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.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

The Lord's Prayer -- A Paraphrase

Our God, who dwells in heaven,
hallowed, sacred and holy be your name.

Your kingdom come, right here in our midst and in our presence,
just as your kingdom exists beyond where our eyes can see.

Your will, not ours be done. Your will, not our limited attempts
to get what we want or what we think is ours to claim.

Give us this day enough; enough for what we need,
enough for what will nourish us and give us strength and courage;
in our bodies, in our hearts, in our minds and in our souls.

Lead us not only away from temptation,
but open our eyes, hearts and minds to that which truly tempts us.
When we are tempted to pull out the speck in someone else's eye,
help us to feel the log in our own.
When we are tempted to give into hate for those who disagree with us,
for those who see differently than us, for those who hate us,
overwhelm us with your love so that we may overwhelm others
with the same. 

Deliver us from the darkness of evil that comes disguised as light.

Ultimately and always, this is Your kingdom.
Ultimately and always, Your power reigns and Your glory shines.

Here Am I

Isaiah 6:1-8
November 13, 2016

           I’ve been looking at pictures taken from the Hubble Telescope; images of nebulae and galaxies, star clusters, comets. Galaxies continue to evolve and the universe continues to expand, and I am completely awestruck and overwhelmed at the magnificence and magnitude of the universe we reside in. My brain is unable to take all of it in. These snapshots of the cosmos are so beautiful and intricate that you would think they were actually paintings drawn from the imagination of a genius artist, and painted onto a canvas with the lush strokes of a brush. But what looks like swirls of color from a brush dipped into paint are really swirls of gas and clouds and heat, forming and shaping into something new and even more beautiful.
            In pictures of our own galaxy, you’ll see that earth is just a tiny dot in the midst of a much grander, much greater map of stars and planets. Yet even as I have stared at these images as I would a painting in an art gallery, finding peace in the grand scale of God’s cosmic art work, I have also turned my eye to pictures of earth. I have looked at images of people here and around the world: ordinary people, working people, young people, old people, women, men, children, people with every hue of skin and color of eye and hair. I’ve gazed at pictures of people rejoicing and people mourning, people weeping, people laughing. I’ve taken in photos of a few people in intimate moments and masses of people in enormous crowds.
            From the enormity of the ever expanding universe to the most particular details of our human condition, these different images have provided me with a strange and somewhat calming glimpse into our earth, into our lives, into the mysteries of God and this world we have been given.
             In the year that King Uzziah died, in the year that the world seemed to fall apart, Isaiah had a vision of the Lord. The Lord was sitting on a throne so high and great that just the hem of the Lord’s robe filled the temple. Attending to the Lord were Seraphs; strange and frightening creatures with six wings. Two wings covered their faces so they could not see the face of God, and two wings covered their feet so they could not touch God, and with two wings they flew. While we may sweetly sing, “holy, holy, holy,” the seraphs screamed it.
            Perhaps the reverberations of a million explosions happening at one time might convey how loud and wild was that seraph song; it was so deafening, so fierce that the foundations of the temple shook and undulated with the sound. Hearing what he was hearing and seeing what he was seeing, Isaiah cried out,
            “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”
            Isaiah was sure that this was his end because no one could see the Lord and live, but then something even stranger happened. A seraph flew over to Isaiah with a live, burning coal taken from the altar of the temple. The seraph touched that fiery coal to Isaiah’s lips, and offered him assurance of forgiveness.
            “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.”
            Whatever scalding pain that coal may have caused him, Isaiah’s guilt and fear dissipated. For the next voice we hear is the Lord’s.
            “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”
            Isaiah did not flinch nor hesitate in his response. He eagerly, zealously cried out,
            “Here am I, send me!”
            How many times have I heard this great call story at ordination services and confirmation services? It is a profound witness to both God’s call and a prophet’s answer. It conveys images of grandeur and greatness; God’s hem fills the entire temple; seraphs flying and screaming out the holiness of the Lord. These images are as big and majestic as are the images from the Hubble telescope – pictures of God’s vast and unfolding universe. Isaiah saw the greatness of God in that moment, and he answered God’s call to go, to serve with a resounding, “Here am I!” Just as those do who are ordained, who are confirmed, who are commissioned and sent. I answered these words at my own ordination. Who will go for us, whom shall I send? I will go, Lord. I will go. Here am I, send me!
But before we get too caught up in the grandeur of this moment, let us not forget that this call was issued not only in the largeness of God in the temple, but in the year that King Uzziah died, the year that everything fell apart. This call was made not so that Isaiah could stay in the temple, in the bigness of the biggest picture, but so that Isaiah could go out into the immediate circumstances of a people who were wondering what would come next. This call was given so that Isaiah could go out and serve a people who were broken, hurting, lost, afraid, forgotten, angry, confused and unsure.
Isaiah was sent out from the vastness of God into the particularities, the details, the messiness of the lives of God’s children.
            So often this story is read at Advent. It is read in tandem with our expectation of God’s incarnation into the world through his Son, Jesus our Christ. But what is the incarnation? Is it a nice idea? Is it a way to understand a God who is really just floating above us, watching from a distance, from the vastness of the cosmos? Or is God being born into the details of our lives? It seems to me that the power of the incarnation is that God chose the extraordinarily messy process of birth so that God could be in our extraordinary messiness. God willingly was born into our misery, into our beauty, into our paradoxes and peculiarities, into all that is good about us and all that is bad about us. God chose to be born into the small details that make up a bigger life. God’s call to Isaiah was issued on a grand scale, but its fulfillment would occur in the details.
            So here we are: in the details, in the messiness, in the paradox, in the fear, the beauty, the anger, the joy, the confusion, no closer to fulfilling God’s call to live as his Son lived, to sacrifice as his Son sacrificed, to love as his Son loved. But our falling short of God’s call does not deter that call from being issued over and over again. Our frailties and our failings do not keep God from calling us over and over into the messiness, into the details, into the smaller picture, into the individual, into the near, the close, the imminent, the present, not because the bigger picture doesn’t matter, but so that the bigger picture may be made whole; so that we, broken and fractured as we are, may be made whole. So that we may, as the late Leonard Cohen wrote, “stand before the Lord of Song with nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.”
           “I did my best, it wasn’t much. I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch. I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you. And even though it all went wrong, I’ll stand before the Lord of Song with nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.”*
I’ll stand before the Lord of Son with nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.
            Let all of God’s children say, “Hallelujah!” Amen.

*I promise I decided to use this last verse before I realized that the song was sung by Kate McKinnon on the opening of Saturday Night Live. Her performance was much better than my own. 

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

A Whale, A Bush, and a Worm -- All Saint's Sunday

Jonah 1:1-17, 3:1-10, 4:1-10
November 6, 2016/All Saint’s Sunday 

            One of my friends posted a picture on Facebook last week of the Democratic and Republican candidates for president. They were standing side-by-side, and the caption of the picture said,
“Both of these people were created in the image of God. Yes. Both of them.”
It was an important, although perhaps an unwanted, reminder that no matter how much you may dislike one candidate or the other, they are both children of God. That’s one of those tenets of our faith that sounds wonderful when it applies to us, but it can be a pesky thorn in our side when we have to apply that belief to others, the people we don’t like, our enemies.
In a seminary theology class, our professor was talking about the grace of God, the mercy of God. He made the point that if Hitler were to have repented of the horrific things he had done, then it is our belief that God would have forgiven him and shown him mercy. To this statement my professor added vehemently, “And yes, the idea of Hitler being forgiven galls me! It galls me! I hate the idea! But that’s God’s mercy.”
We only have to read three verses into the first chapter of the book of Jonah to learn that Jonah was not just a reluctant prophet, but apparently hated and was galled by the idea of going to Ninevah. God called Jonah, saying,
            “Go at once to Ninevah, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.”
Certainly other prophets, other people, struggled with God’s call for them. Moses told God that his public speaking skills were poor; perhaps God should call his brother Aaron. Jeremiah told God that he was only a boy, who would listen to him? Sarah laughed at the idea that she would have a child in her old age. Zechariah questioned Gabriel’s message because of his advanced years, and his disbelief left him unable to speak until his son, John, was born. Even Mary was perplexed that God’s messenger, Gabriel, would come to her because she was still a young girl.
But Jonah did not utter a word in response to God’s words. He did not question God’s call. He did not argue with God. He didn’t ask for more clarity about God’s purpose in sending him to Ninevah. Without pause or hesitation, Jonah turned and went the opposite way. He fled to the port city of Tarshish and hopped a boat to Joppa.
I’d never given much thought before as to why Jonah was so resistant to preaching repentance and God’s mercy to the Ninevites. But I’ve learned some things about Ninevah. Ninevah was the capital city of Assyria. And Assyrian was the sworn enemy of Israel. The Assryians were brutal. One commentator I read displayed pictures of carved reliefs showing Assyrian soldiers flaying Hebrews. There are depictions of Assryians counting the heads of Hebrews they had killed. The Assyrians were brutal. I understand now why Jonah did not want to go to them. I understand now why Jonah did not want the Assyrians to repent, and I certainly understand why Jonah did not want them to be shown mercy. Perhaps if God had called Jonah to preach repentance someplace else to someone else, he would have gone gladly. But God wanted Jonah to preach repentance, and Jonah was not having it. So he fled.
The thing about fleeing God is that it becomes a cosmic game of hide and seek. And God always finds you. God found Jonah on that ship, and sent a terrible storm to get his attention. The storm was so bad that the sailors thought it would break the ship apart. These sailors were not Hebrews, because the text tells us that they cried to their different gods in fear at the storm. If the storm alone was supposed to get Jonah’s attention, it did not work. While the sailors were on deck throwing out cargo to lighten their load and praying for their lives, Jonah was in the hold fast asleep. The sailors woke him up and told him to pray to his god. Maybe if he prayed to his god, his god would keep them from dying in the storm. They cast lots trying to discern who had brought this calamity of storm and sea upon them. The lots fell on Jonah. Jonah did not deny it. He identified himself as a Hebrew, and that he was fleeing the Lord.
It was Jonah who told them to throw him overboard. But the sailors did not want to; they did not want the blood of this man on their hands. They did everything they could to bring the boat back to land, but the sea only worked harder against them. They prayed to the Lord, these men who worshipped so many different gods. They prayed that they would not have this man’s life and death held against them. Then, because nothing else was working, they threw Jonah overboard. The minute they did this, the storm ceased and the waters stilled. They prayed to the Lord again, and offered a sacrifice and made vows.
We all know what happened next. Jonah was swallowed by a whale – or a big fish, according to the text. Jonah stayed in the fish’ belly for three days and three nights until the fish finally spat him up on dry land. God sent the great big fish to swallow Jonah, and a word from God caused the fish to expel him.
Once Jonah was out of the fish’ belly, God spoke to him again. Same call, same instructions.
“Get up, go to Ninevah, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.”
Jonah had learned his lesson about trying to flee God, so this time he obeyed God. He went to the large, bustling city of Ninevah, and he cried out seven words,
“Forty days more, and Ninevah shall be overthrown.”
I can imagine that Jonah did not say these words with a great deal of enthusiasm. I suspect that he did not repeat himself or shout them too loudly. But in spite of this, in spite of himself, the people of Ninevah heard Jonah. The people of Ninevah believed God. They called for a fast, and everyone – from the king down – fasted. The king called for every human and every living thing to fast, to wear sackcloth and ashes. They were all to repent. Maybe if they did, God would relent and change his mind. Maybe God would turn his anger away from them.
Jonah must have been the most successful prophet ever. Seven words! Seven words and everyone believed. They listened! They repented! And they did not halfheartedly repent, they went all out. This is a preacher’s dream. There are probably a thousand words in this sermon. Jonah uttered seven! And it worked because God changed God’s mind.
But Jonah was angry. He prayed to God, saying, “This is why I fled. I knew you’d be merciful. I knew you would be gracious, because you are a gracious God and you are merciful and you are ready to relent instead of punish. And I am so angry by this, that I wish you would just kill me now. I would rather die than live.”
That’s more like a tantrum thrown by a tired and sulky toddler than it is a prayer. But while God relented from his anger at the Ninevites, Jonah would not relent from his anger at God’s mercy. He went out of the city and waited. God caused a bush to grow up over Jonah’s head and give him shade. Jonah loved that bush. But the next day, God sent a worm to attack it and the bush died. To make matters worse, God sent a hot wind to blow over Jonah and let the sun beat down on Jonah. Jonah was hot and felt faint, and again he begged to die.
Now I think God had had enough.
“Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” Jonah responded, “Yes, angry enough to die.” God said,
“You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Ninevah, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”
Generally, when we read a story about a prophet, it is the prophet who is the good guy. But everyone around Jonah, even the whale, the bush and the worm, were more obedient to God than Jonah was. The pagan sailors prayed and worshipped the Lord. The fish obeyed God. The bush grew because of God. The worm did what God desired it to. The Ninevites repented and God showed them mercy. But God’s mercy to the Ninevites infuriated Jonah. He did not want them to receive mercy. He wanted them to be punished. It galled him that they would receive mercy, just as it galled my professor that Hitler might receive forgiveness. But that’s the pesky side of God’s grace. It is offered to everyone.
God questioned Jonah about his anger, essentially saying, Should I not be concerned about all of those people in Ninevah, those people created in my image? Should I not be concerned about every living thing that abides in that city? I created it all, and I am concerned about my creation. I think that Jonah did not want to reconcile himself to the idea that even the Ninevites were created in the image of God. Yes, even them. On this day when we lift up our saints – those official ones and our more personal ones, on whose shoulders we stand, let us lift up those people we believe are far from sainthood as well. Let’s lift up the people we fear and dislike and even hate, because they are also God’s children; whether we like it or not. Let’s give thanks that people as well as a whale, a bush and a worm, served to remind Jonah that God was concerned with all of God’s creation. Let’s give thanks for the multitude of reminders that we are given that God is still concerned – God shows us mercy and God shows our enemies mercy as well. Because of all us were created in God’s image, even our enemies. Yes, even them.

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

Monday, October 31, 2016

God Comes Through

          Visitors attended our church today. They were the parents of a guest musician playing in worship. They were nice folks; members of another denomination and I knew that they were not accustomed to our style of worship or seeing a woman minister. After worship the gentleman pulled me to the side and told me that I gave a fine "presentation." I smiled, nodded and thanked him, but inside I was seething. You might wonder why the man's use of this word was a problem for me. It isn't like he swore at me or insulted my sermon. He gave me a compliment, and I know he meant it sincerely. But here's the thing; I have given presentations. I have lectured in classrooms. I have offered informal talks, and I have led groups in discussions. But when I'm in the pulpit, I am a preacher. I preach. I did not give a presentation today, I preached. I proclaimed the gospel to the best of my ability. Sometimes my sermons are spot on and sometimes they are not, but good or bad they are not presentations, they are sermons. When I am in the pulpit, I preach.

          While the man's words were not meant unkindly, they were still frustrating because behind those words is the assumption that the gospel in the hands of a woman is a defilement. There is still the belief that someone of my gender interpreting scripture is an offense to God. If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over but expecting a different result, than I must be certifiable, because I feel as though I have been beating my head against this same wall of disapproval and closed-mindedness for 21 years. Quite frankly, I'm exhausted. Yet maybe when it comes to changing people's minds and hearts you need to be driven by a persistence that borders on the insane. The prophets we read about in scripture, including Elijah who is one of the subjects of the following sermon, must have been more than a little odd. After all they were the bearers of the Word of the Lord, and the Word of the Lord tends to upend and overturn all human expectations of justice and righteousness. They were flies in the faces of those who refused justice and mercy to others, and they were thorns in the sides of those who would not turn back to the ways of God. I'm not a prophet, but I am a preacher. And I'm just going to keep preaching, persistently pushing against that wall of prejudice until it cracks. Now for the sermon...

I Kings 17:1-24
October 30, 2016

            The word “cliffhanger” is attributed to a novel, “A Pair of Blue Eyes,” by Thomas Hardy. In the novel, one of Hardy’s characters, Thomas Knight, is left literally hanging by a cliff, hoping for rescue. Knight is not left on that cliff indefinitely. From what I understand, he was rescued eventually. But Hardy, like other authors of the time, released their novels chapter by chapter as serials in magazines. Readers of the London magazine that “A Pair of Blue Eyes” was published in must have read up to this moment in the story, this moment when Knight was hanging on to a cliff for dear life, and then had to wait for the next installment to find out what happened next.
            Whether Hardy was the first to employ such a dramatic plot technique, a technique designed to increase suspense concerning the possible outcome of a situation, I do not know. But I do know that cliffhangers are used on a regular basis in television shows. Usually they happen at the end of a season. Remember the television show, “Dallas?” Who shot J.R.? That was a cliffhanger of epic proportions. I was in high school when that television show was popular, and that cliffhanger kept us going all summer long; a summer that included a writer’s strike. People wore t-shirts proclaiming the question, “Who Shot J.R.?” It was not until the fourth episode of the next season that we finally found out who the shooter was. When the episode revealing the identity of the shooter was to premier, I watched it with friends and a whole lot of other people at Mr. Gatty’s – that was a local pizza parlor in Nashville. I’ll never forget the crowd’s audible response of shock and awe when we finally found out who shot J.R.  By the way, it was Kristen, his sister-in-law and girlfriend, who was supposedly carrying his child which is why J.R. did not press charges against her. I digress.
            The point is that cliffhangers keep us in suspense. They keep us waiting eagerly for the next episode, or next chapter, or the next movie. What will happen next? How will this dilemma resolve itself? Who shot J.R.?
            If Hollywood were to get hold this seventeenth chapter in I Kings, some wily scriptwriter or producer might be tempted to turn this into a series of cliffhangers. There are three significant events in this chapter that concern the prophet Elijah, King Ahab, and a widow and her son.
            At the end of chapter 16, we read that King Ahab married Jezebel and together they worshipped Baal. According to commentators, historical resources record that Ahab was one of the most successful kings as far as wealth and power were concerned. However, scripture records that he was one of the most wicked kings to reign over Israel.
            At the beginning of our chapter, Elijah the Tishbite, a prophet of God, confronted King Ahab for his apostasy, his worship of a false god. Elijah said to Ahab,
            “As the Lord the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.”
            You don’t generally speak words like to this to a king and then get invited to dinner. I imagine that Elijah was not only unwelcome in Ahab’s presence, but he was most likely scared for his life. After he spoke the word of the Lord to Ahab, God spoke to him again. God told Elijah to go east, and hide himself by the Wadi Cherith. God promised Elijah that he would be able to drink from the wadi and that ravens would bring him food.
            Elijah obeyed. He hid at the wadi, and he drank from the wadi. Ravens brought him food: bread in the morning and meat in the evening. But the land was in a drought, so the wadi dried up. Cliffhanger number 1; what will happen next?
            God spoke to Elijah again, telling him to go to a widow in Zarephath. God has commanded the widow to feed Elijah. Elijah obeyed. He journeyed to Zarephath, and he found this widow gathering sticks. He told her to bring him some water. As she was bringing him the water, he also told her to give him the morsel of bread in her hand. God told Elijah that the widow would feed him, but it doesn’t seem that the widow has gotten the same message.
            She told Elijah that she had no bread baked. She only had a handful of meal in a jar at home, and just a small bit of oil in a jug. She told Elijah that she was going home to prepare this last bit of food for her and her son; a last meal as they prepared to die.
            Elijah said to the widow,
            “Do not be afraid: go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. For thus says the Lord the God of Israel: ‘The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day the Lord sends rain on the earth.’”
            Just as Elijah obeyed God’s word, so did the woman obey the word of God she received through the prophet. As God came through for Elijah with the water from the wadi and the ravens, so did God come through for the widow and her son. The jar of meal did not empty. The jug of oil did not run dry. All seemed well. In literary terms this could have been the happy ending. But here is the second cliffhanger. The widow’s son died.
            Surely the widow was angry. She was heartbroken. She and her son were living in the shadow of death when they faced starvation. But with the coming of God’s prophet, that shadow was lifted. Yet here she was, living in that shadow again. Not only would the widow have been keening for her child, her only child, she would have been terrified at her future prospects. Without a husband, without a son, she had no protection. There was no one who would claim her or care for her. As Elijah confronted Ahab, she confronted Elijah. What have you got against me, you man of God? Why did you come to me? So any sin I had would be brought up? So my son would die?
            Elijah took her son and went upstairs to his own room. He put the widow’s son on the bed and he cried out to God.
            “O Lord, my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son?”
            Elijah stretched his own body across the boy’s lifeless one three times. He prayed for God to let the boy live again. God heard Elijah and God answered Elijah’s pleas. The boy lived again. Elijah gave him back to his mother.
            God came through. If this were a movie, this would be the happy ending. All the cliffhangers would have been resolved. All the characters were in better circumstances than when they started. However, while cliffhangers are great in television shows and books and movies, real life doesn’t work that way. The truth is that Elijah and this widow and her child were not characters in someone else’s story. They were people trying to be faithful. They were people living difficult lives in difficult circumstances. In other words, they were like us. They suffered and they struggled just as we do. We wonder and worry about the unknown; what will come next; how we will get through whatever challenge we are facing. The widow must have experienced this anxiety, this worry. Perhaps Elijah did as well. One scholar wrote that Elijah lived on the edge of trust. He trusted God even when it seemed that God’s promised help ran as dry as the wadi he drank from. Yet Elijah trusted God more than he worried. He trusted and God came through. The widow also trusted. She trusted the word of God she received from Elijah, and God came through. Even in her grief and anger over her son’s death, her turning to Elijah was a sign of her trust. She called him a man of God. Although she was accusing him, there is still a sense that she trusted that Elijah was a man of God indeed. Her trust in Elijah was also trust in God. God came through.
            I realize that oversimplifying these stories is problematic. The drought was attributed to God. The widow’s potential starvation was a result of that drought. Did God cause suffering so God could come through? Does God cause suffering? This widow got her son back; what about those parents who do not? What about the thousands of people in our world who will die from hunger by the time our worship is finished? Does that mean that God did not come through for them?
            These questions are bigger than I can answer – in this sermon and maybe ever. Yet I am not one who believes that God causes suffering. I am one who believes that God comes through. However, reading this chapter again makes me wonder if I really do believe that God will come through. It makes me question how much I trust. I also realized that I approach my daily life from the standpoint of scarcity. Will there be enough? Enough money? Enough food? Enough resources? Enough time?
            Perhaps trusting God is also about trusting in God’s abundance. God’s love for God’s creation is not just abundant but overflowing. God’s grace and mercy is not just abundant, but extravagant. God’s willingness to be in relationship with us is not just abundant, but overwhelming to the point of being one of us. God approaches us with abundance. Yet too often, I approach God with a scarcity of trust and love and hope and faith. Still God comes through – in small ways and in large. God comes through abundantly, and perhaps as we trust more and more in God coming through, we will do more to come through for others – abundantly.
            Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

God's Kingdom Come

II Samuel 7:1-17
October 23, 2016

            Call the Midwife is one of my favorite shows to air on PBS in the last few years. It is based on the memoirs of Jennifer Lee Worth, who began her vocation as a midwife in the late 1950’s, living and working from Nonnatus House, an Anglican convent. The nuns who lived there were also trained as midwives; they, along with the young midwives such as Jennie, served the desperately poor neighborhood of Poplar in London’s East End.
            In one of the later episodes this past season, a very pregnant mother was brought to the clinic because she had fainted while working. She, her husband, and their other children lived and worked on their barge. They were essentially river gypsies. The mother was fine. But she was anemic and needed rest, so she was encouraged to stay in the hospital until the baby was born. This would delay her family’s leaving. But her husband and the children wanted her to stay. She was not used to this kind of quiet, easy life. She worked hard. Even the food she was served was different. Normally the mother began her day with a piece of bread. But the nurses wanted her to eat an egg for the protein it would give her.
            One of the midwives tried to help the family out. She got the children enrolled in school. They were given new uniforms. The teacher at the school insisted that they go through a delousing as a matter of course. Everyone seemed happy with all of these new arrangements; everyone except the mother. When the children and their dad went to visit her, she saw them in their strange clothes, smelling of disinfectant, and became incensed. Why were they deloused when they didn’t have lice? They got lice in school not in the boat. Weren’t their regular clothes good enough for them? They were always clean and mended. Then and there she said she wanted to go home, to go back to their boat. She wanted her own clothes, and her own food. She wanted her children to be her children once again, not these strangers in uniforms. The midwives insisted they had only been trying to help, but she didn’t want help. She hadn’t asked for help. They did not know what was best for her or for her family.
            The midwives in this story were well-intentioned. They only wanted to help. But their helping went from dealing with an immediate need to trying to alter the way the family lived. In the process of helping, the midwives imposed their own ideas about the right way and the wrong way to live. Their intentions were good, but they thought they knew best. However, the mother adamantly disagreed. In her eyes, she knew best, not them.  
            David’s intentions were good too. But I think there is a reason for the expression, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” I used to believe that this expression was coined solely because of people like me who start projects with good intentions, but never quite finish them. However, now I think that this cliché also refers to the good intentions that are based on believing we know best. David thought he knew best about the kind of house God should have.
            This chapter is somewhat of a pause in the ongoing narrative of Second Samuel. In the previous chapter, David brought the Ark of the Covenant, God’s house, into Jerusalem. It was a triumphant moment, and David danced and rejoiced at the head of the procession carrying the ark. David was now settled in his house as king of Israel, and God’s house was settled as well. Yet … Have you ever experienced the room painting phenomenon? You know, you paint one room. You sit back to admire your work, thinking how nice and fresh the room looks. Then you look around at the other rooms of your house and realize how bad they look in comparison. When I read these verses about David settling into his house, I think of that painting phenomenon. It seems that David looked around his house, pleased and happy with the recent events. But then he realized that God’s house looked a little shabby by comparison. So he told the prophet Nathan,
            “See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.”
            Nathan must have thought David was on to something, because he responded,
            “Go, do all that you have in mind; for the Lord is with you.”
            However the Lord might have been with David in other ways, the Lord was most definitely not with David on this. God did not speak directly to David, but went through Nathan.
            “Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle.”
            God went on to tell Nathan to pass along the message to the king that God does not want David to build God a house. Instead God will build David one. David’s son will be the one to build God a physical house, but what God will build is a kingdom. What God will build is a royal house, a house, a kingship that will live on for generations. God was building, is building, will build a kingdom.
            As a preacher, this passage caused me to ask the question that so many preachers everywhere ask every week. “How the heck can I make a sermon out of this?” I understand that it establishes the House of David. I understand that it foreshadows Solomon building the temple. I completely get that it makes clear that the Kingdom of God was not contained or limited to a physical structure. But outside of that, what? What does this mean for us? As one of my preaching professors used to say, how will this resonate with us on Tuesday?
            Certainly, the idea that the church is not a building is one that we understand in a whole new way. That is personal. That is right where we are, isn’t it? Our identity as a congregation was so tied to the big church on Beard Street that I’m sure it was hard for us to imagine that we could be a church anyplace else. Yet here we are: a church, a congregation, worshipping in a storefront. It may not look like a typical church, but it is a church just the same. It’s church not just because we’re here, or that we’re worshipping here. This is church because God is here with us. God is here in our worship, in our fellowship, in our prayers, in our singing. God is here with us in this place, therefore this place is the house of God. We are a visible, tangible witness to the truth that God is not contained or limited to a building or a structure.
            But what God relayed to David through Nathan was not only that God would make a royal house of David, God would also build a kingdom that would surpass any earthly, human made kingdoms. God was in the process of creating a heavenly dynasty. God’s kingdom would come.
            As Christians, we believe that God’s kingdom was fulfilled through the incarnation of God in Jesus. Jesus declared this to be true. God’s kingdom is in our midst. Yet, Jesus instructed his disciples to pray for God’s kingdom to come. We still pray these words every time we gather in worship. God’s kingdom come, God’s will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
            If the coming of Jesus ushered in God’s kingdom, why do we still pray for God’s kingdom to come? Are we praying for the kingdom that was started in David? Or are we praying for something more? Perhaps the answer to both of these questions is “Yes!”
            I once believed that God’s kingdom was a place, a destination that you had to reach. You could map out the way to it using the Bible like a GPS. I also believed that the place was up, above us, located somewhere in the clouds. Yet, I no longer look up when I look for the kingdom. I look to the right. I look to the left. I look all around me. Because I think that God’s kingdom is right here in our midst. I believe that God’s kingdom exists right next to the world we create for ourselves. And I believe that every once in a while we get a glimpse of it. The invisible line that seems to be drawn between our world and God’s kingdom blurs; the veil which keeps our eyes from recognizing God’s kingdom is lifted.
            We see God’s kingdom in acts of kindness and generosity. We see God’s kingdom in moments when someone truly puts another person’s well-being over and above their own. We see it when a stranger reaches out to a stranger. There is a video on social media of a homeless man on a subway train. The man was shirtless and shivering. Another man, a younger man, went over to him and, literally, gave the homeless man the shirt off his back. He took off his own shirt and handed it to the homeless man. When the older man fumbled trying to put it on, the younger man helped him. He gently placed the shirt over his head and helped him put his arms into the sleeves. There was no connection between these two men before this happened. I don’t know if there was one after it occurred. But in that moment, the camera on someone’s cell phone recorded a glimpse into the kingdom of God.
            As we keep working our way forward, discerning step-by-step where God is calling us to go, may we remember that God is not limited to a place. God is not contained by the walls we build or the bricks we lay. God’s kingdom will not be found in our midst just because we have a building to call our own. God’s kingdom is right here. God’s kingdom is being built. God’s kingdom will continue to grow and expand. God’s kingdom is in our midst. God’s kingdom come.

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

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Quick Fixes

Exodus 32:1-14
October 9, 2016

            One of the duties that I had in John Knox Presbytery, my presbytery of membership before I moved here, was as vice-moderator of the presbytery. As we do here, when you accept the position of vice-moderator, you assume that you will take over as moderator the next year. At every presbytery meeting, the vice-moderator would moderate for part of the meeting. It was good practice for your upcoming term as moderator.
            Before every presbytery meeting, the executive presbyter, the stated clerk and the two moderators would meet in a conference call. We would walk through the items for the agenda, talk about any challenges that might arise, and determine the parts of the meeting the moderator would facilitate, and the parts the vice-moderator would. I studied every item on the agenda, but I particularly studied the items that fell under the time I moderated. I wanted to be as prepared as I knew how to be. That means that if I was presiding over the time when we dealt with items 1 – 5, then I really knew items 1 – 5.
            It was my first meeting to serve as vice-moderator. I was nervous, but I knew my agenda items. It was decided that I would run the first part of the meeting, and I went up to the podium ready to go. But at one point, the moderator, clerk and executive presbyter had to have a side discussion about a question over a fine point of polity or Roberts’ Rules of Order – I can’t remember exactly. What I do remember is that we had reached the end of the agenda items that were mine. We reached number 5. I had read all the other items on the docket, but I had only prepared to moderate 1 – 5. But here I was, the vice-moderator, standing in front of the assembled presbyters, not saying or doing anything. The other people in charge – the real people in charge as I thought then – were off talking about something else.
            All eyes were on me. We were trying to stay on schedule and on time. It was winter in the upper Midwest, and people had driven long ways to get there and would have to drive long way back. I knew that the questions in every one’ mind were,
“Can’t we continue? Can’t we move on to item number 6? Come on, Madame Vice-Moderator, let’s get a move on. That’s why you’re up there.”
My pulse was racing. My heart seemed to be attempting to thump its way out of my chest. Also, I’d broken my wrist about three weeks earlier, so I was in a cast. As they all stared at me, I swear my wrist started to hurt more than normal. I did not know what to do. I looked at back at them, cleared my throat, and said,
“I’ve only been trained up to item number 5, so please talk amongst yourselves for a few minutes.”
I suspect that anyone who has occupied a position of leadership has experienced that kind of moment: you are the one in front and you are supposed to know what you are doing. Everyone is looking at you with expectation, because they also think you are supposed to know what you are doing. After all, that is why you are in leadership. If you are a teacher, teach. If you are a preacher, preach. If you are a lecturer, lecture. You get the idea. If you are there to lead, then lead already!
The story of the golden calf in Exodus is one that I have heard since I was a little girl. We studied it in Sunday School, most likely with cut-outs of the lead characters on a felt board. It was referred to in sermons. It is even a story that has gone beyond the church and into the wider culture. Mention a golden calf, people think idolatry.
Yet as many times as I have heard, read and alluded to this story, I haven’t given much thought to Aaron’s particular perspective. Obviously, Aaron was wrong in what he did. The people asked him to create a god for them to worship. He should have refused. He should have talked them out of it. He should have said, ‘Heck, no! I’m not going to be the one to lead you down the supposed primrose path to the garden of Sheol.”
But Aaron did not say any of that. He did what they asked.
“Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.”
“Aaron said to them, ‘Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons; and your daughters, and bring them to me.’”
The people did what Aaron asked of them. They brought him their gold, and he melted it and fashioned it into the image of a calf. As soon as it was before the people, they said,
“These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.”
The text tells us that when Aaron saw what was happening among the people, he built an altar before the calf. He proclaimed to them that on the next day they would have “a festival to the Lord.”
What Aaron did was wrong. I cannot dispute that. But I wonder how Aaron felt when the eyes of the Israelites turned to him. I wonder what thoughts went through his mind at that moment, and how even his body reacted. Did he think with dread, “Now they want me to fix this”? Did he feel the same palpitations of nerves and fear as I did when he realized that they expected him to do … something?
Perhaps Aaron realized the slippery slope he’d set them upon as soon as he offered that quick fix? Perhaps his proclamation that they celebrate a festival of the Lord the next day was damage control? Wait, folks! I wasn’t trying to turn you away from the true God. I just wanted to make you happy. This calf was just a quick fix to keep us going a little longer. So let’s remember the One we are supposed to worship by actually worshipping that One tomorrow.
Maybe Aaron needed a tangible representation of God as much as the people did? We cannot know exactly what was going on in Aaron’s mind at that moment, but we do know that the Israelites, including Aaron and Moses, were human. As fellow humans, we have some understanding into our own natures. At least this human craves reassurance that God has not abandoned me to my own devices. I know that there are times when I desperately want something of God that is visible and concrete. While I might proclaim that I would never fashion a golden calf, I wonder if I haven’t mistaken something shiny and gold for the true God.
One commentator offered the possibility that Aaron was not trying to create a whole new god. Instead, Aaron created a false image of the God. I suspect that we do that as well. We don’t want new gods to worship. We do not consciously seek out something other than God. But perhaps we get confused, believing that we are worshipping God when really we are paying homage to a golden calf.
We have learned the difficult lesson that we, our congregation, are not our building. A lack of stained windows does not make us any less a church. While I do not believe or think that anyone of us saw the building as God, did we sometimes get confused and put that ahead of God? Had that become a golden calf? There is a sign in front of a house in town that states that prayer is our country’s only hope. Whenever I see it, I cringe a little. It’s not that I disagree per se. I understand, I think, the intent of that sign. We need to pray for our nation. I do not disagree. But the way the sign reads makes it sound as though prayer is that in which we place our hope. But that isn’t right, is it? We put our hope in God. We pray as a way to be in God’s presence, and, hopefully, hear God’s voice. Prayer is powerful and vital, but it is not where our hope lies. Our hope lies in God. That sign reminds me that even prayer can be a golden calf.
I think the truth is that we can make anything into a golden calf. Our families, our work, our denomination, our nation, our particular set of beliefs – all can be golden calves. I wonder if the people already had a golden calf even before Aaron’s creation. Were they afraid that God had abandoned them in the wilderness, or were they terrified that Moses had left them alone and defenseless? Do we put more faith in our leaders, in the church, community or country, than we do in God? Does our trust lie in God or in our own abilities?
The Israelites wanted a god they could see, touch, and hold onto. When confronted with being alone, they turned to Aaron for a quick fix. But God, our God, does not offer us quick fixes. We cannot pin God down into one image or one idea or one rigid perspective or understanding. God does not give us quick fixes. God gives us more. God gives us abundance. God gives us life. God gives us a promise and God keeps that promise – even when we do not. God was furious with the people for that golden calf. An infinite number of sermons can be written on the exchange between God and Moses. But ultimately, God did not give up on the Israelites. God did not abandon them to themselves. God kept covenant, God remained faithful, God kept God’s promise. That is the good news, and it continues today. No matter how unfaithful we are, God never abandons us to the golden calves of our own making. God is God of promises kept. We are forgiven. We are called again and again to worship God. We are given no quick fixes, but we are given grace. Thanks be to God!

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