Getting Over Ourselves – Lectionary 01/31/2021

1 Corinthians 8

“Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that “We all possess knowledge.” But knowledge puffs up while love builds up. Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know. But whoever loves God is known by God.

So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that “An idol is nothing at all in the world” and that “There is no God but one.” For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”), yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.

But not everyone possesses this knowledge. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat sacrificial food they think of it as having been sacrificed to a god, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled. But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.

Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak. For if someone with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, eating in an idol’s temple, won’t that person be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols? So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. When you sin against them in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall.

Sermon Text

            I have a bad habit of being incredibly picky. Not when it comes to food or music or any material aspect of life. No, I tend to be picky about what I want to see from worship services that I attend. While I can and have enjoyed the broad spectrum of expression which the Christian church enjoys – from contemporary services to traditional, from masses and great liturgies to revivals and prayer meetings – I find that there are certain criteria I create in my mind for what does and does not constitute a good worship experience. As with any organizational scheme, some of these criteria are better than others.

            What stands out to me about my pickiness is that it is proportional to my familiarity with something. I am pickier about a traditional church service with hymns and collects and litanies and processionals, because it is the kind of service which I know and love best. If someone is preaching on Ecclesiastes I have particular things I do and do not like to hear from that book because, as it is my favorite book in scripture, I know it better than most. Meanwhile, if I go to a service conducted in an orthodox church where very little is familiar, my heart will probably be more open to the things I see and the experiences that I take part in. Familiarity, somehow, breeds a sense of entitlement in our hearts.

            For many of us in the Church, we can find something quite refreshing about Sundays where we break the mold, but we get more defensive when there are slight alterations to things we regularly participate in. Think of when the lyric of a favorite hymn is rendered slightly differently in a hymnal or when a version of scripture is used that we do not know but of a verse we love dearly. We begin to sing or speak along with the verse, but then the sudden break from familiarity upsets us.

            The only way to know that something has violated our sense of what is normal is if we have a definition of the norm. When we hear about something miraculous, we can only know it is miraculous in reference to how it defies the mundane. The parting of the Red Sea is uncommon, sudden healing of the sick is rare, the resurrection of the dead is unbelievable. We discern a thing is exceptional only when we know what is typical. In the same way we define a thing’s acceptability by its commonality.

            The people of God often create their own concepts of normality, usually changing them every few decades. Though building off of traditions that stretch back throughout time, we define our norms about once a generation. Sometimes the changes are small, prayers being slightly different in wording and message. Other shifts are extreme, the addition or removal of entire articles of the faith and rites of the Church.

            Scripture shows us such shifts occurring several times across its pages and history beyond that shows ever greater examples. Even looking only at the locations where God was worshipped throughout scripture, we see changes happening across generations. The patriarchs worshipped God under sacred trees while the Wilderness wanderers had a mobile tabernacle. The tribes, once settled in the land, worshipped primarily at Bethel while the people worshipped at the Jerusalem temple during the united monarchy. If we were to move beyond location and look at the rituals and prayers of the people, we would see that these too changed. Festivals, sacrifices, and prayer likewise morph over time.

            The whole span of Scripture, across a compositional history of three thousand years, shows us that we approach God differently depending on when we meet God. One generation will worship differently than another than another. Yet, the one constant that remains is the God who is worshipped. Though we alter our words or shift our focus, the center of the faith is left unchanged. God, the founder and author of all creation, is the ultimate focal point of the lives of the faithful.

            The first four decades, maybe even centuries, of the Church were even more volatile than most generational shifts. Suddenly, rather than simply being Jews and Gentiles (which are already two diverse groups to begin with,) there are now Christians. Not only that, but some Christians are Jewish, and some are Gentile. Two worlds were coming together and stepping into a new one. To Jewish Christians, Christianity was a continuation of centuries of faith in the God of Israel. For Gentile Christians, it was a revelation unlike even the most charming mystery religion. It was familiar to them both, but in wildly different ways. Both joined knowing things would be different, but what differences they were willing to accept was a matter unto itself.

            The issue in question for our scripture today is the eating of food sacrificed to idols. This sort of food was, surprisingly, not hard to come by. It was freely sold in markets and, though it was pricey, it was good quality meat to those who could afford it. The well-to-do in a town would buy this meat to eat. Whether its ritual status was important to the buyer was a largely personal matter. To some within the Church, however, whether it was right to buy and eat this meat was a matter of grave concern. Paul specifically highlights how those in the community who came from idol worshipping families and cultures had yet to separate this food from its religious origins.

            To them, eating food offered to idols was too close to participate in the ritual that sanctified the meat. It was too close for comfort, too much like what they had left behind, too gentile to look Christian. Paul’s language suggests that some Gentiles and likely more Jews in the community lacked this concern. The meat was meat, neither special nor abhorrent, and there was no worry about eating it. Pressure was put upon those who refused to eat the food, pressure to eat the expensive gift brought to communal meals against their conscience.

            Paul could have easily taken this opportunity to chastise or belittle those who did not want to eat consecrated meat. It would have taken nothing to push Paul’s own secular view on the matter but instead he addresses the people with a proverb of sorts, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” To know something, or to think you do, and then to try and force people to agree with it against their conscience makes the aggressor feel important, as though they have championed over their colleagues. That is not what Church is for. Church is for building one another up in holiness, not competing with one another.

            Love, that is what guides our actions. Transformative love that promotes community and seeks what is best for one another. For the Corinthians, and indeed for ourselves, that constitutes getting over ourselves to a certain degree. It means that sometimes it is better to allow something we would rather not have around for the good of others, it means lifting up and supporting those who feel differently than us. It means putting God and substance over preference and appearance.

            Let us return to our own churches and our earlier example of worship. Imagine a guest came in and led worship differently than we usually do. Perhaps they are an ecstatic Pentecostal, or they are a high church Anglican. If we rejected them because, “That’s not how we do things here,” we would not only insult them, but lose out on what they brought to our conversations on faith. Likewise, if we visited another church and criticized their services for being different and demanded they act more like us, we would likewise find them cut off from us and miss an opportunity to work together with one another. Sadly, this has often been the case, and many non-European or American Christians throughout history, even till today, have been told their Christianity is lesser because it does not look like Augustine or Billy Graham.

            This goes deeper than worship preferences though. Some of our cultural and personal customs are treated as absolute despite being non-essential. Some in the church believe alcohol is fine to drink in moderation, others believe in absolute abstention. In an attempt to preach God’s grace, some may insist that the teetotaler should respond to scriptures lack of a prohibition and imbibe. Paul is adamant against such teaching. Leveraging scripture – whether through a valid interpretation or not – to bring someone to act against their conscience is wrong. God calls us all differently – one to abstention and another to liberty – but to push the former to act against their conscience is a grave sin.

            Some believe fasting is absolutely necessary on a regular basis, others never fast. Those who do not fast should not prevent those who do. Those who pray specific prayers cannot be forced into extemporaneous prayer. We must discern how our perspectives, especially our preferences, are not always the sort of thing that others must join in. I do not like contemporary worship music, in fact most of it is bad to me, but if I stood here and spoke against it as a matter of authority it would be betraying the sensibilities of many here. God calls us to defer to others and to make allowances, not to become judiciaries of what is and is not of God.

            This does not mean that anything goes or that in flexibility there is always virtue. Nor does it mean that sin can just be written off as a difference in perspective. We must be open to participating in all things which do not betray our conscience and occasionally even in examining our own to seek out our faults. If my conscience is such that I never do anything I’d rather not do, for example, may it’s not my conscience stopping me.

            As with much of our Christian life, there is no universal rule for how we extend grace of matters of conscience and preference. Sometimes we must yield, sometimes we must stand firm, sometimes we must even let ourselves feels uncomfortable. The balance must be struck out across different situations differently. Yet, we can be sure that when we act out of love and not control, out of seeking what is best rather than what we would like, then we can be confident in our actions. We are free for one another, not for our own desires. Let us love one another fully, let us get over ourselves, even just a little. – Amen.

And God Changed God’s Mind – Lectionary 01/24/2021

 

Jonah 3

The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.

When Jonah’s warning reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. This is the proclamation he issued in Nineveh:

“By the decree of the king and his nobles:

Do not let people or animals, herds or flocks, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. But let people and animals be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.”

When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.

Sermon Text

           Jonah is a goldmine of strange and fascinating instances of God’s mercy and human selfishness. Nineveh, the city which Jonah is called to preach to, was the capital of the Assyrian empire. Within a handful of generations that empire would rise up and destroy Jonah’s kingdom of Israel and reduce its sister kingdom of Judah to a vassal-state. The Assyrians, unlike their Babylonian counterparts, were not interested in maintaining any semblance of normalcy in their conquered kingdoms. Once a nation fell to Assyria a large chunk of the native population was transplanted elsewhere in the empire and replaced with another group from another conquered territory. While Babylonians exiled dignitaries to help with administration, the Assyrians exiled thousands to stamp out resistance and cultural identity from their conquered territories.

            Assyria was ruthless, and yet somehow it became a place that, we are told, God was willing to work salvation. As we have discussed previously when looking at the book of Jonah, the book itself is a historical fable. While Jonah was a real prophet active in Israel, the exact events of this book are a narrative which provides a clear example of the sort of work he engaged in. The comparison between the book of Jonah and George Washington’s cherry tree remains apt – the story is not itself a 1:1 history of an event but is meant to tell us something about the characters in the story. In this case, those characters are God and Jonah.

            Jonah, the stand in for humanity is an unwilling prophet. Jonah is not unwilling because of fear, but out of hatred. God is sending Jonah to preach repentance to the people who Jonah knows will bring destruction to his people, that the audience of the story knows will succeed in wiping them out. Jonah wants God to destroy the Assyrians, and Jonah believes that if he can get out of preaching repentance to them, then God will be trapped in God’s own desire to see justice done. Jonah, like so many did before him, and like we do today, was trying to trick God into doing what he wanted.

            Yet, the whole arc of the story shows Jonah being pushed to Nineveh even despite his opposition. When Jonah tries to escape God’s call on his life by ship, storms prevent him. When the storm blocks one path, Jonah seeks to drown to avoid his call, but a great fish comes and prevents his escape once again. Somewhere in the despair of the ocean, Jonah comes to terms with what God has given him, but not for the reasons we would want him to. He takes up his call, he goes and preaches to the city, and camps out on a hill nearby, because Jonah is sure that the city will carry on being evil and the city will be destroyed in short order.

            Jonah, the prophet who heard the voice of God, had failed to listen to the city he was preaching to. We are told that Jonah made it at least a day’s journey into the city, a city that was three days across. Though the story does not tell us whether he carried on through the city or not, it seems likely that Jonah stopped traversing the city at this point. The halfhearted, spiteful prophet was not willing to give any more time to these people he actively wished to see destroyed. Even as he walked back out of the city, he began planning how he would watch it burn. Even as he left the gates, he failed to hear the decree of the king calling the people to repentance.

            You see, Jonah, like we do, was sure that God would only speak against the people of Nineveh if they were truly beyond repair. We see in something we dislike or that we know to be bad, an insurmountable obstacle to reconciliation and recovery. God, thankfully, is more creative than we are. God, in relenting, in changing God’s mind, is ready to take something like Nineveh and give it a new lease on life, because God knows there is power in grace and in forgiveness, power that is greater even than the most wrathful anger of the divine.

            Throughout scripture God is described as, “repenting,” and “relenting,” of wrath. When judgment comes to a people, God can and does remove the penalty of that judgment. These are treated the same way that a person may forgive another person, albeit often on a grander scale. The language of, “relent,” as is used to describe God in this passage can be translated as, “consoling oneself,” or, “being sorry.” It is the same language used for when God regretted making humanity before the flood. The king of Nineveh, in his prayer is essentially saying, “If we repent of our evil, perhaps God’s heart will soften, and God too will repent – not of evil, but of anger.” Repentance, turning around, changing direction, would here suggest God is not only ceasing to do harm but even blessing the people who have repented of their sin.

            The people who were once completely against God, now they had a chance to go even beyond simply avoiding what is bad but stepping into the goodness of God. The people of Nineveh were not just being spared; they were being saved from themselves. Fasting, covering themselves in sackcloth, these were all outward signs of an inward change. God set out to destroy Nineveh, Nineveh saw the coming wrath and turned around, God likewise transformed punishment into opportunity – the people had a chance for real change, for a relationship with the God of the universe.

            The paradox of Jonah is that God sets out to destroy Nineveh, but God also sends Jonah to save the city through his preaching. The prophet sees the intent of God’s actions immediately – God is loading the deck against the destruction of the city; God is actively working to make sure that the availability for mercy overcomes the need for judgment. God wants to be convinced the city is worth sparing, more than anything God wants to change God’s own mind about the necessity of violence against creation. God desires that not even a single soul should perish, but that all people might be saved.

            When we begin considering God’s righteousness in judgment and God’s righteousness in offering mercy, we inevitably get a headache. It seems on one hand that for God to be absolutely merciful, God must give a blanket pardon to all people on Earth, thus showing the absolute power of mercy. Likewise, our mind looks at all the evil of the world and we say to ourselves that God would be equally justified in destroying much of if not all humanity. Life is rough, and oftentimes we find ourselves overwhelmed both by the need for forgiveness to manifest and for justice to burn.

            I, personally, do not envy God in looking at the world. To see in every person the best and worst parts of humanity and then to have to balance in tension wrath and mercy and in all things show your incredible love for all things. There are times I do not know how I feel about the people in my own life, unable to discern them as mostly good or bad in how they interact with the world, I could not do this with seemingly infinite numbers of people throughout history. Yet, God looks at humanity and loves it eternally, yet God chose the ultimate expression of mercy in giving the Son – a member of the eternal triune divine – to live a life we may model and die a death that sets all of us free.

            Ultimately, the paradox of God in Jonah, in all of history, in all matters of mercy and justice, is that God is not the binary switch we imagine God to be. God is not at one moment a burning cloud of anger and then the next a gentle breath of peace. God is simply God, the eternal being who manifests in our life as blessing, as goodness, as love. There reaches a point in trying to understand how God acts in history where no words are sufficient. No wonder then that the Hebrew Scripture often stops short of trying to explain God’s inner thoughts. We know God seems angry in one moment but may offer peace instead of judgment when the time comes. God, for love of us all, seems to be able to change God’s mind. That is sufficient to know.

            If we know that God is ultimately oriented toward mercy, and if God is even willing to see the worst humanity has to offer enter into the Kingdom of God, then we too must define ourselves by mercy. We are too quick to write people off, too ready to wish ill on our enemies, too poised to see God wipe out those we have imagined are not part of the world we inhabit. For Jonah this meant first running away from his call to save hundreds of thousands of people, then giving up part way through doing his work. That the book concludes with God chastising him for his hardness of heart should not surprise us.

            Let us be enthusiastic in our quest to be merciful. When the opportunity to get to know those we have written off comes up, let us take it up with a smile and with hope about what that chance might bring. When we find ourselves wishing evil on other people, let us remember God sparing Nineveh and let go of that anger. When we want to give up part way through the difficult walk toward reconciliation, let us out do Jonah and make it to the end of our work before we decide whether or not the trip was worthwhile.

            Love is the greatest mystery we are shown in life. Mercy is love which we show one another when times get hard. That God’s mercy is baffling to us should not be surprising. Yet, it offers us the example of how conflicted we can feel. Anger, disappointment, regret, all these valid feelings can come out of conflict we have with one another. However, they should not overcome our faculties for mercy, peace, and love. Repentance is hard, working with people who just don’t get it yet is hard, the whole business of living a good life can be overwhelming. Thanks be to God that in his works at Nineveh, on the Cross, and in our own lives, we are continually shown it is all possible. Changing hearts and minds, that is the business of God, and sometimes it seems that business can be turned inward. Let us work to change our own minds and to seek peace with all those around us. – Amen.

            Jonah is a goldmine of strange and fascinating instances of God’s mercy and human selfishness. Nineveh, the city which Jonah is called to preach to, was the capital of the Assyrian empire. Within a handful of generations that empire would rise up and destroy Jonah’s kingdom of Israel and reduce its sister kingdom of Judah to a vassal-state. The Assyrians, unlike their Babylonian counterparts, were not interested in maintaining any semblance of normalcy in their conquered kingdoms. Once a nation fell to Assyria a large chunk of the native population was transplanted elsewhere in the empire and replaced with another group from another conquered territory. While Babylonians exiled dignitaries to help with administration, the Assyrians exiled thousands to stamp out resistance and cultural identity from their conquered territories.

            Assyria was ruthless, and yet somehow it became a place that, we are told, God was willing to work salvation. As we have discussed previously when looking at the book of Jonah, the book itself is a historical fable. While Jonah was a real prophet active in Israel, the exact events of this book are a narrative which provides a clear example of the sort of work he engaged in. The comparison between the book of Jonah and George Washington’s cherry tree remains apt – the story is not itself a 1:1 history of an event but is meant to tell us something about the characters in the story. In this case, those characters are God and Jonah.

            Jonah, the stand in for humanity is an unwilling prophet. Jonah is not unwilling because of fear, but out of hatred. God is sending Jonah to preach repentance to the people who Jonah knows will bring destruction to his people, that the audience of the story knows will succeed in wiping them out. Jonah wants God to destroy the Assyrians, and Jonah believes that if he can get out of preaching repentance to them, then God will be trapped in God’s own desire to see justice done. Jonah, like so many did before him, and like we do today, was trying to trick God into doing what he wanted.

            Yet, the whole arc of the story shows Jonah being pushed to Nineveh even despite his opposition. When Jonah tries to escape God’s call on his life by ship, storms prevent him. When the storm blocks one path, Jonah seeks to drown to avoid his call, but a great fish comes and prevents his escape once again. Somewhere in the despair of the ocean, Jonah comes to terms with what God has given him, but not for the reasons we would want him to. He takes up his call, he goes and preaches to the city, and camps out on a hill nearby, because Jonah is sure that the city will carry on being evil and the city will be destroyed in short order.

            Jonah, the prophet who heard the voice of God, had failed to listen to the city he was preaching to. We are told that Jonah made it at least a day’s journey into the city, a city that was three days across. Though the story does not tell us whether he carried on through the city or not, it seems likely that Jonah stopped traversing the city at this point. The halfhearted, spiteful prophet was not willing to give any more time to these people he actively wished to see destroyed. Even as he walked back out of the city, he began planning how he would watch it burn. Even as he left the gates, he failed to hear the decree of the king calling the people to repentance.

            You see, Jonah, like we do, was sure that God would only speak against the people of Nineveh if they were truly beyond repair. We see in something we dislike or that we know to be bad, an insurmountable obstacle to reconciliation and recovery. God, thankfully, is more creative than we are. God, in relenting, in changing God’s mind, is ready to take something like Nineveh and give it a new lease on life, because God knows there is power in grace and in forgiveness, power that is greater even than the most wrathful anger of the divine.

            Throughout scripture God is described as, “repenting,” and “relenting,” of wrath. When judgment comes to a people, God can and does remove the penalty of that judgment. These are treated the same way that a person may forgive another person, albeit often on a grander scale. The language of, “relent,” as is used to describe God in this passage can be translated as, “consoling oneself,” or, “being sorry.” It is the same language used for when God regretted making humanity before the flood. The king of Nineveh, in his prayer is essentially saying, “If we repent of our evil, perhaps God’s heart will soften, and God too will repent – not of evil, but of anger.” Repentance, turning around, changing direction, would here suggest God is not only ceasing to do harm but even blessing the people who have repented of their sin.

            The people who were once completely against God, now they had a chance to go even beyond simply avoiding what is bad but stepping into the goodness of God. The people of Nineveh were not just being spared; they were being saved from themselves. Fasting, covering themselves in sackcloth, these were all outward signs of an inward change. God set out to destroy Nineveh, Nineveh saw the coming wrath and turned around, God likewise transformed punishment into opportunity – the people had a chance for real change, for a relationship with the God of the universe.

            The paradox of Jonah is that God sets out to destroy Nineveh, but God also sends Jonah to save the city through his preaching. The prophet sees the intent of God’s actions immediately – God is loading the deck against the destruction of the city; God is actively working to make sure that the availability for mercy overcomes the need for judgment. God wants to be convinced the city is worth sparing, more than anything God wants to change God’s own mind about the necessity of violence against creation. God desires that not even a single soul should perish, but that all people might be saved.

            When we begin considering God’s righteousness in judgment and God’s righteousness in offering mercy, we inevitably get a headache. It seems on one hand that for God to be absolutely merciful, God must give a blanket pardon to all people on Earth, thus showing the absolute power of mercy. Likewise, our mind looks at all the evil of the world and we say to ourselves that God would be equally justified in destroying much of if not all humanity. Life is rough, and oftentimes we find ourselves overwhelmed both by the need for forgiveness to manifest and for justice to burn.

            I, personally, do not envy God in looking at the world. To see in every person the best and worst parts of humanity and then to have to balance in tension wrath and mercy and in all things show your incredible love for all things. There are times I do not know how I feel about the people in my own life, unable to discern them as mostly good or bad in how they interact with the world, I could not do this with seemingly infinite numbers of people throughout history. Yet, God looks at humanity and loves it eternally, yet God chose the ultimate expression of mercy in giving the Son – a member of the eternal triune divine – to live a life we may model and die a death that sets all of us free.

            Ultimately, the paradox of God in Jonah, in all of history, in all matters of mercy and justice, is that God is not the binary switch we imagine God to be. God is not at one moment a burning cloud of anger and then the next a gentle breath of peace. God is simply God, the eternal being who manifests in our life as blessing, as goodness, as love. There reaches a point in trying to understand how God acts in history where no words are sufficient. No wonder then that the Hebrew Scripture often stops short of trying to explain God’s inner thoughts. We know God seems angry in one moment but may offer peace instead of judgment when the time comes. God, for love of us all, seems to be able to change God’s mind. That is sufficient to know.

            If we know that God is ultimately oriented toward mercy, and if God is even willing to see the worst humanity has to offer enter into the Kingdom of God, then we too must define ourselves by mercy. We are too quick to write people off, too ready to wish ill on our enemies, too poised to see God wipe out those we have imagined are not part of the world we inhabit. For Jonah this meant first running away from his call to save hundreds of thousands of people, then giving up part way through doing his work. That the book concludes with God chastising him for his hardness of heart should not surprise us.

            Let us be enthusiastic in our quest to be merciful. When the opportunity to get to know those we have written off comes up, let us take it up with a smile and with hope about what that chance might bring. When we find ourselves wishing evil on other people, let us remember God sparing Nineveh and let go of that anger. When we want to give up part way through the difficult walk toward reconciliation, let us out do Jonah and make it to the end of our work before we decide whether or not the trip was worthwhile.

            Love is the greatest mystery we are shown in life. Mercy is love which we show one another when times get hard. That God’s mercy is baffling to us should not be surprising. Yet, it offers us the example of how conflicted we can feel. Anger, disappointment, regret, all these valid feelings can come out of conflict we have with one another. However, they should not overcome our faculties for mercy, peace, and love. Repentance is hard, working with people who just don’t get it yet is hard, the whole business of living a good life can be overwhelming. Thanks be to God that in his works at Nineveh, on the Cross, and in our own lives, we are continually shown it is all possible. Changing hearts and minds, that is the business of God, and sometimes it seems that business can be turned inward. Let us work to change our own minds and to seek peace with all those around us. – Amen.

Just ‘Cause You Can – Lectionary 01/17/2021

1 Corinthians 6: 12-14

“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything. “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food,” and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is meant not for fornication but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God raised the Lord and will also raise us by his power.

Sermon Text

            We all have things in life that we love. We may love coffee, books, television, video games, whatever it may be there are aspects of our life in which we take joy from engaging with our favorite hobbies or objects. Sometimes the pleasure comes from the action itself, the joy of a morning run for some people can be enjoyed regardless of circumstances. Other times it is a specific item that allows us to enjoy ourselves – if you have a favorite piece of art that you always feel better having looked at or a memento of a past event that awakens good memories then you know this feeling.

            Almost any aspect of creation can bring us joy because God made all things to be good in the beginning. While we as humans may twist that creation to become negative, the raw matter of the universe is inherently good. The tools we make from those materials carry on some of that goodness, and we as the secondary creators are the ones who decide for what purpose we make something. Have we made them for good or for bad, have we built them in the spirit of their original goodness or brought them down to our own depraved sensibilities?

            The right suitedness of a thing or an action defines the utility and the morality of its existence. While there are some implements which can only exist for evil, most things are made for multiple uses or can be used for several things regardless of the original intent of its making. A screwdriver can remove or tighten a screw, true, but a flat head can also be used as a pry bar in a pinch. However, we are too abstract to really make our point here. We are all of us given some universal gifts in life – gifts of ingenuity, of self-determination, of our basic desires, and many others. These gifts, these items bestowed on us by God alongside the physical objects we own, are the things we can use for good or evil and that we often need guidance for.

            Paul, in our scripture today, makes a provocative statement. “All things are lawful,” perhaps alluding to a teaching that was common in the Corinthian community. “All things are lawful,” is a slogan that seemingly no one knows the origin of. Some point to Paul’s own teachings on grace and suggest that people took his teachings on ritual purity too far. Others say that it is a reference to the teachings of Diogenes the Cynic or other philosophers. Still, maybe it was just a thing that the community said to themselves apropos of nothing.

            Regardless of how this idea entered the consciousness of the people, it was deceptively appealing. The idea that anything goes for Christians would be easy to believe. After all, Christ died for all sins, including mine. Who is to say that does not include sins yet to be committed as well? The basic ethic, “All things are lawful,” quickly becomes, “All things are good.” This perspective that says a person, often specifically Christians, are not held to actionable obligations is referred to as antinomianism – literally “Without Law.” While few people are fully antinomian in their beliefs, the impulse is more common among Christians than we would care to admit.

            We are people freed by God’s grace. This freedom includes being free from eternal punishment, it means being free of many ritual obligations as Gentile Believers, but it cannot be allowed to mean that we have a free pass to do as we wish. It is so compelling a temptation that when Paul went on his preaching journeys, we often see that people took his teachings and twisted them in just the right way to excuse their bad behavior. The Corinthians had their slogan, “All things are lawful,” while others like the church in Rome simply took license to neglect their Jewish siblings in the church. In both cases Paul had to write letters to the congregations to clarify the teaching, making sure the whole world knew that the question, “Should I sin that grace may about?” must be shut down with, “Certainly not!” Immediately. (Romans 6: 1-2)

            The way that antinomianism appears to us today is far more subtle. As heirs to two thousand years of Christian study and teachings we are too clever to just come out and say, “God’s grace is sufficient for any sin I’d like to commit, so I will commit whatever sin I’d like.” Few people are so self-aware or so upfront outside of Sunday school skits, and I do not believe they truly exist in any great number. However, for each of us we will find moments in which we do something we should not, knowing we should not do it, and then immediately go to God in prayer – not out of contrition and seeking to truly repent, but out of fear and a knowledge that God’s grace will cover our sin.

            Sin is born, oftentimes, out of the legitimate desires given to us by God being corrupted by our broken perspectives. As Paul says, everyone needs and loves food but if food controls your life then you will sin in a multitude of ways concerning food. Physical intimacy is an important aspect of our human relationships, but if we let our desire for it consume us then we will quickly find ourselves pursuing it in the wrong ways. The two examples Paul provides, food and sex, are some of the most common motivators for human sin. Neither one is in themselves wicked or wrong, both blessed gifts of God, but when we chase after them in the wrong ways any number of things can go wrong.

            Our list of twisted desires is not limited to these. Desires for money can lead us to all kinds of moral shortcuts. The want of status can cause us to step on our peers to get to the position we would like to have socially or professionally, Even in our households we may find ourselves putting our own wants ahead of those of our families in such a way as to cause hurt, mistrust, even resentment between their various members. Sin is not a thing we do, it is a state we live in, the gatekeeper of eternity and the blockade between us and the Kingdom of God, a prison we have built for ourselves. Our faith gives us the key to our own prison, will we open the lock?

            Paul’s insistence that we must be cognizant of what is helpful to our faith is a good litmus test for what desires we feed or starve. If the things we are after are in line with the ten commandments, the spirit of the 615 mitzvot, the prophets, the Gospels, and the two great commandments, then it is something worth pursuing. The final criterion and the first are probably the most helpful in our daily life – a list of twelve moral guidelines to help us make decisions. Does my action break any of the ten commandments? No? Good. Does it support my love of God and neighbor? Now that is a harder question to answer.

            The West, here referring to the philosophic tradition which is descended from Greek Philosophy and Imperial Christianity, has a particular fascination with the individual. While ethics in the ancient world were rooted in community and moral fortitude seen in terms of how well a person contributes to their community, the Enlightenment and other later philosophic movement sought to exalt the individual over community. In what would become the United States, this individuality was foundational to how we established the country. The ethic of the United States is centered on individuals and traditionally the participation of that individual in community is seen as optional, that kind of thinking is anathema to Biblical Christianity.

            Freedom, in the Biblical conception, is freedom to serve God fully. We are no longer slaves to sin, but fully fledged servants of God. This means that we are free from guilt and broken thinking, from self-centeredness and greed, free not for our own sake but for that of the gospel which sets all people free. Biblical freedom, as expressed in our Eucharistic confession is freedom for the sake of, “Joyful Obedience.” That obedience is chiefly to God, but it is also a profound understanding of how our actions impact those around us. We must be aware of how our actions impact those around us, because how we freely help one another defines our Christianity more than any half-hearted attempt ever could.

            This Pandemic in particular has exposed the problems with our American Christian perceptions of freedom, our own obsession with the idea that, “All things are lawful.” While certainly it is understandable that we balk at mandates that ask us to take specific action in response to any situation, the Christian should be thinking ahead to doing good before the government or any other entity tells them to do so. We should not have been rushing to horde paper products before other people could get them, should not have been buying up WIC eligible food so that hungry mothers and children could not get them, should not have fought against masks that limited the spread of a deadly virus. We should not have needed coercion to do what is good, should not have needed signs to tell us to limit our purchases. While these were all lawful to do, none of it was helpful to us, our community, or the kingdom.

            However, the gift of God’s grace means that, in the event we do fall short, for whatever reason, God is good to forgive our sins and set us on the right path toward a better tomorrow. What we cannot do, and what the Corinthians demonstrate in our scripture for today, is begin from the supposition of forgiveness. We all must give an account of our life before the throne of God and if all we have to show is a firm belief in forgiveness but no personal conception of righteousness, we will find ourselves, “Saved, but only as through fire.” (1 Cor. 3:15)

            The glory of God is the grace of God who is with us. The mission of God set upon our hearts is to use the freedom we have from sin for the good of all people, not to satisfy any desire of our heart gone wrong. The earth, our fellow people, every object we own, and the fullness of creation exist for goodness – but only if we use the gifts we are given correctly. We use them not to glorify ourselves, nor to hurt others, but in all things to love as God first loved us. Let us all commit to earnest self-examination and to pursuing freedom that better allows us to be truly obedient to the God who has called us. – Amen.

Sermon in Response to the Storming of the Capitol

Psalm 46

  God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult. Selah

  There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns. The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts. The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah

  Come, behold the works of the Lord; see what desolations he has brought on the earth. He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire.   “Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.” The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah

John 8: 31-32

  Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

Sermon Text

            “God is our refuge and strength,” Rear Admiral Margaret Kibben read these words Wednesday afternoon to a gathered group of lawmakers and staff members sequestered in a secure location within the capitol. Kibben, a former Navy Chaplain, was serving her first day as chaplain to the House of Representatives. I cannot begin to imagine what that must be like. To have your first day be consumed with one of the most harrowing moments of your life and in the lives of an entire nation.

            Wednesday is a moment that I do not think any of us will likely forget. I hope it is a day we hold onto and never let go of. Nothing like it has ever happened in the history of our country. While we have seen devastating attacks, while we have seen secession and sedition, we have not seen a house of government stormed by bands of people since the British attack on Washington in 1814 – and never have we seen such an attack carried out by American citizens. An enormous crowd of insurrectionists – some armed, some not, but all of them there to disrupt democracy and to threaten the lives of law makers in the course of their duties.

Last Wednesday was an attack on the American Democratic System perpetrated by Far-Right organizers who had been publicly planning such violence for weeks. On Parler and other far more fringe, unregulated sites, and even here on Facebook, plans were made to answer the call that had been given and, “take back,” the United States. While many who gathered on the Mall that day may not have known about these plans, many others still did. Proud Boys and other White Supremacist groups who had previously been told to, “stand down and stand by,” were now coming to do what they had been called to.

Some may wonder why we would be talking about this in our worship service and I have two reasons to put forward. Firstly, many of those who stormed the capitol did so following prayer circles along the way to begin the siege, even erecting a cross across from the building preceding their attack. These people thought what they were doing was blessed by God and I have a duty as a minister of the Gospel to refute that. Secondly, though we would often like to pretend this isn’t the truth – our politics and our faith have to overlap. If our faith is so insignificant to us it does not impact our opinions in political realms and life outside of Sunday mornings, it is no faith at all. As a minister of the Gospel, occasionally I must turn the lens of scripture on the world around us, and call us all to repentance for the world we live in.

            I watched, as did many others, the chaos of Wednesday unfold in real time. It began on a lunch break I had during the Immersion I am participating in. Taking a break from discussions of Ho-Chunk spirituality, I thought it would be good to turn on C-Span and watch the certification of the Electoral College votes. A good, boring foray into the political happenings of the day. Unfortunately, my Twitter lit up with a video of people breaking through the first set of barriers between them and the Capitol building. There were no updates for some time, but I trusted that those guarding the building would push them back. However, within minutes I saw the floor of the House erupt as news began to break that people had successfully pushed behind all barriers, some moved out of the way for them, and were breaking through doors and windows to enter the Capitol.

            As shocking as the images were, as astounding as the videos were, I was not overly surprised by it all. The simple fact is that we have been building up to this kind of unrest for some time. However, the sad fact is that it was likely completely avoidable from the first moment it began to fester within us. We all know that a lot happened in 2020 to exacerbate existing problems in our country. Racism was not invented in 2020, but we were given opportunities to explore its lasting presence in our society. Disease was not new to us, but a new strand of human coronavirus made us realize how poorly equipped we were to face viral threats.

            Yet, each of these problems would have been easier to face if not for the one all consuming threat which we in the United States continually face and that we in the Church must oppose openly and strongly. We must reject viewpoints that trade morality and ethical actions for political power. We must reject the proliferation of falsehoods at the expense of truth. We must divest ourselves from all cruelty and greed and instead pursue godliness at all times. In short, our greatest threat is that we have let ourselves believe lies. Just look at the major crises of this past year.

            From the beginning of last year, with the initial cases of COVID-19 being reported around the world, lies spread about the nature of the virus. Those who wished to gain followings, to sell ad dollars, or to secure political power began to plant seeds that would grow into disaster. Accusations that the virus was made in a lab, rather than the reality that it naturally mutated and spread like any virus does. False reports that the virus was a globalist conspiracy to induce mind control or remove rights, led people to doubt measures that would have limited viral spread. Even now, lies about the vaccines being distributed to help end this pandemic are leading to events like the destruction of vaccines to prevent them from doing harm they are incapable of.

            The many demonstrations which were held over the Summer in response to the deaths of people of color led to a great deal of unrest. More often than not, any unrest incited by these demonstrations was initiated by those outside of the groups who had gathered to protest. Yet, disinformation was spread to paint all protesters as dangerous killers bent on destroying the American way of life. The Black Lives Matter movement, which has no central leadership and is distinct from the foundation of the same name, was described as a Marxist institution undermining American democracy. The reality, we know, was that these falsehoods were predominately spread by bot farms on social media and White Supremacist groups to stoke the fires of conflict, to push people to take up arms where otherwise they might not have.

            The disasters we saw on Wednesday were part of the same parade of lies and disinformation. However, instead of focusing on viruses and protestors, the lies which incited the violence were about the November election. The strangeness of this year naturally contributed to many questions about how various aspects of voting would be carried out. However, those who feared losing power made a point to spread seeds of doubt in the election to ensure that, if things went the wrong way, they could leverage their base to reject the results. Despite repeated audits, recounts, court cases, and ample evidence that this election was secure, many people refused to budge from the disinformation they had initially heard. Doubt, once it has entered into our hearts, can be very had to exorcise.

            Years of this kind of information, but an especially bad year of it in the form of 2020 culminated in what we saw Wednesday. A group of people, who had publicly made known their intent to cause harm. Political leaders, including our sitting president, who encouraged them, calling them heroes of democracy and, “patriots.” All these who were given lies and who had written these lies. Some of them fully aware they were false, fully aware they were simply justifications for violent actions, some of them just swept up in the flood – all of them laying siege to the symbol of our democracy, the Capitol, a literal temple devoted to our nation.

            What has been frustrating, from beginning to end, is not simply how many historically significant things we have seen pass us by as of late, but that so many of them have been made exponentially worse by lies told to dupe people into following those who told the lies. Conspiracy theories are some of the leading causes of violence in the United States. Countless school shootings and bombing have been motivated by lies surrounding, “White Genocide.” The recent Nashville bombing was motivated by 5-G conspiracy theories. We have seen thousands of people die every day from a virus we could have stamped out of existence, if not for policy makers and armchair virologists spreading disinformation and pushing us all to take unsafe actions.

            Even now, people are lying about what happened Wednesday. As I implored the day of here on Facebook, “Do not forget what you have seen today.” Some are saying that no crime was committed, even though property was destroyed, people killed, and government property stolen. Others have begun to conspire, saying that it was Antifa or Black Lives Matter that instigated the siege, even though all evidence and ample weeks of public planning tell us the organizers were largely white supremacists, neo nazis, and other Alt-Right groups. We know who to blame, but are we willing to do it?

            In many ways I have simplified our problems, but I think that much of what we have faced in the past few years can be chalked up to our inability to trust God and our willingness to accept convenient lies. We do not trust God to care for us and so invest our hope in political parties and public figures to bring us salvation. We do not love the truth enough so we chase after anything that makes us feel better or that will justify our politics and lifestyle. In a world of pain and misery, rather than fighting back with God’s goodness and the true nature of God’s creation, we descend into a world of tinfoil hats and loaded guns.

            I return to the image we began with, of a chaplain sitting with congresspeople. Some of them were the same people encouraging the mob outside just days ago, but all of them now locked behind doors as an insurrection raged above them. The words that rang out, the words that will endure for all of them, the words that may yet save us – are those of scripture. “God,” not hatred, not power, not lies, “God, is my refuge and strength, an ever present help in times of trouble. We have to repent and come back to God. We have to hold people accountable for inciting insurrection. We have to divest ourselves of anything that gets between us and God, and accept that politics and faith are often more deeply entrenched than we can ever imagine. We have to do better, or else there will be no democracy left to save, no nation to live in – Christian or otherwise. We must begin to fix this broken state we find ourselves in, and it begins with us, it begins with the truth, and it begins with the God who is our refuge and strength in all things. – Amen.

The Lord’s Baptism – Lectionary 01/10/2021

Acts 19:1-7

While Apollos was in Corinth, Paul passed through the interior regions and came to Ephesus, where he found some disciples. He said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” They replied, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” Then he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They answered, “Into John’s baptism.” Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied— altogether there were about twelve of them.

Sermon Text

            Baptism is the first step into the church. While many people spend time in churches before they are baptized, we do not consider someone to be a member of the Church until they have received baptism. Being washed in water represents being washed in the blood, and the anointing of the baptizand with either hands or oil gives some sort of grace to the baptized. They are no longer who they were, they are someone new. God’s work through water and the Spirit allows them to start their life over, they are now a member of the household of God.

            Baptism has its roots in ancient rituals throughout the world. Every culture develops some method of washing away physical or spiritual impurities connected to their worship spaces. The Greeks would sprinkle water on themselves, or else swim through small pools connected to the temple they were worshipping in. Egyptians would wash themselves in the Nile as part of specific rituals connected to curing disease. Israelites and their Semitic neighbors all would wash in ritual baths before approaching their holy places, their sites of worship.

            John the Baptist was the first to make baptism more than just a repeated washing. While other Jewish religious figures would later adopt baptism as a means to differentiate gentiles generally from converts or God-Fearers, it was John that began the practice. The waters which were poured over a person, or which they were immersed into, marked the leaving behind of one thing and the start of another. “I baptize you with water for repentance,” was the call of John, a call for people to begin restoring their lives in line with God and God’s plans for the world. Such a call paved the way for the work of Jesus, allowing him to come into a world where people were already thinking of what they must do to be more in line with the Kingdom to come.

            Yet, despite the way we often understand John’s ministry as an antecedent to Jesus’s, the relationship between the two seems to be more complex than that. Despite the scripture’s insistence that John at several points deferred to Jesus’s authority and ministry, there were people who were committed to John’s teachings alone well past John’s death. These disciples usually worked parallel to Jesus’s disciples, not getting in the way but not helping either. By the time of Paul’s ministry throughout the book of Acts, both groups had a reputation for being troublemakers – both their leaders having been killed by Roman or Jewish authorities.

            Despite the usually parallel lives of these two groups, many of the first disciples of Jesus came from John’s sect. These “converts,” were not limited to apostles like Andrew and John, but to many unnamed servants of God. Likely among them was the teacher and preacher, Apollos. Apollos was considered by many to be superior to Paul in his teaching of the Gospel, leading to some in-fighting related to whether one should be believed over the other. Apollos himself leaves no writings for us to know how the two differed in what they taught, but a few accounts in scripture give us an idea about what these differences might have been.

            For one thing, Paul and Apollos came from separate sides of the Mediterranean world. While both were Greek speaking Jews, Apollos came from the capital of Greek Egypt – Alexandria – while Paul came from a prominent seaport – Tarsus. Both were likely trained by eminent teachers in their community, but we only know of Paul’s teacher by name, Gamaliel, the successor to Hillel, one of the founders of modern Jewish thought. These two highly educated apostles would have understood God’s word intimately and, once they had experience the saving work of Christ, been able to integrate their existing knowledge into their ministries. The two Greek Jews, Paul and Apollos, were two sides of the same coin.

            At some point Apollos began to follow the teachings of John the Baptist, although it is unclear when or how this transpired. He would eventually make his way from Egypt into Greece proper. Here he would hear of Jesus and become a minister of the Gospel. This journey took him to Ephesus where he would preach in the Synagogues. At this time, he met Priscilla and Aquilla, believers and close friends of Paul, who refined his teachings, especially regarding Baptism. We are told that Apollos only knew, “The baptism of John,” suggesting that while he was a Christian he still held a basic understanding of baptism – in other words it was an action that marked the repentance of a Jewish believer and nothing more. There was no baptism for gentiles and no giving of the Holy Spirit to the believer.[1]

            Paul and Apollos likely passed one another at sea because as Apollos left Ephesus for Corinth, Paul left Corinth for Ephesus. Paul arrived to find that the same confusion which Apollos had had about baptism was present among the disciples he had left behind. They were Christians, but they were not fully versed in the ways of Christianity. Baptism to them was what it had been to John the Baptist, and so they did not realize the fullness of God’s gift to God’s people. They did not know about the Holy Spirit visiting all the earth, about gentiles being welcomed into the Kingdom, about Christ’s plan to redeem all peoples.

            Paul came and brought this teaching and instantly growth began among the people. They were now able to minister beyond Jewish communities, and so the Church could grow. They received the miraculous gift of tongues so that they could speak to people they might not have been able to speak to before. In all things, the teachings which Paul brought opened up the eyes of the Ephesians and equipped them to better enjoy Christ and serve the world.

            The lesson for us today is that we who are baptized into the faith must not oversimplify what we are called to be and what we are called to do. It is absolutely critical that alongside our belief we have proper understanding about scripture, God, and the ways of the Church. For the people of Ephesus, learning the true meaning of Baptism was something that freed the Spirit to work among them. What sort of things can free us today? What are we missing in our understanding that might equip us better for ministry?

            That is a question we can ask ourselves as a group, but which we also must pursue personally. We who are called to be members of the Methodist Church are inheritors of a theological tradition with specific ideas about certain principles of the faith. There are Methodist views on Baptism, the Eucharist, even on what does and does not constitute Church. Yet, we oftentimes find ourselves fuzzy on these details. Matters so dear to the pursuit of a Christian life, and yet so far away from us somehow. Only through study, questioning, and fervent prayerful conversation can we really unlock the ways God is working in our lives.

            Yet, even as we are inheritors of the particular traditions, we as Christians are united with all believers through Christ’s Spirit, Christ’s teachings, and the Holy Scripture we all claim. Though every denomination, church, and parish are different, they all hold some commonality. We are not uniform, but we ought to be united. Some time after our scripture which we read today, Apollos’s followers and Paul’s followers began to fight amongst themselves over who had the definitive Christian teaching. Paul chastised both groups, “Who is Paul? Who is Apollos?” (1 Cor. 3:5.) Differences in teachings, even in beliefs on issues of faith, were secondary to the reality of a united Church which participated in Christ’s life. Our own discipline puts it this way, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity.”

            If we are to put a single actionable item upon our life following our look at this scripture, I would say it should be this: To examine the aspects of our faith we are confident about and that we feel we do not know much about, and earnestly study both. Where we are confident, we must make sure we are not like Apollos, preaching only half of what is truly there. Where we are unsure, we must be like the disciples at Ephesus, attentive to the teachings of those who are willing to instruct us. In this way we refine ourselves personally, in growing in a truer devotion to God, but also collectively in our ability to engage with others in the name of Jesus.

            A word of caution comes alongside this challenge of course. Not every source of information is a good one and there are many preachers and teachers who are harmful rather than helpful. So, we must be discerning in our quest to learn, that we do not go with the first answer we get, maybe not even the second or third, but with the one which aligns best with the Spirit and with what we know about God. That is a difficult task, but it is one of the reasons that we exist in community together. To be able to hear one another’s thoughts and say, with love and with growth in mind, when we seem to be wending our way in the wrong direction.

            Together, in community and with the teachers who are among us, we can grow in our knowledge of Christ and his gospel. We who received the baptism of Christ, whether as children or as adults, are recipients of the Holy Spirit and have access to all manner of holiness and guidance as a result. When we work together, when we correct one another, when we correct ourselves, we allow for the miracle of the Gospel to spread out from around us, and through the power of Christ to save the world. Not only to some, not only to one race or nation or people, but to all who believe and are transformed. Let us learn, let us change, let us embrace Paul and Apollos and move beyond our present state, and into a more blessed one. – Amen.


[1] William Paroschi. “Acts 19:1-7 reconsidered in light of Paul’s Theology of Baptism.” Andrews University Seminary Studies, Vol 47, No 1, 73 100

Return and Rejoice – Lectionary 01/03/2021

Jeremiah 31:7-14

 For thus says the Lord: Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob, and raise shouts for the chief of the nations; proclaim, give praise, and say, “Save, O Lord, your people, the remnant of Israel.” See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north, and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth, among them the blind and the lame, those with child and those in labor, together; a great company, they shall return here. With weeping they shall come, and with consolations I will lead them back, I will let them walk by brooks of water, in a straight path in which they shall not stumble; for I have become a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn.

Hear the word of the Lord, O nations, and declare it in the coastlands far away; say, “He who scattered Israel will gather him, and will keep him as a shepherd a flock.” For the Lord has ransomed Jacob, and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him. They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion, and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the Lord, over the grain, the wine, and the oil, and over the young of the flock and the herd; their life shall become like a watered garden, and they shall never languish again.

Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry. I will turn their mourning into joy, I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow. I will give the priests their fill of fatness, and my people shall be satisfied with my bounty, says the Lord.

Sermon Text

            Sympathy is something we need to feel more often for the prophets and predecessors in the faith that we read about in scripture. Oftentimes we see them in the glow of stained-glass windows and figurines on our mantle pieces. Renaissance painters and iconographers throughout history have made them soft, almost otherworldly figures. They have lost their flesh and blood, their sorrow and hardships, their raw joy and piece, in exchange for gilded and comfortable visions of easy lives in the light of revelation.

            Few figures are as worthy of our sympathy as Jeremiah. Often called “The Weeping Prophet,” Jeremiah is noted for his continual honesty about how he views the prophetic call placed upon his life. He is not excited by being a vessel for God’s word. It causes him pain, it pushes him out of his comfort zone again and again, and it results in him being cast out from his people, imprisoned, and sent into exile, among many other indecencies. Jeremiah, one of the most upfront of God’s servants, is consistent in bemoaning both his position, and the position of the people he must preach to.

            The book of Jeremiah itself is roughly divided in two. The first half focuses on the various prophecies that Jeremiah received from God. These are given some framing in terms of when they were preached, who was king during that time , and what prompted God to give the message, but the book presents them without much narrative backing them. Jeremiah does not have much of a story in this section, just a string of prophecies given historical setting. The second half captures Jeremiah’s interactions with Kings, Governors, and his biggest concern and greatest critics – the people of Judah. At the turning point of the book, our scripture comes in. As we read the promises of God’s redemption, we find God turning from the mystical realm of divine prophecy to the easily seen reality of the lives of the faithful.

            As we have established, Jeremiah was not exactly happy with his role as prophet. He describes God’s words as being like a fire that burns in his mouth and nose, it churns his stomach to bring hard messages to his people again and again. He is tired, he is in pain, his eyes are swollen from constantly weeping, but still, he persists in prophesying. Why would anyone do that? We can talk of faith and we can talk of obligation, but when we get down to it, what could motivate a person to suffer so much? There has to be something other than divine coercion here, a passion sitting on Jeremiah’s heart that is greater than any pain he might suffer.

            The answer is found in two places, the first being God’s continual relationship with Jeremiah. While we tend to think of God as a static force in creation, issuing edicts with austerity and power, Jeremiah intimates a more personal and affected deity. The language of Jeremiah’s prophecies, so neatly organized in English to be words either of the prophet or of God, are actually scattered between the two in surprising ways. One moment Jeremiah will mention his pain, and then God will echo that even the Godhead is in pain thinking of Judah’s suffering. Jeremiah can take so much pain, in part, because God is experiencing it alongside Jeremiah. God wept with the prophet, God felt the pain of speaking hard words, and of churning anxiety. The eternal God of all creation loved the people of God enough to hurt alongside them.

            Secondly, God kept something important buried within Jeremiah’s prophecies. In the midst of a great deal of doomsaying, of forecasts of impending disaster and declarations that the people had simply gone too far, there was always a faint glimmer of something stronger than all that. That glimmer was Hope. The furtive and impossibly elusive thing that keeps all of humanity going. Hope that somewhere amid the turmoil of a chaotic world there might be something constant. In all the hurt of the people, the prophet, and of God – Hope alone sustained the tenuous bonds of their covenants.

            Our scripture captures the raw joy of the people being told they are to return home. They will be able to dance and sing again, to gather together and to sing the praises of God. The world which feels at times like God has abandoned it will someday be returned to an orderly state. There will no longer be the threat of empire or of disease or violence, only the perfection of God and God’s people living beside one another. There will be a return to security and peace that might even be better than what the people were to lose.

            I say, “Were to lose,” because this prophecy is given as the final one before the more biographical section of Jeremiah. This suggests, at least as the book is written, that this prophetic hope is given with another twenty or so chapters of prophecy to go. Jeremiah still has to confront the false prophets who tried to sell easy answers to the people, the officials who would abandon him, and the people who would spurn his warnings.

            We associate the good notes of life as something we put at the end of a narrative. We want happy endings and to build up to something good. Saving the best for last is not just an expression we use; it is a lifestyle we live by. Yet, as often happens, we see in scripture a subversion of how we would write the story. Scripture gives us a high point in the middle of the narrative of Jeremiah’s life when there is still a great deal of hardship ahead. Interestingly, the book of Lamentations, another book we traditionally associate with Jeremiah, does the same thing. Chapter 3 speaks to the hope of God restoring Judah, and then goes into the difficult work of processing trauma and of mourning.

            We are at the start of a year which we see as a chance to overcome the past year. However, we are really and truly in the middle of our most pressing danger. The pandemic which pushed us into the strange places we have found ourselves in is only halfway over based on our current projections. Beyond this, many of us are in the midst of personal problems that do not end simply because the calendar has turned over.

            For all of us, hope is something that comes in the midst of hardship. We can sit and wait for the moment that we suddenly find ourselves in more hopeful circumstances. Something good will come eventually, but it could be a very long time. Alternatively, we can embrace the paradox of our life – that in the middle of disaster, of pain, of broken heartedness, hope does not cease for even a moment. To borrow from John 1, our scripture from last week, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

            In the same way that Jeremiah continued his work despite how difficult it sometimes was, we can continue to live a hopeful life within our own troubles. We do not deny that we face hardships again and again, but we do not let them overtake us. We lean on one another and God when we cannot stand on our own, we look to the horizon which offers us redemption. We know that the present troubles cannot last forever, and the good things will return to our life in due time.

            Look around and find those things in life which you can celebrate. Look around and find all the troubles you cannot help but worry over. Take these in your hands and understand the way that they exist together. The goodness of life reminds us that the troubles are finite, limited in their scope. We will see brighter days; we will see the face of God in the land of the living. Our mourning will turn to laughter and the hardships that threaten us will be replaced with gentle roads leading us home. Home, not a single location or building, but the peace which comes when we are contented in God’s provision and God’s lasting love for us.  Rejoice, for we are on the road home. – Amen.