Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Sermon for Dec. 10, 2006, Advent II

Heralds of Jesus
Luke 3:1-6

We begin in the year 587 BC. If we could time travel to Jerusalem, we would see a city ravaged by war. Babylon, the merciless and dominant military power, has captured the King of Jerusalem and his family. One by one, The conquering army slays King Zedekiah’s sons as he is forced to look on. Men and boys are taken to the sanctuary of the Temple and killed. These moment of terror are the last things King Zedekiah sees before soldiers gouge his eyes out. The king and all of the Jewish survivors are shackled and marched across the desert to Babylon as political prisoners. It’s a lampoon of a victory parade as 15,000 prisoners march away from Jerusalem. Most of them will never see their homes again.

Israel’s prophets warned that their defeat was the punishment for Israel’s sin. The leaders hated justice and honesty, and led the people in the worship of the fertility gods of the other nations. God’s patience had run out. Judgment had come.

We don’t know much about what happened to the people of Israel over the next 70 years of exile in Babylon. We assume that the exiles built houses and farms and blended in with the general population. After generations passed, some forgot about their homeland. Yet, some never forgot Jerusalem. They longed for a day when their punishment would be over and God would bring them back to the Promised Land. One of these people was a prophet. Scholars call him “Second Isaiah.” We don’t know his real name or occupation. We only have his message, preserved in chapters 40-59 in the book of Isaiah. His prophecy begins with words of hope: “ ‘Comfort, comfort my people,’ says your God. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for’” (Is 40:1-2).

God promises comfort. No more harsh words of anger and judgment. Now God promises a time when the exiles will return to their land. God will flatten all obstacles like hills, mountains and valleys. The people of Israel will find safety and security in their relationship with God. When that day comes, all who look to God will find salvation.

The Jews did return to the Promised Land, as the prophet foretold. The Persians came to power, conquered Babylon, and the Jews home. God opened a way through impassible forests, broken rocks, and sandy deserts for his people to return from exile.

500 years later, we read about a wild man living in the desert. His name is John. He might be the kind of person whom we wouldn’t want our kids to hang out with. He lives in the desert no man’s land of the Dead Sea. He wears itchy clothes made from camel’s hair, and eats locusts for lunch. I imagine him with long hair, twisted and matted from neglect. In my mind, John has a grizzly beard, and he smells. As he talks, his eyes wildly stab at his listeners. He is the fulfillment of prophecy, this weirdo in the desert. Luke tells us that God chose John to as a herald or forerunner of Jesus. He is the voice crying out the words of Isaiah, “In the wilderness, prepare the way for the Lord.” John preaches repentance and baptism so that all people will be able to recognize the coming salvation that is about to break in upon the world.
John the Baptist’s message is that there is hope in the wilderness. Wilderness is not only found in untamed domains of land. Wilderness is also the bare and threatening place in the hearts of humankind. In the wilderness times of life, we are stripped of comfort and pretense. It is the place where we meet God. I hear John the Baptist saying, “In the barren areas of your life, prepare the way for the coming King. In the frozen muck of your being, in the emptiness that the world has to offer you, get ready to come face-to-face with God’s salvation. The impassable forests of sin are about to be mowed down. The desert areas of dry religion are going to be removed. Everyone now ha a chance to see what God is about to do.”

If we listen, we can still hear the herald call of John today. It says, “Prepare the way for the Lord.” God is going to make a way to enter your life so that you can be transformed by God’s salvation.

We live in a world that needs to know about this saving touch from God. People need to know that there is hope in the wilderness – rescue from spiritual exile. Many of our friends and neighbors suffer in the wilderness areas of life and they need to know that God sends a message of Good News. I’m not just talking about head knowledge about Jesus. I’m sure that most Americans have heard the basics of the Christmas story: the baby, the shepherds, the angels, the manger. But how many hurting people have let the story speak to their souls? How many know that the child born in Bethlehem is also the King of kings and the Lord of lords? The world still needs heralds of Jesus – followers of Christ who go before him to prepare the way.

God can use you a messenger today. The world around you urgently needs men and women who have the courage to say, “No matter what you struggle with God has Good News for you. In the grip of sickness, there can be hope. In the turbulent ride of addiction, there can be peace. In the arbitrary disasters that hit without warning, there can be comfort. For those who go from religion to religion, from spiritual fix to spiritual fix, there is a firm foundation of truth in Jesus the Messiah. In depression, in disappointment, even in death, there is an assurance of new life through Jesus.

I’m not asking you to go to football games wearing John 3:16 placards. I’m not asking you to go knocking on doors or to hand out gospel tracts at the mall. Preparing the way for the Lord is nothing more than finding where people are hurting and offering faith in Christ as a pathway out of the wilderness. It’s all about relationships with one another, and connection with God. What the world needs is people who care enough to make those relationships – people who commit to loving others enough to show them how Jesus can make a positive difference in life. Some will do it like John the Baptist – publicly condemning authorities with brash actions. Others share the news of salvation through gentle words and loving gestures that speak from God’s heart through you. Being a herald means that we reach people where they are, telling them through words and actions that God has a path out of the wilderness. There can be comfort and safety in God’s presence.

Whether you like it or not, your life may be the only Bible some people will ever read. So today, go from here and be Good News. Let your life point to the Truth. Filled with the Holy Spirit, I hope you have the courage to be heralds of Jesus – living and speaking the gospel to a world waiting to see the salvation of God.

Sunday, December 3, 2006

Sermon for December 3, 2005

The Days are Coming
Jeremiah 33:14-16
Luke 21:25-36

As we prepare our hearts for Advent, I invite you to listen to the Christmas Story.
“Once upon a time, a decree went out from Caesar in August that everyone should be taxed so that the deficit would not get too big. Joseph and Mary traveled to Bethlehem. Mary rode on a donkey named Rudolph, who was embarrassed to be seen carrying an unwed mother. He blushed so at the thought that his nose glowed red. Upon arriving at Bethlehem, they could not find a place to stay. (It was, after all, the Christmas season, and the press of tourists was crushing.) As they knocked at the door of the last inn in town, the innkeeper pushed back the shutter and threw up the sash. His figure appeared so nimble and quick. They knew in a moment his name must be Nick. Meanwhile in a field nearby, seven dwarfs who were shepherds were startled to hear a group of angels singing Handel's Messiah. At the end of the concert, they were told to stand up and to go to Bethlehem. So off they marched to the beat of their friend, the little drummer boy. When they arrived at the stable, they met Joseph, Mary, the child and a fat little man made famous in song, Round John Virgin.”

Christian Century magazine published this commentary on the secularization of Christmas in 1986. In the article, the author, Michael Martin, asked, “What if most of what people knew of Christmas was what they heard in Christmas songs and in fables told to children? Worst of all, what if all they knew about the Christmas celebration was how we actually live it?” What might the Christmas story sound like if it were told incorporating all the various myths, misunderstandings and attitudes that in fact saturate our celebration?

The author suggests that we mistake the true meaning of Christmas with the "Celebration of Santa Christ," the "Sweet Baby Syndrome," or, possibly, the "Mercantile Messiah Motif." Santa Christ is the jolly god who lives far, far away, and is only mentioned once a year. Actually, all mature people know that he doesn’t really exist; but he’s a convenient excuse for celebration. The prophet Jeremiah would not approve.

The Sweet Baby Syndrome celebrates the lovable infant in his crib, smiling and cooing. He doesn't make any demands on anyone; he just lies there and looks sweet. He spends most of the year in the closet with all the other Nativity scene supplies. But, once a year, we get him out, dust him off and say, “What a sweet baby.” Of course, we always put him back in the closet when the New Year begins. The prophet Jeremiah would not approve.

The Mercantile Messiah proclaims that Christmas is all about giving. “Christmas is all about giving, so let us sell you something that you can give to somebody else,” say the advertisements. What would Jeremiah say?

The problem with Santa Christ, Sweet Baby and the Mercantile Messiah is that they come and go but they never change anyone. They don’t reveal anything about God. They don’t make demands. Jeremiah longed for a different Savior. The text says, “He shall execute righteousness and judgment in the land.” Jeremiah knew that the people needed to inventory their lives and get rid of everything that did not reveal the true nature of God. He proclaimed a costly coming of the Messiah. God says, “The days are coming, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that I will cause a righteous branch to spring up for David, and he will execute righteousness in the Land.”

I invite you to listen to another Scripture reading – This from the mouth of Jesus as told by Luke. His followers ask him about future time of destruction. They want to know what to look for when the end is near. Jesus says, “There will be strange signs in the sun, moon, and stars. And here on earth the nations will be in turmoil, perplexed by the roaring seas and strange tides. People will be terrified at what they see coming upon the earth, for the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then everyone will see the Son of Man coming on a cloud with power and great glory. So when all these things begin to happen, stand and look up, for your salvation is near!”

Stop for a minute with me and think about it. What does it mean when Jesus says to us that there is a day coming when the Son of Man will come to us in a cloud with power and great glory? What can these words mean in the midst of a busy life, a hectic life, a crazy life?
. . . a life where our kids expect to be driven here and there and ask for things that we just can't afford?
. . . a life where our employers expect us to work overtime,
. . . and our clubs, our church, and our sports teams ask for hours we don’t have?

What do these promises about the future mean when we are caught up in trying to do all we can do right here and now in the present - what do they man when we are struggling to live one day at a time - when we are trying to be all things to all to many people? What do they mean when we watch the news or read the paper and discover that senseless horrors continue throughout the world; that crime and starvation and terrorism and war and earthquakes and floods abound and indeed seen to be increasing?

To me they mean that I should rejoice, that I should stand up and watch and pray.

The promise of Christ is that the future is not going to be like the present. On that day, evil will perish and that a new heaven and a new earth will come upon us – a heaven and earth of everlasting peace and justice, joy and love.

Don’t get so caught up in the worries of this life that you are unprepared for the return of the Savior. Jesus reminds us to be alert to the bigger picture. Understand your place in the greater scheme of things. Be on guard.

Let me ask you, what one or two things do you tend to be so focused on that lose your context? What types of situations flood you with worry and cause your stomach to twist in knots, and your mind to lose perspective on the big picture?

When I was growing up in the 70's and 80's, I was sure I was going to die a slow death from the fallout of a nuclear war. There were two superpowers: the Soviet Union and the United States. We each had nuclear weapons. We each were held back from launching them by the certain knowledge that the other superpower would launch theirs ... but we knew that couldn't last forever. As children, we asked ourselves whether it would be better to try to survive a nuclear blast, or just be at ground zero during the attack. We decided it would be better to be near the blast, so we wouldn’t live to see the aftermath. When I was in high school, there was a television miniseries called The Day After that gave voice to what most people my age believed would happen before we had the chance to see old age. By mistake or intention, someone launches their weapons, and we launch ours, and the world ends -- fire, followed by ice, with famine and unspeakable global destruction.

Our worries may not be on a global scale. The toughest distractions are the personal ones. For instance, sometimes I become so focused on my work, I tend to lose sight of my place in the big picture. I can spend hours before the computer, and then rush around doing visits and getting ready for meetings and then going to them - that I forget what it is that I am proclaiming. I can miss my family’s joys and what it is God is actually doing all around me.

What about you? Do you ever feel lost in today -- lost in the concerns that this moment brings? Has your life been taken over by one worry or another so that you can’t appreciate what else is going on?

Jesus tells us in not to be distracted by the big issues: warfare, floods, famine, and creation seeming to fall apart. They are only signs that point toward a better future. Jesus also reminds us that personal worries can be more distracting than any civil war halfway around the planet. Those personal events are so dangerous because they are subtle and sneaky. We don't realize what is happening until it is too late. All of a sudden, we're trapped, feeling sorry for ourselves, working so hard, being so focused on one thing, that we miss the bigger picture.

That’s why Jesus tells us to be alert. To watch. To not be so caught up in the everyday things that we fail to look down the road and see the presence of God’s Kingdom with all its hope and promise.

Jeremiah and Jesus tell us about the signs of the coming of the kingdom so that we might ready ourselves for it. A righteous Branch has sprouted from David's line; and he will do what is just and right in the land. Look around you and prepare for Jesus to come. Spend this Advent in prayer and in hope, in righteousness and in love, knowing that as so many of promises of God were fulfilled at the birth of Christ, so too the rest will be fulfilled – to his praise and his glory.

Friday, December 1, 2006

Sermon for November 26, 2006 -- Christ the King

Serving the King
Revelation 1:4b-8 / John 18:33-37

When you think of Jesus - what image or metaphor do you comes to mind? Sometimes I think of Jesus as my brother and my friend -- someone who walks the journey of life with me, someone who talks with me and counsels me on the way, someone to whom it’s comfortable to talk and share life.

When you think of Jesus - what image or metaphor do you most often use? Some people think of Jesus as the good shepherd -- as one who guides and leads -- as the gentle savior who seek out the lost and injured sheep and carries the wounded and the lame on his shoulders till they are safe back in the fold.

What image do you have of Christ? How about Jesus as King? We don’t talk about that one much. Today we celebrate Christ as King. When I think about kings, here’s what comes to my mind:
« fairy-tale kings: benevolent, often dead, with a wicked queen
« king of the hill: the game where the strongest pushes everyone else off the hill
« “king me” -- checkers king jumps in all directions, taking over and winning
« The King - Elvis Presley - of which no more needs to be said
« the king in the “Wizard of Id - a self-centered bumbling dictator
« king o' the road - a wanderer with no cares
« A chess king - one of limited movement and power to protect
« Burger King – the only place on earth where you can have it your way.

Think about your images of Jesus and kings as we listen to an event from the life of Jesus as recorded in the Gospel of John.

John 18:33-37
Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ Jesus answered, ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ Pilate replied, ‘I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?’ Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’ Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’ (NRSV)

Let’s try to place ourselves in the year 31 AD. We are in Jerusalem in the Roman province of Palestine. In the eyes of Rome, this is a small but troubled land. The Emperor Tiberius has placed 500 Roman soldiers in the area under the full command of a governor named Pontius Pilate. It’s his sole duty to keep this tiny province under control at all costs. Pilate is an effective peacekeeper, but he is unpopular with the Jews in the area.

Whenever Pilate marches into Jerusalem, his guards carry Roman flags, topped off with a bust of the emperor, whom the Romans viewed as a god. The Jews consider this idolatry. They have asked Pilate to remove this image of the emperor before he enters the city -- not an outrageous request. Other governors had done it in the past. But Pilate refuses to pander to the superstitions of the Jews. Once day, when Pilate left Jerusalem for his palace in Ceasarea, a number of enraged Jews followed him home. Pilate evaded them for five days. Finally, he told the Jews to meet him in the amphitheater. The Jews arrived to the drawn swords of Roman soldiers. Pilate ordered the Jews to either withdraw their requests or be killed immediately. The Jews bared their necks, tempting the soldiers to strike. Not even Pilate could massacre these defenseless men. From that point on, the Jews knew Pilate could be manipulated to follow their will.

In another incident, Pilate took money from the treasury of the Jewish Temple to build an aqueduct. The people resented it and rioted through the streets. Pilate dressed his soldiers in civilian clothes and gave them concealed weapons before sending them into the surging crowds. At a given signal, the soldiers attacked the mob, stabbing and clubbing many Jews to death.


Once again, Pilate straddles Roman custom and Jewish law. Before him sits a Jewish prisoner from Galilee named Jesus. Religious leaders accuse the man of calling himself the King of the Jews, and they demand his execution. Pilate doesn’t have time to bother with these nagging people, so he gets right to the point and asks the prisoner, “Are you the king of the Jews?” The man calmly responds with another question. “Is that your own idea, or did you hear others saying that?” This upsets Pilate. He’s supposed to be asking the questions, and now this criminal is putting him on trial. “Am I a Jew?” Pilate cries. “Your people handed you over to me, not the Romans. What did you do, anyway?” The accused man is silent for a moment, then he answers the first question. “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest, but my kingdom is of another place.” Pilate thinks this is so strange. The criminal is not really defending himself. “So, are you a king then?” Pilate asks. Jesus replies, “You could say it that way. I was born for a reason–to come into the world to testify to the truth.” Pilate is getting confused. The prisoner is obviously not a military king, but he is still claiming to be a ruler. Pilate’s verdict: this man is harmless. He might be slightly crazy, but he’s innocent. He poses no political threat to the Roman Empire. Unfortunately, like most of his decisions, his choice to release Jesus will only make more trouble with the Jewish leaders. Pilate will ultimately cave into their demands and have Jesus put to death.

In this scene, Pilate is confronted with the true nature of Jesus’ kingdom. Jesus’ kingdom doesn’t fall within geographical or political boundaries. He has no soldiers to fight for him. Jesus is not a national hero. He doesn’t tame his subjects with force or manipulation. The kingdom of Jesus is different. King Jesus persuades men and women to follow him in spirit and in truth. Christ the King rules with love, and asks his subjects to love God and one another in return. In his kingdom, people relate to one another as servants. King Jesus rules the human heart and conquers the world with love, one single person at a time.

In one brief encounter, Pilate faced the reality of Christ’s kingdom. And Pilate has some choices to make. He can declare him an innocent man and let Jesus go free. Or, Pilate can accept the reality of Jesus’ words. He can allow the kingdom of Christ to do its transforming work of love in his own heart.

In the end, Pilate doesn’t make a decision for or against Jesus. He tries to remain neutral. He allows others to decide for him. Pilate will not even face the invitation of Jesus. He hides behind a compromise. First, he offers the Jews a choice–release Barabbas the insurrectionist or Jesus. When that doesn’t work, he has Jesus whipped and publicly humiliated, hoping that will meet the crowd’s taste for violence. This too fails. And with that failure comes Pilate’s fall from neutrality. Pilate fails to hear the truth, and orders the execution of Jesus, knowing the whole time that this King of the Jews is an innocent man. By the world’s standards Pilate was a successful man. He had made it to the top of civil service. Yet, here in the presence of this simple, disturbing Galilean, Pilate fails to see and accept the truth of Jesus.
History judges Pontius Pilate harshly. He was not necessarily an evil man. He had ambitions, and he misused his power. In the end, he was just an ordinary man. Perhaps we are more like Pontius Pilate than we care to admit. Like Pilate, we have goals and ambitions. Most of us are ordinary people. Today we come face-to-face with the simple honesty of Jesus Christ–the divine Lord who sits before us, inviting us allow him to rule the domain of our heart. He’s not going to force his way in. He’s not going to manipulate us or give us a guilt trip. He’s not going to play games in order to win our devotion. He simply presents us with the truth and waits for us to make a decision.

Like Pilate, we can stay neutral as we avoid Christ’s request to be in control of our hearts. We can choose to see Jesus as a harmless person who has no effect on our spirits. We can ask, “Jesus, are you a king?” but close our ears to his answer. We can see him as some great historical figure who has no impact on our lives today. But when it comes to Jesus, I have learned an important lesson: there is no neutrality. Being uninvolved only puts off the day when you will have to decide–are you part of Christ’s rule on earth, or are you working against it?

It sounds confrontational, but this is exactly what I have found so encouraging in my own life. Jesus loves us. He wants to be part of our lives. He is our sovereign leader and he calls each one of us to be a servant. I made a decision 18 years ago that changed my life. I said “yes” to Jesus and asked him to govern my life. Each day I get up and try to align my choices with what God wants from my life. Sometimes I don’t do very well. On a good day I take time to ask, “How can I serve the aims of your kingdom, Jesus? How can I yield my own will and my own desires to what you have planned for me today?” When I take time to be aware of God’s presence, I find that God usually sends someone into my life: someone who needs help, someone who needs to talk, someone who needs to be connected with the truth of the gospel, or someone to encourage me. It’s demanding work. It’s not something I do because I’m a minister. It’s what I do as an inhabitant of the Kingdom of God.

Jesus is our King. He is Lord of all. We don’t vote Jesus in by popular election. We don’t hold a convention to nominate him to the position. God has made him our leader. Jesus rules forever and ever. And one day, like it or not, every nation, every state, every individual person will see Jesus as he really is, The Christ, King of kings and Lord of lords, the Alpha and Omega, the first and the last, the one who is, who always was, and who is still to come.

Is Jesus the sovereign Ruler of your life? Do you find you are part of Christ’s growing kingdom, or are you working against it by resisting his new government? Jesus calls us to hear, to decide, and to follow.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Two Sermons -- Nov. 12 & 19

I was lazy and forgetful last week -- so here are two sermons at once -- a two-part series from the Book of Esther. Your feedback is usually appreciated.

When God is Silent
Esther 1:9-2:18
November 12, 2006

I hear the same questions in my office all the time. “Where was God?” “How could any God let this happen?” I look into eyes that are overflowing with pain and confusion and grief and rage - and they demand an answer. Why a holocaust, God? Why cancer? Why do few get fed while many more go hungry? Why do you allow people to suffer, God? Why September 11? Why were thousands of innocent men, women, and children were destroyed in senseless acts of violence. And for everyone who died in that attack, why do dozens more die throughout the world because of the terrorist whims of evil people?

Then there are the events that hit us in the gut–the personal events that cause us to questions God. People come to me and want to know WHY God didn’t protect them from the assaultive father, the molesting uncle, the bullying mother, the merciless teacher. They want to know WHY God would allow such things to go on. The woman who was beaten as a child for such senseless things as spilling her milk; the little boy who was scared to death of his violent father, the family who lost a loved one to suicide or a fatal accident. Have you ever been through a time in your life when you needed a sign from God, and you got nothing? You yearned for one moment when God would show up, change life around, bring some comfort and justice, and all you heard was silence?

I wonder if the characters from the Book of Esther struggled with the silence of God. The book of Esther has a problem. God is never mentioned. We read the Bible to learn about God’s relationship with creation, and there is not one mention of God in the entire book. Martin Luther did not Esther included in the canon of Scripture. He said, “I am so great an enemy to the second book of the Maccabees, and to Esther, that I wish they had not come to us at all, for they have too many heathen unnaturalities.” The whole book could be taken as nothing more than chance and luck. A literary tale of how a young Jewish orphan just happens to become queen and save her people because she’s in the right place at the right time to.

The book begins on a whim of a king. King Ahasuerus gives a great banquet for all the leading officials and dignitaries of his kingdom. After much revelry, the king orders for his queen, Vashti, so he can show her off. Vashti refuses. In a fit of drunken rage, Ahasuerus, divorces her to set an example that wives are to obey their husbands. After he sobers up and cools down, he realizes that he had no queen. The divorce cannot be reversed, so the search begins for a new queen. All the beautiful young virgins in the provinces are brought into the harem so that the next queen can be found. One of the virgins is Esther, a Jewish orphan who’s being raised by her cousin Mordecai.

Esther is probably a teenager, no older than 16. Ripped out of the only life she knew by the whim of an impulsive king, Esther begins a year of preparation for her one night with the king. She is one harem girl in the middle of harem that likely numbered in the 1000s. She would probably spend one night with the king then be sent to the house of the concubines where she would live out the rest of her life alone and with no purpose, unless the king called her again. When her night came Esther went to the king. In the first coincidence of the book she found favor with Ahasuerus who made her queen. Shortly after this, coincidence number two happened: Cousin Mordecai finds out about an assassination plot and warns Esther who tells the king. The royal servants who planned the assassination are put to death. Later, a man named Haman rises to power and becomes the prime minister of the empire -- second only to the king. All of the king’s servants bow when Haman enters the court – all except Mordecai. Infuriated that Mordecai will not worship him, Haman plots to kill not only Mordecai, but also his whole race, the Jews.

A decree is sent to all the provinces and the Jews immediately begin to mourn. Mordecai mourns in front of the king’s gate in sackcloth and ashes. When Esther finds Mordecai, she has no idea what’s going on. Mordecai tells her about the decree and urges her to go to the king and intercede for her people. Esther won’t do it. She is afraid of the king. Anyone who goes to the king without being called can be killed. This is the king who got rid of his first queen on a whim. This king commanded that the engineers of a bridge he was building be thrown off the end of the bridge when they fell behind due to a horrible storm. When a father requested this king not to send his last son off to war, Ahasuerus commanded the last son be killed in front of the father, then had the father blinded so that the last thing he saw was his dead son. This was the king Esther was going to, without an invitation.

Mordecai reminds her that her position as queen will not protect her from the edict. Then he prods her: “Who knows? May be that is why you are here.” Who knows? maybe all of these coincidences happened for such a time as this. Esther agrees. She will go to the king–even if it cost her life. She will appeal for the life of her people.

I’ll tell the rest of the story next week. Let’s stop here and think for a moment. What stands out most about Esther is the fact God is never mentioned. It is truly a book of coincidences. That is why we need Esther. To often we think that just because there is no obvious working of God in the world that God is not working. Maybe that’s why we need the book of Esther in the Bible.

We need reminders that God’s presence in our world is not always obvious—even to those in the church. There are times in life when we wonder where God is. The book of Esther reminds me that we don’t have to be passive victims of the world’s evil. We don’t have to be scared into stunned silence as we wait for God to show up and save us.

In times of darkness, we are tempted to pull back from others, to move into self-chosen exile. When we pull away from one another, evil festers. Any time we are torn apart from each other, evil has an opportunity to abound. But there is another way. Facing evil can lead us to become peacemakers, like Esther. Peacemakers are people who heal by pulling close instead of tearing apart. Peacemakers are people who get in touch with their own pain and disappointment with God, and then reach out to others who suffer.

Let me tell you about some a peacemaker. A girl grew up in a troubled family and suffered through weariness and depression. At 16 years she was wed in an arranged marriage. The marriage was not a happy one. The husband was a faithless, violent spendthrift who made his wife miserable. She spent the first five years of her marriage in silent, melancholy submission to her husband. For ten years the woman alternated between withdrawal and social activity; there were no children, although her husband had at least one child by a mistress. Then the wife experienced a religious conversion. At about the same her husband became bankrupt. The woman began a life of humble of social work---going into the city’s slums to help the sick poor. Eventually her husband gave his life to God and helped his wife minister to the poor. They moved into the slums and worked there, without pay. Three years later, the plague came to the city, killing 80% of those who lived there. The wife supervised those who cared for the dying. In the year 1496 her husband died and the wife continued working full time until her health began to fail. She died in 1510, worn out with labors of body and soul, and consumed, even physically, by the fires of Divine love within her. The woman’s name was Catherine. She is known in the church today as Catherine of Genoa. This is a woman who faced evil. She knew suffering and pain. At one point in her life she asked the Lord, “Why, Jesus, is there so much pain on earth? Why do people have to suffer?” And Jesus said back to her, “Catherine, if there were any other way, I would have thought about it a long time ago.” It seems that there is no other way to learn how to let go and to learn compassion. There is no other way that we can learn our limits and rely on God and others. Peacemaking is born our of suffering.

The other day I was talking with a Muslim friend who told me that in Islam, silence means acceptance. I think he’s right. Maybe God is silent because we are silent. Maybe God sometimes stays behind the scenes because God’s waiting for you and me to step up to such a time as this. Perhaps God speaks when we are filled with boldness and courage and take a stand against evil. Perhaps God speaks through the peacemakers.

If you see hunger, don’t shrug your shoulders and think about how terrible it is. Silence is acceptance. Buy some food, or give some of your own, to our collection for St. Luke’s pantry. Educate yourself about public policy. Did you know that nutrition and welfare programs together amount to only 3% of the federal budget? Foreign aid is less than 1%. Join the One Campaign or Bread for the World.

If you don’t like the current war, don’t wallow in your frustration. Silence is acceptance. Contact your representatives and let them know how you feel. Send care packages to troops. Disarm yourself from that which divides and dominates. Experiment with putting on the armor of God. Wrap truth around your waist and put on just actions like a Kevlar vest. Lace up your boots that prepare you to do the work of peace. Carry the defense system of your faith to protect you from the missiles of sin. Put on the helmet of God’s wisdom. And carry no weapon but the word of God. And pray.

If you don’t like what we are doing to our earth, then do something. Silence is acceptance. Measure your ecological footprint – inventory your lifestyle. Recycle more. Coordinate a drive for unusual recyclable materials. Conserve natural resources. Fall back in love with nature, and tell others about what you experience. If everyone were to make an effort to make even small changes, the impact could be great.

Did you know that 600,000-800,000 were trafficked as human slaves last year? 80% were female and 70% were trafficked for human exploitation – it’s the international business of rape and profit. Doesn’t that make you mad? Silence is acceptance. Donate your services to an anti-trafficking agency. Pray for victims and perpetrators. Use your influence in your circle of family and friends to raise awareness. Provide advocacy and intervention for slaves.

How about something closer to home – like poverty. The cure for poverty is for people to do something. Silence is acceptance. Volunteer at a street ministry or homeless shelter. Go volunteer with someone like Sr. Theresa in Bridgeport. Help build homes with Habitat for Humanity.

You get the idea. God is not silent. When evil abounds, God compels peacemakers to step up and speak. Still yearning for that one moment when God will show up, change life around, bring some comfort and justice. Maybe all you hear is silence. We can’t expect God do perform a miraculous intervention while we sit back and wait. God chooses you for such a time as this.

Holy Disobedience
Esther 7:1-10; 9:20-22
November 19, 2006

Last week we learned about Esther, a Jewish teenager who becomes the queen of Persia. King Ahasuerus chose her his new queen during a beauty pageant. Esther was raised by her cousin. His name is Mordecai. And then there is the bad guy of the story. His name is Haman. Haman is the king’s right-hand man, and he has an ongoing feud with Mordecai. Haman convinced the King that Mordecai and all of the Jews were plotting to overthrow the King’s authority. Haman convinced the King to set a date for the extermination of the Jews. The King had no idea that his new queen, Esther, was also a Jew. He sent a decree to all the provinces of the empire and the Jews immediately began to mourn. Esther had no idea about the edict. Mordecai told her about the decree and urged her to go to the king and intervene for her people. Esther was afraid to do it. She was afraid of the king. Anyone who went to the king without a summons could be killed. Mordecai reminded her that her position as queen would not protect her from the edict. Then he prodded her: “Who knows? May be that is why you are here.” Esther agreed. She would go to the king–even if it cost her life. She would appeal for the life of her people.

This is where we left off last week. Let me tell you the rest of the story. There is a Greek version of the story that has some verses not found in the Hebrew. It says: “In making her state appearance, after invoking the all-seeing God and savior, she took with her two maids; on the one she leaned gently for support ...while the other followed her, bearing her train. She glowed with the perfection of her beauty and her face was as joyous as it was lovely, though her heart shrunk with fear. As the king looked up, his features ablaze with the height of majestic anger, the queen staggered, changed color, and leaned weakly against the head of the maid in front of her. But God changed the king's anger to gentleness. In great anxiety, he sprang from his throne, held her in his arms until she recovered, and comforted her with reassuring words. "What is it Esther?" he said, " Take courage! You shall not die because of this general decree of ours. Come near!" Raising the golden scepter, he touched her neck with it, embraced her, and said, "Speak to me"

Instead of punishing her, the king is pleased to see her. Approaching the king, invites the king and Haman to a dinner party. When Haman finds out about the special invitation, he is in high spirits – until he sees his enemy Mordecai. At the very sight of Mordecai, Haman fills with rage. When Haman gets home, he complains about Mordecai to his family and friends. They suggest that he build gallows and request Mordecai be hung on it the next day.

That night, the king has insomnia. He orders a servant to read the book of the record of his reign. The servant reads the account of Mordecai – about how Mordecai saved the king’s life from a death threat. The king realizes that Mordecai has not been rewarded. At that moment, Haman enters the court, ready to tell the king about his plan to hang Mordecai on the gallows. However, before Haman can open his mouth, the king says, “Haman, what do you think I should do for a man I wish to honor?” Haman is thrilled. He thinks the king wants to reward HIM for his service. Haman says, “King, you should have a parade. Put your clothes on the man, sit him on a horse that you have ridden. Set a crown on his head, and have a prince lead him through the streets proclaiming that this is what happens for the man whom the king wishes to honor.” The king loves the idea and orders Haman to do this for Mordecai. Haman does as commanded then runs home humiliated to prepare for Queen Esther’s dinner banquet.

At the banquet, Esther presents her case to the king. She pleas for the life of her people whom Haman would have executed. On finding out Haman’s plot, the king leaves the room. When he returns, he finds Haman on the queen’s couch pleading for his life. Ahashuerus accuses Haman of assaulting the queen, and in an ironic twist, Haman is taken away to hang on the gallows he built for Mordecai. Esther once again intercedes for her people, and a decree is issued that on the day of the intended massacre, the Jews can defend themselves.

The Book of Esther reaffirms one of by beliefs about human nature. Call me a pessimist, but I believe that humans are violent people who behave on their hidden impulses. While we have the capability to do great good, many human actions are prompted by our jealousies and our desire for retribution. When angry, people tend to blame their problems on their adversaries. When left unchecked, this kind of anger becomes violent, even murderous. Primitive societies provided religious sacrifice as a substitute for the violence in society. Sacrifice regulated the violence and restored order in times of crisis. Sometimes the sacrifice took on the form of a scapegoat – or a surrogate victim. The violence of the community was put onto one person or group who became the sacrificial victim. Here’s how scapegoating works: Those in power make up a story about how all of life’s problems are caused by the victim. The group unanimously assigns blame, and the victim is killed, or cast out of the group. Once the victim is eliminated, peace comes to the group. Harmony is restored. The community feels purified of all its tensions and division – at least for a time. We see this kind of thinking from Haman. He uses his hatred and jealousy to fund genocide against the Jews. Mordecai and his people are accused of a crime that can’t be proven, and are doomed to die to atone for the blood thirst of the Empire.

This happens in churches, too. In times of high stress, we become less tolerant of other’s differences. We only want people who believe what we believe, sing our songs, give their money, serve on the right committees, and not ask too many questions. Eventually, an individual or a small group is labeled as harmful to the community. Gossip starts about “those people.” Soon, the church purges the impure elements from among itself, and a new feeling of harmony comes.

God calls us to something different. The Bible provides the first instance in history where God is on the side of the victim. Instead of being guilty, victims are innocent. Instead of being innocent, the persecutors are guilty. Instead of alienating outsiders, God goes to those on the margins of life and loves them. We believe in a God who is:
The God of the humble,
The Ally of the insignificant,
The Champion of the weak,
The Protector of the despairing,
The Savior of those without hope. (Judith 9:11)

God stands up for those with no power and no voice. God uses people like Esther – a teenage girl from nowhere who is willing to give up her life to save her people. People like Esther point us to Jesus Christ. People like Esther remind us that jealousy, hatred, and conflict do not get the last word. People like Esther direct us to Jesus who taught us to forgive as God forgives us – to love as God loves us – to serve others as Christ who became the servant of all.

We commit to standing with the powerless, and resisting the forces of injustice in our world. We don’t persecute the outsider. We embrace him. We welcome her. I don’t think we have to make grand gestures. We rarely get those opportunities. Most of life is filled with ordinary events and unspectacular choices. Our daily choices are still significant. Each day offers us the chance to creatively express our support for those living on the boundary. Each day gives us the opportunity to resist the powers cast them away as outsiders. Each day we are given the chance practice the alternatives to exclusion: love, forgiveness, and service.

Shortly after the turn of the century, Japan conquered and occupied Korea. Japan overwhelmed Korea with a brutality that would sicken the strongest of stomachs. One group singled out for concentrated oppression was the Christians. The Japanese refused to allow churches to meet and jailed many of the key Christian leaders. Anguish filled the hearts of the oppressed and kindled hatred deep in their souls. One pastor begged his local Japanese police chief for permission to meet for services. His nagging was finally accommodated, and the police chief offered to unlock his church for one meeting. It didn't take long for word to travel. Christians starving for worship quickly made their plans. Long before dawn on that promised Sunday, Korean families throughout a wide area made their way to the church. They passed the staring eyes of their Japanese captors, but nothing was going to steal their joy. As they closed the doors behind them they shut out the cares of oppression.

The Korean church has a reputation as a singing church. Their voices of praise could not be concealed inside the little wooden frame sanctuary. Song after song rang through the open windows into the bright Sunday morning. It was during a stanza of "Nearer My God to Thee" that the Japanese police chief waiting outside gave the orders. The people toward the back of the church could hear them when they barricaded the doors, but no one realized that they had doused the church with kerosene until they smelled the smoke. The dried wooden skin of the small church quickly ignited. Fumes filled the structure as tongues of flame began to lick the baseboard on the interior walls.

The pastor knew it was the end. With a calm that comes from confidence, he led his congregation in a hymn whose words served as a fitting farewell to earth and a loving salutation to heaven. With smoke burning their eyes, they instantly joined as one to sing their hope and leave their legacy. Their song became a serenade to the horrified and helpless witnesses outside.

In the decades that followed, the Korean’s bitterness passed on to a new generation. The Japanese, although conquered, remained a hated enemy. The monument the Koreans built at the location of the fire not only memorialized the people who died, but stood as a mute reminder of their pain. It wasn't until 1972 that any hope came. A group of Japanese pastors traveling through Korea came upon the memorial. When they read the details of the tragedy and the names of the spiritual brothers and sisters who had perished, they were overcome with shame. Their country had sinned. Even though none of them were personally involved (some were not even born at the time of the tragedy), they still felt a national guilt that could not be excused. They returned to Japan committed to right a wrong. They raised ten million yen ($25,000). The money was transferred through proper channels and a beautiful white church building was erected on the sight of the tragedy.

At the dedication of the new church, a delegation from Japan joined the relatives and special guests. Although their generosity was acknowledged and their attempts at making peace appreciated, the memories were still there. Hatred preserves pain. It keeps the wounds open and the hurts fresh. Christian brothers or not, these Japanese were descendants of a ruthless enemy.

The speeches were made, the details of the tragedy recalled, and the names of the dead honored. It was time to bring the service to a close. Someone in charge of the agenda thought it would be appropriate to conclude with the same songs that were sung the day the church was burned. The song leader began the words to "Nearer My God to Thee." But something remarkable happened as the voices mingled on the familiar melody. As the memories of the past mixed with the truth of the song, resistance started to melt. The normally stoic Japanese could not contain themselves. The tears that began to fill their eyes during the song suddenly gushed from deep inside. One Korean turned toward a Japanese brother. Then another. And then the floodgates holding back a wave of emotion let go. The Koreans met their new Japanese friends in the middle. They clung to each other and wept. Japanese tears of repentance and Korean tears of forgiveness.

Faith requires holy disobedience to the powers that want to keep us living in hatred. Faith requires resistance to those who want to claim their power and cleanse their souls by sacrificing victims. We are created for moments when we have to rely upon our deepest convictions to shape our decisions about what we will support and what we will resist. In fact, maybe it is in those daily choices that we discover the presence of God after all.

Wednesday, November 8, 2006

Sermon for November 5, 2006

Whose Side is God On?
Luke 4:16-21

“If you’re a rock worshiper and a tree-hugger and an animal-rights activist and an anti-war draft dodger, you might want to stay home and tune in to NPR on the radio because you ain’t going to have a good time [here this morning] you ain’t a flag-waving, Bible-waving American.”

Can I get an "Amen"? Anybody?

Those remarks come from the Rev. Jeff Fugate, a southern Baptist minister from Kentucky who has trying to get his congregation psyched up about an upcoming religious rally. Fugate’s “I Love America” sermon lived up to his billing. At the July 2 event -- which cost his church more than $50,000 to stage -- Fugate criticized liberals, homosexuals, cross-dressers, HBO, Hollywood stars, rock musicians and the U.S. Supreme Court, as thousands applauded. He told non-Christian immigrants to “leave your religions, your Bibles, all the other things back where you came from.” How did it become possible to say that to be a follower of Jesus is to be a flag-waving American? Or a flag-waving anything for that matter? Can we really claim that God is on our side and our side alone?

American or Iraqi? Christian or Muslim? Rich or poor? Married, single or divorced? Gay or straight? Patriarch or feminist? Child or adult? Patriots or Giants? (Honestly, people always ask me to pray that their sport's teams will win. They must have money riding on the game. I'm not sure whether God really cares about the outcome of sporting events.) Whose side is God on? One way can figure out whose side God is on is to look in the Bible and read about the people with whom Jesus spent his time.

I think this passage gives a clear answer to our question. Jesus unrolls a scroll from the prophet Isaiah, and reads passages about how God is going to restore the Israelite exiles. God will renew the people by being present with those who have been forgotten by society. The poor. The blind. The prisoner. Jesus takes that mission upon himself. He goes where God goes and does what God does. God again reveals himself as the loving Giver. Let’s take a moment to look at each of these categories of people.

The poor are mentioned first. The poor often had to sell themselves or family members into slavery to pay off debts. Jesus was filled with compassion for the poor, not only the spiritually poor, but also those who were socially and economically poor. When you realize how contemptible poor people were, you will understand how revolutionary Jesus was. In the Greek, the verb “I spit” is ptuoh. The word for poor or beggar is ptochos. I poor person was literally a “spit upon one.” Jesus seeks out these spit upon ones and says, “I have good news for you. The day of richness has come upon you.”

Then there are Prisoners. Some commentators think Jesus may have been referring to imprisoned debtors. These people lived behind bars because they owed something to someone. Jesus says that part of his mission is to proclaim freedom and forgiveness for debtors. Jesus forgives the offenses that shackle people. The world around us is also full of people who are imprisoned in fear, anxiety and doubt. Bars of depression, violence, loneliness, and greed cage in all kinds of people. Jesus knew that words of courage, peace, love and justice have the power to bring freedom to those who are imprisoned by situations of life.

A while ago a prison inmate wrote the following account:
In the summer of 1987, I had just finished my third year on San Quentin’s death row. I was getting ready to spend my time exercising when the guard told me, “You’re going to miss Mother Teresa. She’s coming today to see you guys.” Yea, sure. I thought this is just one more of those designs they have on us. But after awhile I heard the commotion and the bells went off, and I realized maybe this was true. “Don’t go into your cells and lock up. Mother Teresa stayed to see you guys, too.” So I jogged up to the front in gym shorts and a tattered basketball shirt with the arms ripped out, and on the other side of the security screen was this tiny woman who looked 100 years old. Yes, it was Mother Teresa. You have to understand that, basically, I’m a dead man. I don’t have to observe any sort of social convention; and as a result, I can break all the rules, say what I want. But one look at this Nobel Prize winner, this woman so many people view as a living saint, and I was speechless. Incredible vitality and warmth came from her wizened, piercing eyes. She smiled at me, blessed a religious medal, and handed it to me. I wouldn’t have walked voluntarily to the front of the tier to see the Warden, the Governor, the President, or the Pope. I could not care less about them. But standing before this woman, all I could say was, “Thank you, Mother Teresa.” Then I stepped back to let another dead man come forward to receive his medal. Then Mother Teresa turned and pointed her hand at the sergeant. “What you do to these men,” she told him, “you do to God.” The sergeant almost faded away in surprise and wonder.
I think that’s what Jesus did. He reached across social barriers and touched prisoners.

Jesus spent a lot of time giving sight to blind eyes. For that matter, he spent a lot of time with sick people. Jesus was a healer who spoke words of wholeness. He prayed for healing for the blind, sick and lame -- people who were looked upon by society as liabilities. Jesus always found ways to be a healer of broken emotions, broken relationships, and broken communities. He knew that when you take care of the physical problems, it allows people to accept new spiritual realities. To the blind Jesus says, “I have good news for you. The day of a new, healing vision has come.”

Jesus also talks about Release for Captives. This phrase can also be translated as “forgiveness for the downtrodden.” Jesus committed himself to speaking words of forgiveness to those who needed to know the grace and mercy of God. Jesus experienced the injustices suffered by outcasts and he treated all people with fairness, and compassion.

Compassion is about opening people up to the reality of God’s love. Compassion has to do with suffering along with the downtrodden. Who is oppressed in our community? What about the grieving parent who is told that it’s time to get over the death of a child. What about those who work for a wage they can’t live on without going into debt, but who cannot get another job? What about those whose housing is appalling, but who can’t afford to move? What about those who may be earning big money, but who have to work every hour because otherwise they won’t get the bonuses or they won’t have the job security, and they won’t be able to pay their huge mortgage? Jesus is saying, “I have good news for you. The day of your release has come.”

Whose side are you on? The next time you are choosing sides for God, look around. Where are the weak and the powerless? Where are the ones that can’t defend or speak for themselves? Where are the ones who are trapped and can’t find the key to freedom? That’s where God will be. So be sure you pick the right side.

God’s on the side of the child, regardless of nationality, searching for a family in the rubble that was once home. God’s with the grief-stricken, the lonely, the desperate and the broken-hearted. Our God, who knows suffering so well, is with those like the disgraced criminal dying on a cross beside Christ. Our God, it seems, is rather passionately on the side of these so-called “losers.”

So, whose side are you on? Ever heard or said something like this:
“There’s so much pain out there. I suppose someone has to address it, but why should I have to do it? I mean, I’ve got my hands full right now, what with working 60 hours a week and my family and all. Besides, I’ve worked hard to get what I have. Why shouldn’t be able to enjoy it?”
How about this one:
“Yes, I know. The world is full of injustice and all. It needs to be corrected, but that will take a better person than I. It will take a Martin Luther King, Jr., a Gandhi, a Mother Theresa. Maybe all three rolled into one. I can’t to that; I’m just an ordinary sort of person.”
I’ve thought things like that myself. It’s a problem, because if Jesus reaches out as God’s loving Giver, and we are supposed to follow in his steps, the excuses don’t really do much but to perpetuate the brokenness of the world.
Author and lecturer Leo Buscaglia once talked about a contest he had been asked to judge. The purpose of the contest was to find the most caring child. The winner was a four-year-old child whose next-door neighbor was an elderly man who had recently lost his wife. Upon seeing the man cry, the little boy went into the old man’s yard, climbed onto his lap, and just sat there. When his mother asked him what he had said to the neighbor, the little boy said, “Nothing, I just helped him cry.”

Of course, you can’t solve the world’s problems by yourself. Most of these problems took generations and millions of people acting badly to create. One person cannot solve any of them acting alone during one life-time.

Even though you can’t do it all, does that mean you can’t do anything? You can’t hold one weeping, broken person in the circle of your love?

God is on the side of the poor, the prisoner, the blind and the oppressed. And through us God says to them, “Today, your day of freedom has come.” Whose side are you on, and what are you going to do about it?

Friday, November 3, 2006

Sermon for October 29, 2006 -- Reformation Sunday

Unforgivable Sin
Genesis 45:1-28

Is there a sin that’s so bad that it’s unforgivable? Is there be a betrayal so treacherous that God would refuse to pardon it? Murder? Suicide? Adultery? Will God forgive the perpetrators? Has any one ever done something to you that was unforgivable? Has anyone ever shown such deep disloyalty to you that the very thought of that person makes you sick?

If anyone could have felt that way, it could have been Martin Luther King Jr. One night, his home was burned down by a group of white men who hated his message about racial equality and the black voter initiative in the south. Under the leadership of Dr. King, African-Americans grew more confident of themselves, less willing to be oppressed and neglected by society. And they were angry -- angry about their treatment by white society. They were particularly angry on the night that their leader’s home was destroyed. A crowd of Dr. King’s friends and supporters gathered. Some talked about getting guns. Others talked about getting gasoline and setting fire to the homes of all the white people in the area so that they could suffer as the black people had suffered. The crowd wanted to hurt those who had hurt them. They wanted to destroy their enemies.

It’s a common human reaction. We instinctively seek revenge. We convince ourselves that evil deeds deserve instant repayment in kind. Violence feeds on revenge, and revenge feeds on violence. We see the cycle of revenge and violence in places like Belfast, Ireland. Those who spent years trying to get Protestants and Catholics to stop killing each other quickly learned that revenge motivated most of the killing. One young man whose brother had been beaten to death said that if he didn’t go after the ones who killed his brother, it would be like his brother’s life didn’t matter.

I wonder if Joseph felt caught up in this cycle of revenge. If anyone had the right not to pardon the betrayal of his enemies, it was Joseph. When we last left him, Joseph was kidnapped from a dried-up cistern. His brothers hated him so much that they dumped him in a hole in the ground and then left to decide whether to kill him. When they returned to the cistern, Joseph was gone and given up for dead. Years later, Joe is now the second-in-command of in Egyptian. While the rest of the world suffers from a sever famine, Egypt has plenty of food due to the wise agricultural practices of Joseph. Now all of the earth comes to Egypt to buy grain – everyone including 10 of Joseph’s brothers. Joseph sees his brothers, and he recognizes them immediately, but they don’t know him. The text says, “He spoke harshly to them.” In an explosion of anger, Joseph accuses his brothers of being spies. Finally, Joseph’s sees his chance for revenge. Taking the role of the cruel ruler, he will hear none of his brother’s excuses. He demands that they be locked up, and that only one return home to get Benjamin, the brother who stayed behind. Then Joseph changes his mind, imprisoning one brother while the rest go home to fetch Benjamin. His inconsistency is similar to the psychological warfare we see today – designed to create fear and uncertainty in the minds of captives.

Jesus teaches us how to break the endless spiral of vengeance. The gospel says, “Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Bless those that curse you and pray for those who mistreat you.” Jesus often makes statements like this – expectations that are impractical and impossible to live out. How do we do it? How can we do good to people who have gossiped about us, or cheated us, or oppressed us? How do we love the abusive parent, or the teacher who embarrasses students, or the ex-spouse who tries to destroy relationships? How can we love our enemies when everything we feel about them wants to hurt them back as they have hurt us? How can I love someone for whom I feel no love? How can I bless those who curse me?

The night Martin Luther King Jr.’s house burned did not end in violence -- the way that feels so natural. Instead, the crowd left their enemies in peace and they went home determined to win the victory with votes instead of with guns, with politics instead of with fire, with love instead of hate. Dr. King calmed down the crowd by telling them, “When you live by the rule, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’, you end up with a nation of blind and toothless people.” Dr. King believed that a new society could not be built by violent means. He believed that one could only defeat the enemy with love -- that the way of violence only leads to more violence -- that hate only fosters more hate. He would not allow others to seek revenge when his house was burned. Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you.

We can choose be victimized by someone else’s sin, and then replicate it through revenge. We can allow hatred to grow and infest our souls with its hellish tendency towards exclusion. When we do this, forgiveness flounders. We believe that our enemy has committed unforgivable sin, and therefore must be excluded from God’s grace. We think it’s OK for us to take on the role punishers – God’s instruments of vengeance. God never asks us to take that role for ourselves.

Forgiveness happens when we stop trying to justify our hatred by pointing out the wrongdoing we’ve suffered. Liberation comes through confession. Real forgiveness is not about revenge, but about repentance. Only those who are forgiven and willing to forgive will be capable of relentlessly pursuing justice without falling into the temptation to turn justice into revenge. Love is a choice. Love is the decision to do right even when wronged, to do good even when bad is done, to bless even when you are cursed, to forgive even when you are condemned, to care even when you are not cared for.

In June 1992, Serbian paramilitaries invaded the Franciscan Theological School in Sarajevo, holding everyone inside prisoner. There were sixteen Catholic priests and brothers, and eight nuns. The soldiers were amped up, some buzzing on cocaine. They went through the school destroying everything: shooting up the chapel, ripping paintings off walls, burning the library, and hitting the priests with rifle butts. The captives were certain that they would be killed any minute.

In the midst of horrific chaos, Sister Isadora, a nun in her eighties, addressed the young militants with love like they were her grandsons. One man, barely in his twenties, had blood spattered on his shirt. He was trying to ignore it, but it clearly bothered him, and he kept trying to wipe it off. Sister Isadora approached him saying, “My boy, your shirt is stained. Let me get some water and clean it.” She took a damp rag and began to clean the blood from his collar. When she finished, she asked to go to the bathroom to clean the rag. The young man and one of the priests accompanied her. When they returned, the young man had his gun pressed hard into the priest’s side. Sister Isadora touched the man’s arm and waved the gun away. “Move out of the way,” she said. “Come with me and let us go into the kitchen and make some tea.” And so he did. When the soldier’s superiors found out, they were angry, but that young soldier never harmed the captives. After several days, a prisoner exchange was negotiated and all of the captives were released. That is the power of love.

Joseph also learns the power of loving his enemies. When his brothers finally return to Egypt, Joseph throws his arms around his brother Benjamin, and reveals his identity to his family. Now the brothers are afraid. Realizing what they had done, and who this man really is, they expect revenge. Their guilt outweighs the possibility of Joseph’s forgiveness. But Joseph breaks the cycle. In untypical human fashion, he doesn’t repay his brothers for their evil deeds. He no longer carries the baggage of bitterness and anger that accompanies an unforgiving heart. Joseph’s brothers expected nothing better than retribution. But Joseph extends forgiveness – a reminder of the kind of forgiveness that God shows to us.

We love because God first loved us. If we want to be forgiven, we must forgive. Jesus sums up this ethic by saying, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” It is truly a golden rule. Every great religious belief, has a version of it for people to follow.
« Judaism says it this way: “What is hateful to you, do not to others”
« The Hindu faith says it this way: “Do naught to others which would cause you pain if done to you”
« Confucianism tells us “Do not to others what you would not have them do unto you.”
« Islam says: “No one is a believer until you desire for another that which you desire for yourself”

The golden rule is held in balance by another spiritual law: “The judgment you give, is the judgment you will receive. What you sow is what you will reap.” I cling to this law the most when dealing with those whom I would rather not deal with - those whom I feel like harming rather than healing. I try to tell myself, “Count to ten Matt - and at every count remember that what you do here and now will come back to you in abundance. Forgive - because you need lots of forgiveness. Bless, because you need lots of blessing.”

How would you have others treat you? What measure of forgiveness do you want to receive from God when you feel like you can’t fix what you’ve done? What judgment do you want to live with - both here, and in the world to come? May your choices about who to love be good choices. Praise God for abundant of grace, the grace that loves and forgives us even as we struggle to love and forgive others.

Sources:
Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace.
Heather Zydek, ed., The Revolution
The Storyteller’s Companion to the Bible: Genesis
http://www.pbcc.org/sermons/elders/7115.pdf
http://www.rockies.net/~spirit/sermons/c-or07sesu.ph


Friday, October 13, 2006

Sermon for October 8, 2006

Mrs. Job Evaluates God

Job 2:2-10

We like to think that there is a reason for everything, don’t we? When I was a teenager, I was in a car accident. I was stopped at an intersection on a snowy day. Another driver tried to make a right hand turn, but the roads were slippery and he crashed into my driver’s side door. The obvious reason for this accident was a lapse in judgment. He was going too fast to make the turn. Deep down, I knew the accident was my fault. That morning, I did something that I knew I wasn’t supposed to. I convinced myself that the car accident was God’s way of telling me that He didn’t approve of my behavior. It was my wake-up call. As adults, many still think about God this way. I hear people say, “There is no such thing as coincidence” and “Everything happens for a reason.” It’s as if God is some the fate-weaver who twists the threads of time to shake us up. If everything happens for a reason, then clearly God made it happen. The argument goes like this: If an all-powerful God controls all of creation, and if nothing happens by chance, then God must somehow be responsible for disasters as well as blessings. Earthquakes, tornadoes, and hurricanes become “acts of God.” The reasoning says that if we do good, God will bless us. If we do bad, God will punish us. Heart disease, cancer, and multiple sclerosis are as much a part of God’s plan as sunshine, puppies, and clear autumn days.

Let’s call this “cause and effect” thinking. It leaves us with a problem. If God is all-powerful and completely good, how can God allow bad things to happen? God becomes a cosmic abuser who either allows terrorism, and war, and rape, and murder, and disease to happen -- or worse, God turns away and fails to stop evil from destroying us.

For some people, cause and effect thinking explains all of life’s problems. When hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, one writer on BeliefNet wrote, “Katrina was an act of God upon a sin-loving and rebellious nation, a warning to all who foolishly and arrogantly believe there is no God”[1] Other commentators thought 9/11 was God’s judgment on the USA. One preacher wrote, “God’s judgments upon our backsliding abound, but we do not see them! When 19 men with box cutters brought this nation to its knees – we did not see the hand of God in it. It didn’t fit our conception of who He was. But our conception of who He was, had nothing to do with the reality of who He is.”[2] The common theme is that God punishes America for her wickedness. If we repent and turn to God, these events will no longer be necessary.

Let’s think about today’s story from the book of Job in terms of cause and effect thinking. The book of Job is a threat to every preacher, to every theologian, to every person who has ever taught a Sunday school class. The book of Job is a threat to anyone who has ever tried to explain who God is; what God does; or why things happen in the world. Here we have a prosperous, healthy, happy, and deeply faithful man named Job. Everything is going great for Job until God and Satan make a little wager. Satan challenges God, claiming that the only reason Job is faithful is that God has blessed him with a wonderful life. If Job’s life is ruined, he will no longer be faithful to God. God accepts the challenge, Satan goes to work, and bad things happen. Job’s children are killed, his wealth is destroyed, his body is laid to waste by illness. Job struggles to be faithful. Apparently, this angered Mrs. Job. Looking at her suffering husband, all she can say is, “Do you still hold fast to your integrity? Curse God - die!”

History gives Mrs. Job a bad rap. One commentator says, “Job’s wife is not a conscientious, devoted, sensible, compassionate wife . . . If she were such a wife, she would embrace her husband’s suffering as her own . . . The Prologue to the Book of Job, however, makes it quite clear that she is fickle and sacrilegious. In fact, she only adds to her husband’s suffering, distancing herself from him. She has developed a loathing for him . . . he makes an outrageous, blasphemous suggestion: to curse God and incur the penalty of death. In a sense, she joins hands with the Adversary, Satan. By seeking death for her husband, she seeks the easiest way out of a marriage and a commitment; the easiest way out of a test.”[3] For generations, the cry of Mrs. Job has been contrasted with the “patience” of Mr. Job. Her cry in the face of anguish is used as a negative example. Her one line memorable quote condemns her to the role of the “faithless one” through the ages.

Perhaps we do Mrs. Job an injustice. Job and Mrs. Job saw their relationship to God based on a predictable cause-and-effect formula: goodness results in goodness and wickedness deserves wickedness. But when Mrs. Job sees her innocent husband suffer, her world predictable world does not make sense anymore. Everything she believes about God is contradicted. Her husband is a righteous man, yet he is punished. Job is not wicked, yet he is cursed. What is going on here? Doesn’t she have a right to be angry? Mrs. Job lost 500 oxen, 70,000 sheep, 3,000 camels, her servants, 7 sons and 3 daughters. A poem by Linda Appel says it well. It’s called “Job’s Wife Speaks.”

This morning, still, he sits in ashes. He stinks,
and scratches, mourns, but will not say a word
that blames his precious God. He scarcely blinks
at all our loss -- our men put to the sword,
our sons and daughters killed by that mighty wind.
He just repeats, “The Lord gives and the Lord
takes away.” I won’t accept it. Pinned
to earth I mourn but cry with anger toward
unfeeling God and Job, whose patience maddens
me. Get up, do something, find a pot;
I still must cook and feed you, bathe and pat on
salve to soothe your boils. Please help, I’m caught
in grief with you. Why has this happened? Why
to us? No hope. Blaspheme your God; let us die.[4]

In despair, she says “Job, curse God and die.” Or does she? The Hebrew Bible quotes Mrs. Job as saying, the word “bless” instead of “curse.” The literal translation of 2:9 is “Bless God, and die.” English translators decided that she spoke sarcastically, and that “curse God and die” is the better translation. I suggest another interpretation that takes the word “bless” seriously. What if Mrs. Job really says something like, “Job, bless God and you will die”? It would then be as if she’s saying, “Job, if you continue to bless God as you have been doing, it will be too much for you. Your words will contradict your heart. They will be nothing more than the mechanical utterances of a man who has experienced devastating loss. If you continue on your stubborn path of blessing God, you will die. There will be such a tension between your confession of faith and the way life has hit you that the conflict will be fatal.”[5]

The powerful God of cause and effect doesn’t sense to Mrs. Job anymore. Any God who punishes an innocent man is not worthy of worship. The old way of understanding God is no good. So she says, “Job, if you keep blessing this God, you’re going to die.” Job’s friends come to him and offer him more of the same old understanding of God. They say, “No one is sinless, not even the angels. How can you say you are innocent before God? You must have done something wrong. Something to justify God’s anger.” However, at the beginning of the book, Mrs. Job understands something that will take Mr. Job forty more chapters to understand. Their understanding of God is limited, and they are on the brink of understanding something new.

In 1620, when our spiritual ancestors prepared to leave Europe for the New World, their pastor, John Robinson, sent them off with this historic commission: “God has yet more light and truth to break forth out of his holy Word.” In this powerful sentence, Robinson explained that God’s revelation couldn’t be confined. Our understanding of God is so limited, so fragile. We need to be ready for that crisis of faith – that moment when our old understanding of God doesn’t work anymore, but we have nothing new yet. “God has yet more light and truth to break forth out of his holy Word.” Robinson’s assertion continues to be the hallmark of UCC beliefs. That is why in our tradition we read the Bible, we study ancient creeds and catechisms, and we look to the wisdom and guidance of individuals and faith communities throughout history and across cultures. It is also why we never let ourselves believe that we have read or heard all that God has to say, or all that God may be calling us to be and do.[6]

Have you ever had a moment when what you believe about God has been disrupted? I hope so. Sometimes you have to be prepared to die, to let go, to release, to accept some things in order to come into this new season of possibilities. The same is true about God. It’s easy enough to believe in God. The question we need to ask ourselves is, simply, which God? What is your image of God in whom you claim to believe? What kind of company does your God keep? What does your God ask of you – if anything?

The God of cause and effect is founded on the assumption of power. Is that your God. When you think about god, do you think the last word in sheer might and authority? Or do you think of compassion, mercy, and self-giving love? After 9/11, a day that bruised the spirits of us all, people approached me and asked, “Where is God in all of this?” In cause and effect thinking, we need to find someone to blame. The God of power seemed appropriate. For some, their assumption about God is that He (and it’s always He), must stand for omnipotence and therefore chose to allow suffering to happen. Here’s what we fail to grasp. Gods who prevent evil and set everything right can only do so by overruling someone’s behavior. Those who get mad at God for failing to act godlike and exercise unlimited power are usually the same ones who are most offended when their freedom is taken. They want the world to be what they want to world to be, and the only god they can tolerate is the one whose will perfectly matches their own.[7]

I think that the god of power has failed us. It’s time for us to grow up out of the adolescent belief that God gives good to the good and sends the plague upon the wicked. Bless this god, and you will die. The God I worship is a God of relationship –a God who shares power with us instead of using power to punish us. My God is not the omnipotent one against whom we stand in total helplessness. My God is one who sees suffering, and chooses to enter it. If suffering is the essence of being, then God shares our destiny by suffering in it with us. God does not interfere with the way things are. We are in it together. God’s power is seen in the power to endure.[8] This is the witness of Jesus, our Immanuel – God is with us. God is with us.


[1] http://www.beliefnet.com/story/174/story_17439_2.html

[2] http://www.operationsaveamerica.org/articles/articles/katrina-a-judgment-from-god.htm

[3] http://www.bsw.org/?l=71791&a=Ani04.htm

[4] http://dl1.clackamas.edu/kateg/wr245/linda6.html

[5] http://www.drbilllong.com/MoreJobEssays/JobsWife.html

[6] http://www.stillspeaking.com/spirit/words5.htm

[7] Hall, The Cross in Our Context, 76-77, 86-88.

[8] Dorothee Solle, Thinking About God, 188. W. Paul Jones, Theological Worlds, 220.

Wednesday, October 4, 2006

Sermon for October 1, 2006 -- World Communion Sunday

A World Devoted to God
Genesis 12:1-9

Why can’t the religions of the world get along better? After all, isn’t Abraham the spiritual father of the Jews, the spiritual father of the Christians, and the spiritual father of the Muslims? Why is there so much conflict among Abraham’s spiritual children? What is wrong? Hebrew Scripture declares that Moses is a son of Abraham. The New Testament says that Jesus is a son of Abraham (Matthew 1:1). The Koran states that Mohammed is a son of Abraham. Does that imply that Moses, Jesus and Mohammed are brothers? If so, then why can’t the religions of the world get along better?

Today, I invite us to think about Abraham once more. 200 million Jews, two billion Christians and one billion Muslims trace their origins to Father Abraham. If all the descendents of these religions spiritually related, then why has there been so much conflict and war within the family through the centuries? If Abraham is declared a friend of God in the Jewish Torah and if Abraham is declared a friend of God in the Christian Bible and Abraham is declared a friend of God in the Koran, then why can’t the followers of the three world religions be better friends?

In 2002, a bestseller came out entitled, ABRAHAM: A JOURNEY TO THE HEART OF THREE FAITHS by Bruce Feiler. Feiler asks the question: if Abraham is the father of the Jews, Christians and Muslims, why can’t the Jews, Christians and Muslims get along? Maybe there is something in the life and faith of Abraham that could inspire greater harmony the world’s three monotheistic religions. Guess who inflames the warring spirits within these three religions. Rabbis, pastors, and imams. That’s right. Religious leaders are partly to blame for the religious unrest we see in the world.

We see Jewish families living in the Jewish settlements in the occupied territories of the West Bank. They have lived and grown there for two generations now, since the war of 1965. In the Roadmap to Peace, Jews were to give up several of their West Bank settlements. What was the response to such an idea among the fanatical Jewish rabbis? Give up our Jewish settlements? Our newest Jewish villages? Absolutely not! Instead, let’s assassinate the Prime Minister. Remember 1995? Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was not killed by Palestinians or Lebanese assassins. A right-wing Jewish radical assassinated Rabin at a peace rally. Just before the killing, Rabin ended a speech with the words of a song, Shir Lashalom – the Song of Peace.

Lift your eyes with hope
not through the rifle sights
sing a song for love
and not for wars.
Don't say the day will come,
bring the day,
because it is not a dream.
And within all the city's squares,
cheer for peace.
And sing, sing a song for peace,
don't whisper a prayer,
it's better to sing a song for peace
with a giant shout!

Christian also play their part in our religious wars. Consider the words of Franklin Graham, Billy Graham’s son. This is the man who prayed at George W. Bush’s inauguration, and who runs and international relief agency. Speaking after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Graham commented, “I don't believe [Islam] is a wonderful, peaceful religion.” He added, “When you read the Koran and you read the verses from the Koran, it instructs the killing of the infidel, for those that are non-Muslim.” When asked to clarify his statement, Graham repeated his charge that Islam, as a whole, was evil. “It wasn't Methodists flying into those buildings, it wasn’t Lutherans,” he said. “It was an attack on this country by people of the Islamic faith.” Graham later gave a non-apology – a statement of regret.

You can always count on Jerry Falwell for a bigoted sound bite. Here’s Falwell on Islam, from a transcript f 60 minutes. He says, “Muhammad was a terrorist. I read enough of the history of his life written by both Muslims and non-Muslims [to know] that he was a violent man, a man of war. In my opinion … Jesus set the example for love, as did Moses. And I think that Muhammad set an opposite example.” Falwell later gave a non-apology, saying that he inteneded no disrespect to any sincere, law-abiding muslim. At the same time, An Iranian cleric called Fallwell a mercenary who must be killed.

Consider the recent remarks by Pope Benedict. In a recent lecture, the Pope quoted a 15th century Byzantine emperor who once said, “Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” In response, Al Qaeda leaders in Iraq called for a continued effort in their war against followers of the Cross. One Arab op-ed piece stated, “The pope’s latest statement cannot be considered a slip of the tongue or a comic bit from a TV show; the situation here is different, and his remarks are indicative of an important and highly symbolic stance toward [Islam] and the prophet of about a billion and-a-half Muslims.”

Muslim clerics also do their part to inflame the sons and daughters of Abraham. Most of us are appalled that there was no chorus of condemnation by the Muslim clerics after the bombing of the Twin Towers. Most of us are appalled by the Muslim schools in Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq that teach bomb making and political fanaticism. Most of us are appalled when such these emphasize that “jihad” is to be a holy war against the West and against Christianity. We know that the terrorists who suicide bomb their own people have been carefully taught.

So, I believe that the author, Bruce Feiler, has a point when he suggests that religious intolerance and fanaticism are often inflamed by rabbis, priests and Muslim clerics. Each proclaims a vision of what the world would look like if it were totally devoted to God. But let’s think for a moment – what would it look like if we turned to Father Abraham as a symbol three world religions, as a symbol of being a father of a family that learns to live and love together in the household called Earth.

As a Christian congregation, what are we to do? “What does it mean to profess Christian faith in a world of many faiths? How can I be fully a Christian and at the same time respect the faith of others? What does it mean to be ‘saved’ and to believe in Jesus as the Way to God?” Many of us struggle with these questions.

God calls us to be breaking down walls of division: nationally, culturally, racially, and religiously. As members of the United Church of Christ, we commit to intentional dialogue with other faith traditions. In 1988 and 1989, The UCC drafted statements on interfaith relations. The resolution calls upon all local congregations to actively engage in dialogue with the Muslim and Jewish communities in order to establish relationships of trust and cooperation and to participate in joint witness against all injustice in our local communities and in the world.

Today I call us to a new kind of martyrdom – a kind of martyrdom that today’s world has not yet seen. The world martyr comes from the Greek marturios – it literally means to be a witness – a person who testifies about the faith. A witness does two things. First, a witness sees God. I witness the fact that God is everywhere and in every situation and so my life has nothing to do with my ego, my individual efforts, and my melodramas. No more demanding that my way is the only way . . .Just silent profound watching and worship of God at work. Only then can I do t he second job of a witness – to let my actions live out the truth I just saw.

Today, I call us to modesty in all things, including our faith – to conversation without conversion. As Christians, we do not know – we only trust. We do not own the truth, but we bear witness to the living Truth. We engage ourselves with those who do not belong to the household of faith, including those of other faiths, with the expectation that the other – another human being – has something to bring to our meeting. The other is not a mere receptacle for my message.

There is much for us to learn from Father Abraham 4000 years after he lived and died. From Abraham, we can learn what it means to believe the promises of God, to have genuine faith and lead a devout godly life. From Abraham, we can learn to realize that God blesses us so that we can be a blessing to God’s world. From Abraham, we can learn to love other people who are part of Abraham’s other religious families here on earth.

I want us to remember that as we take communion on this World Communion SUnday. We share a meal with other Christians. We also Watch for God, reenact our faith, and testify to the possibility of a world of peace, in community with our brothers and sisters from the family of Abraham.

Sources:

Edward Markquart, “Abraham: The Father of Three Religions,”
http://www.radiohazak.com/Shir.html.
Preacher's Anti-Islam Remarks Mobilize White House. ”
Todd Hertz, “Riots, Condemnation, Fatwa, and Apology Follow Falwell's CBS Comments,” in Christianity Today.
“Jerry Falwell's statement of reconciliation.”
“Putting the Pope’s Remark in Context,” NPR’s Morning Edition, Sept. 19, 2006.
“Arab op-ed: Pope’s remarks may lead to war, ”
http://www.ucc.org/ecumenical/89-gs-muslim.pdf., http://www.ucc.org/ecumenical/87-gs-jewish.pdf.
Douglass john Hall, The Cross in our Context (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003), 193-194.


Thursday, September 21, 2006

Sermon for September 17, 2006

"Do We Need Any More Heroes?"
Genesis 11:27-12:4

I love the automated carwash. I don’t go there often, but I love it. Not those places that make you get out of the car, either. It has to be the one where you pull up to the track, put your car in neutral, take your hands off the wheel, and get dragged through a tunnel of spraying foam, slapping spaghetti, whirring brushes, and air blowers. I think it’s exciting – an outside force pulling me closer to a clean car. The an outside force pulled our car into a dark tunnel as spraying foam, slapping spaghetti, and whirring brushes violently beat the car. My soothing ministrations from the front seat did nothing to alleviate their terror. An outside force pulled them forward, and none of us could control it. It’s terrifying when you think about it.

Sound familiar? Have you ever felt that life pulled you along and you were not in control? Most of life feels that way. Life seems to take us for a ride and we don’t do much to resist. Some people are happy with this. They like it when life is predictable: wake up, brush teeth, work, eat, watch TV, read the paper, go to bed.

The problem is that most of us don’t want to admit that we live predictable lives. We try to break out of our ordinary routines. We find it difficult to escape feeling trapped by a life that pulls us into some unknown but monotonous future. Consider the following accounts of couples who think their relationships are pulled along by life:

· A wife named Megan writes, “It depresses me to think that I’ll never have romance again. I’m happily married, but the romance is gone between us and sometimes I think about having an affair. Is this it? Love without romance for the rest of my life?

· Carla describes a similar concern. She says, “I Love my husband and we get along well. But sometimes I think, is this it? Most nights I get home from work first and fix dinner. Then Dan comes home, we eat, he gets the kids ready for bed while I clean up. We watch a little TV together and go to bed. Saturday we take care of chores. Sunday we do something as a family. We make love once a week or so. I know we have a better marriage than a lot of our friends, but it’s all so routine. I keep feeling something’s wrong with me for wanting more. I’m bored. I love Dan, but he’s like an old comfortable shoe. Am I being childish to think there should be more than this?”[i]

Some people feel that same way about their faith. In High School, I felt that the church that I grew up in was full of boring hypocrites. I looked around and asked, “Is this it?” Eventually, I wandered away from that church and worshipped with some fundamental Baptists. Their faith seemed more alive. Their services focused more on relationships than tradition. They did not sing hymns and there was no organ in the church. They had a worship band and sang simple choruses with smiles on their faces. Of course, after a while I felt like I they were in a rut. I asked, “Is this it?” and looked for something new.

Sometimes we are restless wanderers, looking to find a home. We want more out of life. We want adventure and comfort, freshness and familiarity, and we want them all at once.

I wonder if Abraham and Sarah ever felt this way. In a few lines of text from Genesis, I hear our story. When we first meet Abraham, he is living his prescribed life. Like other nomads of the time, he takes a wife, as he migrates from place to place, buying and selling goods. The Bible calls Abraham a Hebrew and an Aramean. These words were common terms for “semi-nomad”, until they were replaced with the catchall term -- Arab. Abraham is not a wanderer and he is not settled. He’s a combination. He is the perpetual stranger in a strange land, the outsider who longs to be the insider, the person of faith who yearns for God to soothe his painful life.[ii]

One day life changes. Maybe it started out like any other day for Abraham. He and his wife are childless, stuck near the city, watching sheep, bartering goods, and pulled along by life. For a story that’s consumed with men, lineage, and power, Abraham looks impotent. He comes from a long line of men who can trace their ancestry back to Noah, but he can’t father children of his own to carry on his lineage. He has lived nearly half his life, and nothing exciting has happened to him.

Abraham is seventy-five years old when life changes. God looks for someone special –someone who will appreciate the blessings God has to offer. God needs someone who needs God – someone who will rise to God’s lofty standards. God needs Abraham and Sarah. God summons them to adventure. Honestly, I’m surprised. They are not righteous or special at this point. They aren’t godly people. Abraham is restless and unsure. His life seems suspended with no child. In a story about creation, Abraham and Sarah cannot create. They exert no control over their own lives. They are so utterly human.[iii]

And maybe that’s the point.

When we read about the call of mythic heroes, they share some common elements. Usually, the hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder. He encounters fabulous forces and wins a battle over them. They hero returns from this adventure and shares his newfound power with his fellow humans. Think about mortal Prometheus ascending to the heavens to steal fire from the gods, or Jason sailing through the Clashing Rocks, stealing the golden fleece, and taking the throne back from a usurper. Sometimes the mythic hero is a reject from society who overcomes a symbolic deficiency to fulfill a task from God. Think about the story of Exodus in which stuttering Moses scales Mount Sinai. As Moses climbs the mountain, flashes of lightening and peals of thunder shake the world. God bends the heavens, and moves the earth. In the midst of this holy storm, God gives Moses the Ten Commandments. Moses, in turn, gives them to the people of Israel.[iv]

Abraham is not that kind of hero. Abraham is not really a hero at all. Abraham, is the restless wanderer who simply hears God and follows. God is the real hero of the story, not Abraham. Out of nowhere, God invites Abraham to relate to the world differently. God says, “Abraham, I choose you to be the Father of Blessing to the entire world.” Now Abraham has a choice. Live the same, mundane existence, or live into a new calling that reframes his ordinary life as a life of faith in God.

The story of Abraham and Sarah leads us to that marvelous question. The question is, what are you going to do with your one wild and precious life? [v] There are going to be times when you are faced with the shear ordinariness of your life. You will want some excitement. You may say, I like my life, but is this it?” You will be tempted to slake your thirst for adventure in poisoned streams. Have an affair . . .Drown your boredom with booze . . . Buy an overpriced sports car and relive the fantasy of your youth . . . Over-focus on your career at the expense of relationships . . . Become withdrawn and self-sufficient and alienate your friends and family. Looking at the wilderness that lies ahead, you may choose to avoid it by consuming earthly pleasures. Abraham reminds us that God seeks people who have the bravery to confront the wilderness in their own souls -- people who find their fulfillment in God, not in fulfilling their lusts.

Sometimes we are restless wanderers, looking to find a home. God invites us to journey on which we learn to see life in a new way. The journey begins with faith.

I read that the African impala can jump to a height of over 10 feet and cover a distance of greater than 30 feet. Yet, these magnificent creatures can be kept in an enclosure in any zoo with a 3-foot wall. The animals will not jump if they can’t see where their feet will fall. Faith is the ability to trust what we cannot see. Faith frees us from the flimsy enclosures of life.[vi] Can we respond to the Voice that invites us to leave our old way of being and enter a life beyond unconvincing and confining convention? God speaks words of promise to us. “I will show you a better way, a better country, a new home.” We begin our search with God as our hero – a hero whose quest leads to ordinary, hearts like ours -- restless wanderers who find a way to listen, trust, and leap to God in faith.


[i] Stories paraphrased from We Love Each Other But . . . by Ellen Wachtel (New York: St. Martine, 1999), 187-188.

[ii] Bruce Feiler, Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths (New York: William Morrow, 2002), 21.

[iii] Ibid, 23-24.

[iv] Joseph Campbell, The Hero With A Thousand Faces (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1968), 30-37.

[v] Marcus Borg, “Faith: A Journey of Trust,” http://www.explorefaith.org/LentenHomily03.15.99.html

[vi] http://www.sermonillustrations.com/a-z/f/faith.htm.

Sermon for January 21, 2018

How Far Would You Go? 1 Samuel 17 I had a sermon all ready to go today. It was a NICE sermon. You would have felt really good about i...