Sermon for Pentecost 14 Narrative

Genesis 32:9-30

Today we are skipping from the story of Abraham and Sarah and the birth of their son, Isaac, to the story of their grandson, Jacob, and we are coming in right in the middle of the story to boot. There’s a lot of story that has happened in between these two accounts, but we’re going to skip over some of this and have a crash course on what has happened in Jacob’s life to get him to the point where he is physically wrestling with God. Some of this may be familiar to you from Sunday school lessons, but please bear with me as I put today’s story into some context.

Jacob and his brother Esau were twins, born to their mother, Rebekah, and their father, Isaac. They were fraternal twins, the Scripture tells us, because when they were born, they looked very different from one another. As the two grew up, their personalities also became very different: Esau enjoyed going out and hunting, while Jacob liked to stay home among the tents. Once, Esau came home from the hunt and had gotten nothing, and, hungry, he asked Jacob for some of the lentil stew he was cooking. Esau was the older of the two brothers, and he was in line to inherit the greater portion of what Isaac owned. So, Jacob said that Esau could have a bowl of lentil stew if he sold Jacob his birthright. Esau, thinking only of his empty stomach, did so.

But then, when Isaac was old and could no longer see very well, he decided he wanted to give Esau his blessing before he died. So, Isaac told Esau to go out and hunt game and then prepare it the way Isaac liked, so he could eat it and then give his son his blessing. Once Esau had gone out, Rebekah called Jacob and told him to prepare goats, disguising it to taste like the game that Esau was to hunt, and bring it to Isaac. Jacob then disguised himself and deceived his father, Isaac, into thinking that he was Esau, and Jacob received the blessing. When Esau came home and found out about the trick, he was furious—angry enough to commit murder. So, Rebekah and Isaac sent Jacob off to stay with Rebekah’s brother Laban until Esau’s temper cooled off.

Along the way to Laban’s home, Jacob has his first encounter with God, in a dream where he sees angels ascending and descending on a ladder, and the Lord promising him that God would give Jacob and his descendants the land where he was lying, numerous offspring, and that God would be with Jacob until all of those promises were fulfilled. Jacob named the place Bethel, which means, “house of God”. Jacob then arrives safely in his mother’s country, meets Laban and his family, and stays there for many years. He marries Leah and Rachel, Laban’s daughters, and through these two women and their maidservants he has many children. Then, as friction develops between Jacob and Laban, he decides that now is the time to return home and to confront his brother Esau.

And this is where we find Jacob in our story today: he is close to home and has received word that Esau is coming to meet him and is bringing 400 men with him. Well, of course Jacob is afraid; he remembers that he did not leave Esau on good terms and he is afraid that Esau still holds a grudge. Jacob then takes steps to protect his family: dividing them into two companies, so that if Esau attacks one, the other might escape. And Jacob then begins to pray, reminding God of the promises that God made to be with him until God had fulfilled all the other promises that God had made to him. He also sends a multitude of gifts to Esau to hopefully appease him. And then, during the night, Jacob wrestles with an unknown man; all night long. Neither can get the advantage over the other, but the unknown man strikes Jacob, giving him a limp to remember the wrestling match by. And Jacob gets a new name: Israel, which means either “the one who strives with God,” or “God strives”, thus revealing the identity of the unknown man.

This story of Jacob wrestling with God is a profound metaphor for our faith life, so let’s take a look at some of the deeper meaning of this account. When Jacob fled to get away from the murderous rage of his brother Esau, he only had the clothes on his back, and he was alone. While he was with Laban, he gained livestock, he took wives, he and his wives had children, and he grew into a large family. Now, as he prepares to meet Esau and to face his past that he once ran away from, he separates himself from his family, sending them on ahead, and confronts his fears and his past alone. This is a time of reflection for Jacob as he remembers all of the things that he has done to get to this point and perhaps acknowledges that things may not turn out all right, after all.

I would like to focus for a moment, though, on Jacob’s name change in this story. One thing that doesn’t always come across in the English is the meaning of the names Jacob and Israel in Hebrew. The name Jacob means “heel” or “he grasps the heel” and comes from the fact that when Jacob and Esau were born, Jacob was hanging on to the heel of his brother Esau. So even from birth, Jacob was a wrestler: he struggled with his brother Esau, he struggled with his uncle Laban, deceiving his uncle and being deceived by him; he even struggled with his wives as they vied for his love. Now, Jacob is physically wrestling with God, or God’s angel, whoever it was; and in the end, when the unknown person asks Jacob for his name, Jacob gives it, owning up to his identity: he is a heel, which in English slang means just about the same thing as the Hebrew meaning. He’s not a character that we want to emulate; he’s a liar, a cheat, and a trickster—in other words, he’s a heel. But what God does by naming him Israel is to make Jacob’s wrestling nature holy: Jacob/Israel will wrestle even with God and will not let go until God gives him a blessing.

And this is the message that we should be taking away from this story. Too often, people come to faith looking for it to give them peace and tranquility in their lives. And faith often does that, and this is a good thing: treasure those moments when they come. But here’s the thing: more often than not, faith is a struggle. It’s a holy questioning: ok, God, what do you want me to do now? It’s that moment when you or a loved one get a terminal diagnosis, and you wonder where God is and why God has allowed this to happen to you. There may be no answers to our struggle, but the struggle is real. But what faith does is this: like Jacob, faith does not let go of God during the struggle. The struggle may involve anger with God; it may involve not talking to God for a while; but it does not let God go. That is a relationship with God, and just as God made Jacob’s struggle holy by renaming him Israel, God, too, makes our struggle, our relationship, holy, by claiming us as God’s own.

And here’s another thing for us to note: Jacob leaves this encounter with God with a limp, from where God wrenched his hip out of joint. (And by the way, I translated this from the Hebrew once for a class in seminary, and the Hebrew words for which part of Jacob’s anatomy God struck are difficult to translate into English. My own suspicion is that God may have kicked Jacob in a more sensitive part of the anatomy than the translators of our Scriptures want to admit.) But the larger point is this: just as Jacob walked out of his encounter with God with a limp, we, too, may be scarred from our wrestling with God. That scarring may come as some illusions we had about our beliefs come tumbling down, and we search for a way to still believe, even with the new information we have. The scarring may come from how other Christians, being their sinful human selves, may have hurt us, and we search for a way that we can still be part of the community even with the hurt that we carry. The truth is, like Jacob, we will always walk our walk of faith with a limp. We are the walking wounded, but we still trust that God can work God’s purposes through us and will not leave us without a blessing.

So, don’t be afraid to question your faith and wrestle with God. After all, Jesus did it in the garden of Gethsemane before he went to the cross for us, and if Jesus can do it, then it’s okay if we do it, too. Ask those questions like the one I got this week, “What’s up with Jonah and the large fish? Did that really happen?” Or questions like, “God, is this really what you want me to be doing with my life? Or is there something more?” Or even questions like, “God, who am I, really?” God welcomes those questions; even when you are doubting, they are still signs that you are engaging with God and wrestling with God, working out how you should live out your faith. God doesn’t want people who mindlessly show up to church each week because that’s the thing that you’re supposed to do. God wants people who wrestle and struggle. God loves those questions and remains by your side through the wrestling and the struggling and the anguished pleas and even the rejoicing. So, wrestle. Struggle. Doubt. And don’t let go of God, because God will bless you in the struggle. Amen.

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Sermon for Pentecost 13 Narrative

Note: If you are following the Narrative Lectionary, you will notice that I am a week ahead in the readings. Since we did a series on stewardship of creation in June/July, I decided to skip the Genesis 2 reading normally appointed for today and go to Genesis 18. This will all work out at the end of the month due to a joint service where the hosting congregation will be using the Revised Common Lectionary, and in October we will rejoin the Narrative Lectionary’s regularly appointed readings.

Genesis 18:1-15; 21:1-7

We have now completed two cycles of the narrative lectionary, taking us through the Bible in a chronological (ish) order, so that we can get a bigger picture of the grand story of God’s love for us. Today we begin the third cycle, and we land in the middle of the story of Abraham and Sarah. We have skipped over the creation stories, the story of the flood, and the Tower of Babel. But it does help to see where Abraham and Sarah have been before the announcement of the birth of a child to them and then the birth of Isaac, so let’s quickly review what’s happened to this elderly couple before today’s story. First, Abraham was called by God to leave his family and his country to go to a new place, and God promised to make him into a great nation and that all families of the earth would be blessed through him. So, he packed up his wife Sarah and some other family members and took off, ending up in the land of Canaan. He did not build a city, but rather, he and his family lived as nomads, moving from place to place. They went down to Egypt for a while when there was a famine in Canaan, then returned. Abraham rescued his nephew Lot from kings who were battling against one another, and Abraham was blessed by King Melchizedek of Salem. God again promised Abraham children and numerous descendants, even though he still did not have any children at the time. Sarah, frustrated by God’s promises not being fulfilled, gave her maidservant Hagar to Abraham as a concubine, and Abraham had a son with her who was named Ishmael. Again, God appeared to Abraham, instituting circumcision as a sign of the covenant between God and Abraham’s family, and promised that Abraham would have a child with Sarah. And Abraham laughed in God’s face, because he was a hundred years old and Sarah was 90. And now, we have today’s story.

Today’s story is surrounded in mystery, at least, the mystery of who these three strangers were who showed up unannounced at Abraham and Sarah’s tent. The context of the story which continues on after the stop at Abraham and Sarah’s would suggest that it is God and two angels, but early Christian interpreters took it as a physical manifestation of the Trinity. No matter; it becomes clear that these visitors, whatever their specific identities, were definitely holy, although they appeared to Abraham and Sarah as human beings. What follows their appearance, though, is a description of how nomadic culture treated guests. Guests were to be honored, no matter who they were; you’ll notice that Abraham doesn’t even ask for their names. He invites them in, and once the three men accept the invitation, Abraham instructs Sarah to make cakes of bread—lots of it—and he himself has the best calf slaughtered and prepared and sets it before his guests. And he, Abraham, the host of this meal, acts as a servant to these unnamed guests—not sitting and eating with them, but ready to wait on their needs hand and foot. Treating guests properly takes much sacrifice and effort.

But, while talking about how we treat guests is a good thing, today we’re going to focus on the announcement that the three visitors make about Sarah having a child. We might wonder at Sarah’s reaction, thinking how she could possibly laugh in the face of a word from God. But we need to remember how long God has been making this promise. The first time the promise of descendants was made to Abraham, he was 75 years old. At the time of today’s story, he is 100 years old. So, if we do some math, if Sarah is 90 in today’s story, then she was 65 when God’s promise first came to Abraham. Sarah has been waiting 25 years. She is 90 years old, and now she’s being told she’s going to have a child? I think if it were any one of us here today, we would laugh in God’s face, too. Women today are having children at older ages than ever—in fact, I just saw something online about a woman having twins at 73 years of age–but I don’t think there’s been a true story yet of a woman having a child at 90, even with all of our technological advancements. Most women who are 90—and some of you here are close to that age and could testify–wouldn’t even want to go through all of that. The hormones, the morning sickness, the ordeal of labor, and then, once the baby is born, getting up in the middle of the night, changing diapers, and everything else that goes along with having a baby. Yes, we are Sarah, and we would laugh; a sarcastic laugh that says, “Yeah, right.” Or a great big belly laugh. Either one would do.

But, as the visitors say, “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” Or, as Jesus puts it in our Gospel lesson today, “For mortals, it is impossible, but not for God; for God, all things are possible.” And, not long after this visit by the three strangers, Sarah did become pregnant and she did give birth to a son. And she laughed once more, this time not in sarcasm or in disbelief, but in great joy and wonder that God had at last fulfilled God’s promise, even when it seemed impossible, and had given her a son. And she and Abraham named the child Isaac, because in Hebrew, Isaac means, “he laughs”.

With God, all things are possible. When I went to the Network of Biblical Storytellers conference at the end of July, I carpooled with a young woman who is finishing up college. During the long ride from Ohio back to Harrisburg, she told me that one thing she struggles with is what God wants her to do. She is in a serious relationship with a young man, and she wonders if God wants her to stay with him and get married, or if she should follow a calling that she might be hearing towards ministry without getting married. She wondered if God would be angry with her for choosing the wrong thing. And I said to her that for me, that’s looking at God the wrong way. God is a God of possibilities. So, for example, if the physicists are right and this is just one of an infinite number of parallel universes, then that means that, in this universe, I became a pastor, but in another universe, perhaps I have become the owner of a small book shop, and in still yet another universe, I have become a translator for the United Nations. God is a God of possibilities, and no matter which path you choose, as you listen for God’s voice, God is with you and loves you no matter what. With mortals, this kind of thing may seem impossible, but with God, all things are possible.

So, what does this mean for us as we continue to do God’s work with our hands? It means that we need to be open to all possibilities that God may be putting in front of us. If there is a ministry opportunity that comes before us but that, with our human limitations seems impossible, we may laugh scornfully, but if it keeps coming before us, God may be trying to tell us something important. And remember that we have a God who has a sense of humor: after all, this is the God who not only created funny-looking creatures like the giraffe or the platypus, but this is also the God who thought it would be really cool to give a baby—a biological baby—to a man of 100 and a woman of 90. We have a God who laughs when we say that something is impossible, and then delights in showing us how it is possible and delights in hearing our sarcastic laughter turn to laughter of pure joy and amazement.

Let us therefore laugh with Abraham and Sarah, and delight in how God makes the seemingly impossible possible. Let us open our imaginations to the possibilities in our lives, trusting that God is with us and loves us no matter what. Let’s not be quick to shut down opportunities for ministry in our communities that God may be placing in front of us. And let us rejoice, above all, in a God who did what we would say is impossible by loving us enough to become human, to teach us how to live in love, and then go to the cross and die for us, only to be resurrected again on the third day. For with God, all things are possible. Amen.

 

Sermon for Pentecost 11 Narrative

Creeds; 1 Cor. 1:18-25; John 1:1-18

Today we move from the first article of the creeds, belief in God the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth, to the second article, belief in Jesus Christ, God’s Son. And here there is a significant difference between the words used in the Nicene Creed and the words used in the Apostles’ Creed, so I invite you to open your hymnals to page 104 and 105 in the front so that you’re able to follow along with what I’m saying. The Apostles’ Creed simply states, “I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord,” and then gives the bare outline of Jesus’ life: born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, crucified, died, buried, resurrected and ascended, with the promise that he will come again. The Nicene Creed also gives the same outline of Jesus’ life, but before it does that, it inserts some language not found in the Apostles’ Creed. It talks about Jesus, God’s Son, being eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father; through him all things were made. Did you ever wonder why those additional words are there in the Nicene Creed and not in the Apostles’? Well, it’s an interesting story, and I hope that you’ll indulge the history nerd in me as I tell you what’s going on with that.

In the year 325, as I mentioned last week, the Emperor Constantine was getting tired of the Christian bishops and theologians arguing about what we would consider very minor points of doctrine, and he called a council of the bishops to lay down once and for all what “correct” Christian doctrine should be. One of the sects in Christianity at that time was the Arian sect, followers of the bishop Arius—not the white supremacist Aryans that we think of today. Arius taught that there was a time when Jesus did not exist, and that he was a creation of God the Father. This did not sit well with the other bishops and theologians, so they argued it out at this council, which sometimes devolved into actual physical attacks on one another. In fact, legend says that St. Nicholas of Myra, on whom our Santa Claus is based, was at this council and punched Arius in the face when he would not agree to the “orthodox” position. Finally, though, the “orthodox” point of view prevailed, that Jesus, God the Son, was co-equal with God the Father, both existing from eternity and being born as a human being in space and time here on earth. This is why, in the Nicene Creed, you have the sentences emphasizing that Jesus is God from God, and so forth. This was a statement of what the “orthodox” Christian faith was over and against what Arius taught.

So, we have Jesus as God’s Son, co-equal with God the Father, both existing from eternity and being born as a human being in space and time here on earth. This fits in nicely with what the Gospel of John tells us in our reading today: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. It is not as if the authors of the Nicene Creed pulled Jesus’ co-existence with God the Father from eternity out of thin air. It’s right here in the Gospel of John. Last week we talked about believing in God the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, but what we didn’t talk about was this: God the Son, the Word of God, Jesus Christ, was right there with God the Father from the beginning. He was somehow, in some mystical way, the very Word that God spoke when God created the world and everything in it. Jesus is God and Jesus is Lord.

But not only is Jesus God and Lord, Jesus is also a human being born in space and time, conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary, which the Gospel of Luke tells us in the first two chapters. Every time I teach confirmation class, the kids always have a hard time grasping the concept that Jesus can be both God and a human being. I also have difficulty grasping this concept, so please don’t feel bad if you still struggle with it: every Christian does. And I think this is where our reading from 1 Corinthians can be helpful. The wisdom of our world says no way can someone be both human and God at the same time. And no way could God ever come down to earth in the person of a human being and die for us. But, according to Paul, “since, … the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe.” This is what the Scriptures tell us and what the Creeds also say: that we believe this very thing that the world calls foolish and impossible: that God loves us so much that God came down in the person of Jesus Christ to teach us how to live and to love one another, and then to show us what that looks like by dying on a cross for us. And not only did he die on the cross for us, but he was raised up from the dead as a promise to us that one day, we, too, would be resurrected and be with God forever. If this isn’t wise, then I don’t want to be wise. I want to believe in this great love, this “foolishness” of God, and have Jesus as my Lord and my Savior.

The question that we might ask ourselves is that why question: Why did God choose to show love for us by sending Jesus to die a horrible death on the cross for us? And while we can’t definitively know the answer to the why questions—only God knows why God does anything—I want to reflect a moment on that line of the creed which says that Jesus was incarnate or conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. Jeff and I are already starting to talk about plans for worship on Christmas Eve, and I was reflecting how, as a pastor, I really don’t like Christmas. I prefer Easter, not only because it’s less commercialized than Christmas, but also because I find more meaning in the phrase, “He is risen!” than I do in the phrase, “Christ is born!” But as I reflect on it, I can’t say that Christ is risen before I say that Christ is born. That’s what our creeds tell us, and it is also what the Gospel of John tells us: that “the Word became flesh and lived among us”; the Greek literally says that he “pitched his tent among us”. God became a human being in the person of Jesus and lived among us. This means that God knows, intimately, what it is like to be one of us. Through Jesus Christ, God knows what it is to be hungry, to be thirsty, to be happy, to be sad, to love, and to be angry. And so, when these things happen to us, we can be confident that Jesus is with us, and that Jesus understands what we are going through in a very intimate, personal way. So not only did Jesus die on the cross for us and rise again, promising us eternal life, but he was also, firstly, born for us, living as one of us, among us, so that he understands and is with us in every joy and sorrow of life. This is the kind of God that I want to believe in and put my trust in.

This article of the creeds tells us that God is not some far off deity who we have to appease in order to keep on living. Rather, God is with us in the person of Jesus Christ, and Jesus is with us every day, in everything that we do and experience. Isn’t that wonderful news? Isn’t it exciting? Don’t you want to share that news with everyone? Jesus is our Lord, our Savior, and our God. God come down to earth. Have you all been working on your faith statements lately? Remember, the idea of what you would say if you only had 5 minutes in an elevator with someone to tell them why you believed in Jesus? Folks, I really think this is the key to our witness today. Don’t tell people to come to church because we have really nice people here. They can find really nice people at the gym. Rather, invite people to come to worship on Sunday mornings because here they can see Jesus, the one who lived and died for them. Tell them what kind of meaning Jesus has for you in your life. Because church was never meant to be just another social club. Rather, church has always been the gathering of the saints of God to worship Jesus, both God the Son from all eternity and the man Jesus, born in the 1st century in a little town in the backwater of the Roman Empire, who grew up to become the Savior of the world by dying on a cross for us.

To close today, I’d like for us to read together Martin Luther’s explanation of the second article of the Apostles’ Creed. Luther’s Small Catechism has been printed in the back of our hymnals, and if you turn to page 1162, you will find Luther’s teaching of the Apostles’ Creed there. Let’s read together under the second article, where it says, “What is this? -or- What does this mean?”

I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father in eternity, and also a true   human being, born of the virgin Mary, is my Lord. He has redeemed me, a lost and condemned human being. He has purchased and freed me from all sins, from death, and

from the power of the devil, not with gold or silver but with his holy, precious blood and with his innocent suffering and death. He has done all this in order that I may belong to him, live under him in his kingdom, and serve him in eternal righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, just as he is risen from the dead and lives and rules eternally. This is most certainly true.

 

This is most certainly true and wondrous news. Jesus loves you. Always and forever. Amen.

Sermon for Pentecost 10 Narrative

Note that this sermon was only preached at Salem Lutheran, as we had our local bishop preaching and presiding at St. John’s on August 18.

Creeds; Texts: Genesis 1:1-5; Matthew 6:30-34

Today we move from our sermon series on Hebrews to a new sermon series, for three weeks, on the creeds. Most of the time we say the Apostles’ Creed in worship; for festival days and seasons we use the longer Nicene Creed. Creeds are statements of faith and they define what we as Christians all agree on, whether you’re Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, and so on and so forth. Many Protestant denominations don’t use them as frequently in worship as we do, so if you are speaking with your Baptist friend, they may not know what you’re talking about if you use the word “creed”. But if you explained to them what a creed was and rattled it off from memory, that friend would most likely agree with everything in that creed.

Both the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed were formulated in a time when Christianity was defining itself and saying what it meant to be an “orthodox” Christian, over and against many versions of Christianity which were labeled as heresies. We have more detailed historical information on how the Nicene Creed was developed; this creed comes to us from the year 325 CE, when the emperor Constantine called for a synod of bishops to meet in the town of Nicea, which is in present-day Turkey, to state once and for all what true Christian doctrine would be. This creed was developed at this council and took its final shape in the year 381 at the Council of Constantinople. The Apostles’ Creed, on the other hand, was used more in the Western, Latin-speaking church, as the statement that candidates would make when they were baptized, and it is this creed that we still use in our Sacrament of Baptism today. The Apostles’ Creed originates in the 3rd century but didn’t take its final shape until the eighth century.

So, with that, let us take the first article in our creeds, our statements of what we believe, and look at it more in depth in light of our Scripture readings today. The Apostles’ Creed states, “I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.” The Nicene Creed states, “We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.” So, we have a little more detail from the Nicene Creed, but in essence, both creeds are saying the same thing. In classic Lutheran catechismal questioning, we will now ask, “What does this mean?”

And so, let’s start with what our Scripture readings today tell us. Our first reading, from Genesis, is that story of creation that we all know so well. In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth … Most of us have heard this story all of our lives. But we don’t understand how radical this story really is. After each day of creation, God declares the creation good, and on the last day, God calls it very good. If you look at creation stories of other cultures that surrounded the ancient Israelites, you will find stories of wars among the gods and the material creation coming from corpses of gods that had been slain, and in none of those stories are you going to find those other gods calling the material creation good, let alone very good. And so, from the opening chapter of the Bible, we see that God loves the material creation that God has made, from the stars, the sun, and the moon, to the wolves, the bears, and the giraffes, even down to each and every creepy-crawly spider, tick, and mosquito. And God also loves each and every single human being that God has created as well—we human beings who were created in God’s image of all different kinds of races and speaking all different kinds of languages and each one being gloriously unique, reflecting a different aspect of God our Creator. God loves everyone. Period. No exceptions.

We see God’s love for creation reflected in Jesus’ words in our reading from Matthew today. Jesus talks about how we are not to worry, for God knows what we need even before we ask it. Jesus uses examples from nature: God feeds the birds of the air even though they neither sow nor reap. God clothes the grass of the field with flowers to delight the eye and the nose. If that is how God the Father cares for the rest of the creation, how much more will God care for human beings, who are made in God’s image? God knows that we need food, clothing, and shelter, and God will provide these things to us, so that our lives are not to be consumed with chasing after these things. Rather, we are to strive for God’s kingdom and righteousness, trusting that God will provide the material things that we need.

This is what we believe, then, when we say that we believe in God the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth: We believe in a God who created the world and everything in it, and we believe that God is good and all that God created is very good. We believe that this good God is our Father and that this good God loves the entire creation and cares for each thing in it by providing what they need. That includes us; we are not to worry about anything, and our lives are not to be consumed by chasing after these material things, because God knows that we need them, and God provides for us. Therefore, our faithful response, our actions that show to the world what we believe, is to care for the creation that God has given us and to be good stewards of it.

And how are we to be good stewards of the creation? There are three ways that we can look at how we are to steward the creation: personal, local, and national or even worldwide. So, we all know what we can do in our personal lives: reduce, reuse, and recycle. So, for example, plastic is ending up in our oceans, and plastic does not go back into the earth well. Some plastic is even disintegrating to a microscopic level and being ingested by microscopic organisms which are then eaten by bigger fish, which we then may end up eating. So, we can reduce the amount of plastic that we use. Don’t buy bottled water, but instead get a filter for your faucet or get a pitcher that filters the water. Use a stainless steel bottle for water and refill it. And I know that this is getting a lot of press right now, but seriously: don’t use plastic straws. They can’t be recycled, and they end up in our trash stream which very often ends up in the ocean which sea creatures then choke on. Besides reducing, reusing containers and then recycling them when they can’t be reused anymore is the proper way to handle plastic. And this goes not just for plastic, but for everything else that we use as well. Find ways to reduce, reuse, and recycle as much as possible.

On the local level, find out what the environmental issues are and help out wherever you can. If there’s a day when there will be a cleanup of a local park, for example, participate in that. Back in June, I talked about our Susquehanna River and the issues with stormwater runoff; have any of you looked into planting a rain garden or using rain barrels on your property? Cleaning up in local parks or around your neighborhood will also help alleviate stormwater runoff. Also flowing out of our faith that God created this good earth comes actions in our state government. Find out what kinds of environmental issues are sitting in front of our state legislature right now and what impact proposed regulations, or de-regulation, may have on God’s creation. And then write to our legislators and ask them to do what is right to help preserve God’s good creation.

Finally, on the national and worldwide level, find out what the issues are affecting God’s good creation. There’s an article in the latest issue of National Geographic talking about people who are migrating from their countries. One reason that this worldwide migration is happening is climate change, which results in no rain, which results in farms drying up, which results in people moving to cities looking for work so they can send some kind of money back home to their family members who stayed. Find out what different organizations are doing to try and alleviate climate change. Give money and time to them, if you are able. And again, write to your national legislators and ask them to do what is right to best take care of this creation which God has given us to care for, and which God has called good, and very good.

All of these suggested actions, and more, flow out of our statement of belief in a God, the Father of all of us, who created heaven and earth. Martin Luther, in his Large Catechism, wrote this about the first article of the creed:

Here much could be said if we were to describe how few people believe this article.

We all pass over it; we hear it and recite it, but we neither see nor think about what

the words command us to do. For if we believed it with our whole heart, we would

also act accordingly, and not swagger about and boast and brag as if we had life,

riches, power, honor, and such things of ourselves, as if we ourselves were to be

feared and served. This is the way the wretched, perverse world acts, drowned in

its blindness, misusing all the blessings and gifts of God solely for its own pride,

greed, pleasure, and enjoyment, and never once turning to God to thank him or

acknowledge him as Lord or Creator. Therefore, if we believed it, this article should

humble and terrify all of us.

 

God is our Father and our Creator, and God loves us and cares for us. But God never said that God would step in and fix things if we messed up. Our scientists tell us that we only have a window of about 12 years or so to avert the catastrophic effects of climate change. Our scientists tell us also that there are many species of animals going extinct or that will be going extinct very soon. Our faith in God our Creator should be compelling us to take better care of this fragile creation in which God has placed us. Let us therefore let our actions flow from our faith and go from here making every effort to be good stewards of the creation. Amen.

Sermon for Pentecost 9 Narrative

Hebrews 11:1-16 & 12:1-2

Today is the last Sunday in our sermon series on Hebrews, so I would like to review where we’ve been in this letter/sermon and outline the material in between last week’s reading and this week’s reading before moving to today’s text. For many of us, Hebrews 11 and the first part of 12 is all that we know of this book, and so I think it’s important to put it back in its context in the letter as a whole before talking about the Hebrews heroes hall of fame, as some people call it, today.

And so, the first thing that we need to remember is that the author of this work of Hebrews is writing to a small and struggling congregation in the late 1st century in the Roman Empire, perhaps in Rome itself. They had been persecuted for their faith, and some had fallen away because of that. Others had left the congregation because they were losing faith that Christ would return, and the group was declining in numbers. And those that remained were getting tired, wanting to remain faithful, but perhaps being tempted to also drop away from the congregation. And what the writer of this book does is not to start with any kind of revitalization program, but simply to remind the group of who this Jesus is in whom they believe. He talks about how Jesus is greater than the prophets and the angels because he is the Son of God, the exact imprint of God. He uses various word pictures to describe Jesus: a pioneer, a brother, and a liberator. He describes what Jesus has done for us by using the image of the high priest, but by saying that Jesus is a better high priest because he has been tempted as we are yet was without sin. He shows how Christ is a mediator of a new covenant. Then, at the end of chapter 9 and the beginning of chapter 10, the author talks about how Christ sacrificed himself once and for all for all our sins.

With all of this teaching about theology as the basis, the author of Hebrews then begins to call his congregation to persevere. He urges them to hold fast to the confession of our hope in Jesus without wavering and tells the people to remain faithful to Jesus. He urges them to “provoke one another to love and good deeds” and to not neglect to meet together; in other words, don’t forget to come together and worship. He urges them not to abandon their faith but to remember the days when they first believed and gladly suffered persecution for their faith. The author then moves into today’s chapter by defining what faith is, for his purposes, and listing all of the Old Testament heroes that his congregation would know about.

Our reading today begins with this statement: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” This reminds me of the story of Thomas in the Gospel of John, who would not believe that Jesus was alive unless he put his finger in the nail marks of Jesus’ hands and put his hand in the wound of Jesus’ side. Jesus says, in that story, that “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” This is part of what defines faith. Thomas Long, in his commentary on Hebrews, writes, “Inwardly, people of faith have a confidence today, here and now when all hell is breaking loose around us, that the promises of God for peace, justice, mercy, and salvation can be trusted. Faith, in this inward sense, is then a response to the trustworthiness of God” (113).

But, the author of Hebrews knows that sometimes, we need concrete examples of people who have this kind of faith so that it is easier for us to understand how we, too, can live out our faith. And so, he starts a roll call of the heroes of the faith, those examples that we can look to and try to emulate. And there are many: too many to touch on in one sermon. And there are even more people listed after our reading today cuts off and goes to chapter 12. So, I’m going to touch on just a few as we move through this passage.

Most of us here should know who Abel is; he was the victim of the first murder recorded in the Bible, killed by his brother Cain. But the next person listed may not be familiar to us: Enoch. The only mention of Enoch in our Scriptures is in Genesis 5, where he is listed as the father of Methuselah, and it is said of him that he “walked with God”. And then, instead of saying that Enoch died like all of his other ancestors and descendants, it is recorded that “he was no more, because God took him”. Because of this, literature that is not included in the Bible developed around this mysterious figure of Enoch and would have probably been well known to the congregation that our preacher is writing to. The author of Hebrews says that Enoch had faith and pleased God and uses this to tell his congregation that without faith it is impossible to please God, so you’d better have faith. In my opinion, there are better examples of faith that the preacher lists, but Enoch probably would have worked for his original audience. After Enoch, the preacher lists Noah, whose story I think we are all familiar with, and yes, it took great faith for him to build that ark when no one could see any rain on the horizon, trusting God’s word that yes, there would be rain and there would be a flood.

But then, after Noah, the preacher spends an extended amount of time on the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the three great patriarchs of the faith. And so, I think it is good for us to spend some time with these men today as well, particularly with Abraham. Our preacher first speaks of Abraham as going to the land that God called him to, and having faith that God would indeed fulfill the promises which God had made to him: that he would become a great nation; that God would bless him; and that all families of the earth would be blessed through him. Abraham trusted that God would fulfill these promises even though he and Sarah were not able to have children at first, and even though when he died, he only had one child with Sarah and the only land he owned was the gravesite where he buried her when she died. Of this, the writer to the Hebrews says, “All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them.” And remember, according to this preacher, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

What would it look like for us to have this kind of faith? We, too, are small and struggling congregations, often times floundering around as we try to adapt to a changing culture. What would the author of Hebrews have to say to us? Well, I think that he would probably say many of the same things: reminding us first of who this Jesus is who we worship, and then recalling to our minds all of the stories that we have learned both in worship and in Sunday school. God has promised us all of these good things as well, but, like Abraham, we may not live to see them fulfilled. The church as we know it may die. Christians may gather in homes or in other places as they did in the first century, rather than have special buildings dedicated to the worship of God. But one thing we can be sure of is this: God’s Word will never die, and we are called, like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to be faithful and to follow God wherever God leads us, trusting in the promise that we are blessed to be a blessing to the world.

The last section of our lesson today is what I want us to take away from this sermon series on Hebrews: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.” In other words, we need to quit whining and recommit ourselves to following Jesus. So we are a small congregation. So what? So were those first Christian congregations in the 1st and 2nd centuries. I don’t know about you, but I get tired of all the reports and statistics saying that our churches are declining. I know that. You know that. We see it around us each week. Sometimes we can’t do all the things we once did. That’s okay. Jesus is still calling us to be faithful to him in the circumstances that we find ourselves in. I’m not saying that everything will be easy; far from it. Abraham was called to sacrifice his son Isaac to God and was only saved at the last minute by God calling him to stop and showing him a ram to sacrifice instead. Isaac was fooled by his son Jacob when he wanted to bless his son Esau. Jacob tricked his brother Esau and was then threatened by him, and then he and his uncle Laban cheated one another. These so-called heroes were flawed human beings just like us. And yet, God used them for God’s purposes and brought good out of bad. These are the men and women cheering us on as we also seek to be faithful. And we should remember them even when we have difficult decisions to make, and especially when it seems like we’ve made the wrong decision.

So, how is that we can best be faithful to Jesus and follow him? We remember that first, Jesus is faithful to us and will not fail in his promises. We remember who this great one is who we worship. We remember those who have gone before us in the faith, from Abraham all the way down to those ornery grandparents of ours who nevertheless loved us and taught us about Jesus. We learn from them as we seek to hear God’s will for us. And we have courage as we move forward into a strange land, not knowing where we are going but trusting that Jesus has gone before us, blazing a trail as the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. Let us move forward together then, facing the future that Jesus has given us without fear. Amen.

Sermon for Pentecost 7 Narrative

Hebrews 4:14-5:10

Last week in the book of Hebrews, we talked about how the author of this letter/sermon describes Jesus with different metaphors, or word-pictures: Jesus as a pioneer, Jesus as a brother, and Jesus as a liberator. At the end of chapter 2, the preacher introduces another image for Jesus: that of high priest, but then he puts that aside for a little while before returning to it in today’s reading. So, once again, I would like to trace the preacher’s argument through the portions of Hebrews that we have skipped over before beginning with today’s section of the letter.

In chapter 3, the author compares Jesus to Moses. He says that just as Moses was faithful to his calling to lead the Israelites out of slavery into the Promised Land, so also Jesus, “the apostle and high priest of our confession,” was faithful to God, who appointed him. But, the author says, Jesus is worthy of more glory than Moses, because Moses was faithful as a servant is faithful, while Christ was faithful as a son is faithful. As a son, it is assumed, you would have more loyalty to your father than a servant would to his master. The Preacher then warns his congregation against unbelief, using a quote from Psalm 95 which describes how the Israelites hardened their hearts against God in the wilderness, even though they had seen all the miraculous works that God had done for them. He encourages his congregation to exhort one another daily so that no one turns away from the living God and that no one may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. In the psalm that the preacher quotes, God swears that the Israelites who hardened their hearts would never enter the rest that God had promised in their new land, and indeed, the generation that came out of Egypt died in the wilderness; it was their children who entered the Promised Land. Likewise, the preacher says, his congregation should not harden their hearts because if they do, God may decide that they will never enter the sabbath rest that God has promised them.

And with that, the Preacher returns to the image of Jesus as high priest. I think it’s obvious, with all of the Old Testament Scriptures that the author of Hebrews has cited, that the majority of his congregation were Jewish Christians who would have understood the references he was making. But for us who are Gentile Christians and who may not always have a good grasp of ancient Israelite and more modern Jewish practices, we need to take a step back and review what the duties of the high priest were, according to the Torah, or the first five books of the Old Testament. What the writer to the Hebrews here is specifically wanting the people to remember is what the high priest does on the day of atonement. According to Leviticus, the high priest was to come into the holy place with a young bull for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering. The high priest was to have bathed and was to wear garments made of linen. He was also to have taken from the congregation of the people two male goats for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering. He was then to make atonement for his own house by sacrificing the bull. Then he was to cast lots for the two goats. One goat was to be sacrificed to God, and as for the other, he was to speak the sins of the people over it and then send it off into the wilderness. This is where our word “scapegoat” comes from. In other words, only by following these rituals of sacrifice could the high priest make atonement for the sins of the people, so God and the people could live in harmony once more.

What Jesus has done, the writer to the Hebrews says, is to make that atonement for us once and for all, so that the sacrifices at the temple are no longer needed. He did this in the role of a high priest by first becoming one of us, so that he is able to sympathize with our weaknesses, and secondly by sacrificing himself on the cross. Since he was without sin, he did not need to offer a sacrifice for himself, as the high priests of old did, but by sacrificing himself, he has made atonement for us with God forever. But, there’s one more piece of this atonement puzzle that we probably won’t get right away, and that is this business with Melchizedek.

The writer to the Hebrews quotes Psalm 110 when he says, “You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.” And then, a little bit later, he says that Jesus was “designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.” Even those of you who went to Sunday school and church your whole lives may not know what this reference to Melchizedek is about. It’s a story from Genesis 14, and it’s not one that gets taught very often. When Abram and his nephew Lot separate because their flocks have become too large, Lot travels down towards the plain of the Jordan River. But then Lot promptly gets caught in the middle of a battle between several kings of the local towns, and he is captured by one side. So, Abram goes to battle and rescues Lot from captivity. Suddenly, after the battle is over, out of nowhere King Melchizedek of Salem, who was also priest of God Most High, appears and shares bread and wine with Abram and blesses Abram. Abram gives Melchizedek a tenth of everything he owns. And then Melchizedek disappears, never to be seen again in Scripture until the writer to the Hebrews resurrects him to make his point about Jesus.

The point the writer is making with Melchizedek is this: the high priesthood was normally a family affair. If you were a male descendant of Aaron, Moses’ brother, you could potentially be a high priest, and if not the high priest, then you would be in the priesthood in some fashion. But Melchizedek was a priest of God Most High, and he was not in Aaron’s family; Aaron hadn’t even been born yet. So, the people did not know what his heritage was. He appeared, shared bread and wine with Abram and blessed him, and then he disappeared. Likewise, Jesus, even though he was not in the Aaronic family, served as a high priest because he was designated by God to do so, and he made peace with God for us by his suffering and death.

So, what does all of this mean for us Gentile Christians who are living approximately 20 centuries after the writer of this letter spoke to his original congregation of Jewish Christians? What does all of this language of atonement and high priesthood have to do with us? Well, let’s begin with this verse, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” Let’s meditate on this sentence. Jesus as our high priest has made things right for us with God. And, not only that, but he has become one of us and he understands what it’s like to be human. This is not some faraway God, who, as one song says, “throws a dice/their minds as cold as ice/And someone way down here/Loses someone dear”. No, this is a God who has become one of us and understands our fears, our dreams, our hopes, our disappointments, and our temptations intimately, and this is a God who understands how hard it is for us to resist those temptations. All because of what Jesus Christ has done for us.

With that as our foundation, we move on to this verse, “Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” We don’t have to be afraid of approaching God in prayer. And we can be bold in asking God for what we need. Through the work of God’s Son, Jesus Christ, God truly understands what it is we need, even when we don’t. We can ask for God to have mercy upon us, and we will receive that mercy. We can ask God for grace in time of need, when we don’t know where else to turn or what else to do, and God will hear us. So, be bold and ask God for what you need in this life. God hears you. God suffers with you. God will be there with you through everything that is happening, and God loves you no matter what.

In his commentary on Hebrews, Thomas Long writes that the main purpose of the author to the Hebrews in this section is “to encourage the congregation toward daring, even audacious prayer … The Preacher wants them to move past fearful prayers, tidy prayers, formal and distant prayers toward a way of praying that storms the gates of heaven with honest and heartfelt cries of human need” (63). In our own faith tradition, Martin Luther, in his explanation to the introduction of the Lord’s Prayer, writes, “With these words (Our Father in heaven) God wants to attract us, so that we come to believe he is truly our Father and we are truly his children, in order that we may ask him boldly and with complete confidence, just as loving children ask their loving father.” Therefore, let’s not be hesitant in our prayer lives, but let us be as bold in talking to God as our children are in asking us for what they need. We may not always get what we ask God for—that is part of the mystery of prayer—but we should be asking, nonetheless. Jesus, our great high priest, has gone ahead of us and makes us right with God so that we have no fear when we approach God’s throne. So: pray boldly. Amen.

Sermon for Pentecost 6 Narrative

Hebrews 2:10-18

Last week, we talked about the beginning of the book of Hebrews, and we talked about how the author of this sermon that made it into our Holy Scriptures responded to apathy and discouragement in the community of Christians by reminding them of who Jesus was and why they worshiped him. We talked about how God imprinted God’s image on Christ in the same way that the images of our leaders are stamped on our coins. We talked about how we see God in both the suffering of Jesus on the cross and his resurrection and ascension to heaven.

Before we begin with this week’s portion of Hebrews, I’d like to trace the argument that the author makes between last week’s reading and this week’s. In the remainder of chapter 1, the author quotes many Old Testament Scriptures to support his point that Jesus is superior to all of the angels that God made. This seems to imply that perhaps that congregation was confused about the role of angels in God’s world and where Jesus fit in to this heavenly population. Make no mistake, the preacher tells his congregation: God’s Son, Jesus, is far above and far superior to the angels. Angels have a role to play, he says: they are sent to serve for the sake of those who inherit salvation, that is, we human beings who believe in Christ. But angels are not on the same level as Jesus; Jesus is superior to all of them. Therefore, the preacher warns, we need to pay greater attention to what we have heard, because we cannot escape if we neglect so great a salvation. The preacher then continues by saying that God did not subject the world to angels, but rather to human beings, citing Psalm 8 to support his point. And so, Jesus was made lower than the angels; God’s Son was made to be one of us, so that he might “taste death for everyone”.

Now we come to today’s verses of chapter 2. And what the preacher does here is to use three different images for Jesus to try to help the congregation understand who Jesus is and what he came to earth to do. The first image that he uses is that of a pioneer. When we think of a pioneer, we probably think of our ancestors who came to this country from Europe and other places, those people who settled in these lands and then paved the way for other family members in Europe to join them and for their descendants. We need to be careful with this image, though, because we know our ancestors who were pioneers in this country did not always treat Native Americans very well. Another image that we may have for a pioneer is the astronauts, both Russian and American, who went to space in the 1960s, especially as we have been remembering the 50th anniversary of the moon landing this week. They were the first, and even though we haven’t been back to the moon in a long time, they paved the way for our understanding of how things work in space and how we might one day return to the moon, or even Mars. But, coming back to this image of Jesus as a pioneer: our metaphors are not perfect in describing God, because God is something that we don’t understand very well—even Jesus, who became one of us. Therefore, when we think of Jesus as a pioneer, the picture that we should have is this: Jesus was the one who gained salvation for us by suffering, dying, and rising again. He was the first to rise again after suffering and death and he has gone ahead of us, making it easier for us who follow him. Therefore, we can take heart even when we suffer, for we know that Jesus has gone ahead of us, has saved us, and has promised us resurrection and eternal life.

From the image of Jesus as a pioneer, the author of Hebrews goes to the image of Jesus as our brother.  He tells us that, since Jesus calls God Father and we also call God our Father, then that makes Jesus a brother to us. And that is an interesting image for me, because we don’t always think of Jesus as our brother, even though Jesus calls those who do the Father’s will his mother and brothers and sisters. So, what do we think of when we think of our earthly siblings? For example, I have one brother. My brother and I are different people, and so we didn’t always get along when we were growing up. But as adults, we have come to a place where we can admit that we love one another, and even if we don’t always agree on things, we would do all in our power to help each other. With Jesus as our brother, though, we have those feelings and so much more. Jesus has already done all in his power for us by suffering, thus understanding how we feel when we suffer; by dying for us, thus understanding the power of death; and by rising again, thus promising us that one day we, too, will rise from death.

But there is another theological point that is implied in this image: Jesus is not just a brother to us in our comfortable church buildings in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, he is also a brother to every human being on this earth. Thomas Long, in his commentary on Hebrews, puts it this way: “The Preacher is saying that when the gaze of the eternal Son of God encompasses a criminal on death row, when the glorified Son sees a homeless woman crawling into a cardboard box to keep from freezing in the night, when the Lord of all sees a man robbed of dignity and purpose by schizophrenia, when the divine heir of all things sees a mother weeping over the death of her child or a man battling the last savage assault of cancer or the swollen body of a child slowly starving to death, he does not see a charity case, a pitiful victim, or a hopeless cause. He sees a brother, he sees a sister, and he is not ashamed to call us his ‘brothers and sisters’ (2:11). The Son of God does not wag his head at misery and cluck, ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’ Instead he says, ‘There because of the grace of God I am.’”

So, what does this mean for us? On the personal level, it means that Jesus Christ is with us when we are in the hospital, and he suffers when we suffer. It also means that Jesus Christ is with us when we mourn the loss of a loved one, and he mourns with us. But it also means this: if Jesus Christ is our brother, then he is also brother to that homeless woman that Long mentions in his commentary. If Jesus Christ is our brother, then it also means that he is brother to the immigrants and refugees coming to our southern border who are mistreated, and he suffers with them. Jesus himself told us, in the Gospel according to Matthew, that whatever we do to the least of these who are members of his family, that is, his brothers and sisters, we are doing to him. So, we should be very afraid, because when we are mistreating immigrants and refugees who come to our border, we are mistreating Jesus.

From the image of a pioneer, to the image of a brother, the Preacher to the Hebrews next moves to the image of Jesus as a liberator. Here he is drawing on the story of Exodus, when Moses freed the people of Israel from slavery. In a similar manner to Moses leading the Israelites to freedom from slavery in Egypt, he says, Jesus “himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.” This might be harder for us to identify with, because most of us haven’t been physical slaves, and we live in a country that’s pretty free. So, let’s think metaphorically. Many of us have dealt with having debt in our lives, for example, whether that is student loan debt, or mortgage debt, or credit card debt, or a car loan, or some other kind of debt. We have felt the burden of that debt as we may have struggled to budget our income to both pay off that debt and provide food, clothing, and other necessary items for ourselves. What would it look like for someone to come and free us from our slavery to that debt? For someone to come in and wipe the slate clean, so that we could truly use our income to both provide for ourselves and to help others in need? That’s what the image of Jesus as liberator looks like: Jesus has come to free us from our slavery to sin and to the fear of death, so that we are no longer afraid and can truly serve one another as God has called us to serve.

All of these three word-pictures: Jesus as a pioneer, as a brother, and as a liberator, are used to help us understand the thing that Jesus has done for us: suffered, died, and rose again from death. The preacher of this sermon is trying to get across to his original congregation, and to us again today, how much God loves us and what it means for us that Jesus has done all of these things for us. As I mentioned before, these images and metaphors that we use are not perfect, because our language always fails at some point when we try to describe what is indescribable. But the meaning, in the end, is always the same: God loves us so much that God sent Jesus to die for us on the cross, to go ahead of us through death, and to promise us eternal life. So, let’s picture Jesus as a pioneer going ahead of us into uncharted territory; as a brother who would do anything for us and urges us to think of all human beings as our brothers and sisters; as a liberator freeing us from slavery to fear and to death. Jesus is all of these things and much more. With these images in our heads, reminding us that we are free, we may better care for one another and serve God until all of God’s promises to us are fulfilled. Amen.

 

Sermon for Pentecost 5 Narrative

Hebrews 1:1-4

Today we start our sermon series on the book of Hebrews. This is an interesting book of the Bible that we don’t talk about very often, and so we need to first go through some background of this book: what little of it we know, that is. In some older Bibles, you may see the book of Hebrews attributed to the Apostle Paul. But, when we compare this book with the letters that we know that Paul wrote, we find that Paul very obviously did not write this. Everyone has a style of writing, and Hebrews doesn’t look like anything that Paul previously wrote. The use of language is also very obviously not Paul’s; while Paul’s Greek was good, Hebrews has the most sophisticated Greek of any of the writings of the New Testament. The concerns addressed in this letter are not the concerns of any of Paul’s previous letters. And finally, we have no name on this New Testament work, whereas with Paul’s letters, he always put his name at the beginning of the letter. Hebrews is, therefore, not one of Paul’s creations. But, whose is it? That we don’t know. There have been many guesses made; for example, one guess is a man named Apollos who appears in the book of Acts, because Acts says that Apollos was “an eloquent man, well-versed in the Scriptures” and this would definitely fit the book of Hebrews. But we just don’t know for sure.

We also don’t know who Hebrews was written to. There is a clue at the end of the book, which contains greetings from “those from Italy,” which would suggest that the author’s companions may be saluting their friends back home. So, it’s very possible that this book was addressed to Christians in the city of Rome. What we can gather from this book is that the audience that it was addressed to was a congregation who had experienced persecution for their faith and that was getting discouraged because God’s promised kingdom had not yet come. The best guess on the date of this work, based on the writing and the theological concepts developed here, is sometime between 60 and 95 C.E. These were not the very first Christians who followed Jesus in person; they were second and third generation Christians. And so, because God’s kingdom had not come as soon as was expected, some were slipping away from the group and the congregation was declining in numbers. And those that remained were getting tired, wanting to remain faithful, but perhaps being tempted to also drop away from the congregation. Does that sound at all familiar to you? The author of Hebrews is writing to remind them of who this Jesus is in whom they have placed their faith and is encouraging them to persevere even when the going is tough. And so, one final note about Hebrews: this isn’t so much a letter as it is a sermon. Yes, that’s right: your pastor is going to preach several sermons on different parts of a very long sermon that has become part of our Holy Scriptures.

So, let’s begin at the beginning, which someone has told me is a very good place to start: “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds.” I mentioned before how this book uses very sophisticated Greek, and the Greek here is no exception: it reads polymeros kai polytropos palai,” which literally means “In many fragments and in many fashions in former times. . .”. And I like that image of God speaking in fragments. How many times in our lives does it seem like God speaks to us in fragments? When we are wrestling with a decision and we pray to God for guidance, we don’t always get a clear answer. We get a glimpse here of what might happen if we decide one way, or a flash there of what were to happen if we were to decide the other way. We struggle as we listen for God’s voice. Here the author of Hebrews is telling his congregation that, long ago, God spoke in this way to their ancestors through the prophets: through fragments and glimpses of who God was, but that now God has spoken more clearly through the Son, Jesus Christ. And how, exactly, did God speak to us through God’s Son that was so much clearer than what God said through the prophets?

Well, let’s think of it this way: the various Old Testament prophets had different specific details in what they spoke to the people, depending on the time they lived and the situation that was going on. But no matter the different contexts that the prophets had, their messages all came down to the same thing, as spoken in Micah 6:8: Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly with your God. You would think those words would be clear enough. But evidently not, because we still struggle with what those directives from God look like in our present-day context. And we still struggle to see the face of God. So, God the Father sent the Son, Jesus Christ, and it is in him that we clearly see the face of God. And it is through Jesus and his teachings that we most clearly hear what God wants.

The writer of Hebrews continues, saying that Jesus “is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being”. To better understand what that means, I would like each one of you to find a coin and look at who is on it. If you pulled out a penny, you have an image of Abraham Lincoln; if you pulled out a dime, you have an image of FDR; if you pulled out a nickel, you have an image of Thomas Jefferson; and if you pulled out a quarter, you have an image of George Washington. The way that these presidents are accurately stamped on our coins is the same way that God stamped God’s image on the Son, Jesus Christ. When we look at Jesus, we see God.

And how do we see God in Jesus Christ? The writer says this, “When he [Jesus] had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.” We see God in Jesus Christ not because Jesus waved his hand and everyone believed in him—we know that’s not true. Rather, we see God in the face of Jesus Christ who went to the cross to die for our sins; that’s what the writer is talking about when he says that Jesus “made purification for sins”. We see God in the face of the suffering of God’s Son on the cross; we have a God who understands what it means to be human and to suffer pain with us. But that is not the only place that we see God in Jesus Christ. The author of Hebrews also tells us we see God in the Jesus who was resurrected from the dead and now sits at God’s right hand. This is who we worship, and this is the person in whom we have faith.

I find it interesting that the person who wrote this work named Hebrews, when faced with a struggling, declining, congregation, started out not by urging the people to feed more of the hungry or to go out and talk to more people, but rather, began with reminding the people of who this Jesus was in whom they believed. The writer of this letter, or rather, this sermon, started with teaching the people theology, the very basic stuff of their faith. When I switched us over from the Revised Common Lectionary to the Narrative Lectionary, the series of readings that we are hearing on Sundays now, this is what I was hoping to do: to take you all through the arc of how God spoke by the prophets through many and various ways, to the coming of God’s Son, Jesus, the one in whom we have placed our faith. Now that we’ve been doing this for a couple of years, I can see a difference, but we still have a lot of work to do. As someone else has pointed out, we are good at meeting needs in the community, but we are not so good at telling other people about Jesus. And perhaps part of the reason for us not being so good at sharing Jesus with other people is that we have lost the wonder and the awe of this Son of God whom we worship. We have become so distracted by what’s going on around us—our congregations declining—that we have focused too much on that and what we can do to stop it rather than keeping our eyes on Jesus.

So, what is the solution? What are some ways we can keep our eyes on Jesus? Well, every one of us should be in a regular Bible study of some sort. Our combined Salem and St. John’s study meets Thursday mornings at 10. There is an adult Sunday school class after worship at Salem and before worship at St. John’s that you can be a part of. Trinity has an evening adult Bible study on Tuesdays at 6:30 p.m. There are ample opportunities among our four Lutheran churches to learn more about God and discover the great, wonderful, awesome love that sent Jesus to us. Another thing we can do is be more regular attenders at Sunday morning worship. I know that sometimes life gets in the way and we can’t make it to worship. But if you are traveling, try to go to worship with a congregation in the area where you are. And in our personal lives, let’s make time for devotion and prayer. These are just some examples of how God can strengthen us in our faith and give us a renewed energy to go out and tell others how wonderful this Jesus is whom we worship.

In a way, it’s comforting to know that congregations in the second and third centuries were already having problems holding together, and that a preacher heard their calls for help and responded by reminding them that the one whom they worshiped knew what it was like to be human, gave himself up to death for us, and then rose from the dead. And it still rings true for us two thousand plus years later. If we run around doing good things for the community but do not remember why we do these things and who we worship, then we are no better than the Lions Club or the Kiwanis Club and then perhaps our congregation deserves to die. But if we are firmly rooted in the one who created the worlds, the one who is the reflection of God’s glory and the imprint of God’s very being, then everything that we do will flow from that love and we will reflect that love to those around us. Therefore, let us not forget who we are and whose we are as we seek to do God’s will in the community around us. Amen.

Sermon for Creation 4A

Revelation 22:1-5

I’ve been with you here in Harrisburg for a little over two years now, and one thing I’ve learned is that the Susquehanna River plays a large part in the lives of the people here. I’ve heard many stories about the flood of 1972 and how that affected people living in different parts of the city. I’ve heard stories from Jeff Myers about the cottage they used to have on the island and how upset he and his family were when the township made the people living there leave. I’ve walked along the banks of the Susquehanna in downtown Harrisburg when the Arts Festival comes on Memorial Day weekend and Kipona comes on Labor Day weekend. I’ve been to City Island to play miniature golf and looked at both the East Shore and the West Shore from that island. I’ve learned about the dangerous Dock Street Dam with its hidden currents that have taken the lives of people boating in the area. But the most interesting thing to me about the Susquehanna River is how it seems to divide the people who live on the east side from those who live on the west. People who live on the West Shore don’t want to cross over to downtown Harrisburg because they’re afraid they’re going to get mugged. And people who live on this side of the river don’t like going over to the West Shore because “it’s so far,” or “it’s so confusing”. I’ve even heard one person derogatorily refer to the West Shore as “the white shore,” making reference not only to the fact that those suburbs are mostly white, but also that they are wealthier than those on the east side and have no idea what poverty really looks like. In our world, rivers can bring life, but it also seems like they can bring division and destruction.

Today’s reading from Revelation gives us a different vision of what a river can be like. The book of Revelation as a whole seems to us to be frightening, with its images of horsemen and beasts that we don’t understand or that we try to make into a literal prediction of the future. That is not what Revelation is supposed to be about, and if you want more details, come to our Thursday morning Bible study, because we are talking about Revelation now. Revelation is a message of hope for those first-century Christians who were suffering under the persecution of the Roman Empire, and it is a message of hope for us Christians in the 21st century who are struggling with a corrupt human government. It is a message that, in the end, God will come and will rule God’s people with compassion and justice. It is a message that there will no longer be a need for any kind of temple or house of worship, because God will be with God’s people and will wipe every tear from their eyes. And the reading that we have before us today is an image of what that will look like.

“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city.” Let’s stay with this image for a moment. Have any of you gone into the mountains and drunk directly from a river or a creek that was not polluted? What did that taste like? To drink water from its source, non-filtered and perfectly clean? When I was living out West, I had the opportunity to go on a servant event to Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation in Montana. In a very beautiful ceremony, one of the elders gave those of us who wanted one a name in the Chippewa-Cree language. And afterwards, he invited us to come and fill our water bottles with water from a pure creek. To this day I remember the taste of that pure, clean, cold, refreshing water: water as God intended it to be to give us life. And yet, I know that even this will pale in comparison to that river of the water of life that John saw in Revelation.

The next part of John’s description is just as beautiful as the first. “On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” This description has always puzzled me a bit, because I can’t figure out if the tree is somehow bridging the river, or if there is a tree on each side of the river. When I did some investigating into the original Greek, I found that these two verses could also be translated like this: “In the middle of the street of the city, and on either side of the river, is the tree of life.” Well, that still doesn’t help. But I want us to think of it like this: the tree of life serves as a bridge, crossing the sides of the river and joining the two sides together. So, in order for there to be life, any divisions that the river may cause are done away with by the tree of life somehow growing on both sides. And the fruit that this tree, this connector, bears, heals the nations. Because bridges heal divisions and bring life.

So, I can hear you saying to me now that this is all very nice, but it’s a vision for when Jesus returns, and it’s never going to happen now, so what is the real-world application of all of this?  I’d like to start with a definition of hope that Paul gives us in Romans 8: “Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” The vision of the river of the water of life and the tree of life are what we hope for; we do not see them now, but we wait for the vision with patience. But waiting in the Bible is never the kind of waiting where we sit around and twiddle our thumbs. Waiting in the Bible is an active waiting: while we wait for Jesus to return, we are called to live as he taught us to live and to work towards that vision that we hope for. Theologian Walter Brueggemann puts it this way: “Hope in God’s promises is not passive but demandingly active; it is a resolve to live in God’s future as though it were already here” (Sojourners, Vol. 48, No. 7, July 2019, p. 36).

Let us then live in God’s future as though it were already here. What would that look like for us? Let’s start locally, with our Susquehanna River, since this river plays such a large part in our lives. Barbara Rossing, professor of New Testament at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago, writes in her book, The Rapture Exposed, about seeing an inscription of Revelation 22:2 on a pillar over the Charles River in Boston. And her first reaction to that was to think that the inscription was idolatrous: how could the Bostonians think that their river was at all related to God’s river of the water of life? But, on further reflection, she says, “When we can glimpse in every river the river of life flowing from God’s throne in the holy city, then we see ourselves as citizens, as stewards of earth’s rivers and trees. … By whatever name … the biblical river of God flows through the middle of every city of the world. All our rivers are all connected to God’s watershed of the river of life” (168). That includes the Susquehanna River. And if that is the case, while we wait and hope for that vision of the river of the water of life, we can live as if the future is already here, and we can care for our Susquehanna River.

In the research that I did on the Susquehanna River, I found that in 2016, three years ago, it was listed as one of the ten most endangered rivers in the country. For 2019, it has dropped off of the top ten, so obviously progress has been made in getting our river cleaned up. But the work is not done yet. The biggest problem that I found relative to the condition of our river, the Susquehanna, is stormwater runoff. Here’s why this is a problem: The Susquehanna is not an isolated river. It empties into the Chesapeake Bay, and I’m sure that we all know about the problems that the Chesapeake Bay has. Here’s the connection between what we do along our river and the pollution in the Chesapeake Bay: population increase and stormwater runoff. As population along the river increases, so too do housing developments, which decreases our forests and our farmland. On the farmland that remains, farmers are using fertilizers with a lot of nitrogen and phosphorus in them. We also use these chemicals when we treat our lawns, our golf courses, and our parks. When the rains come—and they’ve been coming a lot in recent years—these chemicals have been washed off into the river. The nitrogen and the phosphorus runoff from the Susquehanna make up 21% and 40% of all that is found in the Chesapeake Bay. These chemicals contribute to algae blooms in the Chesapeake, which consumes oxygen needed by fish and other wildlife that live in the bay. Excess algae also blocks sunlight to water plants needed by the fish and wildlife as they struggle to survive. Eventually, as the fish die off, this will mean less of a livelihood for fishermen and less food for us humans and other animals who feed on the fish. Everything in this world, you see, is intimately interconnected.

So, what can we do to help with cleaning up our river? There is an article in the latest edition of the Swatara Township newsletter about making rain gardens to help slow the flow of stormwater. They also list other suggestions, including bioswales (landscape elements designed to concentrate or remove debris and pollution out of surface runoff water), rain barrels, pervious pavement (pavement that absorbs the water rather than letting it run off), and green roofs. If you own your home, you can research these options and see which one would be best for you. Also, check with your lawn treatment company to see if they are using fertilizers that are safe for the environment. If you don’t own your own home, talk to your landlord or apartment complex manager and see what they are doing to alleviate stormwater runoff. Finally, something we all can do if we have pets is to clean up after them, because yes, that also is part of what the rainwater is washing into the river.

The Susquehanna River, the Mississippi, the Nile, the Amazon, and all the other rivers in this world are all linked to the river of the water of life that John saw in God’s Revelation to him. These rivers divide and bring destruction, but they also can bring people together and bring healing. I believe that God is calling us to be a foretaste of that tree of life that brings healing to the nations, bridging the rivers that divide us and working together to bring healing to the rivers of this world while we hope for the river of the water of life that God has promised to us. We are not called to sit passively and wait for that vision, but rather, we are called to work towards that hope while we wait. Therefore, let us go from here, secure in the vision of what has been promised to us, and share that vision with others while we work to steward the rivers of this world. Amen.

Sermon for Creation 3A

Note: This is a reworking of a sermon that I preached in 2014. 

Note: Last Sunday we had a joint service with two other area congregations, and I did not preach. So yes, there is no Creation 2A sermon.

Mark 1:9-13

Fourteen years ago, in July, my mother and I made the journey from St. Louis, Missouri, to Wasilla, Alaska, for my deaconess internship.  We prepared for the journey:  I had bought the latest edition of “The Milepost,” which detailed what could be found at each mile marker of the Alaska Highway.  Since we are not campers, with my father’s help, we had planned out how far we would go each day and made reservations at hotels along the way.  We heeded the advice of people who had driven the Alaska Highway before and made sure we had plenty of music CDs to play in the car for when there would be no radio stations, which we understood would be the situation for much of the trip.  We made sure we had a cooler for storing food on the days where people had told us we would most likely not find a place to eat for lunch.  My mother and I knew—in our minds—that this would be a journey unlike any either of us had made before.  But knowing in your head what something is going to be like is not the same as actually experiencing it.  I don’t think either one of us had traveled for so long before without seeing any signs of civilization other than the road upon which we were driving.  After a few days of driving, we got excited when we saw a bridge, because it meant that human beings had actually been there and built a way across.  Believe me, there were times when we couldn’t see where the road was going and, panicked, thought it had ended and we were stuck in the middle of nowhere.  But then we crested the rise or turned the corner and were relieved to find the road continued on.  Between our stops in small towns for the night, we often saw nothing but the road and many animals on either side.  And the mountainous landscape was beautiful, but it was unsettling as well, for we knew that if something bad happened, we were solely dependent on whoever would drive next down that road, because cell phone reception was very spotty, too.  For us, this was our first experience with true wilderness:  beautiful and frightening at the same time.

Mark’s Gospel today says that as soon as Jesus was baptized, the Spirit drove him immediately into the wilderness, where he was tempted by Satan and surrounded by the wild beasts.  I can’t imagine what that must have been like for Jesus.  In Hebrew, the word for wilderness is midbar, which also suggests a place without words.  The wilderness was seen as a place where God was not; a place where God did not speak; a place where demons dwelled.  It was also seen as a place of un-creation, a place of chaos where life could not flourish, and, as in our Gospel lesson today, a place of temptation and testing.  I imagine Jesus going into this wilderness full of fear and trembling.  But then again, there are experiences where God’s voice is indeed heard in the wordless wilderness:  the prophet Elijah in the Old Testament, for example, went into the wilderness after Queen Jezebel threatened his life, and heard the voice of God in the sound of sheer silence.  In this wordless wilderness, therefore, God is not completely absent.  And many Christians throughout the years since Jesus lived on earth have also sought to hear the voice of God in the sound of silence which can only be found in the wordless wilderness where no other humans dwell.

Being humans, though, and being creatures of community, there is something about the wilderness that frightens us.  And, being made in the image of God, we too have an urge to create, to fill the void of “un-creation” with the creature comforts of civilization.  We don’t always see the value of having a space where there is a residual element of un-creation, of chaos; a place where we can get away from civilization, to test who we are as human beings, and to listen for God’s voice claiming us as God’s own and giving us some direction in the questions that we have.  That’s probably one reason why, 55 years ago, the Wilderness Act was created and signed by then-President Lyndon Johnson.  There were people in this country who recognized the value of having different places that were not civilized; places where we could go to get away from civilization and technology; places where we could remind ourselves of our relationship with nature and where we could listen for the sound of God’s voice speaking to us.  They sought, with the Wilderness Act, to protect those spaces.  And 55 years later, we are thankful that there are still people working to protect those spaces.

In the time that I lived in Wyoming, the least populated state in the nation, I encountered more wilderness areas as I drove around both Wyoming and Montana. And I also encountered a concept that was new to me as an Easterner: that is the concept of public lands. Here in the East we’re familiar with national parks and state parks that belong to the federal and state governments. But in the West, there is even more land that is owned by the federal government that is not included in any national parks, but instead is under the control of the Bureau of Land Management. These lands are used for different purposes, either recreational or leased out to farmers to graze or to oil companies for drilling, for example. But, as citizens of the United States, we each have a say in what happens on these lands, even when we don’t live near them, because they are public and belong to the whole country.

The problem with this is that we can’t always agree on how best these public wilderness lands should be used. You may recall a few years ago the Bundy family getting into an argument with the federal government over grazing rights, and people who supported the Bundy family taking over a wildlife refuge in Oregon in retaliation. When we heard about this out here on the East coast, it was something completely foreign to most of us, and we wondered if there really were parts of the Old, Wild West still in existence. But this is part and parcel of our disagreements on how public land should be used or preserved, and it does affect the livelihoods of some people.

And there is yet another perspective that we need to hear when we discuss the use—or non-use—of public lands: that of Native Americans, the people whose ancestors were driven off of their homelands by many of our ancestors. When I was living in Wyoming, I got the opportunity to meet some Native Americans, to learn a little of what it was like for those living on reservations, and to hear their voices about their relationship to the land. In reference to the Red Desert, a wilderness area in Wyoming that is home to many different kinds of plant and animal life, but yet is threatened by oil and gas development, a member of the Northern Arapaho tribe said this: “As Native Americans, we have a unique perspective toward this land that ecologists and conservationists do not have. Because we have lived here for so long, we have bonded with the land. In a way that is often overlooked by others, we have special ties to the plants and animals. All this is sacred to us, because we are spiritually connected to it. We cannot be spiritual beings, without preserving the very environment that made us spiritual in the first place.” This idea connects very well with Biblical figures who had encounters with God in the wilderness, such as the Israelites who wandered in the desert for 40 years; Elijah, who fled to the wilderness to escape Queen Jezebel, and Jesus, who spent 40 days in the wilderness in the Gospel reading we have before us today.

When Jesus came out of the wilderness, I imagine that he came out with a sense of accomplishment.  I imagine that Jesus came out of the wilderness a bit thinner, a bit hungrier, and a bit thirstier, but confident that God’s word to him at his baptism, that he was God’s Son and that God was well pleased with him, was indeed a true word.  I imagine that he came out of the wilderness knowing that if, with God’s help, he could survive that, then with God’s help, he could go forward with the task that God had set before him: teaching the people and making disciples, suffering misunderstanding and scorn, and finally, suffering and dying on the cross for our sins.  It is not that Jesus conquered the wilderness or that he waved his hand and transformed the wilderness into a beautiful garden.  No, Jesus came out of this piece of “un-creation” as a person transformed by the wilderness and newly empowered for his mission here on earth.

Many times, new Christians believe that, once they are baptized and claimed as God’s children, everything in their life will be wonderful.  But that is not the case.  As Christians, we are often thrust into a wilderness where we experience temptations and we wonder if God is really there, still present with us.  But we can learn from the experiences of Jesus and many others that God will still speak in the sound of sheer silence.  We can learn from the experiences of Native Americans who have that deep, spiritual relationship with the land and learn how to reclaim our spiritual relationship with the land as well.  And, like Jesus, with God’s help, we can come out from the wilderness with a renewed sense of who we are—God’s children—and with a renewed sense of the task which God has given us during our time on earth.

It’s not too late to undo the damage we have done.  It’s not too late to listen to those who love the wilderness and who want to protect places like the Red Desert.  We have hope that one day in the future, Jesus will come again, bringing justice and restoring all things.  That hope speaks to us here in the present, compelling us to work for what restoration we can now while waiting for the greater fulfillment of Jesus’ promise to return to this Earth.  May God give us the wisdom to know where the boundaries are and to show us the best way to steward the gifts of this land that he has entrusted us with.  Amen.