The king said to Daniel, ‘May your God, whom you faithfully serve, deliver you!’

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Kumbaya: Fire in the Fourth Gospel

I'm listening to Zac Brown Band's "Stuck in colder weather" and it got me thinking about the changes our beautiful earth will cultivate over the next couple of months. Here in North Carolina, we'll go from hot to cool, with leaves abounding, and although I'll continue to dress appropriate for work, I'll be wishing I could return to my seminary wardrobe of bluejeans and hoodies. I love the fall. My birthday is fast approaching (I'll be 29- lame) along with football, Halloween, and Thanksgiving. Also, the house we are renting has a fireplace. Many people who know me know that I love a good fire, whether roasting marshmallows (one time I cooked an entire Totino's pizza over the open flame) indoors or building a bonfire by placing old Christmas trees through a wood-chipper. I love fires for their warmth, their beauty, and their ability to bring people close together.

When I was a youth director, every year we would take a mission trip to Mexico to build houses. Every night by the campfire we'd sing songs, tell stories, and grow closer to God. When I left that church to head to seminary, it was around that campfire that I said goodbye. Like all fires, this one came, roared, and eventually went out.

The writer of the fourth Gospel (we'll call him John) is one of the best writers I have ever read. No kidding- this guy is better than Shakespeare. The Gospel of John is one of the greatest pieces of literature ever written. There is so much rich depth, skill, intentionality, and long-running themes unlike anything else ever written.

For example, John opens his gospel with a re-writing of Genesis 1, a theme he is devoted to throughout. He uses the symbolism of still water and running water/ light and dark/ day and night/ up and down/ etc. to show how God reveals God's self most fully in Jesus Christ and throughout all creation. John writes that creation isn't complete until Jesus dies. His last words on the cross, "It is finished" are the same last words uttered by God in Genesis 1.

Jesus is the epitome of God's good creation, and sin (according to John's gospel) is simple disbelief that Jesus is God's son. So when Peter denies knowing Jesus three times, he is of course, committing the one sin. And wouldn't you know it, where is Peter when he denies Christ for a third time? He's warming himself by a campfire.

Fire is good when it helps us cook food, sanitize objects, and warm our bodies. Fire is bad when when we let it burn us, when we fear it, when it makes us think of hell. There is no hell, really, in John's Gospel. Just fire.

Earlier that night, Jesus is confronted outside the garden of Gethsemane ( a clever parallel to the garden of Eden) and the guards ask him for Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus, three times, responds, "I am he" The words, "I am" are big in John as they are in Genesis, because only God says, "I am." Conversely, when Peter asks if he is associated with Jesus, he says, "I am not" because he is scared. He goes to the campfire for earthly comfort and warmth. In the flickering of the firelight someone recognizes him and asks for the third time, this man being a relative of the man whose ear Peter cut off. This man says to Peter, "Didn't I see you in the Garden?" Again, such wonderful allusion to the Garden of Eden, as God looks for Adam when he is hiding after his sin. Peter denies being in the garden to the brother of the man he assaulted in the garden, as they sit watching the fire. When Peter denies it this time, the rooster crows. It is now morning. The dark night has passed away. The fire is no longer necessary for light and heat. A new day, a new creation, a new chance to seek God is dawning. Of course, this is the day that Jesus dies. It is the day that He gives up his spirit, his Holy Spirit, which he promised to leave behind when he exits this world. This is the day that Jesus finishes Creation.

We pick up in John 21*

Three (or four) days later, again after daybreak, Peter, John and some other disciples are fishing but not catching. They see Jesus from far away, and he asks them to put their nets on the other side of the boat. When they see all the fish they catch, Peter jumps into the water and swims to Jesus, having now recognized his Lord. And guess what Jesus had prepared for them. Yep- a fire. By this fire he and Peter have "the talk" of reconciliation. Three times- the number of times that Peter denied knowing Jesus- Jesus now asks Peter if he loves him. Peter grows indignant. "You know that I love you," he says. Jesus responds, "Follow me," which are first words that Jesus said to him when asking him to be a disciple.

The circle is complete. Peter was a fishermen, Jesus came and told him to follow him. Peter denies knowing Jesus by the fire, and at the second fire Jesus forgives him.  He again tells Peter to follow him.

The inclusion of the fire is to show the link between these two stories of denial/repentance or fear/trust. In the archetypal sense,  fire represents, "knowledge, light, life, and rebirth," all of which are happening in the second fireside scene. Perhaps this is why I have always liked fires so much.

Have a Happy Fall everybody.

*John 21 was an added text by the editor of John's Gospel. While it follows the same themes as the rest of the book, it also pick up on stories that are in Luke, not John. Peter, James, and John are fishermen at the beginning of Luke where Jesus says, "Follow me." The editor weaves the stories together to form one narrative.

Monday, August 20, 2012

The Kids Brought Me Back

The Kids Brought Me Back
by Pastor Daniel Pugh
“Daddy, how come there aren’t any dinosaurs at the zoo?”
A fine question for a three-year old. It belongs to my son, Jacob, as he turns back to the entrance of the zoo and begs us to return and find the dinosaur habitat. “Dinosaurs,” I say, “are all gone. They died a long time ago.” I answer timidly wondering how to approach death on a massive scale to a sponge-like and often sensitive mind. We continued leaving the zoo. My answer had sufficed... or so I thought.
A few days later the question of Dinosaurs comes up again. Jacob looked deep in thought as he spoke, “Daddy, did Dinosaurs die a long time ago, like Jesus?”
After first considering whether or not I should comment on his confusing the Cretaceous period with the Roman Empire, I decide to simply answer his question:
“Yes. Along time ago like Jesus. Except Jesus rose from the dead and is now in heaven.”
I waited for his rebuttal: “Well, aren’t there dinosaurs in heaven?”
His line of questioning seems so matter-of-fact. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say it was scripted. I wonder if, someday, he’ll be a lawyer...He’s staring at me, I’d better answer:
“Heaven is a wonderful place” is all I can manage to say. He seems momentarily satisfied, but now I’m less sure of things.  
The thought of T-Rexes awaiting us at the pearly gates is an image I cannot seem to get out of my head. Since that conversation a year ago, my thoughts of the afterlife are colorful and imaginative scenes where all things are possible and all dreams can be realized. Prior to this encounter I had imagined the afterlife as a place where people sit in La-Z-Boys made out of clouds, but now that utopia seems boring. Where is the creativity? Where are the dinosaurs? I now see this former vision as what it really is: a sedentary lifestyle devoid of work.
At the time of this conversation, I was a pastoral intern (or Vicar) whose work was taking over my life so much that my notion of heaven was designed around avoiding it. I began to realize that this is spiritually and theologically dangerous for me as a pastor.
It starts out innocently enough, a council meeting here, a confirmation class there. Then there’s new members classes and home-communions; liturgies, bible studies, and sermons to prepare for. Every time I left the house, Jacob asks me if I’m headed to “work,” a question to which he already knows the answer. He asks, I imagine, as if to “let the records show” that I’m out the door again. And as the court reporter in my mind hacks away at a typewriter, the bailiff and judge in my mind shake their head simultaneously.
Here’s the problem: I like what I do. And it is not the hours that I spend at “work” that were the problem- it is that I find it irresistible to stop working once I’ve left the office. I write sermons in the shower. I plan bible studies while playing with the kids. I construct emails in my head while I eat. Over the period of a couple of months I had found myself always spinning my wheels. If I couldn’t sleep I would get up and check email, or check for more sermon ideas.
Clergy burn-out is something taught in seminary. But like most things that need to be learned, it is best learned the hard way. I was burning out. I had found a use for every second of the day. I answered emails within seconds of their arrival. I was on-top of everything: the master of my domain. But spiritually I was running on empty. I was like that race-car driver who refused to take the pit stop and was going to ride of fumes until the finish-line. Except, in my case, there was no finish-line in sight. I hadn’t prayed in weeks. I hadn’t taken the time to read scripture or listen to my own thoughts. I had thought that efficiency was the key, but I was dead wrong. I now realize that when it comes to being a good pastor, efficiency is not effectiveness.
After finishing internship I was given a book by a friend. This book is the memoir or renowned writer Eugene Peterson, and it is simply titled, The Pastor. In it Peterson recalls his own run-in with burn out, where it had gotten so bad that he tried to resign. In a meeting with the church elders, he explains, “I pray in fits and starts. I feel like I’m in a hurry all the time. When I visit or have lunch with you, I’m not listening to you; I’m thinking of ways that I can get the momentum going again. I don’t want to live like this, either with you or with my family… I want to be a pastor who prays, I want to be an unbusy pastor.” For Peterson as it was for me, his efforts to be efficient were eating away at his calling. We feel called to be ministers, but we get stuck administering. For Peterson, stopping ‘work’ long enough to have this conversation with the church elders awakened his calling and renewed his spiritual being.
As for me, there was only one person who could get me out of my funk. My favorite theologian, the person I plagiarize in all of my sermons, my son Jacob. After a day at his Lutheran Preschool, Jacob turned to me and asked, “Daddy, how can God be in everything?”
I froze. The hamster wheel in my brain stopped. My heart-rate slowed down for the first time in a long time. I picked my oldest boy up and hugged him, grateful for lifting the spell that was over me. Out of the fog I searched my mind for a satisfactory answer to the first true theological question I had pondered in months. Finally an answer came, not from my logical thought process, or the automated biblical messages I was used to giving people, but from my own sense of self. “Because God made us that way. There is part of God in everything. That is how we love.”
“Even rocks?”
“Yes, even rocks.”
Our other son, Thomas, is 19 months old. I can already tell that he will push me to grow in new and brave ways like his older brother does. There is something about kids that stretch your limits of time, sleep, and imagination. It was my kids that brought me back. I started praying again, seeing again, believing again.
Around this time every year I think about all the kids out there who show up to Sunday School. Kids whose parents were brought back to church after years of being away, wanting their families’ lives to be shaped by the church. I pray that new and casual worshipers are given a warm welcome. I also pray for parents who don’t believe, and I wonder how they get by. I hope they find networks of people who love and care for them as well.
They say that it takes the whole village to raise a child; but to me it takes a village of children to remind the rest of us what life is about.   As Paul tells us, “love knows no bounds.” And when I think about it, kids know no bounds. Dinosaurs in heaven, rocks that love us, fathers who are worth talking to even when they are clearly disengaged. Kids are amazing. They bring us back. May they one day teach the rest of us to act like children of God.  
-Pr Pugh

Monday, August 13, 2012

The "Stain-glass Ceiling" for Women in the Church

As you may or may not know, I serve the national Lutheran church on the advisory committee called "Justice for Women in the ELCA." I serve in this capacity because I believe women and men to be equal by design, and I have been asked to work for change from within patriarchy itself. Since I am not a woman, my work will always come with an asterisk, always from a position of oppression and power. So I ask for your voice, your help, and your power to be put toward the direction of female/male equality. For too long, the church has been the sacred foothold for gender inequality. While some of the best education I received in seminary was from female professors, many of them were not even allowed to seek ordination because they were part of the Catholic church. Their brilliance was always slightly dimmed because it seemed improbable that a woman could have developed such rich theologies.

I use this example because it is an easy target. It is far more slippery to nail down sexism in the ELCA, where women are ordained, and yet, still make less money than their male counterparts. Women clergy still fight prejudice and harassment, and still create a stir in congregations that don't exactly know what to do with a woman pastor. I have heard of female pastors be called "lady pastors" or sometimes "Mother" from ex-Catholics, but even calling someone "a female pastor" seeks to qualify the person in a pejorative sense. 

For those of you who want to continue to fight for equality in the church, the cause could use you, and for the moment, so could I.  

Over the next six years, the special task force of the ELCA will produce a study and social statement regarding the topic of justice for women. I have been asked to be an adviser to this task force. Next month I will go to Chicago to lead a discussion of the documentary MISSREPRESENTATION  which is about how women are negatively portrayed in the media.  

I will also be answering questions regarding the letter (below) that I wrote on behalf of the JfW advisory committee to aid the JfW task force in their study. I submit it to you for thoughts and feedback. You are encouraged to post comments and considerations. In what ways have you seen the church oppress women? How are we going to work against the stain-glass ceiling for women in the church?

To the social statement task force of the ELCA,
We, the advising committee for Justice for Women in the ELCA, are grateful that you have agreed to serve the larger church in this way. We believe that the work that you will do is in the name of our lord and savior Jesus Christ, whose own life and teachings affirm inclusivity and justice for all people in the kingdom of God. And, in many ways, a social statement for justice for women is long overdue.
Women everywhere suffer from injustice. Sexism and patriarchy continue to rule every sector of American society.  It is prudent then that we prayerfully acknowledge that the pervasive dominant culture involves, and is in some ways is rooted in the church. As we continue to heal the wounds of sexism and patriarchy that have ruled Christendom for over two millennia, we can plainly see that women receive unfair treatment in the ELCA even today. While it is true that women have been able to seek ordination for decades, it is also true that the progress is slow for equality at the highest positions; including only six female bishops and one female seminary president.
Women in our congregations feel the effects of sexism too. Institutionalized patriarchy, church polity, and gender stereotypes are all contributing factors to the inequalities that exist. But perhaps the biggest reason that women have been mistreated in the church is due to the use and misuse of patriarchal theology. This area must be addressed if we desire to seek justice for women.
The mission statement of the Justice for Women advisory committee is, “the church is visibly engaged in the world for gender justice because the church understands sexism as a theological issue.” While Feminist, Womanist, and Mujerista theologies have been adopted by many in the ELCA as legitimate Lutheran traditions, they are viewed as marginal theologies. It is our fervent hope that the ELCA will accept them as normative, gender-inclusive, and intrinsically consistent with the heart of Lutheran theology.
It also bears mentioning that we acknowledge that injustice of women is one global problem among many. The problems of human inequality are woven together in the sticky web of society. We, as God’s hands, must do God's work to dissolve this web of oppression. As Reverend King would say, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” It is worth noting that women are affected disproportionately to men in economic, racial, and age discrimination. Thus, we must realize that working for justice for women is also a fight against global oppression. 
We offer the following suggestions to you that have come out of our meetings on February 10th and 11th, 2012. We hope that they will be useful to you as you begin on this journey.
We have identified the following as ideas for your meetings and the process:
(1)    That gender-inclusive language be used at all times, including referring to God.
(2)    While there is much anticipation, the project need not be rushed.
(3)    Identify synodical leaders for active listening conversations.*
(4)    That a model is adopted for listening to voices along the spectrums of female and male; intra-ethnic and interethnic; various racial and biracial backgrounds; sexual orientation; classism; education; and age.
(5)    That differentiation and distinction be made between gender justice or justice for women.
(6)    That the task force build on the work of the Justice for Women advisory committee, as well as part of the required reading include Transformative Lutheran Theologies as well as Justice for women program materials and monologues.
(7)    That stories, case-studies, and anecdotes be deemed as pertinent to the study alongside statistical and sociological data.
(8)    That there be a process in place for the role of staff (including those who answer the phones) to respond to criticisms and answer questions.

Regarding the published study and social statement:
(1)    That gender inclusive language be used at all times, including referring to God.
(2)    Study does not have to be so academic, but should be readable and approachable.
(3)    That the process and statement be multi-layered and multi-pedagogical.
(4)    That the planning of the timeline include the implementation of curriculum in a timely way to congregations. Since most educational planning in congregations happens in the spring or early summer, you may plan accordingly.
We are in a vital part of the Church’s history as we lay groundwork and create precedent for the 21st century.  As God beacons us into the future, we, the advisory committee for justice for women, are praying for you and the very important work you are doing. 
In the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer,

Rev. Daniel Pugh on behalf of the advisory committee of Justice for Women in the ELCA

Monday, August 6, 2012

Bread of Life Sermon

Several of you have been asking for this week's sermon, so here it is. I remain convinced that there are enough resources on this earth for all people to live well. I pray that, when we use the word "progress," we are hoping to provide progress for all of God's children.

This sermon is about what Jesus offers a world that the world is missing.

I could preach on the Gospel of John all day. I could, but I won't. It is by far my favorite text in the Bible, and it does not have its own year in the lectionary, so it always feels like a rare treat. It is also quite rare that all three readings- the old testament and new testament lessions, and the gospel- all tell the same story and speak to the same eternal truth. On a fortunate day like today, the stars are aligned, and God’s voice calls us from the pages of these ancient texts. So buckle up. 

Grace and Peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. Amen. 

On my drive from Berkeley CA to Winston-Salem, I stopped and spent the night with my best friend Steven, who is a minister of students in Jackson, Mississippi. I arrived on a Saturday when he and his youth were going to serve lunch at a local food shelter. If you know anything about Jackson, of it you have read the book “The Help” you know that it is incredibly segregated between the “haves”  and the “have-nots” Steven’s church represents the haves, and those receiving the meals, are, obviously, the “have- nots”. I went along, put on my gloves, and served up some fruit cocktail.
As the homeless came into the room and sat down, the director said a brief word about how God loves everyone there and would provide for them. He shared his testimony about how this place turned his life around and found God. He concluded his testimony by saying that there was a visiting minister in the room, and he pointed to me to say the blessing.
As the room turned around, their eyes all fixed on me. I stood there stunned, how could this man know that I was a minister? And in the corner of the room I saw Steven grinning, and I realized that this was a little friendly hazing for Steven’s newly ordained best friend, me.
I stumbled over my words as I conjured up a prayer. My heart was a mixture of love and guilt as I prayed for the “have nots” knowing that I would soon be going to Schlotsky’s with the youth group, paid for by a wealthy member of the congregation.
I don’t remember what I said. But if I could do it over, I would have said something like this:
In the 6th chapter of John, John the Baptist is killed. His followers are all wandering the streets now looking for something to believe in. One day, they see Jesus and they flock to him for comfort and leadership. After the great feeding of the 5000, Jesus and his disciples continue on their journey. But the crowd continues to follow because they know they will be hungry again tomorrow.
This story isn’t new. In Exodus the Hebrews are hungry in the desert, and they complain to Moses to give them food, and God makes it rain bread from heaven. But the Hebrews still don’t believe in God, so they try to stuff manna into their pockets for the next day, but it goes bad. Now these new followers of Jesus are doing the same thing, but their history is a little fuzzy. 
And Jesus gets into a bit of a conversation with them. To paraphrase, it goes something like this.
“Hey Jesus. We know what you can do. Give us bread, like Moses gave people bread back in the desert.”
To which Jesus says, “Hang on. It wasn’t Moses who gave them bread, it was God. The bread that comes down from heaven is from God. Not Moses.”
“Well, Jesus, you’re kind of a poor man’s version of Moses, could you hook us up with some of that bread, you know, like always, so that we never have to work for food again.”
But Jesus says to them, “I am the bread of life.” In all of our lives, bread helps for a little while, but Jesus fills our lives for eternity.
I imagine that I would say something like that to the homeless men and women who were looking for words of inspiration from the “guest minister”
Then I imagine, as we preachers always do, that someone there wants to talk more about what we said in our message.
To that person I would say:
When Jesus says,  “I am the bread of life” he is uttering the name of God himself. He does this 7 times in the gospel of John.
These are important sayings, because remember that God called himself “The Great I am” in the Old Testament. So, in John, each time Jesus refers to himself starting with the words, “I am, he is speaking to his divinity.
7 times he does this in the gospel of John.
“I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me shall not hunger.” John 6:35
 “I am the light of the world; he who fallows Me shall not walk in the darkness, but shall have the light of life.” John 8:12
 “I am the gate; if anyone enters through Me, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture.” John 10:9
 “I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for His sheep.” John 10:11
“I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me shall live even if he dies.” John 11:25
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me.” John 14:6
 “I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser.” John 15:1 
* The divinity of Jesus Christ is further illustrated in John 8:58.  Jesus said,  “Truly, Truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I am”, which means that Jesus existed before His human life on earth.

So, when Jesus says, “I am” he makes it known for the first time to the crowds that he is God. This is funny, because they were looking for a prophet. They were looking for someone like Moses to give them bread from heaven, not THE bread OF Heaven, which is Jesus himself.
There is an important lesion in this for us. We know that we are slaves to our flesh, that we always need more in order to survive. But God calls each of us to look past our mere creature comforts at something more enduring than the bread that fills our bellies for a short time.
Now I ask you-
How many people do you know have all of their physical needs met, and are still miserable? How many people do you know have more than their needs met, their lives are full of toys and extravagancies, and they don’t know Jesus? God provides us with a world that has more than enough resources. And for those of us lucky enough to have access to those resources, we find out an important truth: If our lives are meaningless, then our food is empty calories. We all need the bread of heaven to fill our bodies, not just food that feeds our flesh.
One last distinction I’d like to make. You didn’t think you were going to get through a whole sermon from me without a little bit of greek, did you? You hear earlier in the second lesion that Paul writes that we are all prisoners to the body of Christ.  I have also said throughout this sermon that we are also prisoners to our own flesh.
Now listen up because this is going to be on the test later.
Paul makes a very important distinction between the words flesh and body. 
Flesh causes us to Sin
The body brings us to God.
While we use these words interchangeably, they are not the same. Flesh in Greek is sarxa. Paul talks about our flesh as the thing that causes us to sin because our flesh is perishable and self-centered. Our flesh needs food to survive. Our flesh gets old. It bleeds, and it dies.
But Paul uses a different word to talk about the body of Christ: in greek the word ins Soma. It is almost the exact opposite of flesh because the body of Christ is an idea bigger than ourselves. The body of Christ is eternal and imperishable. The body of Christ is strong, even when our flesh is weak. The body of Christ is what raises from the dead, even when the flesh died hanging on a cross. Our flesh leads us to sin and selfishness. When we hoard the world’s resources, when we value our lives higher than others, when we take care of ourselves first and look to our neighbors if there’s time, we are living for the flesh.
When the flock of people following Jesus ask him for bread for themselves, they are living for their flesh. This is their sin. This is how the confuse the Messiah as a prophet- because all they can see are the signs that give them immediate gratification.
So when Jesus tries to offer them more, by saying that he is the great I am, they don’t know what to do with themselves.
That’s where the text from Paul comes in. Paul writes that we are all one in the body of Christ. This is part of his brilliance. Our flesh divides us. Our body- the body of Christ binds us. 
Culturally, this is one of the great shifts in the history of the world. Paul actually convinces people that we are better together than alone. And while our individual hunks of flesh lead to sin, the body of Christ over powers our individual sins with grace and love.
One of my favorite 20th century thinkers was Theologian and pre-civil rights activist Howard Thurman, who takes this a step further.
Thurman says that Paul’s idea of the church coming together to form the body of Christ is nothing new. He says that was the plan all along, all the way back in Genesis.
We were created by God  “ not in an individual expression of his creation, but in the collective sense; not as mindless instinct-bound creatures- but by those created in His own image”
What Thurman is saying is that we were not made in the image of God as a man or a woman, but the image of God is the community, the body of Christ. God does not look like a human with flesh and bones, the image of God is our spirit, our hope, and our love. We best exemplify the image of God when we raise our collective conscience, and our love for God and one another. We are created in the image of God when whenever we act like God as a community.
That’s why Paul writes what he does in Ephesians chapter 4.
1 I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3 making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. 7 Each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ's gift.
But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body's growth in building itself up in love.
Our flesh is made for this world. We can be greedy and shallow. We can be selfish and only look after our own. But Jesus calls us to see creation from God’s perspective. We were not created to be mindless instinct-bound creatures who live day to day looking for eternal happiness in earthly products.
Hunger for God and you may well be fed eternally. Amen.