Monday, April 11, 2011


John 11:1-45

Julie hasn’t been to church in ages. She’d grown up in one, but it had been a few years since she’d attended a service outside of her college roommate’s wedding. She’s here on impulse this morning. The sermon title says “weeping” and that pretty much sums up her life lately.

She notes her displeasure as the pastor begins to read the story of Lazarus. Julie remembers this story from Sunday School. She had thought it was creepy and they had joked about Lazarus rising up like a zombie or something out of a nightmare. In youth group, she’d wondered with Martha about the smell or how someone could rise up after 4 days of being dead, and then what happened to Lazarus afterward, cause didn’t he just die again? The story was strange and fascinating.

But now the passage is just vile, a bitter reminder of how people don’t come back to life. Her brother Josh had died five months ago. He didn’t have friends and family around him to even call for help or resuscitate him. And Jesus didn’t raise him back up. He died in a hospital, with strangers around him, hours after he’d been found beaten on the street for no good reason. Just at the “wrong place at the wrong time,” the police officer said.

Julie had cursed God in those days, railed against Jesus and her faith and turned her back on the church once and for all.

Her eyes well up as she listens to this scripture. She’s ready to leave, because what’s the point of listening to this story? A story of the miracle she wanted most of all, the story that happened for one man and his family, but not for hers. A story that teases her with the possibility that someone could be restored to life after death, but that remains so out of reach for her.

She stays, though, because she doesn’t want to make a scene. She steels herself for the rest of this ordeal, called worship. The pastor continues to explain how this is the end of a series of miracles in the gospel of John. Jesus has healed the sick, restored sight to the blind, fed the hungry and now this, his final move, his piece de resistance as he says in verse 4 that Lazarus’ illness is “for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”

Julie thinks back to all the well-meaning, yet misguided people who told her that Josh’s death happened for a reason. That Josh was such a good young man, that God must have wanted him in heaven early. That this death is all part of God’s plan and she should find comfort in that. And her favorite that Josh is now in a better place.

But Julie doesn’t see the point in her brother’s having to die just to prove that God is all powerful or to somehow create something good. Couldn’t an all-powerful God do great things without having people die untimely deaths? Why couldn’t God have just wanted Josh to keep being her fabulous brother and living his life to the fullest? Wasn’t that enough of a good purpose?

The pastor starts to explain how this is a metaphor—one of those likely things pastors say these days, a way of distancing us from questions like if it really happened, and if so how did Jesus actually raise someone from the dead. She then says it foreshadows Jesus’ own resurrection, making us realize that Jesus has power over death and life.

Even though she’s annoyed, Julie understands the idea of the metaphor here—of this snap shot account, being more about the power of Jesus to conquer death, his own eventual resurrection, than it is about the particular resurrection of Lazarus, and how that might have worked or why Jesus chose only him. But for Julie, who sees herself like Mary and Martha, calling for Jesus, wishing he would do something, it’s hard to look past the literal story of a beloved brother who was saved and restored, and her brother who was not. The pastor points to the humanity of Jesus—how he loved his friend and weeps at his passing.

“But,” Julie thinks, “If God wept over Josh’s death, why didn’t God save him? If Jesus could raise Lazarus, why doesn’t he do it for everyone?”

She has this image of Josh, the one she’s dreamed about a thousand times, his lifeless body, his beloved face, his scraggly blonde hair, just laying there—bruised and broken. But this time there is a person kneeling over him, crying and Julie can see that this is God and Josh awakens and smiles at her—and Julie hears this voice saying, “I was with him Julie, I cried over your brother just as you did.” The scene changes, and Julie sees the lifeless body of Jesus, so long ago, and that same shining person who says, “I wept over him too. I weep for all of you, my beloved children. But I cannot save you all from death. Your eternal life is with me, not here on earth. And it’s painful and confusing and I’m sorry that it happened this way to Josh, I’m sorry that some survive longer and some do not, I’m sorry for the evil men who killed Josh, but I love those killers too, because they all belong to me. I work with what I have, I don’t cause disaster, but I help turn it into beauty. The death of Lazarus, the death of your brother, the death of Jesus—my son and myself—all disasters, but in resurrection, those deaths become beauty.”

Julie blinks and sees the sanctuary again and hears these words, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die. Will live, and everyone who lives and believe in me will never die.” The pastor reminds them that this is not to say that we will all avoid the end of our mortal lives. But it’s a message that resurrection can happen in our lives now. Our lives can be made new in Christ. Beauty can come out of disaster. Life out of death. The message of the resurrection of Lazarus and of Jesus too. She mentions that it’s this particular miracle, in the gospel of John, that will cause Jesus’ death, will be the miracle that draws attention to him and raises questions. Jesus will pay a price for this act.

Julie gets that Josh didn’t get to live to 90 like their grandmother did, but his death wasn’t for nothing. She remembers that four other lives were saved because Josh was an organ donor. And even though Josh is gone that counts for something. Knowing that God didn’t need or want Josh to die helps. Knowing that God cried with her when Josh died helps even more. Knowing that God shares in her grief and pain, helps her feel like she’s not alone. Her grief is still with her, but her anger lessons.

By the time she’s singing the final hymn, Julie feels lighter. She feels peaceful for the first time in months. Her faith is restored, just a little bit. She has the glimmer of hope that maybe Josh hadn’t been alone and that God hadn’t really wanted him to die, especially not such a horrible death. And that his death, leads to new life, after all. That in Jesus, through his grace and glory, all life can be made new.

And it feels a bit like resurrection. Thanks be to God.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Today’s Troubles

Matthew 6:24-34

I don’t know about you, but when I read this passage, I automatically start thinking about the very things Jesus tells us not to worry about: what to eat and what to wear. Are you happy with what you chose to wear today? Are you warm enough or cool enough? Do your clothes match? Are they stylish? What are you going to wear for the rest of the week? Is there laundry to do, dry cleaning to pick up? And what about food? Did you skip breakfast? Are you hungry? What are you going to do after church? Go grab a coffee or a bagel? Eat a good lunch? And what about dinner? What will you have? Will you cook or go out or order in or go to a friend’s house?

You’re thinking about food now, aren’t you? Maybe even worrying about it a bit?

Try to sit here and not worry: Jesus says our life is more than food, but what about the bigger things. Don’t think about your depleted savings account or the fluctuating stock market. Don’t think about your job or school or that interview that’s coming up or that exam. Don’t think about your next doctor’s appointment or procedure. Don’t think about your mortgage. Don’t think about the meaning of life, and what you’re doing, and if you’re really happy or just marking the passing of days. And I haven’t even mentioned war and terrorism and global warming.

The easiest advice that Jesus offers is to not worry about the small stuff. In fact, don’t worry about anything that isn’t from God. Don’t worry about tomorrow, because today’s troubles are enough for today. We could just end it there, with a feel-good, don’t-worry-be-happy sort of sermon. And don’t we all need it?

As a collective, we Americans are more anxious now than ever. We’re anxious, we’re medicated, we’re not sleeping well, we’re not able to be our best selves. Ironically, in many ways, this is the best time ever to be alive. With so many technology advances, medical discoveries, and educational opportunities—we should all be living great lives, and yet so many of us are overcome by anxiety. We have high expectations to live up to, quick technology gives us more tasks to complete in shorter amounts of time. We’ve been told we can be anything we want to be, and yet job markets are tight and competitive, and once we get a job, it’s still really difficult to make ends meet, yet alone buy a grand home and all of the other luxuries of the American dream life. We’re more isolated too have fewer friendships are further away from family.

We’re lonelier, and stressed out, and facing high pressures. It’s normal now to have issues with depression and anxiety—even children are facing these issues—because of the times we live in. It used to be almost shameful, to be taking prozac or Zoloft, but I bet we could go around the room raising hands this morning and find a lot of company. So this passage is both particularly appropriate and excruciatingly difficult for us.

Jesus says, do not worry about food or clothes. He adds the peaceful, comforting illustration of Lilies being clothed in natural beauty. “Birds of the air” that eat without having to grow their own food, grocery shop or cook. But clearly, being a human being is a little more complicated—we cannot disregard a concern for clothing so much so that we run out to a field with nothing on. And we cannot survive on sunshine. Photosynthesis doesn’t work for us. We’re not planted in the ground or covered in feathers.

Food and clothing are two of our basic human needs. It’s quite a different story to tell a wealthy woman not to devote her life to high fashion than to tell a homeless man not to worry about his bare feet in the middle of winter. King Solomon might not have been clothed in glory enough to match the lilies of the field, but that’s not very comforting for a person who lacks food and clothes.

As Jesus urges us not to worry about these things, we need to help others be able not to worry. It’s not to make light of serious needs. Help others not to worry, bring food for ALIVE, bring socks for The Open Table.

You cannot serve two masters, you cannot serve God and money. You cannot serve God and spend a big chunk of time worrying about your own welfare. Because we’ll end up obsessing over money and hating God. Because if we serve money, we undoubted worry a great deal. We worry about interest, security, protection, insurance. We lock up our valuables. We worry about not ever having enough, because somebody will always have more. It’s a game we can’t win. We end up living out of the mindset of scarcity—the fear that there is never enough—which just leads to more anxiety, unhappiness, and the complete distraction from God and all that is beautiful and holy.

If we strive after God, we live into the mindset of abundance. There is always enough God, always enough love, always an abundance of all that is beautiful and holy. We don’t have to strive after money or material goods, can be satisfied with less, without consuming too much, buying too much, eating too much.

Strive first for the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be give to you as well. Jesus is our Lord. Jesus overthrows all other concerns. Jesus is our master and we serve him. Which means that we serve the people that Jesus serves: those who are hungry, those who are thirsty, those who need real bread and real water, and those who need the Bread of Christ and the Wine of salvation. We serve those who hunger for God and long for the clothes of his righteousness.

When we strive after God, we find that what we have is enough. We have enough food, enough clothes, and enough trouble to keep us busy for today.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Let Your Light Shine

“Shout out! Do not hold back!” God tells Isaiah, and we all know we’re in for it now. Trumpets were used, frequently, as calls to war in Israel, but God finds a trumpet blast a suitable start for this sermon.

The people of Israel are passionate about their worship. They are faithful and regular and devote. They are a nation chasing after God, fasting and humbling themselves, desiring to draw closer to God, filling the temple to the brim, desperate to know God’s ways—imploring God to answer them. Their actions may seem outwardly holy, but their spiritual practice ends at the temple. And they have the audacity to wonder why God doesn’t kiss them on the forehead with gratitude. God is not impressed by their posturing and whining. God says they serve their own interests on the Sabbath and not God’s. They oppress their workers. They quarrel and fight. And that, in short, their fasting will not make their voices heard on high. It’s not enough to go through these actions when their hearts aren’t in the right place. God doesn’t want to hear it. Worship, if it is not backed by action, is not what pleases God the most.

I know that we look around and lament all the empty space in the pews. When we tell stories of our past, we remember times when we needed the balcony and even further back when we needed the chapel downstairs for overflow. We remember Easters when there was standing room only, when the choir loft was full, when there were 20 babies in the nursery. We sit in meetings and wonder how to get back to those days, how to fill up our pews, how to increase our attendance and membership numbers.

And as a church, we are not alone, all across the nation in mainline denominations, other churches are asking the same questions: why are we hemorrhaging members and money, and have been for the last 40 years and how do we make it stop? While some suggest that mainline Protestantism took a liberal turn in the 1960s and can never grow again unless it becomes more conservative: keeping out gays, no longer ordaining women, stopping our focus on social justice or political progressiveness . . . what we’re really looking at is a world that is skeptical of institutions, that is postmodern and diverse. We’re looking back at the end of Christendom, at a time that has long gone, a time when everyone who was respectable went to church, some for religious reasons and some out of social pressure or shear habit.

We live in a land of many different faiths and many who identify as “Christian” but never set foot in a church. The church no longer has the central place in society that it once held, and this is not necessarily a bad thing. I imagine that most of you are here because you want to be, not because you feel pressured or to obey the rules of society—because our wider culture tells us that we should spend a Sunday morning at brunch, or with the newspaper and a cup of coffee—it’s just another morning, afterall, except that the office is closed.

In our passage in Isaiah, the temple is not facing these problems—people are showing up for worship, it’s the central part of their life, it’s what you do on a Sabbath, take a bath, put on your nice clothes, get to temple, shake hands with all the right people, sings songs, say your prayers, make your sacrifices and your fasts, listen to scripture, and then go out into the world, feeling good and pious. Maybe even to grandma’s house for Sunday dinner or out for a Sunday drive. Kind of like it’s 1952 in America again. And that is what we mourn when we look around the sanctuary and wish for more company. Those days when everybody showed up.

Jesus never said anything about being the center of society . . . Jesus was much more focused on saving individuals and forming a community of love and service to carry out his work. His was a radical group, not concerned with social conformity or respectability.

God says to Isaiah, this is not about worship. I don’t care what’s going on in the sanctuary, but I do care about what is NOT going on in the world. Because the point of worship—comes at the very end of our service together—we come to be nourished, built up, encouraged, and then SENT OUT to the world.

Sadly, when we tell the stories of our church, this is what I do not hear: we used to be really active in the community. All over town, we were known as the church to go to if you needed help. The dinners we cooked for the homeless were legendary. We had the best food pantry, we bought the most coats, we worked with the mayor and city council to find solutions to homelessness and poverty in our city.

I know there was some mission work and giving, but it’s not what is highlighted—it’s not what defines our church, not like our fine music program, or our drama group . . . I’m talking about the stories we use to define ourselves, to tell of our history . . . What we talk about is who we were, are, or want to be. And that’s part of why it’s so hard for us to talk about the future, because we still want to talk about worship style and music, we want to talk about our buildings and our finances, we want to talk about our physical appearance and accessibility in Old Town, our presence as a place to worship . . . but what we need to discuss is our presence as a missional church, our presence to those in the community who are in need physically and spiritually.

We’re starting to get a reputation around town as a place to go for a meal and warmth. The Open Table is truly working at Washington Street. We give the hungry bread. We welcome the homeless into our doors. We are starting to be noticed in ways that we haven’t been perhaps for decades. But there is so much more we need to do t owork to end injustice and oppression.

Listen again to what God promises if we are faithful and care for the poor and work to fix injustices . . . “Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt.” A good walk-through of our buildings can show us a thing or two about “ancient ruins” and a good walk through our financial situation and the realestate situation of Old Town can show us just how unlikely it is that we can “rebuild” anything on our own.

There are churches like ours who have managed to turn around when they focus on mission, when they stop navel gazing and longing for an extinct past and stop focusing on their problems—and remember what God really desires, far beyond lovely music and beautiful prayers and full pews

God doesn’t just want us to show up at church on Sundays but “to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke. To share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house;; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin.” Because we are all children of God, and we cannot praise God with our lips and then deny God with the rest of our actions.

Only then, God tells Isaiah, “Light shall break forth like dawn and your healing shall spring up quickly; You shall be like a watered garden, spring of water whose waters never fail.”

In these days of finding a way forward, this is our message of hope. Thank be to God.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

To Love or Not to Love

Hosea 11:1-11

If you’re going to the beach soon or just need something light and fluffy to read, an Old Testament prophet is a good way to go. There is much adventure and juicy drama. The oracles are written in beautiful poetry that just drips with rich metaphors. God is like a steadfast husband, Israel is like a faithless wife, God is like a loving mother, Israel is like a rebellious son. God chases and pursues relentlessly. Israel turns and runs away. We are in suspense as we wonder if Israel will safely return, or if she will continue to lead a life of recklessness. We wonder if God will just give up on the wayward child and abandon him. And God wonders these things right along side of us, caught up in the suspense with us, wondering if God will finally abandon the people (us) who really do deserve it after all.

In this robust passage of Hosea, the prophet takes us on a walk down memory lane, sharing early memories of childhood: teaching us to walk, kissing our cheeks, bending down and lifting us up. The focus is not on us, not how cute we were, but how loving God was, patiently guiding us, teaching us, loving us. Moments we cannot remember because we were too young and naïve (self centered?), but God has not forgotten our babyhood. But this sweetness doesn’t last, we children grow up and are no longer as cuddly, as dependent, as loving. We think we no longer need God, and go in search of other ways to nourish our souls and beings. We no longer depend on the face and hands of God. And God laments at the difficulty of maintaining this deep love and devotion in the eye of such unfaithfulness.

In Hosea’s time, the kingdom of Israel had divided between North and South. God refers to the Northern Kingdom of Israel, as Ephraim. God compares Ephraim to a child he has taught to walk and taken in her arms. God led these people with “cords of human kindness, with bands of love.” She was like a caregiver who lifts an infant to her cheek, who bends down to them and feeds them. God, as a mother, as a father, as an aunt or uncle, as one who cares for small children, remembers how God cared and tended. This is a God who is accommodating, who sacrifices and humbles Godself to be known to us—an almighty, all powerful God, who is humble enough to brush crumbs off of our chins when we are not able to do this for ourselves. When we don’t even know what is happening to us. As Hosea says: “They did not know that I healed them.” God cares for us and provides even when we are unaware. The founder of Methodism Anglican priest John Wesley, referred to this as “Prevenient grace”: of God’s mercy that precedes us, that goes before us, that is at work long before we are aware of it, or even aware of our need for it. God takes care of us even when we don’t know it, preparing a way for us without our awareness or permission.

And all of that love and tender care turns out to be a waste of time, when we repay God by turning away. Hosea outlines the particular punishment that Israel faces: returning to Egypt, the place of slavery, the place that God previously liberated them from. Turning away from God, we all face a return to our previous conditions of sin, of separation from God. Israel faces loosing their nation and being ruled by the neighboring nation of Assyria. God had secured them land and freedom and will take it away and give it away. But God is not comfortable with this decision, God remembers how God took such great pains with Israel, how God loves and tends to us and asks: “but how can I really give them up and hand them over” says God, dangling the child over the pit of destruction, coming just this close to walking away, then realizing that God can’t do that, won’t do that.

The best parents will tell you that no matter what you will always love your kids. If they disobey, talk back, get arrested, marry someone you hate, etc, you still help them, defend them, love them. And this love is completely natural, automatic. Conventional wisdom backs this up, that this parental love comes with the territory, and we’re biologically rigged to always love our offspring.

But reality tells us that parents do not always love their kids, well or sometimes at all. Children are abandoned, physically or emotionally, are abused, are endangered, are not shown love, all the time. The news tells us this is true. Some of our own stories of our upbringing or experiences with our children tell us that this is true too.

God knows this, so in the midst of a parent-child relationship description, God turns and expresses a desire to abandon the child Israel, but makes the point that God will not do this simply because God is God, not a human, not mortal, and therefore not tempted to not love. After considering all the various ways of destroying us, God’s compassion kicks in and grows and God vows to bring us home.

The extent of God’s mercy does not end with Prevenient grace. We cannot rely on God to always take care of us with no effort on our own. As we mature, as we become alert to God’s actions in our lives, to the need that we have for God, as we realize that God has been helping us walk all along, then we realize our own shame and we return home, we “shall go after the Lord, who roars like a lion; when he roars, his children shall come trembling from the west . . . and I will return them to their homes, says the Lord.”

Monday, July 19, 2010

Summer Fruit

Amos 8:1-12

This is not one of those fun, encouraging scriptures. Not a depiction of God who gathers us close in her arms, and holds us his palm. Amos encounters a different face of God. A God who tosses our clothes out onto the pavement and leaves us standing cold and naked with shame.

This passage is about why we are all doomed, and it’s not why you might think: it’s not about personal immorality, adultery, or war: it is about the poor. Specifically, a lack of concern for the poor. God cares about our individual morality as well, but as far as this passage is concerned, that’s not why we’re all doomed. It’s the sneaky, less obvious ways, the injustices we’re trained not to see. The rich rulers are cheating the poor and ruining the land. God’s mercy concerns not the rich, but the poor. God stakes a claim to say that the divine One cares deeply about how humans are treating each other. And to demonstrate this care and concern, God shows Amos a basket of summer fruit.

When I was little, my grandparents had a basket of plastic fruit sitting on their kitchen table. It was pretty and shiny, and I knew it was fake, but once I chewed on it either just to be sure or because it looked so good. The plastic had a nasty, harsh taste, and bounced between my teeth and my tongue. This was fruit that could not be consumed and digested. This is like the basket of fruit that I imagine God showed to Amos. The image is only visual, Amos does not touch or taste the fruit to experience how this fruit also shows the difference between good and evil.

Imagine with me, for a moment, that our nation is like Ancient Israel. Imagine that we have a shrinking middle class, while the rich seem to get richer and fewer and the poor poorer and more numerous. In which we don’t have a living wage, and yet blame folks for being poor, while we can shop discount and bulk because the workers aren’t paid enough, while a $40 sweater cost $2 to make, but the profit goes to the company and not to the knitter, when the hands in the middle make all the profit, cheating the maker and the buyer, when a grande nonfat latte costs $4.50, but for every pound of coffee sold in the United States farmers get less than 35 cents and coffee pickers less than 14 cents. And all along we exchange the ephah for the shekel and buy the needy for a pair of sandals. We don’t even have to wait for the sabbath to be over, we can do this all on Sunday if we want to. But the God of love and mercy and justice says: I see you over there and I will not forget. The God of Jacob is the same God of Jesus, the same God who holds the poor close to the divine heart. Just Imagine. Our resources not being used in ways that can sustain all people. Our rain forests trampled, oil seeping into our coasts, sweatshop laborers working for pennies so that we can have more wardrobe options, many layers of hands in the middle, from producer to buyer, marking up the prices all the way from shrub to cup.

We’re all linked in this system together. Just as the whole nation of Israel is indicted. God says “No, you are not taking care of all of my people; you are cheats and scamps and things we can’t say in church and I don’t know you. You are not my people and I am not your God.” God will cause the land to revolt and nature will have a final say. Not locusts or a shower of fire, but silence. To the people who will not listen, God has nothing to say.

God threatens that the sun will go down at noon and the earth will collapse into itself and there will be massive amounts of death and mourning. Natural disasters are just that, natural. And we have eclipses frequently and understand what’s really going on. But the literary merit of drastic measures is appropriate for God. We need a drastic reorientation before we recognize that the poor are exalted and that the fortune of God has nothing to do with economics.

The basket of fruit, is a pun and a metaphorical turn: in Hebrew “summer fruit” and “the end” are linked as terms that look and sound similar, so the original audience had a better clue about where this was going. The NIV plays on this stating that the “ripe” fruit indicates that the time is “ripe” for Israel, and while this shows an explicit link it doesn’t do justice to the richness of the original pun. Amos has no easy defense for the fruit that signifies the end. In the earlier vision reports, God showed Amos locusts and a storm of fire and Amos was able to say, no Lord, please not that. But the fruit looks pretty benign. Amos can’t say to God, oh no not the fruit, because how is God going to bring about the end with a pile of produce? But God has a trick here, linguistically at least. What looks healthy and rich, the fruit that is ripe, and the people who are wealthy, are poor in spirit and are withering and dying though they look well.

We are not just like Ancient Israel, the US is not chosen by God, but we do find ourselves in a position of global power. And we also suffer the same problems of labor and land. We can wait for Jesus to make everything right. Israel waits, but by the time of Christ, Israel has long fallen and the Romans are in charge. We thought we were safe and indestructible once, but we are starting to know better. We fear the threat of other nations, of our own economic structures, of our ability to contain and control oil in the gulf.

If we trample and exchange dollars for cents and get rich at another’s expense and do nothing and say nothing. If we turn out shopping carts away and do not look at the roots of our social evil and see the magnitude of our smallest actions, if we do not recognize that this is not God’s way. In the New Testament, James picks up this theme that our existence in God makes us rich, that earthly possessions do not ultimately satisfy and that we are not allowed to oppress others for our gain and comfort. He says: “Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days. Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts on a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who does not resist you.”

At the end of the book of Amos, God does leave us hope of restoration, but only after all has fallen, and the earth has sunk: until we recognize this, we’re on a dangerous path of shortchanging our neighbors and ourselves from God’s fulfillment….

“The time is surely coming, says the Lord,
when the one who plows shall overtake the one who reaps,
and the treader of grapes the one who sows the seed,
the mountains shall drip sweet wine
and all the hills shall flow in it
I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel...
I will plant them upon their land, and they shall never again be plucked up out of the land that I have given them”

God says to Amos, what you think is a basket of healthy summer fruit, was grown in overworked soil, and picked by underpaid hands, and sprayed with chemicals to appear ripe. The fruit that looks like health and harvest is bitter and poisonous...

You see fruit, says the Lord God, but I am showing you the end.
God will not destroy us, we can do that on our own.
God will not take the word from us, but we will silence our own lips.

[1] James 5: 1-6

[2] Amos 9: 13-15

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Live Like Christians

Galatians 6:1-16

In Paul’s letter to the Galatians we find a bitter struggle in the early church to define mission and identity. Paul argues that Christians are free from much of Jewish law, including ritual observances and circumcision. He emphasizes that we are righteous not through works of the law but by faith in Christ.

It’s a bit strange to us today since we don’t spend a lot of time differentiating ourselves from Judaism. But for Paul and the church of Galatia, the Christian church was still settling into itself. Paul was a Jew who became a Christian after meeting the risen Christ. The people of Galatia were gentiles, pagans, not Jews, who had learned of Jesus from Paul. One of the issues concerned the nature of being a Christian and whether or not one had to be Jewish first—like Jesus and Paul—or just jump straight to Christianity. We don’t worry about this now. We can go right to the Christian part, while acknowledging the importance of Judaism as our religious ancestor, studying the Old Testament and learning about the religion of Jesus and Paul, without having to actually practice or observe it for ourselves. This frees us too. We are able to respect Judaism and Jews, without having to compare ourselves, without having to find one superior and one inferior, without having to take on a successionist idea: that the New Testament is infinitely superior to the previous one, but to recognize that the Old Testament can stands on it’s own with it’s own inherent value as the Hebrew Bible, and isn’t always answered or fixed with Jesus. We don’t think of ourselves as “freed” from Judaism, from the law, and ritual the Hebrew religion, because most of us were never Jews in the first place. Instead, we think of being free from whatever we were before, from our previous condition of sin or darkness that Jesus saved us from: maybe we were lost, maybe we were overly self-reliant, whatever it was that held is in bondage—or that holds us in bondage—Jesus frees us from: whether it’s addiction, abuse, self-loathing, whatever it is, whatever sinful condition we are all in, Jesus offers us freedom.

And that’s Paul’s point in this letter: the Galatians don’t need to worry about other religious rituals, he compares following the rites of Judaism to the rites of their former pagan religions, basically, living as though nothing has changed. For us today, this would mean living as though Jesus doesn’t make a difference, keeping our same habits, attitudes, fears, going through the motions, going to church, making the outward effort, but not changing anything on the inside, not experiencing a change of the spirit. The Galatians are concerned about circumcision as an outward and visible sign which was important when it symbolized the covenant between God and the people of Israel, but unnecessary for the new Christian communities. Paul is concerned that the only reason the Galatians would do this is to mark themselves differently, to differentiate themselves from other people, but in a way that is only physical, instead of being different in spirit and in action—like wearing the cross or the Christian t-shirt without the spirit of belief and service to back it up.

Paul says that through baptism in Christ, we become united—marked all the same, neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. Circumcision was only for a portion of the population, but baptism is for everyone (3:28).

In turn, we are enslaved, not to ways that divide, not to status symbols, but to each other, in loving service. Being a Christian isn’t about playing nice in any kind of false sense.

This is still a widespread problem for us today. Whenever we hear someone say, the problem with church is that it’s full of hypocrites, that’s what they are talking about: a group of people who go to church, claim to be different, claim to be following Jesus, but then go out the door and are just as mean and nasty and back-stabbing as the next person.

Of course, we’re all human, we’re all sinners, and none of us is perfect—but does it make a difference that we are Christians? Are we living into that freedom? The freedom that is in Christ, the freedom that is not self-indulgent, but that looks out and cares for others?

Living like a Christian is seriously different, not like living like others. It’s about authenticity, not just a good showing.

This week we mourned the passing of long-time member Ruth Harvey—in every remembrance of her, friends spoke of her kindness, how she reached out to new people at church and made them feel welcome, how she reached out to new teachers at her school and helped them along the way, how she was kind and nice, living out her faith with hospitality and kindness, not closed off, not ignoring new people, but warm and welcoming. At church and at work, she lived out her commitment to serve others.

Being a Christian means living with hope, living with love, living in service and love to others. The outward signs of our faith matter: but those signs should be the love we have for other people. Paul urges the church to not grow weary doing what is right.

Our Director of Christian Education, Rachel Miller is not doing something normal, or totally understandable, by living in a country where she doesn’t know the language or the customs, where the food is strange and upsets her stomach, but she’s there because of Christ. She’s doing what is right. She is testing her own work. Carrying her own load. Living out the fact that freedom in Christ isn’t a personal freedom, but means a freedom to help others, including children who don’t have the same opportunities—for medical treatment, for education—children with the same hopes and dreams, but not the resources to achieve them. And when asked why she’s doing this, she can only say that God has compelled her to do so, she could have spent the summer as usual, going to work, swimming, spending time with family and friends, but instead she’s in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, serving others out of the freedom she has in Jesus. She may grow weary, she may get homesick, she may be stressed and frightened, but she’s pushing on, learning as she goes, sharing the love she has with all those little girls out of the freedom God gives her.

As we celebrate our freedom and independence as a nation today, may we be mindful of how much greater our freedom is in God. Not just freedom from tyranny and oppression, but freedom from sin and death. Thanks be to God.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Royal Possession

1 Kings 21:1-21a

Last week we talked a bit about Ahab and Jezebel. Ahab was king of Israel, the most evil king ever, who had married a Sidonian woman and worshipped her tribal god instead of the God of Israel. Because of his worship of Baal, God caused a three year drought and God’s prophet Elijah got to deliver the bad news. Today, we find Ahab, Jezebel, and Elijah again, but we get a clearer picture of the evil of this royal duo.

Ahab’s queen is not just a normal trophy wife who helped him forge valuable alliances with other kingdoms. Jezebel’s name is synonymous with a troublesome, seductive woman, a hussy, a harlot. And while she certainly welds her power for greed and destruction, she’s not the sole downfall of her husband. Ahab is no saint on his own. He has some major character flaws and is generally unfit to be a king, especially a king of Israel. He is greedy, he has poor coping mechanisms, he seems to have missed the whole point of leading the people of Israel.

When Naboth, the vineyard owner, wouldn’t agree to sell or trade, Ahab took to his bed, refused to eat dinner and just rolled over. As if he had no other responsibilities for the kingdom but to sulk over not getting the perfect garden for his vegetables (which, given his childish nature, he probably would not have eaten anyway). This immature behavior let’s us know to just what extreme Ahab was unfit for the monarchy. He wasn’t just evil, he was foolish and petty too, and unable to think for himself. Jezebel had probably figured out this personality trait of her husband’s and takes it upon herself to do what the king will not: take possession. No less greedy, Jezebel at least has the ambition and cunning to get the job done. Of course, she is merciless and cruel and no doubt deserves at least part of the reputation she’s gotten over the centuries. She’s misguided, but decisive. She makes a plan and goes for it. She sets up an elaborate plot to sentence Naboth wrongly to death row. And while Ahab doesn’t come up with this plan, he is not surprised, nor does he question his wife when she promises the desired vineyard and then delivers good on her promise.

King Ahab is certainly not the first king of Israel to look out his window and covet the property of his neighbor. As David looked out and desired Bathsheba, Ahab looks next door and sees the vineyard of Naboth and dreams of his own, royal vegetable garden in its place. He starts off with the honorable thing and offers Naboth a trade of either cash or a similar property, but this vineyard is Naboth’s ancestral inheritance—something God is very clear about in the Hebrew Bible—land and families are important, not to be handed over or sold, but past down to the generations.

Ahab and Naboth were both Israelites, but Naboth worshipped the God of Israel, while Ahab had strayed with a foreign god. Their desire for the same land is a government issue, but also a religious one since Naboth firmly believes that God has given his family this land and that it would be a sin to hand it over. Ahab realizes he’s been out done, he’s been trumped by the God-card and resigns to do nothing but pout. But his wife, Jezebel, has no respect for this foreign God of Israel—she has, after all, already put to death hundred’s of God’s prophets, so that only a few remain—she has conducted her own genocide of sorts. So for her, taking the land, is not a big deal, it’s what a king should do, if he wants something he should just go and get it, because what else is the use of being king?

This was one of the arguments God used against having a monarchy for Israel in the first place because Kings would take up the best resources and the best people for themselves, and the society would be less egalitarian and fair, but the people insisted, they wanted to be like other nations and have a king, so that they could be respected too, since simply having God Almighty wasn’t good enough clout.

The nation of Israel today is back in the headlines, where it never strays far, with the recent flotilla incident. And Obama and Netanyahu will meet again soon to try to find some common ground and work toward peace—but even then peace is so illusive and difficult for that region. Too many groups of people—with different nationalities and religions have a serious stake in the land, and tend to want all or nothing, making compromise basically impossible.

Compromise, had it even been attempted, would not have been possible for Naboth and the King and Queen. When Elijah reenters the scene, God’s judgment is swift. And because Ahab is not on good terms with God, he does not view Elijah’s arrival at the vineyard during his moment of taking it into possession as a good thing.

Ahab and Elijah in a cultural and religious war, not like King David and the prophet Nathan who convicted David of his sin with Bathsheba. Ahab does not see Elijah as a helpful advisor, but refers to him as his “enemy” and ironically as the “troubler of Israel.”

It’s not until after Elijah tells Ahab the consequences for his actions, the terrible fate for all of his family, that Ahab humbles himself and mourns his actions. He doesn’t feel bad for Naboth’s wrongful death, for the loss of such an upstanding man to his family and community, but is only upset when he learns that his own family and household will be eaten by dogs and birds.

His repentance is cheap and while Ahab is spared, Jezebel and Ahab’s sons are not. Punishment still comes to their household and to the generations following Ahab.

This is a grizzly, cautionary tale of not keeping some of the basic Commandments: of worshipping other gods, of coveting your neighbors’ property, of committing murder.

It’s a tale of greed and desire getting in the way of true relationship with God. It’s about loosing sight of God and relying on our plans a schemes.

Unlike Ahab and Jezebel, may we not be cause of oppression, of theft, of murder. May we look for ways to do justice and act kindly and walk humbly with God. Amen.