Sermon: Idol Talk

Sunday 15 October 2017
The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 28A

Exodus 32:1-14

Last week, we considered the ten commandments, as presented in Exodus 20. This week, we will explore what happens twelve chapters later in Exodus 32. What happened in between? Well, you might remember that at the end of last week’s passage, the people were terrified. They had heard the voice of God echoing from the top of the mountain, which, based on the description in Exodus, seems to have been in the middle of a volcanic eruption and a thunderstorm both happening at the same time. No wonder they were so afraid. They begged Moses to speak with God for them, to not allow God to speak to them directly ever again, because they were afraid that if they heard God’s voice again, they would die. So the people remained encamped at the base of the mountain of God, while Moses climbed up into the midst of the smoke and ash, to communicate with God directly, on behalf of the people. There are a few interludes in the story, where other leaders of the people get to go up and experience God with Moses, but for the most part, it’s just Moses and God up on the mountain of fire. For twelve chapters, God dictates the law to Moses. There are all of the moral and ethical laws that we would expect. But there are also detailed instructions about the tabernacle that the people are supposed to build, about the altar, the lamp stands, and the ark of the covenant. There are also detailed instructions about what the priests are supposed to wear, and about how they are supposed to be ordained.

Moses must have been up there on the mountain for quite some time. The people down on the desert plain begin to worry. And still more time passes, and Moses does not return. Finally, the people give up hope that Moses is ever going to come down off the mountain. Exodus says, “When the people realized that Moses was taking forever in coming down off the mountain, they rallied around Aaron.”

Remember, they have all left the only life they have ever known, the only life even their great-grandparents had ever known: life in Egypt. It may have been a life of slavery, but it was also life in the greatest and most powerful civilization in the world at that time. They may not have been free, but at least they had purpose, and they always had food to eat. They lived in the most magnificent cities in the world.

Now they find themselves out wandering in the wilderness. They may have been able to endure all of these changes as long as Moses was around to lead them. But now, Moses is gone too. He’s been up on that mountain for who knows how long. Something bad must have happened up there. No one could survive up there with the fire and the smoke, and in the very presence of a fearsome and jealous God. With Moses gone, they want security. They go to Aaron, Moses’s younger brother, to ask him to act on their behalf.

This is the point where most of us modern readers become exasperated with the ancient Israelites. If we thought God had let us down, the last thing on our minds would be to go and create some new gods out of gold and worship them. After all, the very first commandment is: you shall have no other gods before me. Just how faithless are these Israelites, anyway?

Remember, though, we have had several thousand years to become accustomed to monotheism. These people had never even heard of the idea there was only one God. We’ve had thousands of years to get used to not worshiping a statue of God. These people knew that every god there was was represented in a statue and worshiped. It may seem strange for us to think that they would have made themselves a god of gold, but for them, it was only natural; it was everything that they knew.

And we may be giving the ancient Israelites more grief than they deserve. The New Revised Standard Version says that the people said to Aaron, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us.” And later, when the calf is built, they say, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” Clearly, it seems like the people have abandoned the God of Israel in favor of the old pagan gods that they had always known.

But there’s something odd. Aaron makes a single golden calf. He only makes one idol. But the people say, “These are our gods.” Why would they say “these are our gods” if Aaron has made them only one god? Something strange is going on here.

And here’s the problem. In Hebrew, the most generic word for god is el. It’s the same root as the Arabic word Allah. You’ve heard it before in names like El Shaddai, God of Armies, or El Elyon, God Most High. In Hebrew, the plural form of el is elohim. So if you want to talk about “the gods,” you say elohim. Unfortunately, elohim is also one of the personal names of the God of Israel. If you see the word elohim in a Hebrew text, it’s impossible to tell whether it’s referring to “the gods” or whether it is referring to capital-G God. The NRSV has chosen in this place to translate elohim as gods. But other translators choose a translation that, I think, makes more sense: God. The people don’t ask Aaron to make new gods for them, they simply ask him to make for them a statue of their God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses. They don’t break the first commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me;” they break the second commandment, “You shall make no graven images.”

How can we be sure that this is the better translation? In verse five, after the people have accepted the golden calf that he has made, Aaron tells them, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the LORD.” Remember last week I told you that any time you see the word the LORD, printed in all capital letters, the Hebrew behind that is actually the personal name of God, YHWH, which in Jewish tradition is never spoken allowed. Why would they have a festival to YHWH if they thought that this golden calf was anything other than a representation of YHWH? They wouldn’t. They have not abandoned the God who led them out of Israel. They have simply broken God’s rules by trying to worship him in the form of a statue. It’s not that they’ve given up on God, it’s that they incorrectly understand who God is. They’ve gotten too caught up in the ways that their culture understands God.

Now, chances are that none of us have golden calf statues at home that we bow down and pray to. And since we don’t, it’s easy for us to distance ourselves from this story. It’s easy for us to feel self-assured that we would never do anything remotely like what those silly ancient Israelites did. We would never make a golden idol.

But if their sin wasn’t abandoning God, but misunderstanding who God is, then maybe that is something we can relate to. Maybe the sin of those wandering Hebrews isn’t quite as foreign as it seemed at first.

Aren’t there ways that we get confused about who God is, and what God is about? Aren’t there ways that we take the values of our nation and our culture and pretend like they are actually the values of God? Aren’t there times that we create for ourselves an image of God that doesn’t bear much resemblance to who and what God really is?

For example, it’s not uncommon to think that people who make money in the stock market are blessed by God. It’s normal and expected for Christians to save and invest. It’s generally considered a responsibly Christian thing to do. Clergy pension plans are invested in the market, as are other church funds. The bible, though, is pretty clear that usury, the act of collecting interest on money, is completely forbidden. If the bible says that earning interest is forbidden, how do we so easily say these days that earning interest is a responsible and Godly thing.

We also consider our style of government to be a godly thing. Democracy, the rule of the people is generally accepted by Christians as God-given. We say that God has endowed all humans with certain unalienable human rights. And yet, the bible seems to suggest that the only acceptable form of government is absolute theocracy. The people can’t be trusted to rule properly. Only God, and God’s specially appointed priests and prophets can rule. The biblical standard for good government looks more like the government of Iran than it looks like the government of the United States.

Now, I’m not saying that we would be better off with a totalitarian government and an economy with no loans or investments. What I am trying to point out is how easily we take practices that are at least religiously ambiguous and we claim them wholeheartedly as the indisputable will of God. Is American democracy a good form of government? Yes, considering the alternatives, it seems to be pretty good. Is it a God-given form of government? No, it’s not. But you wouldn’t know that from the way many of Christians talk. We seem to find it fairly easy to create God in whatever image we find most expedient. We find it quite easy to mold God into whatever we most want God to be. We may not make God into a golden calf, but we seem pretty good at forming God into a bald eagle, or into a bronze bull like the one on Wall Street.

It’s been a long time since anyone in our culture has tried to worship a golden statue. But in every time and generation, we run the risk of molding our own images of God. We are always at risk of creating idols, of making things God that are not God. Just like the Israelites in the wilderness, we let our fears and our anxieties overtake us, and we end up taking our own ideas and making them our god.

Fortunately, we have a patient and merciful God. We have a God who gives us second chances. We have a God who shakes us up every once in while and reminds us what God is really about. Thanks be to God for having patience with us. Thanks be to God for reminding us who God is.

Sermon: Thou Shalt Not

Sunday 8 October 2017
The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20

This text from the second book of the Torah, the book of Exodus, describes a key moment in the formation of the nation of Israel, God’s chosen people. God, acting through Moses and Aaron, has just liberated the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt and has led them to freedom through the waters of the Red Sea. God has singlehandedly defeated the powerful armies of the Egyptian Pharaoh. God has led the people through the desert with a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. God has miraculously fed the people with manna, bread from heaven, and with quail. God has miraculously given them water to drink, flowing like a fountain out of a dry stone.

And now God has brought the chosen people to the holy mountain, an active volcano in the middle of the Sinai desert, where God will forge the people, giving them the laws and instructions by which they should live. From the midst of fire and smoke, God’s voice echoes from the mountaintop, saying: “I, the Lord, am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage.”

God declares God’s own name to the people, a name that, out of respect for God, by Jewish tradition is never spoken aloud. That’s why it appears in print in your bibles as “the Lord.”  Anytime you see the Lord printed in all caps, or God, printed in all caps, it means that the word in Hebrew is actually the unspeakable name of God, which in Hebrew is spelled YHWH, and pronounced Yahweh, or sometimes Jehovah. God identifies Godself by name, and by action, reminding the people that this is the only one responsible for bringing them out of Egypt, and out of the bonds of slavery.

It is that fact, the fact that God is Israel’s only liberator, that leads to the first commandment: “You shall have no other gods besides Me.” This command, which seems obvious and everyday to us, was in fact extremely radical at the time. Before this, the world had known only polytheism. Everyone understood that the world was controlled by a multitude of gods and goddesses, each with their own spheres of influence. One was required to worship multiple gods because, after all, there was one god in charge of storms, but another one was in charge of fertile soil, and another one brought victory in war, and another one brought stability in the family, and so on. It was better to spread one’s worship among multiple gods so that none of them would feel neglected and get offended and start stirring up trouble.

But Israel’s God is going to require something completely new and novel: total allegiance to one God. YHWH declares that he is the only God that Israel needs, that he will provide for all of their needs. God has already shown that he is a war god, by defeating the Egyptians. God has shown himself to be a home and fertility god by providing the Hebrews with manna and quail and water. God is also a storm god, as shown through the pillar of cloud, and a fire god, as seen in the pillar of fire and the fire on the mountain. YHWH will be their everything, and so they have no need to turn to other gods.  In this way, YHWH will establish himself as the king of Israel, and everyone knows that a people can have only one king.  The Almighty will tolerate no rivals. God explains that God is a jealous god, and like a jealous spouse, God will not tolerate infidelity.

This does not mean, by the way, that God is insisting at this point, or that the people believed, that there were no other gods besides YHWH. They still believed that there were other gods. God simply demanded that they not worship any of the other gods. They must be devoted to only one God, not believe that there was only one god.

To this end, God gives a second commandment, that they create no images for the purpose of worship. It was traditional in all religious traditions in the middle east, to make statues of the gods that they would be worshiping, and to offer prayers to those statues. YHWH, though, rejects this practice, and refuses to be cast into a statue. Instead, we will find later, the ark of the covenant will be understood as the earthly footstool of God’s heaven throne, and will be the only earthly representation of Godself that God will allow.

The third commandment: “You shall not swear falsely by the name of the LORD your God.” As we still do today, ancient peoples, when they wanted to add some extra oomph to their oaths, would swear in the name of God. I swear by Apollo that I will fulfill my duty to the army, for example. God says, “If you’re going to use my name in an oath, you had better really mean it, because I will hold you to it.” This is one of the reasons why it became tradition to never speak the name of God, so that no one would ever accidentally use God’s name in vain.

The fourth commandment: “Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy.” God worked for six days and then rested on the seventh. You should work for six days and then rest on the seventh. Also, you should let all of your children, and all of your slaves, and even all of your animals rest on Saturdays. This was a very strange concept in the ancient world. In all other cultures, all seven days were work days. Now, they broke up the monotony with plenty of religious feasts and festivals. But the idea that every seventh day should be free of work, and especially that even slaves should get one day off in seven, seemed ridiculous to Israel’s neighbors. Apparently, it seems fairly ridiculous to us today, too. Few would consider having one day a week in which every single business shut down. We still expect cooks and waiters work, even if we decide to take one day off.

The fifth commandment: “Honor your father and mother.” You may have noticed that all of the commandments before this one are about God and the people’s relationship to God. All of the one’s after this will be about ethics. This commandment is the bridge. Honor your father and mother. As you respect God, you should also respect your elders. This means being respectful and obedient. It also means providing for them in their old age. This is another of the commandments that doesn’t make much sense to us in the modern world. If this were the ancient world, I would still be living in my father’s house, and he would decide what was right for me, and for Melissa, and for our children. Honoring one’s father meant doing exactly what he said until he died.

That, thankfully, is not the way our families work in modern America. Most of us would find it fairly odd to have grandparents living in the same house with all of their sons, and all of their daughters-in-law, and all of their paternal grandchildren, and all of their granddaughters-in-law, and all their great-grandchildren, and having the patriarch of the family making the decisions for everyone. We might even call social services on a family like that. In a culture in which we usually define a family as a nuclear family, and in which we expect children to strike it out on their own and become independent once they graduate high school or college, we have quite a lot of thinking to do about what it might mean to honor one’s father and mother.

The sixth commandment: “You shall not kill.” That’s a difficult one too. Obviously, murder seems to be prohibited here. But what about revenge killings? What about capital punishment? What about war?

The seventh commandment: “You shall not commit adultery.” In ancient Israel, this was understood to apply only to married women. Married women could not have affairs, but married men could. And the unmarried were not restricted sexually by this particular commandment. Of course, men were also allowed to marry more than one woman. That’s something we tend to forget when we assumed that biblical marriage was between one man and one woman. In the bible, marriage is actually defined as between one man and several women. Regardless, the commandment speaks; be faithful in your marriage relationship.

The eighth commandment: “You shall not steal.” Fairly self-explanatory. Don’t take what belongs to someone else. What, though, are we to say about the seed company that creates a genetically modified strain of rice and then sues the farmers in the neighboring fields because their genetically modified strain has shown up, through cross-pollination, in the peasant-farmers’ crops? Who is stealing from whom in a situation like that?

The ninth commandment: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” Don’t make false charges against someone. Don’t testify falsely about anyone. In other words, tell the truth and treat others fairly.

The tenth commandment: “You shall not covet.” There’s a whole long list of things not to covet, but it boils down to “Don’t be greedy for anything that belongs to someone else.” This may be the hardest commandment of all. Our economy is built on people coveting what they don’t have. A bigger house, a nicer car, and more and better toys, both for children and adults. Sometimes we are told that it is patriotic for us to want more. That’s what drives innovation. That’s what keeps the economy moving. And we’ve worked hard, we deserve it, don’t we? How can we make sense of this if our culture tells us over and over: want more, desire more, buy more? And yet, the commandment says, “Don’t be greedy.”

So here we are with this list of ten commandments. Some seem straightforward. Some are hard to understand because our world is so different than the world in which they were first given. Some, like the commandment against of adultery, actually make more sense in our world of gender equality and partner marriage than they ever did in the ancient world.

For better or for worse, they are now our commandments. Ours to interpret in our new and modern world. Ours to struggle with. Ours to learn from. Ours to break our preconceived notions of right and wrong. Ours to hold us to account for even our most dearly-held misconceptions. Ours to keep us humble. Ours to lead us to repentance. Ours to lead us to forgiveness. Ours to show us just how far we miss the mark. Ours to remind us that we are all in need of God’s grace. Ours to give us sympathy for others. Ours to open our hearts to our neighbors.

We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, Paul says. We all miss the mark. But so also, we are all offered grace. We are all offered forgiveness by God, through the self-emptying love of Jesus Christ. Even when we fail, God does not abandon us. God calls us to get back up, to get back on the path, to begin the journey again and again, as we all walk in God’s grace. Thanks be to God.

Sermon: Kenosis

Sunday 1 October 2017
World Communion Sunday

Philippians 2:1-13

Early Christian communities in the first century have two significant problems. The first is that they have quite a lot of internal division and disagreement. This is a new religious movement, made up of people from all over the known world, people from different backgrounds, who speak different languages, who have different cultures, who come from different social classes, who come from different religious traditions. It is diversity in the extreme. Some are Judeans, some Greeks, some Romans, some Africans, some Syrians, some Celts, some Samaritans. There are rich people and poor people and people who are truly destitute. There are all kinds of different ideas about what faith in the Jesus should be about. Is this new movement a new sect of Judaism; should all followers of the Way be Jews first and Jesus-followers second? Is it a new religious traditional altogether that should reject the Jewish tradition completely? Or this is a movement open to non-Jews but springing up from the root of the Jewish tradition? How much of Greek and Roman culture should be included in this new movement? Is it acceptable to put Greek philosophy into dialog with biblical teaching? Can Jesus-followers participate in the lives of the their broader community, or do they need to isolate and seclude themselves? Who should be allowed in, and under which conditions? How should Christians’ new relationship as sisters and brothers in Christ affect their relationships outside the church. In particular who should we understand the relationship between a slave and a master who are now supposed to be understood as siblings in the eyes of God?

There are a tremendous number of questions to be answered and many arguments to be had. In addition to the social questions, there are also theological issues to struggle over. We complain now about how different Christian denominations disagree over issues of theology and polity, but the disagreements in the early are far deeper and more thoroughgoing; They haven’t agreed yet on anything. Some Christians think Jesus is completely human and not divine at all; others think he is completely divine and only appears to be human; others think he is a demigod like Hercules or Achilles or Romulus. Some think he has died and been resurrected, others think there has been no resurrection, and others think he was never killed at all. There is literally nothing they can agree on. And like arguments in the church today, these early Christians don’t always disagree well. They don’t always treat each other with respect in the midst of their disagreements.

And the early church has another problem: the hero of their faith is a failure and a nobody. After all, this Jesus character is a Jew, which certainly doesn’t grant him much respect in the Gentile world. He is a peasant, and not a member of the educated upper class. Even within the context of his little village, he doesn’t seem to have been anyone special. He isn’t even a Judean; he is from Galilee, that backwater province up in the north where they can’t even speak proper Aramaic with that ridiculous accent. He has no education, no training in philosophy or rhetoric or history. He has been a wandering preacher for only a year or two before he is captured by the Romans, flogged, and executed on a cross like a slave or a common criminal. He is a nobody. His movement never really takes off while he was alive. He isn’t able to kick the Roman occupiers out of Judea. He doesn’t even make that much news. Just another minor insurrectionist among many who is crucified by Rome. How could anyone pretend that someone like that could be God’s chosen Messiah, let alone the Son of God?

Paul, however, in his letter the church at Philippi, manages to use one of these problems to address the other. Paul is very concerned about dissension and disagreement in the church. He is glad that the Christians in Philippi are showing many signs and fruits of the spirit. He is glad that they are living out their faith. But even though they are proving themselves to be fruitful Christians, they are still arguing with each other. Paul says, if you do just one more thing, you will make my joy over your progress complete: be of one mind. Stop all this bickering and be of one mind. Treat one another better than they deserve to be treated. Throw away your selfish desires and approach one another with humility.

And in order to make his point more clearly, he quotes an early Christian hymn to them. In fact, this hymn may be one of the earliest Christian writings that we have in existence. It begins, “May the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.”  It’s called the Kenosis Hymn, from the Greek word Kenosis, which means to pour out or empty. Jesus poured himself out, gave of himself, humbled himself to become human.

It is quite an incredible thing that this hymn is telling us. It is an amazing, mystical sort of truth. Jesus was in the form of God. But he decided, instead of taking advantage of the situation, enjoying his godly status, that he would humble himself, pour himself out, and become a slave, be born into the most humble of conditions. Throughout his life, he continued to be humble, and even died as a humble man, in the most barbaric and humiliating of ways. And, we are told that because Jesus humbled himself, God then lifted him up and gave him a new name, the name of God, so that everyone would know that he was doing God’s will.

In the world of the Old Testament, humbling oneself was considered a virtue. In the Greco-Roman world it was considered unthinkable. But according to Paul, this is the approach that Christians should take toward life, to be willing to humble themselves in order to serve God more effectively.

He puts it even more bluntly than that. He was saying, “Be of one mind,” to the Christians in Philippi. Now he is adding another layer, and saying, “While you’re at it, make that one mind be Christ’s mind, the mind that humbles itself in order to be of service to others.” Paul is turning around expectations. Normally Jesus’s humble background would be considered a liability. But Paul says, no, in fact Jesus’s humble background is the very model of our faith. Don’t be fooled into thinking that just because Jesus lived a humble life that he wasn’t really the Messiah and Savior. Instead, realize that the fact that the Messiah and Savior chose to live such a humble life proves what an amazing Savior he really is, and sets the example for any good disciple of God.

Paul turns things around, turns them upside down. You all are bickering with one another because you think you’re the best; you’re too caught up in your own self-centered schemes. Don’t forget that the most incredible being to ever walk the face of the earth, Jesus the Christ, didn’t get lost in all that self-aggrandizement. Jesus humbled himself. And that’s what you should do, humble yourselves, so that you can make room in your life for God’s will to work, and so that you can live in peace with your neighbors.

Now, there are two words of warning that are in order here. First, sometimes Christians, in an effort to achieve Christian humility, end up falling into unhealthy self-denial. Sometimes we take pride in making martyrs of ourselves in order to try to prove ourselves worthy of God. It reminds me of the old line from Weird Al’s song, Amish Paradise: “Think you’re really righteous, think you’re pure of heart? Well, I know I’m a million times as humble as thou art!” Trying to be the humblest person in the room is missing the point. And letting yourself be abused for no reason is also missing the point. We have some history of that in the Christian church, and we need to atone for it.

Which leads to the second word of warning. Paul’s message of self-emptying can easily be perverted when people of power and privilege use it as a means of controlling people with relatively less power and privilege. “What do you think you’re doing, speaking up for yourself, agitating for your own rights?” they say. “Don’t you know that Christians are supposed to humble themselves?” When the powerful preach humility to the powerless, that is a perversion of the gospel. Jesus, from a position of power, humbled himself in order to be in solidarity with the powerless, in order to lift up the lowly, not in order to keep them down. Jesus is not a Messiah of humiliation, he is a Messiah of liberation.

The example Jesus gives us is of willingly pouring oneself out for the greater good and for the will of God. It is not about proving oneself to be the humblest person around. It is not about condemning the powerless when they seek God’s liberation. And it’s not about using God as an excuse to hate yourself. True Christian humility is about loving God so much that you set ego aside and let God fully live in you. It is about allowing enough of an opening for God in your life that God can transform you into God’s ideal image for you. It is about having patience and understanding for the others around you, instead of constantly trying to edge ahead or sabotage your neighbors. It is not an easy thing to do, because it’s not something we can do on our own. We have to give up the control. We have to give up our will, and let God live in us.

It’s not easy to do. I like to have control of my life. I like to make plans for the future. Sometimes I even like to try to make it clear that I know that better, I can do that better. But when I can let that go, when I can give myself over, that is when I live as my true self, because that is when Christ is living in me.

May the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus. He did not consider being equal with God something to exploit. But he emptied himself by taking the form of a slave and by becoming like human beings. Thanks be to God.

Sermon: Angry Enough to Die

Sunday 24 September 2017
The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 25A

Jonah 3:10-4:11

jonah-gourdEveryone knows the story of Jonah, right? Well, it’s not actually the story of Jonah, is it? It’s the story of Jonah and the Whale. Jonah doesn’t want to follow God’s call to go to Nineveh, so he gets on a boat in the opposite direction. But while they’re a sailing, a terrible storm comes up, and they end up throwing Jonah overboard in an effort to get the storm to stop. After he is thrown over, Jonah is swallowed by a whale. He stays in the belly of the whale for three days. And then he gets spit up onto the shore. And then Jonah decides to do what God had commanded. He gets up, and he goes to Nineveh.

And that’s the whole story, right? God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh. Jonah refuses. Jonah gets swallowed by a fish. Jonah learns his lesson and goes to Nineveh. Simple message: when God tells you to do something, you’d better do it. If you try to run away from God’s call, God will find you.

That is part of the Jonah story, but it is not all of it. In fact, that’s less than half of it. With all of our focus on the strange story about the fish, we may have lost track of what it is God was actually telling Jonah to do.

God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh and to preach against the people there and their evil ways. But Jonah doesn’t want to deliver God’s message. And he actually has some pretty good reasons. Nineveh is the capital of the mighty Assyrian Empire, a major enemy of Israel. In fact, Assyria will eventually conquer the northern kingdom of Israel. Jonah doesn’t want to visit or bring God’s message to his most bitter enemy. He doesn’t want to travel into the lion’s den, and he doesn’t believe that the Ninevites are worthy of receiving a message from God.

But there’s something more important than that. God has sent Jonah with a message of destruction for the Ninevites. That’s actually a message that Jonah likes. Jonah wants God to wipe Nineveh off the map, just like Sodom and Gomorra. He would love to be the one who declares Nineveh’s destruction.

But Jonah knows God a little too well. Jonah doesn’t believe that God will actually destroy Nineveh. He knows that God’s sense of mercy is much stronger than God’s need for destruction, and he is pretty sure that God is going to have second thoughts and decide to spare Nineveh.

And there are two different problems with that. First, Jonah doesn’t want Nineveh to be spared. Why go to all this effort if God is going to change God’s mind and spare the evil city?

And second, Jonah does not want to be made a fool. If he declares that Nineveh will be destroyed, and then God doesn’t follow through, Jonah will look like he doesn’t know what’s going on.

It’s rather ironic, actually. Jonah is arguably the most successful prophet of all time. He travels to one of the largest cities in the world. The bible says it was so big that it takes three days to walk from one side to the other. Jonah begins walking into the city, and for just one day, he preaches a simple message. He says, “Just forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown!” And before Jonah has even made it half way across the city, everything has changed. Shockingly, the people of Nineveh believe Jonah right away. They listen to God’s message. Every single person in Nineveh begins a ritual of repentance. After just one day of preaching, the entire population repents with sackcloth, ashes and fasting. Even the animals go into mourning when they hear that the city has offended God. The King of Assyria—who never even meets Jonah, he just hears rumors about Jonah’s message—even the king goes into mourning and commands that everyone else join him. It is the most dramatic and complete turnaround in the entire bible. No one, absolutely no one, inspires so much repentance as Jonah does, and he does it in just one day, in a place where no one knows him, where they worship different gods, and among a people who are the sworn enemies of his people.

And yet, far from being happy at this absolutely extraordinary result, Jonah is irritated. He wants fire and brimstone. He wants death and destruction. And instead he gets repentance, and forgiveness, and mercy, and grace. Sometimes God can be so infuriatingly compassionate. I mean, if anyone deserved to be snuffed out, it was the Ninevites. But no, God has to forgive them. It’s just so aggravating.

That’s right where we pick up with the story today. Jonah is angry with God, and he says, “Isn’t this just what I said when I was in Israel. This is why I ran away. I know that you are a merciful and compassionate God, very patient, full of faithful love, and willing not to destroy.” Those are beautiful words, right? That is a wonderfully grace-filled description of who God is. But Jonah isn’t happy about it, he is angry. In fact, he is so angry that he wants to die. “Kill me!” he says to God. “It would be better for me to die than to live!”

God’s answer can be translated a few different ways. It might mean “Is it right for you to be angry?” Or it might mean, “Is your anger a good thing?” To me, it seems to mean something like, Do you really have any reason to be angry? Is your anger serving any purpose?

Whatever the exact shading of God’s words are, though, Jonah gives God the silent treatment. Instead of answering God’s direct question to him, Jonah says nothing, leaves the city, and builds himself a little shelter to the east of town. He is waiting there to see what happens to the city. He is still fuming mad at God, and he is going to continue to sit there and fume until God takes his advice and destroys Nineveh. It’s totally a teenage reaction. Jonah is furious that the parent is going easy on his annoying sibling. It’s so unfair. My life is over. You ruin everything.

And Jonah continues to rage as God performs a little experiment on him. First, God causes a plant to grow near Jonah and offer him shade. And for a moment, Jonah is happy. But the next day a worm comes and kills the plant, and as Jonah is still sitting in the blazing heat, he gets even madder than before. Again he starts with the teenage complaining, “I might as well die. This is all so unfair.”

And God speaks again and asks Jonah the same question he had asked a few days before, the question Jonah ignored. But this time God asks it about the shade plant: “Is your anger about the plant a good thing? Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?” And with more histrionics, Jonah spits back, “Yes! And I’m angry enough to die!”

And that’s when God sits Jonah down for the parental talk: “You showed concern for the plant, even though you didn’t do anything to grow or take care of it. You’re angry about it even though it only lasted day. And look, there is a whole city here. One hundred and twenty thousand people. And you don’t think I should be concerned about them? You really think your little plant is more important than an entire city?”

And that’s the end of the book of Jonah. It’s stops right there in the middle of a conversation. It actually ends on a question spoken by God to Jonah. Shouldn’t I be concerned about these people? It’s not really a book about obey God when God calls. It is that, too, but more than that, it’s about anger and grace, rage and forgiveness, mercy and antipathy.

You see, Jonah doesn’t want God to be good. Jonah wants God to be evil. Jonah wants God to destroy the foreigners, and he doesn’t care whether they follow God or not. They’re not Jonah’s people, so Jonah wants God to destroy them.

And we can certainly recognize that mindset in our world. Prejudice and vendetta are easy to find. Those people aren’t good like our people. They’re lazy. They’re criminals. They’re cheats and thieves. They can’t be trusted. They need to be kicked out. They need to be defensed against. They need to be destroyed.

And of course we know that God is bigger than our alliances and squabbles. Just because we distrust or hate someone, it doesn’t mean that God does. Just because we see some group as evil, it doesn’t mean that God does.

But I want to bring things in a little closer. This story is about prejudices and xenophobia, but it’s also about plain old anger and resentment. Jonah is angry that things haven’t gone his way, and that anger leads him to lose all perspective. He fails to see the marvelous grace of God because he is angry, and he holds on to his anger like a vise.

God asks Jonah twice, “Is your anger a good thing?” The first time he doesn’t answer. The second time he says he is angry enough to die. And he’s right that his anger can lead only to death, not to life. It does nothing good in him. It leads to no transformation, no progress, no healing, only to bitterness and death.

That isn’t to say that anger is always wrong or that anger should be avoided at all costs. Sometimes we are justifiably angry that things are unfair or that someone has been hurt. And at other times, our anger is not so justified, but we will still have to feel it before we can get through it.

Anger can inspire us to do good in face of injustice. And sometimes expressing anger, in a way that is not destructive, can be the best way for us to move ahead.

But if anger is going to result in any kind of good, it cannot just turned in on itself, be allowed to fester and calcify. And it cannot go on unquestioned and unexamined. When Jonah gives himself over to his destructive anger, he is no longer able to experience God’s grace, either for himself or for anyone else. He becomes so alienated from God, in fact, that he is driven to suicidal despair.

And yet, God does not abandon him. God keeps coming back, keeps asking, “Is this anger of yours a good thing? Can you not rejoice with me at seeing a people transformed by grace?” God keeps offering grace, even to the one who wants to deny God’s grace to others.

We don’t know how the story ends, whether Jonah gets through his anger and is able to grasp hold of God’s grace. The question is left unanswered. And so is ours. When we find ourselves blinded by anger, when we feel resentful of the grace and forgiveness offered to others, when we get stuck on how unfair it is that someone else isn’t punished to the full extent of the law, how will we respond? Will we take hold of that anger, squeezing it tighter and tighter until it threatens our health or even our life. Or will we be able to release that grip, to offer grace just as we have received grace, to forgive just as we have been forgiven, and to rejoice with God when anyone, anyone at all, is changed by God’s transforming grace?

Sermon: Not unto Ourselves Alone

Sunday 17 September 2017
The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 24A

Romans 14:1-12

Paul is writing to a group of churches in Rome that he has not visited. He is planning a visit to Rome, and as a way of introducing himself and preparing the way, he writes this letter. It appears, though, that he has already heard something about them, something about the issues that the churches are facing in Rome, something about the squabbles and arguments that they are having. All groups of people have disagreements and arguments, and the Church is no exception. Even from the earliest times, it seems, Christians disagreed over the best way to be Christians.

In Rome, among other things, they are arguing about diet and about the observance of special days. So lets talk about diet first. The conflict is between those who eat meat and those who are vegetarians. Now, if these two groups were arguing today, it would likely be about how much land and water it takes to raise cattle, or about the relative health benefits of eating and not eating meat, or about how ethical it is to raise animals for meat, or how much pain they feel when they are slaughtered, or the carbon footprint involved with the meat industry. These are all potentially interesting questions. However, none of these questions are the questions that Christians in Rome were considering when they had their conflict over diet.

For them, the issues were very different. There were probably two main questions for these early Christians. The first has to do with the method of butchery. There are specific regulations in the bible about the proper way to slaughter animals. This is part of what makes meat kosher or not. Living as they did, in the Gentile city of Rome, it would be hard to ensure that any meat they might have bought in the market had been butchered properly in the way prescribed by scripture. If it wasn’t possible to get Kosher meat, then maybe it was best not to eat meat at all. Or perhaps, these sorts of regulations did not matter for Gentile Christians. Maybe it was okay for Gentile Christians to eat non-Kosher food because the Kosher laws only applied to Jews.

But there was another issue that also had to do with the slaughter of meat. In the ancient world, nearly every religious tradition practiced animal sacrifice. When we modern people imagine animal sacrifice, we usually think of a cruel ritual in which an animal is killed and then its body is burned on the altar of some god. Occasionally the ancients did perform these sorts of whole burnt sacrifices, but most of the time things worked a bit differently. A person would bring their animal to a temple and hand it over to the priest. Then, through whatever rituals were prescribed by that god, the priests would slaughter the animal. Then they would begin the butchery process. Typically, only the undesirable parts of the animal, like the bone, fat, and blood, would be burned for the gods. The priests would take a portion of the meat for themselves, as payment, and they would return the rest to the person who had brought the sacrifice. They would take it home and use it for their meals, or to a market to sell. A temple of animal sacrifice was actually much more like a butcher shop than it was like the images we usually have in our heads. This is how animals were slaughtered at the temple of God in Jerusalem. It’s also how they were slaughtered at the various pagan temples throughout the Roman world.

This presented a problem for Christians in Rome, though. If they buy meat in the market, chances are that it has been offered to Jupiter, or Mars, or Isis, or some other pagan god before it ends up in the shop for sale. So if they buy that meat and eat it, wouldn’t it mean that they are practicing idolatry? Wouldn’t they, in effect, be worshipping other gods? For this reason, many Christians, following the example of the Book of Daniel, decide that as long as they live in Gentile cities, where meat is offered to the gods before it is sold, they will simply refrain from eating any meat and be vegetarians.

Others, though, have a different idea on the matter. They argue that since there is only one true God, all of the pagan gods are really nothing at all. They don’t exist. Therefore, even if meat has been offered up to Apollo, there really is no Apollo, so it hasn’t been offered to anything except some inanimate statue of wood or stone. If the pagan gods aren’t real, then what does it matter if meat has been sacrificed to them. It is fine to eat meat from pagan temples, because those pagan gods don’t really exist anyway.

The other conflict Christians in Rome are dealing with is over the setting aside of special religious days. Some people set aside certain days as holy. Maybe Saturday, as the Sabbath commanded in scripture, or maybe Sunday, as the Lord’s day. Other people say that every day is the same, and there is no need to set aside a special day for God. Ancient Rome, by the way, had no weekends. Every day was a work day, though there were plenty of holidays and feast days and days off to watch the games or the gladiators. The fact that Jews, and some Christians, took off one day a week for religious observance, seemed like a strange oddity to most of their Gentile neighbors.

And so, Paul is writing to Christian communities that disagree over what the proper thing is for Christians to do. We modern Christians still have our arguments. And interestingly, we still argue about things like diet and scheduling. Most Christians set aside Sunday for worship, but Seventh-Day Adventists insist that the proper day for worship is Saturday, the day prescribed by the bible. Jehovah’s Witnesses refrain from celebrating any holidays. Likewise, some Christians eat whatever they want whenever they want. Catholics and Orthodox Christians, though, abstain from meat on Fridays and certain other fast days. Mormons abstain from caffeine. Some Methodists and Baptists abstain from alcohol.

But our disagreements are not limited just to calendars and food. We disagree about worship styles; should it be medieval worship, or nineteenth-century worship, or contemporary worship? We disagree about music; should it be chant, or baroque, or gospel, or rock & roll, or rap? We disagree about how to take communion: should we use juice or wine;; should we dip into a common cup, or drink from a common cup, or have individual cups; should the bread be leavened or unleavened; should we celebrate it once a year, once a quarter, once a month, once a week, or once a day? We disagree about mission: should we focus on helping people in need, or on righting the injustices of society, or on winning souls for Christ? We disagree on worship space: should we have an altar or a table; what should we put in the middle, the altar, the pulpit, the choir, or the organ? Should we have an empty cross, or a cross with Jesus on it, or a projection screen? Is Jesus human, or is he God, or is he half human and half God, or is he somehow all human and all God? When is the proper day to celebrate Easter? What kinds of clothes are appropriate to wear to church? What age do you need to be in order to be baptized, and how many times should you be baptized? What kinds of prayers should we say, and what things should we pray for? When should we sit, and when should we stand, and when should we kneel?

As you might guess, I could go on and on. And these are just the strictly religious arguments. I haven’t even touched the social arguments or the political arguments that we Christians have with one another. Things like, what is the proper response to violence, how should balance industry and ecology, or how we should respond to the criminal justice system? We have plenty of things to disagree about, to squabble over, even to fight over.

So what does Paul say to the Christians who are squabbling in Rome? He tells them to welcome one another, but not in order to argue about differences. He says that Christians who abstain from meat do so in order to honor God, and Christians who eat meat do so giving thanks to God. Likewise, Christians who set aside specials days for worship, do so to honor God, and Christians who see every day alike also do so in honor of God, a God who, after all, is not confined to Sunday mornings. And he says something else that is very interesting. He says, “Let everyone be convinced in their own minds. Each person must have their own convictions.” That means that they don’t have to try to convert each other, or to put each other down. It is alright for them to have different beliefs and opinions and practices. They can do things differently and all still be Christians. They can all believe what they believe in their own minds and yet still tolerate the differences they have, still embrace each other as sisters and brothers in Christ.

And that is a message we can still hear today. We live in the most religiously fragmented society in the history of Christianity. There are more denominations now in the United States than there have ever been in the history of the world. For a long time, the church favored unity over what they called schism. It was more important that the church stay one than it was that everyone believe their own things. At times, there was room for freedom of belief. At other times orthodoxy was imposed with force of arms.

But we are a long way from that world. When Martin Luther started the Reformation 500 years ago, he was not trying to break up the church, he was trying to reform it. When John Wesley started the Methodist Movement, he was not trying to start a new denomination, but that was the result of his work. Are we are left with a legacy of Christian fragmentation. And even though the Mainline Protestant denominations, like the ELCA and the UMC, have started working together more closely, it still hasn’t led to much of what we call organic unity. There are still separate denominations. This congregation, being both Lutheran and United Methodist, is a rare sign of hope for the unity of the church and ability to come together across denominational lines.

But even churches within the same denomination might have major disputes between one congregation and another, or even within a single congregation. In general, we have given up on unity as a value and have instead embraced radical individualism, which is not surprising, since we live in the most individualistic culture of all time. And as Paul does say, “Let every one be convinced in their own mind. Each person must have their own convictions.”

However, though we all may have slightly different beliefs, slightly different practices, the fact remains that we are all still Christians. We are all still a part of the one Church, of which Christ is the head, even though that one church may at times seem rather broken. We are all still sisters and brothers in Christ. And as sisters and brothers, members of the same family, we may have disagreements, but we still need to love one another. We still need to tolerate our differences. We still need to respect one another. We still need to find ways to build bridges across difference. We still need to welcome one another, in the love and peace of our one God, who created us all, and who loves us all, and who calls us all to love one another.

So when we find ourselves in the midst of difference and disagreement, let us act with respect and humility. It is not an easy thing. Many of our disagreements today strike right at the core of our understandings of justice and morality. And I am not saying that we should stand by silently while hate and injustice are preached in the name of Christ. Christian unity can never be an excuse for injustice and oppression.

But so many of the things that divide us are not questions of justice or morality, and in those things, we can learn to accept difference, we can learn to embrace diversity, to learn from one another while not seeking to impose our own preferences on one another.

And even in the places where our differences and disagreement strike at the core of our values, we can differ and argue and struggle without resorting to hatred. A person rarely changes their mind after being punched in the face, even if they were wrong. Rather, transformative change comes from people who are willing to have difficult conversations, willing to listen deeply to someone who’s views they find detestable, willing to seek out a human connection with the enemy, just as Jesus commanded us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. Who knows, we might even discover ways that we have been blind to our own hidden prejudices and errors.

Welcome one another, Paul says, but not in order to argue about differences of opinion. Each person must have their own convictions. We don’t live for ourselves and we don’t die for ourselves. If we live, we live for the Lord, and if we die, we die for the Lord. Therefore, whether we live or whether we die, we all belong to God. Thanks be to God.

Notes-N-News

Good afternoon!

 

++           Choir practice has resumed on Thursday’s at 6pm at Spirit of Grace.

++           Women’s Spirituality meets this Saturday 9th in the church office.

++           One Service this Sunday 10th at 10:30.

++           Garden Party follows our 10:30 service. Please bring a potluck dish to share. Under Susan Randolph’s management and the many hours she and volunteers have put in, the garden has produced about 2400 pounds of food! Let us all celebrate together.

++           Newsletter info is due by tomorrow.

++           Coffee Hour sign-ups are needed for Sept 24th and for the month of October.

++           CROP walkers will meet Thursday, September 7, at 4:00pm at Hood River Valley Christian Church. CROP Walk materials for walkers and promotional information will be handed out. 2017 Columbia Gorge CROP Walk is Saturday, October 7 at 10:00am beginning and ending at Hood River Valley Christian Church. Spirit of Grace does not have anyone representing our church but if you want to do the walk, this info is for you!

To anyone who donated the much needed items requested by firefighters staying at the fairgrounds, thank you! “There were two cars full of items and it really lifted the Fire Fighters spirits  up a lot.  They were amazed at how generous our community is and how fast we responded.”

For those that didn’t get a chance yesterday and would like to help, there are still some items firefighters requested:
Socks
Body Soap Wash in Bottles – (No soap Bars)
small travel size Deodorant
small Foot Powder, small travel size Body Powder
Once again, bring items to the Print It  Shop on Cascade Ave today.  (Requests from firefighters have come through local Boy Scout Troop 282).

Blessings,
Jennifer Fowler

Sermon: Take Up Your Cross

Sunday 3 September 2017
The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 22A

Matthew 16:21-28

In the Gospel lesson last week, Peter confesses that he believes Jesus is the Messiah and the Son of God. And Jesus praises him for this testimony and tells the other disciples that Peter is the Rock on which he will build his church. It’s one of Peter’s brightest moments, when he proves to Jesus that he knows what’s going on.

In today’s lesson, which follows immediately on the last, Peter is caught by surprise when Jesus seems to turn away from his role as Messiah. Peter, like any good first-century Jew, knows that the Messiah is God’s anointed king, the one who will once again lead Israel to independence and liberty, the one who will throw off the foreign oppressors and inaugurate the imperial reign of God. The Messiah will be a powerful political leader, he will be a war hero, he will be an inspiration to the people, and he will bring unity and prosperity to Israel, who have for so long been persecuted. Peter has proclaimed that Jesus is this Messiah, and Jesus himself has confirmed it to his disciples.

So now, when Jesus starts talking about suffering at the hands of the religious authorities and being killed, Peter knows that something is wrong. Jesus must have fallen into some sort of depression. He must be doubting his call as God’s Messiah. So Peter takes him aside to cheer him up and straighten him out. After all, if the crowds start hearing Jesus talk like this, then everything will be lost. They will all lose faith in him, and their mission to bring about the restoration of Israel, the Kingdom of God, will be lost.

It must have come as an even greater shock when Jesus rebuked him as a satan, an adversary, a tempter, who was standing in the way of Jesus’s calling and mission. What he didn’t realize is that God’s idea of a Messiah is much different than human ideas of a Messiah, that God’s idea of a kingdom of heaven on earth is much different than human ideas about that kingdom.

Peter thought that the coming of the Messiah and the Kingdom of God was all about glory and praise and victory. But Jesus understood a very different reality, that the coming of the Messiah and the Kingdom of God was about suffering and humility and redemption.

“If you want to be a part of my mission,” Jesus says, “then take up your cross and follow me.” To put that in contemporary language, Jesus says, “tie a noose around your neck and follow me, strap yourself into an electric chair and follow me, stick a needle in your arm and follow me.”  It’s absolutely shocking. It was shocking for the first disciples, who had not planned on getting killed as part of this mission. And it is equally shocking to us today. Jesus says, “If you plan on following me, then you had better get used to suffering, and you had better be prepared to die for the cause if it comes to that.”

Like Peter, we usually think of God’s kingdom as glorious, praiseworthy, victorious. If we just stick with Jesus, he will protect us and take care of us, he will make our lives better, give us everything we need, make us happy and healthy. God will intervene for us because we are God’s special children.

There are a lot of preachers out there preaching a gospel of prosperity. They’re not difficult to find on the radio or on your television. They’re saying that if you confess belief in Jesus Christ then you will be rewarded with health, safety, and wealth. As they tell it, prosperity on earth is a direct result of faithfulness to God and a sign of God’s favor. This view has become a major part of American Christianity.

Even though most of us here don’t subscribe to that kind of prosperity theology, chances are that most of us tend to see our religion as something that will make our lives happier, easier, or more prosperous. We come to Christ seeking peace, seeking happiness, seeking satisfaction. We come to the one who says, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

And so for us, Jesus’s call to take up our cross may be just as unwelcome as it was for those first disciples. We have a hard time accepting that suffering might be a part of the faith. We have a hard time believing that following God might mean walking straight into adversity, and might even lead to our death.

Christians in the first few generations after Jesus knew exactly what he was talking about. They faced opposition from their fellow Jews, and, later, periods of fierce persecution from the Roman Empire. At times it was illegal simply to claim the name Christian, and the crime could be punishable by torture and death.

In modern times, in the western world, being a Christian is rarely so dangerous. Most of us can’t imagine putting our lives at risk for Christ. There are, of course, exceptions. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and many others risked their lives proclaiming Christ’s saving message for all people and decrying the sins of racism and systemic poverty. Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador was assassinated for proclaiming Christ’s good news for the poor. Still, most of us never face that kind of pressure, never take those kinds of risks.

And when we do face hardship in our lives, we sometimes feel like God has abandoned us. If life is difficult, if I have doubts, if I’m unhappy, if I’m ill, then maybe it’s because God doesn’t care for me any longer. Maybe it’s because I’ve done something wrong and God has decided to withhold blessing. Maybe God is too busy to pay attention to little old me. For many of us, adversity seems at odds with faith.

We sometimes forget that God never promised that our lives would be easy. God never promised that we would not face hardship, never promised everything would be sweetness and light. In fact, it’s quite the opposite, if we believe Jesus’s words from today.

But we are promised something else. We are promised that whatever hardship we might face, whatever suffering we might endure, whatever troubles we might encounter, Jesus walks with us. Don’t forget that we have a savior who understands suffering, who understands rejection, hardship, and even death. That is one of the most amazing truths of the gospel. We have a God who, in order to be in closer relationship with us, became human and suffered cruelty, rejection, and death. That same Jesus understands our suffering, not as some distant, ethereal observer, but as one who has experienced it for himself, and as one who suffers along with all those who suffer.

We are not promised an easy life with all the pleasures of this world. What we are promised is a savior who knows our hurts, knows our fears, knows our pain, and who stands beside us even in our darkest hours, walking beside us, showing us the way, and sometimes even carrying us. We are promised Jesus the Christ, who shocked the world by winning the victory not through force of arms or political power, but through suffering, death, and resurrection.

And Christ calls us to shock the world, not with glory or power or wealth or charisma, but with humility, with suffering, and with grace. Christ calls us to face our trials with the confidence of knowing the Christ faces them with us. Christ calls us to take up our cross and follow him.