Sunday, January 22 – Sermon on Jonah

Jonah

For most of us, whenever we hear about Jonah, we immediately think, “Oh yeah, the story of the big fish.”  But like it or not, this big fish plays a pretty small role in the story of Jonah.  Out of the 48 verses the story takes up, the big fish gets a meager three verses of attention.

This story isn’t about Jonah and a big fish.  It is about Jonah and God. And Jonah has a really big problem with God.

There Jonah was.  Just a regular guy, minding his own business, doing whatever it is that he does, when suddenly something started to stir within him.  Or was it coming from outside of him?  He probably couldn’t tell.  Either way, it was the voice of God coming to him, speaking to him, saying, “Go to Nineveh.  Tell them that I’ve had it with them.  They have gone too far and their days are numbered.” Now, in most cases, when God tells you to do something, you go and do it.  But not for Jonah.  No, after hearing this, Jonah hightails it in the other direction, jumping on a ship headed for the other side of the world, getting as far away from Nineveh and the presence of God as he can.  We don’t really know why he runs.  To hear that God had had it with Nineveh and was going to judge and destroy them should have been music to Jonah’s ear.  Being an Israelite, Jonah’s greatest enemy was the city of Nineveh.  Nineveh at the time was like Nazi Germany to the Jews, or Ursula to the Little Mermaid.  Nineveh was the archenemy, the one who had brought about incredible disaster and destruction upon the Jonah’s people of Israel.  In fact, Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire, which is modern day Iraq.  The conflict that boils there has been long standing, reaching back to the days of Jonah.

We don’t really know why Jonah flees.  Was he scared?  Perhaps.  I mean, God’s call to Jonah would be like God asking you to go face to face with Osama bin Laden and tell him that his days were numbered.  But for reasons unknown to us, Jonah decides to hide from God and from this call of God.

Once aboard the ship, things start to take a turn for the worst.  God wasn’t through with Jonah.  Jonah’s abrupt, “No thanks God” wasn’t going to cut it.  Suddenly God’s judgment for Nineveh had shifted towards Jonah.  The waters start to churn and the sky begins to crackle and crack.  The boat starts to be tossed around like an amateur surfer on an 8-foot wave. The panicked sailors start praying to all sorts of gods and tossing all the cargo overboard – anything so that they might survive.  Meanwhile, Jonah, the one responsible for such a mess, has settled himself in the cabin of the ship, curled up like a baby and sleeping soundly.

It is not long before Jonah is kicked awake by the captain, wondering how Jonah could be sleeping at such a time.  Eventually, Jonah comes clean telling the sailors that he is the reason they are in this disaster and that in order to save themselves, he should be thrown overboard.

So over the side of boat Jonah went.  And just about as quickly, the storm settles and the pagan sailors are saved from an innocent death.  Jonah on the other hand was most certainly a goner, paying the ultimate price for turning his back on God…until God sends a large fish with plenty of room in its belly for Jonah to continue that nap he was taking.  Only he couldn’t sleep.  For three days and three nights, Jonah prayed and sang.  He gave thanks to God for saving him from judgment and destruction.

Just as Jonah was closing out his praise to God, this Israelite indigestion got the best of the poor fish, and Jonah was vomited up, landing in the place where God had first called him.  Back where he started, the story begins again.  Dripping wet and covered in fish guts, Jonah hears the voice of God a second time, giving the same instructions, “Go to Nineveh.  Tell them that I’ve had it with them.  They have gone too far and their days are numbered.”   And Jonah goes.

Once in Nineveh, Jonah delivers the shortest and most half-hearted sermon the world has ever heard.  It’s clear he’s not there by choice.  He walks only part way through the city and says, “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be over thrown.”  That’s it.  That’s all he said.  But here is the thing, for as bad of a sermon as it was, it worked.  As quickly as Jonah fled the call of God, the evil Ninevites respond to the call of God.  The whole town stopped in its tracks.  Rich, poor, young, old, human, non-human…the whole town gets caught up in it.  All begin to fast, even the animals, and turn from their evil ways.  According to Jonah’s prophecy, there was no chance that God would save this city.  It wasn’t, “If you don’t repent or change, God will destroy you.”  It was simply, “You’ve got forty days, and then you are done for.”

But then in a sudden twist of fate, God sees how this city had responded to such a threat, and God changed God’s mind, mercifully offering Nineveh a stay of execution.  And the city rejoices.

Jonah, on the other hand, had a different response.  Enraged and furious with God, Jonah can hardly believe…or maybe I should say doesn’t want to believe what has just happened. Jonah has good reason to be angry.  Not only has Jonah just become a false prophet, since what he said would happen didn’t, but it simply isn’t fair what God did.  How could God let them live?  After all the violence and destruction that Nineveh had brought up Israel, how could God let them off the hook like that.  It isn’t fair!

At this point in the story, we discover the mystery of the story.  The answer to the question in the very beginning –  why did Jonah flee from God?  In his rage at God, Jonah comes right out with it, “This is why I fled from you in the beginning…because I knew that you were a gracious God.  Merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and hesitant to punish.”  He fled because he did not want the people of Nineveh to be forgiven.  Jonah wishes that he were dead rather then live with such an inconsistent and unfair God.  After this, Jonah then flees once again from God to go and sit alone.

Rather than grant Jonah his wish and take his life, God wishes to change Jonah’s mind.  So God goes after Jonah and God makes it so that a plant grows up over Jonah’s head, offering him shade from the stiflingly hot sun, saving Jonah from the heat.  Immediately, Jonah is overjoyed by this gift.  But then just as quickly, God causes a worm to attack this plant, making the plant wither and die, thus exposing Jonah to the awful heat yet again.  Once more, Jonah expresses his desire to die.  How could God punish Jonah when God let the Ninevites live?

But then God asks Jonah a question, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?”  I mean, Jonah had not done anything to deserve the bush.  It was a gift and a gift God had the right to take away.  Jonah responds, “Yes, angry enough to die.”  And then the story ends with one last question from God, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow.  Shouldn’t I be concerned about Nineveh, that great city of 120,000 people and also many animals?”

That’s where it ends.  Open ended.  Leaving the reader to answer that question for themselves.  Shouldn’t God be concerned about Nineveh, however violent awful they have been?  How forgiving can this God be?

At the center of the story is not Jonah and the fish, but a problem between Jonah and God.[1]  Jonah is not concerned by the fact that God changed God’s mind and showed mercy.  It is not that God was lenient, but that God was too lenient.  But in the end for Jonah, if God is to be God, then people should get what they deserve.  You reap what you sow.  You made your bed, so now you have to lie in it.  That’s only fair.   “God lets Jonah experience (God’s) judgment (on and in the sea) so that he might know at first hand what judgment is like.  And then (God) delivers Jonah from the sea quite apart from the question of whether the disobedient Jonah deserves to be delivered.  Jonah thus becomes the recipient of God’s grace in a way no different from what would be the case for Nineveh.”[2]   If God is merciful, willing to save Jonah, though he does not deserve it, why shouldn’t God be merciful and willing to save Nineveh?

This is all to say that God is not fair. To be fair is to give people what they deserve.  God is not fair; God is merciful. Like it or not, the message of Jonah seems to be that God’s love and concern for the world is much broader and wider than some of us would like to think.

But then in the end, we are left with the question in the end.  Perhaps you relate to Jonah, feeling like God is too lenient and too forgiving of some people.  Or perhaps you relate to the Ninevites, having once been an enemy and then having received undeserved grace and compassion. Whoever you are in this story, you are invited to respond and live into the final question: Is anyone to be excluded from God’s love and mercy?  How merciful is this God?


[1] Fretheim, The Message of Jonah, p. 19.

[2] Ibid., 21.

Sunday, January 15 – Sermon on 1 Samuel 3:1-20

1 Samuel 3:1-20

Imagine for a moment that you are a parent with a child, or maybe you share a room with your brother or sister, or maybe your partner, and all of sudden that person runs into your room, wakes you up, says, ““Hey, did you say something? Did you hear that?”  And you say, “No, dear, it was nothing.  Just go back to sleep.”  Now imagine that happening three times in a row!  After the third time, you might start thinking something was up yourself.

That’s how it was for Eli, the priest, when Samuel started to here the voice of God.  Samuel was simply a child when God called him.  It is a funny and kind of an ironic story.  The boy Samuel works with Eli.  One evening, Eli is sleeping in his room and Samuel is asleep in the church, apparently, when suddenly a voice starts calling to him, “Samuel! Samuel!”  Now, being that Samuel was a child and worked with Eli, I am sure it was not all that unusual for him to hear his voice called through out the church, with Eli needing him to help him with something.  So naturally, Samuel is quick to his feet, and runs to Eli saying, “Here I am.  What do you need?”  Eli’s startled response is, “I didn’t call you.  Go back to bed.” Three times this happens.  The Lord calls Samuel, and Samuel runs to Eli saying, “Here I am.”

Well, Eli finally figures it out.  If Eli isn’t calling Samuel’s name, then it must be God.  God is the one calling out to Samuel.  So he tells Samuel what to say the next time the Lord calls him – “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

Now, here is where the story really gets interesting.  Now that God has Samuel’s full attention, here is God’s message to Samuel: Tell your boss, Eli…he’s fired.  And it is all because of corruption.  Eli and his sons have been corrupting the offerings.  They have been stealing from the offerings.  Eli’s sons have been taking the best parts of the animal sacrifices offered to God and eating them for themselves and Eli had done nothing to stop them.  And so corruption and an abuse of power had leaked into the church, in which Eli and his sons put their desires and needs above those of the people they were serving.  And so God called little Samuel, who did not even know the Lord, did you catch that part?  God called little Samuel, who did not even know the Lord, to be the one to confront this corruption with Eli and his sons.

I like this story.  Because it shows us that God calls upon all kinds of people to do God’s work in this world.  When you hear the phrase, “Called by God,” I am willing to bet that most of you think of someone who works in the realm of the church or spiritual work.  I think that is a pretty common thing, which is what makes becoming a pastor and telling people that you are a pastor a pretty humorous but also a frustrating experience.

People start to treat you differently; people start to behave differently around you.  As if you are one of those people, like Samuel, whom God has specially called.  In fact people will ask that question all the time – what’s your call story? How did God call you into ministry?  Part of this leads people to thinking you are the holiness police, the moral barometer in the room.  I have seen people apologize for swearing around me when I am quite confident they wouldn’t have apologized around anyone else (and as if I don’t ever swear).  People will try to act more holy around you or will just start telling you about how much they believe in God and prayer each day.  Complete strangers will do this!  But the worst, the absolute worst, or I should say the saddest, is when someone belittles the work they do after knowing what I do.  Someone will say, with a tone of guilt in their throat, “Well, um…that’s a really good thing you are doing for people.  Me, I, uh, well I chose a little more selfish profession by becoming a lawyer…” Or a bartender…or a contractor…or whatever.

Whenever I hear that, the assumption always seems to be that I, a pastor, do good things for the world and they do not.  That God and I work together and they work alone.  That I am closer to God and more holy and more moral than they are.  Now, to some extent, I cannot really blame anyone for feeling that way.  The church has really set it up to seem that way, to some degree.  When I was ordained, there was a whole special service for it.  When I was installed here as pastor, there was a whole special service for it.  A stole was placed over my shoulders.  Could you imagine Federated Insurance having an installation and worship service for the next risk consultant they hire?  Some laying on of hands.  Instead of a stole, they give you a pair of khakis to wear.  So yes, there is an element in which the church and society have made being a church worker into a “higher calling.”  But let me be clear, whether you work in a church or at Federated, or as a trucker, or a librarian, or a receptionist or a homemaker, there is no “higher calling.”  For all are a calling from God.  Notice how God did not call Samuel into the priesthood, he called Samuel to condemn the priest, Eli.

God calls each and everyone of you into a particular place and role in society we call that vocation.  If you really wanted to be a church nerd, you would call this the “Doctrine of Vocation.”

The doctrine of vocation says that God has called each and everyone of you into your work in the world.  Whether you are a farmer, a student, a person who runs a daycare, a machinist, a grandparent, a spouse, a bartender, a repair person…God calls us into these vocations.  A person once said, “God will milk the cows through the person whose vocation it is to milk cows.[1]

And here is the thing, God can call you into more than one vocation at the same time.  A friend of mine, who is seeking to be a pastor, has been interviewing with churches in the past couple of months.  And throughout that process, he has had to discern where God was calling him and it has been particularly difficult because at times his vocation were conflicting.  There was a church that wanted him as the pastor, but because of some circumstances, he would have had to live apart from his wife.  His vocation as pastor and as husband were in conflict.  So he had to discern which vocation was God calling him to attend to.  One thing that he learned in that process, which we also learn in our text, is that God uses other people to help us hear that calling.  Samuel could hear the voice of God; he kept thinking it was Eli.  And so God used Eli, the one whom God was angry with, to help Samuel hear the voice of God calling to him.  My friend said to me, “I think God speaks to me through other people.  I am not the type of person who sits in silence very well. So I think God speaks to me through the voice of others, who have helped guide me through this process.”

God calls each and every one of you into many vocations in life.  Not just into a career, but a vocation – as a daughter, a coach, a community member, a volunteer.  One other thing, as we learn in 1 Samuel, sometimes God calls us into difficult tasks.  Sometimes God calls you to be the voice that names the corruption that is going on, so that you can protect the vulnerable people that are being hurt.

So I want you to consider this: have you ever considered yourself, like Samuel, as called by God into a certain task?  Think for a moment about what you will be doing tomorrow around 10am.  Whether it is job related, or family related, in whatever you are doing, consider what it might be that God is asking of you in that moment.

Let’s go into this week, recognizing that God is calling us into the many vocation that we have…and wondering how understanding that changes the way in which we do our tasks, interact with people, and live out our life.

AMEN

Sunday, January 8 – Sermon on Genesis 1:1-5

Genesis 1:1-5

In our Old Testament text for today, we hear about the beginning of creation. The creation of this world.  Anytime creation comes up as a topic, I am mindful of the fact that we can often get drawn into the debate of creation – creation vs. evolution.  It is a hard topic in which it seems as if there are only two options – you can believe in the Bible and creation or you can believe in evolution and the dinosaurs, but not both.  This question even came up during the “Ask the Pastor” sermon in October – how do we deal with the conflict between the creation story and science?  This question and debate is centered around looking at Genesis 1 as a historical statement – one that says something about what has happened in the past.  I want us to take that question and view of Genesis 1 and simply put it on the shelf for now.  And instead I want us to think about Genesis 1 as a theological statement.  Something that is making a statement about God.  It is not saying something about history, but something about who this God of history is.

To look at it theologically is to ask the questions:  What do this text say about God?  What is this God like?  What are the characteristics of God?

“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”  Whenever I think of the creation story, I imagine God floating in….well, nothingness.  And then God snaps the divine fingers and *poof*, there was earth.  *poof* Light.  *poof* The moon.  It is imagine of God creating the world out of nothing.  But Genesis 1 suggests something different, doesn’t it?  It suggests an image of God creating order out of things that already exist.  A formless void.  Darkness.  The deep…, I wonder what that is.  In fact, God even has wind and water on the workbench ready to be used.  These things aren’t nothing.  They are some things.  Things awaiting God’s creative work.[1] It is the image of God as a potter, grabbing a big hunk of clay with those wet and calloused hands, then stretching and squeezing and pulling out of clay the world as we know it.  It’s messy.  It isn’t clean. By asking of Genesis 1 “Who is this God?”, one thing we learn about God is that God works with that which already exists and seeks to bring life out of it.  God takes the chaos and messiness that already is and desires to create out it.

If we continue reading, we learn something else about God.  In verse 11, God says, “Let the earth bring forth vegetation” and in verse 20, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of creatures.”  And then in verse 28, “Be fruitful and multiply.”  Do you see what else we learn about God?  God isn’t the only one creating here.  God says to the earth, “Bring forth vegetation.”  To the waters, “Bring forth swarms of creatures.”  And to us, “Be fruitful, multiply.”  God does not create alone.  God invites creation into the very creating process.  God invites creation to be co-creators with God. God shares God’s creative power with the world for the sake of bringing about life.

Let me ask you a question: what kind of a relationship would it be if only one person had all of the power?  Maybe you are dating someone in school or you are married or you have a best friend.  What kind of a relationship would it be if that person had all of the power and you had none?  I would call that an abusive relationship.  One in which one person is powerless.  But we learn in Genesis 1 that God is one who shares power.  God is not one who holds all of the power in the relationship.

Now, it is important for us to consider an abusive relationship because the first hearers of Genesis 1, the first readers, were in an abusive relationship.  Genesis chapter 1 is likely to have been written down during the Babylonian Exile, about 6th Century BC – about 2,500 years ago. During the Babylonian Exile, the Israelites were taken from their homes, their families, their jobs and held in a foreign land as slaves under the King of Babylon.  To be a slave…to be powerless.  It is to be told that you are worthless.  That you are no good.  That, in fact, you are so useless that you need someone else to use you so that you can be of any value.  They were in an abusive relationship with the King of Babylon. And then during this time of slavery, this text from Genesis 1 was written and it was written for the exiles. – What does it mean for you to hear that while you are bound in slavery forced to work under and for the king of Babylon, to hear that your God seeks to bring life out of chaos that already exists.  You, as a slave, are living in  chaos and you hear that your God seeks to bring live out of the chaos that exists.   And not only that, but that this God is one who shares power with you, wanting to work beside you, next to you, not over you, in order to bring about that life.  It means that your God is nothing like the King of Babylon. It means that all the things you have been told about yourself, that you are worthless or no good, are not true.  It means that in the eyes of God, you are not powerless.  But have been given the power to create with God.  It means you don’t live your life out alone.  It means that you haven’t been forgotten.  For the Israelite slaves, while they might be working for the king of Babylon, they are working with God.  Working with God to endure a powerless situation.  Working with God to love one another while in the face of such lovelessness.

This is the Israelite exiles God.  And this is our God.  God is one who takes that which already exists and seeks to bring life out of it.  And not only that, but this God invites creation – us –to be participants, co-creators, in that creation of life, fullness of life, abundant life.  God is always wanting to bring about life for the sake of the best possible future of the world.  By bringing about life, I don’t mean simply procreating, but to bring about life in the world is to bring about love.  It is to seek justice, and not the kind of justice we are used to, in which you get punished for what you have done.  No, the kind of justice in which everyone has enough – enough love, enough food, enough shelter, enough respect.   It is important work for the sake of the best possible future.  And God invites us into that work with God.

“On the wall of the museum of the concentration camp at Dachau is a moving photograph of a mother and her little girl being take to the gas chamber at Auschwitz.  The girl, who is walking in front of her mother, does not know where she is going.  The mother, who walks behind, does know, but there is nothing, absolutely nothing, the mother can do to stop this tragedy.  In her helplessness, she performs the only act of love left to her.  She places her hand over her little girl’s eyes so, at least, she will not have to se the horror which faces her.”[2]  God and this girl’s mother were working together that day.  To bring about the love that was possible in a hopeless situation.  God is always wanting bring about new life into the world. The only loving thing left to do was to cover her daughter’s eyes.

God works with the stuff of the world, seeking to bring about and create the best possible future.  And God calls us to this work… with God.  Because God so values you that God will trust you with the creative power to help God bring about life in this world.[3]

In our gospel for today, Jesus is baptized.  And right after he is baptized, he is sent out into the wilderness.  You remember what the wilderness is like, don’t you?  Unknown.  Dangerous.  Chaotic.  And that is where Jesus is ministry to the world begins.  But before Jesus goes there, just as he is coming up out of the waters of baptism, God tears open the heavens and gives Jesus a blessing. “You are my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”  God blesses Jesus before Jesus goes out into his ministry.

We are all called into that same ministry.  Now, I cannot imagine going into such work without being reminded of God’s blessing upon us.  I find it only appropriate that we too be blessed as we look into another year in which God will be working with us to bring about the best possible future for God’s beloved world.

So I invite each of you forward to receive a blessing and to hear the words that God has for you…You are God’s beloved child…with whom God is well pleased.

Amen

Christmas Eve/Day – Sermon on Luke 2:1-20

Luke 2:1-20

It is Christmas eve.  A time so many of have been waiting for.  Can you feel it?  Can you feel that buzz in the air?  We are in this preciously small window of time in which Christmas feels almost magical.  Family members have arrived, phone calls are being made, words of love and greeting are exchanged.  I love this moment.  And it is important to soak it up because it is also so fleeting.  Christmas morning holds this intense moment of excitement, which by mid-afternoon has died down a bit.  And by Monday, some people will already be taking down their Christmas lights.  So just for now, let’s slow down and make this place, this sanctuary, our home.

As Christmas buzzes all around us, I can’t get this one nagging thought out of my head – Christmas is kind of absurd, when you really think about it.

I mean, driving around last night looking at light displays, on just about every street you can find a yard that has both Jesus in a manger and Santa Clause riding his sleigh right next to him.  How confusing is that?  Not only, that but we set up little crèches and manger scenes all over the place as a representation of two different Christmas stories.

The wise men…they don’t exist in Luke’s telling of the Christmas story.  The shepherds…they don’t exist in Matthew’s telling of the Christmas story. And yet there they are, in the same manger scene.  It is like telling the story of Goldilocks and the 7 dwarfs.  It’s mixing together two stories.  It doesn’t make any sense.  It’s strange.  It’s a little absurd.

Apparently, I’m not the first to think of this.  Throughout the East Coast, a group of American Atheists have been putting up billboards trying to highlight the absurdity of Christmas.  Against the backdrop of a beautiful nativity silhouette, one of their billboard from last year reads, “You KNOW it’s a myth.  This season celebrate reason.”  The Christmas story, the billboards suggests, is simply irrational.  To a thinking-person, it don’t make sense.  It is illogical.  And here is the thing…they are right.  The billboards are right.  Christmas is unreasonable.  It doesn’t make any sense.  The problem is that they get it all wrong with why it is unreasonable.

I would imagine that their main argument why the Christmas story is irrational is the virgin birth.  Because, come on, who is really going to believe that a virgin, or anyone for that matter, is going to get pregnant by God?  It just doesn’t make sense.  It isn’t scientifically possible.  That’s their main argument why the Christmas story is irrational, I imagine.  But the more I think about it, the more it makes sense that God would be born to a virgin.  Not in a scientific way, but in a story-telling way.  A virgin birth is so pure and clean.  It is so….glorious.  Mary can forever wear white as a sign of her purity and virginity.  Of course that is how God, the holy and sacred, would be born.  I don’t have much of a problem with that.

But what doesn’t make sense, what does seem irrational, or beyond reason, is everything else about the story.  Take for instance the fact that this whole event happened in a stable.  The Son of God being born in a sad excuse for a barn…surrounded by manure.  It is no palace for a king, but a rest stop for the homeless.  A cafeteria for the dirty animals and their flies.  This is no place for the holy and sacred.  No location for the birth of God.  It would be as if the Son of God was born to an undocumented immigrant in the boiler room of an abandoned school.  No one would believe that story.  That’s not how gods are born.

But equally unsettling is the claim that God, the master of the universe, would be born under the rule of Rome, a worldly power.  It’s right there in the first two lines, “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.” Only the ruler of the world can make everyone return home and fill out his or her census cards.  It’s their way of making sure everyone is paying their taxes.  And this is when little baby Jesus is born? In the midst of the Roman empire flexing its political muscles.  Suddenly the Son of God is a registered resident of the Roman Empire and now owes taxes.   How ridiculous is that?  It’s a very un-god-like thing to do.  And then when this Son of God is born, the first to meet this holy child are the shifty and roaming shepherds – those easily forgotten and often despised hired hands. They are the first to hear about and the first to announce this divine birth?  When a child was born to the Emperor, Roman orators and poets were called upon to announce to the world this amazing event.  But Jesus gets the smelly shepherds from the field?  You would think the Son of God could get introduced to the world by someone a little more… sophisticated. I mean, if and when Prince William and Princess Kate do get pregnant, it is not like the London street cleaners will be the first to know and the first announce such a thing.

This is the Christmas story.  The story of God being born in the world.  And it is a little unsightly when you get right down in it.  Jesus, the Son of God, is born into this world through contractions and after-birth.  Into a blended family, where the only father he knows is Joseph, his stepdad.  Jesus, the Son of God, is born in a stable in Bethlehem, a small forgotten town you drive through, but never stop in.  It is the Pratt (MN) of Israel, if you will. So if this is the story, then it makes sense to me why the American Atheists would put up those billboards encouraging people to forget Christmas and be reasonable in their beliefs.  Because it is definitely beyond reason why anyone in his or her right mind would believe this strange story of God’s birth into the world.  I mean, if we start to believe in this story, well then where does it stop?  What’s next?  If we can believe this ridiculous story, then we just might start believing in the equally ridiculous idea that God can show up in other god-forsaken places– like broken families just trying to get through the holidays or chemotherapy centers where prayers for death are just as common as prayers for life.  Can God really show up there?  Who knows, we just might start believing that God could love people who seem so unlovable.  Or that God is silly enough to choose people you and I as the vessels through which God works in the world.  That would just be nonsense, wouldn’t it?

Christmas, it can be a magical time.  But also a little absurd.  It is unreasonable. There really is no reason to the season. Which is how it is with our God.  A little absurd.  A little unreasonable.   It is this God of ours who shows up in the world in a very un-god-like way, which just goes to show how much God loves this world and those of us in it. That there really isn’t any place that this God won’t go in order to be near to us.  And it is this God of ours who just keeps on forgiving us, over and over again, even when we didn’t ask for it, simply because it breaks God’s own heart for there to be anything that would get between God and God’s own people.

But that’s just how God is, I guess.  A little absurd.  So if I were you, I wouldn’t spend a whole lot of time looking for any logic and reason in this brief moment of time known as Christmas.  It just isn’t there. But I would pick up an extra gift on the way home or set an extra place setting for dinner, because who knows…God just might show up.  Now, wouldn’t that be absurd?

Amen

Sunday, December 18 – Sermon on Luke 1:26-38

Luke 1:26-38

Imagine for a moment, you are watching tv and you stumble across a television show you have never seen before.  The first thing you see is a man in the middle of a sidewalk kneeling down in front of a woman.  You don’t really need to know any other part of the story or plot in order to know what is about to happen, right?  The man is going to propose.  In literature, this would be called a “type scene.”  It is a situation or a story that all of us are familiar with.  You don’t really need any other details to know what is going on. Or lets say you come across the last two minutes of the football game…your team is winning and not only that, they have the ball at the fifty yard line.  You don’t really need to know any other details of the game in order to know what’s about to happen.  Your team is clearly going to win. This would be a type scene as well.

Type scenes aren’t just on our televisions; they all over scripture too.  If you are reading the Bible and somebody goes up to the top of a mountain, you can be sure they are likely to wind up speaking to God up there.  If Jesus is called out to visit someone who has died, there is a pretty good chance that person will get up and start walking around in no time.  One common type scene in scripture is when an angel comes to visit a couple that has grown old and never conceived a child.  Whenever this situation arises, we can be certain that it won’t be long before a baby is on the way.  Sarah and Abraham were well into their nineties, if not more, having lived their whole life childless, when angels appeared to them saying, “You will have a son.”  Hannah, whose womb was said to be closed, who was so distraught over not having a child that she had stopped eating, is praying in the temple and meets an angel who tells her that she will give birth to a son named Samuel.  In the beginning of Luke’s gospel, we even see this with Elizabeth and Zechariah. We often forget this story, but as it is told, Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin, and Zechariah are well into retirement age and the most painful part of their life is that they were never able to have children.  Infertility was something that brought much disgrace and shame upon a family because it broke the family lineage.  But then, with old man Zechariah standing in the temple, an angel of the Lord appears to him.  Aha!  It is an angel appearing to a couple who’s never had children.  We know what is going to happen next.  The angel Gabriel says to Zechariah, “Do not be afraid, for your prayer has been answer.  Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John.”  Elizabeth and Zechariah, in their ripe old age and in a closed unsuspecting womb, conceive a child, who will be known as John the Baptist.  It is a story, or a type scene, that can been seen throughout scripture.

But every once in awhile a type scene doesn’t play out as it should.  Every once in a while, that man kneeling down in the middle of the sidewalk, looks up at his girlfriend and says, “Pam…will you….wait for me while I tie my shoe?”  Every once in awhile,  in a football game between…oh, I don’t know..the Chicago Bears and the Denver Broncos, the team with the lead and the ball at the fifty yard with only two minutes left forgets to stay in bounds and let clock run out and instead, gives the other team the time and the chance to come back and win it.

Sometimes, an angel of the Lord is sent not to a couple that has spent much of their life praying for the child who never showed up, but to a couple who has never even tried to have a child, never said they wanted a child.   This is the case with Mary and Joseph.  The type scene doesn’t play out as it should.  Gabriel, the same angel who came to Zechariah with such incredibly good news, is sent to Nazareth.  But he isn’t sent to Mary the barren old woman, but to Mary, the virgin, the teenager.  One whose fertility just arrived and has yet to even be tested.

This isn’t the story we are used to.  It is not what we expected, and first and foremost not what Mary expected.  From Gabriel’s first words to her, she is already suspicious that something is up.  “Greetings favored one!  The Lord is with you!” Gabriel calls out.  And immediately, she was perplexed.  What’s going on here, she thinks?  I wonder what Mary was doing when Gabriel showed up.  Was she standing in line at the market with figs and olives in her hand?  Or was she at home getting ready for the day, when suddenly there was a knock at the door. Or worse, was she standing in her room with the door closed when a cold breeze came across her face?  Wherever she was, she couldn’t have been ready for it.  Who could be ready for the news that God wants to become flesh and blood in this world, let alone the fact that God needs your help to do it?

For Zechariah and Elizabeth, news that life had begun to beat in Elizabeth’s womb was great news for which they waited much too long.  Month after month they suffered the profound sadness, disappointment and embarrassment of not being able to have a child.  They prayed and prayed and prayed, until long after all the hope and passion had been squeezed out of them.  When told that she was pregnant, Elizabeth was beyond joyful.   But for Mary, news of a child kicking inside her was no prayer she had ever made.  It rarely is for teenagers. And fear crept in for her too, I imagine.  Only this fear was probably centered around her own life.  Will Joseph stay by my side?  What will people think of me, pregnant and unwed?  Will I be stoned, like the law allows?[1]

When Gabriel came with such unexpected news, Mary had been chosen for a life she did not intend to lead.  Which is really all of us when we think about it.  There is much that comes to us in this life of which we did not intend.  Some, like Mary, never intended to end up pregnant at such a young age but it happened. My friend from high school didn’t intend to bury his father this week, but he did.  We never plan to hear those three words from our doctor – “It is cancer.”

And there also those beautifully unexpected things in life.  I know of a family that didn’t expect their third son, but now can’t imagine life without him.  I know of someone who never expected to make the lead in the school play, but through it discovered their love for acting.

There is much that comes to us in this life of which we did not intend.  For Mary, Gabriel and his news of a child were uninvited houseguests.  Which makes Mary’s response to Gabriel all that more incredible.  Hearing the news that she will be the one to bear God into this world, Mary said yes when she could have said no.  Saying no probably wouldn’t have made her any less pregnant but it would have probably hardened her heart and dimmed the light in her eyes.  But Mary said yes.  “Here I am Lord,” she said with a little bit of hesitation mixed in with excitement.  This doesn’t mean she was any less scared or any less at risk of being shunned.  But it does mean that she was more of a participant, more of a co-creator with God in this life than a pawn in God’s game of life.

As exciting and scary as it can be at times, like Mary, our life is more often than not something that simply happens to us rather than something that we choose.  The choice that comes in is how we will respond to such a life.

A 14th Century mystic once said, “What good is it to me if Mary gave birth to the Son of God, and I do not also give birth to the Son of God in my time and in my culture? We are all meant to be mothers of God. God is always needing to be born.”  We might be children of God, but we are also mothers of God.  And so, we are called to birth God into the world with whatever life brings us.  We can say yes or no to whether we will participate in such divine labor and co-creating.  If you say no, well then you will likely continue believing that the world is against you and that you are just a pawn in God’s cruel game of life – which to me sounds like a recipe for anger and bitterness.  If you say yes, well then pick up the phone and call your folks because you are about to be a parent.  God is about to be flesh and blood in the world it’s happening through you.  To say yes will look different for each one of us and it will be more difficult for some of us at times too.  Sometimes giving birth to God in the world means pouring out your love and compassion onto a child who is sick.  But giving birth to God can also mean acting responsibly with the new power that a job promotion gives.  Whatever your situation is in life, know that the angel of God will never stop showing up and knocking on your door.  It will never stop asking you to be the one who gives birth to God today for God is always needing to be born into this world.  AMEN


[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, Gospel Medicine, p. 166 (e-book edition).

Sunday, December 11 – Sermon on Psalm 126

Psalm 126

The problem with restoration is having to go through the desperation that calls it forth.  If you restore the roof of your house, it is because you have been leaked on.  If you restore a friendship, it is because it was once broken.  If you restore a painting, it is because layers of grim have collected upon its surface for decades, muddying the bright colors and the intricate details.

In our Psalm for today, the psalmist stands with one foot in the past and one in the present, both of which are center on restoration.  The psalmist begins by remembering the past, “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion.”  And right there, immediately we should say to ourselves, “Oh, these are people who know desperation.”  Their fortune has been restored, because it once was missing.  It is likely that this text is referring to the Israelites who were freed from the Babylonian exile and returned to their homeland.  These people, Israel, were freed, but because they were once enslaved.  These are people who have cried out, “Come to us, O Lord, and restore our freedom.”  The problem with restoration is having to go through the desperation that calls it forth.

But the psalmist continues, “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.”  They were like Jacob, who, though he had no place else to lay his head but a stone, dreamed of angels of God and heard the promise, “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go.”  Bursting into spontaneous and uncontrollable joy, Jacob woke up from the dream and built an alter, right there in that place where God was.  These Israelites, returning to their land, were like those who dream, bursting with uncontainable joy.  There mouths were overflowing with laughter and their tongues were shouting for joy.  What God had done for them was so great that even their enemies praised God.

Did you catch that in the text? It reads, “Then it was said among the nations ’The Lord has done great things for them,” the nations referring to those who worship other gods and often threatened Israel.  What God had done for Israel was so great that even their enemies praised God.

I wonder what that would be like for the nations, a collection of people who do not believe in the same god, and who often battled each other for power and control, to say the same thing to one another, “The Lord has done great things.”  I imagine it is something like last year when the whole world was crowded around computer screens and televisions just to see that first Chilean miner brought to the surface of the earth.  The moment that blue, white, and red vessel peeks its head out of that small tunnel, the whole world sighs, saying, “Thank God.”

The Lord has done great things for them, the nations say.  The Lord has done great things for us, the Israelites respond.

But then the psalmist makes a turn.  A turn that says, “Yes the Lord has done great things for us, but we are not out of the woods yet.”  All the psalmist’s verbs begin to shift from past to present. “The Lord restored our fortunes” now becomes, “Restore our fortunes, O Lord.”  Gratitude for what was done in the past has turned to a desperate plea that it may be done again.  Desperation is the scene now.  Though the Israelites have returned to their homeland, they fear for their harvest.  “Come to us, O Lord,” they pray, “and restore our land.”  Their fear is that the rain will wash away any seeds because the land is so dry and the seeds cannot take root.  The farmers sow with tears and gather while weeping out of panic that no harvest will have sprung forth.  Now there is hope in this plea.  Hope that the harvest will abound and that the farmers will reap with shouts of joy, but the desperation is clear.  The Israelites were restored out of Babylon and back to their homeland, but now they were in need of restoration yet again.

So often, I think that is the life of faith, being restored but than needing restoration once again.  And it is what I think can be so frustrating about God and Faith.  It so often feels fleeting. Just when you think you are beginning to feel God’s presence in your life, just when you think you have enough faith you can cling to, just when you think you have some answer you can offer to people’s questions about God, some one or something comes along and tears a hole in your sail.  And you can feel the air gush out, deflating you.  A friend of mine recently said to me, “Doesn’t it seem like just when we start to feel a little bit better after one death, another sneaks up on us?”

Now, don’t get me wrong, much in life brings joy and laughter.  We live in a time and a place, when something like harvesting food rarely causes any of us to shout for joy.  Instead, often we have to look elsewhere for moments of laughter and pure joy.  Personally, I find these restorative moments when I am with my nieces.

If you have ever watch a young child discover his or her own sense of humor, than you know the profound sense of joy it can bring.  Last year, my wife, Lauren, and I celebrated Halloween with my sister-in-law, her husband, and their two daughters.  One of our traditions is bobbing for apples.  Now, my niece Lilly, who was 3 years old at the time, was unwilling to do any activity that seemed messy or dirty….such as shoving your face into a bucket of water filled with apples.  So she simply stood by and watched.  It was Lauren’s turn, and my brother-in-law and I decided to play a little joke.  While she was getting her blindfold on, we slowly removed all of the apples from the pail.  In their place, we put floating chocolate candy bars, plastic spiders, etc.  We all start laughing and giggling while Lauren slowly figures out what is going on as she giggles and aimlessly bobs in this vat of water.  Throughout all of this, Lilly is watching intently and laughing.  And I swear, you could almost see her start to realize, “Oh, we are putting silly things in the water for Auntie Lauren!”  Suddenly, Lilly rushes her little body into the living room and rushes back, giggling her heart out as she struggles to hold up her contribution to the water…..a shoe.  Lilly had found her own sense of humor and none of us stopped laughing until our stomachs were good and sore.  It was a moment for all of us that was restorative and filled with joy.

There are moments in life that feel profoundly like divine restoration. Those moments when the whole world is invested in the lives of 33 miners and those moments when a little 3 year old girl discovers that she can be funny too.  But even those moments are fleeting.  Because it isn’t long before you are walking a friend through an early divorce or cooking for the family of one suffering from a brain tumor.  Suddenly, we are sighing, “Come to us, O Lord, we are in need of restoration once again.” It seems to me that the life of faith is one of being restored but than needing restoration yet again.

I will continue to look for moments of divine restoration happening around us, though they are fleeting.  But I hope for a divine restoration that is sustaining.  One that causes, once and for all, our mouths to be filled with laughter and our tongues to over flow with shouts of joy.  One in which all the nations might proclaim, “The Lord has done great things for us.”  I wonder what that will look like?

Will you pray with me?

O God, yesterday, you restored us and we shouted for joy.  Restore us today.  Come to us as you have before so that we might be filled with laughter and joy yet again.  Come to us, O God so that we might be filled with a laughter and joy that is sustaining.  What this will look like?

Amen