Sermon: My Spirit Stands in Your Midst

Sunday 10 November 2019
The Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 32C

Haggai 1:15b-2:9

I have been in the church my entire life, for forty years now. And for that entire time, people have been talking about how the church is dying. I have never been a part of a church that didn’t think it was dying. I have never been a part of a church that didn’t feel like it had somehow fallen from something that was bigger, better, healthier, more impressive that had come before. I know some of you have read Paul Nixon’s book, I Refuse to Lead a Dying Church. I have literally never been a part of a church that did not operate under the nagging fear of an impending death. If I had a dollar for every church meeting I have been in that someone made references to rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, I would be a wealthy man.

And that’s true for a lot of people my age. Even in congregations that are pretty healthy, even in congregations that are growing, we all know what the trends are. In 1950, the constituent parts of The United Methodist Church had 9.7 million members in the United States, representing 6.5% of the US population. Up until that point, it had experienced more than 10% growth every decade since 1800 except one, and outpaced the growth of the US population in every decade except one. Ten years later, in 1960, there were 10.6 million United Methodists, but the growth was no longer keeping up with population growth. Membership stagnated in the 60’s, and by the 1970’s it was falling. In 2010, it was 7.8 million members, a decrease of 28% from it’s highest point. In that same time, The UMC has gone from being 6.5% of the US population to being 2.5% of the US population. I wasn’t able to find similar statistics for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, but similar trends of decline since the 1960’s have been experienced by all mainline churches.

And church decline has been the guiding narrative of how we understand ourselves for at least the last 50 or 60 years. I remember being a youth and hearing over and over that it was our job to shake up the church to make it more interesting and inviting for young people like us. We needed to bring young people back to the church. We needed to be the saviors of the church, otherwise it was going to die. And I remember going to seminary and being told that we needed to become the leaders for a new kind of church. If we didn’t make a cultural change within the church, then it was going to die. And I remember being a freshly minted pastor and hearing similar things. Oh, you’re a young pastor, so that means that young people are going to want to come back to the church. We used to have so many kids and so many youth, and we just need a young leader who can excite people and bring them back.

And then I go to Annual Conferences, to Synod Assemblies, to Bishop’s Convocations and District Colloquy and Order of Elders Retreats and Clergy Cluster gatherings, and we talk about the same things. We need to do something different or we are going to die. The world is changing. If we’re going to stay relevant, we’re going to need to be bold. We’re going to need to be transformative leaders who can solve this problem, who can make the new church for a new age, but always to do so within the established frameworks of how we do church. Our failure to grow is a failure of imagination. Our failure to grow is a failure of boldness and creativity. Our failure to grow is a failure of our leadership. Our failure to grow is because we are not in tune with the Holy Spirit, doing the new thing that God is doing.

I don’t remember the glorious time in the past. I was never there in the good times, when church was working how it is supposed to work. I never saw the good old days. In my experience, the church has always been looking backward in regret, but the glorious past is just a story to me.

This morning we heard words from the prophet Haggai. Before about a week ago, I didn’t know anything about Haggai. I’ve never preached from this book before. I’ve never studied it. I knew it was one of the minor prophets, but that’s all. I had to use the table of contents to find it in my bible.

So I’m guessing most of you don’t know very much about Haggai, either. It’s a short book. It has six separate prophecies in it. Very unusually, for the Hebrew Bible, each of the prophecies is precisely dated. This one starts out this way: “In the second year of Darius the king. On the twenty-first day of the seventh month.” That means we can say the exact day when Haggai spoke these words. In our calendar, it’s September 21st, 520 BCE. That’s crazy, right?

And we know what was happening in the world, then, too. I’m going to give you a few dates; just remember that since we’re in BC or BCE, as we move forward in time, the number of the year gets smaller. At the end of the 600’s, the Kingdom of Judah was under threat from the growing Babylonia Empire, based in what we now call Iraq. They started paying tribute to the empire in 605, and some of the Jewish people were deported to Babylon. In 598, King Nebuchadnezzar laid siege to Jerusalem, which led to a second deportation of Judean people to Babylon. In 588, Jerusalem was laid siege again, and this time the Jewish temple was destroyed. Again, many Judeans were moved against their will to Babylon. Most of them, and their descendants, were in captivity in Babylon for at least 70 years. Many never returned.

However, in 539 BCE, 48 years after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple, the Babylonian Empire was conquered by the Persian Empire, based in what we now call Iran. The Persians started to let Jews return to the land in 538, 49 years after the destruction of the temple and 18 years before our scripture this morning from Haggai.

By the time of Haggai in 520 BCE, there were many returned Jews living in Jerusalem, along with the Jewish people who had never left. But at the center of the city, Merced atop Mt. Zion, there was nothing but ruins. The temple had been destroyed 70 years before. It had created a major crisis among the people, because their entire practice of religion had been focused on the temple. For seventy years, that had been unavailable to them. They were left with no way to practice their faith as they had known.

Haggai gathers the people together on the site of the former temple, along with their leaders, and he shares a word with them. “Who among you is left who saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Does it look as nothing to you?” He’s asking them how many people are there who are old enough to remember the temple before it was destroyed. Do you remember back in the 80’s when we used to have a beautiful temple? Do you remember how people used to come from hundreds of miles to visit it? People came from around the world to visit the temple. They came with all kinds of offerings and gifts. Even people who weren’t Jews would come to see how beautiful it was. Do you remember? We were the talk of the world. But that was almost 70 years ago, and look at us now. No one comes on pilgrimage here any more. It’s not like it used to be.

Sound familiar at all? Do your remember 70 years ago when people used to come here to worship all the time? We could hardly handle all of the people who came to worship.

Like our churches today, the people of Jerusalem were dispirited with what had become of them. They had all heard the stories of their glorious past. Not all of them could remember it, though. Only a few had been alive long enough to have actually seen the splendor of the former temple, but everyone carried the image of that resplendent house of God in their minds.

In the midst of their discouragement, Haggai speaks God’s words to them. “So now, be strong, Zerubbalel, says the Lord. Be strong, High Priest Joshua, Jehozadak’s son, and be strong, all you people of the land, says the Lord. Work, for I am with you, says the Lord of heavenly forces. As with our agreement when you came out of Egypt, my spirit stands in your midst. Don’t fear.”

My spirit stands in your midst. Don’t fear. Haggai is trying to encourage the people to build a new temple, and he is ultimately successful. The second temple was not nearly as impressive as the first temple had been. It was not until Jesus’s lifetime, when King Herod commissioned a massive remodel, that the new temple would become the architectural match of its predecessor, and then it only lasted a couple of decades before it was destroyed again, never to be rebuilt.

Haggai was looking back to the old temple, trying to return to the way things were before. And while they did build a new temple, Jewish religious practice never returned to the way it was before. Jews had been spread all over the world because of the conquests of successive empires, and many lived much too far away from the temple for it to be a part of their regular practice. Instead, something new developed. This is the period when the use of scripture began to explode. Much of the Hebrew Bible was first written down in this period. The experience of the destruction of the temple and the deportation of the people meant that things could never go back to how they used to be.

But the story of God and God’s people did not end, it simply entered a new chapter. A new religious practice was born for a new age. No one knew that’s how things were going to happen. It wasn’t an intentional choice to increase the emphasis on written Scripture and to decrease the emphasis on a temple and burnt offerings. Over 4 billion people today worship the God of Israel. Almost none of them perform any kind of animal sacrifice like what used to happen in the temple. All of them read, study, and pray the sacred scriptures. We still worship the same God, but our practice and organization has been completely transformed.

We are in the midst of another significant cultural change. To us, right now, it seems like decline. And it is true that the institutions and patterns that we have known are in decline. Things aren’t going to go back to how they used to be.

But the story of God and God’s people is not over. God’s spirit still stands in our midst. We do not know what will emerge in the next phase of this millennia’s long story of God and God’s people. But we know that even if things change, the story will continue. We may not live long enough to see what emerges. There is no way to predict where that change will come from. And that can be hard for us, not knowing what is coming next or how to prepare for it.

But it is not our job to design the way the church will be a hundred or two hundred or five hundred years from now. God’s spirit is standing in our midst. God’s spirit will make the change. It may not even be our job to be a part of that new thing, though we may be a part of its beginnings.

In J. R. R. Tolkein’s The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo tells Gandalf that he wishes he did not live in such a time of danger and change. And Gandalf replies, “So do I, and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

Our job is to be faithful in the time that we are, in the place that we are. Not to try to get back to the 1960s. Not to think that it is up to our creativity to save the church. Our job is to be faithful right now, to listen to what God is speaking right now, to answer the spirit’s call right now.

Because we know that even now, God’s spirit is standing in our midst. When we can’t see the road ahead, God’s spirit is standing in our midst. When all we see is decline, God’s spirit is standing in our midst. Even though the world may change, God’s spirit is surely standing in our midst. The story is not over. God will continue to lead God’s people. Gospel will still be preached. Grace and forgiveness will still be offered. God’s spirit is standing in our midst. Thanks be to God.

Sermon: Blessed Are You Poor

Sunday 3 November 2019
All Saints Sunday

Luke 6:20-31

The text this morning from Luke is at once familiar and unfamiliar, at once comforting and disturbing, at once affirming and challenging. I was teaching on this text recently, for the Synodically Authorized Minister training through the Oregon Synod, and I asked them if it seemed familiar. They said it was “like the Beatitudes, kind of.”  That’s exactly right. It’s like the Beatitudes, but not the version of them that you know.

The familiar version is in the Gospel of Matthew. That is often the case. For whatever reason, and we’re not entirely sure why, the church pretty early developed a preference for the Gospel of Matthew over the Gospels of Mark and Luke. If there is a story that is included in two or three of these gospels, chances are that the version that you have rattling around in your head is the version from Matthew.

And so everyone has heard about the Matthean version of this text. Everyone knows about the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew, chapters 5-7, Jesus comes down from the mountain, just like Moses, in order to give a new and updated law to the people. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” And it goes on from there. You know those words, right? They are familiar. As Ken could tell you, in the Mennonite tradition, and many other traditions, the Sermon on the Mount is the most important part of the bible. It is the canon within the canon. It is the lens through which every other part of the bible is interpreted.

The words of the Sermon on the Mount are so popular, in fact, that hardly anyone remembers Luke’s version of the same material. Matthew’s Jesus stands on the hill while he talks to the people who are assembled below, but in Luke Jesus comes down from the mountain onto a level place in order to address the crowds, and so, while Matthew’s version is called the Sermon on the Mount, Luke’s version is called the Sermon on the Plain.

Both sermons start with beatitudes. Beatitude just means blessing. Both sermons start with blessings. But they’re not quite the same, are they? For one things, Matthew has a much expanded version compared to the version found in Luke. Luke doesn’t say “Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed are the pure in heart. Blessed are the peacemakers.” Those are things that Luke just doesn’t include.

Luke’s beatitudes are much simpler and much more pointed. “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep, for you will laugh.” It covers some of the same ground as Matthew’s version, but even where they agree, they don’t really agree.

We say that Matthew has a more spiritualized version. Luke says, “Blessed are you who are poor.” But Matthew says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Luke talks about the actual poor, but Matthew doesn’t. Matthew talks about the poor in spirit, whatever that means. Luke says, “Blessed are you who are hungry.” But Matthew says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” Luke talks about people who are actually hungry, but Matthew doesn’t. Matthew talks about people who hunger and thirst for righteousness, whatever that means. You see what we mean by spiritualized? Luke talks about real, material concerns, but Matthew talks about something much more vague, much more immaterial, much more spiritualized.

Only the actual poor can claim a blessing for the poor, but just about anyone can claim a blessing for the poor in spirit. Do you ever feel less spiritual than you could be; well, then you can claim that blessing. Only the actually hungry can claim a blessing for the hungry, but just about anyone can claim a blessing for those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Do you ever wish that the world was more just than it is; well, then you can claim that blessing.

And Luke doubles down on this materiality. Unlike Matthew, Luke pairs the blessings with curses. “Woe to you that are rich, for you have already received your reward. Woe to you who are full, for you will hunger.” It’s very real.

Which means that we end up with two very different messages from these two remixes of the same basic words. Matthew presents us with a number of ideals to which everyone should strive. We should try to hunger and thirst for righteousness. We should all strive to be merciful, to be pure in heart, to be peacemakers. In Luke, though, Jesus addresses the real conditions of suffering on the ground. Jesus makes clear that God is on the side of the poor, that God is on the side of the hungry, that God is on the side of the oppressed. It highlights God’s preferential option for the poor, God’s preferential option for the oppressed.

And that can be a harder message to swallow, especially for those of us who live relatively comfortable lives. Because we are used to having the bible be good news for us, personally. The gospel offers me forgiveness for my sins. The gospel offers me healing for my hurting. The gospel offers me comfort for my grief. If the grace of the gospel isn’t for me personally, then is it even grace at all?

And yet the gospel recognizes that some people have greater need than others. The gospel recognizes that the wellbeing of some is sometimes jeopardized by the privilege of others. Whether we intend it or not, sometimes one person’s bounty contributes to the poverty of others.

And in response to that, sometimes God takes sides. Sometimes God takes sides and fights on behalf of the weak and the oppressed. God takes the side of Hebrew slaves over their Egyptian slave-masters and leads them through the Red Sea into freedom. God takes the side of widows, orphans, and immigrants and insists on laws that give them special protection. God takes the side of peasants over big landowners to make sure that they are paid and treated fairly. God takes the side of debtors over creditors to make sure that no one is held under crippling debt. God takes the side of the weak over the strong. God takes the side of the oppressed over the oppressor. God takes the side of the hurting over the comfortable. God takes the side of the people over their leaders.

And if we don’t believe that message as it comes through the law and the prophets, then we can believe it because of Jesus. Jesus is always looking for those who are lost, last, and least. Jesus is always seeking to turn the tables of society, to bring down the powerful and lift up the lowly.

And if we don’t believe his words and actions, then we can believe his incarnation. Jesus left the heights of heaven to become human. But he did not become human as a powerful king or emperor. He did not become human as a wealthy landowner. He did not become human as a holy priest. No, he became human in a poor family, born to an unwed mother, the Galilean minority of the Jewish minority, a homeless itinerant preacher in a backwater province on the edge of the Roman Empire. And it is as that kind of nobody that God takes sides against the most powerful man in the world, the man calls himself the son of god, the Roman emperor Augustus Caesar.

Sometimes God takes sides. And sometimes, it’s not for our benefit. Sometimes it’s not for my benefit. And that can be very hard to hear.

I want to make clear, though, that God’s love and grace is for everyone. As the theologians would say, God’s grace is universal. God reaches out in grace to each and every one of us before we even know to look for God’s grace. God meets each and every one of us with in the depths of our sorrow and the valley of our sin. God promises to walk with each and every one of us, to sanctify us in our journey of faith. There is absolutely nothing that can place us outside the bounds of God’s grace. There is nowhere we can go to hide from God’s love. As the apostle Paul writes in Romans 8, “I’m convinced that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Jesus Christ our lord: not death or life, not angels or rulers, not present things or future things, not powers or height or depth, or any other thing that is created.” Nothing can separate us from God’s love. God’s love is universal.

But that does not mean that God never shows a preference. And from all we know about God, we know that God shows a preference for the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalized. And God asks us to do the same. God asks us to pay special attention to the needs of the poor and the hungry. God asks us to pay special attention to the needs of immigrants. God asks us to pay special attention to those who have been marginalized on account of gender or race or ethnicity or disability or sexual orientation or health or nationality or class or any other factor that might unfairly disadvantage a person or a community. That is part of the good news of the gospel: that God does take sides. While God loves and cares for all, God takes sides for the sake of justice. Thanks be to God.

Sermon: All Who Lift Themselves Up

Sunday 27 October 2019
Reformation Sunday

Luke 18:9-14

We are trained to think that Pharisees are bad people. Jesus and his disciples encounter Pharisees numerous times in the gospels and in Acts, and they are almost always the bad guys, the villains, the people who are opposing Jesus. So when we hear that word, Pharisee, we immediately have a negative reaction. We expect a Pharisee to be up to no good.

But that’s not really the way that people would have thought of Pharisees in Jesus’s day. In general, Pharisees were pretty highly regarded. They were people who placed a special emphasis on holy living. They took their religion seriously, didn’t just pay lip service to it. And they tried to make their religious practice relevant to real life. It wasn’t just for the priests in the temple. Religious practice should be something that everyone can do, as part of their daily life. That’s what the Pharisees taught. That’s what they practiced. They took the Bible seriously, and they tried to live it out as best as they could.

In Jesus’s time, they weren’t really the religious establishment, either. That was the Sadducees. They were the one’s who were priests and religious officials. They were the well-connected and well-to-do. The Pharisees were well-educated, but they were much closer to the ground than the Sadducees, much closer to the people. By the time the gospels were being written, things had changed a bit. Once the Jewish temple was destroyed in the year 70 CE, the entire religious structure had to be reimagined, and it was the Pharisees who took the lead in the new order of what would become Rabbinic Judaism. That’s part of the reason Pharisees are so often cast as the bad guys in the gospels, not because they were such a threat to Jesus, but because they were a threat to the early church a few decades after Jesus. But in Jesus’s own time, Pharisees would not have been universally despised, like the gospels seem to suggest that they were.

Tax collectors, on the other hand, really were despised. It’s not just that they collected the taxes, it’s that they collected the taxes for Rome. They were agents of an occupying empire. They were collaborators. They helped the empire to keep its control. And, in general, they put pressure on the ordinary people to pay their taxes much more than on the elite. The elite had all sorts of ways of getting out of paying taxes, but the poor had few ways to resist. And so tax collectors were despised because they squeezed money out of their neighbors in order to prop up the very system that oppressed them.

So when Jesus’s audience hears the beginning of his parable, they aren’t expecting what we’re expecting. “Two people went up to the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee and one was a tax collector.” They would hear that introduction and know who was good and who was bad. Of course the tax collector is going to be the bad guy. Of course he is going to be the villain. And of course the Pharisee is going to be the upstanding moral figure. Of course he is going to be the holy one. That’s the expectation when Jesus introduces a Pharisee and a tax collector.

And if you don’t already expect for the Pharisee to be the villain, he doesn’t immediately seem that terrible. Here’s what he says, “God, I thank you that I’m not like everyone else—crooks, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week. I give a tenth of everything I receive.” He maybe seems a bit arrogant, but not terrible. The first thing he does is give thanks to God. He doesn’t take credit for the holiness of his life. He gives God the credit for it.

And the things he says about himself are pretty good. He isn’t thieving. He doesn’t cheat other people. He has no record of financial irregularities. He can be trusted in financial dealings. That’s a good thing, right?

He isn’t unjust. That means he treats people right. He’s fair. He’s virtuous. He’s ethical. That’s a good thing.

He isn’t an adulterer. He’s faithful. He doesn’t have any record of sexual misconduct. No MeToo issues. That’s a good thing.

And he’s not like a tax collector. That is to say, he hasn’t sold out his own people. He hasn’t sided with the empire that is keeping everyone down.

If we put those things together, we’ve basically established that the Pharisee can pass a background check. No financial malfeasance. No sexual misconduct. Generally trustworthy. This is the kind of person that we would want to be involved in ministry.

So those are the things that this Pharisee isn’t. What about the affirmative things that he does? He fasts twice a week. Fasting isn’t something that Protestant Christians tend to do very much these days, but historically it is an important part of the faith. John Wesley typically fasted twice a week, on Wednesday and on Friday. One of the things I had to promise when I was ordained is that I would recommend fasting, both by precept and example. It’s a spiritual practice that is meant to help us learn to live with less and to be thankful for small things. It helps to curb our greed and to keep us in balance. It shows and builds spiritual maturity. All of that is good.

And the last thing about the Pharisee is this: he gives a tenth of everything he earns to God. He tithes. That’s what I’m supposed to be encouraging all of us to do, isn’t it? That is the Old Testament standard for giving. That is what most of us are striving for. I say it’s the Old Testament standard, because the New Testament actually has a higher standard. Jesus says that his disciples need to sell all of their possessions, give the money to the poor, and follow him. I think most of us are happy to stick with the Old Testament on this particular topic. And that’s the standard that this Pharisee lives up to. He is generous, more generous than most people, both back then and today.

So when we really look at him, this Pharisee is a pretty good guy. He’s the kind of guy you would want in your church. He’s the kind of guy you might want on your city council. He seems to be generally a stand-up citizen. He does just what you would want someone from your faith community to do. He seems to be quite virtuous. He is admirable. He is a good role-model. By all visible standards, he is precisely what we would want in a follower of God.

But that isn’t the point that Jesus is trying to make here. Like he does so often, Jesus upsets our expectations. Jesus flouts our normal standards of decency. Because this upstanding Pharisee is not going to be the hero, the model of virtue at all.

Jesus introduces a second character: the tax collector. We’ve already established that he is in many senses a traitor to his people. He is a Jew who works for the Romans, who brutalizes his own people so that Rome can get paid. In his prayer, he doesn’t thank God for anything. But he doesn’t say anything good about himself, either. He simply identifies himself as a sinner and he asks for mercy from God. That’s it. He doesn’t repent of his sin. He doesn’t promise that he will do better in the future. He doesn’t quit being a tax collector. He just asks God for mercy. He asks God not to punish him for the wrong things that he has done.

And Jesus say, “I tell you the truth, the tax collector went home justified by God, but the Pharisee didn’t.”

I’ve got to tell you, this a hard one. Because, in general, I would encourage people to be more like the Pharisee, not more like the tax collector. Be honest, don’t cheat people, be faithful to your spouse, practice spiritual disciplines, give generously, tithe even. The only thing that this Pharisee seems to do wrong is that he looks on himself more highly than other people. But even that he only does in his heart. It’s not like he goes around town saying that he’s better than everyone else. It’s just in this silent prayer to God that he rates himself as better than people who are obvious sinners. Do none of us ever thank God that we aren’t like obvious sinners: that we aren’t caught up in crime, that we don’t abuse others, that we are regular church attenders? If you’ve spent your whole life living on the straight and narrow, it’s pretty hard not to be thankful that you haven’t had to deal with all of the natural consequences that go along with living an obviously sinful life. If that’s his greatest vice, I don’t know that I have any ground to fault him.

And then look at the tax collector. Certainly it is good that he admits his sin and asks God for mercy. There’s no doubt about that. But I wouldn’t encourage people to look at him as a model for prayer. If you spend all of your time in prayer just beating up on yourself, that doesn’t seem particularly healthy. There’s is definitely a place for acknowledging one’s own sin, and sometimes that’s going to lead to really strong feelings of regret and remorse, sometimes even a kind of self-loathing. But I wouldn’t want anyone to stay there, to stay in a constant state of self-hatred. That’s part of what Martin Luther was trying to escape. He spent so much time focusing on his own sin, confessing over and over, punishing himself, that he could never accept God’s grace, he could never move forward. His great breakthrough was in accepting that God’s grace is more powerful than any of our sins, that God has the power to work good even out of very flawed people. But I don’t see any of that kind of realization in this tax collector. I don’t really see any repentance or any acceptance of God’s grace.

But this isn’t a competition over who is living the most holy life. Luke tells us exactly why Jesus told this parable. “Jesus told this parable to certain people who had convinced themselves that they were righteous and who looked on everyone else with disgust.” Jesus told this parable to certain people who had convinced themselves that they were righteous and who looked on everyone else with disgust.

Of course we should strive for holy living. Of course we should strive to be honest, faithful, virtuous, pious, and generous, like that Pharisee. Of course we should. But that should never give us an excuse to look on others with disgust. That Pharisee did so many things right, but when he went to the temple to pray, he thought he was so much better than everyone else that he didn’t need anything from God. The tax collector just asked God for mercy. And God is merciful. It is part of God’s nature to be merciful. What Jesus says is absolutely right. Only one of those men went home from the temple justified by God. Only one of them asked God for mercy and justification.

We are saved by God’s grace alone. That is the message of the Reformation. It is not anything that we do that makes us holy in God’s sight, it is God’s own act of grace in us. And it is only by God’s grace that we are justified, only by God’s grace that we are sanctified. God’s grace embraces us before we even know to look for it. God’s grace sets us free and heals us when we are in the depths of hurt and sin. God’s grace shapes and molds us so that we can be better disciples of Jesus. None of us have any room to boast. None of us has graduated past a point so that we are no longer in need of God’s grace. And none of us has fallen so far that we are beyond the reach of God’s grace. Thanks be to God, who never looks on us with disgust, but is always overflowing with grace and love.

Sermon: Every Scripture Is Inspired by God

Sunday 20 October 2019
The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 29C

2 Timothy 3:14-4:5

I want to spend quite a bit of time this morning on just one verse of scripture: 2 Timothy 3:16. Some of you know this as an important proof text. Others don’t know this particular verse from any others. But I want to spend some time with it today because it is important for how we understand scripture. In the version we read it in today, it says this: “Every scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for showing mistakes, for correcting, and for training character.”

If you google the phrase, “How do we know scripture is inspired by God?” the first hit, from allabouttruth.org, references 2 Timothy 3:16, and it says this: “The Bible itself makes claim to being the inspired Word of God.” Then it quotes our verse and continues, “The Bible claims to be without error, authoritative, sufficient to meet all of our spiritual needs and it does not defend itself. It merely states truth asking us to examine ourselves with its message. And so inspiration tells us that God is the author of the Bible, using writers to communicate to us.”

 Did you catch that? Supposedly, this one verse from the second letter to Timothy proves that the Bible is the inspired Word of God, that it is without error, authoritative, sufficient to meet all our spiritual needs, and that it is written directly by God, using human writers as little more than scribes who commit God’s divine words to print. All that from this one verse. “Every scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for showing mistakes, for correcting, and for training character.” Interpreters in this vein often go on to claim that the Bible, and only the Bible is the inspired Word of God, that it has a special authority above all other writings, and that that special authority is granted to it by God, in the words of the Bible, right here in 2 Tim 3:16. You don’t need any other proof. Everything between the two covers of this book is God’s divine proclamation, and everything outside of it is not.

Of course, the reality of things is not nearly so simple. The story of the Bible is much more complicated, and much more interesting than that. It’s not that God just picked out a few scribes to take down some notes on the divine musings and those got collected together into what we now know as the Bible. And despite what a lot of people claim, the Bible itself never suggests that that’s the case. There is another book out there that does. The Qur’an is supposed to be the result of the prophet Mohammed copying down the words of God that were revealed to him through mystical encounters with the angel Gabriel. But that isn’t the story of the Bible. That is not even what the Bible claims to be.

Let’s go back to 2 Timothy. What does it actually have to say? Let’s take just the most important words: “Every scripture is inspired by God.” It’s only three words in Greek: two adjectives and one noun. Πᾶσα γραφὴ θεόπνευστος. Πασα is one form of the adjective παν. It’s fairly common in English. Panoply, panorama, panacea, Panhellenic, pan-American, pan-African. It means all or every.

The second word is also fairly common in English: γραφη. Lithograph, photograph, pictograph graphite, graphic. It means writing. More basically, it means something represented by means of lines. A drawing, an outline, a painting, a writing, a list, a medical prescription, a legal bill of indictment. Sometimes, though, it can mean a holy writing, a scripture. So πασα γραφη can mean every writing, every scripture.

There’s just one more word: θεοπνευστος. While this particular word is very uncommon, it is a compound of two very familiar words. Θεο, as in theology, is the Greek word for God. Πνευμα, as in pneumatic or pneumonia, can mean breath, wind, or spirit. So θεοπνευστος can mean God-breathed or inspired by God.

Every writing God-breathed; all scripture inspired by God. There’s no verb, so the ‘is’ is implied. Every writing is God-breathed; all scripture is inspired by God.

On the surface, that might sound pretty clear. Here it is in the Bible, and it says that every scripture is inspired by God. So every part of the Bible is inspired by God, right?

That might make sense if this book, the Bible, was all written at one time, if it were all written by the same person, if it had always been contained in one, complete unit. But of course, that’s not what the Bible is.

So, what would these words have meant when they were first written? Specifically, what does the author mean by “scripture?” The Bible didn’t come to us all in one piece. So how did we get it?

The Bible isn’t really a book, it’s a library. The different books contained in the Bible were written by different people, in different places, in at least three different languages, and over the course of several hundred years. We don’t have any original copies of the Bible, and we don’t have any original copies of any single book in the Bible. What we have is copies of copies of copies of copies. Our oldest manuscripts are just little fragments, maybe a few verses, and it’s only much later copies that contain multiple books in a single manuscript.

The oldest parts of the Bible are written in Hebrew and part of what is commonly called the Old Testament or the Hebrew Bible. There are a number of different kinds of literature in the Hebrew Bible. There are historical narratives, songs, love poetry, laments, court records, legends, myths, proverbs, prophetic literature, accounts of ecstatic visions.

In Jewish tradition, they are divided into three sections. The first is called the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. Sometimes these books are known as the Pentateuch or as the Books of Moses. When Samaritans talk about the Bible, this is what they mean: just the first five books, the Torah.

The second section of the Hebrew Bible is called the prophets or the Nevi’im. These are further divided into the former prophets—like Judges, Samuel, and Kings—the major prophets—like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel—and the minor prophets—like Amos, Jonah, and Habakkuk. Even though we call these books, they didn’t come in a form that we would call a book. They were written on papyrus scrolls. The major prophets are called major prophets because they’re longer. They each took up a whole scroll. The minor prophets, however, were much shorter; all twelve of them could fit in the same scroll.

The third section of the Hebrew Bible is called the writings, or the Ketuvim. These include books like Psalms, Job, Esther, and Chronicles. In some traditions, these writings are considered less authoritative than the prophets, which are considered less authoritative than the Torah.

All these books together form what we usually call the Hebrew Bible of the Old Testament. It’s what most Jews mean when they talk about the Bible. But it’s not what Jews in Jesus’s time—in the time of 2 Timothy—would have thought of as the Bible.

By Jesus’s time, Jews had been dispersed all over the known world, sometimes by force and sometimes by choice. A lot of Jews did not speak Hebrew in their daily lives. That meant that a lot of Jews couldn’t understand the Hebrew Bible. So translations were made of the Hebrew Bible, the most of which was called the Septuagint. It’s called the Septuagint because it was reportedly translated by 70 different translators. It was written in Greek, which was the common language of most people around the eastern Mediterranean. It isn’t just a translation of the Hebrew Bible, though; it has more books than the Hebrew Bible, and some other books are longer in the Greek version. The Septuagint has books like Tobit, Judith, Maccabees, and the Wisdom of Solomon. It has a 151st Psalm. And it has longer versions of Esther, Jeremiah, and Daniel.

In the time of Jesus, and in the time of 2 Timothy, this is probably what people would have been referring to when they referred to scripture. No one had made any proclamations about what was and what wasn’t scripture. From community to community, they would have had different collections of books. But if we had to take a guess at what 2 Timothy means when it refers to scripture, the Septuagint would be a pretty good guess. So if we really wanted to say that 2 Timothy 3:16 is the final word on how scripture is inspired by God, then we would have to say that 2 Maccabees is inspired by God, but the Gospel of Mark isn’t. We would have to say that the Book of Tobit is inspired by God, but the Epistle to the Hebrews isn’t. We would have to say that Bel and the Dragon is inspired by God, but the 2nd Letter to Timothy isn’t. If we use 2 Timothy as a proof text for the special status of the Bible, then 2 Timothy would exclude itself from that special status.

The smaller part of what most Christians call the Bible is usually called the New Testament, sometimes the Second Testament. It’s written in Greek. Like the Hebrew Bible, it is written by many different authors, in many different places. It’s safe to say that none of the writers of the New Testament thought they were writing scripture. Many of the writings in the New Testament are letters, written by real people to other real people about their particular concerns. If you look at the last chapter of Romans, for example, you’ll find all kinds of personal greetings being exchanged between Christians in Rome and the people who are with Paul. Those details don’t really mean anything to us now, other than that it’s interesting to hear the names of some early Christians. The New Testament begins with four Gospels—stories of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, though these were written after most of the letters. And it also contains an account of the life of the early church, the Book of Acts, and the record of one man’s very interesting dream, the Book of Revelation.

In addition to writing new sacred texts, early Christians also adopted a new technology. It’s called the codex, but it’s what you normally think of when you hear the word book. Essentially a stack of pages that you can flip through. Using a codex meant that Christians could collect more writings together under a single cover. For the first time, people could collect all, or most of their sacred writings into a single document.

But that new technology also meant that people had to think about which things got included in the book and which were left out. That wasn’t an easy process. It took years and years. There wasn’t really a consensus on the New Testament until the third or fourth century. In fact, the argument hasn’t really ended. The bible we use in this congregation does not contain the same books as the Bible they use at St. Mary’s, which isn’t the same as the Bible George Pantley grew up using in the Orthodox Church, which isn’t the same as the Bible used in the Ethiopian Church… I could go on. The point is, not everyone agrees on what we mean when we say “the Bible.” Not everyone agrees on what we mean when we say “scripture.”

I’m not trying to bad-mouth the Bible. I’ve devoted most of my life to studying the Bible, and that’s because I think that it is extremely important, that it is incredibly meaningful. Every Sunday after I read the Gospel, I say, “The Word of the Lord.” And it is the Word of the Lord. It is inspired by God, absolutely. It is the sufficient grounding of our faith. It is the ultimate authority for our theology, and we are helped to understand it through our tradition, our reason, and our experience. The Bible is incredibly important.

But the Bible isn’t written by God. It doesn’t claim to be written by God. And we misunderstand it if we treat it as if it were written by God. The Bible is written by people about their experience of God. That doesn’t make it any less important or any less meaningful. It just makes it different.

The Bible is a conversation. It doesn’t end on the last page of Revelation. It breathes in new life every time we read it, every time we seek to interpret it together. If it didn’t then it would be dead and irrelevant to us. But it isn’t. The Bible keeps speaking.

The Bible is an argument. It does not always agree with itself, in part because none of its writers ever thought their works would be combined the way that they have been. Mark does not agree with John about who Jesus is, and neither of them agree with Paul. But those different views are held in tension for us, between the covers of the same book, so that none of our human conceptions of God can become an idol to us.

The Bible is the journey of a people in their relationship with God. It is a narrative. It is a story. It moves and changes and reacts and goes off course and then swings back. And because of that, it can speak to a much broader swath of the human experience. The Bible can make meaning for many different types of people because the Bible has been formed in the experiences of many different types of people, facing all kinds of different challenges and experiences. That is part of what makes the Bible so beautiful.

Every scripture is inspired by God. Yes, it is. And there is a complicated, mystifying, and beautiful story that lies behind that statement. The Bible isn’t dead. As we read it together, as we place it in dialogue with our lives, it creates new meaning. Each time we open its pages, each time we sing its words, new life is breathed into it, it is inspired by God. So let us take seriously this marvelous book and love it for what it is; it is our story, and the story of so many others, as we seek to love and understand and serve our great and glorious and gracious God.

Sermon: It Was a Samaritan

Sunday 13 October 2019
The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 28C

Luke 17:11-19

The Gospel of Luke tells the story of two Samaritans. There is the story here in chapter 17 about a group of lepers who were healed by Jesus, and one of them was a Samaritan. And there is the more familiar story, back in chapter 11, about the so-called Good Samaritan. For understanding either of these stories, it’s helpful to have some idea of who the Samaritans are.

Both Jews and Samaritans consider themselves to be the true children of Israel. The division between the two groups goes back more than 600 years before the time of Jesus. Historical accounts vary. After the time of King Solomon, the people of Israel were divided into two kingdoms. The northern Kingdom was called Israel, and the southern kingdom was called Judah. The Kingdom of Israel had its capital and its temple in Samaria, while the Kingdom of Judah had its capital and temple in Jerusalem.

Both Kingdoms were subsequently conquered by large empires. The northern Kingdom of Israel fell first to the Assyrians in 722 BCE. Many Israelites were forcibly moved to other parts of the empire, and other peoples were moved into the land. The Babylonian Empire began deporting Jews from the southern Kingdom in 597 BCE, and the Jerusalem temple was destroyed in 588 BCE. Jerusalem was wrecked, and everyone of consequence was carried into captivity in Babylon.

When Jews started returning to the land 70 years later to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem, they found Samaritans living in the land, worshiping on Mt. Gerizim. Both communities built temples, one on Mt. Zion and one on Mt. Gerizim. Both communities thought their place of worship was the one true place to worship God. Both communities had versions of what we call the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible, the Samaritian version consisting mostly of the first five books of the Bible. Both communities claimed Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as their ancestors. Both communities thought they were the true children of Israel. Both communities thought the other was not quite right with God, that they were perverting the ways of God, that they were heretics, unclean, unorthodox.

So Samaritans and Jews did not associate with each other. They were not friends. They avoided each other. They shared a tremendous amount in common. They lived very close to each other. They were, in many ways, siblings. But as in any family feud, closeness did not lead to greater understanding, but to greater division.

It is hard to come up with a modern analogy for the relationship between Jews and Samaritans. Maybe Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland. If you were trying to imagine who would be like a Samaritan to you, maybe think of the politician you despise the most.

Like I said, Luke introduces two different Samaritans in the course of the gospel. This is the second of them. Jesus is traveling in the border area between Galilee and Samaria, when he encounters ten people who have contagious skin diseases. According to biblical law, these people had to keep themselves separate from the rest of the population. They were excluded from the social life of the community for as long as they were still symptomatic. Just like they are supposed to, they keep their distance when Jesus comes near, but they yell out to him, asking him to help them.

Jesus tells them simply to go and show themselves to the priests. He doesn’t do anything to explicitly heal them. Nevertheless, while they are on their way to the priests, they are healed and made clean. Jesus sending them to the priests makes more sense than it might seem at first. In order to be released from their quarantine, the priests have to verify that they actually are well.

However, one of them doesn’t follow Jesus’s instructions. He doesn’t go and show himself to the priests. Instead, he turns around and goes back to Jesus. As he goes, he yells out praises to God to anyone who will listen. He bows down at Jesus’s feet and thanks him. It’s only then that the narrator reveals to us that the one person who returned to praise God and to thank Jesus is not a Jew, but a Samaritan. Then Jesus asks why no one else came back to praise God, only the Samaritan. And he tells the man, “Get up and go. Your faith has healed you.” Your faith has saved you.

That raises several questions for me. It seems a little strange that there are both Jews and Samaritans in the same group of lepers. But perhaps the stigma of suffering from a skin disease was worse than the antipathy that Jews and Samaritans had for each other. Maybe if they were excluded from the rest of society, then they were happy to have any companions they could find, even if that companion was a Samaritan.

Also, it’s nice that the Samaritan came back to thank Jesus and to praise God, but he also disobeys Jesus to do so. Jesus told them to go show themselves to the priests, and the Samaritan doesn’t do that. Now, that may not be too surprising. Presumably Jesus means that they’re supposed to go to the Jewish priests in order to get themselves checked out, and a Samaritan man cannot present himself to Jewish priests. Since he can’t do what Jesus has asked, why not go back to Jesus to praise God? The strange thing is that Jesus seems upset that no one else came back with him. Why would he be upset that everyone else followed his instructions and went to the priests? I still have never been able to figure that one out.

Nevertheless, the message seems clear. We have a group of ten people who all receive the grace of Jesus. For nine of them, that act of grace does not lead to any special praise of God. However, one of the people who receives healing grace from Jesus does return to praise God. But the hero of the story is the last person the audience would suspect. The hero of the story is a despised Samaritan. Sometimes Jesus offers grace to people we wouldn’t suspect. And sometimes the people we wouldn’t suspect end up being the best examples of faith.

It’s not unlike the story of that other Samaritan in the Gospel of Luke. It’s a story that Jesus tells. He has told one of his detractors that the greatest commandments are to love God and to love your neighbor. Jesus’s detractor asks who his neighbor is, then, and Jesus replies with the parable of the Good Samaritan. A traveler is beaten and robbed, lying near death on the side of the road. A priest passes by and does nothing to help. Another religious authority, a Levite, passes by and does nothing to help. But when a despised Samaritan comes by, he takes the man, gives him medical attention, and provides him with housing and continuing care at a local inn. “Which one of them acted as a neighbor to the man who had been robbed?” Jesus asks. It’s a story that is meant to shame the audience. Even a heretic Samaritan can offer help and hospitality to someone in need, but the most religious of people cannot be relied upon to do the same.

Back in the 1970’s, researchers conducted an experiment with seminary students. You might have heard of it before. The seminarians were told they needed to go from one building to another to complete a task. Some of them were being sent to give a talk on the Good Samaritan. Others were sent to do another task. Some were told they were already late. Others were told that they had a little extra time to get there. For all of the students, there was someone in their path, on the ground, who looked like they might be injured or needed help. Some of the seminarians stopped to help, and others didn’t. As you might expect, the ones who were in more of a hurry were less likely to help. Interestingly, though, the ones who were in a hurry to talk about the Good Samaritan were no more likely to help than the ones who were in a hurry to complete another task.

I mention this to you this morning because I preached the Parable of the Good Samaritan earlier this year. And while I was hurrying in to get ready for worship, I encountered someone who needed help. It was on the day that I was preaching the story of the Good Samaritan that I met [Jane] and [Brittany] for the first time, parked with their motorhome near the house out back where we used to have the church office. And by the grace of Jesus, my heart was opened to help.

Most of you probably know that [Jane] and [Brittany] have been staying in a couple of rooms in the old office for a little while now. It’s come to my attention that some of you have some questions about that. So I talked with [Jane] earlier this week to ask what parts of their story I could share with you. She said I could share this and that she’d be happy to talk more with those of you who might have more questions

[Jane] and [Brittany] fled their home in Alaska one year ago because of a domestic violence situation that put them in fear of their lives. Because there are no roads in or out of the town where they lived, they weren’t able to bring much with them. At first they tried to stay with some family in California and then with some friends in Eastern Oregon, but both of those situations ended up being unsafe as well. They came to Hood River because here is where they were able to find a domestic violence shelter with an opening. But no one can stay in the shelter indefinitely, and affordable housing is difficult to find. As they were leaving the shelter, they were able to find an old RV, and they lived in it for a while, parking wherever they could find for as long as they dared.

Both [Jane] and [Brittany] have serious medical issues that require specialist care. [Jane]’s condition, in particular, is aggravated when she overexerts herself. That’s what happened when she was taken to the Emergency Room a couple of weeks back. They were highly motivated to stay in the area, because they’ve managed to establish care here, and a move would mean an interruption in their care. I’ve spoken with their DHS worker, and they are receiving a number of services and have applications in for others, including transitional and affordable housing.

[Jane] and [Brittany] came to us at just about the time that we were preparing to move offices out of the old house. When many of you met them, you expressed a desire to help. A couple of you mentioned that you wished that the master bedroom in the old house was still set up as a bedroom because then they could stay there while they searched for other housing.

I prayed long and hard about the situation, and I got the unmistakable response that we needed to do whatever we could. I proposed to the Board that, since we had no immediate plans for how to use the house once the offices were moved out, that we try to prepare a place for [Jane] and [Brittany], that we use them as a test case for providing medium-term transitional housing, and that once they have found a more stable situation, that we reevaluate whether to continue to use the house for transitional housing, whether to use it for something else, or whether it needs to be removed from the property. After reflection and prayer, they agreed. This is not what we are doing permanently with the house, but it’s what we’re doing right now. I’m checking in with [Jane] every week or two as we work to get them into more stable housing. For her part, she has been eager to help out with anything that she can.

I cannot help but think that we are like two Samaritans. This church has had grace to stop and help and offer hospitality. And [Jane] and [Brittany] have had the grace to return with thanks and praise to God. This is what it means to love and serve our neighbors. I am as proud of this as I am of anything this church has done while I have been your pastor.

Answering Jesus’s call to discipleship is not without risk. Loving our neighbors means acting with grace even when we cannot see the final outcome. But answering when Jesus calls always leads to a blessing. We are blessed with the relationships we form when we love our neighbors. We are blessed with Christ’s presence among us. We are blessed with a vision of the Kingdom of God. I thank you for your grace in offering shelter and hospitality, and I pray that God will continue to open all of our hearts to respond with joy whenever and wherever God calls.

Sermon: Is There No Balm?

Sunday 22 September 2019
The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 25C

Jeremiah 8:18-9:1

Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then have my people not been restored to health?

The prophet Jeremiah cries out in lament to God. Why has this happened? Where have you gone? Why haven’t done something to change this intolerable situation?

Jeremiah was called as prophet of God during a particularly trying time for Israel. They were faced with powerful enemies on every side. To the south was the ancient Kingdom of Egypt. To the north were the Assyrians. To the east was Babylon. Israel stood at a major crossroads in the Middle East. Every regional power with dreams of empire had to pass through Palestine in order to expand. Israel was constantly threatened simply because it stood between the great powers of the area.

God’s people felt that they needed protection, so they made an alliance with Egypt. But that actually made them less safe than they were before. Now they weren’t just neutral ground for armies to march through. Now they were allied with the enemy. Now they were a target. And they were no match for enemies like Assyria or Babylon.

We don’t know exactly when this part of Jeremiah was first uttered or when it was first written down. We don’t know the exact context in which it is best understood. What we do know is that it comes from a time when Israel was under great threat, or when it had been devastated by foreign armies.

And in the midst of this destruction and desolation, Jeremiah asks where God is. Why did God allow this destruction to happen? Why didn’t God do something to stop this calamity?

When we face hardship, or tragedy, or destruction, that is the one word that we have such a hard time dealing with: why. Why are there so many destructive fires and storms? Why are people’s homes destroyed? Why do I have this illness? Why did my parent, or my sibling, or my child have to die? Why is he sick? Why did she leave me? Why can’t I find a job? Why? Why?

Because there has to be a reason, doesn’t there? There must be some reason that God is punishing us, punishing me. What was my failing? What is it that I did wrong to invite God’s judgment? What do I need to change so that God will stop doing this to me?

Unfortunately, this text doesn’t help us very much with that question. Jeremiah is convinced that Israel has fallen on hard times because they have been worshiping idols instead of the one true God.

It’s possible that that’s the case. But it doesn’t mean that every time we suffer hardship it is because God is angry with us. Not every tragedy has a reason. Not every hardship can be explained. In fact, most of them can’t be explained.

Why does one person survive cancer and another die? Why does one person live into old age while another dies in their prime?  Why does one person live in relative health while another suffers from chronic illness? Why does one mind stay sharp while another fades? Why does one relationship last while another deteriorates? Why is one community struck with disaster while another remains untouched?

Sometimes there are explanations to these things. Sometimes we can assign a reason. But much of time, perhaps most of the time, we cannot. Hurricanes aren’t God’s punishment for sin. Earthquakes aren’t divine retribution for consorting with the devil. Illness is not punishment for immorality.

There are Christians who claim that, though. There are Christians who are quite happy to tell us which sins provoked the latest natural disaster or illness. And it’s true that some parts of the Bible do suggest that calamity is a punishment from God. But there are other parts, like the Book of Job, that strongly protest against that idea. Jesus also argued against that idea when he spoke about a group of Galileans whom Pilate had killed, when he talked about the eighteen people killed when the tower of Siloam fell, and when he healed the man born blind. None of those people were experiencing the wrath of God on account of sin. That’s what Jesus says.

And yet, when we experience hardships, we do try to grasp for answers. Sometimes we blame it on the actions of others. Sometimes we turn the blame in on ourselves. Sometimes we assign it to divine action. Because there must be some reason. There must be some way to explain it.

When our daughter, Naomi, died 18 minutes after she was born, amongst all the care and support we received, we also got quite a lot of truly unhelpful sentiment. We heard things like, “God must have needed another angel.” And I don’t blame people for saying it. In times of tragedy, we want to try to be helpful to one another, and most of the time we just don’t know what to say. Coming up with a reason for loss seems like it would be helpful. It’s a way of trying to answer that nagging Why?

But most of the time there is no reason. It’s not because we did something wrong. It’s not because God is angry with us. And it’s not because God needs another angel. Some tragedies are simply tragic, and there is nothing to do with them but to lament.

But that is often the last thing we think of doing in the face of tragedy. Instead, we try to ignore the hurt and focus on the positive. We try to find things to be thankful for and deny the way we actually feel.

With this, Jeremiah can help us. He cries out to God in pain. And he is not happy with God. “The harvest is past, the summer is ended,” he says, “and we are not saved.” You’ve had enough time, God. Why aren’t you doing something? “Is the Lord not in Zion?” he asks. “Is her King not in her?” If you are here, then why haven’t you intervened? Why haven’t you stopped this mess? This is not how things are supposed to be.

This is a very raw cry of emotion. If you notice, some of the words are God’s words, and some of them are Jeremiah’s. But there is no indication when one speaker stops and the other begins. It’s just a confused jumble of pathos.

And Jeremiah closes this lament with a powerful set of images:

O that my head were a spring of water,

and my eyes a fountain of tears,

so that I might weep day and night

for the slain of my poor people!

Jeremiah is not afraid to face his true and painful feelings. He is not afraid to lay his whole self before God, with all of his hurt, with all of his anger, and with all of his sorrow. He is not afraid to confront God with all that he is.

In our culture, we are trained to hide and deny our pain. We are conditioned to pretend like everything is fine, to show a mask to the world. We are so practiced at it, that we even try to fool ourselves. Even when it is just us alone with God, we deny our hurt, as if we think that God can’t handle it.

The more we deny, though, the greater the pain. It just grows and grows with no release.

But if we can take our pain to God, then there is a balm. If we can bring all our trouble and set it at the feet the Lord, there is healing. Don’t be afraid to cry. There is healing in the tears. There is release in the crying out. There is power in the lament. Those tears are holy water.

And in time, healing does come. It may not happen all at once. It may not happen quickly. It may not happen the way that we want. But our God does provide. Our God does lift us up. Our God does hold us in loving arms, does care for us in our need, does heal our wounds.

If God cared enough about us to send God’s own Son, to live our life, to share our pain, to die our death, then God will certainly bear our burdens. God will certainly bind our wounds. God will certainly heal our hearts. And God will certainly walk the journey with us, all the way to its end and beyond. Thanks be to God.

Sermon: I’m the Biggest Sinner of All

Sunday 15 September 2019
The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 24C

1 Timothy 1:12-17

In the Cemetery Tales next weekend, I’m portraying Major League Baseball player and Christian evangelist, Billy Sunday. He was the most famous evangelist of the early 20th century, traveling from town to town for a week at a time, attracting huge crowds. There has been a fair amount of joking about me playing this role. After all, I am a preacher, and he was a preacher. He even preached at Asbury Methodist back in the day, and here I am as pastor of the church that continues Asbury’s legacy. But our styles are quite different. Billy Sunday sounds like this: “This old God-hating, Christ-hating, whiskey-soaked, Sabbath-breaking, blasphemous, adulterous, grafting, thieving, pleasure-loving, racketeering, socialistic, modernistic world is going to hell so fast, she is breaking the speed limit!” I don’t sound like that.

I was talking with someone about it this week, and they said, “You know, I think most of them sounded like that back then.” And that’s probably true. There has been quite a shift in styles over the years. And not for no reason, either. People got pretty burned out on that kind of fiery preaching. After generations of beating people over the head with their own sinfulness, the message of fire-and-brimstone preachers began to lose its effectiveness. People stopped thinking of themselves as mostly sinful.

Especially in light of liberationist movements, Christians started to recognize the kind of damage that sinfulness preaching had caused. That message was disproportionately wielded against women, people of color, sexual minorities, and the poor. The powerful used the message of sinfulness and the need for Christian humility to keep down the powerless. Those on the margins of society were constantly reminded to consider their own sinfulness and their need for repentance, to stay in their place. Women were reminded that sin came into the world through a woman, through eve. People of color were labeled as children of Satan. All the while, those at the center of power were quite free to continue as they were, assured of their privileged places in God’s Kingdom.

And so, it made sense that we made a shift in our focus. Sinfulness had become such a powerful concept that many people could not or were not allowed to experience God’s love and grace.

Even centuries before, this message had become problematic. Just think of the founders of our two denominations: Martin Luther and John Wesley. Luther’s early life was completely dominated by extreme feelings of sinfulness and unworthiness, feelings that were cultivated in him by his family and his church. As a monk, he would go to confession every day. He spent so much time confessing that the priests he came to complained about it. Today, we would say that he suffered from anxiety and depression, and it was grounded in his sense of sinfulness. It was only through a truly radical experience of God’s grace that Luther was able to overcome his overwhelming sense of sinfulness.

The same was true for John Wesley. In his early life, no matter how hard he tried, he could not escape his feelings of sinfulness and inadequacy. He could not accept God’s grace for himself. It took a long time for him to develop a sense of grace that was strong enough to allow him to accept that he truly was loved by God. Today we would probably diagnose him with obsessive-compulsive disorder, and all related to his sense of sinfulness.

Eventually, and none too soon, Christians began to wonder what would happen if we stopped raising children to think that they were worthless, wretched sinners, broken under the condemnation of God’s righteous judgment, and instead raised them to believe that they were loved by God, created in the image of God, gifted by God, and standing in God’s abiding grace. It’s not a new gospel, but it is a distinct change in emphasis. Rather than leading with sin and judgment, we now lead with grace and love.

I think that’s a good change. I don’t want to go back. I’m glad that Christians can build a positive self-image grounded in God’s love. I’m not interested in trying to convince people of their abject worthlessness.

However, there is a trade-off. We no longer drown people in an awareness of their own sinfulness, which is good. But the side-effect is that sometimes we don’t consider our own sinfulness at all. In fact, the very word “sin” has become almost unspeakable. We seem to reserve the word sin for only the most grievous of offenses against God. And even then, we often don’t use the language of sin. Instead we talk about crimes. Sometimes that means that the only time we use the word sin is when we are referring to something that used to be considered sinful but is now regarded as mostly unproblematic. So we might talk about dancing being sinful, or card-playing, or tattoos. That is to say, we sometimes treat the concept of sin as outdated altogether.

But we miss something when we do that. Because even if we don’t usually call them sins, we do still make mistakes. We still miss the mark. We still come up short. We still end up hurting people, sometimes by accident and sometimes on purpose. We still fail to treat others as well as we could. We make mistakes. We miss the mark. That’s all that sin means, anyway, is to miss the mark.

So if we make mistakes, but we don’t call it sin, then what do we do with it? We have a remedy for sin. We have confession and forgiveness. But what do we do with a mistake that we don’t call sin?

For the most part, we have one of two reactions. We either deny that we have made a mistake, or we feel guilty about making a mistake. Sometimes we do both at the same time. It is hard to actually admit to our mistakes, to admit to our weaknesses, to admit to our failings.

In this age, most of us have to not only live our lives, but we have to be the public relations manager of our lives. We have a life in the real world that we experience, but that is ephemeral. But we also have an online, a life that lasts forever, never goes away. And especially for younger people, that online life has to be carefully curated. You have to put the best possible spin on your life. You have to cultivate an image, a brand of yourself. Because that online life is accessible to the whole world, and it never, ever goes away. In a way, it is more real than real life. And Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram don’t forgive. If you don’t want to fall out of favor, then you constantly have to be hiding and erasing the less savory parts of your life. You need to be hiding your mistakes.

Even if that experience doesn’t seem familiar to you, you can recognized the pattern in our celebrities and pubic figures. Admit nothing. Deny anything that looks bad, even if it is clearly the truth.

For most people—for everyone who has a conscience—that double-life carries a heavy emotional and spiritual cost. We are constantly aware of the ways that our whole lives don’t live up to the life that we project to the world. And that hypocrisy and secrecy breed feelings of guilt and anxiety as well as a sense that we are little more than frauds. But there is no solution. There is no clear remedy.

The author of 1 Timothy, who writes in the name of the Apostle Paul, says this: “This saying is reliable and deserves full acceptance: ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’—and I’m the  biggest sinner of all.” That’s a very different attitude. I’m the biggest sinner of all. Paul spoke against Jesus, he persecuted the church, and he was full of himself. And yet, God took that broken and sinful life, forgave it, and transformed it into the life of the most prolific apostle. He was the first among sinners, and so it was first to him that Christ showed patience and forgiveness.

It’s hard to admit our faults. It’s hard to claim our sins. And yet, Paul demonstrates that doing so is precisely what is most needed. Because it is not in our strength, but in our weakness that God is most manifest. It is not in our triumphs, but in our failures that God is most present. It is not in our obedience, but in our sins that God’s grace, God’s mercy, God’s forgiveness, God’s transformation becomes visible.

It’s good that we no longer preach sin so strongly that everyone feels always like a horrible, unloveable wretch. But in our world, that sometimes means that we have a hard time admitting our own faults, at least admitting them to the world. And so we end up in an inescapable prison of guilt, not sure what to do or where to go.

There is a tremendous power in admitting our wrongs and asking for forgiveness. It’s a counter-cultural thing to do, but there is great power in it. It is the only way that we can truly heal.

The translation we read this morning says, “Christ came into the world to save sinners.” However, it would be just as easy to translate it “Christ came into the world to heal sinners.” To me, that small change makes a bit of a difference. Being saved from sin seems like I just don’t get punished by God. But being healed is more than that. Being healed changes my wellbeing for the better. When I acknowledge my mistakes, when I ask forgiveness for what I have done wrong, when I do what I can to make things right, then there is not only forgiveness, there is also healing and transformation.

And that indeed is why Christ came into the world. Christ came into our human condition, our brokenness, our strife. Christ came into our world to save us, to heal us, to make us whole. Thanks be to God.

Sermon: Now He Is Indeed Useful

Sunday 8 September 2019
The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 23C

Philemon 1-25

This morning we read the entirety of one of the books the bible. We read the entire letter of Paul to Philemon. Of all of Paul’s letters, this is the least theological and the most directly concerned with regular worldly affairs. Paul has a very specific purpose, and he uses all of his rhetorical skill, every argument and technique at his disposal, to achieve his aims.

(If you want to follow along in your Bible, I’ll be walking right through Paul’s argument.)

It begins like any good letter in the Hellenistic world, with the name of the sender: Paul. But rather than describing himself as an apostle, as he so often does, he describes himself as a prisoner of Christ Jesus, a point that he will come back to later in the letter. For now, it is enough to know that Paul is writing from prison and that he is in prison on account of the Gospel.

Next comes the name of the recipient: Philemon, our dear friend and co-worker. Paul is appealing to Philemon on the basis of friendship, and as we’ll see in a minute, Paul begins buttering up Philemon by calling him his co-worker in the gospel. Also addressed are Apphia and Archippus, and the church that meets in Philemon’s house. This means that when Philemon hears this letter read out loud, he won’t be alone. He’ll be in the presence of the whole community, and they can keep him accountable.

So now we are starting to get a picture of who Philemon is. We know that he must be wealthy if he is able to host a church in his home. His household probably includes slaves. It’s fairly safe to assume that Philemon’s church was originally founded by Paul, since we know from his other writings that Paul tends not to meddle in churches that he himself has not founded. That means that it’s also safe to assume that Philemon himself came to Christ through Paul. And it is more than likely that Philemon is a Gentile, because Paul understood his mission from God as the Apostle to the Gentiles, and he didn’t spend much time trying to bring the gospel to fellow Jews. So we have Paul, the great Apostle to the Gentiles, writing to his spiritual pupil, Philemon, who is the head of his own house church.

After a brief blessing, Paul really starts to butter up Philemon. He praises Philemon for his faith, for his evangelical work, and for his love and service toward the saints. While commending him for the work he has already done, Paul also prays that Philemon’s ministry will grow and prosper even more than it already has.

With Philemon sufficiently flattered, it’s time for Paul to broach the subject of the letter. And here is where you really see Paul’s mastery. “Though I have enough confidence in Christ to command you to do the right thing, I would rather appeal to you through love.” What better way to make a threat than to insist ahead of time that you are not going to make a threat. I could just order you, says Paul, and you would have to do what I say, but instead, I’m going to ask you on the basis of love. And then Paul really pours it on. “And I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus.” You wouldn’t turn down the request of an old man, would you? Especially not an old man who is in prison? Did I mention that I’m in prison?

Finally he comes the beginning of the request. Paul is making an appeal on behalf of Onesimus. It’s not completely clear what Onesimus’s circumstances are, except that he is slave of Philemon. It’s possible that Onesimus has run away. It’s not clear what the situation is; Paul doesn’t have to spell it out because Philemon already knows. In any case, Onesimus makes his way to Paul at some point, perhaps feeling that he was in danger if he stayed in Philemon’s household. He has come to Paul for help, and Paul has seemingly decided to argue on Onesimus’s behalf. Paul calls Onesimus his son, and tells Philemon that he has given birth to Onesimus while he is in prison.

Now might be a good moment to talk about prisons at the time. It was hundreds of years before the Penitentiary would be invented. Prisons, at least for the well-to-do, were not the kind of high-security, lock-and-key institutions we think of today. While some prisons were the dungeons you might imagine in ancient times, prisoners like Paul were often held under a sort of house arrest. They were allowed visitors. They could conduct business. They often had to provide for their own means while in prison.

So this explains why Paul would be able to meet up with Onesimus while Paul himself was in prison. Onesimus came and visited Paul in prison, and cared for his needs, becoming like a son to Paul. It was the responsibility of one’s friends and neighbors to look after someone who was in prison. Certainly within the churches, it was the responsibility of Christians to care for other Christians in prison, especially if they were in prison on account of the faith. This is what Onesimus has done for Paul.

And so it is with no small amount of sarcasm that Paul writes to Philemon, “I considered keeping him with me so that he might serve me in your place during my time in prison because of the gospel. However, I didn’t want to do anything without your consent so that your act of kindness would occur willingly and not under pressure.” Even this slave came to take care of me in prison, but you, my friend and co-worker, a man of means, have done nothing to help me. That is the subtext. An insult to Philemon, but masterfully laced with sugar by Paul.

Paul is sending Onesimus back to Philemon with this letter in his hand. And Paul wants to see a change in their relationship. “Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while,” writes Paul, “so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.” You can hardly tell because of the pleasant way that he says it, but Paul is calling on Philemon to free Onesimus from slavery, to accept him back into the household not as a slave, but as a brother. And not just as a spiritual brother but still a temporal slave, but rather a brother in the flesh and in the Lord. Paul, in the most underplayed way possible, is demanding that Philemon free Onesimus and accept him into the household as a free man.

The name Onesimus means useful. And so Paul puns on the name of this slave to make his point. “Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me.”

And now, Paul is really going to turn the screws, but with a smile still plastered across his face. “So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.” Translation: if you ever want to have anything to do with me again, you had better shape up and do what I say. “If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it.” Translation: you had better not use some wrong Onesimus has committed against you in the past as a reason to keep him enslaved. If you’re going to be that petty, then I myself will pay the cost. “I say nothing about your owing me even your own life.” Now Paul is really laying it on. Oh, by the way, did you forget that you owe me your very soul? You want to talk about debts—let’s talk about that debt if you want to talk about debts.

Paul goes on, “Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.” What a wonderful technique: compliment someone for doing something that they haven’t done yet. Not only does it let Philemon know that Paul expects him to comply, but it puts him so off guard that he feels like he has no choice but to do so.

And then, the final nail. “One thing more—prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers to be restored to you.” Beware, says Paul, if you are thinking about some way to get out of this, if you even consider treating Onesimus with less than the full respect that I expect from you, I am going to come and check up on you. Don’t think for a minute that prison can keep me from following through on this.

And then the finishing touch. “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.”

So, what are we to take from this most unusual letter of Paul? Paul rarely challenges the systems of oppression in his time. In fact, don’t we usually quote Paul as saying “Slaves, obey your masters; wives, obey your husbands.” In point of fact, that isn’t Paul, but it someone writing in Paul’s name. Nonetheless, Paul was convinced that the end times were near. And his mission was to get as many Gentiles under the banner of Christ as possible before the end came. He had to appeal to the broadest audience possible. He didn’t have time to try to confront all of the injustices in the world, especially when he thought that in a very short time they would all become irrelevant.

But in this one case, Paul takes a stand. And he does it in the most politic way possible, but he says it none the less: “In light of Jesus Christ, slavery is wrong.” Jesus’s death and resurrection has changed the nature of humanity. Before, only the Judeans were acknowledged as children of God, and every good Torah student knows that Jews aren’t allowed to enslave other Jews, at least not in perpetuity. But now Jesus’s death and resurrection has changed things. Now even the Gentiles are children of God, because God has adopted them into God’s family through the blood of Christ. And if all of humanity is now a part of God’s family, if we are all brothers and sisters through the faith of Jesus Christ, then none of us can truly be a slave. A brother cannot enslave his own brother. A sister cannot enslave her own sister. And so, since we are all sisters and brothers in God, none of us can rightly enslave any other human being.

Now, Paul doesn’t want to push that point generally. He knows that in that time and in that place, it would not have been heard, and he would have lost all of his credibility. But in this one moment, we get a peak at the inner Paul. We get a look at the Paul who will put his entire reputation on the line, who will use the full weight of his person and his status in order to free one slave. This is where he puts into practice that motto, that creed: “Because of Christ there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female.”

We too rarely confront the oppressive systems in our time. After all, we still have to live in our society whether we approve of every part of it or not. And it is much easier to just keep our heads down and make our way than to beat our heads over and over again against institutions and attitudes that seem like they will never change.

But there may come a moment. There may come a time when you have the choice to either stand up and make a difference or to let the moment simply pass by. There may come a time when you have the power to make a difference, to stand up for someone who has been beaten down, to put your own reputation and safety on the line for someone else. And I pray that when that moment comes for you, or for me, that we will each have the courage set aside our plans and our routines and to do what is right, to stand for the humanity that Christ died to save, just as Paul stood up for a man that society had declared useless and proclaimed, “Now he is indeed useful.”

Sermon: Broken Wells

Sunday 1 September 2019
The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 22C

Jeremiah 2:4-13

We were recently in England for the 18th International Conference on Patristic Studies in Oxford. I gave a paper on Clement of Alexandria and his reading of the story of the Rich Young Ruler. Thank you so much for support while I was away.

While we were there, we visited the town of Bath. Bath is known for its Georgian architecture and for the ruins of an ancient Roman bath. The reconstructed baths are really quite impressive.

The baths in Bath are quite special, though, because they are powered by a natural hot spring. Long before the Romans arrived, the hot springs were already a place of pilgrimage. Archaeological evidence suggests that for at least 10,000 years, people have been coming to the waters of Bath.

And it wasn’t just for a spa treatment. The ancients didn’t just think that the hot springs were therapeutic, they thought the waters were sacred. When they came to the ancient spring, that would not only bathe, they would bring offerings for the goddess who dwelled there. The Celts called the goddess Sulis. So when the Romans arrived, they called the place Aquae Sulis, the waters of Sulis. But they also merged the Celtic goddess with one of their own goddesses: Minerva, known to Greeks as Athena. Minerva was associated with wisdom, medicine, and poetry.

The Romans built a giant complex at the site of the springs. They used their engineering know-how to build several different baths at different temperatures, along with steam rooms, exercise rooms, rooms for massage. But they also built altars and temples. The site of the sacred spring remained a sacred site. And at the center was the temple of Sulis Minerva, the goddess wisdom, the goddess of the healing waters. There was something about that natural spring, that hot water bubbling up from the earth. For centuries, across cultures, people saw it as not just a useful, natural phenomenon, but as something supernatural, something sacred, something holy.

In the ancient world, water was a very valuable resource. We forget that sometimes. We live in a place that has an abundance of good, clean, fresh water. We live among lakes and rivers and waterfalls. And even in the parts of the country that aren’t surrounded by major bodies of water, we have technology that brings water just about anywhere. In just about any house in the United States, you can turn on a faucet and have cool, clean water come out. In Las Vegas, a city of more than half a million people in the middle of the desert, you can turn on the tap and have clean, cool water come out. Water is free at any restaurant in the nation. Even when we go camping, there are a huge number of campsites that have individual faucets for each site, and many more that have water easily accessible at a very short distance. The idea of not having easy access to drinkable water is almost completely foreign to us.

But that was nowhere near true in the ancient world. Access to clean water was a major struggle for many people. For much of premodern history, it simply was not accessible to many people. And the water that was available might not have been safe to drink.

This was certainly true in many parts of ancient Palestine. The Mediterranean is salt water. So is the Dead Sea. The Jordan River was a source of fresh water for many, but it’s pretty small. In this part of the world, we probably wouldn’t even call it a river. Having a well nearby would be highly valuable.

Do remember in the story of Jesus and the woman at the well? She makes a big deal about the well, and how the well had been dug by Jacob back in ancient times. The fact that he was able to provide a well for them seemed like an almost God-like power. “Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob who gave us this well?” She asks Jesus, incredulously. The ability to provide water was not at all trivial. It was a highly valuable resource.

Because, of course, water is essential for life. If you’re going to grow crops, you need water. If you’re going to raise animals, you need water.

More importantly, we humans need water to survive. Seventy-five percent of our body weight comes from water. Every cell, tissue, and organ needs water in order to function. Water aids in digestion, carries nutrients and oxygen to cells, regulates body temperature, and helps the body dispose of waste. Dehydration is the number one trigger for daytime fatigue. Even mild dehydration can cause trouble with brain function and concentration. We need water to live. And we need water in order to function at our best. The body can function for weeks without food, but only for three or four days without water. Water is absolutely essential for life.

In the Hebrew Bible reading this morning, the prophet Jeremiah narrates God’s frustration with the nation of Israel. God is upset that they have turned away from God. God is the one who brought them out of slavery in Egypt, the one who led them through the wilderness and provided for them, the one who brought them to the promised land and established them as a nation.

And yet, over time, the people drifted away. They no longer saw their need of God. They forgot God’s commandments and leadership. They set off on their own. They tried to live without God, or to replace God with that which is not God.

God says that it is time to take Israel to court. God has a grievance against the people. God has saved and established them. God has provided for them. God has been faithful to them. And yet, they have not remained faithful to God. They have drifted away from God.

And while God is presenting a case to this imaginary court, God says, “Cross the coasts of Cypress and look, send to Kedar and examine with care; see if there has ever been such a thing. Has a nation changed its gods, even though they are not gods? But my people have changed their glory for something that does not profit.” God is saying that nowhere in the world has a people ever changed gods from one to another. And yet, the people of Israel are trying to replace the one, true and living God with something else.

God continues with the charges: “My people have committed two crimes: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water. And they have dug wells, broken wells that can’t hold water.”

That is the image I want to focus on this morning. The people have forsaken the spring of living water and have instead dug broken wells that can’t even hold water.

Like we said, water was a highly valuable resource in the ancient world. A natural spring that consistently bubbled up fresh water from the ground was an unusual resource. In most places, wells had to be dug in order to access fresh water. A spring of living water—that is, a self-sustaining natural spring of healthy, flowing water—would be a luxury. Like the springs in Bath, it would be considered not only useful, but also sacred.

God is like that spring of living water. God is a never-ending source of life. We don’t have to pay for it. We don’t have to work for it. It is just there, flowing freely and readily available. Cool and clean. Refreshing and replenishing.

But without access to God, without access to that living spring, we start to die. Our health suffers, as we become spiritually dehydrated. And just like regular dehydration, a shortage of God can have negative effects in our bodies, in our minds, and in our spirits.

God says that instead of coming to the spring of living water, the people tried to make their own sources of water by digging broken wells. The Hebrew word, bor, might refer to a well or to a cistern. At best, it is an unreliable source of water. At worst, it is stagnant and even poisonous. And yet the people have chosen to come to these broken wells instead of coming to God’s spring of living water.

And that sounds like something we might be able to relate to. God is readily available to us. We can pray whenever we want. We can read the word whenever we want. And yet, so much of the time, we choose not to.

Instead, we try to do it on our own. We look to other sources for our spiritual refreshment. We take other things, that are not God, and we put them in the place of God at the center of our lives. We dig broken wells; we build broken cisterns. Instead of looking to God, we look to money. Or we look to drugs and alcohol. We look to our own egos. We look to our accomplishments or our possessions. We look to any number of things that are God. And we suffer because of it.

And yet, God continues to be right there for us, whenever we look. We just have to take the time. To praise God for our joys and come to God with our troubles. To read and reflect on the story of God and God’s people. To give thanks for our meals. To be mindful of God’s presence in our natural world. To seek God’s guidance when we face choices. To find God alive in our friends, neighbors, and strangers.

God is right there, all the time. The spring of living water is bubbling up, right in front of us. We don’t need to look anywhere else. All we need do is come, drink, and be refreshed. All we need do is accept God’s invitation. All we need do is come to the water of life.

Sermon: In the Womb

Sunday 25 August 2019
The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 21C

Jeremiah 1:4-10

About a generation and a half ago, seminaries taught new pastors a preaching method called the three-point sermon, so called because the preacher would try to make three distinct points about the text. Not the most creative name, but it get’s the point across. In any case, this method has fallen out of favor over the years in favor of techniques that emphasize just one point. Three points are just too hard to remember.

Now, even though the passage from Jeremiah today is short, it packs in a lot of material. So today, you’re going to get a blast from the past: the three-point sermon. Point one: God loves you. Point two: God is calling you, but it may be something you don’t want to do. Point three: in order to heed God’s call to bring something new into the world, we sometimes have to tear down some of the old things in order to make way.

First, God loves you. Many of us have an easy enough time believing that God loves the world. It makes sense that God as the Creator of everything would care about what happens in creation. We can understand how God might be bothered by wars or climate change or poverty or disease or oppression or prejudice or violence. And we understand how God would want the best for humanity.

But while it might be easy to believe that God loves the world, it might be harder to believe that God loves me, personally. After all, there are seven and a half billion people in the world, and I’m just one of them. And there are somewhere around 8.7 million species on earth, and humans are only one of them. Earth itself is just one planet circling the sun, and the sun is one of as many as 400 billion stars in our galaxy. The Milky Way galaxy is just one of at least 100 billion galaxies in the universe. When we think of God’s domain in these terms, it seems almost incomprehensible that God could spare any attention whatsoever for a tiny, insignificant person like me.

Nevertheless, we are faced with the words from today’s Hebrew Bible lesson. God reveals Godself to Jeremiah, and says, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you.” Out of all the things that God had to worry about, God took an interest in little Jeremiah, the son of a backwater priest. And God didn’t just think about Jeremiah when something needed to be done. No, God cared for Jeremiah before he was even formed in the womb.

It is truly a mystery, how the God of the Universe, the Creator and Sustainer of all things, is also the one who cares about you personally, who knows your heart, who has loved you before you were formed in the womb, and who has a plan for your life. God cares about all of God’s people, and that means that God cares about you and everything that is going on in your life. We don’t know why. We don’t know how. But it is true, nonetheless. God loves you.

Which leads us inevitably to our second point: God is calling you. If God, the sovereign of the whole universe, cares about you as an individual, takes special interest in your life, knows your personal joy and pain, doesn’t it stand to reason that God would also have something in mind for what you should do with your life? In our baptismal covenant, we affirm that each and every one of us is a Christian Minister, called by God to service in the world. If God knows us individually, then we know that God must have a particular plan and calling for each of us. If God is attentive enough to know our personal wants and needs, to love us as individuals, then God is also attentive enough to have particular wishes and dreams for each of us. God doesn’t call everyone to be a prophet. Which is a good thing, because a world full of prophets would be awfully noisy and everyone would go hungry. No, God calls us to a variety of different ministries. God calls us to do Godly work, often right in the midst of our ordinary lives. But whether it’s being a prophet or a parent, a teacher or a technician, an engineer or an entrepreneur, God has something special in mind for you.

God had something special in mind for Jeremiah, a peculiar mission and calling. God makes a special appearance to call him, to let him know what it is he has to do. But Jeremiah isn’t too sure that he wants the job. Like so many of those who are called by God, Jeremiah tries to get out of it. He claims that he isn’t a good enough public speaker, that he is too young and too inexperienced to be a prophet. “I’m only a boy,” he says.

Well, that seems like a pretty good reason, but it isn’t enough to stop God. God realizes that this isn’t the real reason that Jeremiah is hesitant. You can see it right in the text. Jeremiah claims lack of skill as an excuse. But God answers by promising to be with Jeremiah and deliver him when he is speaking God’s words to people who don’t want to listen. Jeremiah wasn’t scared of being a prophet because he lacked skill. It was because he did not want to go and say unpopular things to powerful people. He didn’t want to be the one who pointed out other people’s sin, who stirred things up and made people angry.

That’s often the case when God calls. It’s often something that we are a bit scared to do. It might mean making other people angry. It might entail some hardship. We might have to endure frustration, loneliness, or even scorn in order to follow God’s individual path for us. It may not be an easy road.  But good things rarely are easy.

But we don’t have to go it alone.  God promises to be with us and to deliver us. I don’t know exactly where it is that God is calling you right now, but I do know that if God calls, God will walk with you. God will see the task through, even if it is challenging, even if it takes time, even if it is draining. God is calling. It may not be somewhere you want to go, it may not be something that is easy to do, but God will be with you. God loves you. God will stay with you in your calling.

That’s good news for Jeremiah, because he has a particularly difficult and unpopular job to do. God says, “See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow.” That’s bound to be a pretty unpopular agenda. Nations and kingdoms don’t take too kindly to being plucked up, pulled down, destroyed, and overthrown. What an utterly horrible job. To preach death and doom to people who aren’t even going to do anything to try to change. And what is the point of all this destruction, anyway?

The answer, again, is there in the text. I left off the end of Jeremiah’s call. God says, “See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” Jeremiah’s calling isn’t just destructive. It isn’t only about tearing things down. It is also about building up and planting. But in order to make a space for the new building, in order to prepare the ground for the new planting, first some of the old things need to be swept away.

Those are hard words for us to hear. Churches have a habit of clinging to the past long after the past has become irrelevant, outmoded, or even distracting to the true work of God. That’s not to say that everything needs to be torn down, that everything about the past is simply outdated. That is not the case. But it is still true that sometimes, in order to prepare the way for God’s continued action, we have to get rid of things that are getting in the way. We have to set aside things that are distracting. We have to let go of the things that we hold so tightly, so that our arms are free to embrace God, and our hands are free to do God’s work.

Now, let’s see how well I did. Point number one is… God loves you. That means, “God loves me.” And point number two is… God is calling me. It might be a challenge, but God will be with you. And point three… sometimes things need to be torn down in order to make way for God’s new building.

May God remind us that we are loved, make clear the paths that we need to walk, and grant us the wisdom and the courage to know when things need to be brought down in order for God’s new things to be raised up. Amen.