A Hollow God – Lectionary 09/27/2020

Philippians 2:1-13

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. 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.

Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

Sermon Text

            Two weeks ago, we discussed the cross as the ultimate source of glory and scandal in our life. However, before the scandal of the cross came another scandal. The incarnation of Jesus was the first instance of God’s subversion and violation of our expectations. The God of the Universe, coming into the world to bring about God’s kingdom, ought to come as a conquering hero, or a strong king, or some great priest who leads the people into a holier tomorrow. Such an incarnation would see Christ ruling the earth and bending it to his will, such an incarnation would make sense to us. If you want something done, why not do so with strength and power and with all the authority you hold as God.

            Certainly, this was the dream of the prophets and of the Jewish revolutionaries of the late centuries BCE. The three main perspectives were that God’s justice would come through a Messiah that was a holy Judge over creation, or a Kingly warrior, or a Holy Priest.[1] The existence of three distinct views allowed for a certain fluidity to exist about how the Jews in the post-exilic world expected God to redeem them. It was not uncommon for people to claim to be Messiahs or to be given the title by others. For example, Cyrus the Great of Persia, the conqueror of Babylon, is called God’s “Messiah,” in the book of Isaiah – a temporary attribution for what would become an eternal and deific title. (Isaiah 45:1)
            All three perspectives on the Messiah believed that the seemingly rational thing for God to do, was to take on a position of power and strength and might in reordering the world. God, if God thought like we did and was to accomplish God’s goals like we do, would not want to be anything but quick, exacting, and strong armed in executing God’s judgment and salvation within the world. But God did none of this. God was none of that. God became nothing, God hollowed out Christ, taking on humanity, and denying himself all the glory of Godhood.

            We are told that Christ, the eternal Word of God, looked at the glory of his Godhood, not as something to hold onto like a vice, but to let go of.[2] The hymn that constitutes the majority of our scripture today describes Christ as, “emptying himself,” literally – making himself hollow. Christ gives up the throne of Heaven, takes on human flesh, and lives out the life of a slave to all people. Christ follows the path of his life of service to the very end, dying on the cross that defines shame and fear, and only after all this is complete is given back the glory that was due to him. The victory of Christ was in death, was in shame, was in a life lived on the outskirts and margins of all “decent” society.

            Christ was rejected by almost all those in authority. Pharisees who held sway over local populations as teachers of God’s law rejected him, even though their teachings were so often similar. The Sadducees who controlled the Temple and who rejected the ministry of prophets and preachers outside of Moses rejected him, even though he spoke with the authority of Moses and then some. Even the Essenes and Zealots, the most radical of the Jewish sects, rejected Jesus even though he too opposed both Rome and Jerusalem for their sins against God’s people. Jesus was rejected by all authorities of his day and for many different reasons. Most powerful of all these reasons was that Jesus had no interest in earthly authority, no desire to rule Rome or Judah, but only to do the will of God at all times.

            A person who does not desire power cannot be bought with money. They do not seek out a position to take advantage of others. A person who does not love strength and might will not fight back against you when you attack them. Such a person is dangerous above all others. A person willing to suffer all manner of violence, to love the one who pierces their side, who does not fear death but gladly takes a crown of thorns as though it is a crown of gold. A person who is willing to die, and more than that to die without complaint or raising up arms against their murderer is a person that cannot be controlled. The threat of power, of force, of coercion, is lost on a person who regards even their life as inconsequential in the grand scheme of things.

            God entered humanity and destabilized all the systems that Christ came in contact with. A wedge was put between the way things were and the way they could be. All oppressive systems were useless against Jesus. He had no money, and so you could not steal it to deprive him of his livelihood. He had no power, so you could not strip him of his office to silence him. He had no home, so you had no place to track him down to and threaten him. The King of all the Universe, now a vagrant with no power, was somehow able to counter all threats against himself. Jesus embodied the idea, “When all you’ve got is nothing, there’s a lot to go around.”[3]

            The Hollow God, the Messiah who came without any power to speak of, nonetheless retained his Godhood. Jesus never ceased to be a member of the Trinity, never lost his rightful place seated beside the Father in Heaven. Jesus had given up all authority, all rights to power and glory, and yet retained his God-ness, his Θεοτης (Theotes.)  Being fully human he was a slave to all, being fully God he was the ruler of all, and being the uniquely existing Christ neither fact conflicted with the other. Christ was King, Christ was also a slave, Christ was all powerful, Christ had given up all power.

            Christ only found his power on Earth through obedience to God. Obedience defined not by passivity, but by activity. Christ, having nothing to call his own, lived among those who had nothing to give him. The poor, the outcast, the sinner, the people who had been denied even their humanity by the society around them. Christ, if he was living in our world today, would not be with us in this gathering – where we gather regularly to pretend we have our life somewhat together – but out in the streets. Christ would be in bars and alleyways rather than churches. Christ would be sleeping under bridges and park benches rather than cozy houses. Christ would be in the places we do not dream to look, far away even from our modest means. We have too much power – and Christ would abhor our hoarding of it.

            The ultimate revelation of the Christ hymn is not just that Christ gave up so much to be with us on earth, but that Christ models that self-emptying for us as well. In the same way that Christ gave up retribution for mercy, we also are called to turn the other cheek. In the same way Christ did not fear death, we are called to live as people who do not fear those who can kill the body but not the soul. As Christ opposed the oppressive forces of his day through advocacy with the poor and rejection of power, we are called to take up our cross, the ultimate sign of shame and loss, and follow him to Calvary. Christ emptied himself in a way we could never understand, to remind us that we must empty ourselves in every way that we can.

            We are a people who love to win. We want victory, we want to live perpetually in Easter, but we ignore that we live simultaneously in the victory of Christ and in the world that still languishes in death. We are not worldly victors, accruing money and power, but spiritual victors who are transformed into the image of God through Christ’s righteous actions upon our life.

            In the Roman world, when a country was defeated in war, statues were erected of the Caesar or the victorious general standing over that country – represented often as a woman in chains. The word used in our text for Jesus’ rejection of his rights as God is similar to the one use to describe these images.[4] In so much as Jesus did not hoard his power as God, neither did he seize power as a human being. The Christ hymn of Philippians asks that we never look to inspiration from an imposing victor standing over his enemies, but to glory in the person at their feet. Jesus did not live on earth as a king crushing people beneath his heel, but as the victim of the kings of the earth. Our victory is not in dominion or in power, it is in loss, in death, in powerlessness.

            As worshippers of a Hollow God, we too must be Hollow people. Hollowed out of pride, of arrogance, of love of wealth and power, even love of life itself. This does not make us reckless, we do not “[rush] on death… Without being martyrs.”[5] We live lives instead that are rooted in divesting ourselves of the privilege and power we have been born with or else accrued. We give money at all opportunities to worthy causes and needy people. Our primary focus is not upon whether or not we can defend ourselves, but on what risks we ought to take for the good of others. We do not long to be victorious over the world, we do not see displays of might or violence as Christian and good, but through submission to God walk up the road and accept the loss of everything we have if it is the will of God.

            We worship a slave crucified by those in power. We must not think we are greater than our master. We must oppose the proud, the oppressive, the evil and the cruel, not through joining in their wickedness, but through taking on the yoke Christ has prepared for us. We must suffer, we must die to this world, and indeed die in our flesh, but we do so with Christ as the example before us. Unless a seed fall into the ground and die, it cannot be born again. So to, we cannot experience the life of Christ unless we empty ourselves, unless we lay at the altar every good gift God has given us, and regard these things as loss for the cause of the Gospel.

Ours is not the earthly victory, ours is not the dominion of the world or one another, ours is the earthly death and the heavenly victory, ours in not violence and dominion but submission and peace. Do not grab at power outside yourself or hold onto power within yourself, but let us all cast it aside, let us empty ourselves, let us find nothing in ourselves but the Spirit of God who first emptied themself for our good. Praise God, praise the humble King, praise the victory we win in loss. Praise Jesus Christ, the name above all other names. – Amen.

[1] Bart D. Ehrman “Jesus the Suffering Son of God” in A Brief Introduction to the New Testament. (New York, New York: Oxford. 2009) 61

[2] T. Francis Glasson“Two Notes on the Philippians Hymn.” In New Testament Stud. 21, pp. 133-139

[3]  Brian Stokes Mitchell. Through Heaven’s Eyes. The Prince of Egypt. DreamWorks Records. Digital

[4] Katherine A. Shaner. “Seeing Rape and Robbery: ἁρπαγμαός and the Philippians Christ Hymn” Biblical Interpretation 25 (2017) 342-363

[5] Clement. Stromata. IV.

How Dare God be Merciful – Lectionary 09/20/2020

Jonah 3:10-4:11

Now When God saw what they did, how they [Nineveh] turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” And the Lord said, “Is it right for you to be angry?” Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city.

The Lord God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, “It is better for me to die than to live.”

But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.” Then the Lord said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”

Sermon Text

            There concepts of justice and mercy are two things that we cannot, while on Earth, fully comprehend. Our definitions for them are dependent on understandings we discovered while inhabiting our broken world. Except through Divine Revelation we cannot truly learn what either word means, and oftentimes God’s revelation still seems unimaginable to us. The ultimate act of mercy in God’s work with us was the crucifixion of Jesus. The death of God’s truly innocent and righteous Son is the foundational image of God’s mercy, and that image could only exist in the most unjust of deaths we could ever imagine. God on the cross suffering for us, God in the grave having died for us, the source of all life cast out beyond life itself.

            Our inability to conceive of what either Justice or Mercy could look like requires that we create images of them, either through stories or art, to try and address even the simplest element of either. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a theologian writing in and against Nazi Germany, believed that we who ae, as he put it, “in the Middle,” cannot conceive truly of what was in the beginning of creation – when justice and mercy were all that there was – and so must use almost fanciful logic to even begin to understand what a life without evil would look like.[1] We create stories, parables, and fables to chase after the realities that are too alien for us to even begin to imagine.

            The particular realities of Justice – God’s ability to bring about right conclusions to situations – and Mercy – God’s gift of grace given to all people – are beyond our ability to ever truly conceive of. We as a people see Justice as an act of revenge, and so we cast God as a vengeful force punishing our enemies. We as a people see Mercy as erasure of consequences, and so we see God as our ultimate get out of jail free card to excuse all our wrongdoing.

            Yet, these definitions are not sufficient – they do not jive with the world we inhabit. If Justice from God were truly a matter of vengeance, then God would be nothing but a ball of fire and judgment, because everyone at some time will have done wrong against God. A vengeful God would indeed destroy the world constantly. Likewise, a God whose mercy was founded on erasing consequences and mitigating responsibility could not ask anything of anyone. Certainly, such a God would not be able to tell us, “take up your cross,” such a God could not call us to repentance. If Mercy means that we can do what we wish then it is a cheap sort of grace.

            The paradox of divine judgment is so complex that we must tell parables that place the two in contrast. Jesus frequently describes God’s stern Justice as coming as a consequence of an individual or community’s lack of mercy. Paul places the paradox in terms of a potter making one vessel for destruction and another for glorification. Theologians throughout history have reconciled the two, making one a complement to the other, but always from the same perspective of, “the middle,” always unsure what exactly God’s view of the thing might be.

            As a lover of mystery novels and film, I myself see a beautiful example of this contrast in the BBC production of Murder on the Orient Express starring David Suchet. The Belgian detective, Hercule Poiort, in this version struggles with whether Justice is simply following all rules and facing all consequences. He uncovers a revenge plot, he exposes those responsible for the killing, and in this version delivers and impassioned speech that describes justice as the ultimate principle of human life, unshakeable and divinely given. The novel ends with him offering two options for how to prosecute the case, one Merciful and the other the textbook definition of Justice. In this film version, Poirot chooses one of the two, and the choice leaves him clutching his rosary and weeping – unsure if he has just sinned or done what was right.

            The story of Jonah is also a parable of Justice and Mercy. Though Jonah was a real prophet who worked in the early parts of the eighth century BCE, the book of Jonah is almost universally viewed as a piece of historic fiction. Whatever events in the book did happen have been retroactively adjusted to create a play the criticizes the readers expectations of the story. It is not a strict retelling of events like we might see in a biography of a person, but a literary interpretation of their life. To understand by analogy, it is less like a 1:1 biography of Alexander Hamilton but more like the musical, “Hamilton,” which adjusts some historical bits and bobs to create a cohesive narrative and message.

            Jonah begins with God calling Jonah to go to Nineveh and bring them to repentance. Nineveh was the capital of the Neo-Assyrian empire, although not during the years Jonah was active. By the end of the eighth century, Assyria would move out from this city and destroy the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Nineveh was a shorthand way of saying, “The worst place imaginable,” and two scholars. André and Pierre-Emmanuel Lacocque, building off of Jewish experiences in the Holocaust, tie Nineveh to Nazi Berlin by saying, “To go to Nineveh is not very different from going to Hell.”[2]

            Jonah fled from God’s call because Jonah did not want to see these people saved. To go to the worst place imaginable and to save the people who were destined to destroy you – it did not make sense. If Jonah fled, if Nineveh was not told that they were on borrowed time, then maybe God would just destroy the city anyway. Justice, or at least Justice as Jonah imagined it, would be served, and nothing more about the matter would have to be said. Jonah was willing to defy God rather than allow for God’s mercy to manifest itself and save Jonah’s enemies.

            Jonah did so because, to him, God’s mercy was despicable, “How dare God be merciful!,” Was his essential cry, “God, you know what is coming down the line and you are letting them seek forgiveness? Forty days from now they could have been gone and we would not have had to worry about them! Why could you not have just wiped them out and made our lives easier? Why oh why did you have to be merciful?”

            Nineveh repents, Jonah sulks. Jonah wishes to die, first because God showed Mercy to Jonah’s enemies, and secondly because the tree that had given him shelter had died. God chastises Jonah and reminds him that the life of over one hundred thousand people is more important than his single tree and his pet comforts. God is clear, Mercy cannot be bound up based on the condition of what may happen in the future, Mercy does not belong to one people or country or place, Mercy is a form of Justice we can never truly understand except to give it freely as God has given it.

            Still, the story ends without resolution. Jonah does not repent and we are left with a deadlock between God and the prophet. The narrative leaves us open to decide for ourselves – who side will we take? Do we, like Jonah, want to see bloodshed and hellfire given to our enemies, real or perceived? Or do we like God want to extend a chance to change, and to work toward reconciling even the most dreaded of situations? Do we like Jonah value our comfort over the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, or are we willing to wear a mask in public and make sacrifices when it comes to leaving our house? That last one may seem sneaky, but mercy is not always in response to crime. Mercy is love enough to suffer a little indecency for the good of all people.

            Mercy is the marrow that supports all life, we live only through Mercy, and we are sustained through a Just God who gives that mercy freely. Are we willing to do the same, not only in forgiving those we have written off as enemies, but in serving those who greatly need our care? Cast yourself upon the Love of God, repent as Nineveh did long ago, and show Jonah up in your ability to do Justly and Love Mercy. – Amen.

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Trans. Douglas Stephen Bax. “The Center of the Earth.” In Creation & Fall (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Fortress Press. 1997) Locations 822-844

[2] Andre Lacocque & Pierre-Emmanuel Lacocque. “A City’s Fate.” In Freedom Beyond Forgiveness. (New York, New York : Bloomsbury 1997) 133

God so Loved the World – Lectionary 09/13/2020

Numbers 21:4b-9

From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.

John 3:13-17

No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

Sermon Text

            Snakes in the wilderness, and sinners living in a broken world. Poison that seeps through the blood – either as a neurotoxin from the fangs of a viper or as the wicked inclinations that lodge in the heart and manifest in our actions in the world. Christ, in telling Nicodemus how he can be born again of the Spirit, reaches into the history of God’s salvation of God’s people. To understand Jesus, we must understand the work of the Exodus, to understand the Exodus, we must understand the bronze serpent lifted up for the people of God. If we want to know what God is doing, we must see what God has done.

            When the people of God were taken out of Egypt, out of the House of Slavery, they were not led directly into the promised land. That journey would have taken them only a few months in the worst of circumstances, however we are told that they spent years moving in a circuitous root around the desert. They went from Egypt to Sinai, or Horeb as it is sometimes called. This took them down through the Sinai Peninsula and then back up to the land of Edom. From Edom they circled round into Zin and Paran, and then back again. Finally, they went through Edom and Moab to the land of Canaan – crossing the Jordan river to enter Jericho.

            The route they took, long and complicated, was far longer than it needed to be. However, we cannot see this journey as only about reaching a destination. The long journey the Israelites took is similar to our own journey. For many of us the “point” of becoming a Christian is that when we die, we get to go to Heaven. Blessed gift that our eternal presence with God is, that presence permeates all our life, not just our afterlife. We must understand that the strange and complicated journey that we take is not a distraction from the end goal, but part of the process of becoming people who can enjoy that eternity with God.

            In the wilderness, the people constantly long to return to the evil they knew, rather than face the promise of what could be. They suddenly remember Egypt as a place full of good food and plentiful shade. The burden of slavery, the abuse and death suffered in Egypt was forgotten, all because the path to the promised land was not the walk in the park the people expected. While we could easily sit and judge the shortsighted Israelites, I think we all know we are not far off from them. While we are not often migrating from one place to another over miles and miles and months and months, we do have destinations in mind and that we simply cannot stay motivated to reach.

How many times have we had our self-improvement plans fall flat? When we want to be more active or study more intensely or be better organizers? A great example is how the average Bible reading plan lasts only about two months, being generous, and many people go most of their life having never read the scriptures cover to cover. In the same way we all have bad habits that we simply cannot part with – whether they be simple things like leaving the lights on in the house, or large things like a tendency toward mocking others. Sometimes they are issues of excessive consumption, sometimes they are a consequence of our lacking moral imagination.

            Yet, the constant nostalgia of the migrant Israelites was the source of conflict. They doubted Moses, and they doubted God, they doubted their eyes and ears and preferred illusionary scenarios and conspiracies. The people longed for Halcyon days that never existed, they saw in hardship the antithesis rather than the method of their deliverance. When the going got tough, they and we got out of there.

            Except, not really, because you can never actually escape hardship in life, especially when you are working through a process of improvement. Change is never pleasant; we would much rather stay the same than ever alter our course. Even if the end of our path is ruin.

            The emergence of snakes in the wilderness is presented as an outcome of the Israelite’s nostalgia. Their longing left them sitting in the same dangerous space, not moving forward into the promise that was ahead of them, they sat still, and danger manifested as a result. As a consequence for their foolishness, for their unbending love of their own destruction, death found its way to nest among them. Burning snakes, striking out, ripping and tearing and the community. When they realized their need to be saved, when they sought deliverance, God offered a strange source of relief – something that would have seemed an anathema to those in the desert.

            God commanded that a graven image be made – a thing forbidden by the first commandment! – And that that image be raised up within the Israelite camps. The bronze serpent, the burning serpent, the Nehushtan, raised up above the community to be looked upon if ever they were in need. How strange that God provided an image to deliver people from their torment, how scandalous that it be lifted up above them, how strange that God should save God’s people in this way.

            We can see how Jesus saw this as the best way to explain his own passion. We as sinful people lost in the world needed deliverance. The consequences of our sin plain to us – the death we all must face, the degradation of relationships we cherish, the erasure of the good gifts we are given in the sea of greed we create. We cannot find a way out, no matter how hard we try, and the path that has led us to where we are has been long and winding. We have suffered a great many hardships inherent to all living people, and if we are living a truly Christian life, a few unique to that calling. The death of the self, the denial of sinful desire, the destruction of our tendency to deny others and increase ourselves. We are lost in the wilderness, we are tormented by the consequence of our actions, and we need a deliverance.

            Sometimes we may be made to wonder if there couldn’t have been another way for our sin to be washed away. Could God have erased our sin with a wave of the hand? Could God have instituted purification sufficient to erase our sin? Why do we need a cross? Why should Christ have to suffer the way Christ did? We may never know every reason the scandal of the cross was necessary, but we know that it is the way we are made whole. More than that, this image, like the Nehushtan in the desert long ago, brings us to be freed from death, freed from the punishment of our sins, freed and truly free.

            God did not see it as sufficient to give us a clean slate without an image. God did not give an order from on high to deliver us and then give us nothing to look to that we might remember our deliverance. God took on flesh, sending the eternal Logos, the eternal word of God, to live among us. In the image not only of a person, but a slave, not as someone born to glory, but as someone written off as a ne’er-do-well and sinner. He took on the image of sinful humanity, his colleagues abandoned him, people across Judea justified the execution of a rabble-rousing minister who should have just followed orders. Jesus became everything despicable and rejected by society without once warranting an ounce of this treatment.

            All this to then die on a cross, a Roman punishment for treason and sedition. To suffer under the cruelest death imaginable, drawn out over hours and following a previous night of torture and abuse. The image of our sin, and the punishment for it, was lifted up. Yet, instead of being looked upon and bringing healing in that moment, the world turned away, and only two among Jesus’s closest confidants remained to look up at him – the beloved disciple John and his mother. The image of our deliverance was hung up for the world to see, but we could not stomach it. Faced with the reality of sin and death, we rejected both and with them, we rejected our savior.

            Yet the image of Christ was not limited to the image on the cross. Christ rose from death and lives today in the blessed company of the Father. This image of our affliction raised up again, not as an example of shame and sin, but of glory and victory. For us who remain on earth, we strive to find that image. We work to become more like the ascendant Christ, more perfect and lovely, more good and loving. Yet, we must work through the wilderness we have created for ourselves, yet we must suffer the consequences of our actions and those of others.

            This is why it is important for us who are called to follow Christ to not only look to the resurrection, but like Jesus informs us of in our text, we must look to the cross itself. For as the people in the wilderness looked upon the bronze serpent and were saved, so too do we find salvation in the cross. Our savior, haven taken on an image of sin and death, hanging above us for our salvation. This is what can inspire us to persevere in the midst of hardship. The fact that Christ suffered for us, with us, as one of us, gives us the strength we need to face anything.

            The cross is the ultimate sign, not that we should get over the troubles that we face, but that we can overcome them. Even if not in victory, then in loss we can find gain because we lose alongside Christ, we suffer alongside Christ. At the end of all things, we will be raised victorious in Christ, but we are not at the end of all things. We are very much caught up in the middle. We are not in Egypt where our sin ruled us completely, nor are we in the promised land of perfection and union with God. We are in the wilderness, between our first meeting with God at the holy mountain and our final and eternal communion with God in eternal rest.

            Yet this image, found not only in artistic representations but in our celebration of Communion every month,  this icon of our salvation and of our hardship, it stands above us as a reminder that we can make the journey. It is the image of all our failings, and an image of the promise of our redemption. For God so loved the world, that we were given this blessed sight to inspire us onward, and this blessed savior that we may be reconciled to God once again.

Wherever Two or More are Gathered – Lectionary 09/06/2020

Matthew 18:15-20

“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

Sermon Text

            No one has ever been excited about conflict entering into their life. Even people who love a good argument, even people who go out of their way to cause trouble, ultimately only want to do so if they have nothing to lose in the process. Argumentative people usually exercise their argumentativeness against people who they either have relationships with that allow for this kind of conversation – friends who like to get together and fuss over one thing or another – or else they take out their argumentativeness against people who have no way of stopping them – cashiers, wait-staff, anyone who is required because of their profession to take their abuse. The same largely stands for people who like to cause trouble, as long as they are in a consequence free environment or talking to someone who cannot retaliate, they are fine being ornery.

            Truly, there are not many no-risk situations in our life. When we get into arguments with one another, when someone does something that deeply affects us emotionally, even with just a passing word, when this happens, we are taken aback. Our strength leaves our body, our brow furrows questioningly, we are left wondering how we came to the place we are in. Worse than this, there are moments where we see the same thing happen to someone, we have said something to. Their face suddenly becoming worried, their posture locking up, the outward sign of inward harm shown plainly on their features.

            The burden of being in relationship with other people is that we will inevitably do something that hurts the people we are in relationship with. Our dear loved ones who we say something careless to, our coworker who we make feel slighted, our friend who we unwittingly offend. All these small things, the little pin pricks of mundane violence that we find manifesting between ourselves – they can add up. So many people are on a tightrope, struggling to balance their emotions, their self-worth, the health of their relationships, against the strong wind of conflict.

            It has often been our practice that we respond to conflict through silence. We let the small indecencies we face be met with an apparent indifference. For fear of making too much of a fuss we just let things slide. We do not tell our friend that we would really rather they not joke about the clutter in our living room or confront our coworker who cannot get it through their head that their jokes are in poor taste. Still worse, our family members often are the ones we wish above all to avoid this kind of confrontation with. The cousin who always asks when the single people in the family will go ahead and get married, the sister who is a little too quick to mock her siblings, the husband who says unkind things about his wife or children without a second thought.

            What happens when we do not address these topics? Do we see them disappear? No, in fact they tend to fester. The little pin pricks to our self-esteem, the insults to our dignity, we cannot sit by and take them indefinitely. Eventually, the wounds we sustain will be significant enough to leave us with nothing but shreds of these qualities. More than that, the structures underpinning the relationships we have with others – trust, mutual care, interest in the simple as well as complex aspects of their life – will begin to decay. In silence, in the effort to avoid conflict, we find ourselves smothering the love and connection we share with one another.

            Our scripture today offers us an alternative to avoiding conflict, and that is to engage with it honestly. To let our dissatisfaction be made known. There are moments where that may be uncomfortable, but it is only in naming something that we are able to move beyond it. The little comments that just will not stop, the hurt that has eroded the connection between us and those we know, they will destroy even the strongest relationships if left alone.

            The solution that Christ puts forward in our scripture is that when someone sins, and the implication here is that we are talking about interpersonal sin, then we must be direct in addressing it with the person who has caused the harm. If someone has said something cruel, then they need to be told it was cruel. If someone has hurt our prospects in a work setting, if someone has betrayed our trust, then we cannot just wait until they forget or we forget, we have to proactive in fixing the problem at hand. Not only that, but the discussion has to be one on one, direct and honest in every way.

            Our basic instinct when people mistreat us is to say nothing to them and tell anyone and everyone else about it. “Can you believe he would say that to me?” “What were they thinking acting like that!” We vent our feelings about the problems that face our relationships, but we do not face the problems in themselves. Yet Jesus is clear in telling us, if someone wrongs us, we have to tell them what they have done. The idea here is not just to get context, although certainly that can help us understand why someone acted the way they did, but it is primarily a chance to let the other person realize the wrong they did and try to make amends.

            While we must account for misunderstandings, the majority of conflict is not based in accidents of interpreting circumstances. If someone comes up to me and says something I find insulting, when I go to tell them that it was insulting, they cannot tell me that it was not. The person who is hurt is hurt regardless of the intent of the action. Making amends, repenting of the wrong we do, is not about explaining why we did wrong, it is about stopping the wrong we did. Someone telling us they did not intend to cause harm lets us understand why they said what they did, but it does not change the fact that they did something harmful.

            The escalation of community involvement that follows is done out of necessity. If the person who has been hurt fails to reconcile with the person who hurt them, then we are not asked to abandon them, but to try harder to bring about a just resolution. We call in other friends, preferably ones that are better at getting along with people than we are, and they can mediate the conversation. Maybe there is more than just this one incident that led to the rift between the parties involved. Maybe, the person asking for reconciliation in themself had contributed to the current situation, and only an outside, neutral, observer can identify this.

            The authority given to us by Jesus, to bind and to loose, is given so that we can draw ourselves closer together in community. However, because the relationships we have must be mutually loving, mutually honest, mutually oriented toward reconciliation, there are moments when we must stop our attempts at reconciliation – temporarily at least. If someone cannot see that they have harmed us, if they refuse to follow advise then we may need time apart. We make them, “as a tax collector,” to us – a person distinct from our community, someone we cannot currently productively associate with. However, the promise of Christ is that no one is permanently out of reach.

            Though the relationship that once was may never be restored, something like it can be found again. Even if it is a simple acceptance from both parties that wrong was done, that the best reconciliation they can give one another is to abstain from interacting with one another, even this is better than quietly fomenting our hurt in the dark. The ties that bind us together are not always tightly wound, and though we ideally would see ourselves in close and loving relationships with one another, sometimes this is not possible. However, the work must be put in to preserve what we have, to strive to work to fix rather than throw away. We are given steps to follow toward reconciliation, we cannot deny a single one of them.

            Seek community, seek love, and seek to make amends in the face of all wrongs. – Amen.

Step off the Path – Lectionary 08/30/2020

Exodus 3:1-15

Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.

Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” He said, “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.”

But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’: This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations.

Sermon Text

            This month has been, on the whole, some heavy stuff in our times of worship. We’ve looked at how our obsession with using time to the utmost can, in itself be a waste of time. We’ve looked at how we must come out from our places of comfort and really act in the world. We’ve looked at the traditions we hold dear and the secret sins we hide away and been honest about our need to take them out into the sun and address them freely. Perhaps, the real nature of faith is much weightier than we sometimes imagine. Not just the heights of joy or of praise, but a complex patchwork of God’s work and our own.

            The journey of life is one that is oriented toward God. Even if we get lost along the way, we find ourselves coming back to the path ahead of us. No matter which direction we go, up toward Heaven, down deep in the Earth, from the atom to the super nova we see God standing beside us in our explorations. God is not passively watching, nor walking beside us uninterestedly, but is actively moving in our lives. We have the sense of God moving in the periphery, the flash at the corner of our life experiences that demonstrates something stronger is at work than mere chance or causal cascades.

            Yet, God must be more present than this. The theophanies in scripture cannot be isolated instances never to be repeated again. Even if we do not see God on a burning mountain, or else in a bush that is wholly consumed and yet whole, we must be able to see God somewhere along the way. Where we see God, and what form God takes to us, whether God appears as friend or foe, whatever our eyes see we crave something deeper. The presence of God, the peace of being lost in the immensity of something we can hardly even conceive of. God’s appearance to us is something we seek and something we crave. It also, in some ways, seems like it must be an inevitability.

            The God of Creation, always present and somehow discernable. That immensity of potentiality and freedom that shaped all things – the thing the mind craves and necessarily seeks in some way. If that presence is so close to us, how do we so often feel distant from it? If that presence colors all our life, then why does the monochromatic shadows we often see consume our vision seem at times to be the only hues we can ever know? If God is always just a breath away, then why do we sometimes feel the very Spirit within us become choked without an atmosphere to support it?

            The life of the Christian is oriented toward the realization of God’s presence in our life. All our work in the faith builds toward this blessed or beatific vision of God. We live in community with one another and see in one another the Image of God. We act morally in community together and begin to learn the very heart of God. We come together and become the Body of Christ to the world. All of these things either manifest or direct us toward God’s appearance in the world.

            The miracle of it all is that we are not the initiates of this searching. We encounter God in all these situations because God first began to move toward us. Creation in itself is an invitation to relationship. God creates an entire cosmos, a universe of infinite possibility and complexity, and in the great expanse of all that space and time God seeks after relationship above all else. God models in Godself, God puts forward in the commands of God, and God earnestly looks for and seeks to enjoy, the complete company of all person. As trite as it may seem, the story of creation is one of an ever-expanding invitation and reconciliation.

            For us as the recipients of the Divine Invitation, there are several things to keep in mind. Firstly, we are not always attuned to hear the word of God when it cries out to us. Life is hard, and sometimes the disasters we encounter will push us within ourselves. It is hard to be attentive when we are in pain. Other times the distractions we encounter are more mundane. We have so much work we are convinced must get done, we have too much media to take in, too much entertainment to be had, we are entranced by our nine to five and lost in our own schedule of things.

            This is why God’s call is fundamentally disrupting to the path that we would follow on our own. We are content moving from work, to entertainment, to sleep, to work, to entertainment, to sleep. Or else, if we have more dynamic schedules, we get distracted by projects instead. Even our regular patterns of worship can become blinding to us if they are the only lenses, we use to look for God.

            Moses vision of God in the burning bush stands out because it disrupts his work. Tending sheep at the foot of the Holy Mountain, Moses finds God in something miraculous. A bush that burns but is not consumed. The novelty of this brings him to investigate, and instantly he finds his searching blessed by God calling out, “Moses! Moses!” And his reply is instantaneous, “Here I am!” This refrain, common in the Torah, has many meanings. When you see some one cry out, “Here I am!” in scripture, the implication is that they are offering themselves wholly to the person they are answering. Alternatively, we can understand it as, “Feast your eyes!” or “Behold me!”

            God rewards Moses openness with an openness of God’s own. God reveals the history of Moses’ people. This moment at the foot of the mountain is tied to Abraham’s visions in Haran, in Bethel, and Beersheba. To Jacob and Penuel, and Isaac in the terror of Moriah. This moment, ancient as well as new, terrible as it is magnificent, it consumes and does not consume, it burns and it gives life. Moses looks upon God, and God looks upon Moses.

            The moment that defines this encounter is when Moses sees the splendor of the burning bush and decides to go off course. The movement off of his usual path tending sheep to behold something unbelievable. In the course of our life we encounter many small wonders that can become a theophany to us. However, more generally, we see things at a distance and let them pass by, sometimes regretting the decision later one. Those moment when we are walking somewhere and catch a glimpse of an animal, we glance at it, acknowledge it, and look away, but when we turn back to it, it is gone. Sometimes our discovery will be something else, an art piece that somebody put out only for a day, and when we drive by again it has been sold, stolen, or maybe even thrown away.

            Whatever the thing is that we glimpse, our insistence to keep to our schedule, to our way of things, keeps us from beholding that wonderful incursion into normalcy. The unwillingness to step off the path, whether literal or allegorical, keeps us from encountering something new. In the same way, the life of faith, when we are unwilling to step away from what we have always done, results in us missing out on God’s appearances around us. When we have someone we would not usually talk to suddenly say hello, and we brush them off because we have places to be. When the man with a carboard sign is sitting alongside the sidewalk and we just keep walking because we do not want to talk to them. When we stop listening to someone we disagree with a few words in, rather than hearing them thoroughly and responding to them thoughtfully.

            God appears to us in all these circumstances and in so many more. Yet almost always they will be in detours from our present course. We think that we can only miss God if we are sinning excessively, if we are living a life completely divorced from our calling, but it is as easy to miss God at work as it is to miss anyone else we walk past. Because to hear God’s call, we need to be aware of our surroundings, of the little wonders wrapped plainly around us.

            Imagine, with horror and trepidation, what it would have been like if Moses had been too busy tending sheep to step off his path. If Moses did not investigate the burning bush, then he would have never heard God’s call. If God’s call was never heard then Moses could not be sent to deliver the Hebrews from Pharaoh. If the Hebrews were never freed, they would not be able to reclaim the faith of God and the knowledge of God’s true name. And so on and so on, until the wretchedness of this proposed timeline concludes with no woman named Mary living in Nazareth and no people of Judea for a savior to be born to.

            Of course, God would have made do. God never needs a single person to carry out an action, with the exception of Christ we could say, but that is a discussion unto itself. However, returning to the reality we began with, we know that God is concerned with having a relationship with us. That unity of community, that sort of desire necessitates that God calls to us because God does want us specifically. The great scandal of the faith is that God is generally loving in that God desires relationship with all persons, and particularly loving in that God desires each of us individually as well.

            God, miracle of miracles, wants to see each person step off the path of their own life and into the life God has set before them. It is a twisting path, it is complicated and asks a great deal of us. It is spontaneous and it is ancient, it is near and it is far away. Yet, it is there for us to go to, waiting just a little ways away. It is found in the, “not what we are used to,” and the, “I never would have thought.” What a miraculous thing, when we go off our path to the place we never dreamed of, we find the place we always belonged. More wonderful still, how wonderful that it all leads us round to that Holy Mountain where God dwells. There all peoples, from all nations, will worship and praise God, and love and care for one another. The path is clear then, and rather than being laid out before us, it is all around. So step off the path, and find your way.

The Dread of the Egyptians – Lectionary 08/23/2020

Exodus 1:8-16

Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” Therefore, they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.

The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, “When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.”

Sermon Text

            Shall we address the elephant in the room. Namely, that there is probably very few topics that could excite us less on a Sunday morning than talking about the topic of race and specifically a service of repentance centered on race. Our thoughts fly at what sort of accusations may be thrown our way, what political statements will be pushed, what ultimately we are asked to do that we simply do not see to be the case in our life. However, to pull back the curtain of sermon planning, today’s sermon was planned out before I ever knew this congregation. I had its title, I had its text, I had everything but the words that were put in it prepared before I would know anything about 2020 and its onslaught of events.

            Likewise, I invite us to see discussions of race, not as something dreaded, but as a necessary reality of the world we inhabit. Many of us can think to times in our life when this topic was not always so close at hand, but most of us if we were honest will see quickly that the problems discussed openly today, still existed back then. If we are honest it was only because we lived in largely white areas and because the internet did not exist that we were not always able to learn about just how real, just how pervasive, and just how deadly issues of race continue to be in the United Sates. As the world around us diversifies, as we become a more connected society, we cannot be strangers to discussions of race because it will no longer be a problem, over there, but one here among us, in our own communities and our own families.

            We must also drop our defensiveness, be willing to hear and willing to accept that we all take part in the problems around us. We must, like Ninevah, not respond to the prophet’s call against us with whattaboutism and denial, but put on our sackcloth and sit in ashes. We must understand that as long as one sibling in Christ suffers unfairly, none of us have any right to sit calmly on the sidelines. Our scripture for today demands we engage in self-reflection.

            Some passages of scripture exist as accounts of history, a record of what happened and nothing more. Some passages offer an eternal statement of hope, a glimmer that can be glimpsed even in the darkest nights of the soul. Some, and these are the most terrifying of all, are statements of judgment, towering white thrones that overshadow us and leave us to fear for ourselves – not only for our present state of being, not only the future of our earthly lives, but for our eternal soul. These are the examples of evil or of righteousness that are so striking, so profoundly plain in their implication that all we can do is behold them and tremble.

            Today is one such text. We read about a Pharaoh, which one does not matter, his name is purposefully omitted from the narrative. This Pharaoh is not of the dynasty before him, he does not know of how an Israelite saved his people from famine in generations past, he only looks out into the outskirts of his capital – to the land of Goshen – and find himself filled with malice. The Israelites, called Hebrews by the Egyptians, have coexisted and worked with the Egyptians for some time now, and they have become a prosperous people living with and beside the old Egyptian families. Yet their customs are different, their God is different, they have not fully aligned to the ways of the Egyptians, and their differences cause the Pharaoh to fear.

            This fear leads to Pharaoh oppressing the Hebrews. First, they are put to forced labor. Then when this does not deter them, they are pushed to the brink of death in the work that they are made to do. Unsatisfied with this, Pharaoh decides to cut off the problem at the root – two midwives, likely overseers of others in the same profession, are commanded to kill all baby boys born to the Hebrews. Later in the text they refuse to do so and Pharaoh instead tasks his citizens to do the job for him, commanding they kill any Hebrew boy-child on sight.

            The story is a tragedy from beginning to end, it is a story of pure hatred, that cannot be rationalized away by any legitimate metric of thought. The desire to crush an entire race of people simply because they reside alongside you, to see them as an essential threat, to see in them a future you cannot abide, a future where you are not the majority, that is a terrifying precipice to find oneself upon. If a person backs away from that precipice they may be saved, but the moment they take the step, the moment they let themselves be consumed by this kind of paranoia, then all is lost and it is very unlikely they will truly recover from such a fall.

            Yet, the program of Pharaoh was never only played out once. It has repeated itself again and again over history. Pharaoh crushed and killed the Hebrews who lived among him. Ancient humans massacred the Neanderthals who lived among them. Athens annihilated the people of Melos. Even the Hebrews, once victims of such violence themselves, annihilated the Midianites and the Amalekites. The fear of people unlike ourselves, those united to us in our shared humanity but separated from us by accidents of location and culture, this is one of the most primal of human instincts.

 It is also the most innately sinful, the most wretched and cruel, it is the evil that marks the first true villain of scripture and his inaugural address to the audience. A king who we do not know the name of, a King who is lost to history and time, but whose cruelty we know well. The Pharaoh who knew not Joseph, the perpetrator of the first recorded campaign of eugenics in history. A campaign played out, time and time again.

            An evil like this is hard to kill. It is rooted in the sin of Cain who killed his brother for fear that the younger child might overcome the older, the smaller overcome the larger. However, as God told Cain in the land East of Eden, this Sin desires to have us for itself, “but [we] must master it.” (Gen. 4:7) I say we, I say us, because the sin of Pharaoh lives on to this day and it will not cease to be until every root of it is ripped out from our hearts. We have read the scripture for today, the Judgment Seat is set before us, what happens next – repentance and pardon or reticence and perdition, that is up to us.

            We are all children of our upbringing, and having grown up myself just a few counties over, there is something of a zeitgeist that hangs over all of us. This “spirit of the world,” is found in the shared traditions that we hold, the shared community and feeling of belonging we all have in the wide valleys of our home. The fertile land watered by the Potomac that we call home is not dissimilar to the fertile silt of the Nile long ago, our insular communities nestled between hills not unlike the beacon of civilization which Memphis and Rameses would have served as for the Ancient Egyptian people.

            However, we do not only share a fertile land and insulated geography with the Egyptians. We also share a sense of dread. The homogeny which was so long a reality across our portion of the world is ending – people move in from all around the world, people of all races and creeds, all shades of skin and all languages of the tongue. The world shifts around us, the reality occurs to us that our seeming ubiquity, the universal experience we have claimed to hold onto, may be much more relative. We face an absurdity in our mind, that there are peoples unlike us, peoples who before we may have known tangentially or in small number, but that are now increasing in number around us, the whiteness of the world we have constructed around us, the American and English-speakingness of the world, begins to break down, and diversity begins to manifest to us.

            Dread, that is the word I used a moment ago. Why did I do that? There should be nothing about changing demographics to upset us, nothing about people moving from one part of the world or country to another that disturbs us, and yet a term like dread enters the conversation. It must be used because if there is any honesty among us, any willful revelation of our hearts, we will see that often the first brush we have with something new, with a change in something as small as a new neighbor is fear and even animosity. When that change goes beyond a stranger to someone we have deemed as other, then we naturally begin to dread, we naturally are overtaken by a wickedness deep within our heart. The desire to return to simpler, uncomplicated homogeny, the first seed of a dangerous weed planted within our hearts – the seed of hatred, of distrust, of murder.

            Perhaps that seems extreme, after all we all presume that we are good people here. Good church going folks who attend to the ordinances of God as best as we are able. We see ourselves as open and loving, if we allow any preference in our hearts it is a meritocracy rather than any concept of supremacy. We say in our hearts, “I give everyone their fair shake,” but we say this in the shadow of the weed that has been growing up in the dark as we looked away from it. The weed of resentment, the weed of oppression, the weed of murder. It manifests in those little phrases we all hear and excuse, the gripes that we lift-up when our audience is assumed to be sympathetic to us. It is the sort of thing that allowed a friend of mine to say of Winchester, “There used to be so many regular people who lived there, but now they’re all Hispanic.” As if the base definition of a human was White-Anglo-Saxon.

            Throughout our short history as a nation, we have been no stranger to letting these vicious choking weeds overtake us. In the United States, the fist settlers sought to systematically eliminate and displace the native population. Then we amassed legions of enslaved Africans pulled from their homes. Then we regulated their reproduction, culled those who were weak or considered a danger, and only by force were most freed. The shadow of this hangs over us especially, as we now stand in the shadow of a Church that was originally a member of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, a denomination within Methodism founded in support of slavery.

            As we spread West, we pushed Native Americans further and further, till now they only exist in a few scant reservations that we have forced into poverty. We hired Chinese labor and created what was essentially a new slave workforce to build our railroads and cities in the West. When we began to fear they were too numerous we expelled great multitudes from our borders. As Irish and Italians fled Europe to our supposedly safe shores, they were locked out of professions and prevented from taking jobs. As a generation or two passed, as their distinguishing marks of other-ness faded with their accents, we turned our malice back to familiar targets.

            The Jim Crow South sought to re-establish white superiority through campaigns of torment and murder. The Ku Klux Klan was a significant source of trouble after the Civil War, to be sure, but no more dangerous than the everyday citizenry and politicians who not only did nothing but would often encourage them. “The blacks, the Hispanics, the Asians, all persons who were unlike white America were to be subjugated.” So said this mentality. “If they could not be broken, if they could not be worked near to death, then the only recourse was to kill,” and kill we did. And kill we do. Hate crimes continue to rise in the United States, violence against non-white citizens for the color of their skin or their lineage still continues. An outside observer might look at our silence about ongoing cruelty, our unwillingness to examine ourselves, and might conclude we are proud inheritors of the sin of our fathers.

            Lest we pretend all this is far away from us, or that we are somehow immune to this evil. I return to the reality that put us to thinking about this topic at all. When we look around us and see that the demographics of our world has changed, what is our response. Do we start worrying we are being replaced? Do we fear our jobs have somehow been coopted by new blood entering the work pool? Do we even begin fearing our time as the majority is coming to an end? Do we dread, as the Egyptians did so long ago, that our very own Hebrews may soon outnumber us? Do we indulge in the thoughts, the meditations of the heart, that lead to Pharaoh’s great sin?

            We have to admit if we do. We have to repent if we do. Over the past hundred years, the Sin of racial exceptionalism and white supremacy has only grown. Deep within the shadows of our conversations is the idea that we are somehow exceptional, that we are somehow unique, special, original. The doctrine of the 1800s, that the white “Nordic,” races are the true heirs of civilization – that America was founded for and by whites, – it manifests in every aspect of our civilization. It is why when we have Spanish speaking neighbors move into the area we begin worrying about their immigration status instead of bringing them a welcome gift. It is the reason our ears bristle when someone speaks a language other than English in the grocery store. It is the reason we create a thousand qualifications for people to become our neighbors, when all we ever did to end up in the country and area we live in, as the race we exist as, was be born.

            The Dread of the Egyptians, the specter of racism, the underlying doubt we have of all persons unlike ourselves and all countries but our own. It is a Sin as deep and dark as Hell, and it is rooted in the most basic and wretched quality of our sinfulness. It cannot be denied because salvation is rooted in opposition to it. The Passover is a remembrance that God delivered the Hebrews from Pharaoh. Jesus died at Passover under a new Pharaoh, the Pharaoh of Rome who saw him as a criminal, who saw his executioners as justified, who saw authority as sufficient to justify murder.

            A year and three weeks ago we witnessed the El Paso shooting, a murder spree motivated by conspiracies of “White Genocide,” that white Americans were somehow being replaced. That Sunday was the first time we as a congregation discussed racisms evil together, I wonder if we’ve changed since then. The Christchurch mosque shooting in New Zealand, again just a year ago and again motivated by the Dread of the Egyptians. The Charlottesville alt-right rally that saw a protestor run over by a car while people nearby shouted, “They will not replace us!” was only three years ago. Synagogue shootings, church shootings, the Oklahoma City bombing. All these horrific acts of evil, all are rooted in the Dread of the Egyptians, in our sin of white supremacy, in our tolerance of racist rhetoric that pits us against our neighbors.

            The failure to repent of its sin led to Egypt experiencing its 10 plagues. For the Israelites we are told unrepentance led to the destruction of Samaria and Jerusalem, to the displacement of their people throughout all the world. For the sin of Assyria Babylon was allowed to conquer, for the sin of Babylon, Persia was allowed to conquer. For us today, we were given one warning. The cross of Christ, the mission of salvation and the final prophet’s warning to us to repent. We stand at a precipice; the white throne of judgment is raised against us. Are we going to take a step forward into perdition or will we repent and find ourselves saved? The choice is ours. The choice is one we must make. May God have mercy on our souls.

That Which Defiles – Lectionary 08/16/2020

Matthew 15: 1-3, 10-20

Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.” He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?

Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, “Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” Then the disciples approached and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?” He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.”

But Peter said to him, “Explain this parable to us.” Then he said, “Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.

Sermon Text

 Tradition is an essential part of human experience. It tells us where we have been and allows us to come into situations already knowing something about the world around us. The scientists who came before us allow us to know the specific density of water without having to rediscover it, the farmers who planted before us let us know how long it will take for our squash to come in. In more abstract ways, thinkers like Camus and Kierkegaard give us language to describe those moments when life feels overwhelming or absurd, preachers who have compiled their own views and readings of scripture give us a continual place to return to and center our own readings.

Tradition is that thing which stretches back into the past and come to us as something both ancient and new. Our interpretations of the past are only as old as we are. If, for example, a family gathers together and reads the same book, even within a group of people with similar and often overlapping life experiences, they will likely conclude different things about the text. The grandparents who inherited one set of traditions, the parents another set based off of and adapting those traditions, and the children taking them in and beginning to form their own as they make their way in the world.

Tradition is more than a thing we think, or a thing that we do, it is an integral part of who we are. To break with the past is to remove ourselves from the lessons that were hard fought by those who came before us. It is a liberative action that cuts the chains of obligation, but one that also removes all benefits from our life that we may have received from those traditions. It is the corpus of teachings which is handed down to us, it is the collective actions we all undertake as second nature, it is something that transcends and aligns us as individuals and that unites us as something more than just atoms in the void. Custom, creed, culture – all are part of tradition.

So why is it that Jesus suddenly tells us not to be concerned with the traditions of humanity? With the teachings of the elders? What is it about the injunctions put in place of old that were abhorrent to the message Jesus was preaching?

Sometimes the Church takes this verse to mean that a fresh expression of faith is the only appropriate one. We must, this mindset goes, do away with the perspectives of the past and charge forward into something new. Hymns must be abandoned for more engaging music. Scripture must be morphed into more engaging forms, ones that are more easily consumed in short, small bursts. Decorum associated with paraphernalia of the church, respect for altars and premises, done away with alongside our stodgy sacramentalism. This perspective sees Christianity as bursting out of Judaism with no precedents, it motivates much of modern non-denominationalism, and in its extremes is extremely dangerous.

The first danger of this iconoclasm toward the traditions of the church is that it is fundamentally a false iconoclasm. As we discussed above, traditions are simply who we are as a person. If we took a moment and asked each one of us how we define something as simple as
Church, none of us would give an answer which is not based on how we were brought up. The same is true about any topic in scripture, even with the same text before us, even read without embellishment, we would come to different conclusions based on our background. Thus, under the cover of being, “back to the Bible,” or “objective,” we hide bias and prejudice under a screen of minimalism. This breaking with tradition also lets us lose the lessons of the past, loss of ritual makes us lose a sense of the sacred, and breaking with the traditions that led to Christianity’s formation allows us to image ourselves standing alone. We are no longer the offshoot of an ancient Jewish sect, no longer part of the larger makeup of God’s creation, but exceptional members of a select few removed from all contexts.

There is another extreme, one that more directly is criticized in the text and one that reveals that the problems highlighted above are universal. Those who cling to tradition at the expense of new insights into God, those who claim that the past alone held the truth about God and God’s creation – a crime more common among those of us in the mainline and evangelical traditions – they too fall into traps. As we stated earlier, traditions are never any older than our own reading of those traditions. A church that practices the Anglican rite of baptism, or who reads the Eucharistic liturgy directly from the Didache will interpret the words of the rite differently than their authors will have, will view the water and the cup and the bread differently than they would have.

The naivete about our own bias in reading tradition is met with the authority that we are given in claiming tradition over all other sources of inspiration and revelation. There are those who privilege the traditions of the Church and the historical views of scripture over the scripture itself. It is something that overtakes even the most well meaning of interpretations we may hold. To pull from our Genesis study, which has delved into some of the ways tradition has overcome our perspective on scripture, I have a few questions from the opening chapters of Genesis for you all.

Who was the snake in the Garden? What fruit was eaten in the Garden? Who did God blame for having eaten the forbidden fruit? When did different languages develop according to Genesis? If our answers are, “the Devil,” “an Apple,” “Eve,” and, “The Tower of Babel,” then we must accept that we are reading through a particular lens. The text itself tells us nothing of the snake other than it is an animal, nothing of the fruit except that it was good to eat, nothing of blame except that all involved parties placed it upon one another, and Genesis gives two separate accounts of how human language became a multiplicity. These traditions, built up from the text, are not necessarily harmful – whether the snake was or was not the Devil only has minimal impact on salvation history. However, some of the above, like placing Eve as the primary perpetrator of the sin in the Garden, has had long lasting effects.

The above accounts of extremes – those who cling to a dead and rote religion that flounders in tradition and those who reject anything and everything that is not in the here and now – are largely caricatures. Few, if any people, could really be grouped exclusively in either camp. We all have our hills we will die on, some of them more rooted in an actual need to stand strong, and others built up on our own proclivities. The key issue is whether or not the things we cling to are helpful or hurtful, whether we are willing to adapt to new situations that our traditions may not speak to, or that are spoken of in a framework we can no longer hold to. Conversely, are we willing to defend our traditions that are non-negotiable with grace and peace being at the forefront of our discussion, and are we willing to admit when our non-negotiables and God’s are not the same.

Our scripture this week offers us an example of where a break from tradition is absolutely necessary. The Pharisees are repulsed by Jesus’ insistence that his disciples not wash their hands before they eat. The exact rule that was being followed here is unclear, but clearly the Pharisees believed a person could become ritually impure through materials on their hands being transferred to the food they ate. Jesus rejected this, food is food, it all ends up in the same place. What really matters, Jesus says, is that a person becomes holy inwardly, that they are transformed first in their heart and then their actions will show as evidence of their sacredness, not the other way around.

The Pharisees had not outright denied scripture, but by focusing on tradition they were able to distract and obfuscate human moral development, they had made a matter of the heart an issue of the stomach. Think of how often we forget to be good people because we are so bent on being “Good Christians,” it is an evil close at hand for all of us.

This scripture is especially apt for us today, because we understand that, while food indeed will not make us unclean, washing our hands is important. We have been brought to our knees by a pandemic in part because we, as a people, are bad at washing them. We read this scripture with that in mind, ritual purity and post-germ theory health practices mean washing our hands before meals now is indeed acceptable, not a vain teaching of the “elders.”

When we acknowledge that difference, we are not altering scripture or its message, but engaging freshly with the tradition handed down to us. The teaching of Christ, interacting with the work of nineteenth century scientists, to have us know that we are only made pure by our hearts, by our deeds and not the food we eat, but that we must maintain health through hygiene. We have not thrown out Jesus’ teaching, we have not adapted it to any great degree, but we have allowed ourselves to acknowledge and understand it in our own modern framework of our worldviews and culture.

We are all of us between the extremes of iconoclasm and stuffy traditionalism, as is Jesus I believe. However, we do not find ourselves ever in the exact middle between them. As with all things, at times we must be more married to tradition than newness – the Trinity for example is a doctrine we should be more rooted in tradition with than most. However, other views will focus on nuance above tradition – take for example our latest celebration of communion, prepackaged and passed out ahead of service, not from one loaf and cup, but all the same the body and blood of Christ for us. Every situation demands different approaches to how we understand tradition’s role in our life.

Tradition must be enlivened by the Spirit of God to be efficacious, and the Spirit is truly in the here and now. Let us look for the Spirit in all things, past, present, and future, and let us find God’s will for us across time and space – discerning what must be made new and what must be drawn up out of the past.

Come Out on the Waters – Lectionary 08/09/2020

Matthew 14: 22-33

Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

Sermon Text

            Our scripture for today is cited more than most in our Christian consciousness. The image of Jesus walking on water is such a definite sign of his other-ness, of his unique miraculous power, of our own weakness when we see ourselves in Peter sinking into the waters. Much can and has been made of this text, and as such we all risk falling into a predictable pattern of interpretation. There is nothing wrong with having these touchstones, images we can depend upon to ground ourselves. However, the difficulty of canonization is that it is often tied to sterilization – our reading of the scripture becoming rote and lifeless.

            The conditions of our story are some of the most engaging in the scripture. Jesus sends his disciples ahead of him so that he can rest from a long day of miracle working and spend time in dedicated communion with the other members of the Godhead – itself a fascinating mystery of the text. Having rested for a time, Jesus decides to walk to meet his disciples. Matthew is clear here that Jesus was heading directly toward them, but Mark differs in saying Jesus was trying to walk past and ahead of them. Their boat had been slowed in its crossing by a storm, so Jesus may have wanted to be on the other side ready to minister to them when they arrived.

            Personally, I prefer Mark’s account, the image of Jesus walking quickly past the disciples in the boat and trying not to be seen so that he could overtake them seems promising. Jesus speed walking is a powerful image to me. More than that, it shows that Jesus was confident that the disciples were secure in making their way across the waters. Still, it seems that Matthew may have had his reasoning for deleting Mark’s mention of Jesus walking past the disciples and being spotted. Christ in Matthew is more clearly taking his time moving across the lake, not in a hurry and not acting in any superhuman way, but in a transcendent and otherworldly way.

            Jesus’s movement across the water, however it looked to those who saw him crossing, was uncanny enough for him to be mistaken for a ghost. This mistake, somehow fairly common in response to Jesus, is something that we cannot fault the apostles for. If we are honest with ourselves many of us gathered here have likely decided we are in the presence of spirits through much less convincing information. A cabinet opens unexpectedly, a strange bang issues from seemingly everywhere and nowhere within our house, or a trick of the eye makes us see a dark figure in the corner of our eye for a moment. Can we blame the apostles then when, from a distance, they see a human being walking across a stormy sea, walking toward them no less!

            Jesus tells them not to fear, perhaps with a heavy sigh if Mark was indeed correct that Jesus was attempting to sneak past them. Peter, never one to pass up an opportunity to make an example of himself one way or another, asks to walk out on the waters with Jesus. He makes it as far out as Jesus is currently standing, the storm still raging around them, and then realizing the miracle has indeed kept him above the waters, he begins to sink – the wonder of the moment not powerful enough to overcome his concerns. Jesus grabs him and gives us those famous words, “Oh you of little faith.” Jesus enters the boat, the storm stops, the disciples worship him, and the boat continues onward.

            We could leave off discussion here. Let Jesus and the disciples stand as their own little lesson. Faith and doubt, fear and security, uncertainty and the definite contrasted in sign after sign. Yet, the miracle has something deeper about it. The overwhelming sense that we are often seated beside the disciples – the gift of God’s presence a reality on the horizon, something that we fear as much as we crave, the desire to step our from where we are and into something new, to bring our worship from the closed off understanding we have to something larger and realer than we could even know.

             There is something about this story that seems to capture our faith in the turbulent times we now inhabit. We have gone from a place of security on the shore to something far less definite, a boat being pushed here and there by the seemingly random winds of each day. We, like the disciples on the sea long ago, have spent a long while wrapped up with no distractions to keep us from staring our problems in the face, the wind and the rain overtaking any pet comforts that would usually be enough to distract us from them. Like the disciples in a small wooden boat, we have been buffeted with seemingly no respite.

            Blessed are we of course that, even in the midst of these difficult times we have seen relative security. Food enough to survive, community enough to find some semblance of fellowship in the midst of separation, and the knowledge that even as the world seems to burn around us, the radiation from the fire has only warmed rather than singed us. For many of us, we are indeed lost in a boat at sea, but rather than a small fishing boat we find ourselves in something slightly more secure, a ship of Theseus rather than the Ancient Mariner’s ship.

            Yet, in the midst of all this, we find ourselves reaching out in faith. The kindness of God that we knew, the security that was present in the rhythms of our life disrupted, something routine as a trip to the store began to take on unexpected complications. Our understandings of order in the world, of justice, of who to believe as disinformation spread throughout the world, all these thrown into disorder with catastrophic consequences.

            God seeks us out in a dual way. On one hand God is walking straight toward us and on the other hand walking ahead of us, going to meet us on the other side of the trouble. We in our own lives can see God as doing one or the other, in both cases seeing the frightful image of divinity not quite with us and not quite away from us, an ambiguous state we abhor in our attempts to categorize our experiences.

            In this ambiguous state we cry out to God, “Come to us or else we will think you’re just a ghost!” We crave proof of God’s presence in our life and without it we begin to fear we were somehow mistaken or that God somehow disappeared from the universe. We feel alone, the sight on the horizon challenging rather than comforting us until the meeting is completed and the human and the divine are given the comfort of presence.

            Our cry out to God to come among us is met with another cry from God, “Be peaceful, do not fear.” The storm does not cease, the world around us is still disheveled, but God is there calling out to us to find peace in the Divine presence – even if this presence is still at some distance. This is often where we end our encounters with God. We hear the imperative for us to be at peace, we encounter God at a distance, and let our fear pass into the background. The storms still rage, our place is still unsure, and we stay as such until the storm has passed and our life returns to normal.

            However, this is not the only outcome of this scenario. We can safely sit where we are and wait things out, or we, like Peter, can take God at God’s word. We can ask Christ to see us move from the safety we know and for us to wade right into the turmoil of the world. We can step out and, like Christ, find ourselves surrounded and engaged with the troubles of the world, but still somehow afloat.

            In the midst of a Pandemic, in the midst of a continual exploration of what justice means in modern America, in the midst of campaigns of falsehoods and misinformation there is no way that the church can sit in its pews and wait things out. On one hand we cannot do so because, the pews are in there and we continue to meet out here. On the other the simple truth is that, as long as we are traversing through this life, it is not enough to wait out the troubles we face – because if we wait for trouble to end we will never step out from our relative safety,

            For too long we have defined ourselves as a group separate and uninterested in the happenings around us. We see hardships of poverty and oppression, we see evil dominating the world and truth sidelined for convenient and harmful rhetoric that allows for more expedient and binary concepts of the world around us. We have murdered nuance through our silence on all issues but those pet passions that we have yelled from pulpits to rapidly emptying sanctuaries. The Church is seen for the thing it is, an association of people gathered in one place and waiting for an end to their trip through this world.

            Imagine if we stepped out though, imagine if we continued to allow ourselves to be uncomfortable. We have spent several months now meeting in ways we never would have thought of before. We have spent several months redefining how we see a world that is fragile enough to be waylaid by a threat that is only a few microns wide, yet that can kill something like 4-6% of all people it touches. We have spent several months watching the long silence we have held over the suffering of our siblings in Christ boil over. We have shown that we are capable of breaking out of our pet comforts when forced to, can we dare do it when we have other options?

            We must come out on the waters of this life, we must engage with problems rather than hide away in our sanctuaries. We must do justice and love mercy, we must chase after the Kingdom in the here and now, and we must do something rather than just stagnate until we become a passing mention in museums and history books. Because, if we return to our story, we see that the truth is that the storms of life can only be calmed after we have made the steps out into the water. When we go out into the muck and mire of a world in pain. A step that will inevitably see us failing, falling, but still find ourselves in the arms of God our protector. Our God who will carry us into a new world of peace and goodness. Only if we step out, only if we engage with the world, only if we are able to live like Christ. Only then, only if. – Amen.

That Which is not Bread – Lectionary 08/02/2020

Isaiah 55:1-5

Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.

Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live. I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David. See, I made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander for the peoples. See, you shall call nations that you do not know, and nations that do not know you shall run to you, because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has glorified you.

Sermon Text

There are only so many hours in the day, an obvious statement to begin our exploration of scripture with. We have 23.93 hours in each day, and most of us will spend at least a third of that asleep. The rest of the time will usually be consumed with another third going to work or activity around the house and then another third for us to spend how we like. Of course, in those subsections we begin to make more and more demarcations. There is time to cook and time to eat and time to walk between rooms and time to relieve ourselves and time to restart the coffee pot and time and time and time and time.

The moving hands of the clock are our friends that let us keep track of our life. They are also a constant source of concern for us. As Mitch Albom puts it, while, “A dog does not check its watch. Deer do not fret over passing birthdays. [Humanity] alone measures time. And, because of this, [humanity] alone suffers a paralyzing fear that no other creature endures. A fear of time running out.”[1] We know that we only have so much time on Earth, and even with eternity in front of us the pressure to use the time we are given to its utmost still is in our mind constantly, we always worry we may be misusing our time.

As we discussed a few weeks ago, a good use of time is not always the one that produces the most quantifiable results. Being the most effective person in our office can be good but can be debilitating if it is at the cost of our peace of mind or our relationships with our loved ones. The same goes for anything we pursue at length. Even work within churches can become destructive to us if we chase them without consideration of how it affects us and those around us holistically. We cannot declare Korban that which we do not own, that which we owe to our neighbors and loved ones cannot be sanctified to God apart from fulfilling our responsibilities that God has given us.

Beyond our obsessions with productivity is another thing, our obsessions with thing that fundamentally do us harm. For example, do you ever find yourself engaging in “Doomscrolling”? Doomscrolling is a tendency, usually seen on Twitter but possible anywhere we take in information.[2] It is what happens when we find ourselves flooding ourselves with bad news all at once. Those late-night news readings that show headline after headline of bad news, those long hours of evening news programs telling us what we should worry about today, the fixation on the brokenness and evil of the world.

Doomscrolling, like so many of the concerns that we have in life, is born out of a legitimate good. We need to stay informed about what is going on in the world, we need to get information and process what is going on and figure out what part we can play in remedying the evils present in the world. However, when we engage constantly or else all at once, then we risk being consumed by the happenings in the world. Our righteous indignation is only righteous if it affects change, not if it wraps us up in a cocoon of paralyzing rage. Our broken heartedness at the state of the world is only efficacious if it leads to change, not shuts us down in a sea of despair.

Following our trend from last week, we see that it is easy for us to twist the situations and the inclinations we have that can be used for good and turn them into something harmful. This is the kind of tendency that pushes us to seek out relief through confirmation, that makes us justify rather than interrogate our contribution to the world around us. When our habits do us harm, when we use our little bit of time to incapacitate ourselves and overwork ourselves, when our precious resource of time is squandered in a misguided attempt to steward it well…

The call of our Scripture today, “everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat,” is one that comes to us today as well. On one hand this proclamation is a literal one to those who first heard it. Having faced the Babylonian exile, having seen their cities destroyed and their farms turned into pseudo-fiefdoms, the people of Judah would need food and water. Thus, the proclamation promises them a restoration to a time before their scarcity, a time when they can keep the food the eat and use the water they pull from their own wells. However, as we follow through the passage we see a passage relevant to our limited resources of time, of money, of focus.

The proclamation ends with a series of questions, one that is particularly relevant is the question, “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” The question, rhetorical in nature, is meant to be answered with a simple negation – there is no reason we should do this, there is no reason not to seek after sustenance and to pour our life into the unsatisfactory. We are compelled to invest all we have in truly sustaining activities – not simply to things that we have close at hand or that we have always done up to this point.

Now, satisfactory here does not mean, “pleasing,” it is not simply that we should do the things that make us feel good. Anyone who has worked in an office or any workplace will know that a great deal of what we do is not, “pleasing.” Yet, we can get something out of the work we do, not just money to sustain ourselves, but labor can be its own reward alongside the material reward we receive for it. Likewise, in our daily duties we can find fulfillment in those we work with, in being a good coworker or administrator, in striving in all things to do the utmost – not in terms of volume, but quality and sincerity of the things we do.

Beyond the labor we embark on, whether it be tending to our house or activity in our workplaces, we also have the time we do not spend at work that must be transformed into something sustaining to us. When we read the news or engage with people or in person – we must ask what those interactions are doing for us. Are we seeking out information to be informed and to engage and to produce positive action, or are we reading and engaging so we can feel our five minutes of rage or crestfallenness to feel that we have done our part in the day. I will raise the stakes for those who have social media and ask, are we responding to this post because we want to talk to someone on the site or because we have a zinger to really show either the poster or some third party how really wrong and stupid they are.

The time that we invest into the things around will inevitably shape us. In the same way that the food we eat affects our health, the work we do and the things we take in shape our personality. Are we engaging with things that produce the fruits of God’s spirit within us – peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, self-control to name a few – or are we engaging with things that make us more vicious – vitriolic, impatient, curt, and impulsive? When we invest our time and energy as we presently do are we allowing ourselves rest and for our needs to be met, or simply trying to squeeze the most out of every minute as if that will add a few more minutes to the clock?

There are not many firm things that we could say about this kind of self-evaluation. Partly because different people engage with the world differently. It would be irresponsible to say, as some do, that we should just not engage with the news or with current events to promote peace of mind, because that simply turns us into out of touch and passive inhabitants of the world. Likewise, it would be wrong to say that we should give up our daily work of one kind or another because it is not immediately obvious how it contributes to our growth as persons.

When I was growing up I was part of a youth group that was adamant about us setting ourselves apart through our apparent holiness. We were not to listen to anything but Christian music, to seek out Christian alternatives to media whenever possible, and to generally surround ourselves with people who were like us – Christian in the ways we were Christian, and if they were unlike us our entire life was to be consumed in transforming them to be like us. How many here have ever been part of a CD burning? Who here was alive for the “Satanic Panic” of the 80s and 90s?

The problem with this metric of involvement, this ethic of selective intake of information is that on the surface it was being wise with our investment in time. However, it ultimately was a shift too far in another direction. Our faith was insular, we could not relate to those around us because we did not know the media they did or the worldviews they held. The best we could know was the parody of their life we were told daily, the selective telling of ideas outside our own and the vicious misrepresentations we held of people who were not very different from ourselves. 

 Fulfillment is founded in our pursuit of a Godly lifestyle, and that lifestyle breaks out in the mundane details of our daily life. Wherever we are we are able to shift focus, to alter our consumption, to engage with the world around us in a way that orients us toward God and what God’s kingdom would see us do. It is the sense to not take our work home every chance we get, and instead to invest in rest as communion with our loved ones. It is the sense to take in information about the world, not from highly charged partisan sources all at once, but from objective sources spread out across our day. It the use of resources around us, selective at times, but more often open and engaging, that allows us to know and react to the truth of the world around us.

Take a moment now and think of how you are planning on spending tomorrow. Some things we cannot do away with, but you can change how we are going to do them. When you’re starting your day where will your mind be? When we are checking the morning news or scrolling through your newsfeed how will we engage with it? When we are driving to work how are we going to treat the driver who cuts you off? When we go through each aspect of your day, we cannot always control what we are doing, but we can control the color of the action itself.

When the day comes to an end, will we let ourselves rest? Let ourselves take some time and read some scripture? Talk to our family, call up a friend, take some time and read up on that headline we saw earlier and see what brought someone to type those words into a word processor? We must learn to look at everything we do and ask, “Am I laboring for something satisfying? Am I approaching my actions and my work in a way that brings life?” If we are, then we are given the promise that God will be there to provide the sustenance from the work we have done. When we embark upon this thoughtful path, the time we spend, will not return to us empty.

[1] Mitch Albom. The Time Keeper. (New York, New York: Hachette Books. 2012)

[2] “On ‘Doomsurfing’ and ‘Doomscrolling.” Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Accessed: https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/doomsurfing-doomscrolling-words-were-watching

The Wisdom of Solomon – Lectionary 07/26/2020

1 Kings 3: 5-12

At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, “Ask what I should give you.” And Solomon said, “You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant my father David, because he walked before you in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart toward you; and you have kept for him this great and steadfast love, and have given him a son to sit on his throne today. And now, O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in. And your servant is in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted. Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?”

It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this. God said to him, “Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, I now do according to your word. Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you.

Sermon Text

            If you could have only one wish fulfilled, what would it be? It is so tantalizing a question that it lingers in the air. All of us know what the “correct answers,” are – for an end to poverty or for world peace, but we also know that beyond this we have our initial impulse. A hundred thousand potential answers that would satisfy our needs in life and then some. Whatever they are, we know them in our hearts, whatever form they take, we know that their form is our own. Our desires and who we are, they are so often connected to one another.

            We are so aware of this that we have made books and movies, song and poetry, all reflecting the danger of getting what we want. “The Monkey’s Paw” is one of the most famous examples of this, a short story where every wish a couple makes brings them some sort of misfortune, indicated each time with the twist of the monkey’s paw they have wished upon. Money is wished for and their son’s company sends them a check to cover expenses related to his death at work. They wish for their son to be back with them and they sit in horror as someone begins knocking on the door that night.

            We do not usually make wishes, on monkey paws or anything else, but we do put our desires forward to God in prayer. Oftentimes we make these prayers about outward conditions of other people, prayers for the health and provision for others. If we do pray for ourselves we do so in extremis, or else we pray for guidance, anything but prayers that address our specific needs in life. Perhaps in part we are blessed that, usually, our basic needs are met and so we do not have to pray for ourselves. However, we cannot just assume this is always true. We all have needs even beyond food and shelter and enough money to pay a few bills. We need to have friendships, we need to have emotional connections, we need a great deal. Yet, we seldom pray on these things. Even beyond those, we have an innate distrust for offering our desires to God.

            There is an honesty to this anxiety, we would be right to be skeptical of our own projections of the future. If we are honest with ourselves, we know that many of the things that we would go after are fundamentally harmful. This is not only a matter of the most dramatic or significantly selfish impulses within us, but even in the little expressions of desire we have on a regular basis.

            Who here, when driving does not image being somehow able to go around a large line of traffic – maybe by driving on the shoulder or simply by the line magically getting out of your way. Who here, when at a buffet, remember buffets? Did not find themselves filling plates they had no hope of finishing. Who, looking at their bank account does not image zeros appear at the end of the amount in the checking account and the savings account? This final desire is perhaps the most obviously off kilter of those I have outlined, but is it fundamentally different than the earlier two?

            We crave good things in life, but we often chase after them wrongly or in excess. Money, as Ecclesiastes points out, is able to supply most every need we have in life. (Ecclesiastes 10:19) However, we only need a scant amount of it to really survive in most circumstances. The same is true of food, we almost never need to grab a second plate, but when our first one empties it only takes a moment for us to convince ourselves to fill it again. Even our time, that precious commodity we only have a set amount of, is something that we try to hoard away for ourselves and spend how we want, even though truly utilizing it appropriately requires a great deal more than driving fast and irritating our fellow drivers.

            Still, our twisting of the earnest desires of our heart oftentimes leads to negative consequences either directly or over a course of time. When I, and I will stop saying we for now because this is an obvious vice of mine, decide to order a foot long sub instead of the half sub from Sheetz, I know the price I will pay is heartburn and indigestion. Yet I find myself gravitating toward the option to get a full sub time and time again. My need for food, my desire for nourishment, twisted by my own viciousness.

            Our fear to ask for things, our constant mantra to ourselves, “be careful what you wish for,” it is borne out of a legitimate self-critique within ourselves. We know that we are prone to inflate what we need to fit what we want. We know that if we got all that we want, instead of seeking after only what we need, it would ultimately hurt us. Still worse, it may hurt other people. When we chase after an excess of any good thing, it usually is to the detriment or loss of someone else.

            When we keep our money to ourselves we deprive the poor who are given to us to care for. When we pursue connections and relationships outside of the covenants we are in, we harm the partner with have in that covenant. When we seek to be superior among our peers, or even our friends, we often find ourselves pushing the heads of those around us down, rather than lifting ourselves up. The cost of ill-sought-after wishes is always that they will be ill-begotten. You cannot pursue a good thing in excess without causing harm to yourself, to your loved ones, or to a stranger.

            For this reason, we have to do something more than not wishing. We need to do more than shutting off the part of our brain that seeks after things or that projects something bigger and better down the line. We cannot give up wishing, we cannot give up our desire to want, but we must change the way we even begin to form wanting in our hearts. We have to go to the roots of who we are and ask, “What am I contributing to, what is going on, and what ultimately do I need?” These questions can reshape the way that we tackle problems in our life, our response to them, and ultimately what we want out of the circumstances we find ourselves in.

            We work backward through these questions. “What do I need?” So often the evil that we end up going after in life begins as a legitimate need within our heart. We need to be heard, so we lash out at those around us. We need to feel comforted, so we chase after substances or situations that numb our senses. We need to feel loved, so we seek after relationships we have right to begin with people we have no claim to. The initial desire, to be heard, to be loved, to be comforted – are more than not evil, they are human and good. Yet, when we do not address our fundamental needs they fester within us and we meet them through any means but the proper ones.

            Secondly, what is going on? Once we know what we need and are honest about it then we are able to act appropriately. However, honesty about the inward condition must be met with honesty about the outward. The evaluation of the situation we find ourselves in will look different depending on where we find ourselves. If we are feeling distant from a love one, then we must think about what we have done and what they have done to reach that point. If we are feeling uncomfortable in a situation, then we must identify the source of the discomfort. This step is crucial, and it often falters because while one party is willing to interrogate the situation, others may not be. Siblings in Christ, when we interact with one another, let us always be willing to undertake this step together, considering one another’s perspective and sharing freely our own.

            Finally, we ask what we are contributing to in our present actions and will be contributing to in our future actions. We have identified a need, we have identified what in our environment is causing the need itself or the lack of its fulfillment, maybe we even have a plan of action in place, now comes another critical step. We must ask what our actions are going to contribute to in our life and the relationships we are a part of. We must evaluate what we are feeding into in life.

            If, for example, a friend of mine points out that I have failed to speak to them honestly and with any frequency about what is going on in my life. I acknowledge this and endeavor to be more upfront with them, perhaps they agree to reach out to me more often to give me that opportunity, we both have a way forward with our actions. As time goes on, we will see what our choices have contributed to, what has grown or been shackled following our initial responses. The result of this additional evaluation is that we will be able to go forward once more or circle back and reevaluate based on what we have learned through taking these actions.

            As we established at our outset, our desires and who we are, are linked together. Solomon’s prayer in our scripture today to be wise, that is ultimately a prayer to know himself fully. To be honest within himself and about the situations he was in and to go the step further to evaluate that situation again and again. This wisdom, this knowledge of where we are and what we must do, it can be learned through experience and mentoring to be sure, but the ultimate teacher of this wisdom is God and God’s grace. God gives Solomon the wisdom to rule as he does, and God enters into our hearts and our community to do the same, if only we are willing to be honest and to listen.

            When we see Solomon be told he will have success in his kingship because he sought wisdom, let us think of Jesus’ words that by pursuing righteousness we will find all that we need. In seeking a good life lived in community with one another, a moderate life tempered with wisdom and knowledge of God, self, and community, we see God supplying for us and our superfluous desires replaced with the greater calling God has placed on our lives. We dream, we hope, we pray earnestly for what we desire, because we now know we are truly seeking something Good, and we know that our Good God will not twist that goodness, but will allow it to flourish, and for us to reflect the same light that God freely shines toward us. – Amen