Sermon 09/25/2022 – The Love of Money

1 Timothy 6: 6-19

Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment, for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it, but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.

But as for you, man of God, shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. In the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you to keep the commandment without spot or blame until the manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ, which he will bring about at the right time—he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords. It is he alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see; to him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.

As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches but rather on God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.

Sermon Text

“Take hold of the life that really is life.” I want some of that. It is just two words in Greek, (ὀντως ζωης,) and yet it tells us so much about what we are chasing after in this race of life. God has offered us all of the abundance of Heaven here on Earth, in the communion of the Church and the life of our Christian call. What does it cost? It is a gift freely given for all those who have faith in Christ. What does that free gift call us to give up? Everything.

Strange as it seems, there is a central contradiction of the Christian calling. We are freely given the status of Children of God, but that reality means that we cannot keep going on in life like nothing has changed. Once we taste the spiritual food of Holy Communion and feel the life-giving coolness of Baptismal waters, we cannot act as though the grace each of those things give us simply sit stagnant in our hearts. The outpouring of God’s love is a ceaseless flood, constantly moving us toward being better than we currently are. This is not vain self-improvement, not books sold to us on the premise that we will be made whole if we only lose another pound or perfect our workflow. This is genuine life, life that bursts out from the real needs and circumstances of this life, but that reflects the glory of another one altogether.

The lesson here is directed specifically to those who have a lot in this life. As I’ve talked about before, it is hard to say how our modern world and its income brackets relate to ancient concepts of money. In a world where most people are near starving, the wealthy were those who had food and housing with any amount left over. The super wealthy in ancient urban centers might have lavish housing, but the day-to-day wealthy people in the rural towns would have just a little land and a bit of money put away. For us today, we can look locally and see that most of us are not as poor as we could be. Many of us are even fairly well off. We have our house and savings and pensions and, while we aren’t about to buy a Mercedes, we have plenty of recreational income.

The global reality is not so rosy. People struggle to live on a handful of cents a day. Large corporations come into communities promising opportunities, but often only destroy local business and create labor monopolies.

A company can offer three cents more than a local manufacturer to the workers and, while not really lifting the plight of these workers any higher, claim that they are giving opportunities that the people would never have normally. Those goods, produced with this cheap labor to get the materials needed to make them and for the production itself, are sold on our store shelves for a fraction of what their actual production cost would be in a just world.

Cheap electronics, make-up filled with mica mined by child slaves, and of course the clothing we wear, are made by people who could never buy them themselves. That is the global cost of our current economic reality. Even locally, we know the exploitation that companies can personally inflict or cause in a community. Why is rent $1,000 a month in Clarksburg? Well, when pipeline companies were paying for their workers to live here, landlords took the chance to make a profit. Even with the workers gone, so few were local workers, the landlords aren’t about to drop their prices. Profit is profit, and wealth demands more of itself.

We have neighbors who are going hungry in the richest nation on earth. More shockingly, people in this room are finding themselves constrained, cutting back in ways they never should have to, to keep their life going. Many months, Grace and I look at all the bills we have paid, even with the generous pay we get from our churches and find that there is next to nothing to put away for savings. The tax man takes his cut, the doctor their own, and so much more to student loans, car payments, and, of course, food and medicine.

The difficult work that we are called to as people of God, is not to lose ourselves in worries about money. Jesus puts it a different way than the writer of Timothy does, saying that the birds of the air and the flowers of the field do not store up food or weave clothing, and yet God sees them cared for. Rather than a flat denial of hardship in life, the ethic of trust that Jesus is asking us to take part in should connect us with the deeper truth of God’s provision in our life. When we trust that God will care for us, then we are unafraid to give to those in need, even if our own wallet seems light. We will not think that we need to take every chance to make money, or save money, even if the way we go about doing it is sketchy.

Remember last week? We looked at the dishonest manager and how Jesus seems to be asking us to think about the injustice of how money works. The best way to make money is to cheat people, and those who cheat people will take advantage of the most trusting people they can find. Alternatively, the desperate are a good mark for those seeking personal gain. Think back to the reality of the world around us. Companies profit on the global poor, and we in buying those products made in those processes contribute to the evil of the world. Our love of cheap products, the love of excess profit on the part of companies, and the needs of the poor, all lead to the central proof of our text.

The love of money, is the root of all kinds of evil. That is not to say that by loving money, we may plot to commit evil, though that is sometimes true. Instead, 1 Timothy speaks to a much harder truth. All kinds of evil, (some translate the Greek to “all evil,” and aren’t wrong to do so,) come from the love of money. Wars, exploitation, rapid price gouging in the midst of pandemics and recessions, all of these are examples of people putting the almighty dollar before the truly almighty God of the Universe.

We can fight back against this great beast, against Mammon in all its most insidious forms. We can buy products we know are properly sources – that means finding foreign made products that pay their workers a fair wage. We can check our coffee for that little fair-trade logo that tells us the growers are getting their due. We can buy local and support those around us trying to build up the lives of our neighbors. We do not have to contribute, at least not fully, to the nightmare of industry that has gripped the earth in its claws.

Beyond that, we cannot be so worried about making ends meet. Sometimes, we struggle. There is only so much money that comes in, and seemingly endless reasons for it to go out from us. However, a little budgeting goes a long way. When we take time to count the costs, we can streamline our lives and find there’s a bit more room than we might have thought before. For some of us, that still is not going to leave much, but it might make us feel confident enough to give five dollars to someone who needs it that we might have otherwise walked right by.

We live out of fear of scarcity, but we live in a world of abundance. I am not going to tell you that if you have enough faith that God will give you plenty of money to get whatever you want. Plenty of people the world over have more faith than any of us here, but still stuffer in poverty.

No, faith does not equal money, because the love of money only leads us to further sin. Instead, faith allows us to trust that the ends will meet, and that people can help us if we fall short. That only happens, though, if those with the means to give are willing to give. Not just to the church, but to people in need. Sometimes we might use an agency like Open Heart to mediate that giving, but we create a world free of scarcity when we live a life of generosity and love.

So let us abandon our love of money, and pursue our first love, our God and our creator. The life that is really life is open to us, but only if we can divorce ourselves from wealth. – Amen.

Sermon 09/18/2022 – Weighing Good and Evil

Luke 16: 1-13

Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly, for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone they may welcome you into the eternal homes.

“Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much, and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If, then, you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters, for a slave will either hate the one and love the other or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

Sermon Text

Not long ago we wrapped up a series on questions. Well, I’m sorry to say that the next few weeks of preaching are going to raise some questions for all of us. Through what I have to hope are the machinations of the Spirit and not just simple bad luck, I have planned our preaching through Advent to be stuffed with scriptures you do not often hear from the pulpit. We enter, therefore, a sermon series in miniature, a bizarre look at the texts we do our best to ignore. From the ghost of a prophet to Jesus seemingly supporting business fraud, we are going to practice from the pulpit what we should carry into our life – an inquisitive faith that allows for uncertain answers.

The scripture we are looking at today is a triumph of weird and difficult interpretations. In my studying for this week, I found a quote that matches my own feeling exactly. An article in Neotestamenticum opens by saying, “As far back as in the sixteenth century, Cajetanus declared that it is impossible to expound this parable…”[1] Impossible! How do we come to the opening of a chapter from the Gospel and find something impenetrable! Do we rush to find someone who does offer us an answer, or do we struggle with this to find a more fulfilling understanding of what Jesus has to offer us? Can any good come out of weighing good and evil and finding that which is dishonest, can have some utility?

I want us to go into our discussion fully understanding what is happening here. Jesus wraps up the Parable of the Good Samaritan, everyone is thinking about the ways they have been the older and younger sons to those around them, and how they have known the love of their heavenly father. Suddenly, Jesus begins a new parable. All ears open up, all eyes turn to Jesus, and then something strange follows.

A man deals in property – he gives people resources and money for them to make their own money and then asks for some amount of it back. It is unclear what the trade exactly is, but he seems to accept product as payment. He gives you the money to start your olive oil business, you give him some of the product to sell at a premium. He gives you the axes you need to start a lumber company, and you give him some amount of lumber. Money and supplies and this and that. He is a big mover and shaker and he is making money moves to make any shark blush in their tank.

One of his clerks, the people who actually write the bills and settle accounts, is doing a bad job. His deals are not bringing in any profits and he has shown himself to be more trouble than he is worth. The master says that he has to bring all existing contracts up to date and turn them in to be turned over to another manager. The clerk wonders how he can survive without this job and makes a plan. If he can underwrite all his contracts before they are turned in, then maybe the grateful contract holders will help him out. Suddenly, the $100 dollars you owe becomes $50. “That lumber contract? What lumber contract?! While we are at it though, can I stay with you for a little bit?”

The master gets the managers paperwork and is suddenly left with the realization that he has lost a lot of profit. The master holds his head in his hands and says, “Well, I could be angry, but in all honesty I’m mostly impressed.” Jesus ends his story by saying that worldly people are better with money, and more willing to cheat than Godly people. Thus, we should use dishonest money so that, when the money runs out, we still have support networks that are somehow holy.

What? I will say it again. What? What do you mean that scam artists are out there lurking, so I might as well play the game? Am I supposed to embezzle money from the office so that when I’m caught embezzling, I can have friends to take care of me? That is bad advice! If Jesus means that then I have to take issue with this teaching, because we you get caught embezzling money you go to jail, you don’t get to sleep in someone’s guest room. Thus, taking the lesson at face value is the wrong idea, there has to be more going on.

Some, like the article I mentioned earlier, have taken this parable and make it a story built upon sarcasm. The obvious duplicitous nature of the manager means that we who hear the story should never think that this is the right kind of thing to do. You cannot steal and not have it come back to bite you. Also, distantly I remember there being a commandment that says “You shall not steal.” Unless we make up, as some people do, an explanation that the manager was just dropping his commission from the bills – these rewrites are theft from the master’s pockets to the benefit of the manager.

Part of me, in this age of megacorporations, honestly wants to say, maybe that is not such a bad thing. Companies get insurance so that they can account for theft. They can lose lots of property and not feel it at all, meanwhile people who need baby food and diapers live another day. That feels just! People over profits! But it looks to the wrong answer to the question. The problem is that mothers cannot afford to care for their children. Our answer should not be that they have to resort to theft – it should be that the world supports them more and companies do not price gouge so that those mothers feel the need to steal.

 Similarly, I think Jesus is asking us to reroute our thinking through this parable. Jesus is well aware that it is easy to scam church people. It just is. Tell them that the world is ending, and they will probably buy your book. Tell them you saw heaven for 5 minutes and they will go see your movie and all its sequels. None of it has to be true, it just has to sound true. Jesus does not endorse scamming and say the church should follow suite. He highlights that there are many scammers out there, that they are very good at what they do, and then says that money is in itself tainted.

Next week, we’ll go more into what that might mean, for money to hold some evil to it. For now, though, let us look into this parable as a question to be answered. Jesus closes his thoughts by telling us that being faithful with our possessions is important. We cannot, after all, serve God and wealth. So why then, are we constantly chasing after money at any cost? We vote, not base upon our conscience, but upon our wallet. We plan how we can help our community, not based on what is best, but on what balances the checkbook effectively. We work hard in our offices, and with our investments, not for good in itself but to make sure we get all the unrighteous wealth we ever could want. We dishonestly manage our lives, and to what end?

The parable is a question, the answer is found somewhere in not being so money-minded in our lives. Yet, Jesus’s words still remain obscured. Next week, delving into the idea that “The love of money is the root of all manner of evil,” we will find some of the fog lifted, but still some other words of Jesus here are further blurred. Digging deeper, we find more living waters than we can imagine, but also blockages that seem impenetrable. I do not, standing here preaching, or as a devotee reading, think I have a good grasp of what Jesus is going for here in Luke 16, but I know that it made me think a lot about the world, and money, and companies, and poverty.

Today, as we close our reflection. Let us take this parable as a nucleus we can use to grow from. As hard as it is to break through and understand, maybe God gives it to us to simply make us think harder what we do with money, and how we get it. Let us take time to think, let us take time to question the shrewdness of the world and the righteousness of God. – Amen.

[1] I J Du Plessis. “Philantrhop or Sarcasm?” in Netestamentica 24 (1) 1990.

Sermon 09/11/2022 – Defending one Another

Exodus 32:7-14

The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’ ” The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them, and of you I will make a great nation.”

But Moses implored the Lord his God and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’ ” And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.

Sermon Text

The Lord changed his mind? Can you think of a more baffling sentence in all of scripture? The one for whom there is no shadow of change, the prime mover who set all the stars in their courses, this God… Changed their divine mind? This sort of thing is hard to square with a God who knows everything and who holds all of time and space in hand. The idea of God, sitting in eternity, coming down and being swayed by a conversation with one of his servants, is probably one of the stranger things we could come across in the pages of scripture.

Yet, here it is, in the black and white of the page, a fire of inspiration for us to gaze into and find some kind of illumination. In the face of the bizarre, I ask us to do what I so often do on a Sunday, ask some questions and be content in not having quite a complete answer. I’ll go ahead and spoil the end of this message by saying that we are not going to be able to have a coherent statement on what God has done in this passage, but we will have an example of how we should act in Moses and his own fiery words spoken in the very presence of, face to face to, God.

This episode is the culmination of Israel’s time at the foot of Mount Sinai. Moses has been gone for days, raptly attending to God’s every word and movement. Glory sits on the mountain and the people speculate what will happen now that Moses is gone. He has not come down to eat or drink, they have nothing to say he has found any rest on the mountain. The people conclude then that Moses is dead, or at the very least not coming down anytime soon. With the prophet who has been the voice of God to them gone, they begin to panic, they need something to comfort them. Aaron, trying to lead in his brother’s place, placates the people with the creation of a brazen creature. Gold hastily thrown into a fire and beaten into a facsimile of a calf.

The calf, and more specifically bulls, would be used to describe the God of Israel several times throughout the history of God’s people. Most famously, the words of Aaron as he consecrated the golden calf to Israel is reflected by Jeroboam centuries later. When the king sets up two bull statues to take the place of the temple in Jerusalem, saying, “Here are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.”[1] Adonai, the great bull, was an enduring image in the eyes of God’s people, and in their plight under the mountain they called upon it. Even in the presence of God’s being, the physical heat of Glory radiating down from the mountain, they felt a need for something immediate, something they could touch and comprehend. They exchanged the full presence of God for a lesser image of the same.

God did not let this go unnoticed, and told Moses the moment the people had fallen away. God commands Moses to leave him, so that he can begin the work of wrath without anyone present to see the terror to come. God is angry, and that anger is not going to be stopped for anything. The crackle of energy must have been intense, but even in the face of all that rage, Moses stood up and told God, “No. You are not going to destroy these people.”

As shocking as it can seem to us today to talk back to God, the prophets never had much problem with it. Moses especially seemed to be able to speak frankly to God in a way few others could. Moses here lays out a clear explanation to God – whether people deserve to be killed here or not, whether your wrath is justified or not, this is not the kind of God you are. The God who promised the descendants of Abraham so much, that comforted Isaac after his binding on the mountain, who walked Jacob to Egypt under the reign of his son Joseph, that same God would not abandon the people he loved. And imagine what the Egyptians might say?!

The rush of emotion was intense on that mountain. Though the text is sparse, I borrow from Elijah’s meeting with God to imagine the fire and earthquakes and thunder that accompanied God’s presence. To imagine that presence in the midst of a moment like this – it could only be amplified. The waves of splendor that emanated from God rushing all around, and yet a resolute servant stands firm before God and attests that this is not how God has acted before, and it should not be how God acts now. That fire, that crackling lightning and rushing wind… All begins to die down, leaving only the still small voice of God behind with Moses.

This is an incredible show of commitment by God. To yield in anger and preserve those he has called to be a part of his nation, his people. That does not mean they get off with a free pass. The sins committed that day do not go unpunished, there are immediate consequences from Moses and from God. Worse, the people never fully recover from this breach of covenant. Still, God does not abandon the promise made in ages past, God holds fast, God shows that God is still willing to live and work and love alongside God’s people.

Divine punishment, and Divine mercy, is a whole conversation unto itself, and we have spent a long time looking into the details of even just this one situation. It is high drama, and it shows God being calmed, changing the divine mind, at the urging of one of God’s own. That is a lot to take in. As I said at the outset of this message, we cannot fully explore how God can change direction, but we must acknowledge that it happens here. God ends up conforming more to what we expect of God by relenting, so maybe the change is not as drastic as it first appears. Maybe our ancient author is explaining something beyond our grasp in terms we can cling to. Either way, the mystery of divine freedom is there to behold, and we will end our time together with it still unresolved.

Rather than trying to explain what is ultimately mysterious, let us look at the person we can understand a bit more fully. Moses, standing before the divine and not backing down. I already said that this seems impossible for us to do. Honestly, I’m not sure any of us will ever find ourselves in the position that Moses is in. I have not led people through a wilderness, compelled by my God and witnessing that same God’s presence like I would a friend. Yet, I have been in situations where I have had the chance to defend people or to let other people go after them. I’ve been in situations where people deserve to have someone go after them, and situations where it is completely unwarranted. Have I ever been able to stand up for them like Moses does here?

Moses looks at the sin of his people and immediately decides that God is right to be angry, but asks for God to reconsider what that anger means. Moses arbitrates for God’s people. Have we arbitrated for our neighbors in disputes? Have we, when a family member is berating another one, taken up for them? Not to wade into the middle of a fight that isn’t ours or to create a conflict triangle that doesn’t need to be there, but simply to say, “Hey! This is not how we do things!” Conflict, that thing which we fear so intensely, is going to happen, but are we willing to be people who speak to it as it ought to be.

God relents, not because Moses denied wrongdoing by his people, but because he knew that there was something else that could be done. God sees in Moses’s refutation, a reflection of God’s own soul. The truest thing to God in that moment is to relent, we see for a moment a reflection of our own tendencies to rush to an answer, only to find a better one after sitting and reflecting for a moment longer. Moses had everything to lose in that moment, but his love for God and God’s people was enough for him to stand up and defend them. Is our love great enough to do the same? For our coworkers, for our neighbors, for the enemies we cannot stand, and the inconveniences we try to wish away. Is our love great enough to quell wrath? Let us, like Moses, be unafraid to test it out. – Amen.

[1] Ex. 32:4 cf. 1 Kings 12:28

Sermon 09/04/2022 – Love the Laborer

Ecclesiasticus 38: 27-32

So it is with every artisan and master artisan who labors by night as well as by day; those who carve the signets of seals— each is diligent in making a great variety; they set their heart on painting a lifelike image, and they lose sleep in order to finish their work.

So it is with the smith sitting by the anvil, intent on his ironwork; the breath of the fire melts his flesh, and he struggles with the heat of the furnace; the sound of the hammer deafens his ears, and his eyes are on the pattern of the object. He sets his heart on finishing his handiwork, and he loses sleep to complete its decoration.

So it is with the potter sitting at his work and turning the wheel with his feet; he always lies down anxious about his work, and his every work is taken into account. He molds the clay with his arm and makes it pliable with his feet; he sets his heart to finish the glazing, and he takes care in firing the kiln.

All these rely on their hands, and all are skillful in their own work. Without them no city can be inhabited, and wherever they live they will not go hungry. Yet they are not sought out for the council of the people, nor do they attain eminence in the public assembly.

Sermon Text

If you pick up your pew Bible, you will not find this morning’s reading. The text we used is from the “Apocrypha,” a collection of books which has always existed alongside the 66 books we call the Holy Bible. They were not given quite the same prominence but were always used and enjoyed by the people of God. When Martin Luther began the reformation, one of his major charges against the Church was that it had never decided whether or not these books were actually scripture. He took those books and said that they were unfit to be called “Scripture,” and so they were thrown out of the protestant bible, now put to the side as the “hidden books,” to be used for study and not to be considered scripture. Catholics, meanwhile, canonized them as scripture at the Council of Trent, calling them “the second canon,” or “Deuterocanonical.”

It is, in some ways, a complete shame that the books of the Apocrypha have fallen out of use in protestant circles. They tell us a lot about the time between Malachi and Matthew, shedding light on how the people of God existed in diaspora and under the oppression of Greeks and Romans alike. There are also massive collections of proverbs, histories, and even some of the earlier pieces of texts describing angels as we understand them today. The apocrypha is a treasure trove of information, even if it is not a place we acknowledge as fully inspired by God.

Today we read one of the hardest truths of life, transcendent into the Biblical era and even beyond it. The plight of the worker in society. Those who build our roads, who put up the electrical infrastructure, that connect water lines from place to place – are often those who are pushed away and reduced to the faceless masses. The cashier at the grocery store and the fast-food worker, the receptionist, and the facilities manager – just cogs in the great machine of our consumption. Without the essential work they do, we would be lost, and yet we do not think of them, hardly celebrate them, and often malign them.

When we open scripture, we may think of it as mostly moral lessons about how to live in general with one another. However, if we really break down the stories within it, we will find that God is a practical deity as well as a transcendent one. The words of the Torah, of God’s teachings through Moses, are centered squarely on the idea that there are real world interactions that need to be mediated through a set of laws and ethics. This is no clearer than the many protections that God gave through Moses to the workers in society. To every laborer was due their pay, and that pay was to be prompt. Even animals could not be withheld food during their work. If cattle were being used to grind grain, or to plow fields, they were to be allowed to stop and eat whenever they felt the need.[1]

We live in a culture that has little regard for workers. Even in West Virginia, once known for open rebellion in the face of corporate oppression, we find ourselves sliding into a mindset that fails to see in the worker the full value of what they give us. Right-to-Work laws in this state weaken the power of Unions, organizations that prevent the abuse of workers by the company that employs them. At-will employment allows for employers to fire their workers for any reason not connected to protected statuses, limiting the legal recourse an employee has for egregious termination. The balance of power has long shifted away from the working people of this world, and toward the rich and powerful. When have we ever seen a working person take public office? Rarely, except maybe locally, and even then they usually have made a good amount of money in their ascent.

As Ecclesiasticus tells us, we all depend on skilled laborers to live. Yet, we never regard those who do this work as equal to those who have found more “developed,” careers. Beyond skilled labor, we have invented the concept of “unskilled labor,” that outside of technical knowledge required for certain positions there are those who simply fill space in assembly lines of life. Those who worked in service industries know that there are skills needed to do those jobs well. We’ve all had bad waiters, because there are skills we need to be a good waitstaff, ask my mother who was a waitress for most of her working life. Those who work in service know that even something like how onions are cut is often highly specified and important work.

The laborer is not someone who deserves denigration, and yet we refuse to fight for them. We support companies who union bust, because we see workers as a threat to our way of life. Yet, we look at people fleeing our state and wonder why. Teachers who cannot legally strike, not able to fight for fair pay, flee to states that will treat them with respect. Young people, fresh out of school and ready for trade or out of college and ready for something new, cannot stay in a state that will not regard their work as significant. We have to see in those around us, as we’ll elaborate on more next week, people worth fighting for and not enemies to fight against.

God has blessed us richly, as people and as a nation, but can we show that blessing to those who keep this world running? Can we love the laborer who serves us?  Not letting society tell us there are haves and have-nots who must be at war, but instead create a solidarity that transcends and transforms these distinctions. The janitor that cleans is no less than the CEO who leads – one works forty hours of hard labor and the other sits in meetings – yet we treat the one with wealth as though they alone were worthy of our regard. James, in his epistle, asks the church if they truly love God, and then says that if they did they would not show preference to those with money and power. Yet, we do so often neglect the poor, the struggling, the working people trying to make ends meet. I proclaim today what Christ proclaimed long ago, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Or, perhaps more simply, Solidarity now, and Solidarity Forever!

[1] Deut. 25:4 Lev. 19:13

Lord over Death – 08/21/2022

John 19: 19-29

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors were locked where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

1 Corinthians 15:35-49

          But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” Fool! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And as for what you sow, you do not sow the body that is to be but a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen and to each kind of seed its own body. Not all flesh is alike, but there is one flesh for humans, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish. There are both heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but the glory of the heavenly is one thing, and that of the earthly is another. There is one glory of the sun and another glory of the moon and another glory of the stars; indeed, star differs from star in glory.

So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. Thus it is written, “The first man, Adam, became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that is first but the physical and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, made of dust; the second man is from heaven. As one of dust, so are those who are of the dust, and as one of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the one of dust, we will also bear the image of the one of heaven.

Sermon Text

We all die. That is something as obvious to us as our own birth. We do not often make it far into life without experiencing death. Whether it is of a family member, a friend, an animal, or even an over watered plant, we have to face the fact of our limited lifespan at some time or another. We are some of the longest lived creatures on earth, with only turtles and a few marine creatures beating out our seventy some years of life. Yet, the slow degradation of our withering bones makes us face the end eventually. A final breath on one side of eternity bringing us into the other.

I was asked two questions about death that both tie into the scriptures we read a moment ago. The first question was, “What should we think about cremation?” and “What does the Bible actually say about reunions in Heaven?” I’ve changed the wording slightly for both of those but the substance is the same. As people who believe in bodily resurrection, how we treat our body after death is important. As people who believe in life after death, how and if we meet our loved ones in the hereafter is likewise on the forefront of our minds. The answer is found, not in any one sentence, but in a few places we can look at to get a good idea of things.

First, we can address the physical resurrection of the dead as an answer to cremation. Jesus shows us in his resurrection that body we live and die in is the body we carry into the next life. When Jesus goes to the disciples, he is definitely changed by having died and been raised back into life, but he is still the same Jesus. His hands still bear the scars of the nails that pierced him, his side still bore the marks of a spear that stabbed him. Jesus who died was Jesus who was raised, not just an imitation or spiritual facsimile.

This tells us that there is continuity between the state of the body at death and the resurrected body. This has led to a deep respect in Christian communities for bodily preservation. Like their Jewish siblings before them, Christians balked the Roman practice of cremation in exchange for bodily burial. The desire was to keep the body whole in expectation of its eventual resurrection. This was not because God would not be able to revivify a cremated person, but was an acknowledgement that God would someday raise the dead back into life.

I still think that there is something to preserving the body in death, but I am also an organ donor, so I know that the hospital will relieve me of several parts of my body ahead of any kind of burial I get. The respect for the sanctity of the human life is not something that means only those buried in a certain way with certain amounts of their body intact get to know the resurrection of the dead. Several saints were burned alive, beheaded, or generally mutilated in the process of dying. I find it hard to believe that they are locked out for that.

The fact is, if God can do the incredibly hard work of revivifying the dead, I do not see God having a problem resurrecting anyone no matter how their body is interred. I know there are programs now to have our bodies turned to compost, into diamonds, and into a nitrogenated slurry. What is important in death and in care of the dead, is that however we are interred it is done with respect for the life of the one who is being interred. For myself, I hope for a natural burial in a pine box. I do not want a vault, a casket, or any of that fancy stuff. Just something simple for me to return to the dust in.

For the Christian, Christ’s victory over death means that we honor those who die however we can. That is why we keep our graveyards and mausoleums well kept and preserve the names of the dead. Not that this is a uniquely Christian impulse, but it is something we have long honored. So, to answer our first question of the day – is cremation a thing we as a Church can support? Definitely.

The second question of the day is how we will recognize one another in the age to come. Paul is clear in our scripture that our resurrection is like that of Christ’s, and so anything we know about the resurrection we have to take from him and a few of his teachings. Jesus was recognizable to his disciples, but usually only after some event triggered their memory. For the disciples on Emmaus it was the breaking of bread, for the twelve it was the giving of peace and the catching of fish. Jesus was changed enough that it took some time to recognize him, but he was still very much Jesus.

Jesus carried with him the memories of his disciples, his love for them, the individual relationships he had with them. Jesus showed us that relationships went beyond the pall of death and into the eternity of God’s resurrection. In other words, there is a future we will have together in Heaven. There are some caveats to that though. Jesus is clear, for example, that marriage ends in death. We specifically have in our vows, “till death do us part,” because someday we will find ourselves cut off from our beloved and separated. Christ tells us that that separation makes us, no longer spouses, but fellow members of God’s eternal family.

Now, as I said we still retain our memories and life experiences and relationships. Therefore, I echo the sentiment of a liturgics professor I had once, who said, “In Heaven we are as angels, who do not marry, but I’m saving a seat for my husband right beside me even still!” Our relationships are transformed in resurrection, but they can never be erased. However, that works I am not worried, because I know I’ll be around those I love one way or another.

Heaven will, all the same, be populated with a countless multitude of people. We will be with saints from all time and space and from places we have never even heard of. All languages will be represented, all cultures, a diversity and numerousness we cannot begin to imagine. That means that we will not be in a room only of people we know, the whole of the New Jerusalem, of the new Heaven and Earth, will be opened up to us.

That means that the image of an immediate or organized reunion on the other side of this life is never mentioned in scripture. There is no singular, definite description of the saints we know sitting down together on the other side of this life. Yet, it seems impossible to me that God would keep people apart, or that in all of eternity we would not find one another again. If we want to give a quick and easy answer about how the Bible talks about what we will do, “When we all get to Heaven,” we will not find it. Yet a few things are clear.

God brings the dead to life, and God will have us all together in the new creation one day. This new life will include one another as a communion like what we know on Earth, albeit somewhat altered. We retain our personality in this new life, and given infinite time, it would be impossible to think we will not see each other again. Is there a welcoming committee in paradise of all our loved ones? I cannot say, but I know they are waiting for us, praying for us, and we will one day feast at the same table as them once more. That, in itself, is enough for me. – Amen.

The Details of the Devil – 08/14/2022

Genesis 3: 1-7

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’ ” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die, for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food and that it was a delight to the eyes and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked, and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.

Job 1: 6-12

            One day the heavenly beings came to present themselves before the Lord, and the accuser (Ha Satan,) also came among them. The Lord said to the accuser, “Where have you come from?” The accuser answered the Lord, “From going to and fro on the earth and from walking up and down on it.” The Lord said to the accuser, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil.” Then the accuser answered the Lord, “Does Job fear God for nothing? Have you not put a fence around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But stretch out your hand now, and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.” The Lord said to the accuser, “Very well, all that he has is in your power; only do not stretch out your hand against him!” So the accuser went out from the presence of the Lord.

Mark 1: 12-13

          And the Spirit immediately drove [Jesus] out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tested by Satan, and he was with the wild beasts, and the angels waited on him.

Sermon Text

The Devil. Of all things I could talk about from the pulpit, Demonology is probably the one that can potentially rile the most feathers. We all have our way that we see evil in the universe, and many of us have strong feelings about just what kind of threat the Devil is in our life. Many of you will have lived through the Satanic Panic of the 1970s and ‘80s, in which just about everything was seen as a potential entryway for Satan into the hearts of humanity. Whether it was rock music, back masked metal albums, or horror films, there was an expectation of a war for the souls of humanity – waged in culture and in the Heavenly realms.

Yet, that image of a Devil who is secretly running the show is something largely alien to scripture. We have built a powerful image of Satan up in our minds and so we see him as much more than scripture has shown to us. The Devil is in the Details, and today we look at the Details of the Devil, as we plumb the depths of the Bible and beyond to see what we can make of the Father of Lies and Prince of the Spirits of the Air.

Firstly, we have to establish just how foundational our misunderstandings of the Devil are. Our first scripture was from Genesis, which is where most people see the Devil as rearing his ugly head. Yet, if you read the scripture and take it at its word, this snake is only a “beast of the field.” This is no devil, this is just a serpent that took issue with God’s limitations of human life. I’ll go further to say that no canonical book of scripture sees this snake as the Devil. There is one mention of Satan bringing death to the world in Ecclesiasticus, a book which we do not have in our Protestant Bibles. 1 Enoch says a different being named Gader’el took the form of the snake in the Garden. Even Revelation, which describes the Devil as an “Ancient Serpent,” uses a word (οφις/δρακων) which just as easily means dragon as it does literal snake. I say all this to point out, most of what we say about the Devil is not something God has told us, but something we have told ourselves.

The Devil next occurs, if we are looking just at page order, when David conducts a census in Israel and courts the wrath of God. The Chronicler says that Satan tempted David to do this, but it is interesting to note that 2 Samuel places the inspiration for the Census in God’s hands. Making God the architect of David’s own punishment. This vision of Satan as tempter shows up in his only other Old Testament appearance. In the book of Job, “Ha Satan,” the Adversary, is a member of God’s court. He serves as the inquisitor who walks the earth and tests humanity on behalf of God. For the pre-exilic community it seems that that is how they saw the Devil. God’s employee, a member of the Heavenly courts, but not as some grand evil working against humanity.

This view emerges in the post-exilic Jewish world. When God’s people are in Babylon they run into new religions that ask questions about where Evil comes from and how it is combatted. Judaism develops in diaspora alongside religions like Zoroastrianism and the various apocalyptic cults that emerge in the latter parts of the first millennium BCE. They all need to explain how trouble entered the world, and what God was fighting against, and so this sharing of religious language produces a new conception of evil. Personified evil begins to be a way to understand trouble, and this figure of personable evil is given many names. The most enduring in our minds are Satan – plucked straight from scripture “The adversary,” – and the Devil – a derivation of the Greek for “accuser.”

By the time the New Testament was written the Devil was seen as the source of all evil. Even in texts that make no attempt to place the Devil in Eden, this evil force is at least supportive of Adam’s sin against God. Enoch imagines a long list of demons that helped humanity found civilization, gifting them metal working and farming technology before finding themselves cast into Hell, leaving behind the spirits of their Nephilim children to haunt humanity.

It would be easy at this point, maybe even convenient, to suggest that the Devil was just an idea to explain how evil found its way into the world. That cannot be the case though, because as our Gospel passage explains, Jesus ran into the Devil. Revelation describes conflict with these Spiritual entities and Jesus frequently runs into people with demonic influences of one kind or another. To say that a person of faith can just wave off demons as a relic of the past is to put at risk a lot of our more spiritual beliefs. The truth is, even if the Devil and our understanding of it have changed over time, there is a reality to this personification of all things wicked. The problem comes that we take what scripture tells us, and we rewrite it to be more compelling.

The image of the Devil as a fallen angel, tragic in some ways, is something that comes from sources outside the Bible. Jude does describe the Devil and “his angels,” as being wrapped in chains awaiting Judgement, but that is borrowed from Enoch and its exact meaning is unclear. Revelation likewise describes a third of the stars falling from the sky when a tail swipes across the heavens, but nowhere in the Bible is there a description of a great angelic rebellion. This comes later as people take those different pieces of scripture and make them tell a single story.

Even our most popular name for the Devil, “Lucifer,” comes from us mixing our scriptural stories. Isaiah 14 begins, “You will take up this taunt against the King of Babylon,” and continues on later, “How you are fallen from heaven, O Morning Star, son of Dawn! How you are cut down to the ground, you who laid the nations low!” This title, “Morning Star,” became “ἑωσφόρος” (heosphoros,) in Greek and then “Lucifer” in Latin. The title became a name and the association with Nebuchadnezzar shifted to an association with the Devil. Dante would immortalize this connection in his Divine Comedy and John Milton would make it a solid part of the English literary and cultural canon when he wrote Paradise Lost.

Much of what we make of the Devil comes from the culture around us. We imagine hooves and pitchforks because that is what different societies over time gave to the Devil. The Devil could look like any other person for all we know, or like something completely inhuman. The vision of the Devil up till now in our discussion has been about the accidents of this being, not anything substantial to what he can and cannot do. So, let us cut to the chase, what impact does the Devil have on our daily life.

I would say, not much at all. Shocking I know, but I am not a man who lives in fear of the Devil. I do not think that if you watch horror movies a demon can sneak into your life, or that there are ways to accidentally align oneself with demonic entities. I would go further to say that there is no grand satanic conspiracy at work in the world – outside of the reality of sin and our capacity to participate in it. I believe that the devil has lost all power on this earth, and I believe that because of the cross of Calvary and the blood of Jesus Christ.

Paul describes us as having been freed from Sin and Death, and Satan’s only tool against us are those things. We cannot be compelled to sin by Satan, because we have been purchased for righteousness by Jesus Christ. Peter, in his epistle, describes the Devil as a lion waiting to pounce on our weakness, and I believe it, but I think we are not assailed by the Devil so much as by ourselves. We are not tempted except in the ways that Christ was tempted long ago, and like Christ, we are freed for freedom’s sake, to not give into the Devil.

The Devil, the old enemy of humanity, is a shadow to the Christian. The Light of Christ is sufficient to chase him away with a single word. There are not witches that can conjure him, nor demons lurking in the dark, nor any fear or oppression except what we take on ourselves. Fear not the darkness of the evil one, for we have a Lord in Jesus who has delivered us from all evil. – Amen

Why Does God Allow Illness? – 08/07/2022

Isaiah 45: 5-7 (NKJV)

I am the Lord, and there is no other; There is no God besides Me. I will gird you, though you have not known Me, that they may know from the rising of the sun to its setting That there is none besides Me. I am the Lord, and there is no other; I form the light and create darkness, I make peace and create calamity; I, the Lord, do all these things.’

Ecclesiastes 9: 11-12

Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful; but time and chance happen to them all. For no one can anticipate the time of disaster. Like fish taken in a cruel net, and like birds caught in a snare, so mortals are snared at a time of calamity, when it suddenly falls upon them.

John 11: 1-6

Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.

Philippians 2:5-11

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Sermon Text

We begin another series on questions with a look at one of the most difficult questions I personally struggle with as a person of faith. Why does God allow disease, or more widely, why does God choose not to answer prayers when there is no reason for God not to want to help? Why do we not see people immediately healed of disease or injury when we lay hands on them? Why, in a word, is there suffering in a world with a good and infinite God?

I begin by saying that we do not have enough time to fully exhaust this question. There are people who have devoted their entire life to writing on this single question, and they have not come to a satisfying conclusion. We definitely are not going to come to a full examination of the problem of suffering in just the fifteen or twenty minutes we look at it today. However, I think we can start to understand the ways we can think about it and what each perspective can tell us about God.

The first perspective, one that I find completely unsatisfying, is the idea that Isaiah puts forward in our scripture for today. Isaiah wrote his prophecy at a time when a great deal of suffering was around him. Babylon had conquered and the people of God wanted answers. For some, the narrative coming out of Babylon that Nebuchadnezzar’s God had succeeded in conquering Israel’s God was compelling. Maybe the God of Abraham had been defeated, maybe they suffered because their divine patron was defeated or even worse, maybe that patron was dead.

Isaiah is clear that suffering is not the fault of some foreign divinity. There is no power in Heaven except for God. This means, from Isaiah’s perspective, that if anyone caused Judah to fall, it had to have been the God of Judah. In other words, God causes both the good and the bad in the universe. God heals the sick and also causes their sickness in the first place.

This idea is found a few places in scripture, but it is not a universe or undeniable truth. In modern belief, it is mostly a Calvinist idea that disease is caused by God directly. I have in my hand here a book that was sent to me, randomly, by John Piper’s ministry “Desiring God,” at the start of the Pandemic. In it, Piper alleges that while we cannot speculate as to what will happen during a pandemic, God controls it. Some people will get sick as punishment, some because God has allowed it to happen, and some for reasons no one can know. I don’t like this book. I do not think God sends disease to make us learn or suffer, and I think putting the full responsibility for suffering on God’s head, while reassuring to some, does nothing for me.

A second perspective in scripture as to why people suffer is found in Ecclesiastes, and it speaks to me as a more likely explanation of most trouble we face. The race of life is not to the best equipped person or the strongest or the kindest, but simply to how random chance positions us. I might not get sick from something that makes someone just like me sick. I might not hydroplane and crash a car while the vehicle next to me will. There does not have to be a deeper meaning to these bad events than that they happened. The problem with this, of course, is that it makes God a passive participant in history. If God is just sitting around seeing what happens, then what is the point?

A third perspective comes from John, where Jesus looks at the sickness and death of Lazarus as a means by which God’s glory can be shown to the world. This is similar to how John Piper presented things. God brings sickness and healing both as a testimony to how powerful God is on one hand and good God is on the other. I am not about to argue with Jesus, but I think that Lazarus specifically was an example of something happening so that God could show who Jesus was, and not so much that all suffering and death is just an example that God can use to show off. I don’t want a God who sees me as a chance to flex, I want a God who shows me love.

Now, those are three different perspectives, and I hope that each has shown you that there is no one answer that scripture gives about why there is suffering. More than just these, there are hundreds of stories that describe these conflicts in their own terms. Sometimes God is seen as being behind trouble, sometimes as being the remedy to something that nature or humanity has caused apart from God. Sometimes God highlights the moment as a chance to show the glory and love of Heaven and sometimes it seems to just be a thing that happened and that someone wrote down.

Job, having faced all the trouble in the world despite never doing anything to deserve it asked God hundreds of different ways why things happened the way they did. God looked down and showed Job that he was capable of taking care of things, not to worry, and even that did not satisfy Job. Job, like we often do, stopped questioning and started trusting, but he never says that he is satisfied with the lack of an answer. He repents of sack cloth and ashes, but not of questioning. In fact, God lifts Job up and says that he alone, among all those who speak throughout the book, honored God in questioning how a good God could allow so much trouble.

I’ll make things a bit more personally. My wife is chronically ill. Grace suffers from severe arthritis, persistent migraines, and a variety of other ailments that sometimes seem to have no end in sight and no obvious cause. She suffers so much pain and discomfort, so many nights of lost sleep and days of lost potential, and nothing seems to fix it. Treatment helps, but the thing about chronic illness is that there will never be a moment that it just gets fixed, where the trouble just disappears. I have prayed fervently for something to happen, asked for miracle after miracle. Still, she suffers pain, still she loses sleep, still I am left raging at a God who seems to be unwilling to move on behalf of someone so sick and so in pain.

I do not know why my prayers go unanswered. I do know, however, that God is not ignoring me. Beyond any abstract feeling of being heard, I know that God is on my side and by Grace’s side. Her pain is not ignored because God felt pain just like hers. I will be honest with you today and say that I can only continue on in my faith, only stand up and proclaim the Gospel like I do, because the questions and uncertainties, the various perspectives of pain that scripture express, are given something tangible and powerful in the person of Jesus Christ.

Our final scripture, from Philippians, is my favorite passage in the entire Bible. Here Paul recounts a hymn older than the New Testament itself. Jesus Christ, existent from the beginning and in very nature God, did not see fit to stay in the perfection of Heaven and the power of the Godhead. Instead, Christ took on human form and suffered with us. Christ felt the heat of a fever, the pain of bruises, and the awful pain of physical injury. Christ felt all sickness and all pain so that God could never let someone go unhealed without having felt the exact same thing they are left to suffer. I cannot give you a completely satisfying answer to why sickness is allowed to continue, but I can tell you that Christ is with us as we go through it.

We continue to pray for healing, and we trust in God to bring it. We know that God is in control somehow, even when we do not see our prayers answered like we would like or in the way we might. We know that God can show the glory of Heaven in our sickness and our Health. We know all this, not because of sheer force of real or ignorance to the reality of suffering, but because Jesus Christ came and lived and suffered among us. I may not understand why sickness has to continue on earth, why pain is allowed to reign in our life, but I know that God signed on to suffer alongside us in the midst of it all. It does not make everything instantly better just to acknowledge that, but it shows what God is willing to do to be with us and to show us God’s love. It may not make every question go away, but it is good enough for me. – Amen.

Profile of a Prophet: Anna – 07/31/2022

Luke 2: 36-40

There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came and began to praise God and to speak about the child [Jesus] to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom, and the favor of God was upon him.

Sermon Text

We close our look at the Prophets with one of the final prophets named in scripture. While a few more crop up in Acts, they are given even more passing a mention than Anna is given here. Anna is a prophet, a daughter of Phanuel, and a member of the tribe of Asher. She is given no voice in scripture, and yet we know her name and lineage and that she was among the first to publicly proclaim the work that Jesus was going to begin, some thirty years before any of it took place. Anna, Prophet of the Most High God, holds less than a paragraph of space in our gospel, but she must take an important place in our discussion of what a prophet is.

A prophet is the one who tells us to turn before we fall. They reveal the name and nature of God. They show us God’s very own emotions. They tell us the mysteries that even they can only begin to grasp. The final revelation of a prophet, at least that we will be discussing in our series, is just as important as all others. The Prophet reveals to us, the width and breadth and all-consuming nature of God’s love. This is achieved, not only in what the prophet says, but who the prophet is. Anna, Prophet of God, shows us that God calls people of all backgrounds and places in life to bring about Heaven on Earth.

Anna is described as being the daughter of Phanuel, the name doesn’t point to any specific person we know from history, but it is an interesting name to have. Phanuel, is a Greek spelling of the Hebrew Panuel, or “The face of God.” It is one of those names that shows God’s closeness to us. Not only is Anna’s father mentioned in her background, but that she is from the tribe of Asher, a Northern tribe. One of the things we come up to again and again in our discussion of scripture is the disappearance of the Northern tribe after the Assyrian conquest. Her family survived that conquest, and she stands as a descendant of those lost tribes.

The identification of Anna with the Northern Kingdom probably seems incidental to us. As people who do not hold tightly to our locative self-definitions, place is just a thing we find ourselves in. However, in the ancient world, place was one of the most important things a person held onto. When you were born in a town and probably never left it, then the most minute separation between one area and another had profound meaning. To tie the history of a person to something lost to the original audience of the gospels, of a people long dispersed and all but erased, is to tie Anna to something far older and far beyond the present troubles of the Roman occupation.

More than that, Anna is ancient herself. The Greek is unclear, and so she may be 87 years old or have lived 87 as a widow, in which case she’d be well over 100 years old at the time of Jesus’s visit to the Temple as an infant. Either way, she would remember when Judah was free from Rome, when it lived as an independent people. She would have been told the stories of her people, Asher, and life before the monarchy split and the monarchy fell. She was a great holder of lore that would define the people of God’s struggle now, in the past, and forever more. She dreamt of the day God would bring back, not a free Judah like in her youth, but a complete restoration of God’s people.

The people of God closest to her, at least by relation, were probably Samaritans, those people in what once was the Northern Kingdom. It is unclear how many of the Samaritans were Israelite or were shipped in by Assyria after the conquest, but they were people of Israel, or Samaria as the Assyrians, Babylonians, and many others called it. It was not till Ezra’s tenure as scribe in Judea that they were considered a separate people to the exilic community. So even in her identification here, she brings yet another community closer to God through her work as a prophet seated in the temple day after day, after day.

Anna also completes Luke’s tendency of uplifting women, while also highlighting his bad habit of stealing their words. Luke speaks more about women than any other Gospel, but he also will give things that women say in other Gospels to male speakers. He is a great collector of stories, but it seems that when a woman spoke, he sometimes doubted her eloquence could belong to her, and so shifted her voice to someone else in the scene. Anna is a prophet, defined by her speaking God’s word, and yet Luke tells us nothing that she said. Maybe Simeon, a prophet who speaks just before her, did not say every good word Luke puts in his mouth after all.

I could go on about Anna and the many hats that she wears, but I think I have made my point. She brings together different categories of gender, ethnicity, familial status, income, place, et cetera, et cetera. In her is an inflection point, a fulcrum, on which the Gospel must turn. God does not use one kind of person to bring about God’s will, but all people in all ways. We cannot begin to understand the largeness of God if we do not also consider the wideness of God’s love. There is no one who is not called and no one who cannot answer God’s call.

Now here, we may start saying, “God can use, even me!” And I want us to stop with the word, “Even.” Though God’s love is astounding in its inclusivity and its ability to make holy what was once mundane, I do not think it is helpful to say, “God can use, even,” anything. The call of God to all people is equalizing, and that means that it truly makes equitable what the world has made hierarchical. Anna is a poor widow, and a prophet of God. Full stop. God is not calling, “Even a poor widow!” He is calling a prophet who is a poor widow. You see what I mean? Our identity matters, our stories must be told, but if we demean ourselves in the process of celebrating God’s great love and strength and mercy, then we ultimately work against what God is trying to do in the world.

There is room to be honest, and to, like Paul, cry out, “Sinner that I am, who can free me from this body of death?!” But only insomuch as we acknowledge our present faults, and not see our inherent being or circumstance as any reason to mourn. God did not call a woman despite her womanhood, but because she was a woman. God does not call any of us, despite ourselves, but because of who we are. This woman, of the tribe of Asher, widowed at a young age, and now older than most anyone around her, was called to be a prophet because of each of those things, and not one of them was any less valuable or precious a status to God.

We all face unique challenges in life because of who we are, some more than others, and all at the whims of society and culture. Some of us are blessed to face very little opposition, others do not have that privilege. There are many still who are in danger simply for being who they are, and until we live in a world where the essential nature and the momentary circumstances of a person’s life are not seen as elevating or denigrating their dignity, there will always be work to do to draw the circle wider. Justice is a difficult thing, and the restoration of our Edenic bliss will not be found in anything but the restoration of all people to a place where they are seen as beloved of God, for nothing other than the fact that God so chooses to love the world, and in so doing gives us the only Begotten Son.

Let Anna, and her words that we can only imagine, be for us a call to take on the roles of the prophet as God calls us to do. Some to proclaim mystery, so to warn against idolatry, and some still simply to testify the name of a God who calls himself Jesus. Wherever the prophetic call leads, know the Spirit of God blazes a path on ahead of us. May we all find our way, not despite, but because of what God has called us to be in this world. – Amen.

Profile of a Prophet: Ezekiel – 07/24/2022

Ezekiel 1: 1-14

In the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, as I was among the exiles by the River Chebar, the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God. On the fifth day of the month (it was the fifth year of the exile of King Jehoiachin), the word of the Lord came to the priest Ezekiel son of Buzi in the land of the Chaldeans by the River Chebar, and the hand of the Lord was on him there.

As I looked, a stormy wind came out of the north: a great cloud with brightness around it and fire flashing forth continually and in the middle of the fire something like gleaming amber. In the middle of it was something like four living creatures. This was their appearance: they were of human form. Each had four faces, and each of them had four wings. Their legs were straight, and the soles of their feet were like the sole of a calf’s foot, and they sparkled like burnished bronze. Under their wings on their four sides they had human hands.

And the four had their faces and their wings thus: their wings touched one another; each of them moved straight ahead, without turning as they moved. As for the appearance of their faces: the four had the face of a human being, the face of a lion on the right side, the face of an ox on the left side, and the face of an eagle; such were their faces. Their wings were spread out above; each creature had two wings, each of which touched the wing of another, while two covered their bodies. Each moved straight ahead; wherever the spirit would go, they went, without turning as they went. In the middle of the living creatures there was something that looked like burning coals of fire, like torches moving to and fro among the living creatures; the fire was bright, and lightning issued from the fire. The living creatures darted to and fro, like a flash of lightning.

Sermon Text

I am a fan of a genre known as “Cosmic Horror.” In these stories the absolute smallness of humanity is compared with the grandness of the universe, and in the incredible dissonance, the mind begins to shatter. We cannot conceive of the size of some of the most distant stars from us, nor of the age of the universe that surrounds us. We who live our three score and ten on a single mote of dust in the sunbeam of a middle-sized star, cannot conceive of infinite time and space sprawling all around us. Thus, some of us find a strange comfort in personifying that terror in the form of unimaginable monsters and sleeping cities of strange geometry.

One of things I threatened throughout seminary, and might still someday do, is to take some serious time and compare how religious experience compares to cosmic terror. Afterall, we worship a God, “of which nothing greater can be conceived.” For such a being to enter our consciousness, we must be forced to imagine something larger than even the unimaginable stars distant from us. Something older than the universe whose foundations such a being set in place. To encounter God is to come to grips with the absolute finitude of the self and the absolute magnitude of the Divine.

Today we look at a prophetic vision that incorporates the terrible wonder of God with the knowledge of all the other aspects of God the prophets have shown us so far in our journey through their lives. The same God who is constantly making known the nature of God, that is revealing their own truth and oneness, and that is a Divine Personality we can know and feel alongside, is also something far beyond our scope of ever fully understanding. In this moment, God sends forward a collection of heavenly creatures as a welcoming committee, or perhaps a forward guard. The descriptions we read are bizarre, almost nonsensical, and they carry a great deal of power behind them.

Four creatures with multiple heads, their eyes locked in different directions and their wings spread out around them. They are vaguely person shaped, but are seemingly made of bronze, and covered in some kind of leather. Any attempt to draw them falls short of really capturing what this passage describes, and in our attempts to imagine them, we inevitably take a short cut to make them a little more intelligible. The reality is that what Ezekiel describes here is probably not terribly accurate to what he would have seen. His mind was grasping at straws to draw parallels in this world to something that was distinctly of another world. This first vision of several was already beyond his power of comprehension, and he had not even yet seen the wheels within wheels covered in eyes upon eyes.

Ezekiel is a prophet who has one primary purpose – to show the people in exile that there is a future ahead of them more wonderful than the past that they are nostalgic for. This is accomplished through a variety of visions – visions of a new Jerusalem and a temple at its center, visions of heavenly beings like no other, and visions of God as a man wreathed in flame and cast in metal. Nothing in this vision should be literal to us, it is simply an attempt of our faculties to grasp something beyond ourselves. Yet, it shows us something interesting about God. God’s immense nature, terrifying at first glance, eventually allows us feel secure. If such a deity, so great and terrifying to behold, so far beyond our own ability to even imagine, is on our side, then the extremity of the world’s troubles are suddenly much more moderate.

When we hear the wonders of Heaven revealed in Ezekiel, we are not being given literal diagrams of Heaven or of angelic ways of being, nor do we see them in Daniel or Revelation. Instead, we are being given a glimpse of something much larger than we are. This largeness manifests in one of two reactions. The first reaction is to try and constrain God, to make the descriptions Ezekiel gives exact and literal, and so constrain God. The second is much more exciting.

In this second reality we let the mystery of God continue to grow and thrive within us. The image of God, the image of the angels, the image of Heaven breaking through! These are not pictures of a moment captured and delivered perfectly to us, but are instead the shadow, as in a mirror darkly, of what glory we might one day know. There is light bursting out every moment in the dim recollections of our eyes, but that light is always filtered through a variety of prisms. We are able to engage and wonder at what God offers us, but there is always more to know and to see and to comprehend.

When we come together on Sunday we somehow join together with the entire Church everywhere and every time. If we try and turn make that something we can easily imagine, we lose it completely. When we take bread and juice and pray together to celebrate the Holy Eucharist we somehow, spiritually, eat Jesus’s flesh and blood. If we try to make that into something easily understood, then we become weird vampiric cannibals. The entire nature of the Church, from how we are baptized into death and simultaneously resurrection, to something as simple as prayers that never leave our lips but somehow land in the ear of God, all of it is mystery that we can never truly give solid form to.

One of the things I wanted to test out with this service was to see what the raw textual description of these beings in Ezekiel would look like if I asked an image generator to draw it. So the cover of our bulletin this week reflects what a non-human intelligence does with the raw words that are given in scripture. Looking at that, I’m not confident it is what Ezekiel saw, but I can’t say that it is wrong in terms of trying to put the description of these beings into something a bit more solid.

Computers, with their dedicated processors oriented toward the one goal of painting images, cannot begin to understand the nature of the divine. We with our much stronger, but much more involved organic processes cannot ever grasp an image of divinity for very long. Yet, in what Ezekiel, what Isaiah, what every prophetic voice in all of scripture gives us, is a glimpse into something greater. By them writing down what they saw we all can see, even for a moment, what heavenly wonders exist just beyond the veil of this life. As we encounter God, there are always moments like this, moments of liminality where the separation between what is visible and what is invisible seems inconsequential.

About the time I properly converted to the faith, I was in a worship service and had a religious experience that was not completely unlike Ezekiel’s. Gathered in that group of people, I saw all the world around me fall away, so that I stood on a single pillar of earth. From the pit below me rose a gleaming prism, a shapeless form that still kept some degree of form. I knew it was something magnificent, I knew that the Elders of Israel were granted to see the feet of God at the base of the throne. I asked that radiant shape in front of me to let me see even that, and a voice echoed through my mind to say, “Not yet.” That “Not yet.” Has sustained me throughout my life, because in the mystery of that moment, I was told that while presently I do not see glory, I will someday have it near to me.

Fast forward many years, and I found an icon, a devotional image, that had God the gather, throned among the Cherubim, and surrounded by a prism of light. I wasn’t alone in glimpsing a mystery quite like this, and I will not be the last. So see today, in your life and the life of the prophets, something beyond description. Rather than shrinking the wonder that you see, let is overwhelm and consume you. Finite as we are, we like Ezekiel are testaments to the infinite that sits just beyond our view. – Amen.

AI generated 4 Living Creatures

The Ancient of Days, a 14th-century fresco from Ubisi, Georgia

Profile of a Prophet: Jeremiah – 07/10/2022

Jeremiah 9:1-11

O that my head were a spring of water and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of the daughter of my people! O that I had in the desert a traveler’s lodging place, that I might leave my people and go away from them! For they are all adulterers, a band of traitors. They bend their tongues like bows; they have grown strong in the land for falsehood and not for truth, for they proceed from evil to evil, and they do not know me, says the Lord.

Beware of your neighbors, and put no trust in any of your kin, for all your kin are supplanters, and every neighbor goes around like a slanderer. They all deceive their neighbors, and no one speaks the truth; they have taught their tongues to speak lies; they commit iniquity and are too weary to repent. Oppression upon oppression, deceit upon deceit! They refuse to know me, says the Lord.

Therefore thus says the Lord of hosts: I will now refine and test them, for what else can I do with the daughter of my people? Their tongue is a deadly arrow; it speaks deceit through the mouth. They all speak friendly words to their neighbors but inwardly are planning to lay an ambush. Shall I not punish them for these things? says the Lord, and shall I not bring retribution on a nation such as this?

Take up weeping and wailing for the mountains and a lamentation for the pastures of the wilderness, because they are laid waste so that no one passes through,  and the lowing of cattle is not heard; both the birds of the air and the animals have fled and are gone. I will make Jerusalem a heap of ruins, a lair of jackals, and I will make the towns of Judah a desolation, without inhabitant.

Sermon Text

We are on our third week of talking about Prophets and what they bring to God’s people. We began with Moses, and how the Prophetic Voice reveals who God is to us. We turned to Elijah and saw the prophet steering us away from false gods, and toward our true God. Now, we take up the call of Jeremiah, the prophet closest to my heart, as he cries out the agony that God feels on behalf of the people of God. We know that God has heard the cries of the needy, but it is in Jeremiah that we see just what hearing us suffering does to God’s emotional state – not a static, unfeeling position, but a tumult of pain and deep sorrow.

Jeremiah begins his ministry at the end of Judah’s existence as even a vassal-state of any other power. Being called to testify to the evil of his own people, Jeremiah is often reluctant to take up the sword of prophecy. Yet, without fail his hesitation is turned into zealotry as God’s judgment is shown to be true in his own life. God warns him that people are laying plots against him, and then soon the trap is set and sprung. God tells Jeremiah that there is scarcely any good left in the city, and Jeremiah’s optimism is destroyed as he, like Diogenes, searches the city for a single honest person and finds no one.

Jeremiah is faced with all his preconceived notions of how the world should be and has each aspect of life systematically ripped apart. He thinks for a moment that the poor are more prone to evil, and then is shown the trickle down economy of evil that begins in the rich and sees its fulfillment among their oppressed. He hopes that the temple would be a bastion against the evils of the world, but finds himself called to preach on its steps against those who enter it. He becomes the great pessimist, decrying optimism itself as he stands in ruins, and suffers in mud-pits, and even is made to move to Egypt as guardian of the refugees that fled there. Jeremiah is perpetually spinning round, an inverted figure looking for truth in an upside down world.

The most striking aspect of the book of Jeremiah is how God speaks through the prophet. In other prophetic literature the prophet is usually clear in separating their speech from God’s. The mark of the prophet is their use of the term, “Thus says the Lord,” (כֹּה אָמַר יְהוָה). Usually, this occurs at the beginning of a prophetic statement. Frequently in Jeremiah it does. Yet, as this passage we just read shows, the separation between the speech of a prophet and their prophetic speech is not always clear. From verse 1 to verse 5 we see someone begging that they had springs in place of tear ducts, that they could weep without running out of tears. Our first thought is that Jeremiah is weeping because he is thinking of his people and the suffering they are and will go through, but it is equally possible the person speaking is God.

Jeremiah shows such a synchronicity with God that the voices of the two often overlap. One moment Jeremiah will begin a sentence, and then seemingly God steps in to end it. We hear about the desire to weep for the fate of God’s people, we read about a strong and dry wind blowing across the world and making it a wasteland – a wind that both comes from God and toward God. Jeremiah at one point looks out to see the world completely unmade, as if God had never organized it in the primordial sea of creation. God’s burning words are like a fire in the prophet’s stomach, but the smoke and tears and anger and sorrow are not unique to Jeremiah – God feels every emotion he is rushing into the vessel that is his prophet.

The prophets serve an important role by personifying God. I don’t want to say humanizing here, because while we can get into some complicated discussion of Jesus as equally God and human, here I want to keep some distance between the two for clarity’s sake. When we pray to God, when we share our pain and our suffering, when we see the news stories spread out and shake us to our core – God is not unmoved by any of these things. Jesus wept in the garden because he was human, but the divine can weep just as powerfully, God is not a static being.

I am someone who is adamant about keeping the Old and New Testaments close to one another. We cannot understand the New Testament without the Old, and to understand why we have access to the Old we need the New. It is common that the differences between the two are put up as integral to the nature of God. In this framing, one day God woke up and decided to speak Greek and be a lot more about love and inclusion than back in the day when he spoke Hebrew. That is a bad way to see God and scripture, it suggests we worship two Gods instead of one, something we already established is not good. Yet, as with many misunderstandings, it begins not with a falsehood, but a misapplication of truth.

The context of the Hebrew Bible and its writings was very different from the Greek Bible. In its earliest days, the Hebrew Bible was written alongside stories of gods that were very human in their nature. They got Jealous, the fought, the had political aspirations and alliances. The language of the Hebrew Bible, then, is much more fixated on the discussion of God as a person, actively engaged with the world and expressing emotion and feeling and preferences even. The language shaped the character of God, as did the context of the people writing it.

The New Testament, being in Greek, was more philosophical in its approach. While constantly rooted in the humanity of Jesus, we see the New Testament arguing philosophically about the nature of God. When those texts were handed off to the first generation of theologians, they went further than Paul or John ever did and completely melded Greek Philosophy and Christianity – for good and for ill. The result was an emphasis on the unchanging, static, God-as-Prime-Mover, and a downplaying of the personal divinity that felt and fought and raged and wept. Jesus the Human might weep, but God the Divine Trinity was unmoved as something that was before and above all things.

We imagine God as a blank slate, perpetually looking out at us with the eyes of a Warner Sallman painting – unmoving, mildly positive, and still capable of stoic and unfeeling wrath. That is not the God of scripture, not the God revealed in the life of Christ or the prophets. The God we worship feels deeply, the God we worship weeps at the injustices of the world. The God we worship is sitting beside us in our darkest moments, and feeling what we might feel. This does not make God a reflection of our emotion, but it does mean that the closer to God we become, the more alike our emotional state will be.

Bob Pierce, founder of Samaritan’s Purse and World Vision, once said, “Let my heart be broken by the things that break the heart of God.” That understanding of God’s emotional state is something we should all strive for. Not to make God into an echo chamber that affirms and denies everything in the same way we do, but to truly understand the nature and desires of God. When we can tie ourselves closely to the work of God in the world, when we can become compassionate toward all people we meet, then we begin to know what it is like to inhabit a prophetic role. When we become a vessel for the emotions of God, the love that pours out like rivers of tears, then we know what it is to bring the Word of God to the People of God.

So, our challenge in light of God’s prophetic message to us all, is to be transformed into emotional creatures. To give up stoicism in the face of adversity and care deeply for the hurt, the lost, those in every kind of need. We come to our God and we behold so many wonderful things, but I think most wonderful of all are the precious tears that are shed by the God of this universe on our behalf. Be cheered today, and mourn tomorrow, that we too can feel as deeply as God does. – Amen.