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.