Trouble the Water

Sunday 14 January 2018
Baptism of the Lord

Genesis 1:1-5
Mark 1:4-11

7379739398_c4513ca136_bToday we are celebrating the holiday known as Baptism of the Lord. In it, we remember the time when Jesus himself was baptized, baptized by John in the Jordan River. It is often also a time when we reflect on our own baptism, about what baptism means in general, and about the covenant relationship that we have with God through baptism.

Just a moment ago we heard Mark’s version of the story of Jesus being baptized by John, about how he saw the heavens torn open, about how he heard a voice assuring him of God’s love for him. And I want to come back to that in a moment. But first I want to take us on a short detour through another of the texts that we have this morning: the reading from the Book of Genesis.

Genesis 1. The very beginning of the bible. And we all know how it starts: “In the beginning…” In the old King James Version, it reads, “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” And then there is a second sentence: “And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” That is how most of us learned this passage. That’s how I learned it. God created everything out of nothing, creatio ex nihilo, we say in the Latin. First there was nothing, and then God, flash, created it.

But if you look very closely, you might notice that there is something strange about these first two verses of Genesis. In the KJV, first we have a declarative statement: In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. But we aren’t told anything about how God created the heavens and the earth. That’s what we’re expecting to hear next: how God did it. But the next verse doesn’t tell us. It says, “And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.”

Do you notice it? There is a step missing. We are told that in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, but then, when we get to how that is going to happen, there’s already something there. There’s already a formless, void earth, and waters, and God’s Spirit blowing across the deep waters. How did those things get there?

Part of the problem is that the beginning of the Bible does not actually begin with “In the beginning.” When the Hebrew Bible was translated first into Greek and then into Latin, the translators squeezed a bit of the ambiguity of the original Hebrew out of the text. English translations that are influenced by the Greek Septuagint and the Latin Vulgate tend to begin, like the New Revised Standard Version we read today, with “In the beginning.” But listen to the Tanakh Translation, by the Jewish Publication Society, which doesn’t care at all about later Greek and Latin translations. The Tanakh Translation reads: “When God began to create heaven and earth—the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water—God said, ‘Let there be light;’ and there was light.” This story might not start at the beginning. Something else happened before the time God started creating the earth..

The way most of us were taught this passage, we would read verse 1, and then we would mentally skip over verse 2 entirely, and then continue with verse 3. We have it in our minds that there was absolute nothingness, and God said “Light,” and then out of nothingness light appeared. But we can only read it that way if we ignore verse 2 about the formless earth, the deep waters, and the spirit of God. In Genesis, God does not create out of nothing; God creates out of chaos. That doesn’t mean that God doesn’t create the chaos in the first place; it’s just that that isn’t what is narrated by Genesis. What Genesis narrates is God creating out of chaos, bringing form to formlessness.

There is a formless earth, an unfathomable deep, a darkness, and God’s spirit, God’s wind, God’s breath blowing across the surface of the waters. And out of this chaotic jumble, God begins to create, begins to divide things up, begins to put things in order. Light and darkness. Day and night. Ocean and sky. Land and water. Times and seasons. Plants and animals. God wades into the troubled, chaotic waters and brings forth a new creation, new life, new possibility. God speaks Light, and there is light. And it is good.

In Mark we find a scene that seems very different than Genesis 1. And yet, surprisingly, it has several of the same elements. There is a chaotic wilderness. There is water. There is God’s Spirit coming down over the face of the water. There is God’s voice from heaven, this time saying, “You are my Son, the beloved; in you I am well pleased.” God sees that it is good.

In Mark’s Gospel, this is the first time we get to see Jesus. Mark has no story of Jesus’s birth or childhood. This is his entrance, nine verses in. He comes from Nazareth down to the Judean wilderness to be baptized along with all the others who are flocking to John. And while John says he is expecting someone more powerful than himself, he neither says nor does anything to indicate that he knows that Jesus is the one he is expecting.

Like all of the other pilgrims, Jesus hears John’s sermon of repentance. Come into the waters and change your life. Repent! Turn around. Change your mind. Change your way of living. Turn away from sin and injury and death. Turn toward God and healing and life.

And like all the others, Jesus wades out into the water. To his ankles. To his knees. To his waist. Like the others, he lets the baptizer drop him under. A symbolic drowning. Death to sin. Like the others, he is lifted up, out of the water. Resurrection. New life. New creation. New possibility.

But as he emerges from the water, it is Jesus alone who sees the heavens torn open, ripped like a piece of fabric, the heavenly realm revealed beyond. It is Jesus alone who sees the Spirit come down on him, like a dove, hovering over the face of the waters. And the voice speaks to Jesus alone, “You are my Son, my dearly loved. I find joy in you.” You are my child, my dearly loved. I find joy in you.

We live in a troubled world, a world of uncertainty and chaos. I know that I have felt increasing anxiety as I consider the state of our world. We are once again considering the possibility of nuclear war, a possibility I have not much thought of since the mid-1990’s, until now. We are grappling with race and racism—inadvertent, systemic, internalized racism, yes—but now blatant racism is also back in style. We live in a nation of uncertainty. What is the future of our health care system? What is the future for immigrants in this nation? What is the future for victims and perpetrators of sexual violence? What is the future for our courts, our elections, our democratic institutions? We live in a troubled world.

And not only in our public life, but also in our homes and hearts. What do I do after I graduate high school or college? What do I do when I no longer work and collect a paycheck? What do I do when my age catches up with me? What do I do when my health fails, or the health of one I love? What do I do after the death of a parent, a spouse, a child? What do I do when there is violence in my home, violence in my school, violence in my workplace, violence in my community, violence in my own self? What do I do when I am enslaved to addiction, to greed, to doubt? What do I do when I don’t belong, when I don’t feel like I have a place? What do I do when I don’t feel like anyone likes me, when I don’t like myself? What do I do when I don’t think I am worthy of love? We live in a troubled world.

And in a troubled world like ours, it can be tempting just to close our eyes, to close our ears, to close our hearts, our minds, and our doors. Let me just pretend that the trouble isn’t out there. Let me just pretend that the trouble doesn’t affect me. Let me just pretend that nothing is wrong.

And in a troubled world like ours, it can be hard to see the presence of God. Why is this happening, God? Why am I having to deal with this? God, if you really were here we wouldn’t be stuck in this mess.

And yet, when we find ourselves in the midst of trouble, in the midst of chaos and uncertainty, in the midst of the roiling waters of the deep, what does the Spirit say? Wade in. Wade in.

Because in the trouble, in the chaos, in the uncertainty—that is where new life begins. In the churning waters of the deep and the blustering wind, that is where creation happens. In the troubled waters of Bethesda, that is where healing is offered. Through the towering waters of the Red Sea, that is where deliverance comes. It is in the trouble that we find God’s grace. New creation. New life. New possibility.

That is what our baptism reminds us. Baptism is not for us to separate ourselves from the world and it’s problems. No, in baptism, we pledge to go out into the world, to bring God’s peace where there is violence, to bring God’s justice where there is oppression, to bring God’s love where there is hate, to bring God’s faith where there is fear. Our Christian faith does not keep us safe up on the shore; our Christian faith invites us to wade in the water and be a part of God’s new creation, a part of God’s transforming grace. Our Christian faith invites us not only to brave the troubled waters, but also when things are stagnant to trouble the water with God.

But we don’t go in alone, do we? No. God sends us out together, two by two, seven by seven, congregation by congregation. In baptism we are joined together as one people, one family; we are never alone. We are there to catch each other when we fall, to lift each other up when we slip and sink beneath the waves.

Some of you have been wave-jumping at Camp Magruder on the Oregon Coast. The surf there is treacherous. There are sneaker waves. There is an undertow. It would be dangerous for one person to go out into the waves alone. It would be easy to get sucked under and pulled out to sea. But when many people go out together, all holding on to the same strong rope, even elementary kids can wade out into the crashing waves. Together we can withstand the waves. We are strength for each other’s weakness.

And even when we are weak, our God is strong. Jesus precedes us in baptism, and Jesus leads us out into the world, wades into the water with us, as the Spirit of God hovers over us, as we hear the voice speak “Life,” and there is life; as we hear the voice speak, “You are my child, dearly loved, I find joy in you.”

I am not asking you to dive headfirst into the abyss alone. And there will be times for all of us when we need to wade out, to catch our breath, to rest, to cough up that salt water that we swallowed, to warm up and dry off in the sun. We cannot live our whole lives in the waves. Nor should we jump heedlessly into danger with no purpose or without the help and support of community and of God.

But we must also remember that in the trouble, in the chaos, in the uncertainty, in the churning waters, there is danger, but there is also possibility. There is destruction, but there is also a new creation. There is death, even, but there is also resurrection. Wade in. We do not wade into the waters alone. Thanks be to God, through Jesus, our brother, our savior, our light, our life. Amen.


Good morning!

Weekly Reflection for Jan 7th Isaiah 60:2   When is a time God gave you light in a time of darkness?

++           Congregational Meeting is this Sunday immediately after the 10:00am service.

++        Pastor David begins study leave next week: January 16 through March 15. The Rev. Dr. Rob Sachs will be filling in part time.

++ Celebrate the life, work and dreams of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on Monday, Jan. 15 at Riverside Community Church in Hood River.  Free of charge, open to the public. Donations will be accepted to support Somos Uno’s justice work in the Gorge.   For more information call 541-241-6771. The theme of this year’s celebration, sponsored by Gorge Ecumenical Ministries and Somos Uno, is “The Dreams of Martin Luther King Jr. Live On: Building a Community with Justice for All.” This year’s event will include:                                                                                                                                                                     • 4:15-5:30 p.m.: Workshop with attorneys primarily in Spanish.    • Stories of immigrant detainees held at NORCOR, presented (with identifying information changed) by clergy chaplains who visit detainees.     • 5:30-6:30 p.m.: Celebration featuring music by Los Amigos de la Sierra and a Gospel Music ensemble convened by Evelyn Charity and Bill Weiler. This program will be in English and Spanish.     • 6:30 p.m.: Potluck community dinner.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         Rev. Kelly Ryan, Somos Uno secretary: “Through sharing testimonies and connecting over great music and a meal shared together, we hope to build relationship and inspire courage that helps bend that arc a bit more towards justice for all.”

++           Church office is closed for Mlk Jr. Day Monday Jan 15th.

Jennifer Fowler

Sermon: The Beginning of the Good News

Sunday 10 December 2017
The Second Sunday of Advent, Year B

Mark 1:1-8

This morning we continue together on our journey through the season of Advent, our journey of preparation for the coming of the Messiah. Advent is a season of waiting and watching and hoping; it is a season of introspection and preparation. The calendar of commercialism seeks to sweep us to Christmas with the speed of a credit card being swiped. It tries to keep us moving, faster, faster, more, more, bigger, better, brighter, shinier, more fantastic. But the calendar of the church pulls against that impulse. It invites us to slow down, to pay attention to the movement of the Spirit, to make space in our lives for the Christ.

Last week we listened to the voice of the prophet Isaiah. We heard the cry, “If only you would tear open the heavens and come down, O God!” We felt the deep desire for God to come near, for God to bring justice, for God to make things right. And we were reminded of that image of God as the potter and us as the clay. When we are right with God, then God is able to shape us, to mold into the image God dreams for us, to make us useful in the world, as a plate for service, as a piece of art to inspire, or even as a vessel for the Christ. God is the potter; we are the clay. Advent reminds us to feel the hand of God molding us.

This morning we turn our attention to the Gospel of Mark. Advent marks the beginning of a new year in the church calendar, and with it comes a new Gospel to focus our attention on. Last year we followed the Gospel of Matthew. This year we follow the Gospel of Mark. And as we begin our year-long journey with Mark, it makes sense to take a moment to remind ourselves of Mark’s distinctive message and style.

Mark is the earliest of the four gospels we have in the New Testament. There is Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John; but Mark actually comes first. Both Matthew and Luke use Mark as a source when they write their later gospels. And John, the latest of the gospels, may also have known the work of Mark.

Mark is also the roughest of the four gospels. It uses courser language than the other three. One of my professor’s said that Mark was written in truck-driver Greek. It’s not finely crafted. Matthew and Luke are constantly editing to clean up Mark’s sloppy construction and grammatical shortcomings. The Gospel of Mark is the work of someone who had only a partial mastery of the Greek language.

The Gospel of Mark is a gospel of action. Jesus doesn’t spend as much time talking in Mark as he does in the other three gospels. Instead, he teaches by doing. And he goes quickly from one thing to another. The most common word in the Gospel of Mark is “immediately.” Everything happens immediately in Mark.

Out of all of the gospels, Mark’s portrays Jesus as the most fully human. John’s Jesus is the transcendent Word who was in the beginning, and was with God, and was God. John’s Jesus is hardly recognizable as a human being at all. But Mark’s Jesus is very human. He suffers. He gets angry. He even gets surprised and doesn’t always know exactly what is happening or what is coming next.

In short, the Gospel of Mark is common. It is basic. It is close to the ground. Mark’s Jesus is powerful, but he is recognizable as a prophet who endures all of the things that other humans endure.

And that common-ness is also apparent in the way Mark introduces Jesus. The four gospels don’t agree at all about Jesus’s beginnings. In Matthew Jesus is born in a house and visited by wise men before his family flees as refugees to Egypt. In Luke Jesus is born in a stable, proclaimed by angels, and visited by shepherds. In John Jesus is some sort of eternal spiritual being, described as Word or as Light.

But in Mark, it’s very different. Mark starts, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, Son of God.” Some of our oldest and best manuscripts of Mark don’t even include those last two words: God’s son. It’s just, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus, the anointed one.” That’s it. Then we get a quick quotation from Isaiah. Then we hear about John the Baptist. And before we know it, Jesus arrives on the scene fully-formed, grown up, ready to be baptized by John. Mark includes nothing about Jesus’s childhood. There is no mention of Mary or Joseph. There are no angels, no shepherds, no wise men, no stable, no star, no animals, no census, no inn, no gold or frankincense or myrrh, no dreams, no ecstatic utterances, no King Herod, and no Emperor Augustus. If we wanted to make a nativity scene of Mark’s Christmas, it would have only three pieces: a scroll of scripture, John the Baptist, and an adult Jesus. Mark doesn’t care about any of the rest of it. For Mark, everything we need to know about Jesus’s origin story is contained in the eight short verses we have assigned for this morning.

If that is the only introduction Mark thinks we need to Jesus, perhaps we should take a closer look at it. “The beginning of the good news of Jesus the anointed happened as it’s written in the Prophet Isaiah.” And then it gives us the quote from Isaiah: “Look, I am sending my messenger ahead of you who will prepare your way, a voice shouting in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord; make his paths straight.’”

This morning we actually read the part of Isaiah that Mark is quoting here. And if you look very closely, you’ll notice that Mark doesn’t actually quote Isaiah correctly. The end of it corresponds roughly to Isaiah, but the beginning is cobbled together from Exodus and Malachi. The whole quotation is only 27 words, but Mark has to draw from three completely different books of the Hebrew Bible in order to produce the prophecy that he uses to characterize Jesus.

And yet, it is those 27 words that are the core of the message: “See, I am sending my messenger before you who will prepare your road. A voice screaming, in the wilderness prepare the Lord’s road; make his paths straight.”

On the table before us we have symbols of roads and of their construction: maps and cars and construction equipment. Prepare the Lord’s road. Make the path straight.

We have experience with the construction of roads. My father spent 43 years working for the Oregon Highway Department building and maintaining roads. But you don’t have to be a construction worker to have experience with the building of roads. You only have to be a driver or a passenger. We all have the experience of slowing down and stopping and waiting in a construction zone. We wait as welders work on the bridge between Oregon and Washington. We wait as workers create the infrastructure for new neighborhoods. We wait as crews repair the freeway between Hood River and Portland.

That has been the big one lately. The fire this summer changed everything about the Columbia River Gorge, including the main road that leads through it: Interstate Highway number 84. And since then we have been waiting and watching as workers labor diligently to restore the ease of travel that we have become used to.

Of course, it hasn’t always been so easy. Many of you remember the days before the freeway, which was originally called I-80N. Before that there was only US Route 30, the Columbia River Highway, which was first built in the 1910s as a winding, circuitous road through the Gorge, requiring amazing feats of engineering—bridges and tunnels—to make a route that was just barely passable by automobiles. It, in turn, replaced an even windier, hillier wagon road through the Gorge. Over the decades, highway engineers have been doing just what the prophet envisioned: leveling the hills, straightening the curves. What once was a treacherous path for wagons can now be navigated easily by thousands of cars every day.

Of course, Mark is not speaking about a physical highway for the passage of cars and trucks, or one for the passage of camels and donkeys. Mark is talking about a different kind, a different kind of construction, a different kind of preparation. Prepare the way for the Lord; make his paths straight.

What is it that prepares the Lord’s way? What is it that make’s God’s path straight? What is it that is standing in the way, impeding God’s progress, blocking the path of the Messiah?

We might well think about that question in our contemporary world. What stands in the way of God’s progress. Which roadblocks obstruct the coming of God’s Reign?

Is it a work culture that has for too long ignored and covered up systemic sexual violence? Is it an economic system that continues to make the rich richer and the poor poorer? Is it a justice system in which people of color are still more likely to be stopped, more likely to be arrested, more likely to be charged, more likely to be convicted, more likely to be sentenced to longer terms, and more likely to be executed than their white counterparts?

Yes, it is all of these things and more. It is the greed in our hearts that distracts us from the will of God in our lives. It is the busy, busy, busy that keeps us moving so fast we don’t even notice God’s presence in and among us. It is the shame and stigma that keeps us from asking for help and healing when we need it. It is everything that diverts us from the will of God.

And we are called to do our part to make the change. We too are sent ahead to prepare the way. We are directed to make the path straight for the coming of the Christ, to level out the inequalities, to remove the blind corners and hairpin curves.

Look, I am sending my messenger before you,

who will prepare your way,

a voice exclaiming,

in the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord;

make his paths straight.

This Advent, let us take up the call. Let us shoulder the burden. Let us embrace the work that God has assigned. Clear the Lord’s way in the desert! Make a level highway in the wilderness for our God!

Sermon: Tear Open the Heavens

Sunday 3 December 2017
The First Sunday of Advent, Year B

Isaiah 64:1-9

This is the first day of the church year. We, like millions of other Christians around the world, follow the liturgical calendar, a progression of seasons and holy days. We just finished the long season of ordinary time, that stretched from Pentecost until now. And  now we are in the first season of the Christian calendar: the season of Advent. This is the first Sunday of Advent.

Sometimes you’ll hear people complaining this time of year that store clerks don’t say Merry Christmas anymore. That has always struck me as incredibly strange. Why would I want someone to wish me a merry Christmas if it isn’t even Christmas yet? And according to the church, Christmas doesn’t start until sundown on December 24th. And Christmas lasts for 12 days, from December 25th until Epiphany on January 6th.

The calendar of commercialism is different of course. According to the calendar of commercialism, Christmas started about 2 in the afternoon on Thanksgiving Day. That’s when the Black Friday sales started this year, in the afternoon of Thanksgiving Day. And according to the calendar of commercialism, Christmas ends as soon as the boxes are opened on the morning of 25th.

But not according to the calendar of the church. According to the Christian calendar, Christmas is still a long way off. Before we can get to Christmas, we have to get through four Sundays of Advent.

The season of Advent get’s it’s name from the Latin word adventus, which means arrival, coming. It is not a season of celebration; it is a season of preparation. We are preparing for the arrival, for the coming of Christ. It is a time for us to slow down, to let the spinning wheels of our lives run a bit slower. It is a time to reflect, to look inward and consider how it is that we will welcome the Christ. It is a time to listen and watch, to be mindful as we look for the Lord’s coming.

And we have rearranged the sanctuary this season to help us with our advent preparation. We are turned inward as we watch and wait together. We have wheels to remind us of the turning of the seasons, the passage of time, as we slow down for reflection. And we have in the center the table of thanksgiving, at which Christ arrives anew every time we celebrate the sacrament of holy communion. And even if we find ourselves blind to these symbols, at least we can notice that there is something different in this season. There is something different, and we are asked to do something different, to stretch against the culture that tells us to speed up and consume, and instead to slow down, to wait, and to watch for what God is doing.

On this first Sunday in Advent, we turn to the words of the prophet Isaiah. While there was a historical prophet Isaiah who worked in Jerusalem and the Kingdom of Judah in the time leading up to Judah’s defeat at the hands of the Babylonians, biblical scholars have, since the 1800’s believed that the Book of Isaiah represents the work of several different people, writing over the period of several decades. The first thirty-nine chapters of the book are referred to as First Isaiah, or proto-Isaiah. This first part is thought to be the work of the prophet Isaiah, or his students, during the time before Judah was defeated by Babylon. Chapters forty to fifty-five are called Second Isaiah, or deutero-Isaiah. It is thought to be the work of another, anonymous prophet during the time that the Jews were in captivity in Babylon. The last eleven chapters, called Third Isaiah, or trito-Isaiah, is thought to have been written after the return of the Jews from exile. This is the part of the book that we find ourselves in this morning. Although the composition of the Book of Isaiah is likely more complicated than simply being three separate chunks arranged one after the other, it is at least helpful to know that this is a work that was written over a long period of time, multiple generations, and it meditates on the cycle of the decline of the kingdom, the defeat and exile, and the eventual return.

Here at the beginning of chapter 64 we hear the prophet longing for the advent of God. “If only you would tear open the heavens and come down!” the prophet cries out to God. If only you would tear open the heavens and come down.

This is a deep longing for a greater closeness with God. The world is still not as it should be. Some things have gotten better, and others have gotten worse. The powerful and wealthy exploit their power and wealth in order to get even more power and wealth, while the common folk struggle to get by. The leaders who are lifted up to govern the nation, they disappoint again and again. They are not righteous. They do not always work in the interest of the people. There actions and their motivations are far, far from God.

But why does it have to be like this? Why, God? Why don’t you come down and straighten things out in person? If only you would tear open the heavens and come down! If only you would tear open the heavens.

What would happen then? What would happen if God arrived on earth in order to set things right? What would the divine presence feel like if it were mediated by distance in space or time?

The prophet continues: “Mountains would quake before you/ like fire igniting brushwood or making water boil.” God’s very presence would set off the volcanos, light fires, boil waters. All of nature would be shaken by the imminence of God.

What else? “If you would make your name known to your enemies/ the nations would tremble in your presence.” All those who work against God’s justice would be brought to fear. Who would dare rush into war if they knew they would be immediately accountable to God? Who would dare take advantage of the poor? Who would dare abuse their power, assault their neighbor, if they knew that God was right over their shoulder?

How do we know? The prophet continues: “When you accomplished wonders beyond all our expectations/ when you came down, mountains quaked before you.” That is, when God showed up to free the slaves and bring them out of Egypt, it was in a cloud of fire and smoke. When God held back the army of the slavemasters, it was with crashing waters. When God visited Moses with the words of the covenant, it was on a quaking mountain, covered with smoke and with fire.

The prophet continues: “From ancient times/ no one has heard/no ear has perceived/ no eye has seen any god but you/ who acts on behalf of those who wait for him!” That is to say, there is no other god like our God. Isaiah has heard stories about many other gods, from many parts of the world. Every nation has their own gods and their own stories about the gods. Ba’al. Marduk. Zeus. Odin. But none of the other stories tell about a God who cares so much for humanity. It is only the God of Israel who comes to rescue of slaves. It is only the God of Israel who fights for the well-being of the lowly. It is only the God of Israel who wills the good of humanity, who cares enough about human beings to pay attention to our struggles. No other god but the God of Israel cares for people like that.

The prophet continues to speak about how we humans never seem to rise up to the standards of God. Even when we try, we sin. And much of the time, we don’t even try. We don’t even reach out to God, we don’t even struggle for God’s truth, God’s justice. We turn our backs on God. We try to hide ourselves. We try to act and live as if God did not exist, as if God had not set standards for our living. And detached from God, we whither up like leaves. Our guilt blows us away like the wind.

If only you would tear open the heavens and come down, O God. If only you would tear open the heavens and come and meet us here on earth. If only you would set things right. If only you would bring your justice. Then we wouldn’t be tossed around by sin, stirred up in disorder like leaves in the wind.

But, the prophet says, there is room hope. All is not lost. God is still speaking, still working in our world. God is our father and our mother. It is God who gives us life; it is God who gives us a name. It is God who forms us. It is God who crafts us like an artist, taking simple clay, molding and remolding. It is God who shapes us, who gives us form and purpose. In the midst of the chaos and unrest in the world, it is God who brings order to our lives.

We are like the clay on this table. Left unworked, it does nothing. It serves no particular purpose. It does not accomplish anything for anyone. But if it is worked, if it is shaped and molded, if it is fired and cured, then it begins to have purpose. It can be a plate offering food to the hungry. It can be a cup offering drink to those who thirst. And in fact, it can become a vessel that holds the very being of Christ, Jesus’s own body and blood.

If only you would tear open the heavens and come down, O God. But of course, God does that very thing. God tears open the heaven to visit an unmarried Palestinian girl with the birth of a savior. God tears open the heavens to show Jesus the power of the Spirit in baptism. God tears open the heavens and causes the earth to shake at the self-giving death of the Christ.

And God still tears open the heavens to visit us with the presence of Christ. God tears open the heavens each time we read the stories, each time we pray the name. God tears open the heavens each time we gather around the table, say the words, invoke the mystery of God’s own body and blood shared in simple bread and wine. God tears open the heavens each time we accept Jesus into our lives, each time we allow the Spirit to work in us, each step we take along the way of Christ.

And as we watch and wait this season, as we strain our eyes to see the Christ child amidst all the tinsel and wrapping paper, as we seek the peace, the hope, the love and the joy that comes with faith in the faithfulness of God, we say with the prophet. Tear open the heavens and come down, O God. Tear open the heavens and make yourself known. Tear open the heavens and make your home in us. Tear open the heavens and show us the Christ.

Sermon: As For Me and My House

Sunday 12 November 2017
The Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 32A

Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25

When we are reading a story that recounts events from the past, it is always important to consider the context in which they occur. When we are reading the stories of Jesus, it’s important to remember that Jesus’s time was very different from our time and that the place Jesus lived was very different from the place that we live. Understanding the difference between our context and the context of the events related in the story can help us better understand what is going on in the story. For example when Mary and Joseph take Jesus to be dedicated in the temple, they make an offering of two pigeons. If we know that the expected sacrifice was one lamb and one pigeon, but poor people could offer two pigeons, then we know that Mary and Joseph were poor, and that tells us something about who Jesus is. That’s the kind of help that context can give us.

Sometimes, though, we don’t just need to know the context of the people in the story; sometimes we also need to know the context of the people writing the story. Take as an example the 1970’s television show M*A*S*H, starring Alan Alda, Loretta Swit, and others. The comedic drama tells the story of a US Army field hospital during the War in Korea. And it can be helpful to know something about the Korean Conflict in order to understand the show. But M*A*S*H isn’t really about Korea and the early 1950’s. M*A*S*H is about what was happening when the show was written, in the 1970’s. M*A*S*H isn’t about Korea, it’s about Vietnam. And if you don’t know some of the history of the Vietnam War and the social struggle that was happening in the United States at the same time, you won’t really understand the show. You don’t just need to know the context of the story, you need to know the context of the writers.

And the same is true for the lesson we have this morning from the Book of Joshua. The context of the story is the conquest of Canaan by the Israelites. It’s after Moses has led the people out of Egypt, after the people have received the law in the wilderness, and after Moses has died. Joshua tells the story of the Israelites invading the Promised Land, the land of the Canaanites, with Joshua as their leader and general. The passage we read is from the end of the story, near the death of Joshua.

And we could try to study more about that early time, find out how the archeology matches up with the story in the bible. But it’s much more useful to find out something about the people who wrote the Book of Joshua centuries after the events that it describes.

Joshua is part of a larger work that we call the Deuteronomistic History. It’s called the Deuteronomistic History because it seems to be produced by the same community that produced Deuteronomy. It includes the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings. And it’s not written in the time of Joshua and the invasion of Canaan about the 13th century BCE. It’s not written in the time of the judges, the 11th and 12th centuries BCE. It’s not written in the time of King Saul, King David, and King Solomon, around the 10th century. It’s not written in the time of the prophets Elijah and Elisha, in the 9th century, nor is it written in the time of Amos and Hosea and Micah, in the 8th century. It isn’t even written in the time of Isaiah, in the 7th century. No, the Book of Joshua is written in the 6th century, around 700 years after the events it describes. To put that in perspective, if we were writing such a history today, the events we would be recording would be things like the Mongolian Empire, the black plague, the journeys of Marco Polo, the establishment of the Ottoman Empire, the reign of Robert the Bruce, and the founding of the Ming Dynasty, hardly events of recent memory.

Joshua is alive when the Israelites are entering the land, but the Book of Joshua is written 700 years later, when the people have been kicked out of the land and are living in exile in Babylon. And so the writers of the Book of Joshua have some difficult political and theological issues to grapple with. They need to know why the Kingdom of Israel was conquered by the Assyrian Empire. They need to know why the Kingdom of Judah was conquered by the Babylonian Empire. They need to know why the descendants of King David had been removed from the throne, even though God had promised that the Kingdom of David would last forever. They need to know why Jerusalem was destroyed, why the temple of God was destroyed, and why the leading people of Judah had been deported, moved against their will nearly 900 miles away from their home. Why were they forced to live as exiles in a foreign land? Why could they no longer practice their religion? Why could they no longer govern themselves? In short, why had God abandoned them?

And they seem to have decided that all of these bad things had happened because they were being punished by God. God was angry with them, and so God had broken God’s promise to protect them.

But why was God punishing them? It must be because the people had broken some kind of promise. It must be because they weren’t faithful to God. It must be because they weren’t pure. It must be because they allowed their neighbors to worship other gods. It must be because they intermarried with other tribes. It must be because they allowed people to worship God in places other than the temple in Jerusalem. That was the problem. If they had just destroyed all of the other temples and shrines, except the one that was in Jerusalem, if they had just annihilated all of the people living in the land who weren’t Israelites, if they had maintained their genetic and religious purity, then God wouldn’t have abandoned them, then they would not have lost their king, their temple, and their land.

It is from this perspective that the writers of the Book of Joshua looked back on the stories of their ancient ancestors, the stories of when they had first come into the Promised Land. In the passage from today, we here the story they wrote about the last acts of Joshua. He has already led them to victory against the Canaanites, he has already established the people in the land, and now, shortly before his death, he summons the people together at the sanctuary at Shechem.

And Joshua tells them it is time to make a choice. They have to choose between YHWH, the God of Israel, and all of the other gods of the other peoples around them. Will they choose to worship only the one God of Israel, or will they do what everyone else does, and worship several different gods?

Joshua recounts to them the history of their experience with YHWH, and does it in the voice of God. “Long ago, I took your ancestor Abraham from his home on the other side of the Euphrates River…” Joshua says. And he continues through the whole story, although some of it has been cut out of the reading for today. He talks about Abraham and Isaac, Jacob and Esau. He talks about Moses and Aaron. He talks about how God freed the people from slavery in Egypt. He talks about the parting of the Red Sea and how God defeated the Egyptian army. He talks about the time in the wilderness, and about the many battles that God won for them against their enemies. He talks about how God led them into the Promised Land, how God defeated all of the peoples living there in order to give the land to the Israelites.

And it all leads up to Joshua’s question for them: will you choose YHWH, the God of Israel, or will you choose the gods of Mesopotamia? It’s a question that doesn’t make any sense in the context of Joshua. In Joshua’s time, Israelites might have been tempted to worship the gods of Canaan or the gods of Egypt, but no one would have worship the gods of far-off Mesopotamia. The question only makes sense in the context of the exile in Babylon 700 years later. Joshua isn’t so much speaking to his contemporaries, he is speaking to the readers of the book, 700 years and 900 miles away, the exiled Jews living in Babylon, that is in Mesopotamia. They are the ones who have to choose between the God of Israel and the gods of Mesopotamia. Not Joshua’s people, the people who wrote and read the Book of Joshua.

But in the story, the people do answer. Along with their leader, Joshua, they choose the Lord, they choose YHWH, the God of Israel. They recognize everything that God has done for them, and they make the conscious choice to remain with God.

Joshua isn’t satisfied with their answer, though. And this is the part of the story where we really need to remember the context of the people writing the Book of Joshua. Because this is what Joshua says to the people:

“You cannot serve the Lord, because he is a holy God. He is a jealous God. He will not forgive your transgressions or your sins. If you leave the Lord and serve foreign gods, then he will turn around and do you harm and consume you, in spite of having done you good in the past.”

Wow. Those are harsh words. And they sound nothing at all like the God I know. Joshua describes God as angry, jealous, unforgiving, cruel, abusive, and heartless. And while there are people who still try to preach that God, I am not among them. Nor were the pastors who came before me in this congregation, nor were John Wesley and Martin Luther, for that matter. That is not the God we know and serve.

For the Jewish people in exile in Babylon this made sense, at least for some of them. It brought some sense of order to the extreme chaos of their lives. It explained why they had been defeated. The natural thing to think was that they had been defeated by Babylon because their God had been defeated by the God of the Babylonians. But this theology of a God who would not forgive any people who strayed allowed them to think that God had not been defeated when Israel was defeated. Israel had been defeated because God had turned away from Israel, and God had turned away from Israel because Israel had turned away from God. The thing to do now was to turn back to God.

And the way to turn back to God was to make themselves pure. No worshipping other gods. No tolerating people who worshipped other gods. No intermarrying with people who were not Israelites. And when they did make it back to the Promised Land, they could not allow anyone to live who was not Jewish and who did not worship God in the prescribed way. Kill the non-Israelites. Destroy every temple and shrine and worship center except the temple in Jerusalem, even if those other worship places were dedicated to the God of Israel. No, everyone had to be united. One people, one genealogy, one temple, one priesthood, one king. Everything else must be rejected. Only then would God show them favor again, only then would God fight on their side, only then would God forgive them.

It’s important to say that this isn’t just a New Testament vs. Old Testament problem. There are plenty of books in the Hebrew Bible that preach a gospel of good news of a forgiving God who is always reaching out and trying to be in relationship with the people. And there are parts of the New Testament that seem to preach an unforgiving, angry, bloodthirsty God like the God we meet in Joshua. The Book of Revelation comes to mind. This is not a Jewish vs. Christian problem. It seems that in every age there are followers of God who think that God is gracious, forgiving, and loving, and there are other followers of God who think that God is angry, vicious, and vengeful.

And so I want to suggest to you that each of us has to face the words of Joshua 24:15: choose this day whom you will serve. Which God is it that you serve? Is it the God who calls people to come together or the God who drives people apart? Is it the God who sows hatred or the God who sows love? Is it the God who refuses to forgive or the God who calls us back again and again, even when we have strayed, and welcomes us home like a loving parent? Is it the God of every man for himself or the God who cares for the poor and the weak? Is it the God of guilt and shame or the God of forgiveness and reconciliation? Is it the God of death and destruction or is it the God birth and rebirth? Choose this day whom you will serve. Choose this day whom you will serve. As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord of Life.

Sermon: Who Are These People?

Sunday 5 November 2017
All Saints Sunday

Revelation 7:9-17

Rev7.9-10 850W

I got back home late last night from Willamette University in Salem. We had a reunion concert with people who had sung in the Willamette Chamber Choir over the last 35 years. And we also had reunion groups of the jazz choir, Willamette Singers, broken up into decades. I was in the 1998-2007 group.

It was a bit surreal to be back on campus for two days, moving back and forth between the same rooms and buildings, practicing music with the same people I did nearly twenty years ago. Part of what made it so strange was that there wasn’t really much down time. We had a lot of music to learn and rehearse. And it wasn’t easy music, either. Here we were practicing our parts, making notes in our music, rehearsing at a pace much faster than we ever did as students. But since there was so much work to do, there wasn’t much time to reminisce. Instead, we had to slip right back in to the working relationships that we had had years ago.

And in some sense it was as if no time had past at all. It seemed very familiar, very natural. And of course, in another sense, it was as if eons had past, as if we were visiting a faint shadow in distant memory, a completely different world, long forgotten. It was disorienting, with details that did not seem to match with each other.

One of the harder songs we sang is called John the Revelator. It wasn’t one of the songs we did when I was at Willamette. I remember, when I was in high school, though, going to the choir concert at Willamette and hearing it. It’s a spiritual, and it’s about the Book of Revelation, about the book that we read from this morning.

Revelation, we know, is written by a man named John. Sometimes it is said that the Gospel of John, the three Letters of John, and the Revelation of John are all written by the same person: the apostle John, one of the twelve from Jesus’s inner circle. But we don’t know that, and there are many reasons to think that there might be several different Johns who did or wrote those things.

And so, to keep them all straight, we give them nicknames. John the Apostle is the one who was one of the twelve. An apostle is someone who is sent, as Jesus sent his apostles out to share the good news. Then there is John the Evangelist, the one who wrote the Gospel of John. Evangelist here doesn’t mean someone who converts people, it means someone who brings good news, someone who brings Gospel. John the Evangelist literally means John the Gospel-Writer.

And then finally we have John the Revelator. You probably won’t find the word revelator in your dictionary, but it means someone who receives a revelation, someone who has something hidden revealed to them, someone who is able to peak behind the curtain and see what the rest of us can’t see.

And the revelation that John sees is very strange. It’s hard to know what to make of it. Is it talking about the future, the present or the past? Is it describing real things that happen, or is it just metaphorical, poetic language that is more about feelings than is it about events?

It is so strange, in fact, that it almost didn’t make it into the bible. Of all of the books that we have in the New Testament, Revelation was the closest to getting excluded. Many early Christians found it to be disturbing or misleading. It doesn’t appear on some of the early lists of New Testament writings, but in the end it just barely squeaked through to make it into the canon of the bible.

And it’s had a checkered history in the church ever since. Martin Luther tried to cut it out of the bible in the 16th century, but he was unsuccessful. In his preface to his German translation of Revelation, Luther writes:

“About this book of the Revelation of John, I leave everyone free to hold his own opinions. I would not have anyone bound to my opinion or judgment. I say what I feel. I miss more than one thing in this book, and it makes me consider it to be neither apostolic nor prophetic.

“First and foremost, the apostles do not deal with visions, but prophesy in clear and plain words, as do Peter and Paul, and Christ in the gospel. For it befits the apostolic office to speak clearly of Christ and his deeds, without images and visions. Moreover there is no prophet in the Old Testament, to say nothing of the New, who deals so exclusively with visions and images…. I can in no way detect that the Holy Spirit produced it…. For me this is reason enough not to think highly of it: Christ is neither taught nor known in it.”

Luther doesn’t like John’s use of images. And he’s not wrong. There are all kinds of crazy details in Revelation. Seven churches, along with their seven angels and seven stars and seven lamp stands. A man made of fire and metal with a sword coming out of his mouth. Elders and angels and creatures surrounding the throne of God, an ox, a lion, a man, and an eagle, each with six wings and with eyes covering every part of their bodies. Scrolls with seals to be broken, trumpets to be played, bowls of wrath to be poured out. Four horsemen, riding four horses, one white, one like fire, one black, and one the pale green of rotting flesh. A pregnant woman clothed with the sun, standing on the moon, wearing a crown made of stars. A fiery dragon with seven heads, ten horns and seven crowns. A beast like a leopard with seven heads, ten horns, and ten crowns. Another beast, like a lamb, that speaks like a dragon. A tree that grows twelve different kinds of fruit, one in each month, with leaves that have healing properties.

And on and on and on… John uses all of these images, and it’s hard to tell what he is trying to say. What on earth is going on?

The song we sang last night at Willamette asked several questions trying to figure that out. “O, tell me, who is that writing? John the Revelator. Who is that writing? John the Revelator, writing in the book of the seven seals.” That part is easy enough. Then the song asks, “What is he writing?” There’s a glib answer to it. “About the Revelation.” But then the song tries to dig in and unpack the details. “When John looked over Calvary’s hill, he heard a rumbling chariot wheel. Tell us John, what do you see? I saw a beast a rising from the sea! Talk to us John! What’s the good news? The crippled can walk; the dumb are singing the blues. John in the graveyard, what do you see? The dead are dancing all a round me.”

The dead are dancing all around me. Just before the passage for today, John sees the 144,000, the great crowd from each of the tribes of Israel. And then at the beginning of our passage today, John sees even more: a massive crowd that no one can number. And they aren’t just from the twelve tribes of Israel. They are as completely diverse as John has the ability to describe: they come from every εθνος, every ethnic group; from every φυλη, every tribe; from every λαος, every people; and from every γλωσσα, every language. They are from every type of people imaginable, the full spectrum of humanity. They wear plain white robes, and they waive palms of celebration, palms of victory.

And once the giant mass of all of humanity is gathered together, then they join together with the others there—all of the angels, and the elders, and the strange creatures with wings and eyes—they all form a circle around God’s throne and they lay down flat, with their faces to the ground in a pose of worship and submission, and they all join together to sing a hymn.

And in the hymn they list off all of the things that are due to God, all of the things that are owed to God. Ευλογια, as in eulogy, that is good words, blessings. Blessings be to God. Δοξα, as in doxology, that is glory, worship, praise. Glory be to God. Σοφια, as in philosophy, that is wisdom, knowledge, the creative spark of the universe. Wisdom be to God. Ευχαριστια, as in eucharist, that is thanksgiving, gratitude. Thanksgiving be to God. Τιμη, that is honor, respect, recognition, value. Honor be unto God. Δυναμις, as in dynamite, that is power, strength, ability. Power be unto God. Ισχυς, that is strength, might. Strength be unto God. Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and respect and power and strength be to God, for eons of eons, Amen. This is what the full assemblage of humanity, along with all of the angels and heavenly beings sing to God. Everything be to you, O God. Everything to you.

And as they do, one of the elders, John’s guide, turns to him and asks, “Who are these people?” Yes, I would like to know the answer to that. “Who are these people wearing white robes, and where did they come from?”

John has sense enough not to try to answer. Instead, he turns the question around. “Surely you are the one who knows.” And the elder obliges, saying, “They have come through great oppression. They have washed their robes white in the blood of the lamb. That’s why they are in front of God’s throne, serving God both day and night… They won’t be hurt again… because the lamb will shepherd them.”

Strange words. A lamb who is also a shepherd. Blood that can make white robes clean. The dead dancing all around me. It is disorienting, with details that don’t seem to match with each other.

And that is due to the fact that we have a disorienting God, a disorienting Christ, a disorienting Spirit. We have a God of words who chooses a man with a speech impediment to be God’s spokesperson. We have a God of power who takes the side of the powerless, the poor and the weak. We have a God of wisdom who keeps it from scholars and gives it to children. We have a Christ, only Son of God, who was born in an animal shed. We have a Christ the King whose only crown is a crown of thorns, whose only throne is a cross. We have a Christ Savior who brings life by dying. We have a Spirit who throws the Messiah out into the desert to face Satan. We have a Spirit who breathes new life into dry bones. We have a Spirit who brings people together by addressing them in different languages.

So of course God would choose a lamb to shepherd the people instead of a person to shepherd the lambs. Of course the blood of hardship and loss would cleanse rather than stain. Of course the ones who are the most alive, worshiping in the very presence of God, would be the dead who have passed through tribulation.

There they are together, drawn from different places and different times, forming one great choir as if they have been singing together all along. While some are unfamiliar, some have seen each other before, heard each other’s voices before, blended harmonies together before. They sing together now as if no time has past at all, everything very familiar, very natural. And yet it is as if eons have past, as if they are visiting a faint shadow in distant memory, a completely different world, long forgotten.

Who are these people? Where do they come from? They are all of the saints of God, each of whom have faced their own trials in their own times, and yet they are mystically joined and rejoined together, singing the same song, with such authenticity, it is as if each one had written it themselves. And while they represent the full diversity of humanity, they are dressed in simple white robes, each one the same. Though they had faced adversity in the world, they now rest together in God’s protection and compassion. No more hunger, no more thirst, every tear is wiped away. And all voices are raised together to sing, “Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and strength be to our God, for eons of eons. Everything to you, O God. Everything to you. Amen.”

And today with lift up our voices to join in the song. We join our voices with angels and archangels, with saints and martyrs, with prophets and workers for justice. We blend ourselves with the harmonies of the heavenly choir, remembering what has gone before us, giving thanks for what is yet to come, and giving praise to the one who sits upon the throne and to the lamb. Until we are all united together in that celestial choir, where it will feel as if no time has past at all, everything familiar, natural. And yet also as if eons have past, as if we are visiting a faint shadow in distant memory, a completely different world. Thanks be to God.

Sermon: Treated As Righteous by Faith

Sunday 29 October 2017
Reformation Sunday

Romans 3:19-28

Today is a special Sunday. This is Reformation Sunday. We are here, on the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses to celebrate the Protestant Reformation, a movement to root out corruption in the church, to base theology in the words of scripture, and to lift up the ministry of the laity. This day is especially important to us, as a Lutheran church, because it marks the 500th anniversary of the birth of our strand of Christian thought and practice.

The founder of the movement, Martin Luther, was born in 1483 as Martin Luder in Eisleben, Saxony, in what was then the Holy Roman Empire and is now eastern Germany. It was a mining town, and his father was an up and coming mine owner. Martin was sent to school to get a classical education in the law, so that he could represent his family’s growing mining concern.

As a young man in 1505, Martin was traveling during a thunderstorm and was nearly struck by lightning. He was so afraid that he prayed to St. Anne, Jesus’s grandmother, that if she would protect him from the storm, he would go to a monastery and become a monk. When he followed through on the promise, his father was furious. All the money he had spent on Martin’s education in the law was wasted.

Martin worked very hard as an Augustinian monk in Erfurt. He spent hours in prayer, fasted frequently, and he would sometimes stay in confession as long as six hours at a time, much to the annoyance of his confessor. He was often overcome by feelings of worthlessness. He was afraid of God, and could not make peace. He said of that time, “I lost touch with Christ the Savior and Comforter, and made of him the jailer and hangman of my poor soul.” His spiritual superior tried to steer him away from constantly focusing on his faults but rather to focus on the goodness of Christ, but Martin had a hard time with it.

Already a monk, Luder became a priest in 1507. When he officiated at communion for the first time, he was overcome by terror. He was holding Christ’s body in his own hands, and it was overwhelming.

In 1508 he moved to Wittenberg to study and teach in the new university there. Within four years he had earned two master’s degrees and a doctor of theology. This is where he really started to mature and develop. He was reading, studying, and teaching the Bible. And as he read it, he started to realize that many of the things the church was teaching were not actually in the Bible. There were no popes, no purgatory, and no indulgences in the bible.

Martin had been on a pilgrimage to Rome in this same period, and he was not impressed. The church was building beautiful new buildings, while the poor went hungry. Popes and bishops lived in palace, while many people were homeless. And the people were not being offered grace, they were being offered indulgences.

Indulgences were a way of buying forgiveness. The theory was that Jesus and all the saints had lived such exemplary lives that they had produced an overabundance of good works, or merit, more than was actually required in order to let them into heaven. So these extra merits were stored up in a kind of treasury or bank. The pope, the most powerful priest in the Roman church, had the keys to this divine treasury of merit. And so, the pope could make withdrawals from the bank of good deeds and offer them to other people, people who were sinners.

But the pope didn’t just give these merits to anyone, they had to be bought. In exchange for a donation to the church, the pope could give you an indulgence, which would keep you from going to hell or help you get into heaven without having to spend a long time in purgatory working off your sins.

What is more, these indulgences were transferrable. You could buy them for other people, even people who were already dead. And so the preachers of indulgences told the people to imagine all of their loved ones burning in the fires of hell, and the only thing they needed to do to get them out of hell was to buy an indulgence. It was incredibly exploitative, and it caused people who had no money to spare to spend all they had on these worthless get-out-of-hell free certificates.

One of the most prolific and most abusive indulgence preachers was Johann Tetzel, who was sent to Germany to sell indulgences. Half the money raised was supposed to go to build St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and half of it was to pay off the personal debts of the local archbishop, Albrecht von Brandenburg. Tetzel is known for saying “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.” Just give me your money, and I will let your suffering relatives get into heaven.

It was on October 31, 1517, 500 years ago, that Martin posted his 95 Theses. They were addressed to Archbishop Albrecht von Brandenburg, the same one who had commissioned Tetzel to sell indulgences. In it, he attacked the church for the practice of selling indulgences and for numerous other acts of corruption and oppression. This is the event that we mark as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. This is the event that we celebrate today.

It was also around this time that Martin changed his name. He was born Martin Luder. But he changed it to Martin Eleutheros. The Greek word, eleutheros means free. Later, he shortened it to Martin Luther.

A major part of Luther’s new understanding, and the core of Lutheran theology, is the doctrine of justification by faith. Luther came to it through his study of the bible, including the passage that we read this morning from Romans. “God’s righteousness comes through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who have faith in him. There’s no distinction. All have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory, but all are treated as righteous freely by his grace because of a ransom that was paid by Christ Jesus.”

You’ll remember that Luther had been plagued by feelings of unworthiness. No matter how much he prayed, no matter how much he confessed, no matter how many good works he did, it was never enough. He never felt like he had done enough to deserve God’s forgiveness or God’s love. He could never achieve perfection, and so he always felt like he was cursed, damned. He was afraid of God, who always seemed to angry and wrathful. Jesus, too, always seemed to him like a harsh judge, not a helper or a savior.

But through his study of scripture, he began to come to a new faith. He read in Paul that “God’s righteousness comes through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who have faith in him.” He had always thought before the God’s righteousness meant God’s own perfection, God’s judgment of the world. Now he began to understand that God’s righteousness is a gift that God gives to humanity, a gift that comes through the faithfulness of Jesus.

As Paul wrote, “All have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory, but all are treated as righteous freely by his grace because of a ransom that was paid by Christ Jesus.” No, he could never achieve perfection in life. No one could. We are all sinners. We all do things that are wrong, do things that hurt the people around us. Even when we try to do our best, we still make mistakes. It is human. And God knows that we are human. And God loves us as humans.

Luther came to believe there was nothing that humans could do to make themselves acceptable to God. Now, when you first hear that, it might sound rather depressing. No matter what we do, there is nothing that can make us look good in the eyes of God. But looked at from another angle, it  is freeing. No, there is nothing I can do that will make God love me. But God does love me. God loves me as a free gift, through grace alone, not because of anything I have done, but because of the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.

That does not mean that Luther thinks we should just do whatever we want, sin as much as we want, because God will forgive us and offer us grace. No, along with the gift of faith comes the desire to do good works joyfully, motivated by our thankfulness to God, not by fear of God’s punishment. To get a sense of Luther’s thought on this, I’m going to read a long quote from the preface of his German translation of the Book of Romans:

“You must get used to the idea that it is one thing to do the works of the law and quite another to fulfill it. The works of the law are every thing that a person does or can do of his own free will and by his own powers to obey the law. But because in doing such works the heart abhors the law and yet is forced to obey it, the works are a total loss and are completely useless. That is what St. Paul means in chapter 3 when he says, “No human being is justified before God through the works of the law.” From this you can see that the schoolmasters and sophists are seducers when they teach that you can prepare yourself for grace by means of works. How can anybody prepare himself for good by means of works if he does no good work except with aversion and constraint in his heart? How can such a work please God, if it proceeds from an averse and unwilling heart?

“But to fulfill the law means to do its work eagerly, lovingly and freely, without the constraint of the law; it means to live well and in a manner pleasing to God, as though there were no law or punishment. It is the Holy Spirit, however, who puts such eagerness of unconstrained love into the heart, as Paul says in chapter 5. But the Spirit is given only in, with, and through faith in Jesus Christ, as Paul says in his introduction. So, too, faith comes only through the word of God, the Gospel, that preaches Christ: how he is both Son of God and man, how he died and rose for our sake. Paul says all this in chapters 3, 4 and 10.

“That is why faith alone makes someone just and fulfills the law; faith it is that brings the Holy Spirit through the merits of Christ. The Spirit, in turn, renders the heart glad and free, as the law demands. Then good works proceed from faith itself. That is what Paul means in chapter 3 when, after he has thrown out the works of the law, he sounds as though he wants to abolish the law by faith. No, he says, we uphold the law through faith, i.e. we fulfill it through faith.”

Luther’s faith changed the world. No, he was not a perfect man. In fact, he was rather prone to anger and pride. He could be petty and harsh. He was rather fond of beer, and he never shied away from using curse words.

And yet, his rediscovery of that simple truth found in scripture was revolutionary. We can do nothing to make ourselves acceptable to God, but God offers us acceptance as a free gift of grace through faith in Jesus, and in response to that grace, we become glad to do good in the world. The law is good, because it teaches us that we are sinful, that we are not perfect, that we are not as God wants us to be. And so the law drives us to God and to the gospel, the good news that God offers us grace, justification, and faith, not because we did anything to deserve it, but because God loves us.

And that realization—that God loves us even when we mess up, that God forgives us and accepts us through Jesus, that God works in us to make us joyful for doing good—that realization makes all the difference. It is the difference between being a terrified, self-hating slave and being a confident, joyful, generous child of God. And 500 years after Luther’s bold statement of protest, we are still learning, growing into the peace that comes from knowing that we don’t save ourselves, God saves us as a free gift of grace through faith. Thanks be to God.


Good afternoon!

Pastor David’s Weekly Reflection Where do you see evidence of God’s presence? 

++    Reformation Sunday is Oct 29th  Wear red if you like!

We will gather to celebrate and reclaim the spirit of Reformation. There is a single worship service at 10 am, in which we will consider the key insights of Luther’s theology. We will then gather in the Community Room to share in a potluck meal and to explore the life, times, and faith of the father of the Reformation. Bring a hearty dish to share; drinks will be provided.

++        Special Giving on October 29

Give to UMCOR and/or Lutheran Disaster Response.. You can donate by making a check payable to Spirit of Grace. Put UMCOR or LDR Disaster Response on Memo Line. 100% of donations to both organizations support recovery and relief with no administrative overhead.

++       Women’s Retreat at the Astoria Crest Motel

Participants in the Nov 3-5 Women’s Retreat should by now have received detailed information from Jill McBee concerning costs, schedule, what to bring, and a little homework! We are setting out to find ways to bridge relationships across differing cultures of religions, politics, generations, social/economic levels, and sexes. We are also going to have fun with spiritual renewal, companionship, exploring Astoria, and will hopefully come home with new determination and energy.

++        Spirit of Grace is grateful for the many musicians who give time and talent in leading the Celebration Service, the Adult Church Choir, and accompanying worship on organ as well.  In addition to the two musical groups, we are adding a new “a cappella choir” for singers who would enjoy a little different musical challenge in praising God.

The three Thursday rehearsals will, for now, be meeting as follows:  Celebration musicians 5:00 pm, A cappella Choir 5:30 pm, and Adult Choir at 6 pm. We always welcome new singers in one or all three!

Jennifer Fowler

Sermon: Show Me Your Presence

Sunday 22 October 2017
The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost. Lectionary 29A

Exodus 33:12-23

This morning we are continuing to follow the story of Moses and the Hebrew people in the wilderness, having left slavery in Egypt, but still without a home. For some time, the Israelites have been encamped at the base of Mt. Sinai. Up on the mountain, God’s presence can be seen in fire and smoke and flashes of lightning. Moses has gone up on the mountain, on more than one occasion, to speak directly with God. He has brought down the tablets of the law, only to find the people down on the plain breaking the commandments by worshipping a golden statue of a calf. In his anger, he has broken the stone tablets. He has argued with God, intervening on behalf of the people. He has renewed the covenant. He has received new instructions from God, to move the people on, led by an angel that God will send. He has led the people through a ritual of confession and forgiveness, and convinced them to give up their jewelry, so they won’t be tempted to make another golden idol. He has set up a special tent, outside of the Israelite camp, where he can communicate with God in private. Each time he does, the pillar of cloud and fire holds its station above the tent.

And that is where we begin with our passage from today. Moses is about to start another argument with God. But that isn’t a new thing for Moses. He argues and negotiates and bargains with God all the time. God tells him to go to Egypt, and he says, No, I’m not a good public speaker.” God sends Aaron with him to do the talking, and he says, “No I need some kind of sign.” The people get angry with Moses, and he takes it out on God. God gets angry with the people, and Moses talks God down.

So here again, Moses is about to negotiate with God. “You’ve been telling me to lead the people away from here, but you haven’t followed through on your promise to send an angel with us,” Moses begins. “How can you say that you know me by name and that I am your favorite if you don’t follow through on your promises to help me?”

That one little phrase that God speaks, “I know you by name,” struck me as interesting. I think that’s probably something that we take for granted. It’s part of our doctrine that God knows the name of every human being, that God pays attention to every single life. But I don’t think that’s how the ancients understood things. I think the idea that a god would know the name of a human being would have seemed quite shocking to them. After all, gods have incomprehensible power. They have much bigger things to attend to than the minuscule lives of puny humans. The fact that God knows Moses by name means that God really does favor Moses. And Moses reminds God of this favor when he complains that God has not sent the promised angel that Moses has been waiting for.

So patiently God responds, “Stop going on about the angel. I’ll go with you myself. I will help you.” Which is really quite shocking again. God may have led the people out of Egypt and given the law, but how long is God going to keep sticking around in order to help the Israelites in person? Surely God has other things to attend to. Surely the other tasks on God’s checklist are piling up by now.

And yet Moses is not quite happy even with this new promise from God. He seems to be a incredulous that God will actually follow through. God has just promised, “I will go with you myself,” and Moses retorts, “If you’re not going to go with us yourself, then don’t make us leave here.” I don’t want to pack up everything and head out into the wilderness again and find that you aren’t around anymore. What if we run into a hostile tribe and you’ve gone off to do something. If you really want me to follow your instructions, then you had better make good on your end of the bargain.

After all, Moses says, you are the only thing that sets us apart from every other people. Without you, we are just a bunch of crazy people in the desert. Without you, we are weak, lost, wandering. It is only when you travel with us that we have purpose. We only know where we are going when you lead the way. You are our strength, our direction, our reason for being.

And God responds again, “Yes Moses, I, I myself will go with you. You have my special approval. I know your name.”

God could not be any more explicit. “I will do exactly as you say. I myself will go with you. You have my special favor. I know you by name.” It is hard to imagine a way in which God could possibly be more affirming, more supportive, more encouraging to Moses. Moses gets to speak directly with God, just like one person to another. Moses receives stone tablets that are carved by God’s own hand. And when God does speak with Moses, it is to tell him how much God approves of him, how much he is loved, how much he is supported.

And yet, when Moses hears this, he is still unsure. He still has doubts. He still wants more proof. Moses says, “Please, God, show me your glorious presence. Please, show me your presence.”

Moses has had just about the closest relationship with God of any person in the Bible. And yet, even in the midst of that, Moses has doubts. Moses feels the absence of God.

And of course, he isn’t the first person to feel distant from God. Martin Luther, in his early career as an Augustinian monk, spent years in despair, meditating over and over on his sins, feeling alienated from God. He had trouble sensing the presence of Christ, and when he did, it was only as a judge and disciplinarian. He was devoting his whole life to prayer and the service of God, and yet he could not sense God’s goodness.

John Wesley records in his journal a time when he felt distant from God. He felt that he had no faith. He says that he was “convinced of unbelief, of the want of that faith whereby alone we are saved.” Wesley was so distraught by this, that he decided he should stop preaching. After all, how could he preach to others if he himself didn’t have faith in God? He happened to be with a friend, Peter Boehler, a Moravian missionary. So he asked Boehler what he thought, should Wesley stop preaching until he found faith? “By no means,” Boehler replied. “But what can I preach?” Wesley asked. Boehler responded with these words: “Preach faith till you have it; and then, because you have it, you will preach faith.”

I think this happens to Christians far more often than we care to admit. We find ourselves in moments of faithlessness. I don’t necessarily mean times that we are particularly sinful or times that we are trying to run away from God. I mean times when we are trying to find God, trying to feel God’s presence, trying to believe, and yet, we can’t seem to do it. God seems far away. God seems absent altogether. We look around for signs of God, and we don’t see anything. It’s not that we don’t want to see. We look and we see only the world. There is no sense of the presence of God, no sense even of the existence of God.

One of the greatest saints of the twentieth century is Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Her name is often used as a synonym for absolute devotion to God. And yet, after her death, letters were released revealing that for about forty years, she struggled with feelings of unbelief. “Jesus has a very special love for you,” she wrote to a spiritual advisor. “As for me, the silence and emptiness is so great that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear. The tongue moves but does not speak.” Elsewhere she wrote, “The smile is a mask or a cloak that covers everything. I spoke as if my very heart was in love with God, a tender personal love. If you were there you would have said, ‘What hypocrisy’.” And again, she wrote, “Lord, my God, you have thrown me away as unwanted—unloved. I call, I cling, I want, and there is no one to answer, no, no one. Alone. Where is my faith? Even deep down right in there is nothing. I have no faith. I dare not utter the words and thoughts that crowd in my heart.” Even for someone as seemingly close to God as Mother Teresa, there were still times of deep doubt, still times of feeling alone or as if God does not exist.

I admit that for me there have also been such times. I used to describe the world as sticky with God’s fingerprints, that there was evidence of God’s hand of creation in every part of the natural world. And I remember distinctly the first time that I looked out at an incredibly beautiful scene of God’s creation, and instead of feeling inspired and close to God, I felt empty. I felt as if there was no God, the world being just a random collection of atoms and molecules. It was shocking, not anything I had ever expected to feel, not anything that I had ever worried about before. And yet, there I was, faithless and not knowing what to do.

I prayed for God to give me a sign, to give me some sense of God’s presence, but I felt nothing. I reviewed in my mind those times in the past when I had felt closest to God, and yet they now seemed strangely empty. I felt like a hypocrite. I had focused my life on service to God, and yet I couldn’t feel the God I was entrusted to preach and teach. Occasionally there would be a tiny spark of something, and then it would dissipate just as quickly as it had come. Even now, I still sometimes have those times of feeling God’s absence. Not always, but sometimes.

It’s not something we often talk about, is it? But I imagine many of you have had similar feelings at one time or another. Perhaps even today you are sitting there unsure of why or whether you should be here, uncertain about whether God exists, or if there is a God, if God could possibly be spared a moment for you, if God could possibly love you.

If you are feeling that today. I want to say this first: you are not alone. We all have times of doubt. We all have times of unbelief. We all have times of faithlessness. Even people who have been in the church their whole lives. Even pastors. Even religious luminaries like Teresa and Wesley and Luther. Even Moses, in the midst of conversing with God, could doubt and plead, “Please show me your presence.” Even Jesus hanging on the cross could cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” You are not alone.

And second, I want to say this: we are in this together. When one of us is weak, we hold each other up. When my faith is weak, I know that the others here are praying my part as well. When your faith is weak, we will pray your part for you. Christ calls us together into a community, into family in which we all have responsibility for each other. When you are down, we will hold you up, knowing well that it time you will return the favor. We are in this together.

And third, let me say: there is every reason for hope. If you are feeling distant from God today, know that there are others who have been where you are now and have moved through doubt into faith and grace. You do not need to will yourself to have faith. You do not need to fix yourself. Faith is not an accomplishment; faith is a gift of God. It will come. It may not be today or tomorrow, but it will come. And in the meantime, follow the advice of Peter Boehler. Preach faith till you have it; and then, because you have it, you will preach faith. Or might we say, live faith till you have it; and then, because you have it, you will live faith.

Will you pray with me…