Lost and Found

A sermon based on Psalm 95 1:7  and Luke 15:1-32

This week, we get three parables.

Three stories in response to the way that the Pharisees and scribes – who had ostensibly come out to hear Jesus teach and preach – were, in fact, mostly complaining.  Honestly, They had been grumbling for some time now about Jesus  and the company he was keeping.

If we turn back to chapter 5, we see that when Levi gave a great banquet in his house for Jesus, a large crowd of tax collectors were at table… which caused the Pharisees and their scribes to complain to the disciples, saying “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”  (5:30)

And later, in chapter 7, Jesus points out the hypocrisy of their saying that John the Baptist had a demon because he abstained from  bread and wine, even as they called Jesus a glutton and drunkard and friend of tax collectors and sinners.  (7:33-34)

Obviously, there was a pattern developing…

The question keeps coming up… though rarely as a question from those struggling with Jesus’ obvious answer to their concerns…..

Who should be included?
Who should be included at table?
Who should be included in community…  in the people I count as family… ?
Who is included in the Kingdom of God?

And the unspoken flip side of the question… who may I exclude?
Because that gets us to the real question behind “Who is my neighbor?”

Who isn’t my neighbor?
Who
isn’t in?

See…  once I can identify THOSE people, the ones who aren’t my neighbors, then I need not do the work of loving them, nor feel guilty about treating them unjustly.

Tax collectors, Gentiles, and sinners of all ilk… those people had been excluded for a long time.  They were not among God’s people. Though some might have been, if not for the ways they had broken the laws or associated with others who had.

Those people were not among the righteous… like the Pharisees and scribes… and those who agreed with them, ate like them, lived like them… And so it seemed odd that Jesus, a prophet and potentially the messiah, Would be so willing to welcome and associate with those people.

What I didn’t read earlier as we turned to scripture was the verse immediately preceding this trio of parables…

At the end of a series of sayings about discipleship, what it means to follow and live in the way that God commands, Jesus talks about salt… he says
“Salt is good; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is fit neither for the soil nor for the manure pile; they throw it away.

Then Jesus says, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!”  (Luke 14:34-35)

The very next sentence – verse 1 in today’s reading, tells us who does have ears to listen…
Luke writes “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him.

And then he continues, telling us… And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

As it turns out, Jesus has heard this refrain about tax collectors and sinners often enough, has responded to them often enough, that you almost get the feeling they aren’t listening to what he has said… At least not in any meaningful way.  

Hearing, in Luke’s gospel, is as critical to serving God as seeing.  

When your eyes are opened,  when your ears are opened, when you really really see people, when you really really hear the good news, then there is the potential for a reorientation of the heart… that recalculation and repentance we’ve talked about for the last several weeks.  

Jesus is more than happy to hang out with the ones who are listening – because he knows that they will hear the truth that God’s Kingdom is here….  In here…  in us… whenever we open our hearts and minds to God’s direction and then become the ones who make the Kingdom visible… for everyone.  

And so in the same way that God in Jesus refused to exclude those who had been pushed to the edges, Jesus cannot leave those who have been at the center, the ones pushing others out to the margins, Jesus will not leave them without the opportunity to hear – again – what Jesus has come to do…  

It was time again to engage their hearts and minds with a story. Or three.

There’s a beautiful pattern in these stories…  did you catch it?

The sheep that was lost – is found – and the shepherd gathers his friends to celebrate!!
The coin that was lost – is found – and the woman gathers her friends to celebrate with her!!
The son that was lost to the father – he returns from the far country – and the father throws a massive party!!

The people in the story – the ones meant to represent God – seem almost foolish at points, don’t they?

I mean, what kind of shepherd would really leave an entire flock of sheep alone… in the wilderness… to go get one stray?
A foolish one…

I mean, come on!  The fleece alone on 99 sheep had to be worth a fortune.  Keeping them together and safe and fed and watered is the priority of any shepherd with common sense.  

Pray for the wayward sheep to return?  Sure.
Herd the other sheep in the direction you think it went… maybe.
Leave them? Nope.

But that’s exactly what he does.  Just like the woman steps away from any chores or work or plans that she has for the day… as soon as she realizes her coin is lost. Whatever it takes to search every nook and corner of her house… that is what she’ll do.    

Which actually reminds me of my friend Brad.

The other day, I ran across a photo he posted. It was talking about how he and his wife had matching keyrings that had been gifts. How much the keyrings meant to them. And then he said: this is her set of keys.  Mine have gone missing…  

After a day of being distracted by thoughts of where the key might be, how much time, trouble and money it would take to replace them, Brad had the whole family looking that evening.  

They tore up the whole house…. Dinner was delayed, extracurricular activities were canceled… 

And finally, after the whole house had been torn apart and  put back together, Brad knew it was time…  the last place any of us want to look. But knowing it was trash day eve, Brad dug through the trash can…

And sure enough, there it was – his key ring with all the keys intact.

But in the meantime, life came screeching to a halt.
No one was going anywhere.
No one was watching TV…
No one was on the internet after that first  “has anyone we visited in the last 24 hours seen this…” post.

Not until the – slightly messy and sticky – keys were finally found.  And then… there was much rejoicing.  A new photo announced their return to the safety of the key rack.

Friends joined in the jubilant chorus of alleluias! We didn’t all rush to Cincinnati, of course, but comments and likes and Yay’s appeared from friends all across the country!

Because when the thing that was lost… the thing of great value that was lost… is found… there is always celebration upon its return! Even if the actual market value – the cost to replace the lost item –  isn’t all that high.

Like when the lost thing is a teddy bear  – missing an eye and half the fur on its backside.

Or when the lost thing is just a scrap of paper….containing a note from a dear friend that you’ve managed to keep up with across several states and a couple of decades.

Because the value of an object isn’t really just about the object, is it?

Their value comes from a relationship…
the connection between the lost sheep or coin
The connection between the key or teddy bear or scrap of paper….
And the one who is missing it.
The one who longs to be reunited with it.

Which is very very good news, indeed. Why?  

Because this means my value is not based on my merits – my skills or my ability to be good…
My value is not tied to my ability to follow rules or live up to expectations.

This is very good news because I know I wouldn’t be worth a whole lot after 50 years of making messes of all manner of things.

And I am not an anomaly.
Nope.

There is not a person on this earth who could claim to be worthy of standing in the presence of God. Not based on their own merit.

And yet, we are worthy, and we have great value in God’s eyes.
Because God loves us
Because God loves you.  

Did you hear that as good news…?
Let all who have ears to hear, listen.
God loves you.  God loves you.

Just as against all odds, God loves me…
God loves the world….

Which means…
There is not a single person in the world unworthy of invitation into the Kingdom of God.
There is not a single person on this earth who is unworthy
of hearing the call of the prophet to repent,
of hearing the call to open their eyes and see the pain and injustice around them

There is not a single person on this earth who is unworthy of hearing the call to reorient their hearts to the work of bringing healing to their little corner of the world.
Not a single one.
Not even that person you are trying to imagine right now.
Or that second one.  

Oh, there are plenty of people who have wandered off… like sheep, we all can go astray.

And there are certainly people who have chosen to walk away, to separate themselves from God for a variety of reasons

And there are people who have – without even being completely aware of it – allowed their work for God to replace their relationship with God.  People who look or sound righteous, but are every bit as lost as those who have left the fold.

People like the older brother.
He’s a good son.
He’s a hard worker.
He’s a rule follower.
All excellent traits.  

I mean, there is nothing inherently wrong with being a faithful person who keeps plugging away.  But there is nothing inherently better about being that person, either.

Because sometimes, as we keep our heads down and do the work,
even when others get distracted or leave,
even when times get difficult…
When we keep our heads down, the work ceases to be about gratitude or love and becomes a duty.

We can begin to forget about the grace that drew us into God’s family,
We can forget about the provision that reveals God’s faithfulness to us,
We can lose sight of the privilege that already being “in” has afforded
We can forget the joy of our own return to the fold and become jealous of the depth and breadth of God’s love, resentful of the joyful welcome offered to others.
We can begin to grumble and complain and refuse to be part of the party.

Which means, for all intents and purposes, we are lost…

Kind of like when the hubby and I would drive without a map (pre GPS, of course) because he knew right where he was going… Sometimes, I’d get the feeling maybe we were a little off course and I’d ask, “Are we lost?”

“Oh no,” he’d say, “I know exactly where I am”

It only took me a couple of misadventures early in our marriage to realize that knowing “exactly where we are” did not necessarily mean he knew where we were relative to where we hoped to be in the end.  

In other words… yes, we were lost. Or at the very least not found

The younger brother in our story… as soon as he headed out the door, he was lost to the father.
Not because he was living wildly – at least until the money ran out.
And not because he was impoverished and doing about as bad a job as any Jew could get assigned…  what with the Levitical restrictions about pork and pigs.

The son was lost because the relationship between father and son was broken.

And yet… the father watched and waited.  

Oh, he went on with the day to day, as you must.  But he must have been watching.. 

Because one day the father sees him, while he was still far off, he sees him
and in that moment, the father was filled with compassion;

Remember that word we talked about- when Jesus saw -really saw –  the widow mourning her dead son – and he was moved in his GUTS – his splangknoi  – to do something…  to act out of love and empathy and mercy…  Jesus was moved with compassion and raised the boy from the dead…

In the same way, Luke tells us, the father was moved by compassion –  and he ran and put his arms around his son and kissed him.

He welcomed him home with compassion that was rooted in very core of his being

And what did he say about this son?

Well, before the young man could even finish the proposal he must have rehearsed a thousand times on that long journey home…

I know I’m not worthy to be your son… would you let me live here as a hired hand…

Before the young man could get all the words out of his mouth…
The father was calling for a party to end all parties…

Because  this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’

And here’s the thing, guys…
When the older son stood there arms crossed, brows furrowed, refusing to join the celebration, what he revealed was another broken relationship.  

The years of resentment and frustration over who knows what… maybe the kid brother leaving him to more than his share of work…for sure he felt like his hard work was never rewarded…just slaving away for Dad.

While his was not nearly so dramatic as his brother’s departure, the fracturing of the relationship between the older son and his father was no less real and no less tragic in terms of lost time,

And its revelation – in the midst of celebration –  was no less heartbreaking for the father.   

And yet, the father still went out to meet him, to comfort him, to remind him of just how much he was loved, and to offer the same invitation to rejoice in the reunion…

Looking at my own life, I can certainly relate to the younger brother… I spent time in a far country, I have believed myself totally unworthy, and I have been welcomed back home by grace

Grace that extends far beyond my wildest imaginings.

I can also relate to the father, having lost many people I love, having been put in the position of helping my own child leave home before I was ready to do so, not knowing if there would be a reunion or any reconciliation.

And if I am really honest with myself, I can also relate to the older brother… wanting to control just how far that grace extends, control who else gets to hear the welcome I enjoy every day.

That circle is extended beyond where it used to be..  but yeah… I have issues.

I still wrestle and argue with God about stuff like this.

But here’s the thing… Even as I argue and fuss, I know for a fact that God weeps

Every time we make it hard for any beloved child, old or young, alone or part of a family, to experience sanctuary from this broken and hurtful world.  

Every time I choose my comfort over taking a risk and meeting the needs of another human being, our God weeps.  

This is why we need each other…
to push and prod and challenge each other to know better and do better
to read scriptures and ask each other…

Are we there yet?
Are we listening for the call of the prophet to repent?
Are we listening for the voices, watching for the far off shapes  of those who have wandered to far countries, wondering if they might be ready to be welcomed home?
Are we keeping our hearts tender and open to God?
Are we opening our doors widely enough?

We need each other to ask…
Are we willing to answer these questions with honesty and integrity?

We need each other…
Because otherwise we may never take the time to look within, to confess and to repent of the ways that we have been lost without even knowing it.  

And the truth about confession – real, vulnerable, hard to say out loud confession – is this:
God, who is merciful and just, full of compassion, is faithful to forgive,
And God longs to know that we are ready to come home…

Would you Join your hearts with mine in prayer…
Gracious, compassionate God,
Today my prayer is simple…
Would you give us ears to hear, eyes to see, hearts to love, feet to run and arms to embrace?
Would you send your Spirit to fill us, so that we might  lift our voices along with yours – loudly and joyfully-boisterously with abandon every time the lost ones are found, no matter who they are?
Because we can’t do this alone.  We need you.
Always and forever.
Amen.  

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.

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.

Bit by Bit

We are well past the days of David and Solomon.  100 years past it in fact. We are beyond the days of a single Kingdom, the days when the Twelve Tribes of Israel were one. There are now two kingdoms.The house of David is still on the throne in the south, in Judah but there is no continuity in the north. And Ahab is now on the throne.

Elijah is one of the many prophets who did the work – the hard and thankless work- of attempting to remind the people and the kings who ruled them of those pesky commands of God. And, truth be told, the wrath of God.

For as much as God loved those chosen and wonderful people, God could see their hearts had strayed. They had definitely unseated God as king of their hearts, And bit by bit, generation by generation, they were setting aside their identity as well.

They were still God’s people, at least from God’s perspective. After all, the promising God we’ve talked about the last few months does more than make promises… God keeps promises. And God promised to be their God.

The people promised to be God’s people, but it turns out they are just as fickle as they are stiff-necked.

Looking at my own life, I’ll confess… some things don’t change much. Like most folks, I can be fickle, stiff-necked, and willing to sin… And like most folks I am always less than thrilled about dealing with the consequences of those sins.

Archeologists and historians who have studied the region tell us that Ahab was among the most successful and most powerful of the ancient Hebrew Kings. He was part of the fourth dynasty in Israel, established by his father, Omri.  Omri was described as doing

“what was evil in the sight of the Lord; he did more evil than all who were before him.”

And the apple did not fall far from the tree. If we back up just a bit from this morning’s reading, we get a sense of what’s happening there…

In the thirty-eighth year of King Asa of Judah, Ahab son of Omri began to reign over Israel; Ahab son of Omri reigned over Israel in Samaria twenty-two years. 30 Ahab son of Omri did evil in the sight of the Lord more than all who were before him.

31 And as if it had been a light thing for him to walk in the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, he took as his wife Jezebel daughter of King Ethbaal of the Sidonians, and went and served Baal, and worshiped him.

32 He erected an altar for Baal in the house of Baal, which he built in Samaria. 33 Ahab also made a sacred pole. Ahab did more to provoke the anger of the Lord, the God of Israel, than had all the kings of Israel who were before him.

Did you catch that… Ahab married Jezebel, who brought with her from Sidon the religions of the local people.  But let’s not give in to the temptation of laying all of this at her feet.  Ahab had the power to require all in his household to do as he pleased. Not just as king, but as the husband, the patriarch of the household. If it had pleased him to honor only the Lord, he could have made her set aside the rituals she knew and learn the ways of Yahweh worship.

But that was not the choice he made.  

In his arrogance or disregard for the Law of God and the covenants made with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses and David, Ahab joined Jezebel in worshiping Ba-al.  Ahab set up an asherah and an altar for that purpose, even as he claimed to worship Yahweh.

Ahab did more to provoke the anger of the Lord, the God of Israel, than had all the kings of Israel who were before him.

Including his father.

And, as God has done and will continue to do do for the people, God spoke through a prophet.  In this case, we hear from Elijah at the beginning of our passage for today.  

Listen to God’s word.  1 Kings 17:1-24

Elijah announces to Ahab and the court that God is aware of, but not anywhere near ending an ongoing drought.  Then God sends him to live by a tributary of the River Jordan. At the wadi, he is cared for by ravens.

Ravens are not known to be empathetic birds, the sort that are willing to do for you if you do a kindness for them. In fact, are among the birds that are the people of Israel are not allowed to eat according to the law. This is likely because the raven is a scavenger, sometimes eating dead things, sometimes eating the eggs or the young from other birds’ nests. They were considered unclean. And the things they touched became unclean as well.

But God chose to use these unclean birds as the the means of provision for his faithful prophet. And care for him, they did.
Unusual choice for God.
Unusual behavior for a raven.

A creature’s natural instincts can be swayed by God; as Creator, God can over-ride the way things are, the way we’ve always seen and understood the world .

The drought continued and eventually the wadi dried up. God speaks again, sending Elijah to Sidon, the country of Jezebel, to be cared for by a widow. So he travels about 50-60 miles from east of the Jordan to Zarapeth, where he meets the widow to whom God has sent him.

He tells her to bring him water and then bread, just as God commands. It seems, however, that the widow wasn’t getting the word from God, she never got the message that God would provide.  Not for her, not for her son, and certainly not for some guy who just wandered in from the wilderness.  

Water is scarce, but she shared it.  Bread?  Seriously? Let’s look back at what she said,

“As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.”

In a perfect echo of Elijah’s words to Ahab…
As the Lord the God of Israel lives… there will be no rain.

The widow tells Elijah Your God (not hers) has created this drought. Your God has left us with nothing. Your God may have sent you here, maybe even to me. But I’ve got nothing. I’m on the verge of death. So yeah, join me if you like.  I. Am. Done.

The widow, using the language of scarcity, the language that most directly expressed her reality, her understanding of the world, made clear that had very little to offer.  Her resources are – quite literally – about to run out. She is resigned to death.

Elijah has different story to tell. Even in a foreign land, even in midst of drought… God can and will provide.

There is an audacity of hope and faith in his words.
An audacity that is borne out of his time with the ravens
An audacity borne out of God’s faithfulness to an unfaithful people.

Elijah can speak abundance; he is fluent in the language of promise.
Do not be afraid, he says, understanding that scarcity breeds fear.
Do not be afraid of the words I am going to say.
Do not be afraid of me when I say them.
Trust me….

You can wait to die if you like, but first make and bring me a little food, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. Because the promise of the Lord my God – who does indeed live is this: There will be food enough to for this household until the rain once again falls.

As a person of faith, Elijah  has the audacity to repeat the promises of a foreign God, his God, our God to this widow who has lost hope in the gods of her own land.

Elijah has the audacity to trust the promise of God to provide

When all looks hopeless.  When Elijah honestly could have felt helpless, instead, Elijah trusts that God meant it.
Do not be afraid.
The oil will not fail
The bread will not fail.

This is the language of abundance…
There is enough.
There will be enough.
Because God is enough.

God is with Elijah.
God will be with the widow
God’s promise abides.

The language of faith is the language of abundance.

God provides…  not in excess, not extravagantly or indulgently, but God does and will provide Enough.
Enough for us.
Enough for today.

It is language that we know well…  language that we pray: Give us this day, our daily bread

And yet, if abundance is simply a language that we learn in a classroom or a sanctuary –  and we seldom use it in the world, it can become about as useful as my Spanish. Just familiar enough to be dangerous.

I fear that we’ve found ourselves in a bit of a spiritual drought in these days

I don’t know that the Christian church in America has built altars to Ba-al in our sanctuaries, but we have placed our faith in a lot of things that have nothing to do with the promises of God. That has never been more clear than in watching the most prominent- or at least famous – voices and faces of North American protestantism attempting to find their place in this election cycle.

I fear that the syncretism of our time, the mixing of idolatry and true worship in this moment of history,

is clear in the awkward and unfortunate hitching together of politics and faith.   

You see, there are no kingmakers in the New Testament. When we sing of Jesus as the King of Kings, it is reminder that all humans will bow down to the Lord of Lords, the Three in One. Including those who have the most money, the most power, the most influence. Presidents and CEOs, monarchs and oligarchs alike.

Certainly we pay attention to the body politic.  We have civic responsibilities. But it is not the church’s job to anoint anyone or any platform.

What is our role as the body of Christ?
To bring the rain.
To bring the healing waters, the water that assures people need never thirst again.  

Our role as the body of Christ?
To let justice roll down like mighty rivers.
To see when we have enough and share from the overflow.

Our role as the body of Christ?
To let righteousness come like an everlasting stream.
To live lives that are audaciously hopeful and faith-filled.  

We who have faith are the ones who can point to the promises of God. Not just the promise of salvation, the promise that in Christ we can live with God eternally– though that is a lovely and good promise.

We who have faith are the ones who can point to the promise of God to hear us when we cry out in fear and sorrow like the widow, God’s promise to answer when we lift our desires in  prayer.

We who have faith are the ones who can point to the promise of God to remain with us in good or bad, in tragedy and triumph… Because we know that God is faithful.

We who have faith are the ones who cling to the promise that where 2 or 3 are gathered in Christ’s name, He is there.

And so we gather, not just to see and be seen, to greet and to be greeted, but to experience the presence of God, Father, Son and Spirit.

We gather, not just to go through the motions, mouthing the words, but to worship in Spirit and truth

We gather, not just to affirm what we already know, but to grow deeper in our understanding of God’s Word and challenge one another to live the commands more fully.

We gather, so that are a well-nourished and fully-hydrated body, ready to run the race of faith set before us with perseverance, faith, hope and joy.  

To Build a House

When we left off last week, Hannah had brought her young child Samuel to Shiloh, where he would serve alongside the prophet Eli in the temple. Unfortunately, Eli’s sons were corrupt and unfit to follow their father as spiritual leaders, and God spoke rarely in those days. Except to Samuel.

So when Eli died, Samuel found himself leading the Israelites as prophet, judge, and priest. He was respected and known as a prophet of great faith. As an old man, Samuel tried to hand off that leadership to his own sons, but they too, were also unable to remain faithful to God.

This is when the elders of the tribes of  4 …Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, 5 and said to him, “You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.”

6 But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to govern us.” Samuel prayed to the Lord, 7 and the Lord said to Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them.

8 Just as they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so also they are doing to you. 9 Now then, listen to their voice; only—you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.”  (from 1 Samuel 8, NRSV)

And so he did. Samuel told them. He delivered God’s warning to the people who were asking him to give them a king.

He said, “This is how the kind of king you’re talking about operates.  He’ll take your sons and make soldiers of them— chariotry, cavalry, infantry, regimented in battalions and squadrons. He’ll put some to forced labor on his farms, plowing and harvesting, and others to making either weapons of war or chariots in which he can ride in luxury.

He’ll put your daughters to work as beauticians and waitresses and cooks. He’ll conscript your best fields, vineyards, and orchards and hand them over to his special friends. He’ll tax your harvests and vintage

to support his extensive bureaucracy. Your prize workers and best animals he’ll take for his own use. He’ll lay a tax on your flocks and you’ll end up no better than slaves. The day will come when you will cry in desperation because of this king you so much want for yourselves. But don’t expect God to answer [those cries]”  (from 1 Samuel 8 The Message)

19 But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; they said, “No! but we are determined to have a king over us, 20 so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.”

21 When Samuel had heard all the words of the people, he repeated them in the ears of the Lord.

22 The Lord said to Samuel, “Listen to their voice and set a king over them.” ( 1 Sam 8 NRSV)

Honestly, this has got to be one of those moments face-palming, head-shaking moments for God. Samuel had warned them.  But the people were just as stiff-necked as their ancestors were in the days of Moses.

As God spoke, Samuel first anointed Saul, and then later David.  The transition from one rule to the next was chaotic, but eventually David’s position was solidified.  We begin our reading for today very close to the beginning of David’s time as King…

7 Now when the king was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him, 2 the king said to the prophet Nathan, “See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.”  3 Nathan said to the king, Go, do all that you have in mind; for the Lord is with you.”

4 But that same night the word of the Lord came to Nathan: 5 Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? 6 I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. 7 Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?”

8 Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David: Thus says the Lord of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel; 9 and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. 10 And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and evildoers shall afflict them no more, as formerly, 11 from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies.

Moreover the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. 12 When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom.

13 He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. 14 I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me. When he commits iniquity, I will punish him with a rod  such as mortals use, with blows inflicted by human beings. 15 But I will not take my steadfast love from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. 16 Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.  17 In accordance with all these words and with all this vision, Nathan spoke to David.  (2 Samuel 7:1-17, NRSV)

David is finally settled in his house, experiencing God’s gift of rest from surrounding enemies. Did you notice, though, that the narrator did not call David by his name?

The King is settled…  The King spoke to Nathan… Nathan spoke to the King…

This certainly helps reinforce the idea that David is King, not Saul. It also reminds us that the way people see us is not the way that God sees us. And, in fact, that we can get more attached to our identity as described by our work – our roles – Than our personal identity in relation to God.  

When God speaks, starting in verse 5, God always refers to David not as the King, But as as “my servant, David.”

God knows David by name.
God created and claimed David
God called and anointed David.
God had work for David to do, but the work was not David’s identity,
Nor was that work David’s righteousness. That is all about grace.

The promises made and kept by God are always undergirded by Grace…

God’s promises are never contingent upon our human works. including the promise of personal and communal relationships with God…

Otherwise, David, well, he would certainly never be known as a man’s after God’s own heart.
Those stiff-necked Israelites would never be God’s chosen people.
And we gentiles would never have been on God’s radar, much less adopted into the family as sisters and brothers of Christ.  

Grace abounds, friends.  

Like the air that we need to survive and do nothing to create or earn we are surrounded by the very grace our hearts crave…

But our human nature, our imperfect image-bearing, our not-quite-living-up-to-the-promise-of-the-garden reality keeps us from just being with God, rather than tracking how much we or others are doing for God.

Let’s look more closely at this conversation between God and David (by way of Nathan) starting at verse 2:

David is basically stating that he lives in a house of cedar, while the ark of God lives in a tent. David’s dwelling is stable, permanent and secure, while the ark — the symbol of God’s presence — is housed in something impermanent, flimsy by comparison.

What David wants is to build a “house,” or a temple, for God.  What isn’t entirely clear is David’s motivation.

Was David thinking this would be a tangible way to show gratitude? Kind of like the stories of pro football and basketball players who get multi-million dollar contracts and then build a new house for their parents  or grands or aunties or other family members who raised them…as a show of gratitude for their support in the early years…

Was David thinking this would “pay God back” for giving him rest and establishing him as king? Not so much an act of gratitude as settling a debt and clearing up his account with God.

Or maybe David wanted to build God a temple because he believed that if he did something for God, then God would do even more for him…

I could see any of these being true about David…
just as I can imagine these thoughts going through 
my own mind and heart.
OK… Just as I can remember similar ideas going through my own mind and heart, for smaller blessings than David experienced.

Because like David, even after decades of experiencing the enduring nature of God’s faithfulness, trusting in the saving work of Jesus and learning about the presence of the Holy Spirit in my life and in the world, I still don’t  fully understand the nature of God’s grace. Over and over again, God changes the equation from any sort of transaction into an unmerited gift.

See, David doesn’t need to build God a house in order for God to build David’s house. And David doesn’t need not do something to pay God back before God can or will do something more for David.

In fact, God makes it abundantly clear in this exchange that in addition to all that God has already done for David, there is more to come.

First, God reminds David that there is a reason none of Israel’s leaders never built a house for God.  God never asked them to. It was never on the list.  God’s got way more than 99 problems with the Children of Abraham, and living in a tabernacle ain’t one.

Second,  God reminds David of three things from David’s own experience with God: taking David from being a shepherd to be prince over Israel, being with David wherever he went, and cutting off all enemies before him.

Then, God gives three promises for the future:

In verse 10, God promises to “appoint a place” for Israel, to “plant them, so that they may live in their own place,” where they will not be disturbed, nor afflicted by evildoers. This seems very much tied to God’s promises in verses 9 and 11 to “make for [David] a great name” and give him “rest from all [his] enemies”.

Then God makes a promise that seems to be in direct response to David’s concerns about housing.

In verse 11, God promises to make a new kind of house for David. This is not a dwelling of cedar, or even of stone. This house will be a dynasty; God will establish a kingdom that will always be ruled by a descendant of David.

Now, let’s be super clear on something important…  this promise is in no way dependent on David and certainly not on David’s building God a temple. The temple will come later. In fact, it will be built by David’s son Solomon, and at this point in the narrative, Solomon may not even be a twinkle in David’s eye. And so, Solomon’s future building projects cannot be considered a prerequisite nor a condition for what God promises David. This is an unconditional covenant.

It is also an eternal one; God uses the word “forever” three times to describe David’s kingdom (2 Samuel 7:7:13, 16).

Verse 13:  He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.

And Verse 16: Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.

Now you try and tell  that grace does not abound … this eternal covenant with the God who was and is and ever will be is unconditional. No strings attached.

The longevity of this dynasty isn’t even dependent upon David’s descendants behaving perfectly. In fact, God says that when — not if!  When! — the son commits iniquity, he will be punished, but God’s steadfast love will not depart from him as it did from Saul.

The consequences of sin will be real… for David, for all of this family.
Just as they are real for all of the tribes of Israel as time goes on.
Just as they are real for you and for me, for the church universal.
Just as they are for this particular gathering of saints in this time and place.

But remember friends, grace abounds.  

Sin brings consequences, but never ever ever will that consequence be a withdrawal of God’s steadfast love for us.

In fact, the mention of Saul toward the end of our passage is meant as a sobering reminder of what can happen to a kingdom and to a king, but it also heightens the graciousness of this promise God makes to David.

There’s really no logical reason why God would make this promise to David and David’s heirs…
God knows the human heart.
God has seen the ways that the power to judge, much less the power to rule as king, when mixed with our human messiness, is a recipe for corruption and manipulation by leaders.  

But God’s plans go far beyond the horizon that David could see.  

And so we will hear echoes of God’s promise to David in the words of Isaiah and other prophets especially as we approach advent and recount the story of God’s people awaiting their messiah.

We will hear echoes of God’s promise to David when Jesus says to Simon, the disciple who first claimed  him as Messiah, the Son of the Living God, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.”

We will hear echoes of God’s promise to David as Paul describes Jesus as the cornerstone, the one that the builders rejected but became to foundation on which the kingdom of God would be built..

God’s greatest desire is to see the world blessed through the people God blesses.
To see the world loved through those who experience God’s love
To see the world reconciled through those who have experienced the grace that abounds beyond anything we can imagine.

Grace that cannot be housed
Grace that cannot be contained or constrained by transaction

Dear ones… Grace. Abounds.

Even in our 21st century quid-pro-quo meritocracy
Grace. Abounds.

Even as we choose not a King, but a president.
Grace. Abounds.

We are surrounded by grace.  Swimming in it.
We are redeemed by grace.  Saved by it.

Our stories of survival and redemption and being welcomed home are dripping with grace. 

And those stories need to be told, over and over, out in the wide world, warts and all…
so that  every person we see and hear and touch and smell in this world,
no matter where we go, knows they are welcome in God’s house, too.

And Finally, Yes.

Narrative Lectionary passage for this week: 1 Samuel 1:9-11, 19-20; 2:1-10

I’d love to just dive right into this story, but I really think it’s worth the few minutes it’s going to take to get a sense where today’s story about Hannah fits into the larger story of our God, as well as the promises God made to our spiritual  ancestors.  

Partly because of one of the frustrating things I find true about my own recollection of the Biblical canon- I grew up hearing the stories of Gideon and Paul, John the Baptist and Esther, Noah and Joshua, Peter and David…. All mixed in with plenty of Jesus…  and rarely in order…  and generally without any of the begat sections that might have helped get them closer to the proper order.

But I also want to help you see that Hannah is both a continuation of and kind of a hinge point in the history of God’s chosen people.  

Just like Moses and the people that he and Aaron led through the desert, Hannah was a part of the promise made to Abraham all those many generations ago. After the first generation of the wandering Israelites had died, Joshua finally led the next generation into the land that had been promised. That story is in the book of Joshua, which is followed by the book of Judges.  

The judges are series of leaders that included Samson, Deborah, Gideon and others who took on the work of helping the people to establish themselves, to protect their new homeland and to follow God’s law.  Like much of human history, this part of the Hebrew’s narrative is filled with sin, as well as repentance. But even as Israel grows in number and prosperity, the book does not end well…

The final chapters describe a brutal rape, followed by murder, and dismemberment. The people fall into Intertribal warfare and finally the book of Judges ends with these words:

21: 25 In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.

The book of Ruth comes next, then the two volumes dedicated to Samuel with their companions called 1st and 2nd Kings.  1 Samuel is where we are first introduced to Elkanah and his two wives: Hannah (the first) and Peninnah (the second wife). Peninnah had children; Hannah did not.

Now – every year Elkanah left his hometown and went to Shiloh to worship and offer a sacrifice.  Eli and his two sons served as priests there. When Elkanah sacrificed, he gave portions of the sacrificial meal to his wife Peninnah and all her children, but he always gave an especially generous helping to Hannah because he loved her so much, and because God had not given her children.

Year after year, Peninnah taunted Hannah cruelly, never letting her forget that God had not given her children. Every time she went to the sanctuary of God Hannah tried to steel herself for the abuse she would face, but she was reduced to tears and one year, she just couldn’t eat.  Elkanah noticed, and he even asked her what was wrong, wishing she were satisfied with what he provided her.

And here we’ll pick up the reading for today…  (1 Samuel 9:9)

After they had eaten and drunk at Shiloh, Hannah rose and presented herself before the Lord. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat beside the doorpost of the temple of the Lord. She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly. She made this vow: “O Lord of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazirite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head.”

It turns out that Eli was watching her as she prayed, silently.  He could see her lips moving, even though she didn’t speak… somehow he decided she must be drunk, so he walked up and told her she was making a scene. She needed to sober up. When Hannah told Eli how she had been mocked, he understood that she truly was pouring out her heart to God in sorrow and pain.  He said to Hannah, “Go in Peace and may the God of Israel  give you what you have asked. “Hannah’s heart was lighter as she asked Eli to remember her and pray for her. And finally, she could eat.

They [Elkanah and Hannah] rose early in the morning and worshiped before the Lord; then they went back to their house at Ramah. Elkanah knew his wife Hannah, [yes, that kind of knowing] and the Lord remembered her. In due time Hannah conceived and bore a son. She named him Samuel, for she said, “I have asked him of the Lord.”

The next time Elkanah took the family to Shiloh to worship God, Hannah didn’t go. She told her husband, “Once the child is weaned, I’ll bring him myself and present him before God—and that’s where he’ll stay, for good.” Elkanah said to his wife, “Do what you think is best.

So she did. She stayed home and nursed her son until she had weaned him. Then she took him up to Shiloh, along with the makings of a generous sacrificial meal—a prize bull, flour, and wine.

First, they butchered the bull, then brought the child to Eli. Hannah introduced herself to Eli, saying  “Would you believe that I’m the very woman who was standing before you at this very spot, praying to God? The one you thought was drunk… I prayed for this child, and God gave me what I asked for. And now I have dedicated him to God. He’s dedicated to God for life.”

Right then and there, they began to worship God.

Hannah prayed and she sang,
“My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God.
My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in my victory.
“There is no Holy One like the Lord, no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God.
Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth; for the Lord is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed.
The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength.
Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil.
The barren has borne seven, but she who has many children is forlorn.
The Lord kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up.
The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts.
He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor. For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s, and on them he has set the world.
“He will guard the feet of his faithful ones, but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness; for not by might does one prevail.
The Lord! His adversaries shall be shattered; the Most High will thunder in heaven.
The Lord will judge the ends of the earth; he will give strength to his king, and exalt the power of his anointed.”

Hannah’s prayer for a child came from a place of deep sadness, deep pain. She knew she was loved. She was the first of Elkanah’s wives, The favored one… even though Peninah was the one able to provide him with children.

Hannah did all the things wives are meant to do.  She would have run the household, helping Elkanah assure that all of the people associated with his land were fed and cared for.  And every time Peninah bore another child, especially another son, the absence of children from her own womb….

When I think about the way our text describes Peninnah’s taunts,   I can’t help but picture a couple of scenes in the 1958 movie adaptation of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.  Not the plot so much as the tension that is so visible between the childless Maggie (played by Elizabeth Taylor) and Mae with her clan of noisy children…  all representing a legacy, a continuation of the family name.  All representing something that Maggie apparently can’t have. And Mae, like Peninnah, is fertile which it comes to producing children and inflicting pain.   

Hannah was faithful to Elkanah, was faithful to God.  She was a good woman.  There was no obvious reason for her not to be fruitful. She had heard from childhood the story of Abraham and Sarah.
The story of a woman who believed and tried to believe in her moments of doubt that God would bring her a child, even in her old age.
The story of the promise itself: that through Abraham and his children, there would be a great nation of people, a nation whose people outnumber the stars in the night sky.

From childhood, Hannah would have imagined herself adding to that number.  Because both Abraham and Sarah were blessed to be a blessing…  

She knew that God remembered Hagar and Ishmael in the desert, blessing them and giving them life and land. But Tamar was not the mother God had called to bring the first child of promise. It was Sarah.  Sarah who laughed at God at the idea and then laughed with joy at Isaac’s birth.

And so Hannah, even in her sorrow, had hope.  

Because her God – our God- is the God who keeps promises and brings life.  Even out of barrenness, even in the wilderness.

Even though we live outside the garden, beyond the promise of good without the knowledge of evil, the Earth we till can produce more than enough food for all…

Through the womb of the red sea, God brought Moses and the children of Israel into a life of freedom from the bonds of slavery.  

All those years outside the land of promise, God continued to bring life, in daily manna and quail, in the sound of newborns wailing and toddlers giggling.

Hannah remembers the stories, remembers God’s promise to bless the children of Israel, remembers the ways that even in her barrenness, God and Elkanah have cared for her, and so she prays for a way to honor and thank them.

Remember me, she prays.  Remember me..

Year after year, every time they go to Shiloh,
Remember me, she prays.  Remember me..

and all the days between
Remember me, she prays.  Remember me..

And finally, yes.

Oh the joy!

God hears and remembers me (just as God heard Tamar)
God hears and remembers me (just as God heard the people’s cries in Egypt)
God hears and remembers and pours out a blessing on me!
A blessing of grace, of life, of transformation… with every passing day as her belly swelled…
God’s blessing was so very real.. So very present.
What a glorious beautiful yes.  Finally.   

Hannah keeps her promise as well, bringing Samuel to Eli, where he is dedicated to service to the Lord.  And it is in this moment that Hannah sings.  

She joins Miriam and Deborah as a singers of songs of joy. She sings over the gift of her child who will ,in time, annoint another singer of songs, David.  And from the house of David will come another child of promise through another singer of songs, another woman of faith, the most favored of ladies – Mary.   

Hannah sings…

The people of Israel are favored by God, and historically,  God is their king. But look carefully at what she sings… God is incomparable, there is no God like this God. Human strength comes from God and is exalted in God. God is in the business of reversing what we understand as might

The strong become weak and the weak become strong
The mighty become powerless,
The dead come to life
The poor become rich

But not because they are able to do so in human power…
God raises up, brings down, kills and brings to life
God lifts the needy from the ash heap so they might join those in seats of power

Not by might does one prevail
All the ways we exert power as humans fall short in comparison with God’s power to change the course of human circumstances.
God made good from Joseph’s plight, using a passing band of Ishmaelites to save Egypt and the people of many nations (including Israel) from famine.
Generations later, God brought the people out of Egypt with displays of the power in plagues and the parting of the sea.
Joshua and Gideon never won a battles through strategy or armies so large they overwhelmed their foes, it was always God’s strength on display in human weakness, in their willingness, by faith, to do the illogical.  

There is something beautiful and poignant about this story. And while it seems to be so very distant from us, it is very timely. Hannah had nothing…  and when God provided her most fervent desire, she kept her promise to give it away. Entrusting her child to the future – a future of service to God, and by extension a future of service to the people

Hannah sings a prayer that speaks to her own joy, even as she rejoices for her people. Her fortunes have been reversed.  She had nothing to contribute, no legacy to offer her people, but now God has blessed her to be a blessing to them and to God.

Her long-awaited child was given by God, with no promises that another would follow. Even so, Hannah returns Samuel to God in gratitude.

The open-handedness of her gift is astounding.  Partly because we live in a culture that offers cry rooms to parents dropping their children for the first half day of preschool…  and partly because we have become so accustomed to abundance that we are terrified of scarcity

Many of us have been in seats of power and influence long enough that a song about God’s power to reverse fortunes should make us uncomfortable.
Uncomfortable enough to look at what we are grasping too tightly.
Uncomfortable enough to loosen our grip before God loosens it for us.

We should be uncomfortable because it doesn’t take a lot of squinting to read the teachings of the prophets and the words of Jesus as stark reminders that God favors the poor. God favors  the powerless and the oppressed

And my friends, in case you’re wondering… that is not us.

Contrary to what those who are striving for power would tell you, we remain the strongest, richest nation in the world. We have access to more resources than anyone else. We have the biggest arsenal of weapons.  The only thing we don’t have the most of… people.  But the places with more people don’t have our technology.

We in this room right here are not poor- especially those of us with a roof over our heads, a car in the driveway and a bank account in the black.

We are not oppressed – especially those of us who are Anglo, who are Christian, who are native speakers of English.

Yes, we have our struggles.  And yes, some of us do struggle against discrimination based on gender or sexual orientation  Yes, we all experience illness and loss.

But we have been blessed… so, so very blessed.

As we think about our own homes and this congregation, As we choose leaders for the communities we represent and for our nation…

We ought to be asking ourselves this question… After we’ve counted our blessings, after we’ve given thanks, what would God have us do with that inventory?

Are we going to use those blessings to bless others?  Or are we going to wait for God to force our hand?

Are we -each of us – seeking out opportunities
to give away our wealth?
to advocate for those whose voices have been silenced?
to give up a seat at the table so that someone else might join?
to cry out for peace?

Are we mourning with those who mourn…
Especially with  those mourning loved ones taken unjustly through gun violence
Or because public health spending has been cut to dangerous levels
Or because access to insurance and prescription medicine Is still not universal
Because people die from all of those, you know.

Are we seeking peace in our cities…
By working to assure that all citizens have equal access to education and training, transportation and recreation, jobs and housing?

Because the church of Jesus Christ, the One who embodied not just the love and mercy of God but is also the King of Kings and will sit as our judge…. His church has been blessed and empowered by the Holy Spirit.  

It’s time to stop storing up our blessings for a rainy day…  because our world is already flooded with pain and sorrow and injustice, And we, my friends, are part of God’s disaster recovery plan.

The church of Jesus Christ… This church…. This Body…
h
as been blessed…
and called…
and commanded to be about the business of being a blessing in the world
joyfully singing God’s praises…
sacrificially feeding others and giving ourselves away …
obediently listening and following God’s ways.…
Day by day… hour by hour… moment by moment.

May we count our blessings, give thanks and open our hands to release those blessings to the glory of God.
Day by day…
Hour by hour… Moment by moment…
Until teh very end of the age.  

Amen.

 

Image is Everything

Last week, we left the people of Israel in Egypt, awaiting the 14th of the month, when the plague on the first born was to be visited on the people of Egypt. They had their instructions, and on that night, they wore their traveling clothes and goin’ shoes as they ate lamb and unleavened bread for dinner.  They painted the lintels and sills of their doors with the lambs’ blood, marking their homes as Hebrew homes, keeping their oldest male children and animals safe.  As God told Moses to expect, this was the last straw for Pharaoh.  He finally let Moses and the children of Abraham go.

As we move forward through the story I want you to listen closely and make note of the ways God is described.  What do the people of Israel see and hear when God was present?   It might help us later if you to scribble down some notes…

God led the people out of Egypt, not in the most direct way possible, but toward the Red Sea.  They were prepared for battle, of course, but God was worried that if they actually faced war, they might choose to return to Egypt. So the Lord led them out along the edge of the wilderness, with a pillar of fire by night and a pillar of cloud by day. Then, when it seemed that Pharaoh’s army had them surrounded on the shore, God provided a way through the Red Sea.

Time and again, the strength of the Lord was on display, revealing the difference between the rulers of human kingdoms and the power of the Creator,  revealing the faithfulness of the God who makes and keeps Promises.

Time and again, the generosity of the Lord was on display, revealing the care of the God who Provides. Manna and quail, water and safe passage. Whatever the people needed- even rest – was offered in love.  

They continued on, following the Lord in the cloud and fire, grumbling a bit, bringing their complaints to the judges and Moses, gathering their daily bread, resting every seventh day…  until they reached Mt. Sinai. The whole of Israel set up camp there, facing the mountain.

3-6 As Moses went up to meet God, God called down to him from the mountain: “Speak to the House of Jacob, tell the People of Israel: ‘You have seen what I did to Egypt and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to me. If you will listen obediently to what I say and keep my covenant, out of all peoples you’ll be my special treasure. The whole Earth is mine to choose from, but you’re special: a kingdom of priests, a holy nation.’  “This is what I want you to tell the People of Israel.”

7 Moses came back and called the elders of Israel together and set before them all these words which God had commanded him. 8 The people were unanimous in their response: “Everything God says, we will do.”

Moses took the people’s answer back to God. 9 God said to Moses, “Get ready. I’m about to come to you in a thick cloud so that the people can listen in and trust you completely when I speak with you.”  (Exodus 19:3-9 The Message)

God did exactly that… after a three-day ritual, the people were consecrated. They were warned not to touch or come near the holy mountain.  

And then…  at daybreak, there were loud claps of thunder, flashes of lightning, a thick cloud covering the mountain, and an ear-piercing trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp shuddered in fear.

17 Moses led the people out of the camp to meet God. They stood at attention at the base of the mountain.

18-20 Mount Sinai was all smoke because God had come down on it as fire. Smoke poured from it like smoke from a furnace. The whole mountain shuddered in huge spasms.

The trumpet blasts grew louder and louder. Moses spoke and God answered in thunder. God descended to the peak of Mount Sinai. God called Moses up to the peak and Moses climbed up.  (Exodus 19:16-20 The Message)

God sent him back down to remind the people not to come up, and to bring Aaron back with him.   God continued to speak to Moses from the cloud, and to the people it was like Moses was in conversation  with a horrible storm…  The cloud flashed with lightning and echoed with thunder and blasts from a horn like a storm siren.

God provided the rules that the people were to follow, like “Terms of Agreement” for the covenant between God’s chosen people and their Lord. Moses and Aaron returned to the people with those terms.

Moses took the Book of the Covenant and read it as the people listened. They said, “Everything God said, we’ll do. Yes, we’ll obey.” (Exodus 24:3, The Message)

Then God told Moses to climb up the mountain again.  

Moses told the elders of Israel, “Wait for us here until we return to you. You have Aaron and Hur with you; if there are any problems, go to them.”

15-17 Then Moses climbed the mountain. The Cloud covered the mountain. The Glory of God settled over Mount Sinai. The Cloud covered it for six days. On the seventh day he called out of the Cloud to Moses. In the view of the Israelites below, the Glory of God looked like a raging fire at the top of the mountain. (Exodus 24:14-18, The Message)

Moses was on the mountain for 40 days and 40 nights.

This time God gave Moses all the instructions for creating and outfitting the Tent of Meeting, for selecting and ordaining the priests who would lead the people in worship, as well as a strong reminder that the people are to keep the Sabbath. Then God gave Moses two tablets of Testimony, slabs of stone, written with the finger of God.

It was at some point during this forty days and nights that the events in our assigned passage for today take place.  

1 When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.”

2 Aaron said to them, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.”  

3 So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. 4 He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!”

5 When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.”

6 They rose early the next day, and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel.

7 The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; 8 they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’ ”

9 The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. 10 Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.”

11 But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand?

12 Why should the Egyptians say, “It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people.

13 Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, “I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.'” 14 And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.  (Exodus 32:1-14, NRSV)

FIrst, I have to confess that the conversation between God and Moses sounds to me like two parents, who have heard about their children’s misdeeds via the babysitter, as they linguistically disown the the Israelites.

“Your people,” God says to Moses, “whom You brought up out of the land of Egypt….  They are out. of. Control.”

“Oh no, God,” Moses says, “Remember you brought them out of Egypt with your strong and mighty hand!  Those are Your people”

I’m just going to claim that as scriptural evidence that we truly are made in the image of God… at the very least in terms of a universal conversation pattern.

But seriously… what were they thinking?  What got into those people?
And how did Aaron get suckered into aiding and abetting them?

Granted, “forty days” isn’t necessarily a precise counting of 40.  The number 40 is often used symbolically in the ancient Hebrew culture, denoting “a long time.” So it might have been 40 days, or six months….  Or a long weekend.

We all know that time can be slippery… Especially when you are anxious.

Like when you’re in the middle of a lot of change and transition, and your leader seems to have forgotten that he was taking you someplace better than Egypt, better than the wilderness.
Like when you’ve already been waiting for a while to get to some sort of “normal” life again.
Time might just mess with your mind a bit.
It gets slippery

The truth is, Moses was coming back.
The bigger truth is that God remained with and for them…

But it’s human nature to lose sight of the truth when we’re stressed. Am I right?

The proof was  was there… How many ways was the presence of God made visible, just in the trek from Egypt to Mount Sinai? Depending on how you count them… between 6-10…

What did you write down?  Yeah- God has been present in many ways…  and even incarnationally – in leaders like Moses, Aaron and Hur.

But now, in this moment of fear and anxiety, when Moses and God seem to be in an eternal side conversation without them, the people decide they need something tangible.  

The problem isn’t so much that they want to get rid of Yahweh, the Promising God who has delivered them out of Egypt and led them to this place.  The problem is their incomplete understanding of their God.

Their vision is blurry.  And thus, the golden calf is less the image of a false god than a false image of the true God.

But God is outraged.
They have created a graven image of God.
And this is not to be tolerated.  
It says so in those Terms of Agreement.
Multiple times.
Multiple ways.  

Even if they had created an accurate image, it would have been a breach of their covenant, their part of the promise to be in relationship with God.

I can only imagine how the God who Created Everything would be less than thrilled to seem confined to the form of a calf.  To be re-imaged into the form of one of the many local gods…  Those Ba-als and other gods are fickle and unfaithful, manipulative and even manipulated by the actions of those who worship them.

It’s no wonder God was ready to rip into the Israelites.  

But Moses reminds God that the promise made to Abraham and Sarah all those generations ago was still in effect.  And that even the Egyptians had seen God’s true nature.  After all, it really was God, not Moses who had brought the people up out of Egypt.  

In this pivotal moment,  Moses stands in the breach- turning away God’s wrath to make way for God’s mercy.  This was radical advocacy, as Moses stood against God on the people’s behalf.

He must have believed that even in rebellion, God would be faithful to the people.
And God was.
God is.  

Over and over again.
Present and faithful.
Even now.

It’s all still there in the Terms of Agreement pages. Archived for us in the scriptural records.

The original version in the chapters of Exodus I kind of fast-forwarded through, and a slightly updated version in the life and teachings of Jesus throughout the gospels. When we read them again, with fresh eyes in search of the true God, we see with fresh eyes who we are in relation to God.

We are God’s people, blessed to be a blessing.
Honored to be part of recognizing and naming God’s creative and merciful work in each beloved child we meet- whether or not they know or believe that God loves them..

We are God’s people, the Body of Christ, blessed to be a blessing.
Following in the way of Jesus, Watching for the signal from God to stay or go. Trusting the Holy Spirit to empower and encourage, to provide us the gifts we need.

Oh it’s easy for us to lose hope, to lose sight of God.
Way too easy.

We’ve got even more distractions at the ready than those stiff-necked people Moses was responsible for leading. And we’re still plenty stubborn.

We may not have altars and golden calfs, but we manage to erect plenty of sacred cows.  And should anyone come, even in cover of darkness, to do some sacred-cow-tipping, you can be sure that someone else will set it right back up.

Traditions, preferences, habits, memorials, procedures…  all of them can become idols that distract us from our worship and work as the people of God. The very people and things meant to help us express our love for God become human-made images of false gods.

And certainly there are sacred cows in our broader culture… exceptionalism, nationalism, capitalism, individualism… that can lead us to worship secular idols of our own making – those tangible proofs of success…
a new car, the right style or brand of clothing, or a lovely house in the right neighborhood,
a respected career or one more advanced degree.
There are the idols of busyness or importance.
The idols of economic security and social standing.    

I’m pretty sure we could go on all day with a list if we wanted, but I suspect I’ve stepped on most everyone’s toes at least once already.  I know my toes hurt.  

I’ll be honest here… The other night, before we knew that Hurricane Matthew was going to make that wobble out into the ocean as it approached Cape Canaveral, our home was within the range of hurricane force winds…  the 100-120 mph range. I wasn’t scared of being hurt or even killed. But I was worried about my stuff. What if I lost all my stuff?   Yeah.  I know.

John Calvin was likely right when he said  “The human heart is a factory of idols…Everyone of us is, from [our] mother’s womb, expert in inventing idols.”

But you know, in addition to creating images of false gods that distract us from our Saving and Promising God, we can also become a false image of the true god.  

Together, we are God’s plan for the world as we bear God’s image, reflect God’s image in the world. Or as the apostle Paul would say, we are the Body of Christ, knit together and empowered by the Holy Spirit, to continue God’s ministry of reconciliation

When I was at the Rosh Hashanah service the other day, celebrating the Jewish New Year with our friends, one of the songs we sang described 13 qualities of character that help us to reflect the image of God in our daily lives. Since the service was for children, they included an English translation in simplified language that I want to share with you:

Adonai Adonai God is apart from us and a part of us
Ayl God gives us strength when we are…
Rahum: Compassionate
V’Hanun: Accepting
Erekh apayeem: Patient
V’rav Hesed kind
Ve-Emet and honest
Mozayr Hesed extending kindness to people we know
La-alafeem even to those we don’t know
NoSay Avon by not letting petty people upset us
Va-Fesha by not letting mean people upset us
V’ha-Ta-A by not getting upset by people who just want to make us mad
V’Na-Kay and by forgiving those who are truly sorry.

I like that list a lot. I need those reminders of who God is, and what it looks like to reflect God’s image day by day.  But this isn’t a list just for me or for you, at least not alone.  This is a list by which we are all accountable to one another as we  bear God’s image into the world.

If people can see us being compassionate, accepting and patient, kind and honest, whether or not we know the people to whom we extend those kindnesses.  

If people can see us letting things go- the pettiness and button pushing, the ways that mean people treat us.  

If people can see us forgiving anyone who truly seeks forgiveness…

Then people can see and experience God.
In us.
Through us.

As I read that list, I thought… yeah, the Apostle Paul, he made good use of his knowledge of the Hebrew law.  He enfolded all of this as he described the fruit of the Spirit… the evidence that people are living according to God’s will in the power of the Holy Spirit.  And he described it again as he taught the church at Corinth what love was meant to look like in community. Not just for his fellow Jews, but for the Gentiles like us, who were being folded into family of God via adoption.

On the days that God seems far away for us, in this time between called pastors as our vision team and session pray and listen for the mission God has for this congregation, time might get a little slippery, it’s already been more than 40 days!

The truth remains  that God is with us and for us and that God has a wonderful plan for this body…

I just might become harder to hold tight to that truth, too.  

I’m here to say – keep your gold jewelry, unless God tells you to give it away or sell it to help the poor. I’m not going into the statuary business any time soon.

But do something for me…  in the coming weeks and months, make note of the things you feel most protective of, most concerned about losing.
As you run across them, ask yourself….
Are they more precious to you than relationships with others?
Are they more precious than your connection to the God who brought you out of your own Egypt, whatever that bondage may have been?
Are the things that prod you into conflict or frustration, or even the temptation to head back to Egypt or some other, easier place to dwell, are those things truly of God?  

When God calls us and empowers us to get moving… literally or figuratively… it is easy for seeds of doubt, fear and hatred to be sown This is why Paul reminded us for all generations that Faith, Hope and Love must abide.

In you, in me, in all of us together.

Then and only then are we true image bearers of the true God.

The Promise of Passover

With enduring gratitude to RevGal Teri Peterson (who blogs over here) and Working Preacher’s commentary for this week (by Jacqueline E. Lapsley).  Some Sundays a preacher needs a lot of help to pull a rabbit out of her hat.

—–

If we pick up the trail of our narrative again, after Jacob’s death, we see that Joseph and his brothers stayed in Egypt. Joseph continued to have favor in the king’s court, and he lived to be 110… which was long enough to see three generations of the children of Israel born.  

God continued to bless each of these generations to be a blessing, keeping covenant with the descendants of Abraham.  As they prospered, Egypt prospered.

And then… a new king rose to power in Egypt.  

One who had not known Joseph, had not heard the stories of how the Israelites who had become so numerous had once been welcomed because of Joseph’s wisdom, because of his keeping Egypt and other nations from starvation during a horrible famine.

Instead, this new king only saw the potential for trouble.  

These people were not his people. They were a minority, rapidly gaining ground.  They were immigrants, really, taking up space and using resources that  – by right – would/should have gone to Egyptians.

This king had lost sight of the abundance that existed and could only see scarcity, the potential for loss, and even the potential for an uprising or alliance with other outsiders and enemies that could displace him and his people from their place in power.

And so, as we read in the first chapter of Exodus (11-14):

[The egyptians] set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites.

The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.

And yet… the king was still not satisfied. The Israelites were still a threat, and they would be as long as they continued to live and multiply. And so…
Against the will of the God who promises, the God who creates, this king was determined to destroy the Hebrew people.
Against the will of the God who brings life, the king ordered death for every male child born.

And as is God is wont to do in humanly impossible situations, God made a way.
And because God has an incredible sense of irony, it happened in the household of the king.

We know the story of baby Moses, who ought to have been destroyed at his birth, being rescued and raised by Pharaoh’s daughter.How he eventually came to know the God who promises, the God who is who God will be, the God who calls those who seem least likely to lead.  

Which God did… making clear that this man who stammered would be the one to speak for God in the halls of the Pharaoh.  making clear that there would be no turning back for Moses, or the people of Israel.  

Now that the promise of God to Abraham, the promise that his descendants would be a mighty nation, the promise of land and on which to prosper, now that this promise was threatened by the destructive power of the Egyptian King, the time had come for God to intervene.

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Now you shall see what I will do to Pharaoh: Indeed, by a mighty hand he will let them go; by a mighty hand he will drive them out of his land.”

God also spoke to Moses and said to him: “I am the Lord.  I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as God Almighty, but by my name ‘The Lord’ I did not make myself known to them.  I also established my covenant with them, to give them the land of Canaan, the land in which they resided as aliens.  

I have also heard the groaning of the Israelites whom the Egyptians are holding as slaves, and I have remembered my covenant.

Say therefore to the Israelites, ‘I am the Lord, and I will free you from the burdens of the Egyptians and deliver you from slavery to them. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment.

I will take you as my people, and I will be your God. You shall know that I am the Lord your God, who has freed you from the burdens of the Egyptians.  

I will bring you into the land that I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; I will give it to you for a possession. I am the Lord.’”  Moses told this to the Israelites; but they would not listen to Moses, because of their broken spirit and their cruel slavery.

We also know the story of Moses being sent to tell Pharaoh that the people of Israel were not his to rule or oppress or destroy.  That the people of Israel were God’s people. And it was time to let them go.

Then the Lord spoke to Moses, “Go and tell Pharaoh king of Egypt to let the Israelites go out of his land.”

We know the story of the plagues –
the water in the Nile turning to blood,
the frogs, the gnats, the flies,
the death of the Egyptian livestock,
the boils covering the people’s skin, and their animals’ skin
the hail and the locusts and the darkness.
And finally, the plague on the firstborn.  

The God who promises, the God who creates… had, well basically, God had had enough.

But rather than destroy all the children of Egypt or even all the male children as the King had commanded, the plague would fall only on their firstborn sons.

God gave this warning through Moses:
“Thus says the Lord: About midnight I will go out through Egypt.

Every firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the firstborn of the female slave who is behind the handmill, and all the firstborn of the livestock.  

Then there will be a loud cry throughout the whole land of Egypt, such as has never been or will ever be again.  But not a dog shall growl at any of the Israelites—not at people, not at animals—so that you may know that the Lord makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel.

Then all these officials of yours shall come down to me, and bow low to me, saying, ‘Leave us, you and all the people who follow you.’ After that I will leave.”

And still hot with anger, Moses left Pharaoh

But God had words of instruction and warning for the Israelites, too.  And that is where we pick up today’s readings:

12:1 The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt:

This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you.  Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household.

If a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbor in obtaining one; the lamb shall be divided in proportion to the number of people who eat of it.

Your lamb shall be without blemish, a year-old male; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats.  You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month; then the whole assembled congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at twilight.

They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it.  They shall eat the lamb that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs.

Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted over the fire, with its head, legs, and inner organs. You shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn.

This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. It is the passover of the Lord.

For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord.

The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.

The episode is, of course, the one recalled every year in the celebration of the Jewish Passover. The story also has profound meaning for us as Christians for two reasons –
it reveals that delivering people from oppression is a core feature of God’s character,
and we cannot help but see its connections to our understandings of the death of Jesus in the New Testament (namely Jesus as the Passover lamb).  

But I’d like us to make note of something important, an ethic that is key to understanding current passover practice, as well as  Jesus’ teachings about community and abundance.

Did you catch the bit about families too small for a whole lamb? In that case – or if a family cannot afford to provide a lamb for the Passover, it is the responsibility of a neighboring family to share what they have.

The idea that “households join together” and that the lamb shall be divided proportionally to the number of persons present reflects a deep biblical conviction that the good of the community as a whole must and should be intentionally cultivated.

Over and over again, the Hebrew Bible and our very Hebrew messiah emphasize that members of a community are to be responsible for the community’s welfare, and not, in general, to be focused on the rights of particular individuals.

Yes, I know, that sounds like a socialist construct…  but it’s in there… especially in that commandment to love our neighbors as we love ourselves –  and even as Christ loved us… even sacrificially.

Whether under the oppression of an Egyptian regime or the Roman empire, or in Central Florida neighborhoods, we who know the God Who Keeps Covenant are to be a bodily representation of the God Who Loves, the God Who Provides.

You can imagine, these slaves who have been experiencing true scarcity must have been confused – or at least surprised – by God’s command to eat what they can that night and burn the leftovers. Normally they would have saved every scrap, gathered and wrapped it up to take it along.

With this strange meal, when God’s chosen people are told not to wait for the bread to rise, and thus, the economy of the wilderness is inaugurated. Israel is set to embark on a journey in which they learn to trust the God Who Promises as their Deliverer and as their provider of food – their daily bread. They must leave hoarding and scarcity behind, both as a practice and as a mental habit, if they are to embrace faith in this God who delivers them.

And there is more…
13:1 The Lord said to Moses:

Consecrate to me all the firstborn; whatever is the first to open the womb among the Israelites, of human beings and animals, is mine.

Moses said to the people, “Remember this day on which you came out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, because the Lord brought you out from there by strength of hand; no leavened bread shall be eaten.

Today, in the month of Abib, you are going out.  When the Lord brings you into the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, which he swore to your ancestors to give you, a land flowing with milk and honey, you shall keep this observance in this month.

Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, and on the seventh day there shall be a festival to the Lord.  Unleavened bread shall be eaten for seven days; no leavened bread shall be seen in your possession, and no leaven shall be seen among you in all your territory.

You shall tell your child on that day, “It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt.’

Telling the story in every generation — that God delivers those who suffer from oppression, that God works for the flourishing of the world — is a central task for those who trust in God. After all, the testimony of those who have experienced God’s saving power is both vital and necessary for God’s work in the world to go forward.

In fact, if we do not tell God’s story, other stories will fill the vacuum, and far too few of those stories are life-giving. Far too many stories make powerful people the heroes, and thus awaken our fears, stir up our need to dominate, and tempt us to abuse our own influence for personal gain.

Too many of our human-focused stories make us forget that we are, in fact, a WE.

When we tell the story of the God Who Promises, the God Who Provides, we join believers in every time and place to participate in what the Jewish tradition describes as the ongoing repair of the world (tikkun olam).

And doing the work of tikkun olam – doing the incarnational work of reconciliation that Jesus and the apostles embodied in their time, working for the flourishing of the world, here and now – in our neighborhoods, in our community, is how we love our neighbors well.

Being a part of the story – not just telling the story but being part of the story –  in every generation is a central task for those who trust in God.

But to do so, we must leave behind the destructive bent of empire, the scarcity and fear that leads to exclusion and division. It means putting on your shoes and grabbing a coat, and not waiting for the bread to rise, because leaving the empire is risky business.

Our God can and will topple the gods of the empire… The empire will not like it, of course. Those in power will fight to keep it – with everything they’ve got, as they always have…

But over and over, in every generation, in every year and week and day, God is working for freedom and for life, pushing on the gods of empire — the gods of consumerism and violence and self-sufficiency –

And in every generation, in every year and week and day, we are to remind ourselves and our children that we are different. We together are different because of what the Lord did for us when we came out of Egypt.

This isn’t about nostalgia —looking back with longing.

The past is the present is the future. So the people of God are told to re-live this moment, to re-enact it and experience again the simultaneous anxiety and awe of trusting God.

We will do exactly that in a few minutes as we approach the table and share in the Lord’s Supper. We will tell the story that Jesus told. Remembering that the bread he held up and blessed and broke was unleavened bread, bread that did not rise, because he was reminding the disciples again that the Hebrew people could not wait that night.

We will tell the story of our deliverer, who blessed the wine that represented the blood of the lamb and then said it was his own blood, poured out for the forgiveness of sins. A new covenant alongside the old, the present in concert with the past and looking toward the future.

When we eat and drink today, we proclaim the saving death of Jesus, and we proclaim that we refuse to be sustained by the bread of affliction, we refuse to claim the power of the empire

We claim instead the nourishment of the God Who Provides, the God Who Promises, the God who is Faithful. And we trust that the word and the table and the Spirit together will sustain and and empower this Body to live and do the work to which we are called – all to God’s glory.

May this be true in us and of us, today and every day. Amen.

Back to the Beginning

Narrative Lectionary Reading: selections from Genesis 2 and 3, but I pulled from much of Genesis 1-3 for the dramatic readings

In the beginning
In the chaos and the water
In the darkness
In the great mess that was the time before time and the place before place
In the midst of all that…  was love.

Love so amazing, so divine…
Love that would one day take on flesh…
But not yet.
Right then, love just WAS

In the beginning there was love and joy, there was Spirit and Word
In the beginning there was water
And the chaos of the water and darkness was not a satisfying place for love
Not exactly what Love had in mind.

So the Word spoke and the Spirit hovered
And the Creator laughed with joy to see order beginning to take shape
The water and the darkness gave way to Light
And the light was good

Some of the water went up above the dome of the sky
And that was good

And the waters still below the sky were gathered, revealing land
And the earth was good,
And so were all the plants that grew on this land between the seas and rivers and lakes and streams

And lights were placed in the sky to rule over night and day,
The waters of the seas began to roll and sway, pulled and pushed by the moon and the wind that still hovered near

Living creatures were called forth, spoken into being by the Creator, Creatures swimming and splashing, flying and soaring
And they were beautiful and blessed and good

More living creatures were spoken into being, this time on land, creeping and crawling, grazing and glorious.
And then came one last living creature – humankind –
The one made in God’s image.
God looked out over the water and the land
Over the swimming and flying and walking and creeping creatures

And God commanded the human beings to care for them
To care for the land and the plants that would feed all the creatures
To care for the water that refreshed and restored.
To care for one another.
By the end of the sixth day, work had shifted from creating to commissioning
It was good.
It was meant to always be good.
And on the seventh day, God declared a day of rest.

This is our beginning.

God formed our first ancestor from the dust of the earth
A human from the humus.
An adam from the adamah

And then God breathed the spirit of life into this earthling
The very ruach that had hovered in the chaos now filled the lungs and heart and soul of the one creature made in the image of the Creator

And God placed this one in the garden in Eden
The garden where the trees offered sustenance and life AND the knowledge of good and evil.
In the garden in need of a caretaker

God knew the caretaker needed a helper… an ezer
Because in the beginning,
in the chaos that was the time before time and the place before place,
there was love.
There was community
The one creator was also three

It would not do for this image bearer to be alone
And none of flying or crawling or leaping or galloping creatures would do- as wondrously and fearfully made as they were.

And then there were two, the adam and the ezer, both created in the image of God.

(Adam) I remember the first time I saw you. You took my breath away.

(Eve) I think that was God. He does that, you know.  Gives you breath; takes it away.

No really, I remember looking at you and thinking how different you were. Not like anything else God had placed in the garden. Your hands were like mine. Your ears were in the right place. Then you opened your eyes and… There was something within you that spoke to me…
Even before you spoke.

I remember those first days.  How we walked all over the Garden and everything was just… easy. Being with you, being with God, hearing his voice. Never hungry. Never afraid. Life was simple and beautiful. It was good.

We had no idea how good.

Do you ever wonder what would have happened?  I mean, if we…

No. Well, of course I do. But no. There is no going back.  God made that clear.
This is our life.
Here.  Now.
I know it hasn’t been easy. I miss those days, too.

Do I still take your breath away?

Yes you do. Every time I pick up these tools to till the soil.
And every time I think about how hard you worked to bring our children into the world.

They have your eyes, you know.

——

They were image bearers still, but now they experienced God from a distance.
And with distance grows confusion and vulnerability to the powers of the world to distract and wound, to confound and separate.

The powers of brokenness loved the chaos that the creator had tamed back In the beginning.
And now their voices grow louder, giving them power–
never stronger than the power of God
but always challenging the people
Always seeking to steal life, hope, joy
Continuing to speak lies into their minds and hearts.

There were moments of trust, shining like the light of that first sunrise
Peals of laughter as Isaac was born to Sarah and Abraham in their old age
Taking those first steps onto the dry bed of the red sea, pharaoh’s men closing in behind them
Marching around the walls of Jericho
Gideon sending men home, Debra singing, David dancing
Sun glinting off the Temple where the lamp stood and the ark was home among God’s people, a tall, strong reminder that God was at work among them

But trust also falters, fear and despair creep in, alongside arrogance and pride
Abel’s blood cried out from the ground, revealing humanity’s capacity for evil
Brokenness cast shadows large and small, distorting the image of the creator once so clearly reflected.
Liberation from Egypt and a land of promise were not enough
Prophets and judges were not enough
Kings and priests were not enough
God’s covenant was not enough
Idols and Asherah poles, Kingdoms rising and falling,

God’s chosen people, his children, falling faster and walking farther away
Until they found themselves shattered and scattered.

There were fourteen generations from Abraham to David, another fourteen from David to the Babylonian exile

In the beginning, there was love
Love so amazing, so divine…
Love that would one day take on flesh…
But not yet.

There would be fourteen more generations from the Babylonian exile to the arrival of the Messiah.
The Messiah… the Promised One
The Bread of Life
The Good Shepherd
Jesus… fully human… fully God.

Who was there in the beginning,
In the chaos and the water and in the darkness
See, in the great mess that was the time before time and the place before place,
there was love.
And light… And life.
And the Word.

The Word was with God, and the Word was God.
He was with God in the beginning.
Not a thing that came after could have been made without him.
In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.

And when the time was right
When it was time to begin again
the Word became flesh and lived among us.

Thank you to our Adam and Eve this morning.

As I mentioned last week, this week marks the start of a new cycle in the Narrative Lectionary.  If you’re not familiar with the term, a lectionary is a prescribed set of readings.

The Revised Common Lectionary is an example that has been around for a long time. It runs in a three-year cycle that is driven primarily by the dates and seasons that many streams of Christianity have celebrated for centuries.

The Narrative Lectionary is similar – the creators assigned particular readings for each Sunday and all those extra holy days that we celebrate.  The full cycle of readings are meant to help us follow the long sweeping arc of the Biblical narrative between now and Pentecost.

That means every fall, we go back to the beginning.
Back to where it all started.

Our readings from Genesis 2 and 3 today aren’t the poetic images from the first creation account in Genesis. This account is a little more prosaic.

In the first segment, we are reminded that Adam, the first human, had a purpose – to take care of the garden… to till it and maintain it.  And as he worked the land, the man was free to eat the fruits of his labor.

Literally. Whatever he wanted from whatever tree.  

Well, there was the one tree he couldn’t eat from – the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

This was when God determined that his gardener would need a partner. We bounced right over the description of God making all the creatures and Adam naming them as they seek the right partner for his work.  

But finally, God makes another human, the only creature who could be a true partner for the first human.

At this point, all is right in the world.

The two humans continue to serve as the keepers of the garden. They are welcome to eat the fruit from the trees, to drink clean water from the river.

It’s a pretty amazing beginning, really. Wouldn’t it be great to live in a place like that?
Direct access to God. Plenty to eat. No worries at all.

Until that pesky serpent came along.

For a long time, what happened next has been called “the fall.”  As if all of human existence has been a let down.  The sequence of events – the fact that Eve was the first tricked into breaking the rules – or that she caused Adam to sin also – that sequence has led some believers to blame the existence of sin in the world on women.  

And then to use that belief to place women in a second class category.  You can probably guess where I stand on that… and why it makes me sad that the influence of that interpretation extends well beyond church walls. But that’s for another day.

Today, I want to challenge you to consider their choices in light of the other stories we know from scriptures and our own lives.  The ways that humankind seeks to take charge, to be more God-like, not just reflecting God’s image but acting like gods on our own.

God is the one who has the capacity to understand good and evil. To judge. We tend to find ourselves in pretty deep trouble when we begin to take on that role

So I have always found it interesting that the tree held the key to the knowledge of good and evil. It was not the tree of good or evil. It was the entry into the knowledge of good and evil.

That means that from the very beginning, evil was around, lurking, and able to be observed. Just as surely as good and love were there from the beginning.  

Eating that particular fruit, against the wishes of God, would mean our first parents would see the world differently, would understand the world differently, would have the wonderful, awful knowledge that comes with being able to discern right from wrong, good from evil.

Both wonderful and awful because knowing good from evil goes beyond judging the appearance of actions.
It has to do with judging a person’s heart.
It has to do with judging one’s own heart.

Whether or not you believe that there were literally two people in a big garden that housed talking animals, including a serpent.  And whether or not you think that those two people ate some kind of fruit that ended humanity’s time in that perfect garden…

I think we can all agree to this truth: that you and I carry within us that same human tendency to put ourselves in the seat that ought to be God’s. To exert our control over the world in ways that might not actually be healthy and helpful.

We have a tendency to judge other people and attempt to ascribe motives to their actions (whether good or evil).

We can see the promise in one another, the gifts and talents and beauty that reflect the incomparable creativity, energy, love and glory of God. We can imagine the power that could be harnessed by banding together.

We can harness that power for good. Or we can find ourselves building towers that reach up to the heavens like the one in Babel…structures and systems that benefit those we trust, those we judge to be like-hearted or like-minded. And oppress those who are not.

I think about the Tower of Babel when I drive through cities with big tall downtown high rises.  Writing those words this week, I couldn’t help but think about this day. And what it means to talk about towers that are destroyed.

I have to confess that I dread this date when it rolls around every year.  

There is something about the way that we remember this day, the way we recall the terror of the day that makes me almost physically ill.

Probably all but the youngest among us can recall the first images we saw coming out of New York City 15 years ago. Then out of Washington DC.  And Pennsylvania.

I can’t unsee those images.  

Not any more than I can unsee the images of the devastation that took place closer to home in the Pulse nightclub, or images of the bombed-out streets of Aleppo, or images of the poor souls who were liberated from World War II concentration camps, but looked like walking corpses.

I cannot unsee them.  

Not any more than I can unsee the face of the person who laughed when I tried to explain just how deeply and permanently their actions had wounded me.

I would give most anything to go back to the days before I understood just how horrible people can be – how horrible we are – to one another.

To go back to the days before we talked about active shooters on elementary school campuses.

Before we worried about planes flying just a little too low over major cities.  

I would give almost everything to go back to the days before I knew just how painful it is to be abandoned or rejected by someone who had once been kind and loving.

Chances are good that you, too, have been judged harshly at some point in your life. And have judged others unfairly.

And if you’re like me at all, you have experienced the sting of shame that inevitably follows, especially when I search my own motives and see my own capacity for evil.

The awareness of the depth of our sin…  my sin.
The truth of our capacity for evil…  It’s scary stuff.

Seriously… I’m a pretty brave person and human depravity scares the snot out of me.

But here’s the problem – That fear is exactly what drives us to build walls and draw lines, to make clear the parameters for being us rather than them.

That fear of the evil others might do is what increases the odds that we’ll beat them to it.

Because combining the evil in us with our fear of evil in others is like throwing gasoline on a fire. And there are an awful lot of people making an awful lot of money off of feeding that fire right now.  

Our “news” programs focus on criminal activity and offer breathless reporters sensationalizing the most mundane of stories.  We don’t have weather radars any more. They are now Storm Trackers.  

And because we are too scared not to watch, ratings go up, advertisers pay more, so that hopefully, we’ll buy more stuff.  

Our political candidates have long ago stopped describing what they can or would like to do for their constituents. Instead the political action committees scare voters into voting against the opposing party.

And even knowing all that, even knowing how it all works, it’s still easy to get sucked into the vortex of fearing the unknown… the unknown people, the unknown future…

And forgetting that we have a power within us that is greater than any fear, greater than any hate. A power that is older than time itself.

In the beginning
In the chaos and the water
In the darkness
In the great mess that was the time before time and the place before place
In the midst of all that…  was love.

Love so amazing, so divine…
Love that took on flesh, resisted every temptation, and remained obedient to the end
Love that is perfect
Love that drives out fear

Love that lives on, embodied by the gathered who remember the sacrifice, who remember their call to tear down the walls that divide

Love that is made flesh by the gathered who call upon the Prince of Peace

Love that gathers many voices into one voice to pray Thy Kingdom Come, Thy will be done.

That is the true power of knowing good and evil.  

We can be the good that the world needs to see and experience. We can speak the truth and love that the world needs to hear.

In the mess that is this time…
In the mess that is this place…
There is love.  

And for that, I give thanks.