Tuesday, January 17, 2017

To the Church of God

I Corinthians 1:1-9
January 15, 2017

To my dear friends, my sisters and brothers, in the church of Shawnee,
            To all of you who have been made new in Jesus Christ, to all of you who are called to be saints, along with all the other people in every place who call on the name of Jesus, their God and our God; God’s grace and peace to you and to your loved ones.
            Everyday I give thanks to God for each and every one of you, because you have been grace from God through Jesus. Because of this grace, you are all amazing people. You have such incredible gifts – gifts of speech and knowledge of all things. God’s grace that enfolds you has strengthened the witness of Jesus Christ in your midst. None of you lack any spiritual gift, and these spiritual gifts will help you and abide with you as wait for the complete and total revealing of Christ Jesus. Not only will the spiritual gifts that you have been given strengthen you as you wait, Jesus himself will strengthen you as well, until everything in this world is complete. Because you have been given such strength, so many gifts, you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. Remember that God is faithful. It is through God, not any human being, but through God that you have been called into the fellowship of God’s Son, Jesus our Christ. It is through God, not any human being, that you are a church.
            The first time I learned the word epistle was in a letter that my dad wrote to my sister, Jill. I don’t remember where she was living or what she was doing at the time, but she must have been struggling. My dad sat at our dining room table, carefully typing on our old typewriter, a letter of encouragement and love. I offer my apologies to both my dad and my sister for reading over his shoulder as he typed; but honestly I don’t remember anything else about the letter other than he closed it by saying that he was sorry for writing such an epistle. For some reason, that stuck with me. An epistle was a letter. That memory came back to me when I was in seminary, not only studying Paul’s epistles in New Testament, but also struggling. My dad sat down, probably at our dining room table once again, and wrote me an epistle of encouragement and love.
As often as we refer to the letters of Paul, sometimes I still forget that he was writing letters. I know how silly that sounds. Of course they’re letters. But so often we turn to a particular chapter and verse somewhere in the middle a book, and it easy to forget that the chapter and verses are not something we consider in isolation. They are part of a larger context. They make up a letter written by Paul to the churches that he started and ministered to. David Hay, in his opening remarks about this first letter to the Corinthians, stated that Paul felt a deep responsibility to these churches. He kept in touch. He would send his associates to the churches if he could not go. He planned return trips. And he wrote letters.
            I suspect that Paul did not have the luxury of sitting at a table as my dad did, but his letters, his epistles, were meant to encourage, to discipline and to share the love of Christ. Paul was a master of rhetoric; in other words, he wrote some mighty fine letters. Paul knew how to use language to persuade, convince, and exhort. That does not mean that Paul was manipulative or sneaky. I think Paul was sincere in his passion and zeal for Jesus and the gospel. But let’s not underestimate what seems to be Paul’s innate understanding of how to phrase something to capture his readers’ attention.
            The church in Corinth was a divided and fractured church. They experienced conflict and strife. There were misunderstandings about Paul’s earlier teachings to them, and misunderstandings about the purpose of spiritual gifts. The church in Corinth was home to both wealthy people and poor people. As converted gentiles, the Corinthians would have brought practices and understandings from their pagan context into their life together. They were people in a particular time and place, just as we are here in Shawnee, in the United States, in North America, in the 21st century. The Corinthians were struggling to live out their faith. They made mistakes. They bickered with each other. Some in the community believed that they were superior to others in the faith community. Perhaps some believed that they really did not belong to the church at all.
            So Paul wrote a letter. If you remember later sections in this first letter to the Corinth church, Paul was not afraid to call the church folks on the carpet for taking wrong paths. But his opening greeting to them, the words we read today, sets the tone for the rest of the letter. He writes to them in the love of God made manifest in Jesus, God’s Son. The love of God is at the foundation of the letter. Paul reminds them that it is the love of God that is the foundation of the church as well.
            In spite of the fact that Paul had heard disturbing reports about what was happening in the Corinth church, he did not begin by admonishing them. Instead, he gave thanks for them. He gave thanks for them because God’s grace had been given to them in Jesus Christ. He gave thanks for them because of their knowledge and spiritual gifts – both of which are the source of many of their conflicts. He gave thanks because the testimony of Jesus, the witness of the gospel, was strengthened in their midst.
            It may seem strange that Paul started off in this way because the Corinthians were messing up big time. If we look only at their errors, their mistakes, their false assumptions, it would be easy to conclude that they were failing to be the church of God. Wouldn’t it make more sense that Paul would begin his letter by telling them to knock that nonsense off? Wouldn’t we expect a letter written to address the conflicts and issues they were experiencing to be a rebuke from beginning to end? As I said, Paul excelled at rhetoric. I suspect that he knew if he started off by telling them they were blowing it, they would stop reading. His words would have fallen on the proverbial deaf ears. Paul understood that, so he began by giving thanks for them. He even gave thanks and lifted up the sources of their conflicts.
            Again, I do not think that Paul was trying to manipulate them. I think Paul was sincere. But his opening words of thanksgiving and love not only made his later, harsher words more palatable, they serve as a stark reminder that the Corinthians were a church not because of themselves, but because of God. The people were not responsible for creating that church. Paul was not responsible for creating that church. God called their church into being. God blessed them with grace. The gospel of Jesus Christ was made strong among them because of God. They were a church because of God’s grace and because of God’s love through God’s Son.
            It seems to me that this is a reminder we all need to hear. How is that we are a church, a congregation? Yes, we keep on keeping on because we are determined, because we love one another in spite of our differences, and because we feel called to be a witnessing presence in Shawnee, Oklahoma. But first and foremost, we are a church because of God and God’s grace. God called us into being in the earliest days of Shawnee, and God called us into being when two churches merged into one, and God calls us into being right now. We are a church because of God. We are God’s church.
            Yesterday in officer training, we studied and discussed some of the creeds and confessions that are a fundamental part of being Presbyterian and in the Reformed tradition. At the General Assembly last summer, the Belhar Confession was adopted and added to our Book of Confessions. This is a confession that comes out of the Reformed church in South Africa and apartheid. As apartheid was dismantled, this confession came into being to state clearly the need for reconciliation and unity; the reconciliation and unity that is given witness to in the gospel of Christ. The church in South Africa offers this confession as a gift to the larger Reformed body, because we are all in need of reconciliation – one with another.
            One statement of belief that we read yesterday was this: “that the church as the possession of God must stand where the Lord stands, namely against injustice and with the wronged; that in following Christ the church must witness against all the powerful and privileged who selfishly seek their own interests and thus control and harm others.”
            “That the church as the possession of God must stand where the Lord stands.”
            I have been repeating those words in my head since yesterday morning. I need to be reminded that this church is not ours. We are the possession of God. God created us, claims us, calls us – as individuals, and as a congregation. How does knowing that, how does understanding that, change how we view ourselves, our situation and our future together? I so rarely have the answers to the questions I ask you, but I do know this: we are the church of God. God is faithful. God keeps God’s promises. We may not know what will happen in our future, but knowing and trusting that God makes of us a church is trusting that we are in God’s good and gracious hands. Knowing that means that we also that there is always, always, always, always reason to hope.
There is always reason to hope. Thanks be to God!

            Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Public Notice --Baptism of the Lord

Matthew 3:13-17
January 8, 2017

            Long trips are perfect for audio books. They make the time go faster. They keep me alert and awake while I’m driving. One of the best books I’ve listened to in a while has been Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. This was her “lost novel,” published in 2015. Like her classic novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, Watchman also tells the story of Jean Louise “Scout” Finch and her relationships with her father and family in Macomb, Alabama. Watchman begins with a grown up Jean Louse on a train from New York, coming home to Macomb for her annual visit.
            Although the story is set in Jean Louise’ present, she has flashbacks, memories, of her childhood with her brother, Jem, and their best friend, Dill. One of these memories centered on the annual revival that was an annual summer event in Macomb. It was a joint effort of the Baptists, Presbyterians and Methodists. Scout, Jem and Dill had been attending the revival, along with everyone else in the town, for three nights. On the fourth day, a hot, hot, hot summer day, the three children were trying to come up with a new game to play. Dill suggested they have a revival.
            Jem was the preacher. Dill and Scout were the choir and the congregation. Jem preached a longer sermon than any Scout had ever heard from any adult. Dill jumped up to be the usher and took the two nickels Scout had in her pocket. She warned him that he better give them back to her when they were done. They sang “Amazing Grace,” and “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder.” Then it came time for anyone who wished to unite with Christ to come forward. Scout went forward. 
            Jem asked her if she repented. She replied, “Yes sir.”
            Jem asked, “Have you been baptized?” “No sir,” she said.
            Jem dipped his hand into the fishpool they were gathered next to and started to sprinkle Scout on the head, because Jem and Scout were Methodists. But Dill jumped in and said that this was a Baptist revival, so it had to be a Baptist baptism.
            “You’ve got to duck her.” Dill decided since he was the only Baptist, he would also be baptized. But Scout threatened him. Dill had gotten to do everything else. She was going to be baptized.
            She took off her overalls, the only item of clothing she was wearing. But before Jem could baptize her in the dark, slimy water of the fishpool, Dill ran into his aunt’s house. He returned covered in a sheet that he had cut two eye holes in. When Jem asked him what he was doing, Dill replied, “I’m the Holy Ghost.”
            Scout stood in the pool and Jem stood on the edge. The Holy Ghost stood next to Jem and “flapped its arms wildly.” Jem dunked Scout and had just begun to baptize her in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, when Dill’s aunt came after him with a switch. He had taken her good sheets off the bed and cut holes in them. They were taking the Lord’s name in vain. She switched him and got him out of the water, then marched him back to her house.
            Jem and Scout turned to go home, and saw their father standing there watching them. Two people were with him, the minister who had been preaching every night at the revival and his wife. [1]
            The memory goes on from there, but I’ll let you read it for yourselves.
            When I heard that scene, I laughed so hard I almost had to pull over to the side of the road. But along with being hilarious, this moment in the book is a wonderful illustration about some deep seated beliefs concerning baptism.
            Matthew’s telling of Jesus’ baptism is powerful. We meet John at the beginning of chapter 3. He came from the wilderness in Judea, and called people to “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” People were coming to him to be baptized in the river Jordan. They were confessing their sins. As I understand it, baptisms or ritual cleansings were fairly common. Jesus did not institute a whole new practice when he was baptized. But when Pharisees and Sadducees came to John, he confronted them, calling them a “brood of vipers.” John went onto preach that while he baptized with water for repentance, one was coming after him who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire.
            Sometime after John preached this fiery proclamation, Jesus came to him from Galilee. Jesus came to be baptized. John not only questioned Jesus doing this, Matthew writes that John would have stopped him from being baptized.
            “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”
            Jesus responded, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”
            I have to be honest, I am not sure I fully understand what Jesus meant by these words. Commentators point out that Jesus coming to John was as a response to John’s message about repentance. That seems confusing, because why would Jesus need to repent of sins? There is a sense that Jesus was deliberately illustrating that his ministry chronologically followed John’s.
            Perhaps most importantly, Jesus’s words to John about letting it be, or as one commentator said, “permit it,” is not about legalism but about discipleship.
            Jesus being baptized was the beginning of his ministry. Jesus’ baptism was a declaration and a confirmation of his identity as the Son of God and as the one who issued in the kingdom of God. Certainly that became apparent when heavens opened and the Spirit of God descended on Jesus like a dove, and God’s voice was heard proclaiming that Jesus was his Son, his beloved Son. In his baptism, Jesus proclaimed who he was. It was a moment of discipleship, and it was a moment of commissioning. It was a public notice of who Jesus was, what his presence ushered in, and what he was there to do.
            At the YMCA Bible study last Thursday, I asked the people around the table to tell the stories of their baptisms. Although a couple of people spoke about being baptized as infants, most of the folks talked about being baptized as believers. It was part of the ongoing debate over which is better – believer’s baptism or infant baptism. They also spoke about being baptized and being saved. They accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior, and they were baptized and saved.
            I don’t argue with their understanding of baptism and salvation, but it isn’t the language that we generally use as Presbyterians. Certainly we talk about accepting Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. We take salvation seriously. But we do not necessarily consider salvation and being born again in the same way. We baptize infants, and the reason I am comfortable and confident in doing so – my children were baptized as infants – is because we believe that God’s grace works in our lives whether we recognize it, understand it, get it or not. To be honest, I think that’s how grace works in my life all the time – not just when I was younger. I rarely recognize grace in the moment.
            Yet, looking at this story of Jesus being baptized and seeing it as a moment of identity formation, of commissioning, of giving public notice about Jesus’ ministry, is causing me to consider our baptisms in a new light. When we are baptized, whether or not we are believers or babies, our identity is being marked. As a believer, we claim that identity ourselves. As babies, the people around us promise to help us know and grow into that identity. Identity formation is a lifelong process. It is not complete at our baptisms, no matter how old we may be. But baptism marks a beginning. It is public notice that we are at the beginning of a life of discipleship, of growing into Christ, of being molded and shaped by the Spirit, of being in relationship with God and with others.
            Our baptisms are public notice, that we are a new person, that we are disciples, that we are beginning a life that is marked by the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit. In Go Set a Watchman, Dill dressed as the Holy Ghost stood by the fishpool and waved his arms. In our baptisms, the Holy Spirit descends on us, perhaps not as apparent as Dill or as the dove that descended on Jesus. But the Holy Spirit is there, marking us, making us, molding us. As we prepare to reaffirm our baptisms, let us once again see this moment as public notice of our discipleship and of our commissioning to be bearers of God’s love and light and hope. The world needs all three. The world needs to hear from us. This is our public notice.
            Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.

[1] “Go Set a Watchman.” Copyright © 2015 by Harper Lee. 

God Promised -- New Year's Day

Matthew 2:7-23
January 1, 2017

            If you’re anything like me, after hearing our gospel story you must be wondering, “what the heck happened to Christmas?!” Wasn’t it just seven days ago that we were listening to angel choruses? Wasn’t it just last week that we followed the shepherds to Bethlehem? Wasn’t it only 168 hours, 10,080 minutes, and 604,800 seconds since we were gathered around a manger, oohing and ahhing over a brand new baby?
            It was. But within a week’s time, everything has changed. Technically, we were not supposed to hear any of the Epiphany message this morning, but I added those earlier verses in because I felt like we needed to pay homage with the Magi, and give thanks for the coming of this new king just a little bit longer.
            Yet sadly, the birth of a baby, even the birth of Jesus, does not hold back the sadness of the world. God’s incarnation – God coming into the world as a baby, as one of us – did not forestall terrible tragedies or reign in the power of a despot king’s tyranny. It would seem that the opposite were true. God’s incarnation brought about the tragedy that unfolded. Herod was a jealous, mean, paranoid, desperate, narcissistic ruler. We know from other accounts that he would do anything, anything, to protect his seat of power. He had his own son killed because he thought Junior was trying to usurp Herod’s throne. Herod had a strange, icky sort of relationship with Salome, his wife’s daughter. What came from that relationship? John the Baptist’s head on a silver platter. So, honestly, it should be no surprise that Herod would turn to infanticide in order to protect his kingship.
            That does not negate the horror of what Herod did however. It does not diminish his abominable act against innocent children, against mothers and fathers. We may be outraged and horrified that Herod would have as many children killed as necessary in order to stop one child from growing up. We may be sickened by the thought of Herod massacring infants to prevent a child king from one day unseating him. But we should not be surprised. Jesus’ whole life and ministry was about speaking truth to power. But those in authority – those powers and principalities – fought back. They always do.
            Still, it would have been nice just to bask in the Christmas glow for a little while longer. It would have been lovely to have skipped these verses altogether. But that is what is so difficult, so challenging about Christianity. These kinds of texts present themselves to us. They confront us and our sensibilities. They demand to be read. They demand to be heard. As I understand it, being people of faith means that we have to sit with these stories, as painful as that can be. Matthew wanted his listeners, his readers to know what Herod did, what Jesus, Mary and Joseph went through. He wanted us to know these things. So we will.
            Magi, astronomers and wise men from the East, saw in the stars a Star – a Star that meant a great king had been born. Although our nativity sets and popular lore might have us believe that they showed up in the same night as the shepherds, it most likely took the magi two years to make the journey. That would explain Herod’s order to kill male children two years and younger.
            It really is amazing that these men of a different country, of a different religion, would travel so far to bring gifts to this king. As so often happens in the gospels, it is the outsiders, the others who recognize the true nature of Jesus. When these strangers finally reached Jerusalem, they went to Herod to find out the new king’s specific location. Perhaps they thought that if anyone would know the whereabouts of a baby royal, it would be another royal. But they didn’t know Herod. Unwittingly, they tipped him off about Jesus’ birth. This set in motion the terrible events that followed. Following the Star that had led them thus far, the wise men found Jesus with his parents. They brought him gifts that do not sound practical to our ears. I suspect they were not entirely practical then as well. But their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh signified that this baby boy was a king. As I said, these strangers got it.
            Dreams play a significant role in Matthew’s birth story. It was in a dream that the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph telling him to take Mary as his wife. Herod told the magi that he wanted them to return to him as soon as they found the child. That way he could pay a visit as well. But the magi were warned in a dream to not return to Herod, so they went home by another way. And for a second time, Joseph was visited by the angel of the Lord in a dream, warning him to take Mary and the baby and flee from the nightmare Herod was about to unleash.
            Joseph obeyed. He and his family fled for their lives. Didn’t they do what all refugees do? Their own homeland was so dangerous, that they fled to a place, anyplace, that would give them some shelter. As many times as I have read and heard this story, I never gave much consideration to the place where the young family fled: Egypt. When I visited Egypt, I saw signs of buildings proclaiming that this was the spot where the Holy Family stayed – or this one – or this one. But think about it. They fled to Egypt. Egypt was the land where their ancestors once fled. It was in Egypt where they were enslaved and abused. There another king ordered the death of children in order to protect his power. Yet, for Joseph, Mary and Jesus Egypt was safer than Bethlehem. Egypt was safer than Jerusalem. Egypt was safer than Israel. A land of strangers was safer than home.
            The real problem of this entire story is this: the magi were warned in a dream; Joseph was warned in a dream, but what about the parents of those children who were killed? Why weren’t they warned? Why did they not get a chance to flee, to protect their babies? Did God not care? Did God manipulate the events so that Jesus would be saved at any cost? I know that other folks believe that this is an example of God being in complete control. It’s terrible what Herod did, but everything happens for a reason. People suffer for a reason. Terrible things have always happened for a reason.
            But to that I have to say, “no.” I don’t believe Herod was God’s puppet. I think Herod was an awful man, an evil man, who did evil things. Were those children killed, were those families torn apart, because that’s what God wanted? No. I just can’t believe that. God made promises to God’s people, covenants. God promised that Abraham would have more descendents than the stars in the sky. God promised that God would be with God’s people. God promised to be with us, no matter what. God promised to be present in our lives, in times of joy and times of suffering – especially, I think, in the suffering. As terrible as it is to think about, Jesus’ birth brought about suffering. Because the powers and principalities always fight back. That was true then, and it is true now. The powers and principalities of the world fight back when truth is spoken to them. They fight back when they are threatened. Herod was a fearful, paranoid ruler, and he acted out of fear.
Fear still abounds. How often do we respond to the events around fearfully? How often are our actions guided by fear? Every night before our family goes to bed, I make sure the house and our cars are securely locked. I leave on outside lights to discourage people from trying to get into the house. Those kinds of actions stem as much from common sense as they do from fear. But fear drives me in so many ways. Fear keeps me from speaking out and acting and living. Fear lulls me into the belief that I, through my own power and will, can make myself secure. I can keep my kids completely safe. I can prevent all bad things from happening – to them or to me.
But we all know that’s not real. All fear really does is keep me from living the life God called me to live, from being the person God called me to be. God did not call us to be fearful. God called us to be hopeful. God did not promise that our lives of faith would be easy or free from tragedy or suffering. But God did promise that God would be with us. I don’t believe that God wants his children to suffer; but I do believe that in God our suffering is redeemed. God promised that God would be with us.
On this first day of this New Year, with the reality that suffering is alive and well all around us, we are called to be hopeful. We are called to live lives of courage – courage that is born of faith. We are called to live in hope, not because it is easy, but because God promised.

Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Born to Us -- Christmas Eve

Luke 2:1-20
December 24, 2016

He was not the only baby born that night.
Other infants must have pierced the dark stillness with their first cries.
Other young women were transformed into mothers;
Other young men changed to fathers.
Other mothers fell in love gazing into the eyes of their child.
Other fathers felt the weight of new responsibility
laid like a mantel on their shoulders.
Surely his was not the only birth that night.
He was not the only child brought into this world in the way we all are –
through pain that melts into euphoria, and fear that gives way to joy.
Certainly he was not the only baby born that night.
Yet the news of those other births, those other newborns,
was shared family to family, neighbor to neighbor.
His birth was announced by angels.
Those other babies were born to their parents,
to their families,
to siblings and grandparents,
cousins, aunts, uncles,
villages and communities.
This baby was born to his parents.
And this baby was born to shepherds.
This baby was born to innkeepers and shopkeepers.
To the poor and to the rich,
to the lost and to the found,
to the lonely and to the loved.
This baby was born to shepherds.
That’s what the angel told them,
“To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah.”
To you.
This was no ordinary birth announcement.
This baby was born to shepherds.
This was no ordinary birth announcement.
This baby was born to be a sign.
Signs point the way.
That was the good news the angel proclaimed.
That was the good news the multitude sang;
that holy cacophony that filled the heavens and earth with joyous sound.
On a dark night, a silent night, this baby was born to shepherds.
This baby is born to us.
This baby is a gift, a savior a sign.
Pointing us to love, to truth, to God,
God in our midst,
God with us,
God for us.
This baby is born to us.
The world is still full of Herods.
The darkness still threatens
to overwhelm and overcome us.
Some of that darkness we make ourselves.
Some of that darkness we create,
pulling it around us like a blanket.
Afraid of the dark, but more afraid of the light.
We are blind but we believe we can see.
We are lost, but we think we know the way.
Into this Herod-filled world,
this dark and blind world,
this baby is born to his parents.
To shepherds.
To us.
There must have been other babies born that night.
Other infants must have pierced the dark stillness with their first cries.
Other young women were transformed into mothers;
Other young men changed to fathers.
But this baby was born to us,
to be our savior,
our shepherd,
our sign
showing us the way to God.
This baby was born to the world.
To us.
Because God is for us.
God is with us.
God loves us, all of us.
This is our good news.
This is our hope,
that the Word became flesh,
that a baby was born
to his parents,
to shepherds
To us.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

God With Us -- Fourth Sunday of Advent

Isaiah 7:10-16
December 18, 2016

There’s an old joke about a man whose house is flooding. The man climbs up on the roof and prays, “God, I love you! I believe in you! I know that you will save me!”
The water rises higher, and neighbors row up in their rowboat. They call to the man to let them help him into the boat and carry him to safety. He refuses, telling them that God will rescue him. The boat leaves.
The flood waters are lapping ever closer, and the man prays again. “God, I love you! I believe in you! I know that you will save me!”
Rescue workers in a powerboat arrive, and they urge the man to get into their boat with them and let them carry him to safety. The man refuses their help too, saying that God will rescue him. He is waiting for God. The rescuers speed away.
The waters have almost reached the man, and he prays earnestly, “God, I love you! I believe in you! I know that you will save me!” He has just finished his prayer when a helicopter flies overhead. Rescuers have a ladder they can send down, and they plead with the man to let them pull him up to safety. The man refuses, assuring them that God will rescue him. The pilot and the rescuers in the helicopter reluctantly fly away to save other stranded folks.
The waters overcome the man and he drowns. He gets to heaven, and when he meets God face-to-face, he says, “God, I love you and believe in you. Why didn’t you save me?”
God looks at the man and says, “I sent you two boats and a helicopter. What were you waiting for?”
Whenever I have ever heard this story told, it has been used as an example of how God works. This is how God answers prayers. This is how God helps. This is how God sends signs. God works through other people. God sends uses ordinary means. Obviously the man in the story expected something far more dramatic. Perhaps he was waiting for the hand of God to reach down through the storm and lift him up and set him on dry land. That may be how we want God to save us, but that isn’t how God works. So, if you’re stranded on top of your house, with the flood waters rising, and you pray for help, and a boat comes by – get in the boat! That’s God at work.
God uses ordinary means to do extraordinary things.
I would hope that I would have enough sense to see God’s hand in an offer of rescue. Just like I hope that if God actually offered to give me a sign, so that I would trust him, I would accept that sign. Most of the time, signs from God are not always easily recognizable. Often, signs from God are ambiguous at best. I’ve had to make many leaps of faith in trusting that I had recognized a sign from God. How wonderful it would be if God would just offer me a sign, any sign. Surely, I would never ever be foolish enough to refuse that offer.
But that is just what Ahaz did in our verses from Isaiah. The Lord offered a sign and Ahaz refused. The Lord didn’t just offer a sign, the Lord told Ahaz to ask for a sign, any sign.
“Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.”
There were no limits to the sign that the Lord would give Ahaz. All Ahaz had to do was ask. Yet Ahaz did not respond in the way we might think.
“Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.”
At first, this sounds like an acceptable response. Ahaz knew the Law and followed the Law. It would also seem that Ahaz was not greedy about signs. He was modest. He was not going to push the Lord or test the Lord, even if God opened the door for it. Surely to our ears, this would have been the correct answer, because these are the same words Jesus spoke to Satan when he was tempted by him in the wilderness.
            However, as one commentator pointed out, Jesus spoke these words to Satan. Ahaz spoke them to God. God offered to give Ahaz any sign he asked for, no matter how big or small. God wanted Ahaz to trust him, so God was willing to give him a sign if that would ensure Ahaz’ trust. Yet Ahaz’ excuse was that he did not want to test God. Responding to God’s invitation is not testing God. If anything God was testing Ahaz. God wanted Ahaz to trust, so if a sign was necessary for that trust to flourish, then God would give Ahaz a sign.
            This is actually the second sign God gave Ahaz. To fully understand the context of our verses, we need to look back the first verses of this chapter. Ahaz is the king of Judah, the southern kingdom, the land of Jerusalem. Two other nations, Israel and Syria, had formed an alliance against Judah. They wanted to overthrow Ahaz, capture Jerusalem and set their own “puppet king” on the throne. Knowing this, Ahaz and the people of Judah were terrifed.
            God sends Isaiah and Isaiah’s son to reassure Ahaz that all would be well. The powers of the two nations threatening him and his people would not stand. A child was a symbol of hope and promise, and the presence of Isaiah’s son would have pointed to that.
I don’t know if Ahaz didn’t seem assured enough with this first sign, because immediately God made the offer we read about this morning. A sign, any sign, just trust God. Ahaz’ refusal tested God’s patience. Ahaz may not have wanted a sign of God with him, but he was going to get one.
“Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name Immanuel.”
Immanuel – God with us. When we read this passage from Isaiah and our passage from Matthew together, it seems logical that this sign for Ahaz pointed to Jesus. Perhaps it did, but Ahaz would have heard that prophecy in his own time and context. While we might immediately conclude that these were happy words to hear; in reality they are ambiguous. Not only would there be a child born named Immanuel, God with us, by the time that child was old enough to know good from evil, the nations that Ahaz feared so much would be as nothing, deserted.
“The Lord will bring on you and on your people and on your ancestral house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah.”
Were those good days or bad days? What would it mean for God to be with them? Perhaps Ahaz refused God’s offer of a sign because he didn’t really want to know what God had in store. Perhaps Ahaz wasn’t so sure that God with him would be a good thing. Ahaz was faced with military and political disaster, and in that moment trusting that God would be with him may not have seemed as certain as trusting in another leader, another nation. Other sources reveal that’s what Ahaz did. He put his trust in the ruler of the Assyrians. It didn’t end well.
What does it mean for God to be with us? I suspect that many of us hear this as comfort. God is with us, all shall be well. God became like us because God was and is Immanuel because God wants to be with us. God loves us. God pursues us. God wants to be with us. Yet God with us is not just about sweetness and happiness. God with us brings light; light that invades even the darkest corners and chases away every shadow. God with us means that we are brought into the light, and the light reveals everything about us. God with me means that God sees me – all of me, everything that is good and everything that is bad. God with me means that the parts of my life that I have shoved into the deepest, darkest recesses are exposed and uncovered. God with me makes me vulnerable. Being vulnerable can feel frightening.
Yet isn’t the incarnation about God entering into our vulnerability? Wasn’t Jesus as helpless and vulnerable as any newborn baby? Wasn’t he as dependent on the care of others as any infant? It seems to me that God with us is somewhat of a double-edged sword. God with us makes us vulnerable. God with us shows us the truth about ourselves. God with us brings us into the light, whether we want to go or not. But God does not choose to be with us out of some need for vengeance or spite. God chooses to be with us out of God’s infinite grace and mercy. God chooses to be with us out of a place of relationship. God chooses to be with us because of love.
God with us is a present reality and a future promise. God with us does not give us security or safety. God with us gives us hope.

Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

The Blooming Desert -- Third Sunday of Advent

Isaiah 35:1-10
December 11, 2016

            Last year, as we were making the transition from the big church to our little church here, Alice noticed that a volunteer petunia had begun to grow in a crack of pavement; just where the concrete met the brick wall of the big church. It was a small blossom, but it was sturdy. We took pictures of it, and Alice made the comparison that it was a metaphor for our own situation. We were small like that flower, but we were going to bloom where we were planted – or where we landed as the case may be. We shared that picture and that metaphor in the church newsletter. We hoped that it would inspire all of us to have faith and keep going.
            It was an inspiring flower, because it bloomed and bloomed and bloomed. It got bigger and fuller. The weather remained warm and there was rain, so it had no reason to stop growing. I don’t remember how long that petunia grew in that break in the concrete, but it was a good while – much longer than we expected. As the weather changed, it finally withered and died. As tenacious as that little flower was, it wasn’t sustainable without the right soil for its roots.
            But what was it doing there in the first place? I can imagine how the flower got started in that inhospitable environment – the wind or a bird scattered the seed of the petunias that were planted. A seed must have found a tiny patch of dirt to grab hold of, and then we know the rest. But seeing that beautiful flower flourishing in a crevice of pavement was a wondrous but strange sight. It seemed to have no business there, but there it was in spite of itself.
            I think the same could be said of this passage in Isaiah. Barbara Lundblad Taylor asked the question, “What is it doing here?”
Taken on its own, this passage in Isaiah is an example of beautiful and compelling language. It is poetry at its most masterful. The imagery and the visceral response the words evoke are both beautiful and amazing.
            “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing…. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water.”
            That is powerful. But hear these other powerful words from the mouth of the prophet:
            “For the Lord has a day of vengeance, a year of vindication by Zion’s cause. And the streams of Edom shall be turned into pitch, and her soil into sulfur; her land shall become burning pitch. Nigh and day it shall not be quenched; its smoke shall go up forever.”
            That is Isaiah, chapter 34: 8-10; the chapter just before the one we read today. The chapter after ours tells of King Sennacherib’s capture of the people of Judah. He challenges them, demanding that they submit to him. So these eloquent words of promise – of creation being reordered to reflect the fullness of God’s glory; words that tell of the blind seeing, the deaf hearing, the lame walking, the speechless singing – are prefaced and followed by words of judgment, vengeance, capture and forceful submission.
            What is this passage, this chapter of beauty and promise, of expectations upended, of miraculous reordering, doing here; stuck between prophecies and stories that convey the exact opposite? Some of the scholarship of this passage claims that it is in the wrong place in the text. It belongs to Second Isaiah – which is considered to start at chapter 40 and contains words of new hope after the exile of God’s people has finally come to an end. It must have been moved by some scribe. Lundblad Taylor wrote,
“Some things even our best scholarship cannot explain. The Spirit hovered over the text and over the scribes: ‘Put it here,’ breathed the Spirit, ‘before anyone is ready. Interrupt the narrative of despair.’”
Interrupt the narrative of despair. Isn’t that what we desperately need right now? Isn’t that what every generation has needed? An interruption in the narrative of despair. Isn’t that what we are preparing for during this season of Advent? An interruption in the despair that seems to not only loom around us, but also seems to be growing exponentially. How is God interrupting us right now? How is God speaking words of hope, whether we are ready for them or not, whether we are capable of recognizing them or not?
How is God’s interruption turning upside down our expectations of God and of the world? How is God’s interruption like a blooming desert, like streams rushing through arid land, like waters flowing recklessly out of a sparse and thirsty wilderness?
These words of Isaiah are an interruption in the narrative of despair; they are “a word out of place.” Marian Wright Edelman, who is the founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, speaks about pushing for just causes whether the world is ready for those causes or not. She names Sojourner Truth as her role model, and after a defeat of a bill that would have served to protect the children she advocates for, she contemplated the following story about Sojourner Truth.
Sojourner Truth was a slave. She couldn’t read. She couldn’t write. Yet her speeches against slavery are some of the most articulate and eloquent words I have ever read. She was determined to push for the end of slavery, an evil and unjust institution that went against all that was good and right and true. Truth gave a particularly passionate anti-slavery speech in Ohio. After the speech, a man came up to her and said, “Old woman, do you think that your talk about slavery does any good? Do you suppose people care what you say? Why, I don’t care any more for your talk than I do for the bite of a flea.”
Truth answered him, “Perhaps not, but, the Lord willing, I’ll keep you scratching.”
I’ll keep you scratching.
A word out of place.
An interruption in the narrative of despair.
Perhaps this is what faith is all about. It is not just that we believe in what we can’t see. It is not just that we put our hope in doctrine or creed. Perhaps faith is even more than how William Sloane Coffin said, defining it as “Trust without reservation.” Perhaps faith is remembering how God has interrupted our own narratives of despair. Perhaps faith is not just clinging to those memories, but pinning our hope to our belief that there are more interruptions to come. Perhaps faith is trusting that God’s greatest interruption – the incarnation of the Word, the birth of a baby into the world – was not just an interruption that happened once, long ago and far away, but is an interruption that continues to occur. It is an ongoing, constant, ever present word out of place.
Isn’t our being here, in this little place, unsure of our future but believing that there is more to come, that our ministry is not yet finished, an interruption in the larger narrative of despair over church decline? Is not the gospel, with its reordering of what is just, what is righteous, what matters and what doesn’t, an interruption in the narrative of despair? Doesn’t Mary’s song in response to the angel’s news about who God called her to be and who she was called to become ring with God’s glorious interruption? In the midst of the mundane, we are interrupted by words of a blooming desert, of flowing water, of expectations upended, of what was dead becoming alive, of what was old becoming new. A flower can grow in a parking lot and monochrome deserts can bloom with color. God’s word out of place is the foundation of our faith. God’s interruption of hope and promise is the center of the gospel, the reminder that the kingdom is here among us.
A flower can grow in a parking lot and a desert can bloom with color.

Thanks be to God! Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

The Stubborn Shoot -- Second Sunday of Advent

Isaiah 11:1-10
December 4, 2016

            There is a scene in the movie, Children of Men¸ where the protagonist, Theo, is trying to help a young woman, Kee, escape from a building that is the center of a fierce battle. This is not just another war movie. Kee is the first woman in two decades to give birth to a baby. That is the premise of the movie and the book by the same name. The human species is teetering on extinction because of worldwide infertility. The story opens with the news of the youngest human being, a young man in his early twenties, being killed outside of a bar. According to the story, the United Kingdom is the last nation on earth to have any sort of rule of law. But immigrants have been targeted by the government as anti-government, anti-law and order, anti-everything. Yet this young African immigrant, Kee, has given birth.
            Through a series of plot twists and turns, Theo is trying to help Kee reach the safety of an organization that is working to reverse infertility and restore the human race. In this battle scene, fierce fighting has broken out between government forces and immigrants. And it is this fighting that Theo and Kee are trying to escape. Theo slowly walks Kee, with the baby in her arms, down a bullet riddled hall. The baby is crying, a miraculous noise after so many years of silence. At the sound of the baby’s wail, people are reaching out their hands to the mother and child. Immigrant fighters point their guns at three of them, then stop when they hear the baby. A government soldier races up the stairs, hears the baby’s cry and calls for a cease fire. Theo keeps moving them slowly down the stairs and out of the building. Soldiers lower their weapons. Some kneel and cross themselves. Some almost smile as they stare down at the blanket wrapped child in Kee’s arms. Just as Theo, Kee and the baby move past the line of troops, someone on the inside of the building fires a shot and the battle begins again in earnest. But for a moment, a beautiful, tender, heart-wrenching moment, guns are lowered, the fighting stops, and there is a shared, stunned awe as the notes of the newborn’s weak cry pierces the sudden quiet.
            This movie, and the book that inspired it, depict a world falling into despair and chaos. It is a hopeless world filled with hopeless people. Without the possibility of a child being born, there seems to be no reason to hope, to believe, to welcome the future. The world is bleak, and the future, if there is to be one, is bleaker still. It is a hopeless world filled with hopeless people.
            This is not quite the world that Isaiah was speaking to in our passage this morning – children were still being born – but despair was real, and I suspect that chaos seemed imminent. It was a time of great political turmoil. Isaiah was prophesying from the southern kingdom of Judah, and threats of conquer from other nations were real and intense. Isaiah read the signs of the times and called on the people to take heed. In the verses immediately preceding ours, Isaiah spoke these words, “Look, the Sovereign, the Lord of hosts, will lop the boughs with terrifying power; the tallest trees will be cut down, and the lofty will be brought low. He will hack down the thickets of the forest with an ax, and Lebanon with its majestic trees will fall.”
            If I heard from Isaiah only words such as these, I would have been tempted to give up completely. If God has despaired of us, if God has promised to bring us low, to hack down the tallest of trees, what point is there in hoping for anything? But these words of judgment are not the end. They point to something more. Trees might be hacked to stumps, but out of the stump will grow a shoot, a tenuous but stubborn shoot. The promise of God did not end in that dead stump. No, it only made it possible for a new shoot, a new promise, a new life to begin.
            Not only does Isaiah speak of a stubborn shoot growing from that cut down and dead stump, we hear words of what the world will look like when that shoot, that branch appears. It will be a peaceable kingdom. A world where wolf shall lie with the lamb, the leopard shall lie with the kid, the calf, the lion and the fatling shall be together. The cow and the bear will graze in the same pasture. The lion will eat straw as does the ox. One child shall play by the hole of the rattlesnake, and another child shall safely put his hand into the hole of the adder. There will be no more prey, no more predator, but all of creation will live in peace.
            This image of the peaceable, peaceful kingdom has been depicted in art hundreds of times. It is an image that captures our collective imagination. How wonderful it will be if the picture becomes reality – a reality where even natural enemies live together in quiet, harmonious peace!
            But this is not a sentimental, sweetness and light description of God’s kingdom. It is both a foretelling and a reminder that creation itself will be reordered and realigned with God’s promise and covenant. When this shoot, this branch from the stump of Jesse appears, everything will be changed. Everything will be new. God’s kingdom will be in our midst. No more harm will be done on God’s holy mountain. No one will be unaware or ignorant of the Lord, because a word from this King will fill the earth with knowledge of the Lord.
            How beautiful are these words! How I long for them to become reality! Yet when I hold up our present world with the world Isaiah’s words convey, I realize how far away from this peaceable kingdom we actually are.
            In our world now, predator and prey are alive and well. Wolves and lambs do not lie down together. Cows and bears don’t graze side by side. I would never let an adult, much less a little child, play by poisonous snakes. Nature is not so peaceable. We are a part of nature, and we are not so peaceable. Strife and hatred and enmity are alive and well here and around the world. I feel a deep guilt if I focus on one source of pain over another. The fires in the Smoky Mountains have hit close to the heart of this Tennessee girl. I am appalled at what is happening to non-violent protestors over the Dakota pipeline. The anger and division throughout our country worries me, and I know that I am a part of it; that I contribute to it. I can barely stand to see the images that still flow out of Syria; images of civilians caught in this terrible civil war being harmed and killed. My heart hurts at the pictures of the children – those who survive and those who do not. And my heart continues to break at the images of the refugees who continue to flee from that region, seeking safety for their families someplace, anyplace else.
            Every picture, every image, every story I see and hear and read in the news and on social media shows the direct opposite of the peaceable kingdom Isaiah prophesied. The gap between that kingdom and our own reality is wide and seemingly unbridgeable. But these words were not spoken in order for God’s children to despair. No they were given to us so that we might hope. God’s promise did not die along with that stump. God’s covenant with God’s people lives on – in that stubborn shoot. God refuses to give up on us. God refuses to abandon us to our own sinful devices. God’s promise did not end with that stump. God’s promise flourishes in that stubborn shoot.
            May our hope in God’s promise be like that shoot. We know that the chasm between God’s kingdom and our reality is wide, but our hope has not died. It may seem fragile and tiny like a shoot growing from a blackened stump, but hope is tenacious. Hope is persistent. Hope is stubborn. So too is our God – tenacious, persistent. Thanks be to God for God’s tenacity in loving us. Thanks be to God for that stubborn shoot of promise. Thanks be to God.

            Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia! Amen.