2015-01-09 07.49.05

Centered and Sent – Sermon on Jeremiah 1:4-10 Epiphany 4C

January 31, 2016
View a video of this sermon here.

I do not think it is a coincidence that the passage we are studying this week in our trek through The Story also happens to be the OT lesson from the Revised Common Lectionary for this fourth Sunday after the Epiphany. This coming together of two paths through scripture – the one we’ve been traveling since September, and the one we would have traditionally traveled had we not followed The Story this year – brings us to an important crossroads.

We find the nation of Israel torn apart, and the northern tribes have long ago been carried off into exile. In the southern kingdom, more evil kings have sat on the throne than good ones. Jeremiah is called into his prophetic ministry during the reign of Josiah – one of the good kings – but his work will continue through four more regimes, and he will see the last of Judah’s kings carried off to Babylon. Jeremiah will witness the destruction of the Temple, and the people of Judah being led into captivity.

His ministry is a long one, but Jeremiah is not what you might call a success story, at least not by human standards. No wonder he is reluctant to answer the call, much as Moses was reluctant to respond to his particular calling centuries before. Yet, “God is constantly equipping people for the call that will come.”[1]

How often do people find themselves called into a line of work they had never considered, given work that they never in their wildest dreams ever thought they would do, only to discover that God had been equipping them for years for that specific task! I know that’s what happened to me. This is exactly what happened to Jeremiah. It must have come as a surprise to Jeremiah that God had been preparing him as a prophet. Jeremiah had good reason to feel confused.

The lower story of Israel’s rise and fall is sometimes confusing, but God’s upper story has always been clear. God simply wants his people to love him freely, as he loves them. Time and again, he has called his people to repentance and faithfulness. Even when they fail and turn away, he does not give up on the people he loves. Once again, he calls someone to speak his words into the ears and hearts of his people.

4 Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, 5 “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” 6 Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” 7 But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, “I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. 8 Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.” 9 Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me, “Now I have put my words in your mouth. 10 See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” – Jeremiah 1:4-10

Jeremiah may have been surprised to hear God’s call, but he answered it, however unwillingly. His work would be difficult, and he would suffer imprisonment, persecution, false accusations of treason, and forced exile to Egypt. He would be forbidden to marry or have children, he would see King Jehoiakim destroy his prophetic writing, and he would search for just one righteous person without finding any.

By all accounts, Jeremiah’s ministry would best be described as a failure. His calls to repentance would go unheeded, and his warnings would fall on deaf ears. Through the reign of five different kings, he would risk everything, even his own life, to proclaim God’s word. He wouldn’t do it happily – there’s a reason why his other book in the Old Testament is called “Lamentations.”

Even in this first conversation with God, we get the clear image of a difficult task. No wonder Jeremiah balked. He could see the risks to his personal safety – why else would God say, “Don’t be afraid of the people to whom I’m sending you. I will rescue you from them”? Those aren’t encouraging words, really. And even the announcement that Jeremiah would be appointed over nations and kingdoms doesn’t sound so enticing when the verbs God uses are more negative than positive: “build and plant” have a hard time standing up to “pluck up, pull down, destroy, overthrow.” These aren’t comforting words God gives to Jeremiah. They are challenging words, dangerous words.

In the gospel lesson we heard earlier (Luke 4:21-30), Jesus also issues some challenging and dangerous words to the people of Nazareth. What starts out as a “hometown boy makes good” story ends up with a riot, as the angry crowd drags Jesus to the edge of town, so they can throw him off “the brow of a hill” to stone him for blasphemy.

About a year ago, we were standing on that “brow of the hill” – or at least what is traditionally accepted as the spot. The modern city of Nazareth lies below the hill to the west, and Mt. Tabor can usually be seen off to the east, toward the Sea of Galilee. However, on the day we visited Mt. Precipice, it was rainy and cloudy. As the clouds rolled in over Nazareth, we had to use our imaginations to picture the vista below us. (You can see some photos in this blogpost.)

We could mostly make out Nazareth to the west, but the rich farmland to the south and the valley between us and Mt. Tabor to the east were completely obscured by clouds. I noticed that our little group of tourists reacted to this phenomenon in a surprising way. Keep in mind that we really couldn’t see anything – the view was completely obscured by clouds and rain.

But that didn’t stop us from lifting our phones and cameras. Even in the rain, we took as many pictures as we could. But do you notice something here? Everyone is looking in a different direction.

shawna and amanda taking photos on mt precipice2015-01-09 07.37.48

Here we are at the top of the very hill where Jesus was attacked by his own hometown, where his ministry might have ended before it had really begun…

 

tourists on mt precipiceAnd we are looking in every single direction, through the fog, for things we cannot see.

If we inch out to the edge of the path, we can look down the hillside and imagine a person being thrown down over those rocks. But the precipice itself is the only thing that is clearly visible, and it does not look too inviting.

The precipice of Mt Precipice 2015-01-09 07.46.49

Jesus knew his ministry was going to be rough. He knew he would ultimately “fail” just as Jeremiah’s had done. But here’s the thing: we don’t get to decide what failure looks like.

God did not call Jeremiah to convert the people of Judah, only to proclaim God’s word to them. If Jeremiah was expecting hundreds and thousands of people to repent and begin living according to God’s plan for them, he was deeply disappointed.

In the same way, Jesus failed to overthrow the Roman government as Messiah was expected to do. Instead, he died a horrible death, nailed to a cross. That looked like failure to many of the people who watched him die. But we don’t get to decide what failure looks like.

God’s idea of success can’t be measured in numbers of converts or military conquests. It can’t even be measured in Average Worship Attendance or Apportionments Paid, important as those things might be to our conference office.

God measures success in lives changed, in relationships restored. God measures success in every soul redeemed, in every person who turns away from death and sin, toward everlasting life. God measures success in the depth of love we show to people who are not like us, in the way our faith grows in maturity and richness, in the way our lives look more and more like the life of Jesus Christ, and less like the broken lives we leave behind when we choose to follow him.

I won’t sugar-coat this for you. We are about to enter a very challenging season, as we look at ways we must change what we do and how we think, if we are going to be faithful followers of Jesus Christ. Growing in faith means taking some risks. It means living into our call, no matter how uncomfortable that makes us.

Pastor Matt Kennedy writes, “ Experts who study organizational change say that groups basically have three phases of any transition they face: stability, de-stabilization, and new orientation. Every transition involves all three, and the most anxious moment in any change is going from stability to de-stabilization. This is what you see in the story of Israel in the Wilderness. When you enter that moment of destabilization, there is a strong gravitational pull back to the stable place, even if that stable place was being a slave in Egypt.” But for transitions to lead us into the new beginning God has in mind for us, we must be strong in faith, centered on Christ Jesus, depending completely on the power of the Holy Spirit to lead us through the anxiety of wilderness.

Because going through the wilderness is the only way to get to the promised land.

What does it mean for us to be centered and sent? Will we limit our view to a cloudy vision, constricted by a tiny lens in a viewfinder? Or will we open our eyes wide to the possibility God has in mind for us, and take in the broad vision of God’s call? It will not be easy. I assure you of that. But it can be fruitful, and we can experience spiritual renewal in ourselves that leads to a spiritual awakening in our community.

Following Jesus is very risky business, and we don’t get to decide what success looks like. Sometimes clouds of doubt obscure our vision, and we are unwilling to take a risk. Sometimes we are simply looking in the wrong direction, unaware that the broad vista behind us shows the magnitude of God’s grace. Sometimes we just have to step out on faith, depending on the Holy Spirit to guide us through the murkiness until we can see, in 20/20 hindsight, that every step of the way was part of God’s plan for us.

It may feel like we are teetering on the edge of a precipice, and the fog is obscuring our path. It may feel like we are entering the wilderness as we move through the changes we see necessary for our own growth and deepening discipleship. It may even feel, at times, like we are failing miserably. But God gives us his promise that He will be with us every step of the way. Let us claim that promise, and go with God. Amen.

[1] http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/epiphany-4c/?type=old_testament_lectionary#sthash.s4Sd3EnI.dpuf

tourists on mt precipice

A Visit to the Precipice – thoughts on Luke 4:21-30

21Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 22All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?”23He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’” 24And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. 25But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; 26yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” 28When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. 30But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

modern nazareth from mt precipiceAbout a year ago, we were standing on that “brow of the hill” – or at least what is traditionally accepted as the spot. The modern city of Nazareth lies below the hill to the west.

And Mt. Tabor can usually be seen off to the east, toward the Sea of Galilee. However, on the day we visited Mt. Precipice, it was rainy and cloudy.

2015-01-09 clouds over NazarethAs the clouds rolled in over Nazareth, we had to use our imaginations to picture the vista below us.

 

We could mostly make out Nazareth to the west, but the rich farmland to the south and the valley between us and Mt. Tabor to the east were completely obscured by clouds.

2015-01-09 mt precipice toward tabor clouds

 

 

 

 

2015-01-09 mt precipice clouds

 

 

I noticed that our little group of tourists reacted to this phenomenon in a surprising way. Keep in mind that we really couldn’t see anything – the view was completely obscured by clouds and rain. But that didn’t stop us from lifting our phones and cameras …

shawna and amanda taking photos on mt precipice2015-01-09 07.37.48

tourists on mt precipice

 

 

 

 

But do you notice something about these pictures? Everyone is looking in a different direction.

Here we are at the top of the hill where Jesus himself was dragged, just so he could be thrown down the hillside and stoned to death for blasphemy. And we are looking in every single direction, through the fog, at things we cannot see. If we inch out to the edge of the path, we can look down the hillside and imagine a human being thrown down over those rocks.Amanda looking down from mt precipice

 

But the precipice itself is the only thing we can clearly see. Ponder that.

The precipice of Mt Precipice 2015-01-09 07.46.49

 

 

 

 

2015-01-14 Good Samaritan road

“Who Is My Neighbor?” – Sermon on Luke 10:25-37 Epiphany 2C

Preached at Oakwood United Methodist Church on January 17, 2016

Here’s the set up to today’s gospel reading, from the earlier verses of Luke 10. Keep this in the back of your mind as we move forward into the reading. What has just happened was the sending of the 72, two by two, into the villages and towns where Jesus plans to go next. These disciples are the advance team, and their mission is successful.

The 72 have just returned, and Jesus has prayed a prayer of thanksgiving and praise to the Father, rejoicing in the Holy Spirit – that’s an interesting detail we won’t explore today – and has blessed these disciples. Everyone’s feeling pretty good about what has just happened. If this were a television show, the commercial break would come right about here.

Luke sets off today’s famous story with one of his signature introductions: “And behold.” Luke acknowledges what has just happened, and connects it to this story with “and.” But there’s that “behold” to show us that we are about to hear something new.

The Parable of the Good Samaritan

25 And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?”27 And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”28 And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”

29 But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side.32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. 34 He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?”37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.” – Luke 10:25-37 (ESV)

 

The lawyer who steps up to question Jesus only asks two questions. The first is a test, and if the lawyer were a Presbyterian, as I used to be, that question would sound more like “What is the chief purpose of humankind?” But Jesus doesn’t respond with “to love God and enjoy him forever.” The lawyer’s question isn’t as simple as our modern translations make it seem. “Teacher, I will inherit life eternal having done or fulfilled or acquired … what, exactly?” might be a more literal translation of this question.

As he so often does, Jesus identifies a teachable moment, and answers the question with –you guessed it – another question. Actually, two – and this is important. Jesus wants to know “What is in the law? You’re a lawyer, you know the scriptures; you already have your answer. You tell me what it says.”

But then Jesus immediately follows this question with a much more personal one – “How do you read it?” At once we realize that Jesus does not see the Law as a dead and stagnant set of words that mean the same thing to everyone. The Word of God is living and active (Hebrews 4:12), and how we read it determines how we will respond to God’s message.

The lawyer doesn’t hesitate, but begins by quoting the Shema, “Hear O Israel, the Lord your God is One. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5)

Here’s a little grammar lesson for you. We think of this as a command, but the verb is not an imperative. It’s more of an indication that something will surely happen in the future. You are going to love the Lord your God, because the Lord is the only God there is.

The lawyer adds part of a verse from Leviticus (19:18b), and this blending of two verses gives us what we now call “the Great Commandment.”

Yes, Jesus says, you’ve got it. Go do it. But just as Jesus turns back to his friends, who are still celebrating their successful mission trip, the lawyer adds a new question, and this isn’t a test, it’s an attempt to justify himself. This guy who was challenging Jesus a moment ago suddenly feels the need to get his approval, so he asks, “Yes, but … who is my neighbor?

I can imagine the others getting quiet as Jesus looks at the lawyer. They have a hunch they know what Jesus is going to do. I imagine Jesus pausing a moment, considering the best way to teach this lawyer about the high cost of discipleship. He decides to take on this expert in the law, and everyone else settles in to listen. They know that a story is coming.

Jesus sets the scene. It’s the road between Jerusalem and Jericho. About a year ago, my husband and I were on that road. We stopped at a Bedouin camp to get a good view of what is commonly called The Valley of the Shadow of Death.

2015-01-14 Valley of the Shadow

When we were there last January, it was the rainy season, so there was a bit of green showing here and there, but when we looked out across the Valley toward Jerusalem, it was hard to imagine anyone walking through this wilderness.

2015-01-14 UP to Jerusalem

 

 

 

That’s Jerusalem off in the distance, on the very rim of the horizon.

 

2015-01-14 Good Samaritan road

 

And when we turned and looked down the valley in the other direction, we could almost make out 2015-01-14 Jericho in the distanceJericho.

 

 

 

 

In between is treacherous wilderness, and the distance was too great to be traveled on foot in a single day. This made travelers vulnerable to the robbers and nomads who spent their lives scrabbling out an existence in this wasteland.

 

The place where our bus stopped was actually a Bedouin camp. At first, we thought it had been abandoned, but the tour guide assured us that it was not.

bedouin homes

The guide also warned us to take valuables with us when we got off the bus, and keep them close. We were also encouraged to not buy anything or try to bargain with these Bedouins. And whatever we did, when the children asked us for candy, even if we had some, we should refuse. It might be a ruse to get us to open our bags or pockets – something you should never do in front of a Bedouin child. You also should not let them catch you taking their pictures.

Bedouins on the run to meet the bus 2015-01-14 10.35.17

Sure enough, as soon as the bus stopped, here they came.

 

 

I was careful to wait until the children weren’t looking to take a snapshot.

Bedouin girl 2015-01-14 10.36.45

 

This charming little guy had a backpack full of trinkets he was trying to sell us. Everything was “one dollar.” When we declined, he held out his hand and asked “Candy? Gum?” From salesman to beggar in the blink of an eye. Bedouin boy with backpack 2015-01-14 10.36.01

 

As I tried to imagine someone walking from Jerusalem to Jericho, it wasn’t difficult for me to think that maybe these Bedouin children were somehow connected to the robbers in Jesus’ story. Clearly, they were not a real threat to us. We were in no danger of being stripped and left to die on the side of the road. But if this was the road Jesus and his listeners were imagining as he told the story, I could see why you wouldn’t have wanted to travel it alone.

Whenever Jesus tells a parable, he invites us into the story. There is almost always one character or another with whom we identify. Quite often, there’s a twist somewhere in the story that surprises us. It tells us we’ve been identifying with the wrong character all along, if we really want to be followers of Christ. The story of the Good Samaritan is no exception.

The first two people who accidentally happen by are a priest and a Levite. They both hurry over to the other side of the road. They probably wanted to avoid contamination – touching this man, who looked like he might be dead, would make them ritually unclean.

But if you were the man lying in the ditch, who better to come along than someone whose life is dedicated to God? At the very least, you would expect no further harm to come to you. Yet, neither of these men stop to help.

It is the third traveler who is moved to compassion. Finally, someone who can do something! He gets down off his camel or donkey, cleans the man’s wounds with wine and oil, bandages him up and puts the man on the camel – or donkey. But there’s a catch. This kind person, whose care has saved a life, is – a Samaritan. The very last person on earth you would want taking care of you. The Enemy.

We tend to want to identify with the hero in the story. The disciples and the lawyer who heard Jesus tell this parable might have had a hard time figuring out who the hero was. You’d think it would be the priest or the Levite, and it might be easy to justify their failure to help by remembering they were just trying to stay clean. We’d all like to identify with the person who does the right thing, but he turns out to be a Samaritan – just about the worst possible ethnic group any of the disciples could imagine.

The difference between the Samaritan and the first two holy men who happened along that road between Jerusalem and Jericho wasn’t a matter of eyesight. All three of them saw the man lying in the ditch. The difference is what they did when they saw him. The first two made a beeline for the opposite side of the road. Only the Samaritan saw the man and had compassion.

And Jesus says, “Go be like the Samaritan.” Go be like the person you snub. Go be like the person you think you’re too good to be around.

A few days after we returned from the Holy Land, one of those people we snub, a person we think we’re too good to be around,  died in my driveway. My husband found him lying in front of our garage door without a shirt, ankles crossed, eyes staring at the sky. We spent the day wondering about this man. What circumstances had put him in our driveway on one of the coldest nights of the year, without a shirt?

Across the street, we could see children playing on the school playground while, behind our house, the police worked to discover what had happened to this man. We didn’t know his name then. We learned it later, and the newspaper identified him as homeless. The stark contrast between children playing across the street and a man dying unattended in my driveway gave me a new sense of urgency to do something about the homeless people who move unseen here in New Ulm, particularly those who are most vulnerable, the children. Which of those children playing, I wondered, might end up like this man someday, if we don’t do something? If we don’t see and have compassion, as the Samaritan did?

We know that homelessness and poverty are inextricably linked. We also know that children born to single mothers are among the most likely to suffer from poverty. When these families become homeless, they have very few resources available to help them turn their lives around and get back on their feet.

That’s why the Ministerial Association has been working to establish NUMAS Haus for homeless single mother families. We want to do more than just give them a place to sleep for a few nights. We want to help them turn their lives around. You can learn more about the programs and services we plan to offer at the NUMAS Haus website.

I am grateful to serve in a congregation that is willing to partner with other churches to fulfill this God-sized vision. As the project moves forward and dreams become reality, I urge you to think about who your next neighbor might be. Who needs our compassion? Who hungers to know the love of God and the saving grace of our Lord Jesus Christ? And who among us is ready to be like the Samaritan, willing to identify with the outcast for the sake of serving Jesus? As we pass through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, will we see and cross over to the other side of the road, or will we see and be consumed by gut-wrenching compassion for any and all whose need lies before us?

When Jesus finished his story, he asked the lawyer, “Who proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” The lawyer said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”

He says the same to each of us. You go, and do likewise. Amen.

 

baptismbanner

“A House Divided” – Sermon on Mark 3:22-26 and 1 Kings 12:1-19

 

Baptism of Our Lord C
January 10, 2016

We’re back in the Old Testament this week, returning to the sequence of events we left behind to celebrate the stories of Christmas and Epiphany. In a few moments, we will remember Christ’s baptism in the Jordan River by touching that same water and renewing our own baptismal covenant vows. But now, it is time to return to the Jerusalem of an earlier century. The great kings David and Solomon have died, and Solomon’s son Rehoboam has just taken the throne. He’s young and rash, and he’s eager to demonstrate his kingly power over the nation of Israel.

Maybe a little too eager. I get the idea as I read about Rehoboam that he’s trying to convince himself of his royal authority, as much as anyone else. Instead of showing mercy to his subjects, and gaining their gratitude and loyalty, Rehoboam acts tougher than he probably is. Instead of recognizing that his people have been overtaxed and overworked by Solomon, Rehoboam is only worried about appearing stronger than his father. So he threatens the people with even harsher conditions than they have already suffered.

It’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back, and the people rebel. 1 Kings 12: 16 tells us, “And when all Israel saw that the king did not listen to them, the people answered the king, “What portion do we have in David? We have no inheritance in the son of Jesse. To your tents, O Israel! Look now to your own house, David.”

It didn’t take long for the smirk on Rehoboam’s face turned to dismay, as he realized his mistake. He had to run for his life to escape being stoned to death. Instead of ruling the whole kingdom of Israel with an iron fist, he’s left with only two small tribes who remain loyal, as the other ten tribes head off to their own territories, following Jeroboam’s leadership. The kingdom is ripped in two, just as God told Solomon it would be.

It’s just at this point in the story that I have to wonder what God is up to here. After all, God had told Abraham he would make his descendants into a great nation, and it would be through God’s people, the nation of Israel, that God would bless the whole world. God had promised David that his descendants would rule over this great nation. But here we are, in the middle of a civil war, only two generations into David’s line. Instead of blessing the other nations of the world, Israel is torn in two, and chaos erupts. If we were to analyze the literary elements at work here, this would be the point in the story where “the plot thickens.”

On June 18, 1858, just about the time our church was being established here in the young city of New Ulm, a Republican candidate for US Senator stood up in the Illinois State Capitol to accept his party’s nomination. The speech he gave didn’t help him win that election to the Senate, but it did rally Republicans across the northern states around the issue of slavery, and it became one of Abraham Lincoln’s most famous speeches. Maybe you remember reading – or even memorizing – this passage from the beginning of that speech:

“A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become lawful in all the States, old as well as new — North as well as South.” [1]

Lincoln wasn’t the first to quote Jesus on this issue of division. Wikipedia, that source of infinite and undisputed knowledge, tells us that:

  • “Saint Augustine, in his book Confessions (Book 8, Chapter 8) describes his conversion experience as being ‘a house divided against itself.’
  • Thomas Hobbes, in his 1651 Leviathan (Chapter 18), stated that, “a kingdom divided in itself cannot stand.”
  • In Thomas Paine’s 1776 Common Sense, he describes the composition of Monarchy as having, “all the distinctions of a house divided against itself.”

There’s a reason why all these famous people have borrowed these words from Jesus: they are true. So let’s take a moment to go to the source, Jesus himself, and learn from him directly.

And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come.” – Mark 3:22-26

Last June, we looked at this passage in its context of the early stages of Jesus’ ministry. Now, we see it in the broader context of the whole story of God and his relationship with Israel. When the scribes accuse Jesus of casting out demons by being in league with the devil, Jesus comes back at them with a reference to Jewish history. He might as well have said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand. If Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come… just look at what happened to Rehoboam and the nation of Israel!”

But the scribes don’t catch the history lesson, apparently. They only care about the way Jesus challenges their authority. As far as they are concerned, Jesus is a heretic. They accuse him of being possessed by demons, trying to discredit Jesus in front of the crowds around him. They oppose his purpose by questioning the source of his power. When the scribes accuse Jesus of working with Beelzebub, they don’t realize that they have given Jesus precisely the words he needs to prove his point.

The name Beelzebub[2] comes from a Hebrew play on words. By the time the scribes use it, Beelzebub is just another name for the devil, and they may not have even known about its origins. But those origins go right back to the Old Testament.

Be-el-ze-vuv sounds an awful lot like Be-el-ze-vul, which means “Ba-al the exalted.” It’s what the Canaanites called their god, Baal, back in First and Second Kings, and you will read more about Baal and his prophets next week in Chapter 15 of The Story. While Be-el-ze-vuv sounds a lot like Be-el-ze-vul, it means something completely different. It means “lord of the flies.” And we all know where flies like to congregate. Around dead, smelly things.

Beelzebub is the lord of death, and his defeat is in division. Jesus names the blasphemy of the scribes for what it is: defiance against God. Claiming that God’s saving grace is the work of demons puts the scribes in opposition to the One who saves. Just as Rehoboam’s arrogance cost him the chance to rule over the entire nation of Israel, the scribes miss an opportunity to align themselves with God’s purpose in Jesus. A house divided cannot stand.

This is the point in the story where we come in. Just like Rehoboam, we are given a choice, and the decision we make will determine whether we find unity with God in Christ Jesus, or falter and tumble under our own arrogance. Our choice will either unite us with God or against God.

Abraham Lincoln said, “I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other.” Lincoln was not so much afraid that the United States would be torn apart, the way Israel was, but that it would be unified around the wrong ideal: slavery instead of freedom.

We face the same dilemma in our own lives. Will we follow Jesus in full obedience, even as Jesus was obedient in his own baptism, ministry, and death on the cross? Or will we follow Beelzebub, the lord of the flies, who leads us only to eternal death and separation from God?

Our spiritual integrity is at stake. If Rehoboam’s folly teaches us anything, it is that breaking apart what belongs together is much easier than restoring what is broken. Jesus came to earth in human form for that very reason – to heal our brokenness, mend our divisions, and restore us to unity with God.

Long before Abraham Lincoln gave his “house divided” speech and this congregation was founded in New Ulm, Charles Wesley wrote a hymn called, “Blest Be the Dear Uniting Love.” The words go like this:

Blest be the dear uniting love that will not let us part;
Our bodies may far off remove, we still are one in heart.

Joined in one spirit to our Head, where he appoints we go,
And still in Jesus’ footsteps tread, and do his work below.

O may we ever walk in him, and nothing know beside
Nothing desire, nothing esteem, but Jesus crucified!

We all are one who him receive, and each with each agree,
In him the One, the Truth we live, blest point of unity!

Partakers of the Savior’s grace, the same in mind and heart,
Nor joy, nor grief, nor time, nor place, nor life, nor death can part.

The psalmist writes, “Teach me your way, O Lord, that I may walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart to revere your name” (Ps 86:11).

This is what it means to follow Jesus with an undivided heart. It means giving ourselves completely to him, so that he can fill us completely with his love and grace. Each of us was created with a space in our souls that only God can fill. We can try to fill that space with other things, just as Rehoboam tried to fill it with his desire for power, but nothing can fill the emptiness inside us except God. Everything else we try will only separate us from God, and tear us up on the inside.

You’ve probably experienced this in your own life. Maybe you’ve tried to fill that place inside you with things that promised to give you pleasure, only to experience pain and emptiness. Maybe you’ve tried to fill that place with doing good deeds, so others would think highly of you, or working long hours, or accumulating material goods. None of these things will satisfy the longing you have for God. Maybe you have given up, and decided that the hole in your heart can never be filled, so you’ve dumped bitterness and envy and disappointment into it, hoping that these things will get swallowed up like dying stars in a black hole in outer space.

Only one thing can fill that place in your life. Only one thing can satisfy your longing. It is Jesus, who came to earth as a tiny human child, and grew in favor with God and people, who taught that God’s radical love is available to all who believe that Jesus is the Son of God. Jesus, who died in our place, so that our sins might be forgiven, and we might be restored to the God who created us for just this purpose: to be loved so completely that our only desire is to love God back with all of our being.

If you have never accepted this precious gift of God’s grace, I invite you to do it now as we pray A Covenant Prayer together. If you have been letting other things try to fill the God-sized hole in your life, I invite you to surrender them to Christ right now, as we pray this prayer. You can be made whole. You can be united to Christ by giving your life completely to him. God wants you back. Let us pray.

A Covenant Prayer in the Wesleyan Tradition     (UMH #607)

I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt,
Put me to doing, put me to suffering,
Let me be employed by thee or laid aside by thee,
Exalted for thee or brought low by thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty, let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, thou art mine, and I am thine. So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.

[1]  The Annals of America, vol. 9, 1. Source document: Political Speeches and Debates of Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas 1854-1861, Alonzo T. Jones, ed., 52-74.

[2] http://www.behindthename.com/name/beelzebub

 

Chicken Tortellini Soup

This makes a fast supper (if you have a microwave, and who doesn’t?)

2-3 boneless skinless chicken breasts

2 cups (or one small bag) frozen mixed vegetables

1 package fresh, frozen, or dried cheese tortellini

1 clove garlic

4-6 cups chicken broth or water

salt, pepper, Italian seasoning to taste

In the microwave, thaw 2-3 boneless skinless chicken breasts. Cut into 1″ cubes (you can cut the frozen chicken into cubes if you have a heavy knife or cleaver, and skip the thawing out step, but it will take a little longer to cook the chicken).

In a heavy pot, toss the chicken cubes with some olive oil and a clove of garlic, crushed or minced. Stir frequently as you cook the chicken over medium high heat, until it is cooked through (no pink!). Add 2 cups of frozen mixed vegetables and enough chicken broth to cover. Use a couple of chicken bouillon cubes and a quart of water if you don’t have any broth. Plain water also works, but you will want to add some extra seasoning, particularly salt.

When the soup comes to a boil, add the tortellini and seasonings. Simmer until the tortellini is soft and opaque. Add more water if you need to. Serve with good bread and cheese. Dinner in under 30 minutes.

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“Praying Like A King” – Sermon on 2 Chronicles 6: 12-21

December 13, 2015 Advent 3C
Watch a video of this sermon here.

Today is Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete is Latin for “Rejoice!” and this third Sunday in the season of Advent is full of rejoicing. Next week, we will hear the story of Christ’s birth, and a few days after that, we will celebrate Christmas Eve. We are on the downward slope of this season of anticipation, of waiting. This should bring us great joy!

However, if you are like me, the “To Do” list is growing instead of shrinking right about now. I have bought exactly ONE Christmas present so far, and there are many preparations to make before I will feel ready for Christmas Eve. Right now, I’m closer to outright panic than restful rejoicing. Anyone else feel that way?

In the middle of all this anticipation, preparation, and expectation, our trek through the Bible brings us to an unexpected place. Instead of Bethlehem, we find ourselves in Jerusalem, on Mount Zion. Instead of wicked King Herod, we meet wise King Solomon. Instead of looking forward to the coming of Christ the Redeemer, we look backward to a time when Israel experienced peace and prosperity, a time of great joy, as the very first temple is completed, and the whole nation gathers in Jerusalem to celebrate its dedication.

Before we pick up the story, let’s do a quick review: God called Abraham to become the father of the nation of Israel. The mission of Israel was to point other nations, all peoples, to God. God wants all people to come back to him. God gave Israel a land and God allowed them to have kings. The first king was Saul who failed to represent God. God then chose David as king. David did represent God well, and even though he sinned terribly, he repented and captured the heart of a gracious God who is available to everyone. When David is old and dying he passes the leadership baton to Solomon.

God invites Solomon to ask for anything (1 Kings 3:5) and Solomon pleases God by asking for wisdom to rule well and administer justice. God gives Solomon what he asks for, and we see immediate evidence that this is so when Solomon’s wisdom is tested by two women who each claim the same baby as their own. (1 Kings 3:16-28)

Through the next few chapters of First Kings, we read about the temple Solomon builds for God, and about Solomon’s growing popularity. I Kings 6-10

When the temple is completed, all Israel comes to participate in its dedication. It is a time of feasting and rejoicing. Gaudete! Solomon shows the wisdom that God has given him in the prayer of dedication he prays.

12 Then Solomon stood before the altar of the Lord in the presence of the whole assembly of Israel, and spread out his hands. 13 Solomon had made a bronze platform five cubits long, five cubits wide, and three cubits high, and had set it in the court; and he stood on it. Then he knelt on his knees in the presence of the whole assembly of Israel, and spread out his hands toward heaven. 14 He said, “O Lord, God of Israel, there is no God like you, in heaven or on earth, keeping covenant in steadfast love with your servants who walk before you with all their heart— 15 you who have kept for your servant, my father David, what you promised to him. Indeed, you promised with your mouth and this day have fulfilled with your hand. 16 Therefore, O Lord, God of Israel, keep for your servant, my father David, that which you promised him, saying, ‘There shall never fail you a successor before me to sit on the throne of Israel, if only your children keep to their way, to walk in my law as you have walked before me.’ 17 Therefore, O Lord, God of Israel, let your word be confirmed, which you promised to your servant David.

18 “But will God indeed reside with mortals on earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, how much less this house that I have built! 19 Regard your servant’s prayer and his plea, O Lord my God, heeding the cry and the prayer that your servant prays to you. 20 May your eyes be open day and night toward this house, the place where you promised to set your name, and may you heed the prayer that your servant prays toward this place. 21 And hear the plea of your servant and of your people Israel, when they pray toward this place; may you hear from heaven your dwelling place; hear and forgive.” (2 Chronicles 6:12-21)

This passage, and its partner in 1 Kings 8, demonstrates the power of prayer. Prayer isn’t new in the Bible, by any means. We have seen Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Hannah, and David in prayer. But prayer is found here and in the corresponding verses in 1 Kings 8 more than anywhere else in the Old Testament. Prayer becomes more closely associated in the Old Testament with Solomon than almost any other person except his father David, whose many prayers are recorded in the Psalms.[1]

How exactly does a King pray? Let’s look at three features of Solomon’s prayer.

First, let’s consider a king’s posture of prayer: hands spread, on his knees before God, the king prays in the presence of all the people. Solomon has been addressing the people gathered at the temple, but now he turns away from the people and focuses his attention on God alone. We can see this focus reflected in the way Solomon repeats to God what he has already said to the people. He knows who his audience is, and when he talks to God, even though he knows the people are listening, he directs his attention to God alone.

Spreading hands indicates both a complete offering of oneself, and a willingness to receive God’s grace. Kneeling is an act of humility, unusual for a King, to whom others must kneel. In this way, Solomon gives testimony to the whole nation of Israel that he knows who is really in control. Solomon humbles himself before the Lord in a very public way. He is not ashamed to show his people that he reports to God, much as his father was unashamed to dance before the Lord when he first brought the ark of the covenant into Jerusalem.

This king prays with a posture of humility and reverence.

Second, we see that royal prayer begins with praise: Solomon describes God’s omnipotence and the history of God’s loving relationship with his people. “O Lord, God of Israel, there is no God like you, in heaven or on earth, keeping covenant in steadfast love with your servants who walk before you with all their heart,” he begins. Notice that Solomon’s focus is on what God has done, not on what the people of Israel have done. Solomon’s praise goes from the general to the specific. He describes God’s promises to the nation of Israel first, then narrows his focus to God’s promises to David, and finally, to himself.

Third, a king’s prayer asks for forgiveness. This plea for God’s grace makes up the largest part of Solomon’s prayer of dedication. We only have the first part of this prayer as our reading for today, but Solomon uses seven different petitions to describe every possible circumstance in which someone might call upon God for help. And in every instance, Solomon asks God to “hear and forgive.”

Five of these seven petitions are all about forgiveness for sins. Solomon is wise to recognize that many times, it is our need for God’s forgiveness that brings us to our knees in prayer. Our need for forgiveness is rooted in our sin, and that might not be a very popular topic on this Sunday that should be full of anticipation and joy. Yet, there it is. We sin, and we need forgiveness. “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8).

In fact, I think deceit is at the core of just about every sin you can imagine. It started in the Garden of Eden when the serpent lied to Eve, and then she and Adam tried to lie to God to cover up their sin. We lie to ourselves, making excuses for our wrongs, and we lie to each other to justify what we’ve done. We convince ourselves that we are no worse than the next person, and we think that we can get away with sinning, as long as no one sees, as long as no one gets hurt.

But we can’t. The more we lie to ourselves, the farther we get from God, and the worse our sinfulness grows. Solomon may have been the wisest king who ever lived, but even Solomon fell into sin’s trap.

Over the course of many years, and many wives, Solomon forgot his prayer of dedication. He forgot to maintain the posture of prayer, kneeling before God in humility and focused on God alone. He forgot to praise God only, and he forgot to ask forgiveness. The beautiful temple he had built to be God’s resting place, a place where anyone could worship, where everyone who sought God could find God, that temple would be destroyed.

But there is good news. There is still reason to declare “Gaudete! Rejoice!” Solomon’s prayer explains why. 18 “But will God indeed reside with mortals on earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, how much less this house that I have built!” A building’s four walls cannot limit God’s presence. God cannot be boxed in. God’s greatest desire is to be in loving relationship with us, and no building can contain God’s love.

As Solomon grew old, his 700 wives and 300 concubines led his heart away from God to worship idols. The LORD became angry with Solomon because Solomon’s heart was divided. (1 Kings 11:9-13) Because Solomon’s heart was divided, his kingdom would be divided. He convinced himself it wouldn’t matter, because it would all happen after he was dead, but he was wrong.

Hundreds of years would go by. Many would give up hope of ever seeing a son of David sitting on Israel’s throne, despite God’s promises. But one day, in the little town of Nazareth, a young girl whose father was a descendant of David would receive a visit from an angel, who would tell her an amazing thing. “Stop being afraid. God has found favor with you, and you will bear a son, and his name will be Immanuel, God with us.”

Next week, we will skip ahead in The Story. We will take Chapter 22 out of order, so that once again we can marvel at the miraculous birth of Christ our Savior, the One who came to save us from our sins. The One who offers forgiveness to all who trust in him. The One who hears us when we pray, who heals our brokenness and takes away our sin. The One who is Immanuel, God with us. Thanks be to God.

[1] Garrett Galvin, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2559

snowy-tree.jpg

Unlocking the Mystery – Sermon on John 1:9-18, Christmas 2C

January 3, 2016

Do you like a good mystery? A few years ago, my younger son was having some trouble deciding what to give his mother for Christmas. With a little help from his Dad, he found my amazon.com wish list. My son could have chosen the book on Atonement Theology by Scot McKnight, or Catherine Brekus’ book about women preachers in America during the 19th century. But instead of those lofty tomes, he selected the entire Millennium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson. He couldn’t have made a better choice!

What can I say? I’m a sucker for a good mystery novel. I love the twists and turns of a well-crafted plot, the clues hidden in the smallest details, and the challenge of putting together the pieces of an intricate puzzle. Sometimes, an author leaves a few loose ends dangling at the end of the story, and the unanswered questions act as a teaser for the sequel. This story’s mystery may be solved, but another riddle appears ready to present itself in the next book. It’s like an end-of-season cliffhanger for a television series, “… to be continued…”

Maybe it isn’t solving the riddle that hooks us, so much as the experience of mystery itself. Maybe there is something in us that hungers for the unanswerable question, the unsolvable riddle. It’s good to be reminded, now and then, that we don’t know everything. But mystery can also be unsettling to us. We can easily be frustrated when the clues are obscure, or the dangling threads can’t be neatly tied together.

At the end of the first century, the Christians in and around Ephesus were looking for answers. Things hadn’t turned out exactly the way they’d expected them to. Most of Jesus’ original twelve disciples had died, the temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed, and Jewish Christians had scattered throughout the Roman Empire. Jesus had not returned as promptly as these Christians had hoped, and some of them were beginning to wonder if they’d missed an important clue, a vital detail in the story they’d been telling each other for decades. If they were honest, some of them had to admit that – well, they were beginning to have their doubts. It was in this context that John, their pastor, wrote his Gospel account.

Using simple, but carefully crafted words, John writes about the profound mystery of faith, and he offers a few keys to unlock this mystery. He begins his gospel account with familiar words, “in the beginning,” but he turns the creation story in an unexpected direction: “In the beginning, was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God…. all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was Life and the Life was the light of all people.” In a few short verses, John presents the mystery of the incarnation to his readers. But the keys to this mystery lie in the second half of his introduction. Let’s pick up the story, beginning in verse 9 of the first chapter.

9 The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11He came to what was his own,* and his own people did not accept him. 12But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son,* full of grace and truth. 15(John testified to him and cried out, ‘This was he of whom I said, “He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” ’) 16From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son,* who is close to the Father’s heart,* who has made him know.”

The urgent question bothering John’s fellow Christians was a simple one: Was it true that Jesus was God? Or had they been believing a lie all these years? John the Baptist had sent disciples to ask Jesus a similar question: “Are you the one we’ve been expecting, or should we look for another?” And now, decades later, the question persisted. But where the Baptizer’s disciples had asked with a glimmer of hope, the first-century Christians were beginning to admit their doubts and fears.

John confronts these fears immediately by invoking the Creation Story from Genesis, and reminding his readers of the role Christ had in that story. All things were made through him. Nothing that was made was made apart from Christ. And if that isn’t enough to convince the first century skeptics, John calls on the witness of John the Baptist, who announced “Here is the one who comes after me, yet ranks before me.”

But John asks a more important question of his readers than the simple, “Is it true?” Assuming the story is true, what does it mean? Why did Jesus take on human flesh, become one of us and invite us into the reality of God with us? What does it mean to become a child of God? To answer this question, John points us to Jesus, the only-begotten Son of God. The clues are all there in Salvation’s story. To unlock the mystery, we have to use the right keys.

First, John tells us that Christ was rejected by his own people. He came into the world that had been created through him, and that world did not recognize him. The story of God’s saving work goes back to creation, but that story has a plot twist almost from the beginning: by force of our own will, we humans reject God’s goodness just as surely as Adam and Eve rejected God in the Garden of Eden. Throughout history, the people of God have repeatedly turned away from God to pursue their own desires. Even when God became flesh, when the Word took on tangible human form, the very people who had been longing for God’s redemption failed to see the salvation that was standing right in front of them. If the world would not accept the Son of God, how much more should we expect to be rejected by the world as true children of God?

Though many failed to recognize him as the Son of God, some accepted him. And all those who received him were given power to become children of God. Not by the sacrificial blood of a goat, not as a by-product of lust or the result of marriage — in short, not by human act or intention — but born of God. This is the central key to John’s prologue. It is also the focus of John’s whole gospel story: All those who receive him, all who accept Jesus as the Son of God, are given the power to become children of God. In Chapter 20 John writes, “all these things are written that you might believe, and believing, have life.” He’s talking about life as a fully participating member in the family of God. But even this key truth needs a little unlocking. What is this power? And how do we claim it?

The word translated here as ‘power’ appears as ‘authority’ elsewhere in John’s gospel. The Greek word exousia refers to the power of choice, the liberty of doing as one chooses, it is the power given with permission, the authority that combines privilege with responsibility, much as the key to a door allows the bearer to enter freely, but also holds the bearer responsible for what is inside. And all who accept Jesus as the Son of God receive this authority to become children of God. We who believe are adopted into God’s family. We become joint-heirs with Christ (Romans 8:17). Even more, John says that Jesus, the Son of God, shares with us his intimate knowledge of the Father. We are given permission to know God fully, as Jesus knows God.

At my mom’s farm in Oklahoma, there is a stone building out behind the house. Inside that small building, there is an old pie safe, where my mom stores her canning and freezing supplies. In a special place among the plastic freezer containers and jar rings, is the key to my mom’s back door. All of her children, and many of her grandchildren, know where to find the key. In fact, I think all the members of her church, the man who rents out mom’s pasture, and the neighbors on either side of her farm know where to find the key. I wouldn’t be surprised if half the population of Craig County Oklahoma knows where to find the key to my mom’s house. Over time, as she has come to trust people and invite them into her life, she has shared the location of that key to her house. You never know, someday she might be locked inside and need help, and she’d rather you know where her spare key is than break down the door to help her. Over time, mom has adopted her neighbors, the members of her church, and maybe even the guy who rents her pasture, into our family. We are still her own children, but we share access to her home with all these other people she knows and trusts. They all have the same authority to enter her house as we do. And everyone who knows how to find that key also bears responsibility for my mother’s safety and trust.

Jesus was the only Son of God, but we have been given authority to become children of God. What do we do with this authority, this power? We have permission to enter into the intimacy of our heavenly Father’s love for us, but we also bear the responsibility of loving and serving others in Jesus’ name. Just as Christ came to serve, binding up the broken hearted, healing the sick, preaching good news to the poor, so we are called to do these things as children of God.

John writes, “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son,* who is close to the Father’s heart,* who has made him known.” Jesus came to earth as a tangible, fleshed out, skin-covered human, in order to reveal to us the God we could know no other way. Our task, as children of God, is to continue that revelatory work, showing God to the world around us in all we say and do. We must be prepared for the world to reject, ignore, and even mock our efforts. But we must also be prepared to accept any who are willing to receive this ‘grace upon grace’ that Jesus makes available to all who believe.

Much later in John’s story, Jesus will tell his disciples, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you” (John 15:16 ESV).

“Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you” (John 20:21 ESV).

What does it mean to be given power to become children of God? It means that we have been given permission to enter into God’s household, but we have also been charged with opening the door for others, welcoming them into the family of God. As we gather at the Lord’s table, let us come with humble hearts, accepting the grace upon grace that Christ offers to us. Let us go out from this place to serve, bearing the responsibility as true children of God to make God known to others. Amen.