Strange Stories from Scripture – The Story of the Boring Sermon

Acts 20:7-12

I was in 9th grade and it was my confirmation Sunday.  Pastor Carol, who married Lauren and I by the way, was preaching.  And suddenly, I could feel it coming on.  You know the feeling.  Your eyes start cross a little.  Your eyelids, they get little heavier, and after every blink, it takes a little longer to lift them open.  Finally, I just gave in, letting myself drift off into another place entirely.  Until, of course, I get a sharp elbow in my ribs from my friend next to me, who says, “Wake up! She’s looking at you!”  To which I lied, “What I was just listening with my eyes closed.”

When communion came around, I was kneeling at the railing and Pastor Carol came to me and she didn’t say, “The body of Christ given for you.”  No, she said, “Did you have a nice nap, Jonathan?”

Tonight we have a story that is every preacher’s worse nightmare – to actually bore someone to death with your sermon.  My preaching professor, David Lose, says that the greatest threat to preaching these days isn’t that they might be heretical, meaning saying something that is wrong or against the faith.  It isn’t saying something that upsets people or makes them angry.  The greatest threat to preaching these days is just plain boredom.

This story comes from the book of Acts – which is all about the Acts of the Apostles.  It is written by the author of Luke’s gospel.  It is the stories of Jesus’ disciples and other believers starting communities of believers that pray together, study scripture together, eat together, and care for one another.  In fact, some have said that this is the first reference to a Christian Sabbath.  Which means that this might be the first Christian church service in Scripture– a gathering of people and hear a sermon.

So people are gathered together in a house and Paul is the preacher.  It is late; Paul is leaving in the morning so whatever he has to say, this is his chance.  Meanwhile, this teenager by the name of Eutychus, which ironically means “lucky”, is sitting in the windowsill when suddenly he starts to get that feeling.  Eyes get a little heavy.  His head start to nod a little.  Suddenly, everyone jumps in their seat when they hear a scream come from the window, as unlucky Eutychus falls to the ground, three stories below.  Paul runs down and takes him in his arms and says “Do not be afraid.  For there is life in him.”  And then what does Paul do?  He goes back up stairs, has a quick bite to eat, and starts preaching again.

Now, I could go on and on about what a bunch of nerdy theologians could say about this text and how it sort of mimics Jesus’ death and resurrection, which is probably what Paul as preaching about.  But for better or worse, I actually want to use this text to talk about preaching and sermon.

And really all I want to do is ask you, “What do you look for in a sermon?”  What do you want to hear?  Because here is the thing, just about every preacher is terrified to stand up there every Sunday morning.  Because the people are hungry for something.  When I go to church, I am hungry for something, and I don’t even know what I am hungry for, but it is something.  I think that is true for most church goers.  We are all looking for something that will feed our souls, even if we don’t know it. And every preacher is terrified that all they will be able to serve up is broccoli.  And nobody really likes broccoli.

So what do you look for in a sermon? What do you want to hear?

It seems like a good sermon is one that somehow connects us deeper to God and the Spirit of God.

But here is the thing about connection.  I have been completely fascinated with a TEDtalk video this week and it talks about vulnerability.  In the video, a researcher talks about her study of connection and how people feel connected.  What she discovered is that in order for there to be connection, we have to allow ourselves to be seen.  Really seen.  And in order to be seen, we have to be vulnerable.  And we don’t like to be vulnerable, because do you know what it means to be vulnerable?  It means to be at risk for physical or emotional harm.  It means to be at risk of death.  Watch what people do with their body language when they are feeling vulnerable?  They protect their stomachs.  The place on our torso that isn’t protected by ribs, which means it is vulnerable.  And so when we are feeling vulnerable, we want to protect that spot.

This researcher discovered that at the core of vulnerability is shame and fear and struggle for worthiness.  But what she also learned is that it is also the birthplace of joy, creativity, belonging and love.

She discovered that in our culture we numb vulnerability – we numb feelings of grief, shame, disappointment, unworthiness.  And there is proof of this, she thinks.  We are the most in debt, obese, addicted, and medicated adult cohort in US history.  This is how we numb our vulnerability.  The problem is when we numb vulnerability, trying to avoid feelings of shame, grief, and despair, we also numb joy, gratitude, happiness.

So maybe this story about a seemingly boring sermon is the perfect example of a good sermon. If a good sermon is one that connects us to God, and remember in order for us to be connected, we have to be vulnerable… maybe what a good sermon needs to do is knock us out the window.  And what I mean by that is maybe it needs to help us to see ourselves for really who we are.  It completely wakes us up.   It causes us to be vulnerable.  And thus puts us at risk of being hurt, or of feelings those feels of hurt – like grief and shame.  But then it also opens us to feelings of joy and gratitude. Because a good sermon also runs downstairs and wraps us up in the arms of God and says, “But do not be afraid.  For there is still life in you.”  Because it is only when we hear God say, “I know you.  I know who you are and I know you life,”…it is only then that we can also hear God say, “But do not fear – for there is still life in you.”  Amen.

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Sunday, March 25 – Sermon on John 12:20-33

John 12:20-33

Jesus said to them, “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”

On Thursday night, a group of adults and youth got together to talk about what youth group might look like for Aurora and Trinity in the near future.  For part of the evening, we looked at a national study done in the last 10 years on Youth and Religion.  One exciting thing we learned is that 92% of the youth in America are interested in God, faith and religion.  92%!  But then we learned something troubling.  (Okay, youth listen up now, because I am talking about you).  The study found that American youth could barely tell you about the god they say they believed in, and what they could say…was pretty generic.  Most said that God’s primary goal for their life is for them to be happy and to feel good about themselves.[1]

And Jesus said to them, “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”

We learned one more thing on Thursday night.  (Okay parents and adults, listen up, because now I am talking to you.)  We learned that 3 out of 4 youth consider their beliefs to similar to that of their parents.[2]  Which means the faith that they can’t articulate and the belief that God just wants them to be happy and feel good most likely comes from us.  That is their learning it from the adults in their life.  Do we believe that God’s simple goal for our lives is for us to be happy and to feel good?  Is that God’s goal for us?

In our gospel for today, the festival of Passover has arrived.  So it is the last week of Jesus’ life.  Jesus’ death is before him.  Good Friday, the night where we will strip the altar and close worship in complete darkness, is coming.  And Jesus knows it.  And so Jesus takes this opportunity to give meaning to his death by giving us a little sermon.  He reminds us that when plant a seed in our garden or in our field, the seed has to die in order to bear fruit.  In order to be what it is meant to be.  And the same is true for us.

If we seek to protect and preserve our life, if we are turned toward and focused on ourselves, if we make yourself the object of your love, paradoxically we will lose it.  Just like a seed that never dies never bears fruit.  But if we hate our life.  And by this, Jesus doesn’t mean actually hating your life, but he means turning away from yourself.  If you give away your life, making someone else the object of your love, then you will actually gain your life.

Jesus’ goal for us is not a happy, or a safe, or a feel good life.  Jesus wants for us abundant life.  And the paradox of the Christian faith is that abundant life comes not from clinging to and protecting your life, but by giving it away in service to someone else.

But so often we don’t want to give our lives away, because we think it leads to a death-like experience.  And we are so afraid of death sometimes.

Most of us either know of or have experienced an over protective parent or parental figure.  They are the one’s whose sole goal in life is to keep their children safe and protected from anything that might be dangerous.  And who can blame them.  They don’t let their kids play outside with their friends because they might get hurt.  They walk their child to and from school, looking over their shoulder for any source of danger.  It is based completely on a fear of harm.  But I cannot help but wonder if it isn’t more about protecting themselves.  Protecting themselves from ever having to experience a child in pain.  But we know what happens. What so often happens is they end up preventing their children from ever actually living.  So by trying to protect their own life and their child’s life, they are actually losing it.  Jesus says, “Those who wish to save their life will actually lose it.”

A couple of years ago, a family friend, Dave, died in a tragic accident leaving behind a wife and four young daughters.  It was awful.  Weeks later, his wife and I sat down over lunch and she opened up about what all of this had been like for her.  She said something that day that I will never forget.  One of the hardest parts, she said, is that no one says her husband’s name anymore.  It was as if people went out of their way not to say his name.  They would tip-toe around it; it was as if he never existed.

Preacher Tom Long knows what this is like.  He tells a story about when he heard from a friend that one of his classmates from seminary had died.  The classmate went home for Christmas break.  At the Christmas table, he felt a headache come on, and so he excused himself from dinner, went to lay down in bedroom, and he never got up again.  A brain aneurism took his life, leaving behind a wife and two children.  Tom asked, “Well, how are Sue and the children doing?” and the friend replied, “It’s hard.  Very hard.”  Tom then said to himself, “I’m am Sue’s friend.  I need to go and see her.  But I won’t go now. She has a house full of family.  I’ll wait until they are gone.”  And then when the family had gone, he said to himself, “I need to go see Sue. But I won’t go now. This is the first moment of solitude she’s had after her husband’s death.”  He kept saying it….but he never went.  He was afraid to go, he said. A few weeks later he ran into his friend again and he asked, “How are Sue and the children doing?” And he said, “Well, I supposed they are doing about as well as can be expected. I saw her last night, by the way, and she asked about you.”  “She…she asked about me?” Tom whispered.  “Yes, I think she would like to have seen you.”  He was afraid to face the death; he wanted to protect himself from it.[3]

And Jesus said, “Those who love their life…those who want to protect their life, those who want to be happy and feel good all the time…will lose it. But those who risk their life in this world, those who give it away… will keep it.”

Is God’s goal for your life for you to be happy and feel good?  No.  If this were God’s goal for your life, then to protect yourself you would never speak Dave’s name and you would never go to visit Sue and the children.  But if God’s goal for your life is for you to give yourself away in love, to risk your life, then you will talk about Dave, because his family really needs to hear it.  And you’ll go into that dark place of grief where Sue and the children live and you will stand beside them.  And it precisely there, in the midst of darkness and death, that you will find a deeper love and life than you have ever encountered.

God sends us not to the happy places of the world but to the dying places.  Why? Because only when a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies can it bear fruit.  It is out of the dead places of our lives that God brings life and in a couple of weeks God will go into the very place of darkness and death.  God will go to the cross and die, so as then to bring out of death…life.  AMEN


[1] Christian Smith, Soul Searching, p. 162-163.

[2]  Christian Smith, Souls in Transition, p. 286.

[3] Sermon preached by Tom Long at Luther Seminary on Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2010.  Can be found here: http://www.luthersem.edu/celebration/archive/2010/Default.aspx?m=3733

Strange Stories of Scripture – The Story of the Hidden Underwear

Jeremiah 13:1-11

Last week we met the prophet Elisha and we spoke about the word of God coming as blessing and curse.  Tonight, we meet the prophet Jeremiah….and his underwear.

In our story, Jeremiah does a symbolic act.  Nobody knows that Jeremiah does this.  He doesn’t tell anyone.  He is simply following God’s instruction.  The Lord tells Jeremiah to go and buy some underwear, and to wear it.  After doing so, Jeremiah hears the Lord a second time, telling him to take that underwear down to the riverbed and hide it among the rocks.  Then after a long time has past, God tells Jeremiah to go and find that underwear.  And what does Jeremiah find? That the underwear is ruined.  Good for nothing.

This is a symbolic act.  God is saying something through these actions of Jeremiah.  And we know the need for symbolic act.  Sometimes words just won’t do, right?  What speaks louder than words? Actions.  We perform symbolic acts because they communicate something when we just can’t find the word.  We use symbolic actions all the time, and we often use them in our relationships.  Because relationships need more than words.  Sometimes instead of continuing to apologize until you are blue in the face, you just need to bring home some flowers.  Sometimes the only way to tell your friend how much they mean to you is to throw them a surprise birthday party.

But sometimes we use symbolic action not to heal or grow our relationships, but to show how broken they are.  A friend of mine got married, and right from the start things weren’t going well for them.  They were fighting a lot and just not getting along.  One day, he came into class, and he was no longer wearing his wedding ring.  It was a symbolic act, a sign, reflecting how bad their relationship had begun to break down.

And that is what is happening in our story.  Did you catch that? This strange act of Jeremiah at the request of God is a sign of the relationship between God and God’s people – that it has broken down.  Listen again to what God says, “Just so I will ruin the pride of Judah and the great pride of Jerusalem. This evil people, who refuse to hear my words, who stubbornly follow their own will and have gone after other gods to serve them and worship them, shall be like this loincloth, which is good for nothing. For as the loincloth clings to one’s loins, so I made the whole house of Israel and the whole house of Judah cling to me in order that they might be for me a people, a name, a praise, and a glory. But they would not listen.”

Can you hear the pain in those words?  The people of God used to be like a loincloth, clinging to God’s body.  That is an image of intimacy.  Underwear is an intimate thing. Who do you let see your underwear – probably only the people or person you are closest with.  It is the piece of clothing closest to your body.  The people of God were wrapped around God’s body.  But now, God says, “They don’t listen to me.  They follow their own ways and have begun to worship other gods.  And so they are like a ruined loincloth that no longer clings to the body.  I made them so that they might be my people.  But they just don’t hear my voice anymore.”

These are the words of a broken-hearted God, like a parent or family member, who has tried and tried to get through to a loved one, but they just wouldn’t listen. They relationship is broken.  It isn’t what it used to be.

And so notice that Jeremiah the prophet doesn’t simply speak about the fractured relationship between God and God’s people, he embodies it.  It is his action, not his words, with this loincloth that embodies the tension within this relationship.  The prophet doesn’t simply speak the word of God; the prophet lives the word of God.  In fact, when Jeremiah is called to be a prophet, God places the word of God in his mouth. He eats it.  He takes it into his body.  You are what you eat.  He embodies the word of God.  This God of ours is embodied in the world, through the prophets.

Have you ever seen some one embody something?  Like Jeremiah, might there be people in our lives who embody a word from God.  Perhaps it doesn’t come from what they say but from what they do?

By bringing over hotdish to your neighbor whose husband just died, or to the congregation member that just had a baby, or helping a family start a farm, could that action, that event be a prophetic embodied word of God?  A word that says, “You matter to us.  And you are not alone in this.”  I think so.  But sometimes maybe the embodied word of God isn’t always such a positive thing.

I have already shared this with some of you, but on Saturday night, I witnessed something I had never seen before.  Lauren and I were sitting outside with a friend when all of a sudden, our neighbor, her boyfriend and her teenage son come busting out of the house in a scuffle.  We couldn’t tell what was going on.  At first it seemed like the parents were hurting their boy, but it became clear that they were simply trying to restrain him.  He was out of control – swearing, kicking, hitting.  It took these two full-grown adults lying on top of him to keep him restrained until the police came.  Once he was handcuffed, he just sat there on the lawn.  Not saying anything to anyone.  Not moving.  Eventually, he was taken away by ambulance to the hospital. Most people would say, “That kid’s got a problem and needs help.”  But I happen to know that his home life isn’t great, and in fact seems like a pretty difficult place to live.  Could it be that what we witnessed was an embodied act reflecting the tension in the relationships at home?  Could it be that it isn’t that this young man has a problem and needs help, but that the whole family has problem and needs help?  Imagine for a moment someone that you know who might be considered a “problem child.”  What happens most in our culture is we send that child to the doctor or to counseling to get fixed.  But some have suggested a child acting out could be a symptom of a larger family problem.  Which means maybe the whole family needs to go to counseling.  I cannot help but wonder if that violent outburst on Saturday wasn’t an embodied prophetic word from God trying to reveal the brokenness of their family and their need for help.

Last week, the word of God came as blessing and curse.  This week with Jeremiah, the word of God comes not as speech but as action.  Embodied action.  The prophet lives out the story of God in their body, in their action and in their life.  So, are there any prophets in your life? AMEN

Strange Stories of Scripture – The Story of the Offended Bald Man

2 Kings 2:19-24

And I thought last week’s story was hard to speak on.

As some of you may recall from last week, the Israelites have arrived in the Promised Land and were being lead by judges, because they didn’t have a king yet.  Last week, we learned about the judge Gideon. Our story for tonight comes from Second Kings, and as you might suspect, Israel is now living under the leadership of a king.  But with the king has also come prophets.

Prophets are often understood as those who predict the future.  While prophets of the Bible do often speak about the future, the word prediction is problematic.  It is not so much that they are predicting the future but more like they are giving a warning about how the future could be if people continue on the path that they are on.  So, for example, if I were driving too fast, a prophetic word might be someone saying, “Watch out.  You might get pulled over.”  It isn’t predicting the future as it is a warning about what the future might hold. It might be better to think of a prophet as a messenger of God, called to speak a word from God.  Tonight we meet the prophet Elisha.

Elisha is the prophet who follows in Elijah’s footsteps.  Elijah’s ministry is over and so he passes on the leadership as prophet to Elisha.  I think of it like a master and their apprentice.  There is a transfer of knowledge and training that happens. Perhaps like a kingdom is passed down from one person to the next.  Like when Queen Elizabeth passes the down throne to Prince Charles or Prince William. These opening stories are about the transferring of prophetic powers from Elijah to Elisha.  And Elisha will be the prophet during the time of the next four kings of Israel.

Tonight we hear the very first two stories of the beginning of Elisha’s time as prophet.  And what is amazing about these two stories is how polar opposite they are.  The first story is all about showing Elisha’s prophetic power to bless.  Elisha is in Jericho, where the water there has gone bad. It is causing the land to not produce any fruit, but it is also causing death and miscarriages.  So Elisha, takes bowl of salt and tosses the salt into the river water, purifying it, and says, “Thus says the Lord, I have made this water wholesome.”  So the first thing Elisha does is bring blessing and healing to these waters so that they will no longer bring about death.  But then the story turns from a scene of incredible grace and gift to a completely different story. One that is a little bit harder to swallow.

From Jericho, Elisha heads to Bethel, where somewhere along the road, he encounters a group of boys.  Some have referred to them as a sort of tattooed, drug-dealing gang of teenagers.  I think that just helps us not feel some bad about what about to happen.  So this group of boys comes up to Elisha and says, “Go away, Baldhead. Go away, Baldhead!”  Now it is unclear why they are making fun of him.  It could be simply because he doesn’t have any hair. Or it could be because of what the lack of hair represented – being a prophet.  A prophet’s hair was shave on top like a monk.  Either way, I imagine all of us can hear the tone of voice in this playground like taunting.   But then Elisha turns around and curses these youth in the name of the Lord, and as quickly as the curse came out of his mouth, out of the woods come two female mama-bears who then maul 42 of these boys.

No wonder this story is never read in church as part of the lectionary.  I mean, sure, when viewed as a cartoon show, this story can be a little bit funny because these kids make fun of this man who doesn’t have any hair and then the man just completely loses his cool, overreacts and sends a bunch of bears after them and they all run off screaming.   But then, all week I keep hearing about this US soldier who lost his cool and went around killing women and children in Afghanistan, and suddenly this story isn’t so funny any more.  It is incredibly violent.  I wanted to be like Thomas Jefferson and just cut this story right out of my bible.

So what are we going to do with this text?  And what are we going to do with what seems like an extremely violent God.  I mean Elisha does curse them in the name of the Lord.  Now we need to be careful and not fall into the trap of simply saying, “Well this is just the Old Testament God.  And now we have the New Testament God in Jesus.”  They are the same God.  And so what are we to do?  I think we have to say both a “no” and a “yes” to this story.

Okay, so what is the “no” to this story?  I think we have to say a resounding “no” towards the violence of the story. That the God in whom we confess does not warrant or support Elisha’s killing of those who have taunted or made fun of him.  That this is not an appropriate response to the actions of these young boys.  And I think that we also have to say no to the actions of these boys.  As I kept reading this text, I couldn’t help but wonder if this was an ancient version of bullying based on the way someone’s body looked.  While this may seem like mild, boys-will-be-boys behavior, in the last year we all have become aware of the power of bullying as a form of violence that kills more slowly.  There is the bullying that goes on via the internet and at school.  So I think we have to say no to the bullying based on someone’s body that happens within this text.

So what is the “yes” that we can say to this text?  Well, in the end, this story is not trying to say that what Elisha did was appropriate. It isn’t saying, “Hey everybody, next time someone makes fun of you, send some bears after them.”  That’s not what this text is trying to say.  Instead, it is trying to make a statement about what it means to be a prophet who speaks the word of God.  Elisha is being revealed as the new prophet replacing Elijah.  As a result, he illustrates an act of blessing and an act of cursing.  Elisha heals the river – blessing.  Elisha curses the young men – curse.  Maybe this text is saying that the word of God comes to us as both blessing and curse.  And I think we can affirm that.

God wants to bring about blessing and fullness of life for the whole world.  But sometimes that blessing also comes with a curse.  When God calls us to love our neighbor, that is good news for our neighbor.  But it can be bad news for us when it reminds us that we haven’t been loving our neighbor.

When Nazi Germany surrendered to the Allies during World War II, this was good news for the Jews who were in need of saving.  And this was bad news for those who had enslaved them – Nazi Germany.  Blessing and curse.

God calls us to care for our neighbors in Africa threatened by Malaria. So we buy mosquito nets to protect them.  That is good news for the people in Africa.  But bad news for the mosquitoes, who are also a part of God’s creation.  Blessing and curse.

This text speaks to the Lutheran theology of saint and sinner.  We, all of us, are 100% a saint. We are beloved unconditionally and are participating in the work of God out in the world.  At the same time, we are also 100% sinner.  Meaning that we also do things that are against God’s hope for the world.  We do things that hurt other people, the environment, and the animals of the world.

Elisha is a prophet who speaks the word of God.  And that word comes at times as blessing.  But also at times as a curse.  God wants to bring an end to death and despair in this world, so Elisha heals the river waters.  But God also hates bullying and the slow death that it can bring, so Elisha curses these boys.  The word of God comes as blessing and curse.

Sunday, March 11, 2012 – Sermon on John 2:13-22

John 2:13-22

This past August, while working the cash register at the Aurora Diner, I can’t tell you the number of times someone came up to me and said, “Uh oh, pastor, you are working the register and exchanging the money. Looks like you’ve become one of the money changers. Watch out!” When they said this, they were referring to our story for today. The story of when Jesus seemingly becomes a lunatic who starts turning over the tables of the money-changers and yelling at people in the temple.

I don’t know about you, but I can recall a time when this story not only confused me but scared me. How could Jesus be so mean and angry? I thought Jesus was supposed to be so nice. You know, sitting with the little children. And helping the sick. You know, with blue eyes, blond flowing hair. And nice teeth! Jesus always had nice teeth. But today’s image of Jesus – red in the face and throwing furniture -just didn’t fit into that picture. No, today Jesus is more like the disheveled drunk person at the bar who just starts fighting with everyone. I mean, seriously, chances are if you are at Wal-Mart this afternoon some guy comes in and starts kicking over tables and knocking over cash registers, you are going to call the cops long before you drop to your knees in worship at Jesus’ arrival. So what gives? So what is this Jesus guy so angry about anyways?

In ancient Judaism, they had what was called temple theology. In this, the temple was where God was. It was where God was understood to be most present. People would come to the temple to be with God because that is where God was located. It was like God’s house. As part of coming to worship God, people would have to offer an animal sacrifice. Since everyone needs an animal to sacrifice before going into the temple, naturally people turned this into a fruitful business. “Why not start selling sacrificial animals right outside the temple?”, they thought. It’s like at the movies. You can’t go to a movie without some popcorn or candy in your hand, so they sell it to you right outside the theater as you walk in. But then at the temple, along comes Jesus who begins to wreak havoc. With his whip, he sends the animals out; with his hands, he turns over the tables. But again, why? Why is Jesus doing this?

The reason comes all the way back at the beginning of the Gospel of John. Do you remember how it begins? “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God….and the Word became…flesh. And lived among us.” (John 1:1-14) Our text has everything to do with where God is located, where God is to be found. In temple theology, God is located in the temple. But in John’s Gospel, as we just heard, God has become flesh. And if God has become flesh and dwells among us…then God is no longer confined to the temple. And if God is no longer confined to the temple, then there isn’t any need for these sacrificial animals anymore. Jesus turns over the tables and kicks out the animals because that temple theology, where you have to go there to encounter God, is no longer relevant.

The gospel of John is making a statement with this story. In John’s Gospel, the temple of God, God’s dwelling place, is not brick and mortar…it’s flesh and blood. We hear this in our text. Jesus says, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking of the temple of his body.

And Jesus’ body will be destroyed on Good Friday. And three days later, it will be raised up on Easter. Jesus’ body – flesh and blood – is the temple of God. It is where God is most present. But here is the best part. Later in the Gospel of John, listen to what Jesus says about where he resides. Jesus is praying to God, and Jesus says, “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me.” God is not found in the temple of brick and mortar, but in Jesus – flesh and blood. And then after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, Jesus says that everything God has given to him, he has given to you. So by the grace of the Holy Spirit, God is now found everywhere. But more specifically…in you. The temple of God is no longer brick and mortar but flesh and blood. The temple of God, where God is most present, is in you!

Now, this is really good news for you. And kind of bad news for me. Because here is the secret – you don’t have to be here. God is not solely located here in church. But God is everywhere beyond these four walls. And if God is everywhere, then all places have the potential to be sacred ground for encountering God. Like the streets of Minneapolis for example.

A couple of years ago, Lauren was working at Redeemer Lutheran Church in North Minneapolis. Everyday, she took the bus home to St. Paul. One day, she walked out of the church building and noticed that between her and her bus stop was a very angry young man with a gun in his hand. She stopped in her tracks. He was yelling and waving the gun; people around him were trying to calm him down. Needing to get to her bus stop, but not sure what to do, Lauren was about to walk around the block instead when suddenly a man eating a bag of Lays potato chips came and caught up with her. He told her his name and that he wasn’t going to hurt her. In fact, he said, “I just live over there and I would show you my ID if I had it on me.” Noticing that she was scared, he asked, “Where are you headed?” “To my bus stop,” she replied, gesturing in the direction of the man with the gun. Seeing what was going on, this man offered to walk Lauren there and, in fact, literally put himself in between her and this armed man. This stranger even said to Lauren, “I’ve lived a good life,” recognizing the potential danger. Together, the two of them veered off course a bit, walking behind a building so as to avoid the man with the gun. During the walk, in fact, the man carrying a gun got into a car and drove right passed them and away. Though the threat had left, this man continued to walk Lauren all the way to her bus stop, and stayed and chatted with her. But then the moment her bus arrived, without a chance for Lauren to say thanks, he simply said goodbye and was gone. In the end, his intentions were clear. All he wanted to do was offer comfort and protection during a moment of fear for someone else. In that moment, the temple of God was not the brick and mortar building Lauren had just left, but it was the flesh and blood of this stranger.

Jesus turns over the tables in the temple because you don’t need the temple anymore. God is out and enfleshed in the world. So yes, you don’t have to be here to encounter God. But you can still come. In fact, I hope you will. Because maybe what we do here on Sunday mornings isn’t the thing. It isn’t the final performance, if you will. But maybe it is just the rehearsal. We come here each week, yes, certainly to worship the God of grace who loves us unconditionally and to pray for one another, but maybe we also come here each week as the place where we get to practice looking for and learning to do the work of God out in the world during the rest of our week. In this place, we get eyes to see and ears to hear so that we might recognize the temple of God when it shows up out there…. in flesh and blood.

When you buy food for the homeless man outside Target, the temple of God is no longer brick and mortar, but flesh and blood. When you finally decide to say “no” to that opportunity and, instead, spend more time with your family, the temple of God is no longer brick and mortar but flesh and blood. When you pray for your sick nephew, when you double check that the piece of machinery you just built is safe, when you feed your daycare children, when you search and search for quarters that will buy a mosquito net….then the temple of God is no longer brick and mortar, but flesh and blood. Thanks be to God. AMEN

Strange Stories of Scripture – The Story of the Men Who Drink Like Dogs

Judges 7:1-8

Last week, the Israelites were wandering in the wilderness, looking for the promised land.  The background for tonight’s story is that the Israelites have already reached the promised land and they are settling into their new land and figuring out how to do life together, now that they are no longer living in slavery.  Unfortunately, they are still living in a lot of conflict with the people around them.

Israel doesn’t have a king yet.  Instead their leader is called a “judge,” which is where we get the title of this book.   The “judges” are the charismatic leaders that God calls to help deliver the Israelites from these neighboring communities and lead them in faithful obedience toward God.  So one could say that these are tales of the heroes of Israel who lead them through this conflict.  Some of the more memorable judges are Deborah, Gideon and Samson.

In our story tonight, we meet Gideon. Israel is under the control of a group called the Midianites.  In fact, things have gotten so bad that the Israelites have abandoned worshiping the God of Israel and, instead, have been worshipping the god of the Midianites – Ba’al.  Gideon is the one who has been called as leader to deliver Israel from the Midianites.

I love the call story of Gideon. Gideon comes from the weakest tribe of Israel, Mannaseh.  On top of that, Gideon is said to be the weakest member of his family.  Listen to his call story.  “The angel of the Lord appeared to him and said to him, ‘The Lord is with you, you mighty warrior.’ Gideon answered him, ‘But sir, if the Lord is with us, why then has all this happened to us? And where are all his wonderful deeds that our ancestors recounted to us, saying, “Did not the Lord bring us up from Egypt?” But now the Lord has cast us off, and given us into the hand of Midian.’” So the first thing Gideon does when he is called by God is question and challenge God! “But sir, if the Lord is with us, why then has all of this violence happened to us.”  That takes guts.  And then it says, “then the Lord turned to him and said, ‘Go in this might of yours and deliver Israel from the hand of Midian; I hereby commission you.’” (Judges 6:12-14)

So Gideon is called by God, which pretty much leads up to our story for today.  He is the leader of the troops, about to go to war with the Midianites. Gideon has gathered up about 32,000 troops and God says to him, “That’s too many troops. When you all win, you will simply say that it was all you.  That you all won this war on your own, without any help from me.”  So God tells Gideon to send home any troops who are frightened or scared.  22,000 of the troops were sent home.  10,000 stayed.  But then God says to Gideon, “This is still too many.”

At this point, God takes Gideon and the troops down to the river and has them all drink from the running water.  The troops who knelt down and drank from the river with their hands got sent home; all of the troops who lap up the water like dogs get to stay.  The number of dog-like drinkers out of 10,000?  Only 300.

Then with trumpets and torches in their hands, those 300 soldiers, only 1% of the original army, go one to defeat the Midianites.  The Israelites abandon their worship of the Midianite God, Ba’al, and begin once again to worship the Lord…..for awhile any ways. So that’s it.  That is the story of Gideon.

Now the problem with doing strange stories of scripture is that….there isn’t a lot written about them.  In what I did find written about this text, I was shocked that no one took up the topic of why these men drink like dogs or why God would want the soldiers who drink like dogs over the ones who don’t.

Why do you think God had Gideon take the people who drink like dogs?  Some ideas that came from the congregations last night are the following:

  • Is it a humble way of drinking?
  • Perhaps the ones who drank like dogs were the poor and uneducated, who never learned the proper manners of how to drink from a stream.  Does our military system have a tendency to recruit from the poor and uneducated?
  • It is a primal way of drinking and raw, primal characteristics can be beneficial when going into war
  • Could drinking with your hand reflect fear?  With your head out of the water, one can cautiously keep an eye out for enemies.

(For your viewing pleasure, here is a slow motion video of how dogs drink.)

What might we learn about ourselves in this story:

  • Like Gideon, we too often question where God is in the midst of our own lives.  When it doesn’t really feel like God is with us and for us.
  • There can be a tendency to want to take the credit.  God was concerned that with too large of an army, the Israelites would assume that it was all their own work in defeating the Midianites and that God was not at work in them.

What might we learn about God in this story:

  • Notice how God chose the weakest person from the weakest tribe to lead this army – Gideon.  God continues to prefer the small and weak over the large and strong.
  • The one who questions the Lord is the one whom the Lord calls upon.
  • God uses human agents to bring about God’s work in the world.

 

 

Sunday, March 4 – Sermon on Genesis 17 (1-7, 15-17)

Genesis 17(1-7, 15-17)

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names can never hurt me.  It is a parent’s mantra to a child who is hurting and a child’s shield to the bullies at school.  Perhaps, you’ve shared it with someone you love; maybe you have even whispered it to yourself. Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names can never hurt me.

The problem with this classic saying, of course, is that most of us grow up to learn that this simply isn’t true.  It isn’t true because names do hurt.  Anyone who has ever had to walk the gauntlet-like halls of junior high or high school knows this.  And let’s be honest, adults haven’t exactly kicked the habit of name-calling either.  Just look at the state of our politics.

Names can hurt.  Because names mean something.  Brand names mean something to those who wear them.  Celebrity names mean something to the brands they endorse.  Even our family names mean something to us.  Just last week, at Larry Bjoraker’s funeral, there was a woman who came up to me and said, “You know, I grew up in this church.”  I said, “Oh yeah?”  And with a particular amount of emphasis, she replied, “Oh yes, I’m a Moe!”  Being a Moe means something here, doesn’t it?  Names means something.

Today, Abram, a biblical celebrity and central character of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, gets a new name.  In fact, his wife Sarai gets a new name too.  And while these new names represented their hopes and dreams, I imagine these new names were somewhat painful for them as well.

We are first introduced to Abram five chapters earlier in the book of Genesis.  Abram comes onto the Biblical scene a little older than when most celebrities hit their prime – he was 75.  God had called him and his beloved Sarai out of their home to live in a new land.  Abram and Sarai were childless, which back then (and still today, I think) was a source of great embarrassment and shame.  At the ages of 75 and 66, the likelihood of Abram and Sarai getting pregnant was next to zero.  But God thought otherwise.  Not only did God promise Abram and Sarai new land, but God audaciously promised them offspring.  “I will make you a great nation,” the Lord said to Abram.

If you think about it, this must have been greatly exciting for Abram and Sarai, but also quite terrifying too.  Have you ever been asked to try something again that has already lead to so much disappointment?  Maybe it has been getting back to looking for jobs after a series of rejection letters or having your dance coach tell you to try that move again, though you’ve missed it every time.  That’s scary stuff.  What if it just leads to more disappointment?  So it is quite the request to ask Sarai and Abram to get their hopes up once again, when month after month and year after year during most of their life, they had to live through the grief and pain of never conceiving a child.  How frightening it must have been to then try again.

But try again, they did.  And what they feared most… happened.  Once again, month after month, year after year, no child for Abram and Sarai.  Years, later, when God had the guts to approach Abram once again, Abram had a bone to pick with God.  “God, what’s the deal?  We are still childless and all this land that you said my offspring would inherit is going to go to someone else.”  A pretty bold statement to make to God.  But God can handle it.  Taking Abram by the hand, God leads Abram outside under the evening sky and says, “Look up.  Count the stars.  That’s how many your descendants will be.”  God reassures Abram of the promise.  That it is still in effect.

But soon enough, childless and heart-broken yet again, Sarai begins to think that she is the problem.  Maybe the only important ingredient in God’s covenant with them is Abram.  So she takes matters into her own hands.  Sarai tells Abram to pay a visit to her maid-servant Hagar and to get to know her a little better.  And low and behold, 9 months later, at the age of eighty-six, Abram became a dad for the first time to little Ishmael and Sarai – a step-mom.

But as it turns out, Sarai wasn’t the problem at all.  And God wasn’t through with them yet, despite the fact that they had taken God out of the equation and tried to solve the problem themselves.  About twelve years later, God comes to Abram yet again.  This time Abram is ninty-nine years old.  Sarai, ninety.  And Ishmael, a teenager, tortured by growth spurts and pimples.

As one could expect, in this visit, God, yet again, reminds Abram of the promise that God had made – “I will make you exceedingly numerous in number.”  And at this point, I imagine Abram had had it.  The text says that he fell on his face.  I don’t know if this is worship or just plain grief over that which has not come true. “Yeah, yeah, yeah, God.  I’ve heard this before.”

But then God does something that God hasn’t done before.  “Abram,” the Lord said, “you will no longer be Abram.  From now on, you are Abraham.”  Abram, which means exalted father, suddenly becomes Abraham, which means father of many nations.  God gives Abram a new name.  And God does the same with Sarai too.  Sarai becomes Sarah, which means Princess, one who births royalty.

These new names took a little getting used to, I bet.  If you have ever changed your name, then you know how annoying it can be to have to correct everyone all the time.  But for Abraham and Sarah it was more than annoying.  It was painful.  Because every time they had to correct someone and say, “Oh no, sorry, it’s Abraham now,” or “Actually, you can call me Sarah,” they could hear the ridiculousness in it.  A couple with no children named “Father of many nations” and “Princess?”  I don’t think so.  The names simply reminded Abraham and Sarah of unfulfilled promises of God and their empty womb.

But then God does one more new thing. It comes in the verses that are missing from our text.  Verses 8-14 that we mysteriously skipped over.  If we ever skip over verses in a reading, you can be sure that it’s because it is either more boring than usual, it is violent, or it has something to do with sex.  This one isn’t boring per se, but it is violent and does have something to do with sex.  As a sign of the promise that God has made with Abraham, to make him the father of many nations, God asks that every male in Abraham’s house be circumcised.  Ouch!  Why would God do that?

Maybe God thought that words were not enough anymore.  That there needed to be a visible and tangible sign to this promise that God had made.  Which is true.  Sometimes we need a visible sign for an invisible promise.  Maybe God knew that sometimes you just have to get your body involved.  Whether you are family or friends, people who love each other can’t just simply speak that love.  They have to show it, with a kiss or an embrace.  It makes sense that God would want there to be a physical sign of this promise. And it makes sense that the sign of God’s promise to Abraham would be connected to the very part of Abraham that would help bring about the fulfillment of the promise.

In this new articulation of God’s promise to Abraham, God not only gives them a new name, but a physical sign of the promise to go with it.  Abraham and Sarah are quite the pillars of our faith.  Not because their faith was always so strong and their trust in God rock solid.  I mean, Sarah did send Abraham to Hagar after all.  That doesn’t show a lot of trust in God, and rightly so.  No they are pillars of this faith because they have lived through the pain of promises unfulfilled, of doubting and questioning God without severing the relationship.

Which makes Abraham and Sarah good models for us to follow on this faith journey.  Because we too have been given a new name by God – child of God. Also, like Abraham and Sarah, we have a physical sign of God’s promises.  Simple bread and wine, or a simple blessing on the forehead, in which we will partake in just a few minutes.  It, too, gets our body involved.

But it isn’t always easy to hear this new name – child of God – or to take communion and blessing.  I have seen people’s eyes well up with tears when called a child of God.  Hearing it sometimes stirs up in us our inability to live up to such a name.  And sometimes up it stirs up in us the feeling that if we are a child of God, we have been orphaned.  I’ve seen hands shake as they reach out to receive simple bread and simple wine to take into their bodies. Such things can be painful for us too, when we just don’t know if we can believe in the promises anymore.

Like Sarah and Abraham, these are visible signs of an invisible promise.  Abraham and Sarah cling to them in hopes that someday they would bear a child.  And we cling to them in hopes that no matter what happens in this life, God will be our God.  And we?  God’s people.

Oh yeah, and by the way, on Abraham’s 100th birthday, Sarah gave him a beautifully wrapped box.  Inside was a t-shirt that said, “World’s Greatest Dad.”  About 9 months later, Isaac was born.  AMEN