More Than a Little

Primary Scripture Luke 7:36-50

The story of the woman anointing Jesus is one of the stories that appears in all four gospels… but is told slightly differently by each of the writers.  

It might feel a little early for us to approach this text- we most often associate it with Holy Week, and thus speak about the way that the woman was preparing Jesus for burial.Her anointing is a bit of of an ironic coronation for the rightful King of the Jews, even as it echoes Samuel’s anointing of King David.  

But Luke’s placement is much earlier.  And the setting has other implications.

Luke has Jesus invited to the home of a Pharisee, Simon, to dine.  The woman – un-named, but not unknown to those at the table, enters uninvited. Without speaking, she weeps, wetting Jesus’ feet with her tears.  She wipes them with her hair and kisses them.  Then she anoints his feet with perfumed oil.

It would make sense, based on Jesus’ response to Simon, to spend some time contrasting the woman’s lavish act of hospitality with Simon’s lack of hospitality.  Perhaps even to heap shame of Simon and his household for lacking this virtue, as well as lacking the faith and faithfulness the woman displays.

We might also talk about how this interaction mimics the Greek or Hellenistic symposium, in which a host invites guests to his home to dialogue about abstract matters like love, friendship or wisdom.  Her interruption brings an interesting wrinkle and a depth of reality to an evening that might have been steeped in words and navel-gazing.  

Of course, Jesus is never about navel gazing or words just for the sake of words.  His ministry happens in the space where words and actions overlap…where words and actions collide.   

Which may explain why the juxtaposition of the silent actions of the woman and the silent judgement of Simon moves Jesus to speak.

Did you catch that little detail?  It’s easy to miss…Let’s Look again at verse 39…

Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is  who is touching him—that she is a sinner.”

“…he said to himself…”

This is not Mark’s gospel, in which the onlookers object among themselves… not directly to Jesus, though probably out loud (14:4).  Nor is this like the disciples objecting openly in Matthew (26:28) or even John recalling Judas as the one who spoke his concerns aloud (John 1:4-5).

Here, Luke – and only Luke – uses what is called internal monologue. He narrates for us what Simon is thinking.  This is important for a couple of reasons.  

First, if we think back to the Holy family’s visit to the temple with the infant Jesus, we recall Simeon’s prophecy:  “Because of him (Jesus – the Messiah) the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed” (Luke 2:35). Luke uses this interaction with Simon to reinforce the truth that Jesus is the fulfillment of the prophecies concerning the messiah.

It’s also important to understand that Luke is using a device that is rare in ancient writings. We see internal monologue all the time in current fiction and even some non-fiction writing. Even in movies as voiceovers take us inside a person’s thoughts and motives.  

Ancient writers typically reserved this device for moments of crisis – a time when the protagonist or hero is dealing with intense internal conflict. If we look at works by authors like Homer, Ovid or Virgil, we would find a pattern that looks something like this: first, the inner speech itself, then a time of taking stock of the problem, and then the hero’s chosen solution.

Luke takes a slightly different approach.  The examples of interior monologue in his gospel do come at a times of crisis, when the thinker wrestles with a difficult decision.  But Luke’s thinkers – they are not the heroes.  Or THE hero.   We never see Jesus thinking to himself.

Luke uses internal monologue for people who are NOT heroic, NOT noble. In fact, these people embody self-centeredness.  You see, in ancient Jewish literature, what one says to oneself indicates wisdom or foolishness. And Simon’s thought was clearly the latter. 

Commentator Michal Beth Dinker of Yale Divinity School describes Simon’s moment of decision this way:
Like other ancient thinking characters, Simon faces a choice; he is deciding between two opposing views of Jesus’ identity — either Jesus is a prophet or he isn’t. The question itself demonstrates that Simon lacks love, hospitality, and true discernment. Furthermore, he clearly does not want to dialogue with Jesus; he simply “thinks to himself.”

Now… When Jesus addresses Simon, he proves exactly what Simon was questioning.  Of course he knows what kind of person is touching him, honoring him. And of course Jesus knows the kind of person judging the woman,as well as questioning his welcoming of her.

Simon’s unspoken thought reveals foolishness – which is immediately contrasted with the wisdom of Jesus’ teaching, his correcting, and his forgiving.

The whole situation was more than a little disconcerting for Simon.
The woman was a sinner and everyone knew it… and they recognized her as she came in the door. 

The end of last week’s reading saw Jesus acknowledging what people were saying about him… The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’

That was part of why Simon invited him over to talk. See, Simon and the Pharisees were more than a little like many of us…They were leaders in the church… not unlike those of us who have said yes to serving as elders or deacons… or leading committees…They cared – as we do – about the life and health of the community of faith

They were looking for signs that Jesus was really who he claimed to be, or signs that he was at least a prophet – if not the messiah. And the best way to do that was to compare his actions and teachings to the best tools they had… the scrolls of the Law and the Prophets.

Jesus looked more than a little like a prophet. He was wise and could heal.  He fulfilled many of the older prophets’ sayings about what the messiah would do.

But then there were those people.
The tax collectors and the sinners.
The lepers.

And the fact that he sat at table and shared a meal with any of them.
All of them.  

Table fellowship was a big deal. If you offered a place at the table to someone, you were saying they had standing with you.  They were worthy of being in your company.  And the better the seat (the closer to the host) the more honored the guest.

So, when Jesus filled the seats around a table. Or even sat at a table that included those people….   

Well…  What did he EXPECT people to think about him?
Only drunkards and sinners hang out with drunkards and sinners.

Since they were at Simon’s table that night. He had placed people just so, based on who they were and their role in the community. Or who HE wanted to honor, or converse with…

And Simon had questions for Jesus.
Theological, ethical…. Mostly in the theoretical realm

So the woman was more than a little disruptive
She was a sinner

There are all kinds of assumptions made about what her sins were. Because she is a woman, and because for generations, the majority of biblical scholars were men, most of those assumptions lean toward sexual sins…
Perhaps she was a “loose” woman.
Perhaps she, like the woman at the well, had many husbands.
Perhaps she was a prostitute.

Luke doesn’t say any of that.  He leaves a great gaping hole…

His ambiguity in the midst of all those details may actually help us.  Because it means that no matter what her sin was, her faith was more than enough to save her.

It means that no matter what your sin is.
No matter what my sin is.
No matter what sins we are part of together as a body, as a nation.
No matter what mercy we’ve chosen not to offer
No matter what injustices we’ve benefitted from
No matter what oppressive systems we’ve chosen not to be part of changing.

If we humble ourselves,
if we weep for our sins,
If we seek out the one who can and will save us from ourselves…

God’s grace and mercy are more than enough.

But It takes more than a little honesty…
with yourself, your deepest, truest self, to put words to the sins that have weighed you down.

It takes more than a little courage…
to approach yourself, your community, and your God with the truth of who you are and what you need.

And it takes more than a little faith…
not in knowing the law, the rituals, the traditions…but faith in the One who established those laws and traditions.

Because there, in God’s presence, is all the grace you and I and this broken sinful messy world could ever need.

And when we approach confession and repentance with hearts willing to receive forgiveness and compassion, those same hearts are filled to overflowing with love…
Love that must act
Love that expresses deep gratitude.

The sinful woman’s humble act is exactly what that kind of love looks like.
Just as we know that Jesus’ humility and obedience, even to death, even to a criminal’s death on a cross… is what the greatest love looks like….

Her faith has saved her.  Even before Jesus goes to the Cross.
In this instance – salvation looks like forgiveness
And forgiveness looks more than a little like healing
Jesus has seen and addressed her deepest need.

48 …he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”

Luke doesn’t give us any more details about this woman and the rest of her story.
Will she be embraced by the community?
Will she be welcomed as forgiven and given opportunities to start fresh?
Will they see her differently?  

I don’t know about you, but the forgiven sinner in me, the one who has worked hard not to wear the labels of my own past, wants desperately for the woman to be known for something different… for her generosity, for her kindness, for her hospitality.  

I want her to tell her story of love and forgiveness to all the other women and men in her circles…  so that they, too, might have faith, leave behind their burdens and labels and live in loving gratitude.

When I read the next few verses – in Luke 8, I can begin to imagine this is true of her and many others…

Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.

Can you begin to imagine a world – our world –
in which everyone experienced being seen and known and welcomed all the same?
In which everyone experiences forgiveness?
In which everyone has that overwhelming urge to do good for the one who saw and welcomed them?  

Can you imagine a world in which love has so great a place?
It would be more than a little wonderful.
Way, way more like the Kingdom of God.

I know I’m not the only one who has dreamed of this world…
It is the hope of all who experience being seen and known and loved.
It is the dream, the vision put into the hearts of all who are forgiven.

And descriptions of that world pop up in all kinds of places…  Actor Mahershala Ali, was recently honored by the Screen Actors Guild for his work in ‘Moonlight.” 

Listen for that hope in this excerpt from his acceptance speech:
What I’ve learned from working on “Moonlight” is, we see what happens when you persecute people. They fold into themselves. And what I was so grateful about in having the opportunity to play Juan was, playing a gentleman who saw a young man folding into himself as a result of the persecution of his community, and taking that opportunity to uplift him and tell him that he mattered and that he was O.K. and accept him and, uh — I hope that we do a better job of that.

Like all of us, Ali had experienced the ways that life (and sometimes the people around us) can cause us to fold inward…. to lose sight of how valued and valuable we are.  

He had also experienced the life-giving, hope-giving love of a person who saw him, understood him, and lifted him up and out and back into the world.  Someone had been love and forgiveness for him.  

The beauty of his story is yes – how he carries that love and gratitude into his work as an actor. But even more importantly, and beautiful, is how he has become a person who sees people, speaks hope and offers love to them in his day-to-day life.

Oh that this might be true of each of us today…. and every day

The One

A Sermon on Boy Scout Sunday

Luke brings John the Baptist into his telling of Jesus’ story very early on.  In fact, the first time they meet is when Mary visits Elizabeth while both women are pregnant.  John leaps at the sound of Mary’s voice and Jesus’ presence nearby.

The next time we meet John, he is a man living at the edge of the wilderness, preaching about repentance and baptizing all who confessed their sins and professed their faith in God.  

He spoke of the one who would come after him.  The one who would baptize in the Holy Spirit and fire. John made clear that he was not the messiah himself, but that the messiah was coming.

Jesus went out to the Jordan to be baptized, but we don’t know if John knew he was there.  We do know that following his baptism, Jesus went on into the wilderness where he endured many temptations.

And we know that at some point, Herod took exception to being told by John that he needed to repent as well. That he was taking part in a regime that was not God’s.  And eventually John found himself imprisoned.

Meanwhile, Jesus is causing quite a stir in the region. He has been teaching and healing, and even raising the dead son of a widow to life.  And that is where we pick up the action in Luke 7, starting at verse 18.   

We’ve had annual passes to DisneyWorld for almost as long as we’ve lived here in Orlando. It was a great place for our kiddo to grow up, even with the crowds.  It was a great place to practice some life skills – like what to do if you get lost or separated from your group.  How do you know who to ask for help?   

We talked about what a cast member looks like  –  what kind of costumes or name tags to look for. And we did the same thing when we would run into a police officer or deputy around town….

Yeah – I know – it’s not foolproof.
Bad people do bad things in uniforms, too.
But… the uniforms and other signifiers can at least be a helpful start in finding the person you are looking for.

That’s one reason I wear one of my collared shirts when I am representing the church at a public function, or leading a funeral or a service like today  – when we have more visitors around. If someone who doesn’t know me is looking for the pastor, I’m much easier to find when I am “in uniform”

That’s why our Scouts and their leaders are in uniform today.  So that we can easily see and greet them as our special guests.

I suspect there were more than a few people in Jesus’ day who would have appreciated some kind of uniform to tell them he was The One.

You see, the prophets had been talking about the Messiah to come for generations.  Including John.In fact, John had been proclaiming for years that the Messiah would come and the Jews would no longer be captives…  And here he was… sending messengers out to talk to Jesus, while he was in prison.

The truth is that the political situation in which John and Jesus fund themselves… well, it’s complicated.

Their region of northern Palestine where you would find Galilee –  was under occupation by the Roman Empire. Herod Antipas was the Jewish “King” as his father Herod the Great had been before him.  

And like his father, Herod had a reputation for assuring that his interests were served first and foremost. The Jewish people might or might not benefit from any decisions he might make, especially in relation to their imperial colonizers.

As we can trace over and over throughout the history of empires and occupied territories, the Jewish people find themselves dealing with horrible social inequity.  There was a very small number of Jews with tremendous wealth and stature, while the vast majority were beyond poor. They were destitute.  

Their standing as a nation was even more tenuous given the reality that they represented such a tiny and politically inconsequential group among many peoples folded into the Roman empire. Plus, their unique culture and customs were puzzling at best, in the eyes of those who ruled over them.

And like many groups who find themselves in a complex political situation, the Jewish people found themselves divided on what to do… how to respond to the Roman rule and to the Herods as they established a dynasty within the Roman structures.  

Not everyone agreed on what it meant to be Jewish, how Jews were to move through the world in light of their oppression, how they were to worship God and even what the Messiah would look like. In other words, the Jewish people of Jesus’ time represented a diversity of beliefs, practices and political views.

We might be able to relate –

If we gathered up someone from all the different churches and places of worship in Apopka, we would likely have a group with a wide variety of beliefs, practices and political views… even as we claimed one common connection- Jesus.  We Christians are a diverse bunch.

John, along with many Jews of his time, was waiting and watching for a Jewish Messiah who would redeem Israel from Roman oppression. Someone who would launch a Messianic Era, bringing about the Kingdom of God on earth.

All these healing miracles Jesus has done,  they’re great, but is that it?  Is there more to come?

Because – from John’s vantage point, it still pretty much looked like the Kingdom of Herod.
And beyond Herod, they still had Rome to contend with.

So he wants to know… Are you the one?  Or is there someone else to come?

It’s tempting to dig in right there, to assume that John is doubting or backing down. But there is something about John’s willingness to even ask that makes me think it’s not doubt And there is something intriguing about the way Jesus responds to this query.  

As is his custom, Jesus answers without answering the question.  He gives them a job.
Go and tell John what you have seen and heard.
Go and tell him about the ways God’s power is being unleashed in the world.
Go and tell him how the people are experiencing Good News.

And then, when the messengers for John left, he turned to the crowd and began to teach again on the idea of WHO.

Who was John?  Not just a prophet, but the forerunner, the one God tasked with preparing the way for the Messiah… for Jesus.  Jesus is saying, if you can see John for who he is, then my identity becomes clear, as well.

Who recognized him?  The tax collectors, the undesirables, the ones who knew they needed grace, release, healing, wholeness, forgiveness.

Who rejected John’s ministry, thus rejecting God’s purposes?  Those who believed they already had what they needed  – those with comfort, status, and privilege among the Jews.

This is why I think John’s question may very well have been one of hopeful anticipation….  I am pretty sure you’re the one…  Tell me  I’ve got this right… Tell me that we are on the cusp of the age for which so many are longing.

The miracles John’s messengers witnessed and then bore witness to – by going and telling – they were the beginning of the Messianic age!

And whenever we see evidence of God’s work in the world – we too are witnessing God’s promises unfolding.
Yes – there were and are still corrupt politicians in the world.
Yes- there were and are church leaders who disappoint us
Yes – the gap between rich and poor continues to be alarminging
So yes – the world is still very very much in need of a savior.

The question is, what does the Messiah look like today? What should we expect when we go looking?

Jesus words to the people were a helpful warning against mis-placed expectations about what the Messiah would be and do.

If we hope that the messiah will sweep in and use the same kind of power and might that we humans have built into our power structures, we will be disappointed…

Jesus came with humility, keeping company with the outcasts instead of the powerful.

And he would be rewarded with a crown of thorns and a criminal’s death, rather than the comfort of a palace and the majesty of a throne.

We must look for a messiah who enters into the pain and suffering of the world,
Who understands that salvation for the hungry sometimes look like bread and water, and not the metaphircal sort.
A messiah who knows that oppression ends where relationships are not hindered by exclusion and fear.

And we must, as the Body of Christ – the ones who represent him in this present age – do likewise. So that any who come looking in hopeful expectation can know God answers prayers and keeps promises.

We don’t have to wear crosses or collars or any sort of uniform to advertise that we belong to Jesus,
Not if we are continuing his work…
not if we make ourselves available… if we willingingly enter into the suffering and pain of others and carry with us the compassionate, healing love of Christ.

That is how they will know us… by our love.
By the fruit born of living in the power of the Holy Spirit

And they will know us by the stories to go and tell as witnesses to the power of God at work in and among us.

Let us pray…

In a world where power and influence reign,
Embolden us to set aside power, set aside wealth.

In a world where we look for quick fixes with little thought for consequences and ripple effects…
Give us the patience and persistence and wisdom

In a world where the pain of others is cause for laughter and derision…
Give us hearts that ooze compassion for the broken hearted and suffering,
hearts that seek to learn about those who are not like us,
hearts that seek community with the very ones you would eat and drink and pray with.

May we be the ones for whom the world has been waiting,
May we be the church for which you have been praying,
Today and every day.  Amen.

A Matter of Life & Death

Last week, we looked at two encounters Jesus had with the Scribes and Pharisees, both of which involved choosing to break the Sabbath rules.  He then spent some time in the mountains praying before naming the 12 closest of his followers as those who would be apostles… the leaders among the learners.

The next portion of Luke’s gospel is what is often called the “Sermon on the Plain”.  It is the companion to the portion of Matthew’s gospel known as the Sermon on the Mount.   He joins the people down on the plain, healing and teaching.  But we are picking up today’s passage after this sermon.  Listen for the Word of God for you today from Luke 7:1-17.

Early in the week, as I planned this week’s worship, I was pretty excited about the chance to dig into this passage.  These two interactions are fascinating, especially in juxtaposition to one another.

One involved a man of power and influence, not only among the Jews but also in the Roman army.   The other, a widow who was left with no standing, no support, much less influence, after the loss of her son.

One conversation started with the assumption of healing.  The other with the resignation with which we are too well-acquainted as we have had our own dealings with death.

Unfortunately, life had other plans for me.  Some crazy bug attacked our household, picking us off one by one. I felt like death warmed over from about Tuesday afternoon onward, and so I spent more time with my eyes closed than open this week.  I had no energy for the kind of brainwork it takes to write a sermon, and I was not entirely sure whether I would have the energy or voice to deliver one.

So today, you’re a little more of a glimpse at what I’m wrestling with than usual.

As we think about what Luke wants us to understand about Jesus and the Kingdom of God, these two stories point to two very important characteristics.

The Centurion has heard of Jesus and sends the Jewish elders to ask for him to come heal one of his slaves. We don’t know why the Roman didn’t come himself… perhaps he didn’t think Jesus would come for him?  Perhaps he was busy.   There really is no telling…

But I find it intriguing that the elders  seem to take it upon themselves to let Jesus know how generous this Centurion was…. Luke doesn’t indicate that he included his love for the Jewish people in his message to Jesus. In fact, as Jesus approaches, as second message arrives, saying not to come.  “I am not worthy to be your host”.

Here is a man who could have demanded Jesus come, could have demanded that he see the slave. For that matter, he could have just replaced the slave, should the servant have died. But instead, he describes Jesus’ authority and power to heal and he trusts in that authority and power, even from afar.

He had Faith -just as it would be described in the letter to the Hebrews…the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.  

He articulated that faith in very practical, very human terms – because as a man who worked within a chain of command, he understood power and authority in very practical, tangible ways. And that understanding allowed him to believe that all he needed was a word from Jesus.  Just a word would heal the slave that he valued so highly.

But don’t you just wonder how much of the Jewish way of trusting in the authority of Yahweh  – Jehovah God – had rubbed off on this man?  How many of the stories he might have overheard as they were building the synagogue that he’d helped pay for?   

Jesus heard faith in the man’s message -no matter its origins.  He healed the slave and he bore witness to the Centurion’s faith.

Once again, we are reminded that as the son of God, Jesus has all the authority in heaven and on earth to do the work of healing, of reconciling, of setting captives free, of bringing jubilee to the land.

And we are reminded that his mission field was not confined to the Jews.

Now it seems like we just turn the corner in Capernaum and run into the funeral procession, but Jesus and his followers have moved on to Nain. And it’s almost as if we have two parades happening, and their routes happen to intersect.  

If they were a parade, Jesus and his large crowd of followers would be carrying signs and riding floats that represent life, joy, hope. They are hyped up after a series of miraculous healings and brilliant teachings .  

It must have been sobering for them to realize that the procession they meet near the city gate is comprised of a widow, her dead son and a crowd of mourners.

This time, no one approaches Jesus, no one makes any requests.
This time, Jesus sees what is happening, and he is moved to respond.

He is moved by compassion… Compassion that was sparked as life met death, as hope collided with suffering.

True compassion is not an intellectual exercise. The kind of compassion Jesus experienced is as fully human as it is fully divine. Compassion is one of those “feel it in your gut” emotions.  

In fact, the greek root for the word translated as compassion in this passage is splagchna – literally intestines.

When Jesus sees what is happening, he experiences that same  deep, gut-wrenching compassion that moves people today to act when they see suffering.  It’s that twist in your belly when you hear that music and see the sad faces of the dogs in the commercials for the humane society

He saw the woman and knew what was happening.
There was no husband, no son, no male kin there to console and mourn with her.   

He saw the woman and knew this meant she was now among the most vulnerable, given the patriarchal structure of the Jewish people.

He saw the woman and knew that he had the power and the authority to change what he knew in his gut was not good.

He told her not to weep.  And he told the young man to rise. And thus Luke reveals to his readers (like the people of Judea) that Jesus has the power not only to heal, but to raise the dead to life.  

Jesus is powerful.
This much is abundantly clear.
And logical, if he is who he claims to be, right?
The son of God should be all powerful if God is all powerful.

But this combination of stories also presents us with a deity who wields that power in such a way that  his actions affirm and give life.

Think about that – and compare it to the ways we experience people who have power – perhaps in the form of leadership, wealth, influence, control.

How often do we see the truth in the aphorism about power corrupting people… and the more power they gain, the more corrupt they become?  

But rather than amassing power for himself, Jesus starts at the bottom. And he stays among those on the lowest rungs. That is the kind of leader he is.

Luke started his telling of Jesus’ story with people preparing us for a messiah who would turn things upside down.  Who would bring down the mighty and lift up those who had been made low.  

The teaching we see in his initial sermon in Luke 4 and the sermon on the plain reinforce that idea.  And we begin to see Jesus acting in ways that reverse fortunes in this portion of Chapter 7.

When Jesus sees the widow and his gut twists, he liberates her from a dire situation by bringing her son back to life.

And when Jesus hears the faith of the Centurion, he heals a slave. Not nearly as satisfying, really.

I want the story to end with a captive set free from slavery.  

Yes – it’s great that this man is healed. And I’m hopeful that a man who seems humble and values this slave highly treats the man well. But even after the miracle, Jesus’ work seems unfinished.  

Perhaps at some point the Centurion finishes the work, releasing the slave.  After all, he had faith.  

It’s not outside the realm of possibility that he kept up with Jesus, heard more of his teaching and offered release to a man he valued as a person, no longer as property.

Yes- that’s a very optimistic possibility, but I believe that compassion moves us fully human people, too… not just messiahs. Maybe that is the point.  

As people who believe in Jesus, as people who trust in God’s power to enter into our world and transform it, and as people who understand that the fullness of God’s Kingdom is yet to come, we must accept that there will always be work for us to engage, to complete.  

The challenge is to see it amidst the distractions of this world.
And then to overcome the cynicism that freezes our guts and blunts our compassion

But here’s the thing.  We don’t have a choice.
That work is part of who we are.

God doesn’t claim us or save us so that we can sit back and wait until it’s time to punch our ticket and hop onto the train that’s bound for glory.

Not any more than God watches and waits for us to slip up and sin so that our tickets are void and our names get moved from the nice to the naughty list.

Dear ones, please hear and believe this truth:

You are loved because God is love.
And not a thing in this world can change that.
You and I are never going to be powerful enough to change that.

You are loved beyond reason by the God who created and claims you.
Not because you made a choice.
Not because you do more good things than bad.
Not because you said the prayer of confession this morning.
You are forgiven because God extends grace.

You are saved because the work of Christ was done in his living, dying and rising.
That is what we will proclaim at table this morning.
That is what we proclaim when we live in the power of the Holy Spirit remembering that, from the moment we say “Yes, thank you” to God’s love – we are blessed to be a blessing to others.

And how can you know this to be true… when you have left this place , this sanctuary?

You’ll feel it in your guts.
You’ll feel it in your guts every time you see someone bowed under the weight of grief…

You’ll experience it in your splagchna, as you hear of injustice carried out and especially when injustice is done in the name of the very One who embodied justice.

That roar of righteous anger and compassion is all the evidence you need that Christ has saved you –  and thus is saving the world –  from a life lived for self, chasing earthly treasures.

That, my dear ones, is my prayer for you and for me today…
That our eyes would be open and our guts be gripped by the depth of need we see in this world. And that the Light of the World would shine brightly in our response.

 

Wrap You All Around

Back in the day, when the kid was only about belly button high on us, that sweet little sing-song voice would describe arms long enough to “wap you all around”  in a hug.  I don’t remember the rest of the rhyme or saying, just the joy with which tiny arms were flung wide in expectation that parent-sized arms would do likewise (which they did).  Followed by wrapping each other all around, and giggling.

I mean seriously, how can you possibly resist an invitation to a hug offered with such sincerity and a disappearing R?

I’ve known a few world-class huggers in my day. And I’ve been wrapped up in some seriously healing embraces over the years.  There’s something about a well-timed hug that makes the world all better.  Or at least as better as it can get in that particular moment.

The Promised Spirit

This week, we turn our attention to yet another prophet. This time, the Lord is speaking to and through Joel. We don’t know a lot about him, and scholars are divided on when to date his life and writings.

What we do know from the book of Joel is that he placed a high value on worship… Unlike many prophets who called the people to step away from worship because they were unable to do it properly. Joel called the people into a place of repentance that was all about worship.  

Listen to these words from Joel, chapter 2.

12 Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; 13 rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.

We’ll skip down a bit for the next portion of the passage.  Still Ch 2.

28 Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.29 Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit.

That first segment may sound a bit familiar from Ash Wednesday.  It is often quoted at the start of Lent, our corporate season of repentance.

Certainly we need to talk of confession and repentance year round. That is a part of why our order of worship contains a prayer of confession and assurance of pardon most weeks. But the liturgical focus is strongest in the weeks leading up to Easter.   

The second segment of our reading generally appears after Easter. It is common to pair Joel’s words with Luke’s description of Pentecost.

Joel speaks of God’s Spirit being poured out among the people… and was it ever!  Especially starting on that particular day…  On men, women. On young, old. Slave, Free… and even the Gentiles, those not really part of the promises spoken by Old Testament prophets.

The Book of Acts is filled with their stories…  The stories of the way the Spirit moved and spread the good news from family to family, city to city, through the words and deeds of ordinary people.

But God’s Spirit wasn’t boxed up someplace in the time between Joel’s prophecy and Peter’s sermon.
The Spirit is active in the waiting, in the continued telling and retelling of the stories of God’s promises, the reading and re-reading of the prophets…
The Spirit is active in the assurances that even in exile, God remains with the people,when they are in the wilderness literally or metaphorically, God is watching over them
The Spirit is active in the promises that God will restore Israel, that God will restore Judah.
And in the reminders that sometimes, in order to experience God’s presence, all the people have to do is look around.
Or turn around.
And return to the Lord.

Joel uses images associated with grieving as he calls upon the people to repent. Yes there is fasting and praying to be done, but also weeping and mourning. But this is not to be a rote completion of the ritual of mourning – an outward sign of sorrow, one that need not go deeper than one’s clothing.

In the Jewish context, the Torah mandates such expressions of grief. On the most basic level, the tearing is expression of pain and sorrow over someone’s death. But there is much more to the symbolism and the action.

One rabbi describes the deeper significance  of the ritual this way: “Judaism views death as a two-sided coin. On the one hand, when someone passes on, it is a tragedy. They have been lost to their family and friends, and there is a feeling of separation and distance that seems beyond repair.

“But often, within that very pain, the mourners have an underlying belief that ‘it isn’t true’—that their loved one hasn’t really gone.

“This is not just denial; in a way they are right. Death is not an absolute reality. Our souls existed before we were born, and they continue to exist after we die. The souls that have passed on are still with us. We can’t see them, but we sense they are there. We can’t hear them, but we know that they hear us. On the surface, we are apart. Beyond the surface, nothing can separate us.

“So we tear our garments,” the Rabbi goes on, “This has a dual symbolism. We are recognizing the loss, that our hearts are torn.“

“…rend your hearts,” Joel says

I went for a really long walk yesterday, which means I got through a lot of music on my 90s Rock playlist.  Which means I heard a lot of U2.  There’s this little refrain that gets repeated in CedarWood Road that got me to thinking about Joel’s words and the rabbi’s description of torn hearts.

A HEART THAT IS BROKEN IS A HEART THAT IS OPEN

Stay with me here…

When we talk about sin- whether individual decisions we make that pull us away from the will of God or choices that reflect the waywardness of humanity when we are grouped into churches, cities, countries, races, and pretty much any other way we congregate…

When we talk about sin – we are talking about the ways our hearts grab onto things that are not of God.  And instead we allow our hearts to get wrapped up in the things of the world..  The brokenness and ugliness that Paul summed up for the Galatians as…
5:19 The actions that are produced by selfish motives. [They] are obvious, since they include sexual immorality, moral corruption, doing whatever feels good, 20 idolatry, drug use and casting spells, hate, fighting, obsession, losing your temper, competitive opposition, conflict, selfishness, group rivalry, 21 jealousy, drunkenness, partying, and other things like that.

This is not an exhaustive list, of course, because Paul’s point was that attempting to live by the law is an exercise in futility.

Know the law.  Yes.
Understand what is expected. Absolutely

But until one’s hearts is aligned with God’s heart, the heart that created the Law, even the work of being a good person of God can become corrupted by all of the things on that list.  

The heart that is broken is a heart that is open…

When we allow God to break open our hearts… when we rend our hearts… we no longer rely on our understanding, we are opening ourselves to the deeper work of transformation that only the Spirit can bring.

Paul goes on to say that… 5:22 the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against things like this.24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the self with its passions and its desires.

Those who belong to Christ have access to the Spirit that has been poured out on all flesh…

There is another prophet whose words are often quoted in the advent season… a prophet who also called for repentance and spoke of the Spirit.  A prophet who was close enough in age and geography and geneology to be Jesus’ cousin. John.

Matthew 3:1 In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

[John] is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:

‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.'”

Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.

Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan,  and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance.

Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

John is out there on the edge…
in the wilderness…
A place that the people don’t want to be.  

It reminds them of the generations that wandered with Moses
It reminds them of the generations spent in exile, scattered
He reminds them of the people that get pushed out to the edges

But they come…
Because his words are such a clear echo of the prophets that have come before
Because the weight of the empire and the religious leaders and taxes and poverty… it feels like captivity
Because he is speaking so passionately about a deliverer… The Promised One… the Messiah.

And they hear a call to to be immersed…
To confess the ways they have collaborated with the Kingdom of man

They hear a call come clean.
To confess that their hearts have not been with God,

To renounce their allegiance to human structures and to repent, to return to a community that eagerly awaits the coming of the new age.  And with that new age will come a baptism not with water, but with the Spirit

You and I are children of that promise.
You and I are among those men and women, the young and old, the people made of flesh and bone onto and into which the Spirit has been poured.   

And so, in this time of anticipation, in this time of listening and watching and looking for the fulfillment of the promises, I urge you to open your heart…

Grieve the things that we have lost as a community…
The people, the resources that aren’t here…
Really and truly mourn them.

The sounds of children hunting for eggs in the courtyard…
Have you rent your heart for them?

A full nursery and SS rooms bursting at the seams…
Rend your heart…

The youth trips and young adults finding places to go on missions…
Have you rent your heart for them yet?

The emerging leaders who ought to be in the pew and taking on the work so their elders could rest a bit…
Rend your heart for them too…  

Don’t just talk and worry about the church dying…
Yes – I’ve heard those grumblings among us.

That does us no good…
Mourn its death.  Rend your clothes if it helps…
But then rend your hearts.   

And return to God by confessing how we got here.  And have stayed here.
Confess the ways that you… that we  have been closed off
Confess that there are people we have failed to welcome well
Confess the misgivings we have about who might actually show up if we say “everyone is welcome”
Let’s confess our unfair expectations and our unwillingness to bend.
Let’s lay it all out in the open, all on the altar for God to cleanse
To clear out to burn away and refine
To make space for what is to come.

Friends… Rend your hearts…

A heart that is broken is a heart that is open
Open and ready to be filled by the Spirit of God
Open and ready to prophesy…
Open and ready to dream…
Open and ready for visions…
Open and ready for the work of Building the Kingdom of God

Rend your hearts…
And I will pour out my Spirit…
Not I might…

I will pour out my Spirit…
Says the God who blesses us to be a blessing.
Says the God who is able to do abundantly more than we could ask or imagine
Says the God who makes and keeps promises.
Always.
Alleluia.
Amen.

The Promise of Hope

Advent 1 2016 – Daniel 6:1-28 (and Psalm 121)   

A  big tip of the Advent 1 hat to RevGord, whose Ministerial Mutterings re: Psalm 121 and the sorts of lions dens we find and create resonated deeply and helped me find my open and close.

—-

When I was a sophomore in college (which was more years ago than I care to count), my grandparents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.  My uncle planned a big reception for them, renting a hall near their home in Mesa, Arizona.  

The rest of my family drove over from Texas, and I made arrangements to fly in from Little Rock.  I had no idea what to do for a gift, being a broke and very busy college student, other than something I could make myself.I didn’t have much by way of crafting supplies, so I decided to make some music.   

I did a little research to find something meaningful, and it turned out that they included Psalm 121 in their wedding –  and that passage remained an important touchstone in their lives well beyond that special occasion.  I didn’t find any guitar-friendly settings that I could sing, so I set out to write something myself.

I spent my spare time over a couple of weeks reading and re-reading the words, feeling their rhythm and making them my own, then I wrote a simple melody that I could play and sing for them.

It was one of many lovely gifts they received that day, though the time I spent reflecting on that psalm was probably an even greater gift for me.  Not surprisingly, it has become a touchstone in my own life, a reminder of God’s steadfast love and care for me – at least as comforting as the 23rd Psalm.

The psalmist reminds me that
My help will always come from the Lord, maker of heaven and Earth.
The Lord watches over me, keeping my feet steady as I walk
And that night or day… nothing under the sun or the moon will harm me
The Lord will watch over all of our comings and goings, now and forevermore.

I’m pretty sure that is why I say with confidence to you that the God who Promises is with and for us. Just as God has been from the very first.

I don’t know what the melody the psalmist originally put with those words, or how it changed as the Hebrew people passed it along from one generation to the next.

And I don’t know what happened in the lion’s den between the moment King Darius sealed it with his signet ring and when he came back and had the stone rolled away again…

But it’s not hard for me to imagine Daniel in the dark,  singing his way through the psalms, especially the songs of lament that turn to praise. In fact, I wonder if Daniel wasn’t more comfortable than Darius that night, resting as he was in the faith that God was with him in that dark cave.  

—–

Darius was new to the throne when this story takes place… it was early in the time that the Persian Empire dominated the scene. The Persian Empire replaced the Babylonian empire as the superpower of the biblical world beginning in 539 BCE.  If we turned the clock back another 60 or so years, we would see the Babylonians in ascendance, displacing the Assyrian Empire.  

Nebuchadnezzar II annexed Judah, taking Jehoiachin captive.. You remember him, the king that took Jeremiah’s scroll, sliced it up and threw it in the fire, rather than leading the people to repentance? And then Jerusalem was destroyed soon after.

A series of murders and overthrows led to a string of less capable Babylonian rulers, the last of whom was killed just before Darius, who was a Mede, was installed.  

King Darius spread his power out among 120 satraps, sort of like governorships over provinces. These satraps were directly accountable to one the three “presidents” or overseers, of which Daniel was one.

Like Joseph among the Egyptians in the court of Pharaoh, Daniel represented an outsider, a follower of a foreign God, a keeper of unfamiliar rituals.  And because Daniel took his faith seriously, his allegiance truly was to God, not to the empire or its current ruler.  

And like Joseph, this placed Daniel at risk.

There is something ugly in the human heart that leads us toward fear and jealousy.. even hatred… for those who are not “one of us.” Especially when that outsider gains some of the power and influence we would like to keep for ourselves and our own people.

And so, in a move that had to be way more difficult than it sounds  (I mean, how often do 120 powerful people agree unanimously  – about anything?) they all decided that it was time  to do something about Daniel.  

He was above board in all his dealings, so they would never catch him in corruption.  They had nothing on him…. except his unfaltering loyalty to God.

So they come to the king’s court and shout something like “Long live the King!” in unison before a representative walks out in front to say to Darius
All the presidents of the kingdom, the prefects and the satraps, the counselors and the governors are agreed that the king should establish an ordinance and enforce an interdict, that whoever prays to anyone, divine or human, for thirty days, except to you, O king, shall be thrown into a den of lions.

And just to be sure it would have to be implemented, they had the document ready for his signature.
Now, O king, establish the interdict and sign the document, so that it cannot be changed, according to the law of the Medes and the Persians, which cannot be revoked.”

All he had to do was sign.
Which he did.
To the delight of all the conspirators.

It’s hard to know why Darius was so open to making the law…  Maybe because he was new to power and easily flattered. But what he clearly hadn’t considered was how this required show of loyalty would affect one of his most effective and trustworthy leaders, and therefore how it would affect him as King.

And so while Darius signed the decree, this was in fact a calculated manipulation by 120-plus leaders with one specific goal in mind-  to produce a written document they could use against Daniel. The conspiracy had set in motion events that would force the king to execute Daniel for his public worship of the Lord.

That darkness in the human heart that leads us toward fear and jealousy.. even hatred… for those who are not “one of us” left Daniel in the darkness of the lion’s den.  And it left Darius tossing and turning until the earliest light of day broke through.

Sealed in what could have been his tomb, Daniel remained faithful.  Daniel trusted that the God who makes and keeps promises would also be the God who saves.

Daniel remembered and prayed
To the God who provided a ram to replace Isaac on the altar
To the God who made good from of the evil that the brothers perpetrated on Joseph
To the God who provided enough for the Elijah, the widow and her son until the rains came

Daniel prayed and sang…
I look up toward the hills. From where does my help come?
My help comes from the LORD, the Creator of heaven and earth!
May he not allow your foot to slip!
May your protector not sleep!
Look! Israel’s protector does not sleep or slumber!
The LORD is your protector;
the LORD is the shade at your right hand.
The sun will not harm you by day, or the moon by night.
The LORD will protect you from all harm; he will protect your life.
The LORD will protect you in all you do, now and forevermore.  (NET Bible)

All night he prayed and sang to the Lord
To the God who sent an angel to close the mouths of the lions
To the God who requires justice
To the God who would reveal to a king what it looks like to rule with power

God’s power to save Daniel opened Darius’ eyes and awoke in him the power to rule.
In the light of day, and in light of God’s actions, things had changed
With the light of day, there was freedom
With the light of day, there was truth
With the light of day, there was clarity

Darius had nothing to fear from Daniel, nor from Daniel’s worshipping the Lord.  Instead of condemning an innocent man to execution, Darius commands his men to rescue Daniel. Instead of ceding his leadership to the counsel, Darius puts them to death, as well as their families, for their scheming against Daniel and for manipulating the King.

Darius now embodies a decisive king, condemning the guilty, rescuing the faithful and promoting worship of the Lord throughout the empire.  

His new decree reverses the old:
The people throughout his realm should tremble and fear the Lord,
“For he is the living God; he endures forever.
His kingdom will not be destroyed; his authority is forever.
He rescues and delivers and performs signs and wonders in the heavens and on the earth.
He has rescued Daniel from the power of the lions!”

See, the story of Daniel and the lions isn’t really about the lions, so much as it is about the human heart.
Our capacity for fear and hate
and our capacity for faith
and our capacity for hope.

Which, in the end, is why this story is not as odd a choice for the start of Advent as I first thought.
The hope of Advent is the hope that Daniel held onto as he waited in the darkness
The hope of the people of Israel as they waited in exile.
It is the hope of a heart that bows only to God, trusts only in God.
The hope of a body that rests in faith, even as it prays and works for justice.

The hope of Advent is the very mystery of our faith that we recite in our Great Prayer of Thanksgiving…
Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again

And as we wait and hope for his return, the hope for the world is that the church of Jesus Christ would be all that it is called to be
All that we are called to embody.

Because until he comes again,
we are the bearers of light of Christ,
which our world so desperately needs.  

Because there remains something ugly in the human heart that leads us toward fear and jealousy.. even hatred… for those who are not “one of us.”
for those who look or speak different
for those who come from someplace else
for those who challenge our traditions or habits

And being followers of Jesus does not make us immune.
Not from the hatred.
And not from getting caught up in the hating

Because there are always those who would whisper,
those who would stir up fear,
who would use their privilege and power in hurtful, hateful ways.

The truth is… we live in a world where jealousy and nervousness, insecurity and fear all too often drive or at least shape important policy decisions. And important spending decisions.

We live in a world where it sometimes feels like playing it safe is wiser than wholeheartedly being the people that God has formed us to be.

Yes, friends, we live in a world in which we can find a wondrous variety of lion’s dens…

And yet…  there is another truth:
We live in a world where there is hope.
We live in a world where we carry hope.

It is the hope of God’s enduring Kingdom to come.
The hope of the kingdom that will not be destroyed
The hope of a rescuer.
The One who has died. The One who is Risen. The One who will Come Again.
O Come, O Come Emmanuel.
Amen.

The Promise Renewed, Anew

For Christ the King Sunday… Scriptures from Jeremiah 36 and 31

This week sits at a funny intersection of our secular and liturgical calendars.

Today marks the beginning of the end of the year, the holiday season that starts with Thanksgiving, runs headlong into Christmas and then comes to a grand conclusion with New Year’s Eve. Though I suppose technically, if we look at the consumer marketing calendar, the holiday season started just before Halloween.

In the liturgical calendar, today is the final Sunday of the year. We have completed another cycle of feast days and seasons. Next Sunday, we start over with Advent.  
But today, we mark the end of the year with Christ the King or Reign of Christ Sunday.  

“The day centers on the crucified and risen Christ, whom God exalted to rule over the whole universe. The celebration of the lordship of Christ thus looks back to Ascension, Easter, and Transfiguration, and points ahead to the appearing in glory of the King of kings and Lord of lords. Christ reigns supreme.

Christ’s truth judges falsehood. As the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, Christ is the center of the universe, the ruler of all history, the judge of all people. In Christ all things began, and in Christ all things will be fulfilled. In the end, Christ will triumph over the forces of evil.

Such concepts as these cluster around the affirmation that Christ is King or Christ reigns! As sovereign ruler, Christ calls us to a loyalty that transcends every earthly claim on the human heart. To Christ alone belongs the supreme allegiance in our lives. Christ calls us to stand with those who in every age confessed, “Jesus Christ is Lord!”

In every generation, demagogues emerge to claim an allegiance that belongs only to God. But Christ alone has the right to claim our highest loyalty. The blood of martyrs, past and present, witnesses to this truth.”  (From the Companion to the Book of Common Worship)

The Christ the King festival was established in 1925 by decree of Pope Pius XI.

For just a little context, 1925 was the year that Benito Mussolini declared he was taking over Italy and turning it into a dictatorship ending free elections.

Adolf Hitler published his personal manifesto Mein Kampf that same year.

In 1924, government sponsored unrest in the Ruhr region of Germany led to the complete destabilization and collapse of the German economy.  The issues created by the collapse forced France and Belgium to agree on a lowered reparation payment plan and an to end their occupation of the Ruhr within the following year – 1925.

And Stalin was General Secretary of the Central Committee in Russia.  

Looking back, we can see the early warning signs of the second world war.  I’m not sure that Pope Pius was that prescient, but he did see the dangers of nations like Italy being ruled by dictators. And of national governments seeking to silence or remove the church from public life entirely.

He outlined the purposes of Christ the King Sunday in an encyclical or letter from the Pope to the bishops and other clerics.  He spoke of the ways that individuals – whether part of the Catholic faith or not – might reflect on the ongoing sovereignty of God, as well as the Kingdom to come.

Then he spoke to the political happenings of the day, writing:

“Nations will be reminded by the annual celebration of this feast that not only private individuals but also rulers and princes are bound to give public honor and obedience to Christ. It will call to their minds the thought of the last judgment, wherein Christ, who has been cast out of public life, despised, neglected and ignored, will most severely avenge these insults; for his kingly dignity demands that the State should take account of the commandments of God and of Christian principles, both in making laws and in administering justice, and also in providing for the young a sound moral education.”  (Quas Primus)

A few weeks ago, we looked at Samuel’s interactions with God and with the people of Israel as they asked for a king, so that they might be like other nations.

It was a bad idea from the beginning, which God made clear to the people through Samuel.  Kings are fallible, vulnerable to the temptations that all of us humans face.  

And yet, God relented.

Like a parent who knows that every choice their child makes has the potential for great success and equally spectacular failure, God gave Israel the agency to change their minds. Or to go ahead and say, “No really, we want a king.”  

Which they did. Even after God let them know the consequences of placing their faith in the leadership of men.

And within just a few generations, the wheels had come off the wagon in the northern kingdom.  And eventually, those same consequences would come south to Judah.

And once more, God chooses a prophet to carry a message of repentance into the crisis.

36:1 In the fourth year of King Jehoiakim son of Josiah of Judah, this word came to Jeremiah from the Lord:

2 Take a scroll and write on it all the words that I have spoken to you against Israel and Judah and all the nations, from the day I spoke to you, from the days of Josiah until today. 3 It may be that when the house of Judah hears of all the disasters that I intend to do to them, all of them may turn from their evil ways, so that I may forgive their iniquity and their sin.

4 Then Jeremiah called Baruch son of Neriah, and Baruch wrote on a scroll at Jeremiah’s dictation all the words of the Lord that he had spoken to him. 5 And Jeremiah ordered Baruch, saying, “I am prevented from entering the house of the Lord; 6 so you go yourself, and on a fast day in the hearing of the people in the Lord’s house you shall read the words of the Lord from the scroll that you have written at my dictation. You shall read them also in the hearing of all the people of Judah who come up from their towns.7 It may be that their plea will come before the Lord, and that all of them will turn from their evil ways, for great is the anger and wrath that the Lord has pronounced against this people.”

8 And Baruch son of Neriah did all that the prophet Jeremiah ordered him about reading from the scroll the words of the Lord in the Lord’s house.

Unlike Jonah, walking through the city calling on the people of Ninevah to repent, Baruch went to the Temple. The people heard the word of the Lord, including some of the men who had access to the King. They knew that this was an important word, and that it was critical for the King to hear the message.

Remember the Ninevite’s response?  The King’s response?
Sackcloth and ashes. Repentance.  Fear of the Lord.

And they were the enemies of the Lord!

Here’s how the king of Judah… the descendant from the house of David… responded
21 Then the king sent Jehudi to get the scroll, and he took it from the chamber of Elishama the secretary; and Jehudi read it to the king and all the officials who stood beside the king.

22 Now the king was sitting in his winter apartment (it was the ninth month), and there was a fire burning in the brazier before him. 23 As Jehudi read three or four columns, the king would cut them off with a penknife and throw them into the fire in the brazier, until the entire scroll was consumed in the fire that was in the brazier.

No sackcloth.
Wrong kind of ashes.

Now, it’s important to note where this takes place. The king is in his winter apartment, which means he had a separate place to live during the warmer months.  In other words, the King is quite comfortable, on this occasion and in general, enjoying the luxuries that come with money and power.

He is so comfortable with power, in fact, that he is not at all frightened by the words from the prophet. As Jehudi read, Jehoiakim literally removed the offending words from the scroll.  He destroyed them by throwing the scraps into the fire.

He utterly rejected the word of God… one slice of the pen, one big old NOPE after another

I don’t know if this was the first, but it certainly was not the last example of book-burning by the ruler of a nation. It is a means of silencing opposition, no matter its origin  

Quite literally, this destruction tells the writer and would-be readers that the sword is mightier than the pen. Symbolically, the message is even more sinister: the one in power can destroy ideas, beliefs, hopes, or dreams.   

We don’t see a lot of book burning these days, but books do get banned.  

People call for boycotts of artists and musicians, when their images or lyrics oppose our strongly-held beliefs or offend our sensibilities.  And certainly in the past months, as protesters make known their frustration with deadly police actions, pipelines through sacred land, city water systems being poisoned and the threats of elected officials against minority groups… there have been government-sponsored efforts to quiet, if not silence their voices.     

But this was not an act of free speech or art…

What the king had forgotten in his arrogance and narcissistic paranoia, was that the message was not from flesh and blood, from Jeremiah, but from God.
This was the word of God to the people of God…
Delivered to a King by a prophet chosen by God.

And in the end, even if you’re the king, you don’t get to decide what has and hasn’t happened.  What God did or didn’t say.
27 Now, after the king had burned the scroll with the words that Baruch wrote at Jeremiah’s dictation, the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah:

28 Take another scroll and write on it all the former words that were in the first scroll, which King Jehoiakim of Judah has burned.

Thus, even now, all these generations and translations later, we see in our scriptures not only the warnings of God against the king and the people of Judah, but the actions that Jehoiakim took.

Ironically, this king who thought so highly of himself that he assumed he could silence the voice God,  the very God who had made it possible for him to rule…That king is essentially a footnote in the history of Israel.  

He is just one more king who disobeyed.
One more king who led the people astray.
One more example of why the story of humanity’s redemption is dependent on God’s grace and not our obedience.  

You see, even before this scroll was re-written, before the original was read to the king and his court, before it was taken to the temple to be read aloud to the people as they fasted, Jeremiah had also heard a promise from God.  

A message of hope:
31:31 The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32 It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt— a covenant that they broke,  though I was their husband, says the Lord.

33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord:

I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.

34 No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

Even as Zion is overtaken by the Babylon, Jeremiah’s prophecy offers consolation.  God has offered a new covenant. A Covenant that moves the relationship between God and the people into new territory.

This covenant is inclusive of both kingdoms – Israel and Judah. God’s promise to David was that a king from his house would always be on the throne in Judah, but there was no such promise made for leadership in the north, leading to chaos and conflict within Israel and against Judah.   

Now there is hope for a reconciliation between the tribes, a close to the enmity between these two kingdoms. And there is hope for the poor and the powerful as all will know God, from the least to the greatest.

Second, this covenant will be built on the foundation of the Torah, with teachings that center on the written word. Not only written in the scrolls, but on the hearts of the people. They can go beyond hearing, beyond reading the laws, to knowing and understanding them at the heart level. They can thus become a faithful people, lawful instead of lawless, maintaining covenant in community.

And finally, this new covenant is dependent on God’s divine faithfulness, remaining in place despite human inconsistency.  God assures that the covenant is unbreakable by taking on the work directly and completely. Listen again for who will be the prime mover in this effort:

“But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God.”

Lot’s of I language there… but this isn’t God making the people into puppets, controlled by some unknown puppet master. This covenant is actually even more relational, less distant.

Where God’s earlier covenant was intimate, using the metaphor of marriage between God and the people, this covenant goes a bit further.  The people will not just understand intellectually that God cares about their future.

God now promises that the people will know the Lord and be known by him.
God promises that we can know the Lord
God promises that we are known.
And loved.

Yes, even us… generations and half a world away from the continent on which Jeremiah and the Hebrew people lived.

We are known and loved by the God who makes and keeps promises.  Because here’s the most amazing part of this new covenant… and the part that ought to sound a little bit familiar.

It offers a fresh start.  

This is not the promise of heirs more abundant than the stars of the night sky… as amazing as that promise was for Abraham and Sarah

This is not the promise of a land filled with milk and honey… as incredible a promise as that was for a people being led out of captivity in Egypt

This is not the promise of a kingdom that will not perish… as honoring as that promise was for David.

This covenant offers the promise of forgiveness.

The Lord says “They will know me for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”

The language of a new covenant should sound a little familiar because they are words we remember every month or so…  

On the night that Jesus was betrayed, first he blessed and shared the bread with his followers, explaining that it was his body, broken for them.

And then he took the cup and blessed it as well, and then he said this cup is the new covenant in my blood, for the forgiveness of sins.

This is a callback from the Jesus to the unique words that only Jeremiah heard and shared from the Lord. The new covenant is fulfilled in the person of Jesus who knew humanity intimately as he lived and walked among us. As one of us. Even as he knew and kept God’s will and God’s laws perfectly, fully divine in his complete humanness.  

What is not unique is the betrayal that came before the words of forgiveness were spoken.
The people had chosen a king over God. The King had chosen to worship his own power, rather than God’s power. His own version of the Law over God’s Law. And in choosing to obey the King, the people had chosen again. Not God, but humanity.

That choice sent them into exile, where they waited and watched for God’s rescue, God’s plan for redemption. The fulfillment of that plan was Jesus, God’s answer to the people’s betrayal.

The one who came to do the things God had expected of the people and their kings all those generations ago

The one who subverted the empire by seeking out the people at the edges, the ones who had the least influence, the least power, the fewest resources.

The dangers we face as the church of Jesus Christ in 21st Century America are not unlike the dangers faced by 1st century Jews living in the Roman Empire.  Not unlike those faced by believers in 1925.

The powerful rulers of this human realm would love to distract us from the work left to us by Jesus.
They would slice off and discard the parts of God’s law that are inconvenient or too difficult
They would sit in comfortable spaces, surrounded by people who are afraid to speak truth
They would silence the voices of those being left behind

And so, on this Christ the King Sunday, we look ahead a bit to Luke’s description of Jesus going to his hometown of Nazareth, where he inaugurated his ministry by reading from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Jesus then sat down and said something utterly shocking: “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Fulfilled?  Yes… fulfilled.

The Roman empire was still in charge. Caesar still sat on his throne. As did Herod.

But the Kingdom of God had arrived in the person of Christ. The embodiment of the God who keeps promises.

Christ, the promised one who sought to return the outcast into the community
The Promised One who healed and forgave and set captives free.
The Promised One who embodied the work that every believer is called to do, making the world a more just, more loving, more hope-filled place.

As we live into the laws written on our hearts, the Kingdom of God is here.
In this place, in the Body of Christ
In the church of Jesus Christ
In the people of God who answer the call to make disciples and teach them all that he commands.

The Kingdom of God is here in God’s people who speak truth to power
Who refuse to sit quietly and instead rise up…
choosing to do justice and love mercy,
even as we walk humbly with the God who knows us, forgives us, loves us and sends us.

10 Random Things I have learned in the last couple of weeks

1. When your jeans are loose and you don’t have a belt, slippery undies are a bad choice.

2. Swimming is excellent exercise. You do not, however, get bonus calories for swimming in colder water… silly FitBit

3.  Baby pigs are adorable and actually enjoy being held and scratched behind the ears. Or at least the ones at our feed store do.

4. Even decades later, I can recite the Girl Scout Promise and Law. Well, most of it. At least as much as I can the Apostle’s Creed, so there’s that.

5. I am not excellent at processing giant emotional waves. Unless they are someone else’s, in which case I am all yours.  There’s some work to be done there, obvs.

6.  My gut is right more than I am willing to believe. Probably because it catches the stuff I don’t want to know, or hope is untrue.

7. Number 6 above sucks.

8. Combine numbers 5-7 in a week, and ugh.

9. I have a deep well of faith and hope, in spite of the truth my gut knows about people and life and even me.

10. I am loved.  Yeah- I kinda knew that already, but sometimes I get to learn stuff like this in deeper ways. And that counts, too.

How are you doing after Election2016?

Me?    I am pissed.
And I am afraid

Here’s the thing. I am a God-loving, God-fearing person.
Which is to say, I have faith that God is with us in all circumstances.

But I am afraid.
For my friends who are religious minorities
For my dear ones who are LGB or T or queer.
For my neighbors who are ethnic minorities

And I am so very angry that my people…
churched and educated people…
straight people…
especially white people…
have put these dear family friends and neighbors in harm’s way.

Because we are – collectively – a hot, selfish mess.

Suffering from some sort of moral-ethical dysphoria
that makes it impossible to see our faults and biases, our racism
even with the mirror of voting demographics so close we see our breath on the glass

So wrapped up in maintaining our status and comfort
that we refuse to take on the vulnerability of standing in the gap
even as we point out the failings of those OTHER people

I am a WE person, always ready to join in, always ready to include
But I don’t want to be part of this WE

I want to point at THOSE white people and say THEY are the ones.
But I can’t.

I am part of that hot, selfish mess.

Maybe not with my vote (okay, definitely not with my vote)
But every day, I am part of the system and benefit from it

Every day, in small ways, I take advantage of my whiteness
and my cis-het-marriedness
my education
my Christianity
my cis-normative gender
my middle-class access to abundance

I am part of the hot, selfish mess by association
and especially when I don’t speak out or act out against it.
I see and feel the truth of that more and more each day
and have been working hard at doing better and doing more

I’m pissed that not enough of us are doing that work
I’m pissed that not enough of us are willing to do that work
I’m pissed because the stakes are too high for all of us
And I’m afraid that it will take way too long for enough of us to wake up

Oh, Mercy

The story of Jonah would rank pretty high if we created a Top 10 most familiar of Bible stories.  We can probably outline it together in a handful of bullet points, in fact:

  1. Jonah is called to take God’s word to the people of Ninevah
  2. Jonah defies God, and heads the opposite direction by sea.
  3. A storm threatens to swamp the boat and Jonah is thrown overboard.
  4. Jonah is then swallowed by a whale, where he stays for 3 days.
  5. Jonah is spit out on shore and goes to Ninevah
  6. In Ninevah, the people repent and are saved, and Jonah is not impressed.

That’s pretty much it, in a nutshell.

The lesson we tend to take away from this fish story?  If you don’t go where God tells you to go, you might very well end up smelling of fish guts.

That’s not a bad lesson, to be honest, but I want to take a little closer look, starting with chapter 1:1-17

Honestly, I think we relate to Jonah much in the same way we can relate to the prodigal son.  

Even if we never followed through on it, most of us have spent time plotting an escape… an opportunity to run away from God or family or other rule-makers and start fresh someplace else.  

I can remember clearly the afternoon I spent gathering up a few days worth of clothes, counting my meager collection of birthday money and coins, writing down the phone numbers I might need (this was way before cell phones)… all so that I could run away to my grandmother’s house.  

I didn’t leave… because there was no peanut butter in the pantry, and  couldn’t imagine what else might sustain an eight-year-old runaway on the road to Oklahoma.

I can also distinctly remember telling God at 17 that I might be willing to be a pastor someday, but it seemed like an awfully boring way to spend one’s life.  (If I only knew then…)

I don’t know that I literally went the opposite direction like Jonah, but I certainly chose another path. And I definitely found myself in some awfully stinky circumstances as a result.

Thing is, that flippant “no thank you” to God was about me – my wants, my misconceptions about ministry, my lack of maturity.  It had nothing to do with the people God was calling me to serve.

For Jonah, the people – THOSE PEOPLE – were a huge problem.

You see, Ninevah was proud of killing Judeans.  Among the antiquities you can see at the British Museum in London are carved reliefs that depict scenes from the Assyrian sieges. One of these elaborate carvings is called The Siege of Lachish, and it shows images of Judeans being impaled and stacks of heads that were counted by the Assyrian scribes.It seems that the Assyrian soldiers may well have been paid according to the number of Hebrews that they were  credited for decapitating. This particular relief was discovered in Sennacherib’s palace near modern day Mosul, Iraq.  

Which is to say – in Ninevah.
Yes – that Ninevah.  

So God wants the king and the people of Ninevah to repent.
And God wants Jonah to be the one to tell them.

And it’s no wonder he headed out to Joppa. Joppa was a port city, located in Tel Aviv. It was and still is in many ways a gateway to the west. It was a natural way to get as far away from Ninevah as possible. He was headed in the opposite direction.

Funny to recall in this moment that repentance is all about turning around and walking directly away from your sin. Literally – turning and going in the opposite direction toward God.

Anyway…  at this point, Jonah is all about getting as far as possible as quickly as possible – from where God wanted him to be.  And on the boat, he found himself among the only people in history more superstitious than baseball fans…  even more superstitious than Cubs fans.

To be fair, sailing was fraught with peril.  Still is, really. Even with our modern equipment and technology, making one’s living on the sea is dangerous. While these ancient mariners would have been familiar with waves, currents and the severe weather that is common in the region, they didn’t have our scientific knowledge to understand the why’s. They attributed what looked like fickle weather and angry seas to capricious and irritable dieties.   

When Jonah spoke up claiming his identity as a Hebrew, it made absolute sense to attribute the storm to the Lord’s disfavor – even without knowing anything about Jonah’s God.

Our God.

What they did know was that God required some sort of action, some kind of attention from them and/or Jonah in order to calm the seas.  Even when Jonah suggested throwing him overboard, the men tried rowing and praying to this strange God. All to no avail.

And so into the water with Jonah, Into the water and into the belly of the great fish. For three days. And then, as oddly or miraculously as when the fish appeared, the fish drew near enough to dry land to spit Jonah out and swim away.

The whale or fish or whatever the creature was – it has sure gotten a ton of press over the millenia. Their story has been told and retold across the generations.  Jonah and the whale… they are inseparable.

But the book of Jonah is not primarily about his time in a fish/whale.  Here’s how we know this is true:
The book of Jonah mentions “fish” exactly twice.
Meanwhile “God” is used 14 times;
“LORD” is used 21 times.

Which ought to lead us to ask less what the book teaches us about nature or human nature… and MORE about what the book of Jonah teaches us about God

The first thing we learn through Jonah’s story is that God calls us to surprising – maybe even ridiculous things. In our human terms – it is no surprise Jonah didn’t want to go to Ninevah.  It is much more surprising that God would send Jonah into a place that is so hostile to God and God’s chosen people.

God has something in mind that is beyond Jonah’s understanding. Beyond our understanding. Listen to what happens when Jonah finally answers that surprising, ridiculous call, starting back up in chapter 3, verses 1-10.

Once again we see that God is faithful to journey with us, even in our rebellion, our stiff-neckedness. God speaks again to Jonah, in spite of his rebellion… and Jonah goes.

Honestly, God could have left Jonah to his own devices on several occasions:
God might have allowed Jonah to keep wandering westward, alone and without purpose.
God might have let Jonah drown, accepting him as a sacrifice from the captain and crew.
God might have left him high and drying out in silence on the beach, refusing to entrust this life-saving message to an unfaithful prophet and choosing someone else.

But our merciful God extended compassion to Jonah, just as God extended compassion to the people of Ninevah.  

Just like Jonah knew would happen. God actually extended grace and mercy to THOSE PEOPLE.

That is really the calculus that did Jonah in from the beginning.
How could God ask him to go there?
To talk to THOSE people?

He knew God’s nature because Jonah knew God’s history, God’s habit of keeping promises

If they repented, Jonah reasoned, God would surely forgive them save them, love them, adopt them, fold them into the family. And how is that supposed to be ok when THOSE PEOPLE have been so very evil?

But God is merciful.  

God extended mercy to the sailors who cried out to him and then did as God commanded – even though it seemed wrong to toss this man into the sea.
God extended mercy to Jonah. 

And then, God extended mercy to the Ninevites.  Not just the King, not just the people, but the animals, too
All called to repent.
All in sackcloth and ashes
All forgiven
All granted life

When vengeance would have been understandable, When reaffirming God’s version of Law and order justice would have been much more appealing to Jonah and his friends back home…

God extended mercy.  

And Jonah responded in a way that rings very true to me…
The start of chapter 4 is often titled, Jonah’s Anger.  

What isn’t captured there at the end is what must be a long… holy…  exasperated sigh.
I know it makes me sigh. Surely God did, too.  Oh, Jonah…

This is not the ending we want in a story.  Especially since we tend to place ourselves in the story by way of Jonah. We want justice – maybe vengeance – for the Judeans that the Ninevites had killed

We want Jonah to be proved right.
To be a hero.
To be the strong voice of a strong God who is mightier than any other God

But here’s the thing… God’s desire to see reconciliation is greater than our need for retaliation, our tendency toward oppression, subjugation, dehumanization.

God’s promises are true for the Hebrew people, and for the gentiles… the widow and her son that took in Jeremiah, the Ninevites, the Samaritans, the tax collectors, the unwanted, unclean and unclaimed who came to see that same compassion in the person of Jesus.

And God’s promises are true for us.

God’s mercy and lovingkindness extends to us. Even when we would withhold compassion and hope from others, intentionally or as collateral damage.

You know, if we see God’s compassion to Nineveh as surprising, we should probably view his offering a second chance to Jonah as equally surprising. And God’s second, third, fourth, fiftieth chances for us even more so.

None of us… not one of us, now or ever, has deserved God’s mercy.

It’s an interesting time to think about the abundance and wideness of God’s grace and mercy,

This week started with All Saints Day, a time to remember all the saints who have come before, that great cloud of witnesses. And the truth is that if we were to see an accounting of all those saints, there would be almost certainly be more than one or two who would surprise us.  There are probably a lot of THOSE people in that cloud, and not just the Ninevites.

We come together today to welcome our new members and gather at table with friends and strangers, a beautiful reminder of our deep connections by faith, not just with God but with other people.

And on Tuesday, our nation will finally vote to complete what is the most divisive election I can remember…  And I am a political junkie who usually enjoys debates and platform building and the work of making these important decisions together.

But this year, I’ve mostly turned the TV off. It has not been fun.  Nor has it been particularly edifying.

And yet, I am not overly worried about Tuesday.  I suspect that we will be fine as people go to polling places,

I’m not worried about Tuesday night as votes are counted, though I’m a little leery about how the talking heads will spin it.

I am much more worried about Wednesday
and Thursday
And Friday
And the days, weeks months and years to come.

I’ll confess, it scares me to think about how people will react. Because of the language and rhetoric unleashed this year?
It’s been ugly.
It’s been mean-spirited.
It has done anything but Unite the States.

More than ever, we have been talking in disparaging terms about THOSE PEOPLE who support that candidate.

And they talk about THOSE PEOPLE who support the other candidate in ways that are equally hateful and hurtful

And Lord help THOSE PEOPLE who are in that third camp or THOSE PEOPLE who have decided they’d rather sit this one out. Because THOSE PEOPLE are even more likely to be told what a waste of time and space they are.    

These are scary times, church.
If we are ever to reclaim the United in “USA” in any real sense, there is a lot of work to be done.  And people aren’t going to be very interested in setting aside all their fear and anger to do the hard work of reconciling with co-workers, neighbors and even family members.

But even still…  These are exciting times, church.
Because we are in the Family business.
The business of reconciliation.
The business of calling people to confession and repentance

We are in the business of making bigger and bigger “us-es” and fewer and smaller  “thems”   

We are in the business of tearing down the walls that divide us, by offering to the world all the love and grace and mercy that the Holy Spirit drives deep into our hearts the moment we say YES to following God.

We are in the business of going where God has called us, no matter how surprising and ridiculous it seems, to say to THOSE people that we love them.  

And that is true in this room, in this congregation. For you and for me.
No matter how you mark your ballot or what party you support, I have to love you.
No, let me amend that.
No matter how you mark your ballot, I GET to love you.
And you get to love me back.

Because this isn’t the work of pastors.
Well, again, I’ll back up.
This isn’t work that is ONLY for pastors.

Every follower of God, every follower of Jesus is invited into and expected to be a part of this holy and difficult work of loving ALL. And when we do the work, our God, who is faithful and just, who keeps promises and loves wildly, will show up, in us, through us, and among us.