God’s Favorite Sign – Lectionary 07/25/2021

2 Kings 4:42-44

A man came from Baal-shalishah, bringing food from the first fruits to the man of God: twenty loaves of barley and fresh ears of grain in his sack. Elisha said, “Give it to the people and let them eat.” But his servant said, “How can I set this before a hundred people?” So he repeated, “Give it to the people and let them eat, for thus says the Lord, ‘They shall eat and have some left.’” He set it before them, they ate, and had some left, according to the word of the Lord.

Sermon Text

 If we had all the power in the universe, what would we do? For some that question is exciting. We imagine trips to the stars, the creation of new and amazing animals, the cessation of some societal ills. For others, it is quite terrifying. We see our faults, the way our own proclivities drive us to evil, and we dread the idea of power. Power, after all, is not in itself corrupting, but the enabling of our own flights of fancy, if our intent is not truly toward good, that can be quite corrupting. The good we do is ultimately only meaningful if it is the good, we practice. The good we practice; is the virtue we develop. The virtue we develop, is what aligns us, truly, with God’s righteousness.

We are all of us, quite luckily, finite beings. We cannot do all the good we want, that’s true, but our failures do not manifest universally either. If we err, we err on a much smaller scale than being all powerful would allow us. We can still cause a great deal of trouble, of course, but we are mercifully limited. Yet, the question has to be asked, what would the life of an all powerful being truly look life. What would their actions tell us about their nature? What is behind the wall of our conceptions and in the domain of that of which no greater thing can be conceived?

We Methodists have, in the past century, adopted a framework by which we describe what we do and do not know about God. Though not original to John Wesley or Philip Otterbein, it is now nearly synonymous with the Wesleyan and Brethren movements. This is the so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral – the quaternary means of revelation available to us in the form of Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience. STRE, in those four letters is the sum of our knowledge about God, about Christ’s work on earth, the cross, and in Heaven, it is the means by which the Spirit inspires us to live the life we are called to live.

To understand God, we begin in scripture. Across all the pages of the Bible we see people embarking upon the same journey that embark upon today. How do you describe the indescribable. I once I had a professor describe our attempts to describe God as an act of stacking up transparencies on a projector. We take image after image after image, and only when we look at them stacked on top of one another, do we begin to see the image of God through them all. God is like a Shepherd, like a King, like a mother hen, like sculptor working in clay. In Scripture we see people who have met the divine reaching for any word or image they can to describe that amazing God they now know.

Scripture also records what has happened to the people of God throughout history. Not only that, but it provides multiple perspectives. The two books of Kings tell the story of David and his descendants in different terms than the two books of Chronicles. Ezra-Nehemiah capture the return in a different way than do any of the post-exilic prophets. We are gifted an account not only of what God did, but how people reacted. Not only how people reacted, but how they then began to rationalize the work of God in their life. The dull cynicism of Ecclesiastes is next to the delighting wisdom of Proverbs, precisely because both respond to God’s instruction is such radically different, yet valid, yet inspired ways.

Whether we know it or not, we read the word of God through the lens of all that we have been taught in life. Tradition, sometimes a bad word and sometimes idolized in Churches, is the inheritance of all readers of scripture who came before us. Tradition, interpreting scripture, is where we get many of the doctrines we hold today. The communion of the Saints, our Eucharistic liturgy, our particular stances on baptism – originate in the theological examination of centuries of Christians seeking to know what scripture holds for us. We read the scripture, not with fresh eyes, but with the help of everyone who ever held those pages before us.

As recipients of that tradition, we are not forced to take everything at face value. We reason through the commentaries we read, the books we collect, and then we assimilate them into something we can understand and use. The core doctrines of our faith are often fairly absolute – we cannot reject the Trinity or Christ’s divinity and still fall in orthodox Christianity – but outside of those core features are a great of discussion and disagreement. On my shelf in my office, I have many books (some of which I’ve even read!) that disagree with one another, some that I love their work, and some I wish were never written. My job as a reader of tradition and scripture, is to synthesize them rationally into a framework to understand life and God and everything. We all take that task on, but as a minister, it is especially important to be rational, because if I come up here and spout nonsense, there’s a danger someone might believe that nonsense, and then it just disseminates outward from there.

Finally, God acts in our life, God shows us God’s goodness in tangible ways. We experience the God of our salvation. Sometimes this experience is nothing short of miraculous, a healing that just doesn’t make sense or a last-minute call that erases our anxieties. Sometimes the experience is mystical – a vision or a voice that shows us some divine truth we had not previously known. We test these against our reason, against the tradition of the Church, and always against scripture, but in our own encounter with God we uncover much that simply hearing or reading would not teach us.

So, why have we talked about the quadrilateral, outside of the fact its an easy list to remember and it fills some space on my notes. I bring up the quadrilateral, a tradition I have inherited and often criticize for being overly simplistic, because it lets us know that God is not in fact too far away from us to begin to understand or know. We can, through a variety of tools, encounter God, learn about our savior who loves us, and develop into more spiritual people.

The reality of God is that God is a person, well three people in one being, but for simplicity lets not get into trinitarian theology alongside our already long discussion of epistemology. We can know God, because God is not an impersonal force. I can learn about gravity, I can understand nuclear forces, but I can’t know them. I have never met an atom, but I have a degree that claims I know how they work. It would be easy to say that those who live in church or study religion know about God, but it’s another thing entirely to say that they know God, you know?

There’s a phenomenon that was first discussed in radio and television but that has exploded with the ubiquity of the internet. This is the concept of the “para-social” relationship. In this relationship a person begins to feel that they know someone personally who they really have likely never met. It can extend beyond celebrity or internet personality to a barista or server at a restaurant who, might know your name enough to put it on a cup, but does not know you beyond passing familiarity. It is a problem for many reasons, chief of all when the person pouring energy into a non-existent relationship realizes they have actually just imagined the entire thing.

Some people have envisioned religion as something like this. That we faithful are chasing to know a personality that, if they exist, would be disinterested. The premise of deism, one of the most popular theologies in John Wesley’s day, and by extension the colonial United States, depended on the idea that God created the world, set things in order, and then disappeared to be a, a best, mildly interested observer. Today more secular forms of faith see God, or the Universe, as benevolent, but largely impersonal. There is a disconnect between the immensity of God and the smallness of us. We cannot perceive God truly cares about us, certainly no enough to take action on our behalf.

Yet, if we believe that God is interested in creation, and that God is a personal being we can know, then it seems to me that we must begin to understand God, as we claim to do anyway, by looking to scripture. What can the record of this book tell us about God? More importantly, what does that have to do with us? If it sounds like I have re-invented theology, then I am happy to report, yes, we have essentially taken a winding road to get back to the very basic premise of our faith. Yet, by the long road, perhaps we can appreciate how, unsimple, the whole experiment really is. Yet, this truth remains, God seeks after us, and we seek after God, these pages are the first steps we take to meeting in the middle.

If you want to know about a person, you should what their favorite things are. What do they listen to? What movies do they like? Books? While these are not the sum of a person’s character, they give indications. I am a massive of the band They Might be Giants, I’ve even quoted them in sermons. That tells you a lot about me if you know the band, mostly that I’m a fan of absurdism. Favorite painter? Salvador Dali. Favorite book? Slaughterhouse-five. See, an image emerges of the man behind the pulpit. Yet, that image remains incomplete, there are many blind spots yet to be filled in.

For God, I begin by seeking what God most loves to do. What is it that God does again and again throughout scripture? Well, as you may have guessed from our reading, God feeds people. God made a Garden in the East, and filled it with what? All good fruits. God sent a people into the wilderness and rained manna upon them to sustain the journey, splitting rocks open to give them water when they were thirsty. God brought rain to water the crops of the ground, the fruit of the vine and the wheat-stalk fed the famished peoples. Here, in 2 Kings, we see God feeding his prophets with multiplying bread. Just earlier in this chapter? He feeds and widow and her son by multiplying wheat and oil. Purifies a poison soup for others to eat.

God is a God who feeds, who sustains, who gives life. Should it be any surprise that the only miracle described in all four Gospels is the feeding of a multitude? Jesus, like Elisha in Baal-shalishah, takes a few pieces of bread and feeds all who gather around him. Jesus, God on earth, shows us what God has always been about, by breaking bread and sharing it with those around him. Elisha, and all the other times we see before, prove just how important it is to see that no one goes hungry, and confirms God’s eternal commitment to see all people fed.

The sum of God cannot be described, with the above observation that God loves to feed the hungry. Yet, by acknowledging that, I know more about God. In turn, I might even begin to imitate that quality of God. I’ve been with my wife three years this October, we’ve been married for a year and half next week, we’ve known each other five years, and across that time our mannerisms are working toward a singularity. We speak more similarly, respond to things more alike, and frustratingly finish each other’s sentences even as we are struggling to think of the words we want. To love something or someone, means to let them transform us, and for us to in some way transform them.

God loved us enough to take on flesh, and addition to the Spiritual body that had existed before. We now take on Spirituality, we work alongside God’s spirit to overcome the troubles of this world and our own sinfulness. Let us resemble God in all we can, but never forget God’s continual display of God’s seemingly favorite sign. We cannot call ourselves Christian if we are not seeking to end hunger in the world, because to feed the hungry is so dear to God’s heart. Let us commit ourselves everyday more and more, to seek the good of those around us, to actively sustain their lives through food and clean water and let us never stop seeking to know our Lord better. God has set the table for us, time and time again, will we set a spot next to us, so our siblings without may not only live, but thrive and rejoice in God? – Amen

Fear No Evil – Lectionary 07/18/2021

Psalm 23

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff— they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.

Sermon Text

            There are few scriptures that are as well known as the 23rd Psalm. Though it is ultimately not helpful for us to rank the ubiquity or popularity of scripture in popular culture, it is certainly the case that the scriptures which people know tells us a lot about how the world sees us. The more common a scripture is the more that its truth is disseminated into the world, and, in theory, the better an understanding there should be about the truth that scripture delivers to us. However, I would also say that familiarity can breed its own kind of ignorance and apathy. If I begin to say, “For God so loved the world…” I can expect that when I point to you, I can hear a chorus in reply, “that he gave his only begotten son…” (John 3:16) Yet, if we were sat down to explain not only that verse, but the full context and message of the passage it is contained in, we might suddenly find neither the knowledge or inspiration to do so.

            The 23rd Psalm contains some of the most evocative language that we could ask for. Both as a message of reassurance and as a summary of reality, Psalm 23 is direct in stating how things really are. The opening is an assertion of God’s goodness. God is my shepherd; I shall not want. The center of the Psalm then speaks to the reality of the past and the present suffering we all face. “Though [we] walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” we are asked to trust in God. Even when all light seems to have gone out of the world, we hope. Not because it is easy, but because it is necessary.

Finally, the Psalmist closes the Psalm by looking to the future and its signs in the present. The abundance of God’s goodness is not just found in physical sustenance, but in spiritual security and the communities of mutual love we form for ourselves. “Our cup runs over,” not because we have much, but because of God’s presence here with us. The grace of God, that transformative force that sends us into the world as a holy and reconciled people, this is what goes before us and beside us into all creation. This Psalm, in its few lines and words, can offer us a lot of consolation in the midst of hardships.

There’s much to be taken from this Psalm, but I want to focus in on one particular claim that it makes. The idea that, “Though [we] walk through the valley of the shadow of death, [we] fear no evil; for [God] is with [us.]” This line challenges us to live into the peace which God offers to us. This Psalm is claiming that God’s blessings can be so plain to us that, even in our deepest, darkest struggles, we can maintain hope. That, to me, is amazing. Yet, I would also say it is not an easy thing. When I think of my life, my own dispositions, it is far easier to be frightened or to live in despair than to hold onto hope.

Fear is not a negative thing in itself. Like all our emotions and instincts, it is given to us by God for a purpose. Fear lets us know when there is danger, when a situation is not as it should be. When the truck in front of us veers into our lane, fear triggers the necessary biochemical response to cause us to brake or steer away from them. When we smell smoke coming from somewhere it should not, fear drives us to investigate and eliminate the potential danger which that smell indicates. Fear is there to guide our response to the potential dangers we face, and even though it is often unpleasant, it exists to keep us safe.

Fear, it should also be said, can be a pleasant experience. Does anyone here like horror movies? I do, I love the stuff. The internet in particular has produced a modern horror experience in the form of ARGs and Unficition stories, stories told as though they are really happening across social media and audio-visual mediums. This fear is pleasant to us because it makes the big and scary concepts of the world – death, evil, uncertainty – into a monster or thing we can be afraid of. It gives a face to the nameless fears we hold onto in life.

On the opposite end of this spectrum is the “fear of God,” something described throughout scripture that, many modern interpreters, attempt to soften by turning into, “respect,” or “admiration,” of God. I do not think that it is good to fear God, after all, God is our comforter. However, God is scary in a different way. In terms of categorizing horror, God is a Cosmic Horror, in the sense that God is bigger than we can imagine. God thinks like we could never think. When we meet something so incomprehensible, we can only tremble in fear at the enormity of the being we have just realized exists. Thankfully, the next revelation God offers to us outside of God’s enormity is God’s goodness. “Be not afraid,” and “steadfast love,” turn the unknowable and immense deity before us into a source of comfort rather than fear.

Fear, then, is a complex thing to discuss in any context. It is good, but as with anything in life, too much of it or too little of it can hurt us. The Psalmist making a claim that the faithful, “will fear no evil,” is then a bit strange. It is good to have some concept of fear, otherwise we would be reckless. Remembering that “evil,” in Hebrew is not just the opposite of good, but any physical disaster, we are left with a bigger question. When disaster comes, what should we do? Last week we saw that the Psalms allow us to express our discomfort with the present moment, to ask questions and voice our complaint to God. Likewise, we saw that we could be hopeful in the midst of that desperation. What, then, are we to do about fear?

As we said a moment ago, too much or too little of a thing can be dangerous. What I believe the Psalmist means here is that the hope of God allows us to never be overcome with our fear. It is natural that in the moment we may be afraid, that we, looking forward, may worry about real dangers looming overhead, but in all things the Psalmist is hoping that we can trust God enough to not let those worries or fears consume our life. We dig deep into the foundation of strength God gives us, and we find strength to make it, even just a little further, along life’s road.

There are things that can complicate this ability for us to not fear. Firstly, fear doesn’t always feel like fear. Sometimes fear is sadness, a hopelessness that nothing can ever change in life. Other times, fear manifests as anger, a desire to destroy the thing we have decided is a risk to us. It seems to me that, when we become afraid, we can manifest that fear in as many ways as we can feel anything. So, to really understand fear, we have to investigate many of our more intense emotions and try and seek out their root. Am I mad because some boundary has been violated in my life, or because my fear has convinced me that has happened? Am I truly out of options, or has fear led me to believe that is the case?

Let’s complicate matters a little more. Some of us, have brains that actively work against us having pleasant or normative responses to anything. I myself suffer from a condition that was once known as dysthymia, literally “Bad spiritedness.” I don’t like that translation, but the condition is now called, “Persistent Depressive Disorder.” It means that, unlike other depressive disorders defined by intense, periodic depressive symptoms, I always have low-grade depressive symptoms. The sun doesn’t shine as brightly for me, sensations are often muted, my enjoyment of a thing has a set limit. Sometimes, that makes it hard to do anything but languish. It is very easy for me, mild as my symptoms are, to think hope is lost, others have it worse.

There’s treatment for me, and for other who have faced these struggles. I encourage anyone who is on the fence about psychological treatment to seek it out, it does a great deal of good. Yet, having made clear that I do not mean to demean mental health struggles, I want to focus on why it is important for we as Christians to be people of hope. Fear, though God given and helpful at times, can be twisted to cause a great deal of harm. Entire industries depend upon keeping people scared so that they are constantly spending money to prevent problems that are either non-existent, or extremely unlikely to occur. Unfortunately, many find a home in the Church.

In 2020, Rev. Ed Stetzer, a Southern Baptist minister, author, professor, Billy Graham Chair of Evangelism at Wheaton University, and then contributor to Christianity Today, revived a discussion he had begun in 2017. This centered on the idea that Christians seem to disproportionately believe false narrative which are thrown their way. The exact reason behind this is unclear, but many fear-mongering tactics can be used to harm the Church and its witness, and we tend to excitedly grab hold of them. For Stetzer in 2017, it was the rise of the Q-Anon conspiracy and #Pizzagate he was writing against, in 2020 it was COVID-19 conspiracies linking the virus and the vaccines to all manner of unfounded, malicious, and even Satanic origins. Fear manifested in anger and despair, but fear ruled over many minds.[1]

We as Christians are told again and again by Christ and the apostles to be “watchful.” We are to guard our heart, we are to look for Christ’s return and the salvation of creation writ large, we are to keep an eye always on the horizon of what could be. I believe this state of vigilance, something Scripture asks of us so that we can live better lives worthy of our calling, does make us susceptible to abuse. Even Christ seems to warn against this, admonishing us to look out for false claims that the End has come (Matt. 24: 1-8) and to be careful of those who would use our faith to abuse our wallets (Luke 16:1-9.)

Manufactured fear is a powerful industry. Since its inception in the 90s, global antivaccination groups have funneled millions from research through misinformation. Medical skepticism has funded an entire industry based on alternative and sometimes dangerous cures. End times speculation leads to people hoarding resources in their basement, it fueled the grocery shortages we saw early in the Pandemic, it robs us of our ability to act, because it is built off of fear someone else made just for us. In attempts to be faithful, how do we so often become fearful?

Many people far smarter than me have analyzed these phenomena, but I think it comes back to the premise we began with. Life is hard, and sometimes scary. Fear, the God given mechanism by which we react to a stimulus and determine whether it is good or bad, can become twisted and used against us. Sometimes it is our own mind warring against us. Sometimes it is circumstance rightly leading us to worry. Sometimes, it is someone pulling strings to make us as scared as we could possibly be. Fear, like all of God’s good gifts, is easily perverted.

What then of our Psalmist? What words do they have to comfort us? “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” That is not, as some might read it, a command to never worry or be afraid. Instead it is the aspiration we all have to know that God is really beside us in the hard times. The deepest darkness cannot snuff out the light of God’s hope and we need to cling tightly to it. Last week we talked about how hard it can be, in the midst of despair, to leave bed. The problem does not stop there. We have to go through our day, our week, our life, living into the hope God has given to us. That precious oil on our head, the wine that spills over and out of our cup.

We of the Church must pursue truth, and not give into falsehood. We must also simply hope, to believe God is good, and pursue God even when we cannot see God active around us. For some of us, that means we visit our psychologists, and we take our meds, and we are stronger for it. For some of us, that means thinking long and hard about the Facebook post we are thinking of sharing, evaluating its truth rather than the way it makes us feel. Most importantly, and for all of us, the hard times must not be an off-ramp of our faith. We must see it as part of the journey we are taking. We do not call suffering good, but in the suffering, we seek the goodness of God. We walk through the valley because we know a green pasture is waiting for us. We take the long way home, because the Lord is our Shepherd, and we know that no evil will ever overcome the goodness of our Lord. Fear no evil, for God is with you, yesterday, today, and every day, even to the end of the world. – Amen.

[1] Ed Stetzer. “On Christians Spreading Corona Conspiracies: Gullibility is not a Spiritual Gift” in The Exchange. 2021 Christianity Today. Available at: https://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2020/april/christians-and-corona-conspiracies.html

Righteousness and Peace – Lectionary 07/11/2021

Psalm 85: 1-13

Lord, you were favorable to your land; you restored the fortunes of Jacob. You forgave the iniquity of your people; you pardoned all their sin. You withdrew all your wrath; you turned from your hot anger.

Restore us again, O God of our salvation, and put away your indignation toward us. Will you be angry with us forever? Will you prolong your anger to all generations? Will you not revive us again, so that your people may rejoice in you? Show us your steadfast love, O Lord, and grant us your salvation.

Let me hear what God the Lord will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts. Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land.

Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other. Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky. The Lord will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase. Righteousness will go before him, and will make a path for his steps.

Sermon Text

Our scripture this week is a Psalm and next week we will also read a Psalm. The two in particular address how we hold onto Hope in the midst of trouble, and how God empowers us to make it through. The Psalms, from the first to the last, are all songs offered up in worship to God. Some are happy, some are sad, one even flat out ends in despair. Yet, all 150 of these Psalms tell us one of many ways we can pray to God. They give us words when words simply cannot come into our minds. They are God’s gift to the tongue tied, they are a prayer book given for the benefit of us all.

This Psalm specifically, is ascribed as a “Korahite” song. This was a specific guild among Levites that worked within the Temple. The instructions toward “the Leader,” indicates it was meant to be sung in public worship. Based on these details and a few others contained in the Psalm itself, we can determine it was written or finalized after the greatest disaster in the life of the Jews as recorded in Hebrew Scripture – the Babylonian conquest. After years of vassalage to Assyria, Judah was first conquered and then completely destroyed by Babylon. The Babylonian empire took the nobility and the administrative classes to help run the empire, they enslaved the lower castes for menial labor, and they scattered and disenfranchised the remaining populace of the province. In the midst of this disaster, hope was a precious commodity. Yet, through prophets like Ezekiel and Jeremiah the people kept the faith, even if that faith asked much of them.

When the return from exile finally came, several generations had already passed. The children of the exile’s children were the ones to re-enter Judea. While we will come, time and time again, to this return from Exile, there is one particular aspect of it we will examine now. This is the simple truth that, despite all hopes, the return to exile was not the end of Judea’s problems. Having struggled for so long, having been separated from their ancestral home, there was an expectation that in the moment they first stepped back into Judea everything would be suddenly perfect. Yet, more than a few troubles were immediately made manifest in their lives.

Buildings needed constructed, conflict between groups needed negotiated, even paperwork is recorded as being sent off and approved of in Scripture’s treatment of the return. The most prolific trouble which our Psalm implies was affecting the community was famine. The crops they had planted were not growing like they should have been. The rains did not come, the dew was not settling on the roots of the crops, and nothing could grow. Without food, there can be no life, and in the midst of our quest to survive we can become desperate, and desperation with it brings many evils.

The prayer of the Psalmist is voiced in the midst of this hardship. They open by calling on God to act as God had acted before. “You were once good to us, be good to us again!” They shift their prayer to question, “Are you made at us? If so for how long?” The questions presume that God is listening, active, interested. The Psalmist speaks as though they will be heard and they beg that God will speak life into the world – that salvation will be made plain in the world. They wanted to see God’s goodness laid out for anyone who sought it to see.

The faith in God that the Psalmist holds is rooted in a few specific qualities of God. God is faithful – literally true to the words which God has spoken. God is righteous – giving to all humanity what is due to them, life and life abundant. Finally, God is described as having, “steadfast love,” toward all of God’s people. God is described consistently through the Hebrew scriptures as having חסד or “loyalty,” toward those in covenant with God. This loyalty is the basis by which God acts in justice and righteousness toward all people.

I would suggest that, while by no means identical, the past year and a half has been similar to the Babylonian captivity in many ways. We all went into March of 2020 with the expectation of quick returns to normalcy after things began shutting down. In the Panhandle, the churches I served were some of the first in the region to close and we earnestly expected to be back by the end of April. That, did not prove to be the case. Each day I collected local, national, and international data and plotted the progression of a devastating pandemic.

All of us faced difficulties across the last year and a half. Some were minor inconveniences – plans (like my honeymoon in Paris,) had to be canceled or postponed. Others were far greater – the loss of loved ones due to the virus or other causes made worse by our inability to mourn them properly. Others of us faced loss of jobs or income things that strain our trust that tomorrow will find us fed and sheltered and healthy. Even joy across that dreadful span of time was diminished, a great weight hung over everything we did.

Like the Judahites, we had a hope that there would be a great rebirth on the other side of the Pandemic, of our own captivity. Like them, we now see it is not so simple. For Judea, building projects and Persian rule kept their post-exile joy from being complete. For us the issues are ever evolving. Vaccines hold great promise to cut off this virus and its variants, but there is still hesitance to receive it that must be overcome. Our love for healthcare workers and “essential workers,” has faded, apathy reigns again. Beyond these, we step out of the cloud of the darkest days of the Pandemic and see that more clouds rumble, another harsh winter could bring any number of new or returning interruptions.

I mentioned a moment ago that hope is a valuable thing. It was valuable in Judea when famine raged at a time when feasts should have been planned. It is valuable now in a world that has one foot in a world beyond COVID and another firmly planted in the midst of it. These are all of us just the problems that we are facing as a group, what about the ones we face individually? The treatment that did not go as planned. The empty dinner table seat. The dream crushed at its beginning. When do we step beyond the trouble we are in and into the joy that comes next?

I do not know. I cannot tell you. I could step down from this podium and suddenly fall over dead, I could live one hundred years. The novel coronavirus, through increased vaccination or other medical intervention could fade away in a few months, or return again and again across years. Anything could get better or it could get worse. We simply do not know, beyond our best intuition and modeling, what lies down the line for us. Tomorrow is a mystery and sometimes it is a scary one.

Yet, we have hope. That precious resource we have chased is not far from us. Our Psalmist, having presented God’s previous acts, after asking about God’s anger, makes a simple request of God. They do not ask for the famine to end or for God to rush them away from it. They ask God to speak. “Lord, tell me things will be ok. Speak peace to us, because if you say it I will believe it. Please, God, just speak.”

I do not know what tomorrow, or next week, or next year will bring. What I do know is God has been good to me and if God did it once I bet God can do it again. That does not mean it won’t be hard. That does not mean that the distance from our bed to the floor won’t feel like the longest distance our feet can travel. What it does mean is that we can take that long hard journey, because we know the person leading us is dependable.

The vision of this Psalm is not just of a world where things are, “Ok.” God’s truth and loyalty are seen as coming together before all people. Peace and Righteousness share a scandalous kiss. The deep waters of the earth and the showers of heaven are overcome, not with life ending floods, but life giving, living waters of grace. God will come, God will save. God will do it.

Next week, we will look at Psalm 23, and specifically its claim that we should “Fear no evil.” Yet, this week, I would ask us all to be honest about our fears and doubts. To see the ways life isn’t quite how we hoped it might be. I give you permission now, if you’ve been seeking it, to not be ok with how things presently are. I also give you this hope, that the God who was good to you before is good to you now, and will be forever. Righteousness goes before our Lord, who brings us peace. Let us trust our God who delivers us from all evil – Amen.

Tend the Flock – Lectionary 07/04/2021

John 21: 15-19

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”

Sermon Text

First sermons are a unique experience a person has with a congregation. As I scan the pews to discern reactions and you all listen in intently to understand just what sort of teachings I plan to bring to this pulpit. In normal conversation we would exchange words back and forth, get to know one another through an our responses to one another. Yet, at the pulpit the message is in a singular direction, our exposition of God’s word consisting mainly of my voice. Yet, from my singular voice and my position at this pulpit, I hope we will walk together through the scriptures and in so doing, truly begin to understand what God has given us through them.

Our scripture for today captures a conversation between Jesus and Peter. Jesus, having died, having been buried, and having risen again, has been with the Disciples several times. This morning, after some fishing, Jesus and Peter are seated together talking over the remains of their breakfast. Jesus looks at Peter and questions him, time and time again. “Peter, do you love me?” The exact form of his question, how he identifies Peter, shifts a time or two, but across its three repetitions Jesus does not waver in the intensity of the question. Twice Peter responds he loves Jesus, twice Jesus asks him to follow through on that love by “tending [Jesus’s] sheep.” Only on the third repetition do we see significant change. Peter despairs over Jesus’ repeated questioning, and Jesus changes his wording. Jesus simultaneously commands Peter to feed Jesus’s sheep, but also foretells his eventual death on an inverted cross decades later.

This exchange, though it barely takes up a paragraph, shows us the moment that Jesus and Peter truly come together again. Peter, as we know, had rejected Jesus before his trial. The triune denial he gave then rebutted by the three declarations of love he makes here. Jesus had been with the disciples for some time, the work of the cross complete, yet the work to bridge the gap between Peter and Jesus, that could only be accomplished by the two speaking together.

The exchange is easy to dismiss as just a callback to Peter’s denial. Jesus, knowing he had been denied three times, asks for Peter to affirm his love three times. That would be a simple quid pro quo. Peter satisfying the damage he had caused between himself and Christ through an equal affirmation. Yet, more than that is happening here. On one hand, relationships are not accounts to be balanced. If we treat loved ones poorly, we cannot just give them good things and cancel out the poor treatment. On the other hand, Jesus does not seem the type to me to take someone’s transgression and treat it flippantly. Jesus must have another reason for asking Peter three times whether or not he loves him.

The answer, at least in part, might be found in how Peter responds. Reading the English of this text, we lose a key difference in what Jesus asks and Peter says. Jesus asks, “Peter, do you love me,” using the term αγαπη (agape.) This word is the most commonly used in the New Testament. Peter responds each time by changing the word used for. He tells Jesus, time and time again, “I love you,” using the term φιλέω (phileo.) I do not want to overemphasize the difference between these two words (as we often do in the Church,) but the demarcation of one and the other is important.

What Peter does with each repetition of the question is attempt to go beyond what Jesus is asking. Jesus asks, “Do you love me?” and Peter’s response can be understood to say, “Love you? You’re like family to me!” In a way, his insistence on using a separate word from what Jesus uses is an attempt to demonstrate how intense his feelings really are. He not only loves Jesus, he sees Jesus as someone close to him, he and Jesus are part of the same community. He wants Jesus to know that the love he feels for his savior is not just your run of the mill affection, it transcends any of that. It is the closest and most vital thing he holds within himself.

Jesus, in his response to Peter is therefore not just rehearsing a threefold rebuttal to Peter’s earlier denial, but is asking Peter to understand what he is truly saying in claiming to love Christ in the way he does. To love Jesus so dearly, is to care for the people Jesus cares for. To love Jesus so dearly, is to risk everything to see the work of the Gospel is completed. To love Jesus, it is to live a life completely oriented toward Jesus and with that, toward the cross. For Peter, the termination of his life’s journey was a literal journey from his fishing boat in the sea of Galilee to an inverted crucifix in Rome. What might it look like for us?

We are blessed to live in a country where we do not know persecution. In fact, we live a country where the majority of people in power and in the population still claim, at least in name, to be in the Church. Theoretically then, we have all the means possible to see the world filled with people living a cruciform life. Love for one another should be the dominate sentiment we see expressed. The word of God, pure and life giving, should be on the lips of everyone of us. Yet, that is clearly not the case. The Church shrinks year after year, Christianity becomes more and more divided month after month, and no denomination, not even a single religion, in all of the United States is growing day by day.

Why is that? It would be easy to point fingers at anything and everything but ourselves. However, as you will learn about me, I do not like to point fingers at anyone other than myself and the institutions I am a part of. It is easy to say, “the media,” or “Hollywood,” or any other number of scape goats for our own guilt have led people from the faith. I do not believe that to be the case. The enemy of the Church is not found outside our walls, it is not found in some grand conspiracy or decadent culture. No, it is found much closer to home. It is found in the simple truth that Jesus sits beside us, asks us time and time again, “Do you love me?” And despite our enthusiastic “Yes! More than anything!” We do not follow that claim with action.

The mistake that Peter made in trying to overstate his love for Jesus, is that he was, intentionally or not, trying to show off his love rather than live into it. He loudly stated again and again, “I love you, Jesus!” But did not address the core message of what Jesus was leading him to. The key to Peter’s confession of faith was not that he could say the word love as many times as he had said, “I don’t know him!” But that he could acknowledge what love looks like. Love looks like caring for one’s siblings in Christ. Love is reaching out to your neighbor and making sure they are well. Love is praying for those near and far, but also reaching out and helping in real tangible ways.

When I heard that this church had a food pantry, I was thrilled. This past Thursday I got a chance to see it in action, although, if I’m honest, I got distracted by some office work part way through. It is that sort of initiative that the Church needs to enact everywhere. However, it is not enough in itself. The second that we are ever content that we have done enough good is the moment that we forget the enormity of life’s struggles, and the needs that must be filled to relieve them. I think Jesus uses the image of sheep because you are never done taking care of a sheep, not for its whole life, in the same way we are never done caring for those around us.

I hope that as we spend time together over the next few years, we can get to know one another. More than that though, I hope we can embody Christ’s love to all the world around us. We must feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give shelter to the hot and the cold. In whatever forms it takes, in whatever ways we can, we are called to tend to the flock which Christ has called his own. The flock of all people, every soul on this earth. We must love Christ, and not only do so with our words, but in our every action. Christ calls us today, asks us to love him with all that is within us, and if we truly wish to say that we do. We must then take a step out from ourselves and care for this broken world. The flock is all around us, let us tend it well. – Amen.