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…

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.