The scalpel of God

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“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” (Mark 9:37)

This is the message from last Sunday, September 23, 2018, on which the congregation celebrated the 40th anniversary of my ordination. The sermon is related to that anniversary, but rooted in the assigned readings: Mark 9:30-37, Jeremiah 11:18-20, Psalm 54, and James 3:13-4:8a,

Mark 9:30-37: They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” 32But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.

33Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 35He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

You see, O God,
the struggle of the human heart for privilege and honor
and set before us the betrayed and crucified body of your Son.
May he who was servant of all teach us his way;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

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Grace to you and Peace, from God our Father and our Lord and savior, Jesus the Christ.

It’s hard to believe I have been doing this for 40 years. It’s stunning to wake up one morning and realize how long it’s been. On the other hand, it’s amazing to think back to all the people and places I’ve known. I have lots of memories – though not as many as I wish. I regret not having kept a journal of my experiences through the years.

A friend wrote me last week about a dramatic graveside service in the rain. It was Wisconsin, so I’m assuming there had been a thunderstorm. I wrote back about a graveside service on a cold November day in Toledo, grey skies, the trees stripped of their leaves, in a little old country cemetery now surrounded on three sides by an oil refinery. I stood at the head of a casket before a small huddle of people, amid the pungent aromas of the refinery and the sounds of its clangs and whistles and whooshes, reading the ancient texts and speaking the promise of a new creation. I wish I knew who that was.

I wish I remembered the name of the person whose funeral I conducted one Good Friday. I had buried his wife four days earlier. He went home after the service, climbed up in his closet and got down an old pistol. Now their adult children were before me once again.

In those days when the heavens seem silent, it falls to the preacher to speak, to break that wall of silence, to let the voice of God be heard in its fearful sweetness.

I never understood the wife of a colleague of mine who was a minister in the United Church of Christ. For her, the sermon was only one member of the community sharing their thoughts for the rest of the community – thoughts the community could take or leave as they saw fit. I don’t know if that’s true of her whole church body; I just know she didn’t share this deep conviction that somewhere in the weeds of the preacher’s words would be hiding the voice of the eternal with all its power to wound and heal.

When I was interviewed here, downstairs in the Fireside Room, I was asked to lead a devotion at the beginning of the meeting. I don’t remember if the call committee had forgotten to tell me they wanted me to do this, or if it was part of the test to see what I might do at the last moment. I turned to the passage in Hebrews (4:12) about the Word of God being sharper than any two-edged sword and talked about the fact that the word ‘sword’ there was the word for the small dagger possessed by a soldier, not the big sword. That dagger was used for fine cutting. It’s more of a knife than a sword, and I suggested we should understand the Word of God as a scalpel with which God does surgery on our hearts.

We are in need of surgery. The Bible is not a book of doctrines and policies; it gives very few absolute answers beyond loving God and neighbor with all your heart and soul and mind. But what the Bible does do is convey to us these stories, events, poems and preaching that have the power, like a scalpel, to set us free from the fears and sins that bind us and shape us into the creatures we were meant to be.

Let us imagine for a moment that Kavanaugh did this thing of which he is accused. And let’s clear away for a moment all the partisan politics and ideologies that are clamoring for power. Let us just imagine that a person is suddenly confronted with a fact from the past saying, “You did this to me, and this is what it cost me.”

It is a fearful thought. Maybe it was forgotten in a haze of alcohol, maybe it was a memory suppressed, maybe it was one of those things you never thought anything about because it was ordinary in the world in which you lived, I don’t know. But suddenly here is this word with its long bony finger pointed at you. This is the story of David and the prophet Nathan (2 Samuel 11:1-12:23). David is swept away by the beauty of Uriah’s wife bathing in the moonlight. He sends for her. She gets pregnant. He brings Uriah home from the front hoping to cover his crime. Uriah is too honorable to enjoy the comforts of his home and bed while his men are in the field. David gives secret orders to put Uriah in the front lines and pull away. He is killed. The King’s crime is covered and forgotten. But then comes Nathan with a story of a poor man and his single beloved lamb. The lamb lies in the poor man’s lap like one of our comfort animals. The rich man with many flocks has a visitor arrive and takes the poor man’s lamb to serve his guest for dinner. David is incensed. “The man deserves to die,” he shouts. And then Nathan points his long bony finger and says: “You are the man.”

The word of God is a scalpel. But it points at David not to condemn and destroy, but to free and heal him.

So here we are with this story about Kavanaugh. The response we see around us is to destroy him or to destroy her, and in that instinctive reaction it is not Kavanaugh’s sins that are on display nor his accusers; it is our sins. We are not looking for healing; we are looking for triumph. One way or the other, one side or the other, we want to win. We want to crush our enemies. And we are willing to order Kavanaugh or Ford to the front lines and pull back.

So there is a story about the prophet Elisha (2 Kings 6:8-23). The king of Aram (what is now Syria) is at war with Israel. But God keeps telling the prophet what the king of Aram is doing, where he is moving his troops, where he is planning to attack, and the King of Israel keeps escaping his grasp. The King of Aram is enraged, convinced that one of his generals is betraying him by leaking his plans to the enemy. They all plead innocence. None of them is the betrayer; it is the prophet who whispers to the King of Israel the King of Aram’s private thoughts. So the King of Aram sends his army to seize the prophet. They come at night and surround the city.

In the morning, the prophet’s servant looks out and sees the town surrounded by an army of horses and chariots and cries out in fear. His story is about to end at the point of a spear. But the prophet prays for God to open his servant’s eyes, and he looks up to see the angelic armies of God encircling the city. “Those who are with us,” says the prophet, “are more than those who are with them.”

God strikes the enemy troops with a blindness, a confusion, a fog. As they come into town, the prophet says “Oh you have the wrong town. I’ll show you the way.” And he leads them to the King of Israel. The prophet prays for God to open their eyes and they find themselves surrounded in the capital city. And here is the punch line: The king asks the prophet what he’s supposed to do with the enemy now in his hand. “Shall I kill them, my father? Shall I kill them?” All his enemy’s soldiers are in his power. He has the chance to destroy them completely. But the prophet says instead that he should feed them. The king sets before them a banquet. They sit down to a table of peace. They are reconciled.

We want to win. We want to crush our enemies. “Shall I kill them, my father?” But the scalpel of God tells a story about reconciliation, repentance, transformation, love of God and neighbor.

I have a deep sympathy for Ford; I know something about sexual assault. I also have a deep sympathy for Kavanaugh; I know something about having your life turned upside down in a moment – and I know something about the sins of our youth. Perhaps mostly, I have a deep sorrow for the nation, because we are so far from the kingdom and rushing in the wrong direction. We are a people who do not know how to repent, and the sins of our past – from greed and slavery and genocide to our everlasting faith in winning at all costs – keep haunting us. Our good deeds can’t make the old deeds go away. David was faithful in almost everything. Yet this murder of Uriah needed to be confessed or it would all go wrong.

So there’s another story (1 Kings 21). King Ahab married the daughter of the Sidonian king (1 Kings 16:31). Her name was Jezebel. We don’t name our kids Jezebel anymore.

Ahab grows up in a world where God is God. God has given the land to the people, divided it among every tribe and family. The land is not my possession; it is a gift of God to my family. It is my responsibility to care for it; it is not my privilege to dispose of it. The law says I can’t sell it. If I have to, I can sell the right to use the land until the next sabbatical year. I can sell the next so many harvests, but I can’t sell it permanently.

Ahab is king. He has a palace. He wants the vineyard that belongs to Naboth in order to grow vegetables. Naboth is scandalized by the idea that he should sell his patrimony. He says no. Ahab is depressed and goes to bed. Jezebel is disgusted. She will teach him how a king uses power. She gives a banquet. She invites Naboth to sit at the high table. She hires two scoundrels to sit next to him. In the middle of the dinner they stand up and accuse Naboth of cursing God and the King. They take him out and stone him to death. Jezebel goes to Ahab and says, “Go get your garden.”

Except God has a prophet. God has a servant with God’s heavenly scalpel. And the prophet is standing there in the garden when Ahab shows up to claim it. This is not the kingship God wants, says the prophet, Ahab’s kingdom will fall by the same violence Ahab used.

And so the scalpel of God comes to us. Will we choose violence or faithfulness? Will we choose victory or redemption? Will we choose wealth, power and conquest or justice, mercy and reconciliation?

Story after story, preached word after preached word, songs and poems and history and even erotic poetry – it’s all here in this book – and lurking in it all is this God with a scalpel who would heal our hearts.

So, in the texts we heard today: Jeremiah is a prophet. He holds the scalpel of God. And the word of judgment he speaks against a corrupt regime creates enemies. The king doesn’t want to hear what Jeremiah has to say. Jeremiah will send the king a copy of everything God had said, and the king will burn it all, page by page, in the brazier standing next to him to keep him warm. (Jeremiah 36)

Jeremiah is a priest. His hometown is a village of priests. They all have a stake in the temple and the monarchy. They have a good life. They don’t want Jeremiah mucking it up for them. They see treason in him, not the divine scalpel. They plot to kill him. And so we hear Jeremiah crying out to God in the words we read this morning: “I was like a lamb led to the slaughter.” And we know there is in us a piece of this village of Anathoth that wants to hold on to what we have even if it means silencing the prophet. Even as Jerusalem rose up against Jesus.

The book of James wields the divine scalpel against the passions that drive our hearts and lead us to betray the divine will. Submit yourselves therefore to God,” he writes, “resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.”

Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. The disciples are thinking: “Our time is coming! We are going to win. We are going to rule.” And they argue over which of them is the top dog.

“What were you talking about?” asks Jesus. He knows full well what they were talking about. Arguments in the Middle East are never quiet.

“What were you talking about?” And suddenly they are silent. Jesus is holding the divine scalpel in his hand. It’s not a sword, though; it’s just a scalpel. It is always just a scalpel, meant to heal and not to harm. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” And Jesus puts a child in their midst.

Now we have to get this right. In our society, if you don’t have enough food, you feed the children first. In the time of Jesus, you feed the adults first. Children are loved, but they are at the bottom of the totem pole. They are valued. They are blessings from God. Hopefully they will become adults and take care of their aging parents. But the odds are they won’t make it to adulthood. The death toll is too high. The calories have to go to those who can work the fields.

If we really want to understand what Jesus is saying to his followers, we need to imagine Jesus taking a refugee, or a homeless person, or an addict, whomever we think matters least, and setting him or her in the midst of us, putting his arms around him or her and saying, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

It is the scalpel of God.

Amen

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Syriske_flyktninger_(8184618433).jpg By Norsk Folkehjelp Norwegian People’s Aid from Norway (Syriske flyktninger) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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A river of grace

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About Last Sunday

Last Sunday, as I was greeting people at the door after worship, one woman said to me that she would have liked the sermon to be more uplifting. I don’t exactly know what she meant by that. I had rather liked the sermon (I posted the message at my blog Jacob Limping and in “recent sermons” on this site; you can judge for yourself) and thought it appropriate for our context on Sunday. We were celebrating Reformation Sunday and also the confirmation of three young people in the parish. I thought it spoke of the wondrous grace of God and our calling to be agents of that grace in the world.

What I said to her briefly – but would have liked to explain more fully – is that the sermon is but one part of the worship experience. When we are together there is confession and absolution; there are liturgical songs derived from the vivid description of the worship of God in heaven from the book of Revelation; there are hymns and readings and, above all, the invitation to feast at God’s holy table. The sermon is part of a whole that is meant to convey to us the love and mercy of God and draw us into the reality of God’s reign of grace. It is the service as a whole that should refresh and renew us as followers of Jesus for our daily life in the world, not just the sermon.

The individual Sunday service is also one of many during the year. All those Sundays and holy days are like the instruments of an orchestra or the voices of a great choir, blending together to proclaim to us the love of God and to call us to live that love.

So perhaps there was more challenge to discipleship in this last Sunday’s sermon than you would get on Christmas Eve or the Sundays of Easter. But this particular challenge was a part of a service that witnessed young people committing themselves to a life of discipleship – the ongoing relationship with God begun in their baptism. At the core of that Rite of Confirmation, at the core of the readings from Jeremiah, the Psalms, Romans and John, at the core of the communion table, at the core of “A Mighty Fortress” and all the other hymns, is the great river of grace that sweeps down from the New Jerusalem growing ever deeper as it brings life to all the earth.

So perhaps the sermon wasn’t so uplifting, perhaps it did speak of discipleship more than encouragement, but it is embedded in the song of angels and the joy of heaven. And what can be more uplifting than that recognition that God reigns over all. Even us.

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. (Revelation 22:1-2)

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AFlying_over_the_meanders_of_the_mighty_Yukon_to_Arctic_Village.jpg By Jessie Hey [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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

One Child

Sunday Evening

I needed worship today. I needed to sing the hymns and hear the prayers and feel the presence of the community.   Maybe that’s why I had such a hard time finding the sermon. (“Finding” the sermon is my description of my process of studying and listening to the text to discern what it has to say to us on this occasion. I could always talk about the text, what’s going on in the story, the social context of the narrative, the structure of the narrative, etc, but worship isn’t Bible study. We aren’t there to learn about the text. We are there to hear the text, to let it speak to us, to let it draw us deeper into Christ, to let it shape our worship, to let it shape our lives. Sometimes we have to learn about the text in order to hear it, but the point is to hear God speaking to us through it.)

But I had trouble finding the sermon this week. When I rose to read the Gospel this morning I still hadn’t found it. When this happens to me I find that I need to come down and stand in the aisle. I need to get close to the gathered community. It helps, sometimes, to see real faces. Especially when I don’t know what I’m going to say. But, as I began to speak, I realized the problem was that this had been a very intense and personal week, but the texts were cosmic in scope. This was the feast of Christ the King. We read Daniel about the coming reign of God. We said a psalm about the kingship of God. The second reading from the opening chapter of Revelation spoke about Christ coming on the clouds. And our Gospel had Jesus before Pilate declaring his kingdom is not like the kingdoms of this world.

But this wasn’t a week in which we were thinking about the grand sweep of history. This was a week in which a boy in our parish had been diagnosed with a brain tumor and rushed into surgery. He posted the brain scan on his Instagram account with the simple words “I have a brain tumor.” It scared the wits out of every adult in the parish.

Nations have been warring this week, and politicians spouting. But this had not been a week in which the nations and the consummation of human history mattered to me. What mattered was one child, one family, one desperate prayer for grace and healing. It has been a week of great international tragedies and fears, but our fear was for one boy.

It was only as I began to speak to the congregation that I found the message of the text for us. Fear is fear. Whether it is fainting with fear at what is coming on the world, or fainting before a very personal fear, fear is fear. And the message that God is God speaks to every fear. History is in God’s hands. And we are in God’s hands. And this child is in God’s hands. To our fear comes the promise that our world – and our lives – are God’s.

Jesus tells Pilate he comes as witness to the truth. The Greek version of the scriptures that was used by the nascent Christian community routinely translates the Hebrew references to the faithfulness of God with the Greek word ‘truth’. Truth is personal in the scriptures. Truth is not doctrine or propositions but the steadfastness, the faithfulness, the firmness of God. He is truth. Jesus is a witness to God’s faithfulness.

So whether our fear is at the roaring of the seas, the warring of the nations, or the very personal crises we face, God is faithful. He reigns. Not like the nations of the world. He reigns in love. And his reign is everlasting.

I am your David

Sunday Evening

Psalm 23, John 10:11-18

File:Heilig Land Stichting Rijksmonument 523633 de goede herder, reli-art Piet Gerrits.JPGThe LORD is my shepherd;
I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul:
he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil:
for thou art with me;
thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies:
thou anointest my head with oil;
my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life:
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

11 “I am the good shepherd.
The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
12The hired hand,
who is not the shepherd
and does not own the sheep,
sees the wolf coming
and leaves the sheep and runs away–
and the wolf snatches them and scatters them.
13The hired hand runs away
because a hired hand does not care for the sheep.
14I am the good shepherd.
I know my own
and my own know me,
15just as the Father knows me
and I know the Father.
And I lay down my life for the sheep.

I have tried to preach on these texts many times without much success. I look back on old sermons and find scattered notes rather than well-assembled manuscripts. I wish I could look back at sermons that I have stored on those old floppy disks. I wonder if I had any better luck 20 years ago than I did ten. Somehow I doubt it.

I decided last night that the problem is that preaching on these texts is like taking apart a piece of music from Bach or Beethoven or Mozart rather than just listening to it. My life isn’t really enriched by knowing what the notes are, but by letting them play – letting myself be immersed in their glorious sounds.

Psalm 23 is a prayer. Prayers are better prayed than preached upon. So let me try this:

The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.

The LORD is my shepherd. The LORD is my King David who guarded his flock with his sling. The LORD is my David who fought off the bear and the lion and saved his flock from fearful enemies. The LORD is my David who slew Goliath with that same sling and five smooth stones. The LORD is my David who has beaten back every enemy. The LORD is my David who has enlarged the land. The LORD is my David who has made us to dwell securely.

The LORD is my shepherd, my righteous king, my defender, my hope. I shall not want.

I shall not be in want. I shall not lack for those things upon which life depends. Oh, I have plenty of wants and desires, but in him I lack no good thing, no true thing. In him there is the bread of life. In him there is the water of life. In him there are true pathways. In him is my way and my truth and my life.

He feeds me at his table. A table rich and abundant, a table filled with compassion and mercy, a table filled with grace and forgiveness, a table filled with joy and song, a table filled with love.

In the darkest valleys, he is my light. In the shadow of death he is my hope and promise. In weakness he is my strength. In fear he is my confidence. In sorrow he is my comfort.

The LORD is my David – and so much more than my David. He is my companion, my guide, my solace, my song. Even when surrounded by enemies, he is my overflowing cup, my soothing balm. He is my breath, my calm.

Israel was pursued through the wilderness by plundering tribes, but what chases after me is his goodness and faithfulness. Death and fear and sin and sorrow stalk me, and yet what truly pursues me, what seeks me, what follows after me, is God’s determination to enfold me in his life and love.

The LORD is my David, my perfect king, who lays down his life for me.

And now here is Jesus standing before me saying, “I am the Good Shepherd.” “I am the Good Shepherd, the true shepherd, the noble shepherd, the true and righteous king, the faithful king, who sets the life of his people before his own.”   Here is Jesus before me saying “I am the true shepherd who leads you to life.” I am the honorable shepherd, the faithful king, who lays down his life for you. Who calls you by name. Who knows your name. Who gathers you to myself. Who gathers others to my flock. I am the true shepherd, the true voice, who leads you to true pasture. Verdant pasture. Bread of life and living water.

I am the good shepherd, I am your David, I am your Moses and Abraham and Noah. I am he who walked with you in the garden and will open wide the gates of the city to come.

I am he who prepares for you a table. I am he who anoints you with my Spirit. I am he who seeks you. I am he who has prepared a place for you. “In my father’s house are many rooms. I go to prepare a place for you.”

I am he who washes away all sin. I am he who quenches your deepest thirst. I am he who turns water into wine, tears into joy, mourning into dancing. I am he who opens blind eyes, who strengthens feeble knees. I am he who meets you at the well with living water. I am the light that cannot be extinguished. I am the rock that cannot be shaken. I am the fountain that never runs dry. I am the eternal dawn, the morning light that does not fade.

I am your David, your perfect king, your noble shepherd, your eternal life.

And I have other sheep. Sheep that listen to my voice. And I must bring them also. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.

Amen

 

STatue: Nederlands: Heilig Land Stichting Rijksmonument 523633 de goede herder, reli-art van Piet Gerrits  Photo: By Havang(nl) (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Renewal

Watching for the Morning of February 22, 2015

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Ilya Repin, Tempation of Christ.

Our theme for the season of Lent this year is Renewal: renewing faith, renewing friendships, renewing families, renewing the earth. We will still read the texts in our Sunday service; they will still infuse our worship, but our hearing of them will be shaped by the theme of renewal.

It makes me nervous, of course. I don’t like preaching on themes.   I remember reading a little book on preaching my senior year in seminary where Gerhard Von Rad (I think) said that every young preacher has about six sermons in him – and after that, he or she has to start preaching the text. There is nothing eternal in my words. But there is life in the words that come to us as scripture.

Still, every text is shaped by the time and place in which it is read, by the health or weariness of the community, by the cries and joys that surround us. The text is shaped by the day. It speaks to a moment in time. And our moments in this Lenten season will be shaped by our hope for renewal.

The readings this coming Sunday are rich and wonderful, starting with God’s promise to Noah and all the creatures aboard the ark that God will never again war against humanity. God binds himself with a promise, and sets a sign of that promise in the sky.

1 Peter will use the story of those eight saved in the ark as an image for baptism and God’s promise to carry us safely to a world washed and renewed.

And Mark will tell us of Jesus in the wilderness, tested by Satan, and attended by angels. He is the faithful Son. He is the new Adam – dwelling in peace with the “wild animals”.

The psalmist rightly sings of God’s faithfulness. So it will be proper to speak about renewing our trust in God, and praying with the psalm “Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long.”

The Prayer for February 22, 2015

In the wilderness, O God, you watched over Jesus
and he kept faith with you.
Watch over us,
renewing our lives and our world
that, rooted in your Spirit and in your Word,
our trust in you may be deepened,
and we may prove faithful to you and to all;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for February 22, 2015

First Reading: Genesis 9:8-17
“Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, ‘As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you.’” – God establishes an eternal covenant with Noah and all the creatures of the ark to never again destroy the earth.

Psalmody: Psalm 25:1-10
“Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths.” – The poet entrusts himself to God and asks God to teach him God’s way.

Second Reading: 1 Peter 3:18-22
“For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God.”
– With imagery that is somewhat foreign to us, Peter proclaims Jesus the victorious one, ascending through the heavens, announcing God’s just judgment on the wicked angels imprisoned since the flood. Then, building on the imagery of the flood, proclaims the saving work of baptism, comparing it to the ark by which the righteous were saved.

Gospel Mark 1:9-15
“He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” – Mark’s narrative of the temptation of Jesus is sweet and to the point. Jesus shows himself to be worthy of the great honor conveyed by God at his baptism when God declared him “my beloved son.”

 

Image: By Ilya Repin (Bukowskis) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Wild woods, condos, and the Holy Spirit

Sunday Evening

Mark 1

Wild Woods8 “I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

I had a strange dream this morning. There are places that recur in my dreams, familiar landscapes that show up every now and then. As far as I can tell, the place of this dream is not a specific place I have been, but more like a composite of places I have known.

In this place of my dreams there is a path that leads away from the edge of town. It goes through some scrubland, then into trees. There is water off to the left – a small cove on a lake, or an inlet to a wide spot in a river. The path diverges. It feels like a secret land where children go to explore and play. One branch goes along the water and over a stream. Another goes through the woods into a large grassy area, perfect for a large game like Frisbee football or capture the flag. Another path takes you through the trees to a neighboring farm. And yet another path takes you up along a wooded ridgeline above the waters edge. In some ways this place of my dreams reminds me of church camps, where it’s easy to walk away from the crowded living areas into secluded woods and lakes. It is true about the woods, it carries you quickly away from the constraints and obligations of settled life. A short walk and you are in a different world.

I have liked these woods of my dreams, but this morning I dreamt of this place and for the first time there were other people there. The path was gone, the scrub was gone, the trees thinned out. There was grass up to the waters edge, and when I lifted my phone to take a picture of the lake, there were expensive condos all along the ridgeline. This beautiful, somewhat secret place had become a development. On the far end of the lake there were lights and buildings, perhaps a factory. What had been wild was now a domesticated park and upscale housing. I found myself telling a couple of people near me about what used to be there.

I was struggling to find the sermon for this morning. I went to bed late, and got up well before dawn, searching for that opening line, the key story, around which all my scattered thoughts could sort themselves out and coalesce into a coherent message. I wanted to talk about the Holy Spirit. I felt that the texts and the day – the Baptism of our Lord – had their center there, but I couldn’t find the thread for which I was looking. I had gone to bed in hopes that morning would prove more successful, though it makes me anxious to get that close to the deadline without at least a draft.

Sometimes I wake up with the opening line and basic outline of the sermon in my head. This morning I woke with this dream. As I puzzled over it, I came to the conclusion that the dream was less about my strange inner life, and more about the tension that was hiding beneath my struggle – the tension between church as congregation with programs and constitutions and competing desires of its members, and church as the body of Christ, imbued with the Spirit, bearing the reign of God into the world.

There is something untamed about the Spirit of God, something wild, something free and undomesticated. It is not governed by the demands of everyday life, but by a strange, unexpected, unmerited grace and compassion. It is like play. When we play we are lost in the game. The game, whatever it might be, becomes our reality for the moment. Whether playing house or baseball or Legos or pretending to be Helen Keller, we lose our usual self-consciousness and are carried away from ourselves into a new reality.

Technically, play is an altered state of consciousness – as is getting lost in prayer or music or peace or joy. Worship should be like this. We should get carried out of ourselves for a time, joined to something larger than ourselves, something ancient and beautiful and gracious. Something that is personal yet communal. Something that connects with the God and one another.

But congregations are also creatures of our stubborn, everyday reality. There are tasks to be done and bills to be paid and feelings to be assuaged. Toes get stepped on. People complain about one thing or another. Votes are taken on budgets and programs and staff. The free and wild wood becomes a planned park and condo development.

It seems to me that the thing I was struggling to find in the sermon was the invitation to come play in the woods, to live in the Spirit, to know its peace and joy, to know its freedom and spontaneity, to know its goodness and purity.

We need all that organizational stuff. The church exists in the world. But there is something more here. Indeed, that something more is the whole reason for congregations to exist: that they might help connect us to the divine, to open us to the Spirit of God, to fill us with the life and love and power of heaven, to enable us to live as part of the new creation in the midst of the old – to be the embodiment of Christ in our wounded and troubled world, to dance the dance of resurrection.

I hope I will dream again of the wild wood, that the place of my dreams is not forever lost to development.

And I pray that our congregation will know the wild wood, too.

The LORD’s sacrifice

Thursday

Zephaniah 1

File:Stanley Kubrick - butcher with slab of beef cph.3d02352.jpg

Look photographic assignment: Chicago city of contrasts. Stanley Kubrick [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

7 The LORD has prepared a sacrifice,
he has consecrated his guests.

I am ever amazed at the skill and audacity of the prophets. Here, with a half dozen words, a terrible and frightful image is set before the nation. God is getting ready to offer a sacrifice and he has called upon his guests to prepare themselves. “Take up your knife and fork. Say the table blessing. I am setting before you a feast. I myself will draw the knife and lay the carcass upon the fire. You need only come and dine.” The guests are the nations around them. Jerusalem is the fatted calf.

With five words (in the Hebrew text) any attempt to envision God as a partisan God, hawking and defending the glories of the nation, is shattered. God is not interested in Jerusalem for Jerusalem’s sake; God is seeking a people of justice and mercy. God is not interested in a temple bigger and more glorious than other gods; God is interested in a holy people, a people who walk God’s holy way, a people who honor the poor and speak the truth in testimony and do not pervert justice with bribes. A people who do not cut down the fruit trees for instruments of war, who do not take the mother bird with the eggs, who give a Sabbath even to their own oxen, who leave the margins of their fields for the poor to come and harvest. God is not looking for powerful armies, but humble kings. God is not looking ritual purity but spiritual fidelity.

And this nation, that bears God’s holy name, that sings God’s holy songs, that offers God’s holy sacrifices – this nation God will bind and lay upon the altar, a feast for all the nations to come and gorge themselves.

It is chilling. I feel like a beggar asking my congregation for scraps compared to this daring herald of God. “Please be a little nicer…” rather than “Thus saith the LORD…”

But I am not a prophet; I am a preacher. I point to the prophet’s words. I try to help those words come off the page and speak to us. I pray for God’s Spirit to grant us ears to hear. But I have a privilege Zephaniah does not have.

I am glad not to be a prophet. I envy their skill, but to I do not want their burden. I know what happened to the prophets. I know their laments. I know their sufferings.

But I am glad, not just because I do not want their sorrows. As a preacher I have this other treasure, of a child born, a man awash in the Spirit, an anointed one bearing witness to God’s ultimate governance of this earth. I have this other treasure of sins forgiven, bodies healed and spirits delivered. I have this other treasure of bread shared and feet washed and a life laid down. I have this treasure to announce of an empty tomb and an ascended Lord.

The words of judgment stand. God has prepared a sacrifice. God will pull down his own temple when it serves injustice. God will scatter his own people when they abandon mercy. But God does not abandon mercy. The knife is drawn across his own throat. He himself is the lamb that reconciles us to heaven and one another.

The prophets are fearless and bold. They speak brilliantly. And even their songs of hope are exquisite. But I get to point to a man who is the prophets’ word made flesh, who is God’s voice incarnate, who is slain but lives, and who summons us to live in him.

Running to the table

Sunday Evening

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By Erik (HASH) Hersman (Flickr: Running Samburu Boy) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

I apologize that there was no meditation for Saturday. Late Saturday evening, when I finally had my blog composed the way I wanted it, my hard drive crashed. I lost the blog entirely – and my sermon for this morning.

To be honest I didn’t regret the loss of the sermon as much as the loss of the blog. The sermon I wasn’t yet happy with – though I needed the hours I spent fixing my laptop. The blog, on the other hand, was finalized. I was just adding the text links and getting ready to post it.

So I had to “wing it” somewhat with Sunday’s sermon. I knew the texts. I knew what I wanted to say. I just had to do it without the reassurance of having composed the words ahead of time, so that I said what I wanted to say. I call it “working without a net” – nothing to catch me if I lose my train of thought or get off track and end up in a cul-de-sac. (You could also call it depending on the Spirit, though I know I am depending on the Spirit when I write my manuscript.)

A manuscript also helps me stay within a reasonable time frame. (Years ago, on my first try, when I felt the need to try preaching without a manuscript, I preached for 40 minutes – about twice what is customary in our churches.)

Some church services are a sermon with a little bit of music. Lutheran services are sometimes music with a little bit of preaching – though the tradition calls for equal attention between the liturgy of the Word (readings and preaching) and the liturgy of Holy Communion.

We are creatures who need liturgy. We need the power that comes with symbolic acts. An engagement ring is a symbolic act. Thanksgiving dinner is a symbolic act. A retirement dinner, a housewarming, graduation, bringing flowers to your daughter after her performance in the school play, these are all symbolic acts. They mark the moment. I could have given my daughter a picture of my high school play (though I was not on stage) but the tradition is to give flowers – so we give flowers. It has a culturally defined meaning – just like candy or roses on Valentines’ Day.

That small bit of bread and sip of wine are one such symbolic act with a culturally defined meaning. Only this meaning is defined by the promise of the prophets, the actions of Jesus, the last supper, and the whole history of the church. It means we are welcome at God’s banquet table – we are accepted, we are loved, we are forgiven, we are joined to of God’s people, we are joined with God in Christ, we have a share in the feast to come, and we bear Christ’s body into the world.

Ask a child and they may not be able to tell you all this. But this morning, as communion was being served, the children were late coming from Sunday School (they go to a lesson after the children’s message, during the time of the readings and sermon, and return to participate in the Lord’s Table). As I served the ushers and the organist – usually the last to be served before the assisting minister and me – I could see out the back door that the children were running to get to the table in time. I was more than happy to wait.

Running to the table. Eager to participate in this stylized action that symbolizes all God’s promise for the human community – that we will eat together at one table in that day of perfect peace, when every wound is healed and every debt forgiven. A promise that we are called to live now, knowing it is the destiny for which we were made.

These small children could not likely have explained any of this, but they were running to be there.  They know what it is to be included with everyone else in something that is very special.

As do we who imagine ourselves rational adults.

Giving voice to the Word

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Martin Luther preaching. Predella of the 1547 altar by Lucas Cranach the Elder and Younger in St. Mary’s, Wittenberg

Sunday Evening

Romans 10:14

“But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?”

Fifty years ago Pastor Gary was given a Bible and commissioned to preach and teach the faith of the church. A stole was laid around his neck, a symbol that the pastoral office is a servant office. Representatives of the church then laid their hands on his head and prayed for the Holy Spirit to be his guide and comfort in the task set before him.

We celebrated his fifty years of service on Sunday, in worship and in a luncheon after. It was a delightful day. It was not without some forethought that we choose this day, the feast of Holy Cross, not only because the color of the day would be red, as is the color appointed for ordinations, but because it is Christ crucified that pastors are called to proclaim.

The pastoral office used to be a greater honor than it is today. The public esteem of the church has dropped – as has the esteem of many social institutions. The church has been wounded by scandals involving its clergy. Its message has been marginalized by the media attention given to the radical fringe. The social compact that respected all religious traditions and recognized each one’s value to society has broken down in a kind of religious partisanship where the claim to truth has lost its social graces.

Our congregations, too, have been shaped by changing attitudes and our changing culture. Pastors – at least in traditional, white, mainline churches – are sometimes viewed as employees hired to administer the parish program rather than bearers of the divine message. Or they have been seen as providers of nurture and care rather than agents of God’s transformative work in our hearts and world. Congregations have sometimes looked for institution builders rather than kingdom builders. Since truth in general – and religious truth in particular – has become entirely personal, we measure sermons for how they keep our interest or meet our needs rather than for their fidelity to the ancient confessions.

On the face of it, the traditional local church seems to be going the way of local bookstores. The economy is passing them by.

But only on the face of it.

The Word of God is, by nature, a spoken word. At least in the Christian scriptures, God is not found; God reveals himself. God is not the culmination of a spiritual journey but the start of one. Moses is tending sheep when a voice speaks to him from the burning bush. Jacob is fleeing his brother’s murderous threats (well deserved) when he lays his head down upon a rock and God reveals himself in a dream. Who knows what Abraham is doing when he is told to leave his home and kindred towards a promised land.

God is not found; God finds us. God encounters us. God speaks to us. And God nearly always speaks through prophets and messengers. Even the word ‘angel’ means simply ‘messenger’ (and is used for earthly as well as heavenly messengers).

To speak, God needs to use a voice. A human voice. And human hands.

That task of speaking is given to all of us, of course, but the church also trains and commissions some to exercise this role publicly: To speak on behalf of the whole church. To speak the word that God has entrusted to us. To speak the word that lifts the burden of our sin and brokenness. The word of healing grace. The word of comfort in desolation, of hope in loss, of the true way of God in time when evil seems triumphant.

Though the form of the church changes from age to age, this task of speaking remains. The world may not recognize nor honor this work Pastor Gary does, but the heavens see.