Burdens heavy and light

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The “work” of scripture

Once more from last Sunday

Last Sunday was warm – not as warm as it has been, but it was the weekend following the fourth of July, so it seemed right to begin the sermon by saying:

On a hot summer day it seems hard to say more than “God loves you; go in peace.” We should be at the beach with our toes in the sand. We should be at a lake in the mountains, or on the back porch listening to the ball game with an iced-tea in our hands. We should be holding hands in a movie where the theater is cool. Or visiting a friend with air-conditioning and children the same age running around the back yard. Hot summer days don’t seem like the days for work.

But scripture is work. It asks something of us. It bids us listen. It asks us to see. It calls for self-examination and an open heart. It summons us to generosity and compassion and the hard work of reconciliation.

Scripture is work. But scripture is also promise. It comes to heal. To comfort. To reassure. To encourage. It comes to free what is bound and restore what is broken. It comes to gather what is scattered and unite what is divided. Scripture is work, but it is also promise. It bids us bend the knee, and yet raises us in an eternal embrace.

If you would like to read the whole sermon, it is posted here. It is rooted in the Gospel text for Sunday that includes harsh words of judgment against the cities of Jesus’ day and the sweet word of invitation:

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Here are two other thoughts from the sermon:

People wouldn’t listen to John because he was too freakishly religious, and they won’t listen to Jesus because he’s not religious enough. At least, he’s not their kind of religion. But this is the deal. We don’t get to pick the god we want. We have to deal with the God who is.

+     +     +

There is a yoke here. There is a life of service to be lived. It is not an easy yoke in the sense that it doesn’t ask much of us; it asks very much indeed. But it is light because the work of mercy and grace lifts the heart and frees the Spirit and leads to joy and life.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AKom%C3%A1rom554.JPG By Szeder László (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
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Encountered by Jesus

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Sunday Evening

John 13:31-35

34I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.

I wish it were possible to say how cute Steffan was, today. It’s unusual for a child to come forward for the children’s sermon the first time they come to worship – especially on a day when, it turns out, none of our other young people were present. But having only a single child who is new not only to me and to the parish but to the concept of a children’s message – and even to church itself – made the children’s time a challenge.

I am aware how much we take for granted when we use words like ‘God’ and ‘church’ and ‘Jesus’, let alone concepts like ‘grace’ and ‘love’ and ‘forgiveness’ and faith’. These are words with meaning inside the community of faith, but what do they mean to those who are strangers to the church?

Maybe the task of the children’s sermon is only to say, “God loves you,” and to make children feel welcome in worship.

And maybe it’s not just about children – maybe the task of the children’s sermon is to make adults feel welcome, too. It is something simple and cute and unscripted that makes church feels not quite so churchy.

But I want there to be something more, here. I think the children’s sermon should be like gathering and laying foundation stones for a spiritual life that is rooted in the experience of love and the importance of kindness, courage and hope. I want them to know something about Jesus. And I want them to be part of the worshipping community: they should know whatever it is that Jesus might be talking to us about that day in the Gospel reading.

None of us are here only to be feel welcome and loved. We are also here to encounter this Jesus and let his words and deeds work their work in us. We are here to hear what he has to say and to see what he does. It’s part of why I try so hard to explain what Jesus’ words and actions meant in their time.

I love the power, grace, rich imagery and, at its best, the beauty and transcendence of the theological and liturgical tradition of the church. But in the end it is not about any of this; it is about Jesus. Everything else is only meant to put us in a place and time where Christ may encounter us and call us into his grace and life.

I am not interested in the kind of preaching that tells people what they already know and believe. Nor am I a spiritual version of a self-help guru with keys to a better life. I am interested in this Jesus and the prophets and all the words of scripture that challenge what we think we know, and summon us not to be mere practitioners of religious ritual, but to seek and find our truest and best humanity – to be children of God, sons and daughters of light, citizens of the age to come when our shames and sorrows are left behind.

So I hope Steffan felt good about his little encounter with me and with church this morning besides the coffee hour cookies and the toys in the nursery where he played after worship. I hope there was something for him of the radiant love of God and the Christ who gives the new commandment that we should love one another.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AKunibertZinnerVolksschuleSeitenstetten1951.11A.JPG By Anton-kurt (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

“I am only a boy!”

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Malachi, Jonah, Daniel, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Isaiah. Christ the King Church, Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, Mexico

Saturday

Jeremiah 1:4-10

6Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.”

We have history with certain texts. When an angel greets Gideon with the familiar words “The LORD is with you,” Gideon responds, “Pray, sir, if the LORD is with us, why has all this happened to us?” I remember that text from when I was eighteen and the pastor read it at my brother’s funeral. The text never quite escapes that moment in time. And the promise lingers: though we do not see it, God is with us.

There is a text from the Gospel of Mark that my high school youth group advisors wrote in a small Bible they gave me as I went off to college. It had a profound, almost haunting, influence on my life. There is a text in Psalm 11 that prompted me to risk accepting a call to inner city ministry in Detroit. There is a text in Romans 8 with which I struggled mightily for a paper for my Romans class in Seminary. In that struggle the secret of understanding the scriptures was revealed to me. And then there is this text in Sunday’s reading that was given to me as I headed off to a summer mission in Taiwan after my senior year in High School.

“Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’;
for you shall go to all to whom I send you,
and you shall speak whatever I command you.

All through the scriptures people try to avoid the task God lays before them. Moses claims he cannot speak. Isaiah is “a man of unclean lips.” Saul demurs that he is from the least clan of the smallest tribe. Gideon is the youngest in his family. Jonah simply refuses and flees. Jeremiah claims no one will listen to a mere youth.

But it is the message that matters, not the messenger. It is about the word God speaks, not the vessel God chooses. God’s words can irritate us like a shutter banging in the wind, or haunt us like the wind through a poorly sealed window. They can sustain us like foundation stones or connect us like a bridge over troubled water. They can be a polished mirror of self-discovery or a whispered shame. They can raise up and cast down nations. And they will do these things no matter who speaks the words. It was a sermon from the most inept preacher I have ever heard that had the greatest impact on my life. It is the message that matters, not the messenger.

The word that Jeremiah speaks is not his own. It lives in him and through him but it is not his own. These are not the words of his passion or rage at corruption of his time. These are not the hopes and desires of his own spirit – there are others who are skilled in speaking in God’s name exactly what their audience wants to hear. The word Jeremiah is commissioned to speak is from beyond him. It is rooted in the tradition and springs forth from the Spirit. His task is to hear and to speak what he hears.

Such words are routinely dismissed – sometimes for some defect we find in the messenger – or simply because we don’t like what we hear. King Jehoiakim takes a knife, calmly slices every few columns from the scroll of God’s words through Jeremiah that is being read to him, and tosses it into the fire. But there is power in those words. They will do their work. They judge and condemn. They will also heal and forgive.

Jeremiah’s age matters not. What matters is hearing truly and speaking faithfully. For the power is not in the speaker; it is in the Word God sends us to speak.

 

Image: By Enrique López-Tamayo Biosca (www.flickr.com/photos/eltb/6221310983) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.  Page: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AChrist_the_King_Church%2C_Monterrey%2C_Nuevo_Leon%2C_Mexico00.jpg

There are no pyramids in Judea

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Psalm 123

3Have mercy upon us, O Lord, have mercy upon us,
for we have had more than enough of contempt.
4Our soul has had more than its fill of the scorn of those who are at ease,
of the contempt of the proud.

If we stop and pay attention to verses like this we will understand something important about Biblical faith and the scripture: it is, for the most part, written by the conquered not the conquerors. It is an exilic faith, a diaspora faith, a faith born out of human suffering rather than success. For all the glories of the kingdom of David, it was not an empire to compare with Egypt or Babylon or Assyria. There are no pyramids in Judea. No magnificent temples on the acropolis. No ancient works of art like those of Persia that ISIS is looting and destroying. What remained of Israel was a book. A book written by those who had seen their nation crushed, their temple destroyed, their king blinded and led away in chains. All the boots of tramping warriors had marched again and again through their land. They had known the contempt of the proud.

The struggle inside Israel and Judah was a struggle for its character. Some aspired to glory. Others aspired to justice and mercy. Kings built altars that matched Assyria. Prophets spoke on behalf of the poor. Moses commanded a Sabbath that they not be a nation of slaveholders and slaves. The wealthy sought to discard such archaic ideas. Moses spoke of shared bread. Isaiah excoriated the lavish feasts of the rich and promised a day when all would gather at God’s abundant banquet.

3Have mercy upon us, O Lord, have mercy upon us,
for we have had more than enough of contempt.
4Our soul has had more than its fill of the scorn of those who are at ease,
of the contempt of the proud.

Whether the psalm prays for relief from foreign oppressors or their own home grow elite, the truth of the prayer remains. It is the cry of the poor, a cry God hears.

 

Photo: By kallerna (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Working the high wire

Sunday Evening

Jeremiah 23

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high wire 2 (Photo credit: _gee_)

25I have heard what the prophets have said who prophesy lies in my name.

Such words make me tremble.  Being a pastor is working the high wire without a net.  Into our hands is committed the responsibility to give public witness to the message/Word/Gospel of God. It is our task to help the scripture speak, to open the text so that it can work its work in its hearers. The congregation trusts us to help them hear the text as God would have them hear it.  Yes we have in our hands this brilliant record of God’s speech through the ages.  Yes we have behind us the intense education of seminary and the ongoing value of our own study. Yes we have available to us the work of many scholars through many ages and the witness of the saints and the confessions and creeds of the church. But when I rise to speak on Sunday morning there is no one there to tell me whether I have rightly captured the encounter between God and these people through this text.  And I will be held to account.

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. (James 3:1 nrsv  )

I will be held to account not for the size of the Sunday attendance, the success of the youth ministry, nor whether we ended the year in the black, but for whether I have spoken God’s message rather than the imaginations of my own heart, whether I have spoken God’s words or my dreams.

Whether the Gospel bears fruit in the lives of the hearers is the work of the Holy Spirit.  For that Holy Spirit I cry as I prepare, and upon that Holy Spirit I depend in speaking.  I trust that God, in his grace, can help people hear what they should hear whether or not I have said it.  But still, the Bible is in my hands and the responsibility on my shoulders.

The church is not a playground for my religious imagination. My dreams do not belong here.  My words do not carve rock from the mountains.  God’s word alone is the fire and hammer.

And when I sit in the pew as a listener, I must turn off that part of my mind that wants to think about the quality of the sermon and struggle, as we all do, to listen for God’s voice in what is said.  If God can speak to the prophet through a donkey, he can certainly use whatever preacher is in the pulpit, even me.

This is, after all, the miracle of God’s presence in the world: he uses our voices, our hands, our hearts, our kindness, our compassion, our outrage at injustice, our defense of the widow and the orphan, our speaking the word of Grace, our sharing of bread.  God is present through means: bread, wine, human words, human lives.  In that encounter between one person and another is the mystery of the divine.

Remembering God’s goodness

Friday

Psalm 33

13 Happy is the nation whose God is the Lord

I have been avoiding this verse all week.  It irritates me because it has been used by conservative evangelicals in support of their dream of a “Christian America.”  It’s sad when texts of scripture become entangled in and polluted by political causes of left or right.  It’s like great music tarnished by an unforgettable association with a television ad.  Disney’s Fantasia was amazing, but now “The Nutcracker Suite” makes me think of dancing hippos and I can’t hear “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” without seeing Mickey Mouse and broomsticks carrying water.

So my eyes rush past this verse, but the scriptures stand firm, waiting for us to listen.

There are so many things wrong with the use of this verse by the religious right.  There were no “nations” in the modern sense of the word; the idea here is a people or tribe – as is evidenced by the parallelism in the next line: “the people whom he has chosen as his heritage.”  The clan being discussed here is the people of Israel, not any modern state; the descendants of Abraham, not the inheritors of the Pilgrims, are the people God has chosen.  This is a song of joy and celebration – “how happy are we that the Lord has shown us favor” – not an argument for social transformation.

In the impulse to skip past this verse I recognize the inherent challenge in listening to scripture: I don’t want to react to scripture; I want to hear it.  I want to let it speak to me, but not forget it wasn’t first spoken to me.  I am reading someone else’s mail.  In it I hear the voice of my heavenly Father.  As he speaks, I am shaped by his words.  But I must not collapse the distance between that time and my own as if words like “nation” – or even “happy” – had the same meaning then as now.  And I must always beware of making the text serve me.  My job is to listen, to hear God’s voice, and to let that voice work its work in me.  I am the one who is supposed to do the serving.

Happy is the nation whose God is the Lord,

The psalm is a hymn, a song of praise and thanksgiving to God for God’s goodness.  It sings of God as creator and summons all creation to join the song.  It exults in the privilege Israel has received to have been chosen by this God, the Lord.  It declares that he governs the destiny of the peoples of the earth – not their kings and armies.  And it declares the allegiance of this people to God: “We set our hope on the Lord.”

“Happy is the nation whose God is the Lord.”  Happy, contented, at peace, are those whom God has chosen “to be his own,” whom God has rescued from bondage and guided through the wilderness and taught by his Word.

There are so many things that disquiet us.  There is a restless hunger in the human heart and the communities we inhabit.  Schools and companies and congregations are buffeted by competing convictions of what “they” should do.  Relationships are stressed by our demands on one another.  We accuse our own selves for our limitations and failures.

The psalm bids us stop and ponder the privilege of belonging to a God who is good.  We inhabit a beautiful earth fashioned in goodness.  We are the beneficiaries of a boundless grace.  We are cared for.

There are things to do.  There are things that should change.  There are times of trial and days when God seems not to be watching.   But the psalm calls us to stop and remember.

Happy are those whose God is the Lord.  There is a peace to be found in remembering that this gracious, faithful God is our God.

And there is a song to be sung.

 

It can be for us about the healing of the world.

Luke 7Casket

13 When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.” 14 Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” 15 The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother.

I have seen people brought back from death’s door; I have never seen anyone brought back through it.

If the scriptures are to be for us the truth of God and not a pious fairy tale, we have to acknowledge this.  What is being described here, if taken at literal face value, is impossible.  We have brought people back whose heart has stopped.  We have brought people back who have been immersed in frigid waters.  But there is a big difference between restarting a stalled heart and restoring life to the dead.

If we hear this text as a story of divine power we may find grace in it, for there are few of us who have not needed that reassurance in time of some distress.  God is a God who can transform hopeless situations. But there are also few of us who have not wept and prayed for God to do just this over the body of a child, a parent, a spouse or friend – and none of them have been raised once that breath is gone.

In those anguished moments, what can such a text say?  That God has no compassion for me in my sorrow?  That my prayer is not worthy of such an answer?  It is a painful road to travel.  And it usually ends with a disjunction between the world of the Bible and my world.  Such things happened then, but no longer.  Once upon a time…

But there is another way to hear the text – not as a text about the power of God but as a text about the compassion of God.  And this is what our sisters and brothers in the first century heard.

For them, raising the dead was a wonder, but it was not impossible. They did not stumble over that portion of the story.  What they heard was the word of compassion.  What they saw was that the God of heaven and earth, who gives the breath of life to all things, had come near to save.  The day when the veil of tears would be lifted was dawning.  The people who walked in darkness were seeing the first light of dawn.

A world of injustice was being turned towards justice.  A world of hunger was being turned towards the sharing of bread.  A world of violence was being turned towards peace, a world of hate towards love.  A world where humanity’s impossible debt to the honor of God was being erased and new life dawning.  A world governed by death was being governed by an unconquerable life.

We can see that in the text, too.  It doesn’t have to be for us about the power of God to do the impossible.  It can be for us instead about the healing of the world.

When Jesus looks upon the church

Sunday Evening of May 12

From Sunday’s sermon on John 17

…When Jesus prays that we would be one, he is praying that we would embody all the honor of being a beloved people of God, sisters and brothers of the Messiah who governs the universe – and that we would live our lives in such a way as to protect the honor of the family and of God: courage, generosity, kindness, openness, compassion, humility, service…

…We have been born into the most honorable family in the universe.  We want to uphold that honor…If I do not feel generous, I need to commit to learn generosity for the sake of Christ.  If I am not welcoming to outsiders, I need to commit to learn hospitality for the sake of Christ…

When Jesus looks

“I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word.” (John 17:20)

When Jesus looks upon the church, the community of his disciple/students, he sees not only what is but what shall be.

He sees not only those who have followed him from Galilee but those who are yet to hear and respond in trust and allegiance.  He sees not only the 120 but the worldwide communion extending through the generations.  He sees not only the few gathered in a Sunday morning congregation, but all those whose lives they will touch throughout the week.  He sees not only those who have arrived early to the party, but all those who are waiting in the wings to become part of the community of joy.  And he prays for all.

And he sees not only a church divided, but the city adorned like a bride.  He sees not only our frail, imperfect communities, but the perfection that is to come – even as he sees us each, not in our torn and tattered tunics, but dressed in the garments provided by the King at the royal wedding banquet.

Freeing those who are bound.

Friday

Acts 16

The story of the Philippian jailor is familiar: Paul and Silas are in prison when an earthquake breaks off their chains and opens the doors.  But the narrative is not about how God saved Paul and Silas.  It is about saving the jailor and the young woman bound by dark forces.

Paul and Silas are servant/slaves of the Most High, as the young woman has loudly proclaimed.  The jailor is bound in service of the city and empire, the young woman to masters (lords) who exploit her infirmity.

The jailor’s service leads towards dishonor and death: his prisoners have escaped and he is responsible, so he draws the sword to end his life.  The young woman’s service keeps her subject to the seizures perceived to be the touch of the gods and, therefore, moments of revelation.  Her words at such times are puzzles to be sure, riddles like the oracle at Delphi from whom her condition is named.  (The Greek says she has a spirit of Python: the serpent sent by Hera to prevent the birth of Apollo and his sister whom her husband Zeus had conceived with Leto.  Python guarded Delphi until slain by Apollo.)

Against this backdrop of fickle gods, human empires, and lives bound, come the servant/slaves of the Most High who are free even when in chains, for whom prison doors have no power, who sing even in the darkness of night.  It is service to the God who opens the grave – the God of the exodus and the return from exile – that leads to a true and everlasting freedom, to an eternal healing, community and life.