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.

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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.

 

Sermon 1 in Creation Series (Trinity Sunday)

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

Note 2: We had two baptisms at St. John’s this morning.

Genesis 2:4b-22 & John 3:1-16

When I was a little girl, we lived for about 4 years in a town in New Hampshire called Keene.  It’s a town of about 25,000 people, and it’s a town where nothing really ever changes.  I remember returning there to visit after the events of September 11 and feeling comforted that this town remained almost exactly as I had remembered it, even as the outside world was in uproar.  In this town is a public park which has a small pond which is surrounded by a forest.  And in the forest, there are trails where you can walk around the pond and then deeper into the forest.  In my mind, I can still smell the scent of the leaves, and feel the quietness of the place as I walk further away from the noise of children playing on the playground.  I used to imagine that the trails through the forest would lead me to a different world, or perhaps a portal that would take me to a different period of time.  There was something special and magical about that forest, as well as something peaceful.  When my family moved back to Keene when I was a student in college, I would return to those forest trails when I needed to gain some quiet and to think about things.

Trees are some of the first things that God created, according to today’s account in Genesis.  “And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed.  Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”  Before animals were created, trees were there.  God made human beings to be creatures who need relationships, even relationships with trees.  Science tells us that the trees take in the carbon dioxide we breathe out, and in return, the trees produce oxygen that we need to take in.  Since we know that carbon dioxide warms the atmosphere, we know that having more trees is good, since they will reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the air and thus keep the earth from becoming too warm.  Psychologically, we need trees as well.  Just think:  each year, in the depths of winter, we bring in a pine tree from outside or put up a replica of a pine tree and decorate it with ornaments.  Did you ever think about why we do that, aside from the fact that it’s a tradition to do at Christmas time?  I believe that it feeds a need we have to continue to see something growing even when snow is blowing deep and nothing much seems to be alive.

Today marks the first of four Sundays where we as a congregation will focus on God the Creator and God’s creation, the gifts that God gives us through creation and the challenge that God gives us to care for the creation.  The first commission that God gives human beings when he puts Adam in the garden is to till and keep the earth.  The Hebrew word translated “till” here can also mean “to serve”.  So, what would it look like for human beings to “serve” the earth as we keep it?  Let’s look at this in relationship to the two trees specifically mentioned in this chapter, the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

Noted theologian Brian McLaren suggests that each of these trees represents different things.  The Tree of Life, he says, suggests, “health, strength, thriving, fruitfulness, growth, vigor, and all we mean by aliveness.”  In contrast, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil “could represent the desire to play God and judge parts of God’s creation—all of which God considers good—as evil.”  The danger, McLaren says, is that, while “God’s judging is always wise, fair, true, merciful, and restorative,” our judging is “frequently ignorant, biased, retaliatory and devaluing.”  McLaren asks what gives us the right, as part of creation itself, to judge what parts of creation are good and worthy of preservation, and what parts are bad and worthy of destruction?  Even though I and many other people question God’s creation of the mosquito, for example, and would be very happy to wipe it off of the face of the earth, the mosquito does serve a purpose in God’s good creation: it serves as food for birds and for reptiles, for example.  If we were to take away the mosquito, other species that we judge to be good might go extinct.

So, the questions we ask are:  How do we choose the Tree of Life, choose health, strength, and aliveness, rather than choose the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, judging parts of creation to be good and parts to be evil, despite the fact that we ourselves are a part of creation?  How do we properly till and keep the earth, especially as regards forests and trees, in an age where our need for tree products is growing, but also in an age that is seeing an increase in carbon dioxide and other pollutants that having more fully-grown, mature trees would help to alleviate?

Let’s first start in our own yards.  I don’t know about you, but most of the time I generally don’t notice the trees until they either cause a problem or there is some change about them.  Since I rent an apartment, it is the landlord’s responsibility to care for the trees, so I don’t have too much say over what happens with them, unless they cause a problem for me.  But for those of you who own your homes, what are the trees in your yard?  Do you notice some more than others?  How do you care for them?  If you have to remove a tree because it is growing in the wrong place and getting into your plumbing, do you plant a new one to replace it?  If you don’t plant a new tree in your yard to replace the one you removed, or are not able to plant a new tree in your yard, do you make the effort to plant a tree somewhere else?

Moving from our own backyards, we need to look and see how trees and forests around the world are being treated, and how we can best advocate for people to care for them.  All around the world, forests are being harvested for various reasons: burning for fuel, use of wood in furniture, use of the trees for paper products, etc.  This is the point where you might expect me to say, “Save the rain forests!”  I’m not going to do that, although that is a very good thing to work towards and advocate for.  What I’m going to talk about is something a little closer to home, across the Canadian border:  Save the boreal forest!  The boreal forest is a large swath of forest in Canada that is being clear cut so that oil companies can access tar sands and extract oil from them. The timber is also being used to feed our demand for paper products, even toilet paper. The boreal forest supports a large variety of animal life, and it is a source of clean water for many people of Canada.  It is home to many of the people of the First Nations, who we would call Native Americans, and these peoples have been just as marginalized and ill-treated throughout history as our tribes have been.  The First Nations depend on the boreal forest for their lives and their livelihoods.  But, of greatest importance in preserving this forest is this:  it is a vast storehouse of carbon dioxide.  Cutting down these trees would release about 47 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the air.  And the cutting has already begun.

In just a little while, we will have the great privilege of baptizing two people into the Christian faith. Our Gospel reading from John talks about how no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above. Being born from above, or born anew, which is another way to translate the Greek, is what happens in baptism. It is a new birth into the kingdom of God, and it is a new birth into eternal life. And for the author of this Gospel, eternal life is not something that starts when you die and go to heaven. Eternal life starts here on earth, from the moment that you are born anew into the kingdom of God. That is the promise that God makes to you in the moment of baptism. This entry into the new life that God promises starts with our baptism.

Jesus also tells us that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. The Greek word used for world here is kosmos, which we have taken over in English to mean the whole universe, not just the world. And that is one of the meanings of this Greek word, yes. But to get a more complete idea of what the kosmos is, it means God loves the entire world—down to each blade of grass, each flower, each wolf, each bear, each human being, and yes, even each mosquito. We human beings are just one part of this beautiful and fragile creation that God loves, and yet, we are having an outsize effect on it. So what this means is that, when we are baptized and born anew into this wonderful, eternal life God gives us, we are called upon to live in harmony with the rest of God’s creation, and to serve that creation, not to use it for our own selfish gain.

A derogatory word that is often used in place of the word “environmentalist” is “tree-hugger”.  I propose that we, as stewards of God’s good creation baptized into eternal life, turn that word from a derogatory usage to one that we proudly own.  After all, our Genesis reading today speaks of trees as one of the first things that God created and commanded us to care for.  Without the trees, we and most other life on this earth could not exist.  So, why wouldn’t we want to “hug” the trees and care for them as the precious resources they are instead of as something we can dispose of at will?  Martin Luther is supposed to have said, “If I knew the world was ending tomorrow, I would plant a tree.”  Let us go, then, to plant trees, to care for them, to walk and to rest in their shade, to wonder at their awesomeness, beauty and mystery, and most of all, to thank God for providing them for us.  Let us choose the Tree of Life.  Amen.

 

 

 

 

Sermon for Pentecost Sunday 2019

Note: Today we had two youth who were being confirmed (affirming their faith) at one congregation; but there was no one being confirmed at the other. The main body of the sermon got preached at both congregations, but what you will see here is the sermon I preached at the congregation where the youth were confirmed.

Romans 8:14-39

If today’s passage from Romans sounds familiar to you, there’s a reason for that, as this passage is often used in funerals. But it’s even more important for us to read and hear in the daily life of the church. In some of his most beautiful language yet in Romans, Paul describes the actions of the Holy Spirit in the life of the baptized Christian. And today is Pentecost, the one day of the church year when we Lutherans actually talk about the Holy Spirit and the Spirit’s action in our lives. And this is the day when we are confirming two of our young people in the Christian faith, but what that really means is that they are taking on the promises for themselves that were made by their parents and their sponsors when they were baptized as children. And so, since Paul talked about baptism in the passage that we heard from him last week, we are going to trace that line of thinking from baptism to the Holy Spirit today.

Last week, Paul said that, because we were baptized into the death of Christ Jesus, we now walk in newness of life, and in hope of the resurrection. And this newness of life means that sin is no longer master over us; rather, Jesus Christ is our master and it is he whom we follow. So that means there is no such thing as “cheap grace,” where we go out and sin on Saturday night so we can be forgiven on Sunday morning only to go out and sin again. Rather, because Christ is our master, we live according to his teachings. Paul then gives two analogies to help the Christians in Rome understand what he is saying. The first analogy uses the metaphor of slavery, which was common in the 1st century Roman Empire, and which his audience would have understood. The second analogy Paul uses is a little bit easier for us: he uses the concept of marriage. When a woman is married, he says, she is bound to her husband until her husband dies; then she is free. So also, when we were baptized, we died to sin and therefore we are no longer bound to it, and we are now bound to Christ in our baptism. Paul then goes on to talk about how we still struggle with sin in this life even though sin is no longer our master, and he gives thanks to God through Jesus Christ that God has saved him from his sins.

Then we arrive at chapter 8, where Paul continues talking about how we are no longer bound to the demands of our sinful flesh, but rather, we are bound to the Holy Spirit through our baptism. Because we have the Holy Spirit in us, the law no longer condemns us. We are free: free to walk in that newness of life given to us through Christ Jesus in our baptism. And, Paul says, we have not received a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but we have received a spirit of adoption. We are children of God, and the Holy Spirit bears witness to that. We are free to address God without fear; free to call God our Father. Such marvelous news!

Then Paul talks about some of the ways the Holy Spirit is active in our lives. He begins by talking about how the whole creation is groaning and waiting with eager longing to be set free from its bondage to decay. So, in other words, we human beings tend to focus exclusively on our suffering: the pain from illness, the pain from watching those whom we love suffer from illness, the pain of being separated from those we love, and so on and so forth. But we neglect the rest of creation. Every time a species of animal or plant goes extinct, the whole creation suffers. Every time water is polluted, and it is no longer safe to drink or to wash with, the whole creation groans in pain. We’ll talk more about this idea when we get to our sermon series on creation, starting next week. Paul’s point here is that, just as the creation groans as it suffers, we, who have the Holy Spirit within us, groan inwardly as we await the resurrection and the new creation, where there will be no more pain and suffering.

But, the Holy Spirit does more than make us long for the resurrection with hope of that which we cannot see. The Holy Spirit intercedes for us when we pray, because, Paul says, we do not know how to pray as we ought to. I want to tell a story to illustrate this. In 2004, my paternal grandfather was diagnosed with leukemia. He was 80 years old, and at the time the doctors said that the chemo was just as likely to kill him as it was to cure him. So, he opted for comfort care and to let nature take its course. When I got the news, I was very distressed. And I didn’t know how to pray for him; it didn’t seem right to pray for his death, but I also knew that the diagnosis would not result in my grandfather continuing to live, so it didn’t seem right to pray for him to live if he was going to continue living in pain. After talking with a counselor about this, I concluded that the best way to pray was for God to not allow him to suffer for too long. I don’t know if this was the right prayer—but I do know that the Holy Spirit was interceding for me with sighs too deep for words. And I know that God heard those prayers and knew what was in my heart, even though I couldn’t express it the right way. And I know this because of that promise of the Holy Spirit who was there with me, advocating for me before the throne of God.

Even more wonderful than these already wonderful words about the Holy Spirit is the last section of chapter 8. Paul summarizes all of his arguments up to this point by asking, “If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?” No one condemns us, Paul says, because God loves us. And nothing can separate us from God’s love. Nothing, no one. It doesn’t matter what sin you have committed when you’ve lost your struggle to resist it. God still loves you. You are baptized in Christ Jesus and into his death; nothing will separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. How amazing is that?

Emilee and Heather, in just a little while you will be affirming the promises that your parents and sponsors made for you when you were baptized. That means that you are taking the responsibility for fulfilling those promises on yourselves. Here are those promises: to live among God’s faithful people; to hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s Supper; to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed; to serve all people, following the example of Jesus, and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth. There are times when we will be great at fulfilling those promises, and there will be times when we will fail. Paul’s words about the struggle against sin still ring true over 2000 years later. But the good, wonderful, amazing news is this. When we fail, we are not alone: the whole creation groans with us, including the community of Christians that we find ourselves in. We have not received a spirit of slavery that makes us fall back into fear; rather, we have received the Holy Spirit, who frees us from all condemnation and gives us the promise of the resurrection, so that we are no longer afraid of anything the powers that be can do to us. When we don’t know how to pray, we can simply cry out to God and trust that the Holy Spirit intercedes for us and that God hears our prayers and our heartfelt cries. And finally, and most importantly, we know that nothing, absolutely nothing, can separate us from God’s love in Jesus Christ. God made us, God saved us through Jesus Christ, and God has sent the Holy Spirit to live in our hearts to be with us always. God is always with us, no matter what.

Emilee and Heather, you are taking on these promises of the Christian faith for yourselves in a time when the world is changing rapidly in many ways, some of them for the better and some of them for the worse. You are here to show us who are older how to live out our Christian faith in this new world. We are here to support you with the wisdom we have gleaned in our years of living. It’s going to be challenging for you, and it’s going to be frustrating when we older folks get stubborn and don’t want to follow where the Holy Spirit is urging you to lead us. In fact, one of my colleagues, John Stevens, who is a pastor in Oregon City, Oregon, wrote this series of three haikus that I think you will identify with in the coming years:

Annoying Spirit,

My life was fine before You.

Or at least I thought.

Annoying Spirit,

No longer can I sit still.

Feeling Your call deep.

Annoying Spirit,

You give me new ears to hear

My neighbors in need.

My prayer for you is that you would not give up on us. We love you and we want to support you as you continue living your lives as the Holy Spirit has called you to live: free from fear and resting secure in the knowledge that nothing can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Nothing. No one. God loves you. Period. Amen.

 

 

Sermon for Easter 7 Narrative

Romans 6:1-14

Last week in Romans, we talked about how Paul says that everyone is equally sinful, no matter who they are, whether they are Jewish or Gentile. We talked about how it is not your nationality that makes you right with God, but rather, it is Jesus Christ who makes you right with God. And then we talked about God’s radical love for us: that Christ died for us while we were weak, while we were sinners, and while we were enemies of God. Do you remember the homework assignment I gave you last week? About how every time someone makes you angry or you find yourself hating someone because of something reported in the news, you were to stop and pray for that person? How’s that going? I want you to know that I don’t ask you all to do something like that without disciplining myself to do the same thing, and yes, I found it very difficult this week when I stopped to pray for someone in a news story that I discovered I was hating. So, I want you to know that I feel your pain, and I hope that we all can continue to discipline ourselves to do this.

This week, we need to trace Paul’s argument through the rest of chapter 5 before we start talking about today’s reading. At the end of last week’s reading, Paul tells us that if, “while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.” Moving on into the rest of chapter 5, Paul says that this idea makes sense, because sin and death came into the world through one man—Adam. Therefore, righteousness and life come through the one man, Jesus Christ. And here is where the argument for translating the Greek as “the faithfulness of Christ” rather than “faith in Christ” makes sense, for Paul is saying that just as by Adam’s disobedience many were made sinners, by Jesus’ obedience—that is, his submission to death on the cross, or in other words, Jesus’ faithfulness in following the will of God the Father—many will be made righteous. Finally, in verse 20 of chapter 5, Paul talks about grace and sin. He talks about how, when sin increases, grace increases right alongside of it. God’s love and grace for those who sin is greater than all the possible sins we could commit.

This then leads to Paul’s opening question in chapter 6: “Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?” In other words, let’s go out and party and do bad things on Saturday night and then on Sunday morning we confess, and God forgives, so we have a clean slate and we can continue to do wrong things because God always forgives us. This idea is usually referred to as “cheap grace”. To the concept of cheap grace, Paul says, in a slightly more modern turn of phrase, “Oh, hell, no!” Because we have been baptized into Christ Jesus, he says, we were baptized into his death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.

Here I would like to use an image to help us understand what Paul is talking about in reference to baptism. I want to preface this by saying that I believe that baptism takes hold no matter the form: if you pour water over a person’s head, or if the person is fully immersed in water and comes back up. According to what Martin Luther taught, it is not the water itself or even the amount of water that is important. What is important for the Sacrament of Baptism is water combined with God’s saving Word; together, water and the word is what makes a baptism. Now, that being said, one of my goals for my pastoral career is to do a full immersion baptism, preferably in a river or a lake. Why? Because of Paul’s imagery here: we who are baptized into Christ Jesus are baptized into his death. And when you do a full immersion baptism, you are certainly getting the image of death by drowning, even though the person would hold her nose when going under the water. And what dies in baptism? Our sinful self. That sinful self was crucified on the cross with Jesus and died with Jesus.

Now, here’s the thing, though: Paul does not say that we are resurrected with Jesus when we come up out of the water. Our physical resurrection does not come until Jesus returns in glory. But what does come up out of the water is a new life for us. Baptism transforms us, so that we no longer even want to sin, to do bad things. We have a new life where we walk with Jesus and live according to his teachings. So, no, we don’t deliberately sin and then walk into church on Sunday morning to get forgiven so we can do it again. Rather, our baptism has transformed us so that we want to live that new life in Jesus Christ, in harmony with everyone around us.

But even though our baptism has transformed us, we are living in a time period that we call “now and not yet”. We only have to look around to see that, while we may be transformed by baptism, the world around us is certainly not. And even we who are baptized and walking in that newness of life still fall into sin. Paul says a little bit later, in chapter 7 of Romans, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” We are still sinful human beings, and even though we want to do good and walk in that newness of life given to us in baptism, we still fall into the power of sin. We get angry with one another and we tear one another down rather than build one another up. We live in a system that does not care for the world around us and we uphold that system because we do not see a way that we can break out of it. We look at people who are different from us and condemn them without trying to understand them first. So, what good does baptism do if this is the case?

In fact, baptism does much good. Paul writes: “For if we have been united with [Christ] in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” In other words, the resurrection of our body does not happen immediately upon being baptized. But, because we have been baptized into Christ’s death, we have hope: hope in the promise that, one day, like Jesus, we too will be resurrected and have a completely new life. And because we have that hope in the resurrection, we do not need to be afraid of the powers that are at work in the world. We know that death is not the end. And because we now have no fear of death, we are free to resist the power of sin and to resist the evil that is at work in the world. When we see evil happening in the world, we can call it out and not be afraid of what the powers that be can do to us, because we have that hope in the resurrection that Jesus has promised us through our baptism.

At the end of today’s section of Romans, Paul calls on the Christians at Rome to “present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.” Yes, sin is still in the world, and yes, we still fall into sin. But sin is no longer our master—Jesus Christ is our master, and it is him that we follow. What are some ways, then, that we can present ourselves to God as instruments of righteousness?

On Friday, there was news of yet another mass shooting, this time in Virginia Beach, at a municipal building, by a disgruntled employee. We in this country cannot seem to stop the tide of mass shootings. Every time one happens, people rise up and demand better gun control laws on one side of the issue and better mental health care on the other side of the issue. There’s a lot of noise, but nothing gets done, and then things quiet down until the next mass shooting happens. How are we as Christians to respond to this? In this case, what does it look like for us to present ourselves to God as instruments of righteousness? Well, God desires that we live in peace, safety, and in harmony with one another. To my mind, this is what that looks like: we are called to work for better gun regulations. After all, those who use guns for valid purposes, like hunting, really have no need of semi-automatic weapons. On the other side, God desires that we strive for the mental and physical well-being of our neighbors. This includes better access to mental health care and removing the stigma from asking for help with mental issues. Just as we would go to the doctor to heal a broken bone, we should also be able to go to a mental health professional for a broken mind or spirit. So, as Christians, we are called to advocate for everyone’s mental health and well-being. Practical ways to do this are to contact our federal and state legislators and to volunteer with organizations who are advocating for changes in the way our systems work. Change will not come overnight, but that doesn’t mean we can give up and stop working for that change.

Baptism into the death of Christ Jesus doesn’t mean that since we are saved, we can sit back and do nothing until he comes again. Baptism into his death does mean that nothing we do can save us, because Jesus has done that already. But what our baptism calls us into is that walk in newness of life. We are now called to actively resist sin and not just to throw up our hands and say there is nothing we can do. Sin is no longer our master; Christ Jesus is. And since death could not hold Jesus down, death cannot hold us down either. We are called to get out in the world and speak for our neighbor, and not just in matters of mass shootings. We are called to speak for our neighbor wherever matters of injustice are found, be they things that happen in our ordinary lives or things that happen on a bigger scale. And since we no longer have death to fear, that means that we should fear nothing, for Christ Jesus is with us. So, go, resting secure in the knowledge that you are safe in Jesus’ arms, live out your baptismal calling, and resist sin by calling it out and working for change. Amen.

 

Sermon for Easter 6 Narrative

Romans 3:28-30; 5:1-11

Last week, we were introduced to Paul’s letter to the Romans and why he was writing to the Christian communities in Rome. And we also talked about how the gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. We talked about what salvation looks like today to people who are inside the church and to those outside the church, and how it can look like different things to different people. And we talked about how we have that power of God for salvation to everyone, no matter what salvation looks like; that power that comes from faith in Jesus, or the faithfulness of Jesus, depending on how you translate the Greek.

Today we’re skipping over a few chapters of Romans to get to our main text, but we do need to trace Paul’s argument in the chapters we missed in order to understand more fully what Paul is telling us in today’s reading. And for that, I want to go back to a little section of last week’s reading that I didn’t spend a whole lot of time on. Paul says that the gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. When we read through the stories about Paul in the book of Acts, and when we read through the rest of Paul’s letters as well as Romans, we find this concern about how this new movement that proclaims Jesus Christ as Lord will relate to those who are not Jewish. Something that we modern Christians tend to forget is that Jesus and his disciples were Jewish, and that Christianity started out as a movement within Judaism. And so, the big discussion among first century Christians revolved around Gentiles, who Paul calls “Greeks” in this letter—those people who were not Jewish and who found that Jesus was calling them to follow him. The questions went something like this: Do Gentiles who believe in Jesus need to become Jewish first? If yes, then that means the men have to be circumcised and both men and women need to follow the dietary regulations laid out in the book of Leviticus. If Gentiles do not need to first become Jewish, how can a new Christian community form if Gentiles eat things that Jewish people are not allowed to eat? A lot of community, even today, forms around sharing a meal, so this was a really important question. And finally, what Paul is addressing in his letter to the Romans, is that there was simply prejudice going on: Jewish people in the community looking down their noses at the Gentiles because they were not God’s chosen people, they did not follow the laws laid down by God through Moses, and the Jewish Christians were asking how in the world God’s grace could be poured out on the Gentiles when the Gentiles did not follow God’s laws.

And so, Paul makes the argument, beginning at the end of Romans 1, that everyone, both Jew and Gentile, is equally sinful. He starts out by naming behaviors that Jewish people condemn Gentiles for: specifically, idolatry and actions that result from worshiping idols. And just as the Jewish Christians in the group would be nodding their heads in righteous condemnation of those “wicked Gentiles,” Paul springs the trap: don’t condemn the Gentiles when you do the very same things. His argument here reminds me of when Jesus says, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.” Look at your own behavior, Paul says, and see whether or not you, too, violate the law that God has decreed. In the end, Paul says, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” It doesn’t matter if you are Jew or Gentile: all means all. And this is where the first part of today’s reading comes in: “For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.” Now, Paul is not advocating that the Jewish Christians stop being Jewish and no longer follow the dietary laws and the law that the men should be circumcised. Rather, he is saying that you can keep your identity as Jewish Christians or Gentile Christians, but since all have sinned, keeping those laws is not what makes you right with God. Instead, Jesus Christ is who makes you right with God.

In chapter 4, Paul uses Abraham as an example of his proposition that we are made right with God through faith and not through following the law. Finally, then, we come to chapter 5, which is the major part of the reading that we have heard today. Paul says that because we are made right with God through Jesus Christ, we have access to God’s grace, and this is what we can boast about. We don’t boast about who we are, whether we are Jewish Christians who have kept all of the commandments since our youth or whether we are Gentiles who are brand new to this whole Christian thing. Our pedigrees and our family trees don’t matter. Rather, we boast in “our hope of sharing the glory of God”. God’s grace has fallen on each one of us equally through our Lord Jesus Christ. God loves you just as much as God loves me. And this is the love that we as Christians want to share with the world.

Then, Paul says something that many of us want to argue with: “we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” I don’t know about you, but when I was suffering from having my wisdom teeth taken out two years ago, I would have greatly preferred not having to suffer—I have enough character and hope already, God, thank you very much. How much more do those who are suffering more serious illnesses or more serious difficulties in their lives protest this idea! We want to believe that all God wants is for us to be happy and wealthy and all we have to do is follow these steps and trust in God to get there. And there are plenty of televangelists and others to tell us that. But as we can see from these verses in Romans, and in other places in the Bible, such thinking is not what the Bible teaches. We are not to seek out suffering, but in this world, suffering happens, whether it’s illness or poverty or persecution or something else. What Paul is saying here is that God is present with us and loves us even through all of that, and God can use that experience for good in our lives and the lives of others.

And then Paul gets to the heart of the matter, in some of his most beautiful verses in Romans: “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.” And again he says, “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” And a third time he says, “For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.” Think of that: while we were weak; while we were sinners; while we were enemies. We have been all of those things. And God loves us in spite of all of that. God loves us so much, that God goes to the length of sending Jesus, God’s Son, to earth to die for us. And we didn’t have to do anything. God wants a relationship with us so badly and God loves us so much that Jesus Christ died for us when there was nothing good to be found about us. Isn’t that amazing? Isn’t that worth praising God for? Isn’t that worth getting over our foolish fears and sharing with the people around us?

This is what Paul is implying by using this language: if God loved us while we were weak, sinners, and God’s enemies, then when Jesus commands us to love our enemies, this is not a pious ideal. This is something that we are to work very hard at doing, because this is the same thing that God did for us. This should cause us to examine ourselves and our lives and to ask, “Who are my enemies?” Now, most of us think that we are good, nice people, and that we don’t have enemies at all. But, what about that family member that we see sitting at the dinner table with us at Thanksgiving, the one that we go to great lengths to avoid talking to in order not to get into a big fight and ruin everyone’s holiday? What about that person who spread rumors about us that were untrue and nearly cost us a job? This did happen to me once, many years ago now. And when I told my pastor about it and how angry I was, the first thing that he said to me was, “Let’s pray for that person right now.” That’s what loving your enemies looks like, and no matter how good and nice a person we think we are, we all have enemies. And God’s love for us is so radical that God commands us to love those enemies and to pray for them, no matter how hard it might be. Because that is how God loves us.

As I was studying for this sermon, one podcast commented that this kind of enemy love is God’s “militant NO to the terms of hatred in this world”. I love that. This week, as we go about our daily lives, I want us to be mindful of our emotions. When we watch the news and we are stirred with hatred of someone because of a bad situation going on, let’s stop for a moment, mute the TV or turn off the radio, and pray for that person who we are in the midst of hating. Let’s remind ourselves that God could have hated us for what we had done, too, but that instead God chose to love us so much that God sent Jesus Christ to die for us: while we were weak, while we were sinners, and while we were enemies of God. And if you encounter yourself hating someone during a different activity this week—it doesn’t have to be listening to the news—do the same thing. Stop what you’re doing and pray for that person. It’s a good discipline, and it is very hard to do at first—trust me, it was very hard for me to pray for that person who spread rumors about me all those years ago! But I wonder if it might get easier for us as we practice it more. And just maybe, we might be able to lessen the tide of hatred in this world—just a drop. So, let’s give it a try, and trust that the Holy Spirit is with us, leading us and encouraging us as we go. Amen.