A Light in the Darkness – Advent 4 2019

Luke 1: 68-79

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,

for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.

He has raised up a mighty savior for us

in the house of his servant David,

as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,

that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.

Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,

and has remembered his holy covenant,

the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,

to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,

might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness

before him all our days.

And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;

for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,

to give knowledge of salvation to his people

by the forgiveness of their sins.

By the tender mercy of our God,

the dawn from on high will break upon us,

to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,

to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Sermon Text

What messages do we bring to those around us? In our conversations, in our ways of life, what do we tell people who we meet? Beyond anything that we explicitly say about what we believe there are the statements we make in our day to day conversations and the things we do or do not do to those around us tell people about what we think and who we represent. To quote a popular apocryphal phrase, “Our lives are often the only Gospel a person will ever read.”

The proclamation of God’s word, of good news to the poor and of healing to the oppressed, it is not achieved in standing still and shouting loudly. The popular idea that Christians should be defiant observers of the world, standing at arms-length and inciting disagreements does not stand in the light of the biblical narrative. The posts we share on Facebook, our retweets on twitter, no amount of sharing Tik Tok videos can tell those in our life about the Gospel. For those of us who abstain from social media, it should be said that loud protest to things we do not like are not sufficient representations of the Gospel either. The call of the evangelist, the call of each and everyone of us, is more than just letting people know what we think and feel, it is showing them the real presence of Christ in our lives.

Scripture describes God and more specifically the Gospel as a light that shines into the darkness of the world. This light can only shine out if we uncover it. The bushel baskets that we put over ourselves, the caves that we hide our lamps in, they keep people from experiencing the fullness of God, the goodness of God. If we really are envoys of God’s love, messengers of God’s salvific work in the world, then we should take that responsibility seriously. At the end of it all, everything we do in our day to day can become an expression of the Gospel of Truth. We are each of us radiant because God has given us God’s own light. We are vessels of grace made to share grace to others.

We have focused this Advent on the life of John the Baptist. Charting how Jesus was preceded by John allows us to understand what our role of Christians, as proclaimers, as evangelists is really made of. As we go out into the world to baptize people in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, we also go out as representatives of the Triune God, of the God of Israel, of the God who saw fit to come among us, and who will come again.

John the Baptist is someone who is described as, “the greatest person born to women,” before the establishment of the Church. Jesus also is clear that, “the least of these in the Kingdom will be greater than John.” Which, in my view, suggests that each of us gathered here are more equipped than John ever was to share God’s word, to go forward and show everyone how God works for the good of God’s children, to produce real change in a world that badly needs it.

The ways in which we can show the world the work of God are too numerous to list. We can talk about our beliefs, we can show people kindness, but today I submit that there are three key features we can take away from this Advent we have spent together that aid us in understanding how we can proclaim the Coming of Christ into history this Wednesday and look forward to Christ coming in final victory every day. These are the need for us to have a clear understanding of where we have come from, where we are, and where we are going. If we can master our understanding of our own stories in this way, then we can meet people honestly and show them God’s goodness to the fullest extent.

As our scripture today tells us, proclaiming Christ begins with knowing that Christ is the fulfillment of a long tradition. Jesus was born out of an ancient household, born to God’s ancient covenant with Israel, and was told of by ancient prophets. The foundations of our faith are wrapped up in a history that spans, if we start if just at Moses, almost four thousand years.

The knowledge that the faith is something far older than us helps to ground us in the knowledge that we are working with something far bigger than ourselves. As you have likely noticed, I enjoy bringing Greek and Hebrew into our conversations about scripture. This is not just a means to add a bit more depth to our conversations, but it allows us to remember that these stories were not written in English only for us here and now. The root of scripture is in languages nobody speaks anymore – in Koine Greek and Biblical Hebrew – the people it describes are not like us, they lived in a world fundamentally different than us. That is what makes God’s work amazing, that despite the differences of the past the present still gains insight and finds relevance in the words of God, in wisdom which transcends time and place.

In the same way we should know the corporate history of God’s promises and God’s people, we should be aware of our own histories. We know ourselves better than anyone else, we see God’s deliverances in us every day. Problems that were erased through faith, strength that we gained through prayer, even the silence we found ourselves centered in when we stand before God – whatever our experiences with God in the past, they have made us who we are now. If we wish to show God’s work in the world, we can look to famous stories and people – sure – but the experiences of our own heart, those moments when God has acted on our behalf, that is one of the surest expressions of God’s love and work in the world.

Being aware of the past we must also be able to look forward. John received his mission at birth, which as someone who struggled to find their call for a good number of years sounds like a pretty good deal. This meant though that he had a sense of what things were working toward. A church that can only describe what happened in the past is not a living thing, it becomes a historical society, and not a particularly popular one. God must have something planned down the line, or else our gatherings would be rehearsals of antiquity and nothing else.

Our knowledge of God’s future work is never complete, but it does not have to be. When John was given his charge we are told that he will be, “prophet of the Most High for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins…” That is not a specific calling, but it is enough to know the way forward. The reality is that each of us today is given the same calling. Christ has entered the world, but is physically absent until the reconciliation of all things. We give testament and knowledge of God’s work in the meantime.

When we are able to look ahead we can cast vision for a better world. We work to eliminate hunger because we know one day it will be gone. We comfort those who mourn because we know one day they will have every tear wiped away. We care for the poor because we know in the Kingdom their will be no rich or poor, only love and the beloved. The future reality of God, one free of pain and without suffering is a fuel for the work we do, not an obstacle to it.

Christmas is upon us. Our time with God’s prophet comes to an end as we celebrate the presence of Christ among us. The birth of a child, the entrance of God, two thousand years ago echoes into the present day. Will we be aware of the past enough to recognize Christ when we see him elsewhere? In the poor and needy? The future coming of Christ is foretold, the end of all suffering and pain, the realization of pure joy and love. Will we be able to look past our present problems to proclaim this message and to work toward the realization of the Kingdom here and now?

And can we now, recipients of the light of Christ. Acknowledge this moment, the nexus where past and present meet, and shine out the light which God has given us. The dawn from on high has broken upon us, let no one try and hide it away. – Amen

The Example of John – Advent 3 2019

James 5:7-10

Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near.

Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors! As an example of suffering and patience, beloved, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.

Matthew 11:2-11

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

 

As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written,

‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,

who will prepare your way before you.’

Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

Sermon Text

Questioning the work of God is something natural. The eternal and all-powerful God of the universe would not be working to their full extent if we could understand everything that comes our way. In the same way that a single chapter, removed from the context of an entire book, is hard to enjoy or understand the work of God is not always evident to us from our small view into it. While faith believes that the rest of the work is good and intelligible, our reason and our situations bring us to our questions.

In our Gospel, we see the way that John, the forerunner of Jesus’ ministry, reacted when he saw Jesus’ ministry. We remember that John proclaimed a message that the coming Messiah was to be a mighty person who would pour the Holy Spirit of God’s prophetic power on the world and send down fire to cleanse the world of all unrighteousness. John expected the coming of Christ to mean a quick and speedy resolution to the problems of the Jewish people. True faith would break out across the world, Rome would burn into dust, and the Messianic King would rule the people in righteousness and power for all eternity.

John was imprisoned before Jesus’ ministry really took off. He had been sent there because he refused to accept the work of Herod. This Herod was the son of Herod the Great, the ruler who had sought the death of Jesus following his birth. He was, for a time, considered for the title of King of the Jews, but lost out to his older brother. Though the scripture and he himself used the term, “King,” he was, in reality, a governor of two small provinces.

Herod was not as ruthless as his father but was just as politically minded. He has built fishing complexes all along the Galilee in an attempt to show himself fiscally minded and administratively savvy. These cities were designed to bring money into his coffers, to feed the Roman army, and to monopolize food production in the area. As one might expect, this put small fishermen out. They could either work for Herod as fishing serfs or keep their businesses for diminishing returns. Herod was not popular with the peasantry for many reasons, but his economic abuse of them was one of the chief ones.

When the Tetrarch found that his brother had died and his sister-in-law was no longer taken he divorced his own wife and married her. Herodias was brought in and his first wife Phasaelis was forced out to return to her family. Herod had added to his real estate mogul persona a penchant for womanizing. The ruler had established himself as a king who was capable of taking land, of destroying marriages, and of doing anything to take power.

It is not a surprise then that John the Baptist opposed Herod for his work. The prophet acted as a Nathan to Herod’s David. The Tetrarch trusted John to a degree, we are told in places he enjoyed John’s message of God’s coming deliverance. Yet despite this Herod decided John was too dangerous to let roam freely. He jailed John for his criticisms of the Herodian government. John sat in prison for opposing the injustices of his day.

While in prison John could only dream of the work that Jesus was doing. How his cousin whom he had baptized on the River Jordan was beginning his mission against the power structures of their day. Gathering the faithful people of Israel together and proclaiming the end of Rome and all its sympathizers. The divine army of God must be just around the corner, ready to start a new thing on Earth. John, sitting in his prison cell would have pictured all his messianic hopes coming true.

So, now… When John gets reports of what Jesus is doing… What confusion and disappointment must he have felt? “You’re telling me!” John says, “That he has been preaching and teaching about how to live together in harmony? He is instructing people on how to suffer? I thought he was coming to bring us out of suffering! He going around healing the sick and liberating the poor and oppressed? If he wanted to make their life better he would just get rid of Rome. He would kill them all and let God sort out the rest! Why won’t he just act like one!”

John sends those who told him about Jesus’ ministry back to Jesus and tells them to ask if Jesus really is the Messiah or if John was mistaken in thinking he was. The messengers meet with Jesus and ask him the question, asks him if he really is the Messiah. Jesus’ answer fills out what John’s expectations of Jesus had missed. “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

Jesus makes it clear that the coming of God’s kingdom was not in fire and in death but in the renewal of life. The healing of people who were sick. The freeing of people from systematic oppression. The removal of any obstacle between them and God. Jesus also reminds John, if you really believe in the coming of God’s kingdom, the fact is has broken out will not be an offensive thing to you. You will not be upset about how God has brought about the kingdom, even if it is not what you thought it would be. You have to have faith even as you question.

With the messenger returning to John, Jesus looks back to a crowd that has already probably started whispering among themselves. “Can you believe John?” “How could he question Jesus like that?” “He should be so ashamed!” “A faithful person would not doubt God like this…”

Jesus does not tolerate this attack on John. He reminds the people what John did. “Remember who you came to see in the Wilderness! How he washed you for your sins and did not hold anything back! Remember how he gave up his comfort to seek God, gave up respectability for holiness! Yet you would doubt him for having questions?”

The shame the crowd was ready to place on John was redirected to them. The reality is that even the holiest among us those of whom it could be said, “No greater person was born of woman,” than them, will have doubts. They will question God and God’s work in the world. Why wouldn’t they? When the bills aren’t paid, when the diagnosis is bad, when the world ain’t fair, you should question things because suffering is never something we should just accept. The job of a prophet is to push beyond questions and to provide an alternative vision of the future.

John, now reoriented toward how God sought to bring about the kingdom, could rest in his cell. God was breaking out a new and radical vision for the future. The poor would be taken care of. The rich would meet their needs. Those kept from seeking their livelihood would have obstacles taken away from them. The doors to the Kingdom would be opened to all people, to gentile and Jew, rich and poor, worthy and unworthy, and all people would have a great deal asked of them.

But if we wish to step into our prophetic role in that Kingdom, to follow the example of our prophet’s as James would have us do, then we must be willing to accept our questions as they come. We must also be willing to follow the example of John in our willingness to oppose the evils of the world. We must speak out against every Herod we meet, we must do so even if it means we lose the privileges of the world we are born into. With John as our example, and Christ as our aim, we can never be discouraged from our mission in the Kingdom. We wait, we question, but among all these things we must act. – Amen.

Do Not be Afraid

Luke 21:5-19

When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”

They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them.

“When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.

“But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.

Sermon Text

There are moments in our life when we lose all orientation. The inevitable moment in which there is something that should be and is not. The loss of loved ones, those bright flames we knew that kept us warm and showed the way. The loss of health, the end of peace and the beginning of worry. Great catastrophes, the destruction of a nation’s concept of safety, the continual attack on innocents in schools across the country. There are pillars that hold up the world as we know it, and when those pillars disappear we have to make a choice – will we give in to despair or pursue a new future, stay in a place of disorientation or chase after a new understanding of the world we live in.

We have previously looked together at the exile of God’s people. The build-up of injustice between neighbors and in systems of the ruling class allowed for a great deal of evil to be perpetrated in Judah. The exile to Babylon left them with the choice to be vengeful – asking God to do the unspeakable to their enemies – or else left them mourning the loss of their security. Yet, from these two obvious choices, a third one sprouted up, the impossible hope of a return from exile, the impossible hope of redemption for God’s people. Those who held onto the idea that God was not done with Judah, not done with any of the Children of Israel, and that somewhere down the line they would return home, and they would find orientation once again.

The people were able to return to Judah, and under the imperial edict of Cyrus the Great, they were permitted to rebuild the Temple. Cyrus was not some great benefactor who saw the light in the case of Judah, but a shrewd tyrant. In giving displaced peoples funds enough to rebuild their temples, and through placing strategic officers in high positions, he made sure his new subjects would not be interested in rebellion.

The tactic worked, and Judah was so impressed that he became the first foreign ruler to be given the title, “מָשִׁיחַ” or Messiah. The exuberance of the people returning from Exile saw this man, this person who had given them back their temple, as a ruler who was worthy of a title only given to priests and Davidic kings until now. They looked at their Temple and their Walls and away from the abuses which Cyrus executed against the oppressed of the Persian empire. The taxes the broke the backs of the poor, the officials who were more interested in the foreign courts of Persia, all erased because a new center of orientation was created – a new Temple that the people could gather around.

Cyrus died, and then Persia was conquered by Greece. Alexander the Great began a program that would establish a Greek-speaking and Greek acting empire. The people of Judah were not an exception, and under the Seleucid ruler, Antiochus Epiphanes Judah and especially Jerusalem became like many other Greek cities. The Temple became a center of Greek Worship, and those who opposed were silenced through any means necessary. Following a lengthy revolutionary war, the Jewish people liberated themselves from Greece and established a new dynasty – a family that became gave a priest and a king – two Messiahs – that the people could look up to.

There was discontent among the people, they saw in the brutal uprising of the Maccabees another problem. If God wanted to bring peace only through these rebellions, then the only thing that would come again and again is more blood. So the belief began to form, among pious people not content with endless wars, that someday God would give a true anointed to God’s people. That a final victory could still be one, after which peace would reign. These people waited for God to inaugurate a kingdom of righteousness, and they believed that God – through individuals like Daniel had revealed a hidden secret. This revealing was understood through a single Greek word that over time would become loaded with meaning – revelation, ἀποκάλυψις, or as we call it today an apocalypse.

Those who ascertained these secrets formulated a great many ways to know the secrets of God’s work. They described monsters and signs in the sky. Warriors made of metal and fire. Dark creatures locked beneath the pillars of the earth and wrapped in adamantine chains. The complex symbolism of the Apocalyptics was never what it seemed – it was simultaneously literal and metaphorical, a conception of realities that cannot be described and of present events that demanded to be interpreted.

I have on my shelf in my office a collection of various Jewish texts that anticipated the coming of God into a new and glorious age. There are thirty-three such texts in the two-volume set alone. Each one looking out at the world in which the author lived, and simultaneously looking past it to a reality that was beyond them. To a reality where God was fully in command, where no one questioned what was right because that was all they knew. A world without tears or violence or unpleasantness, but only the good gifts of God and the fullness of communion with all believers.

By the time of Jesus, this worldview was common among the Jewish people. It was irregular, as in the case of the Sadducees, to not believe in some aspect of God’s immediate return to redeem God’s people. For Judah, the expectation was that God would come and destroy Rome, the oppressive regime that had stolen their sons and daughter and turned them into the foodstuffs for a military-industrial complex that was cruel and calculated. For the people Jesus speaks to in our scripture today, they each had their own take on what would happen in Judah, and they had a definite idea of what God’s anointed would look like when they appeared.

Jesus spoke against the views of almost every one of them though. The end would not come in the triumph of Jerusalem and the destruction of Rome – but would only come after Jerusalem was demolished and Rome victorious. When the Temple was plowed over and had a temple to Zeus built overtop of it. The Messiah would not be a great king or priest or warrior who would kill God’s enemies, but a humble teacher who would die for them.

Jesus’ words stand out in our text because, as in the time of Jesus, we have things that we cannot imagine losing in our life. People we love, places we depend on, ideas that give us a constant place to return to and find peace. All these things inevitably do disappear. We learn we grow, our opinions and views change. The buildings we meet in inevitably crumble, and eventually, even the greatest cathedral turns to sand. Hardest of all, friends loved ones, and ministers in our life eventually grow old and die. We reach a place of disorientation, we lose track of our footing, and we all ask for a sign.

Jesus’ message to us it that we will never know when the world will be turned on its head. We do not know when we will see war, rebellion, oppression. We do not know when we will get a diagnosis that sends us reeling or a phone call that destroys our heart. Jesus asks us to be alert, to be prepared but does not ask us to become worried about what is to come, but neither does Jesus ask us to be disinterested. The love that people had for the Temple is not what Jesus speaks against here, nor does Jesus speak against our desire for security and peace. What Jesus asks of us all is to be prepared when security disappears from us, when the world is turned upside down, so that we are not mislead in the aftermath.

Jesus warns that many will falsely come in Christ’s name when the Temple falls, all claiming that this is the final sign of the end times and some even claiming to be the one God has anointed to lead the people through them. Think of every major disaster that makes the news cycle. Within an hour ministers begin flooding the airways with messages – “This is the sign – this is the thing – follow me and we’ll be the ones to make it.”

On a more personal scale, there are always those who try, sometimes unintentionally, to manipulate us in times of grief. Those who tell us, “God is testing you,” “It’s all part of the plan,” “Don’t be sad!” “Be thankful it isn’t worse.” These are all common messages which serve one of two purposes – erasing the pain of the grieving because it makes those around them uncomfortable, or else manipulating the grieving into legitimizing the views feelings of those around them. The grieving are easy targets for those who want to control others.

Yet Jesus tells us something else. That even if the world should end, we can confidently follow Christ into tomorrow. When we hear of disaster, there can still be healing. When the Temples that we orient ourselves around are demolished, new ones will be built. Jesus insists that no matter what hardships we face – war, disease, betrayal, family dissolution, even death itself – that God is with us. Christ looks to the grieving and gives assurance and blessing, taking nothing to advantage himself in the process…

We follow a God who suffered with us. We follow a God who knows death and betrayal. A God who mourned the passing of friends. A God who knew all hardships of disease, of pain, of suffering, and of loss. This God does not look and tell us to, “endure,” as if that is an easy thing to do. This is a God who asks us to do so with the assurance that, just as Christ was not destroyed in death nor God in the loss of the Temple, we shall not be destroyed in our times of distress. The message today and always, no matter what the age or the signs of the time is simple, “Do not be afraid, for I am with you – even to the end of the age.” – Amen.

The Life Eternal – All Saints 2019

Ephesians 1:11-23

In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.

I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.

God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

Sermon Text

Today we gather and celebrate All Saints Day. Today we take a moment to acknowledge that we are not alone in our pursuit of Christ. We are not alone in the slightest, not only because of the abundant goodness of God who is our All in All but also because of all those who gather together to worship this same God. All those who gather together at the table of grace – whether they be in Heaven or on Earth. We gather here with all who have ever lived and all who have died and all who will ever live and all who will ever die. Today we acknowledge the miracle of the Church, and the reality that at this table – somehow, someway, all of eternity comes to settle down among us.

For two thousand years, people have cast their hope on Christ. For two thousand years, we have worshipped our risen Lord. For two thousand years, the company of Heaven has grown. For two thousand years, the kingdom has made itself visible and has become hidden. The life of every believer a shining light in the dark, so that their death leaves a very real void. Even as the light shines brighter every day, there will always be those places where a light once shined, and now does not. There are always holes in the mosaic of our life, there are lights that have gone out in our chains, candles missing from chandeliers. We cannot help but notice them missing.

Yet, we do not believe that they will stay gone. We believe in a day that all weeping will cease. When heaven and earth are brought together and God reconciles all things to one another. On that day there will be no pain or death. There will be no more sickness, no need for medicines or surgeries. There will only be us, the Church Triumphant, and our God. Our Jesus. Our precious Holy Spirit. The world will be a temple, and we will be its priests. All will be right.

This day is an opportunity for us to celebrate in a special way what the future holds for us. Today we remember that we are not alone. That there are thousands of people, millions, billions even, who have gone before us in the faith. All gathered around the throne of God, all worshipping the one who rules eternity. They sing a never-ending hymn, “Holy, holy, holy.” There is communion with one another through all eternity, communion with God forever and ever. There is light, and never darkness. There is song, there is dance, there is laughter, there is life.

The life eternal begins the moment that we accept Christ and enter into the fellowship of the Church. Our eyes are opened, and we can finally see what the inheritance of saints really is. The beginning is in the here and now. When we love one another when we live a life that is bold and unafraid to do what is right. When we call the whole world our siblings, and we stop wasting time on anger, wasting energy on resentment. In that moment the life eternal begins. Our light can finally shine out fully in the darkness.

The life eternal continues as we grow in the faith. Our small light grows and affects more people. Our goodness grows and we endlessly reach upward into the goodness of God. Elevated as we are by the grace of God we are not just people who avoid evil but seek good. The world grows brighter not just because we shine outward but we bring others into our fellowship, lifting up the lowliest people to the highest heights. Our families, our friends, our community of the faithful expands outward all throughout our lives.

Of course, we do not go on forever. We age, we get sick, and eventually, we die. We see those around us go before we do. One after the other after another. Until finally, we too disappear. We are pushed through the veil and disappear into eternity. We leave an empty space. There is nothing left for us. There is only what once was us. Empty of personality and life, just a vessel. A lantern without a light, a candle without a wick.

What gives us hope is that the life we began here does not end. The light which Christ lights in our hearts cannot be extinguished, but only made dormant. The kindling is always there ready for life to be given back. The soul is not destroyed but rushes to our God. We who are left behind await reunion with the same anticipation as those who have gone before us. Those gathered around the throne, though ecstatic as they are in the presence of God, await the completion of all things. The day when there is no longer a separation between soul and body, living and dead, here and now, but everything is all at once. God is truly all in all. When the Communion of the Saints is not invisibly around us, but all around us.

The day when all our dear loved ones are back around us. Those we never knew but who have been praying for us in the presence of God. The fact that we go on, the fact that we do not have an end, means that we will continue on in perfection what we have begun now. The dead are not disinterested, the dead do not lose themselves, but in the new-life of Heaven are perfected. They remain themselves, but the self that they had only glimpsed before then.

Today we gather and share time together. Today we gather and break bread together. Today the invisible world around us becomes clear if only for a moment. Today… Yes, today we celebrate the faith we have in Christ, and our love for the Saints – those who went before us, those who sit among us today, those who are not yet born. Today is a day for All the Saints. – Amen.

Humility – Lectionary 10/31/2019

Luke 18:9-14

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’

But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Sermon Text

A Pharisee and a tax collector walk into the temple. One praises God for making them so good. The other cries out to God, “Have mercy.” One is justified, the other is not. Humility separates one from the other, but what sort of humility are we talking about? How do we keep ourselves honest about our standing before God without resorting either to self-exaltation or self-deprecation? The task begins in identifying what kind of people Jesus is using for this example. The Pharisee and the Tax Collector.

For most modern readers, we immediately associate the term, “Pharisee” as something bad, but this was not the case. Jesus had several Pharisees among his followers – Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea among them. They were people who had a certain way of following God, one defined by asceticism that was not in itself wrong, but when taken to extremes produced a great deal of trouble. They taught that whatever the law was, it was better to go above and beyond it, that way you never even approached violating it and you always treated those around you better than was prescribed even by the strictest interpreters.

The Pharisees were a neutral party in the Jewish context. There were some that were only Pharisees in appearance – they kept their strict code in public but not in private, or else only to look good. Others did not keep the Pharisetical codes but used the association the title gave them to amass power or a strong reputation. Still, others were genuine, keeping their strict rule of life out of devotion to God and service to their neighbors. They were a diverse group of people, some among them good, others bad, but never so cut and dry as we like to read them as today.

The Tax collectors were universally hated though. They were either Roman dignitaries or Jewish locals, but in either case, they had the unsavory job of collecting Roman taxes to fund the empire. This would be enough reason for people to have a cut reaction of dislike – very few people are excited to get a call from the IRS after all, but not enough reason to hate them.

The hatred came from how they made the bulk of their money. The ancient tax collectors would receive the taxes they were to collect – let us say 3 denarii a month, one-tenth of a working person’s salary. The tax collector would then go to each house and ask for the money, telling the people within that the tax was 4 or 5 denarii for the month. And that extra bit of money was enough to let tax collectors amass a decent amount of money off the top of the imperial amounts. There is a reason that Jesus was so scandalous when he called Matthew and welcomed Zacchaeus.

These were the two actors in the parable. The upright Jewish citizen that, although there were some bad apples among them, were largely considered to be good and the no-good lousy thief who sold out their own people to Rome. The parable is positioned, just like so many of Jesus’ stories to have the listener look at two examples from their life that they already had a view of. The Pharisees as mostly good, the Tax Collectors as completely evil. Both approach God in the temple, and the listener has a preconceived ending to this story.

The proud Pharisee is given all honor and glory for having practiced a good life. The Tax Collector for having stolen from those around him is reviled and cast out. The ending was written on our hearts. Before the story ended, we know it. As soon as the charges were laid against the Tax Collector, we can think of everyone we know who fits the description. Pathetic sinners – greedy, unrighteous, lustful, and fundamentally ungodly. Our eyes dart across the room because we can pick them out even as we hear their sins read to us.

Jesus was not content to give us the ending we wanted though. The tax collector, of all people, is lifted up as a paradigm to be followed. The Pharisee is the deluded party, not because they have done anything wrong, but because of why they did it. Their hearts condemned them, even with such radically different actions being played out by either party.

The two model for us how we can approach God. There are times when we question God, and so we lament. There are times where we oppose God, and so we fight. What about in the day to day though? When life is not tumultuous and we are at peace. When we are not knocked to the ground or locked in battle with God what is our attitude toward God? Or perhaps asked better toward ourselves?

We are not called to self-hatred by the Gospel, but into a radical self-love that sees ourselves improve over time. We chase off what is sinful and embrace all that is good and lovely. We push away selfishness and self-interest, all desire for notoriety and power. We embrace a self-emptying that allows us to be filled with Godliness. We embrace a future which is better than our present, one in which we own all our actions as good because they really are.

However, we can only make this sort of movement toward good when we first face up to what we have done wrong in the past and what we are doing wrong now. The Pharisee in this story is not wrong for having done all this good work, but they are looking to God and praising themselves rather than God. Jewish prayers traditionally praise God and thank God for God’s existence. “Blessed are you God, Ruler of the Universe,” but instead the Pharisee praises God for what they do not do, “Lord, I thank you for me.” So radical is the self-interest of the Pharisee that the Greek can be translated in several ways, “The Pharisee stood up and he himself prayed,” “The Pharisee stood and prayed about himself,” or most scandalously, “The Pharisee stood and prayed before himself.” His self-interest was so great that even as he stood before God, he was really looking in a mirror and praising what he saw.

The Tax Collector knew their sin though. They knew they did wrong, they acknowledged their failure to do right. They threw themselves on God’s mercy and they acknowledged that only that mercy could preserve them. They were not convinced of themselves like the Pharisee but were convinced of God’s power to deliver them. More than that, Jesus assures the audience that anyone who is willing to do this, to throw themselves down and acknowledge their sin will be exalted. Not only in that they will one day see heaven, but that what keeps them there will be removed. They can grow beyond their sinfulness, put away the evil in their heart, and truly be raised beyond where they are.

A favorite song of mine, which recounts someone struggling with some unnamed problem contains a line that for me can teach us about humility. This song, “Thunderbird,” by secular prophets, “They Might be Giants,” tells us that, “Before you fall, you have to learn to crawl. You can’t see heaven when you’re standing tall To get the whole sky On the ground you have to lie.” This is what a humble heart is like. Before we are knocked flat, we can take the time to fall on our knees, to acknowledge what we have done wrong. Standing up and looking down on everyone we will never understand God’s ways. However, the moment that we who acknowledge our sin, who truly let the mercy of God into our hearts do look heavenward. In that moment we will see all of Heaven, all that our sin and the Pharisee’s pride has kept hidden suddenly imprinted on our eyes, written on our hearts, and resting in our ears.

Let us be humble, let us look on ourselves as we are – no more and no less, and let us be lifted up into the goodness which Christ is working in our lives and in our hearts. – Amen.

God of All Nations – Lectionary 10/13/2019

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-9

This is the text of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the surviving elders among the exiles and to the priests, the prophets and all the other people Nebuchadnezzar had carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.

This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”

Yes, this is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: “Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have. They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them,” declares the Lord

Sermon Text

God never lets go of us. This truth is something which comes to us as a relief sometimes and a major cause for worry other times. For the Psalmist it meant that God was always ready to do good, always present no matter where they found themselves. For Job is was a source of worry – God, why can you not leave me alone for one second, just long enough for me to swallow my spit even. Two responses to the same truth, that God was present even in the most unlikely of circumstances.

This was not a common belief in the ancient world. The Gods always had some special home. The Gods of Mezo-America lived in the caves that crisscrossed that country, the Greek Pantheon lived on Olympus, Ba’al lived on Zaphar Aqar or on Mount Zaphon. Even the Israelites for a long time considered God to only be present on Sinai, and after it was created wherever the Ark of the Covenant was placed.

God always had God’s place. God always had a way of appearing to people. The fixed nature of God gave the universe something to spin around. When in doubt, when everything seemed mixed up or not quite right, you could always turn toward that place. There was always a temple or a mountain or a river. God was there. God was easy to find. God was a destination we always had a chance to get to. What happens if that place does not exist? What happens if that place of orientation is removed from the face of the world?

For the Jews in exile this question was not hypothetical. The reality was that God did not have a house any longer. They could no longer climb up Zion’s hills and meet in the Temple square. There was no place of centering or peace, there was no home for them. As far as they knew, without a Temple in Jerusalem there was no place where God could possibly live.

The people in exile did not take for granted the omnipresence of God. While the Psalmist imagined a cosmos that God was fully engaged with, they did so seated in Jerusalem. They could see smoke rising up into Heaven with the sacrifices. They could see the graves that dotted the Hill. They could imagine God throughout the created order because they sat down where they thought God entered into it. Behind the curtain, in the holy of holies, that is where Heaven met earth.

Removed from this context there is room for despair. Removed from this context there is room for distrust. Removed from this context there is room for vengefulness and contempt. There is also an opportunity. In the midst of their suffering, the people of Judah were faced with God in a way they never knew before. Removed from Judah, by the Rivers of Babylon, they were faced with the opportunity to meet God outside of the context of a Temple, of the Ark, to return to something far more distant. Reaching back to a time where God was not locked into a single place but seemed to be everywhere. A guest at the dinner table, a visitor in a dream, someone you could wrestle by the riverside.

In Babylon the question of where God could be was answered in the lives of the people of Judah. They continued to gather together, they lived as a people set apart among Babylonians. Keeping Kosher and refusing to accept imperial decree, they retained their heritage in the midst of these struggles. Through the lessons of the prophets and of brave individuals the people of Judah found that even though they were far from home, God still found a way into their lives. In every gathering around the table to pray, in study of their sacred scriptures, by the rivers where they mingled their tears with the Euphrates. It took some time, but soon it was clear to the people in exile that God was not dead, not homeless, but that God made a home in all the world.

The realization that God was on the move was a comfort more than anything to the people of Israel. Ezekiel talks about God moving toward God’s people in more explicit terms, how God was not willing to abandon them and what hope they had before them. However, today we encounter a new revelation of God – namely that God’s ability to move, the lack of an anchor to limit God’s activity, meant that the people of Judah were not the only ones who could experience the community of God. In a letter to the people of Judah we are given the first open invitation from God to God’s people to widen the circle of faith, to marry non-Israelites.

The Torah is clear in various places the Israelites were to avoid mingling with the other nations. Frequently God’s people are described as too easily swayed to interact with other nations. The Torah seems to suggest that the next step from talking to a Moabite is to start worshipping Moabite gods. As if a friendly conversation over coffee could not be removed from immediate sacrifice to an idol.

Yet, on the feast day on which the giving of the Torah is celebrated the book of Ruth is read. A book that describes a Moabite entering into relationship with Israelites. Not only entering into relationship with them but excelling as a member of their people. The Moabite who was forbidden from ever being a part of Israel is named as a hero, she has children, and not far down her family tree comes King David. Clearly, the matter is not so cut and dry as a cursory reading of the scripture might suggest. God did not close doors often, and sometimes the doors that we would like to keep closed open out into a brighter future.

In this text of Jeremiah the prophet instructs the people to do things that were unheard of. Marry in Babylon, marry Babylonians at that. Have as many children as you could ever want. Thrive, plant vineyards and olive orchards. Become a part of this nation, and see it grow.

The world today is more aware than ever that what was is no longer what is. The troubles of the past have in some cases passed away, while in other cases they are alive and well albeit in altered states. We have become a global culture. We have become more diverse. We have become more connected. As we have grown and changed we have met new challenges and new responsibilities. We have faced growth and hardship, progress and regression, and all about us there is a general uncertainty of what lies ahead. We are divided even as we are brought together, we are in the dark even as we learn.

The lesson which Jeremiah can give us in a world that faces uncertainty and questions, that is grappling everyday to redefine how people of all nations can come together and live in community, is multi-valent. God is not locked into any one place, so no matter where we go God is with us. Because God is not limited to one church, one people, one nation – no one is out of bounds for us to be in community with. Because no one is out of bounds, God seeks to create a world in which people from all over the world can come together and not only live together, but grow together, become a family in the truest sense of the word.

The moment that the people of Judah were thrust out of the world they knew, from the experience of God and country that they knew, they were able to see things more clearly. The concern that they could become idolatrous from interactions with other people groups had in itself become a form of idolatry. They had built up a concept of God that was limited only to them, only to their experiences, and ultimately only to they themselves.

The destruction of the temple was a tragedy which cannot be made light of. The exile caused untold trauma that in itself could not be called good. Yet, in this atmosphere of uncertainty and reflection the people of Judah were able to come to new understandings. If a doctrine is removed from its context, and the life it once gave is chased out of it, it becomes lifeless and before too long it becomes an idol. The only way to deal with these ideas is to air them out, to see whether we built them off of God’s revelation to us or if we’ve been propping them up with our own thoughts, our own insights, our own desires.

What will make the difference for us today is whether or not we are willing to explore the status quo that we have invented and truly discern what is and is not Godly. If we will look to a future that does not concern itself with the circumstances of a person birth, the culture that they bring into the assembly of God, or however they may appear then the future will naturally be brighter. The kingdom of God can grow, it can become something more than it ever was before. We can gather as one people, not uniform but united, not speaking with one voice but with many voices in harmony. Together we will seek the prosperity of one another, we will pray for good things to come to all peoples, because through their prospering we will prosper.

We must not let ourselves be deceived – by anyone who claims dreams or visions contrary to this message of God. These are not God’s dreams but are the dreams we have forced upon our prophets. Our twisted visions that makes God and the world into carbon copies of us, and does not allow us change in the face of revelation. Let us embrace a God who is among all peoples, and seek to reflect that diversity in our hearts, minds, and in those we commune with. – Amen.

The Table Without End – Lectionary 10/06/2019

Psalm 137

By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy.

Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
the day of Jerusalem’s fall,
how they said, “Tear it down! Tear it down!
Down to its foundations!”
O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall they be who pay you back
what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock!

Sermon Text

Grief does incredible things to a person. It can make us stronger than we ever were before. It can leave us without faith, losing that thing closest to our hearts in the wake of the terror of loss. Further still, it can cause us to become angry, to become bitter, to lash out and wish ill on others. The cries of those who are hurt cannot be expected to remain as well-wishing and dreams of a better tomorrow. Our emotions are not so simple, they are not so binary as good or bad, there is more to how we respond than simply reacting to a situation.

The people of Judah, taken away from their homeland and set to work for their new Babylonian masters would have been left with almost no hope. There was nothing that could bring them out of this period in their history but a major shift in the order of the world. Those at the top could not stay that way because they had built their thrones on the bodies, on the labor, of the oppressed peoples they had conquered. When the foundation of your kingdom is cruelty then it is almost impossible to change it.

For this reason, the exiles imagined a day when they would see someone treat the Babylonians as poorly as they had been treated. Thinking of their home, of the life they used to have, they were compelled to anger at those who had brought them to such a place. The request to sing the old hymns to God were bitter and mocking in their ears, they did not want to think of home they wanted to be home. They wanted every evil that was done to them to make its way back to the Babylonians. Even up to and including the murder of their children. Morality had been erased, they did not see this statement for what it was, for as vicious as it was. When grief, and especially communal grief becomes great enough – survival naturally takes precedence over civility, the desire for bloody redemption overtakes the desire for peace.

Psalm 137 is perhaps the most butchered psalm in the history of the Psalter. The later readers could not accept that scripture would say something as disgusting as it does, “Blessed are those who dash your children against the rocks.” The early church changed its meaning entirely, insisting it was actually about destroying worldly desires. Over time it simply fell out of the vernacular of the church – even as songs would adapt the opening lines of it. “By the Rivers of Babylon,” is a popular gospel song. “On the Willows,” brings Godspell into its third act. We know the opening of this Psalm so well, but we never conclude it because we know it advocates something vicious, something disgusting.

The tendency we might have then is to throw this verse away, to make sure it never sees the light of day and that no one ever has to think about it. It can go into the sea of other verses we skip because they make us uncomfortable, never to attack us or to attack our sensibilities again. Bury it deep, bury it far away, do anything and everything we can, but be sure to bury it.

Perhaps even now we try to explain it away – that was the Old Testament after all. We must not even entertain this thought. God was not cruel when God spoke Hebrew. God did not suddenly become good when God spoke Greek. If we believe that God is One, that God is eternal, then we cannot push away this verse with muted anti-Semitism. The 137th Psalm stands as a testament to human grief, it stands as a testament of us calling out to God for something to happen, it stands as a testament to how dark our vision becomes with our horizon darkens and no escape seems possible. It stands as a witness to us. How do we react?

We are not like the people of Judah. We are not exiles in a land that would see us dead. We are not displaced wanderers in the world. We cannot see, except in very particular circumstances, the world as the Psalmist did. So we cannot pray these words sincerely – we hold too much power in our hands for us to speak these words from desperation.

The most fitting response we can have is to make sure that no one every prays such a prayer against us. That we never are part of wrongdoing so great that anyone would want to see us destroyed. We must never become Babylon, we must never mock those who are in danger, we must never build ourselves up on the pain and suffering of people in need. We must be better than this. Moreover, we must never have a fellow Christian pray such a prayer against us.

No one should suffer on our account, but if we cannot be kind to those in our own faith then there is no hope for us to ever be kind. If we cannot do good to the least of these in the household of the faith, then we cannot hope to ever do good to the least of these outside of it. Our goodness cannot be particular, our goodness cannot be limited by our own worldly hold-ups. Our goodness must be like God’s.

One of the earliest moments in which the Church acted out against its siblings in the faith was shortly after 70 AD. When the Temple was destroyed and their Jewish brethren sought safety, the Church shut its doors. “Hypocrites! Christ Killers!” The people of God were strangers in their own countries, and they were strangers among the people who worshipped the same God as them. They became the victim of marginalization and violence throughout Christian history, violence that culminated in a supposedly Christian extermination of them in Germany.

Christians went to war with one another soon after they gained power. After Constantine gave them power and then they used it. They attacked political enemies, exiling them. Wars began to start over aspects of worship and political power. Europe was so scarred by years and years of violence that to this day people do not overly associate with a single church, so afraid are they that the old fights will start up again.

Christians attacked foreign powers and other faiths as well. Whatever argument of defense could be made for the first Crusade fell apart the moment crusaders reached Jerusalem. Killing anyone they found – Christians, Jews, Muslims – they all died together in the streets as soldiers bearing the cross struck them down. They died because they were darker skinned than the invading armies, they were killed because they did not care if they were combatant or non-combatant. They died because the church was callous and cruel. Today, Christians in the Christian African Republic make war with their Muslim neighbors, seeking not to defend themselves but to wipe out a people they see as inferior, as less than worthy of living.

Violence. That is not the defining aspect of faith or of God. Killing. This will not bring about the Kingdom. We worship a God who died under the oppressive rule of a broken system. Why do we insult that God by becoming like the people who killed him? We come to this table today, and we are joined by all those who came before us in the faith. Those we agree with, those we disagree with, those who lived like saints and those who did great violence. We take today as one body, we celebrate as the Church throughout the world today. We take as oppressors and as those who are oppressed.

This table, this offering of grace is offered to all, and we must offer ourselves and our love as freely as this bread is given. The world should drink grace without restraint, should eat the goodness of God and never tire of it. Yet, we kill, yet we steal. We create a world where a family loses a son, where a church loses a member, and the best we can do to bring the perpetrator to justice is give them a ten year sentence they will likely serve two years of. We live in a world where we let our politics get in the way of accepting the reality that global poverty, and our exploitation of economically weak nations has led to mass migrations of people. We let our quest for power and security allow us to forget that children, children as innocent as our own family members, are dying on their way to find safety. Drowning in rivers we will not let them cross, dying of diseases we refuse to cure. We cannot wince in a pulpit when a scripture advocates the death of children and then look the other way when they die under our care.

We have made this table weak. We have made Christ’s body become a byword of the nations through our cruelty. The Church lost its place in the mind of the world as a beacon of light and peace and love because we refused to embody those principles. The world is hungry for the grace of God, and we must feed it. If we are not prepared to love, then we must pray our anger and our fear. We must put it in God’s hands to do something with. Because regardless of where we stand politically, we must agree that there is something wrong in this world. We must agree that there is something broken if we have people who are willing to see children die – whether we wish it upon others or they wish it upon us. Something must be wrong, something must be broken, and the only thing that can possibly fix it is sitting right here. Grace, sacrificial, self-emptying, and willing to die for people of all nations, people in all social standings, people who we love and people who we hate.

If we are not prepared for that reality, for the fact that this table includes those we would sooner see die. Then we should not gather around it. We should not take of this grace if we are unwilling to receive it. However, if we are not willing to desert the grace of God, then we must be thoughtful, we must be prayerful, and we must stop wishing harm on one another. We can pray the words of Psalm 137 and mean every one of them, but we cannot shut up our ears when God gives us an answer we do not want. We cannot forget grace that is not as vindictive as we are. We cannot deny this table has no end, we cannot limit it to a nation, a church, a pew, a preacher. – amen.