kingdom of God in the world around you?


This We Believe: Second Helvetic Confession, part VIIc


Today we’ll finish up part 7 with chapters 19, 20, and 21–the sacraments!

“Sacraments are mystical symbols, or holy rites, or sacred actions, instituted by God himself, consisting of his Word, of signs and of things signified, whereby in the Church he keeps in mind and from time to time recalls the great benefits he has shown to men; whereby also he seals his promises, and outwardly represents, and, as it were, offers unto our sight those things which inwardly he performs for us, and so strengthens and increases our faith through the working of God’s Spirit in our hearts.”

Yes, that was all one sentence. It says several important things:

1. Sacraments are symbols or symbolic actions.
2. Sacraments are instituted by God.
3. Sacraments include the word of God, the symbol, and the thing to which the symbol points.
4. Sacraments remind us of God’s action.
5. Sacraments seal God’s promises.
6. Sacraments are outward signs of something God does inside us.
7. Sacraments are intended to encourage and strengthen faith.

The confession tells us that we observe only two Sacraments–baptism (which Bullinger equates with circumcision’s place in the old covenant) and the Lord’s Supper (which is equated with the passover lamb in the old covenant). These sacraments were not created by human beings, but God alone, and “as God is the author of the Sacraments, so he continually works in the Church in which they are carried out.”

Because the Sacraments come from God, the minister who celebrates them is not the point–it doesn’t matter if the minister is a sinner or perfectly learned or whatever (something we’ve discussed before in relation to the Donatist controversy). The integrity of the Sacraments depends upon the institution of the Lord.” period. Except if the minister is a woman…“we teach that baptism should not be administered in the church by women or midwives. For Paul deprived women of ecclesiastical duties, and baptism has to do with these.” (first of all–no Paul didn’t, but someone writing with his name did. Paul’s many female colleagues would be surprised to hear it. second–this has more to do with refuting the Roman teaching that unbaptized infants who died were destined for hell (or at best purgatory), so midwives baptized babies out of habit–not as part of God’s covenant people, but as a form of magic. That is indeed something to condemn.)

Anyway, back to the points:

In baptism we are reminded of Christ’s baptism, and of his death and resurrection. We are also reminded of God’s promise to make us all children of God. We remember that Christ sent the apostles to baptize and teach. We remember that the Holy Spirit descended on many at their baptisms in the book of Acts. It’s often called a sign of initiation for God’s people.” The symbol for baptism is water–the symbol of birth and of cleansing. The “thing signified is regeneration and cleansing from sin.”  

There’s only one baptism–you only need to be baptized once, and the form (sprinkling, pouring, immersing) is not the point. The point is that in this ritual we are reminded of God’s promise, and our faith is built up as we participate in that promise. We live as baptized people, people of God, people called and gifted and full of grace.

One of the important things about the Sacraments is that they use common things–like water–to show and effect something holy. Because baptism with water is both common and sacred, and because it’s the only thing talked about in scripture, “we do not consider necessary to the perfection of baptism…exorcism, burning lights, oil, salt, spittle, and other such things as a multitude of ceremonies.”  In other words–all the bells and whistles and trappings that the Roman Church added on are unnecessary or even harmful, according to Bullinger. Remember that he’s writing early in the Reformation era, and distinguishing from the Roman Church was important–and Bullinger’s main issue in these kinds of cases is that the extras make the ritual seem more like magic than holy. Baptism has one purpose–“to be baptized in the name of Christ is to be enrolled, entered and received into the covenant and family, and so into the inheritance of the sons of God…to be cleansed from sin…to be granted the manifold grace of God in order to lead a new and innocent life….all these things are assured by baptism.” In other words, the ritual of baptism is the outward sign of these things that the Holy Spirit does in our hearts–and it is a sign that reminds us of God’s promise and encourages us to live in it.

The Lord’s Supper, like baptism, uses common things (food) to signify God’s promise and work in us. Bullinger takes great pains to ensure that we don’t think that bread and wine are actually turned into body and blood (they are not “changed into the things signified, or cease to be what they are in their own nature. For otherwise they would not be Sacraments–if they were only the thing signified, they would not be signs.” alrighty then.) The purpose of the Sacrament is two-fold–to “keep in fresh remembrance that greatest benefit which God showed to mortals” (giving God’s own self to and for us), and to feed us–not necessarily physically (because that would involve “infamy and savagery”), but spiritually–when we receive the bread and wine and remember all Christ’s work and life and death and resurrection and God’s promise, then the Holy Spirit applies and bestows upon us these things…Christ lives in us and we live in him”.

Instead of transubstatiation (the turning of a substance into another substance, aka the bread literally and physically becoming the flesh of Jesus), and instead of Christ “hiding” in the bread (leading to the worship of the bread), the confession teaches that the physical body of Christ “is in heaven at the right hand of the Father, and therefore our hearts are to be lifted up on high, and not to be fixed on the bread, neither is the Lord to be worshipped in the bread. Yet the Lord is not absent from his Church when she celebrates the Supper. The sun, which is absent from us in the heavens, is nothwithstanding effectually present among us. How much more is the Sun of Righteousness, Christ, although in his body he is absent from us in heaven, present with us, not corporeally but spiritually, by his vivifying operation, and as he himself explained at his Last Supper that he would be present with us. Whence it follows that we do not have the Supper without Christ, and yet at the same time have an unbloody and mystical Supper, as it was universally called by antiquity.”

In other words–when we participate in Communion, we are lifted up to Commune with Christ–our hearts are lifted up on high. Jesus is not absent from our celebration of the Sacrament because we don’t believe the bread and wine become body and blood–instead we are drawn into Christ’s presence at the Supper.

At the end of today’s theology class, I just want to go back to the beginning of chapter 19 for a moment, where the confession talks about the number of sacraments (again refuting the Roman Catholic church)…because this is just amusing. “There are some who count seven Sacraments. Of these we acknowledge that repentance, the ordination of ministers, and matrimony are profitable ordinances but not Sacraments. Confirmation and extreme unction are human inventions which the Church can dispense with without any loss, and indeed, we do not have them in our churches, for they contain some things of which we can by no means approve.” heehee.

What do you think of these explanations of Sacraments, and of the particulars of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper? How do you experience God’s promise and presence in these symbolic actions? How does participating in the Sacraments inform your life as one of God’s covenant people?

Heart and Seek–praying in the light

Matthew 5:14-16, 43-45a (Common English Bible (CEB))
You are the light of the world. A city on top of a hill can’t be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a basket. Instead, they put it on top of a lampstand, and it shines on all who are in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before people, so they can see the good things you do and praise your Father who is in heaven.
  “You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous.

*What grabbed your attention in this reading?

*What questions did it bring up for you?

*How does the Scripture connect with your highs and lows of this week (what is God saying to you, in your daily life, through the Gospel)?

*Have you been trying out the fasting practice this week–abstaining from text messaging and video games? (or some other fasting practice?) How is it going? What is easy and hard about it? Has it helped you nurture your relationship with God or with others? How?


Imagine (or get out!) three candles in a row, all lit. Over one of them, place an upside-down flower pot that has a hole in the bottom (where water would drain). What happens to the light? Over the second candle, place an upside-down votive holder–clear, but with no holes in it. What happens to the light? Let the third shine just as it is. What happens to that light?

Which candle are you? How can you fill your lamp/candle so you can keep shining indefinitely? Are you covering your light so it can’t be seen, or so it goes out?

How might this be related to how we pray for our enemies?

Spend some time praying for your opponents/enemies…see what happens to your light.


online book group: Practicing Our Faith, chapter 6


In this chapter, Dorothy Bass (editor of this whole volume) leads us through an exploration of the practice of Sabbath. This is one of my favorite practices. We live such incredibly busy lives, some of us rarely have time to breathe or catch up on the DVR let alone take a day of rest. But practicing Sabbath can be freeing and life giving, so don’t write it off just yet! Bass says, though, that in order to receive the gift of Sabbath many of us will first have to discard “our image of Sabbath as a time of negative rules and restrictions, as a day of obligation (for Catholics) or a day without play (in memories of strict Protestant childhoods).” It will also require us remembering and supporting underworked people–what does Sabbath look like in a community where some are so overworked they forget what their own living room looks like and some are so underworked that they spend all their time wondering how to make ends meet? Sabbath as a biblical concept rights this injustice as well, because it reminds us that we are ALL dependent on God (and on one another), not solely on ourselves–how can we make that a reality in a “sabbath-keeping community”?

Sabbath is a gift–at first, we see God practicing Sabbath in the creation story, where God works for 6 days and then, rather than start on a new project or make improvements to the previous day’s work, God rests and enjoys. I like to think that God played in the garden, watched that new grass grow, and enjoyed the sunset. Later in the story, we find that God tells the Israelites, newly liberated from slavery in Egypt, that the reason they are to rest for one day out of each seven is because it reminds them they are not  slaves–slaves don’t get to rest, but they do. No matter how much work there is to be done, we are not to submit again to slavery and we are not to think ourselves more important than God, who rested. “But what does it mean to keep a day holy, to refrain from work, to honor God’s creativity and imitate GOd’s rest, to experience the end of bondage?”

Good question. One people have wrestled with for millennia, which is how we ended up with blue laws and debates over what day of the week it should be.

Jews observe Shabbat from sundown to sundown, Friday-Saturday (aka, the 7th day of the week). Some in the Adventist Christian tradition do as well. We know our Muslim friends observe a similar practice on Fridays. Christians have traditionally observed Sunday, the first day of the week, because it is the day of Resurrection. Each Sunday is like a mini-Easter, a reminder of God’s re-creation (some call it “the 8th day of creation” in fact…). (aside: this is actually why Sundays are not included in Lent. Go ahead and’ll find 40 days not including Sundays. interesting, eh?) On this day, we let go of the idea that we are in control, we gather together to worship, and we spend time simply letting things be. “All week long, human beings wrestle with the natural world, tilling and hammering and carrying and burning. On the Sabbath, however, we let it be. We celebrate it as it is and live in it in peace and gratitude. Humans are created too, after all.” So we literally let go and let God, in the words of the old cliche. We refrain from trying to control the world, and from all that is related to that–which may include commerce as well.

Having said all of that–who actually does that? Who stays away from restaurants and shopping, email and housework, the next week’s to-do-list, and all the other endless things that crop up on weekends? Sundays are often just as busy as every other day of the week, sometimes even more so. Gone are the days when the law promoted Christian Sabbath keeping. Now many of us barely have time to be at church for an hour, much less an hour of worship AND an hour of Sunday school. Add youth group or a family dinner and the whole day is out of control. Yes, we can limit things like meetings, and we might be able to avoid our work email another day, but how do we spend the whole day focusing on God and rest and re-creation?

And right here is where I think this chapter falls down. There is a great opportunity here for exploration of a variety of Sabbath practices, ranging from starting with a few Sabbath hours one day a week (not necessarily Sunday, either–maybe it’s Thursday afternoon or Saturday morning or Monday night). Maybe we start by not bringing work home with us on Wednesdays, and instead we gather with the church for a meal and time to learn and pray together. Insisting that we jump right into a full day with no work is unrealistic for many of us–though there may be something to be said for the sort of cold-turkey all-in approach–and makes even me, the proponent of the pajama days, want to shut the book and give up. How can we incorporate Sabbath into our way of life in small ways, working up to a whole day? In order for the practice of Sabbath to be liberating, to give us freedom, we have to also be liberated from Sabbath as a simplistic concept.

So: yes, come to worship. Gathering with a community is crucial in reminding us who we are and whose we are–we do not belong to ourselves, nor does the world belong to us. Worship is the time when we are re-oriented toward who God is and who God calls us to be, and we are reminded that the earth is the Lord’s, and if God can rest one day, so can we. We confess our pride and arrogance in thinking that the world will fall apart if we take a day off, and we hear God’s word for our lives today–21st century today, when things move quickly and strangely and we need new ways of being God’s faithful people in this world. We are reminded of the freedom God has given us and we are inspired to participate in God’s re-creation of the world each day.

Find a time when you commit to rest and play. It may be Sunday, it may not. It probably won’t involve shopping or working in any of the traditional senses, but it might involve spending time with friends, cooking a wonderful meal, watching a movie, or taking a nap. It might involve sitting in your pajamas for half a day (or a whole day, or even just an hour or two)–for some reason, that feels more restful than not-working-while-wearing-work-clothes. Try not to worry about things or think ahead–when to-do list items come up just note them and go back to enjoying the time. Maybe you read the Bible, maybe you read a novel. What’s important is to remember that God is the source of every good thing, and this gift is for you, not just for others. The work will still be there when you return to it in 2 hours or 2 days.

“Overworked people need rest, and they need to be reminded that they do not cause the grain to grow and that their greatest fulfillment does not come through the acquisition of material things. Moreover, the planet needs a rest of human plucking and burning and buying and selling. Perhaps, as Sabbath keepers, we will come to live and know these truths more fully, and thus to bring their wisdom to the common solution of humanity’s problems.”

In this Sabbath time, we can find an anchor for a way of life that embraces God’s vision for a just world with plenty for all–a way of life that makes a difference every day, not just the one day a week.

What do you think about Sabbath practice? How do you engage in a practice of rest and re-creation? What ideas do you have for beginning a Sabbath practice? If you already take a day a week, what do you do on that day? Can you imagine carving out two hours one week, three hours the next week, four after that, and so on, until you have a whole day, or at least two half-days, to rest, and to enjoy God and God’s creation? How might you do that?