Sermon for Pentecost 18 Narrative

Ruth 1:1-17

If you can remember back that far, we had a sermon series on the book of Ruth last summer, so instead of boring you all with the details of the background of Ruth today, I’m going to give you a pop quiz to see how much about Ruth you remember. First, we hear the names of two countries in today’s reading, Judah and Moab. What was the relationship between these two countries like? It’s complicated. The people of these two countries considered themselves distant cousins, of a sort, but they were usually fighting amongst themselves. And the Israelites had a bad origin story about the Moabites, claiming they were descended from an incestuous relationship between Abraham’s nephew Lot and one of his daughters. Did the Israelites and the Moabites worship the same god? No, and this is one of the points of contention between them. Why would an upstanding man from Judah take his family to live in Moab, then? There was a famine in Bethlehem, but we don’t know why he chose Moab instead of another country. Perhaps he’d heard there was food there. What does the name “Bethlehem” mean in Hebrew? House of bread. Oh, so the author of the story of Ruth is saying that there was no bread in the house of bread. That’s a funny play on words to describe a serious situation!

Lest we think that migration due to a famine or some other inability to get food is a problem for long ago and far away, in order to set the stage for our story of Ruth, I want to tell you a true story, in the present time, about a family in Venezuela who was hungry, and what they had to do to survive. Because of the political and economic crisis in that country, this family, whose last name is Gregorios, could not find enough food to feed their baby girl. They knew that Peru was welcoming refugees, and so they walked. They walked 950 miles over mountains in blazing sun and bone-chilling rain, arriving exhausted and with sores on their feet, simply to find food and safety, which was given to them in Peru. They were given temporary shelter in a Lutheran church in Peru, as well as help in navigating the immigration system. And this family is only a few people of more than 600,000 Venezuelans making the dangerous journey to find food and safety in a country that will welcome them. https://lwr.org/story-hub/hunger-drove-venezuelan-family-peru-and-you-were-there-greet them?fbclid=IwAR1ssyUYwWfA6dKu5mBwyv2esnN7moIADbwJzAuGpe2AEBhI9SP9k5JB9nA

Another story, one that hits a little bit closer to home. A widow in Guatemala had a husband who came to the United States to find work because the crops failed and they had no food, and he died from an infection while in the U.S. He had borrowed thousands of dollars to make the trip here, and when he died, he left his family back home in debt. Two of their sons died in Guatemala of malnutrition-related illnesses. The widow pulled her third son out of school so he could work in fields that were growing and help to pay off the family’s debt. If the debt isn’t paid, the lenders will seize the family land. The widow does not want to see her remaining son leave for the United States, but there is little hope for them in Guatemala, since there is no food, so she will allow him to go. She says that food simply doesn’t grow in Guatemala. But, in contrast to Peru, the U.S. will not welcome these immigrants, despite the fact that climate change that we have helped to cause is what is causing the drought in Guatemala. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/05/opinion/guatemala-migrants-climate-change.html

The story of Naomi’s family migrating to Moab in search of food continues today. We don’t know how they were welcomed into Moab, but evidently it wasn’t too bad, even though they were Israelites, because they were able to live there for many years, and Mahlon and Chilion took Moabite wives, Orpah and Ruth. This Israelite family assimilated into life in Moab. But then, disaster happens. Elimelech, Naomi’s husband, had died earlier in the story. Ten years after the two boys got married, both Mahlon and Chilion also died. And there were no children from either marriage. So now, Naomi is left with her two Moabite daughters-in-law. She is grief-stricken, and she decides to return to her homeland that she left long ago. And she has heard that the Lord has finally considered the Lord’s people and given them food.

Well, you know the story. Naomi urges her daughters-in-law to turn back. Orpah finally relents and returns to her people, but Ruth clings to her. Where once Naomi was the immigrant, facing a new life and a new people, now their roles are reversed, and Ruth is the immigrant, the foreigner. Hearing Ruth’s vow to cling to Naomi makes me even more impressed with her. Ruth does not seem to care that she will be an immigrant, that in the rest of the story she will be called, “Ruth the Moabite,” to remind Naomi’s people that she is not one of them. Even Naomi does not seem to appreciate Ruth’s presence until she begins to bring grain back from Boaz’s field. None of this matters to Ruth. Her call is to stay with her mother-in-law no matter what. Those of you mothers in the congregation who have daughters-in-law: you may or may not have a good relationship with them. But think for a moment: in a similar situation, would your daughter-in-law show this kind of devotion to you? If you were all alone in the world and decided to move to a different country, would your daughter-in-law come with you to care for you?

I love to tell the story of how, when my parents were first married, they were searching for a place to worship. And they went to one congregation where the pastor preached that “Ruth was a good woman because she knew her place.” And my father’s response was to say that they were never returning to that church, because, “No daughter of mine is going to listen to that crap.” I love telling this story, first of all, because it gives you insight into the type of man my father is. But secondly, it is to show how wrong this pastor was: Ruth did not “know her place”. Her place, according to the world around her and the Israelite community that she was traveling to with Naomi, was to go back to Moab and remain with her family, worshiping her gods, until they could find another husband for her. But Ruth rebelled against that for love of her old and bitter mother-in-law. She returned with Naomi and became part of the Israelite community in Bethlehem. She married an Israelite man and became a mother. And her great-grandson was King David. And much further on down the line, her descendant was none other than Jesus.

We never know what role any individual human being may play in our world history. We never know what God has in mind for any one of us. We do know that God crosses boundaries, especially human-made ones, to show us that God loves all of us. I think this story of Ruth should motivate us to treat immigrants more kindly, if the fact that our own ancestors were immigrants does not move us to help. We should also consider that we might be in the same situation one day. Climate change is happening. We are feeling its effects already here in the United States, in the form of heat waves, longer summers, more rain than usual or punishing droughts. Sea levels are rising already in places like Miami, and the permafrost in Alaska is thawing. It may be that one day we, or our children or grandchildren, will be migrating in search of food. Will other countries welcome us? Or will they turn us back, as we have turned back so many, claiming that we don’t “know our place” and should go back where we came from?

The ELCA, at the Churchwide Assembly this past summer, declared itself a sanctuary denomination. We are still hashing out what that means in our individual contexts. At the minimum, it means that we will show concern for immigrants and their needs. God commands us numerous times in the Holy Scriptures that we are to show kindness to the foreigner and the alien, and more than that. Leviticus 19:33-34 tells us “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” Jesus takes up that command in Matthew when he says, “I was a stranger, and you welcomed me. . .just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” The story of Ruth shows us one example of how ordinary people lived out the command to show kindness to the alien and the foreigner in their daily lives, and her story continues to be a model for us today. How will we Christians here in the United States respond to those who come to our country searching for food or fleeing from violence? Will we write letters to those in power, urging them to change our laws for the better? Will we give money to organizations that are on the ground, helping those in need? Will we volunteer to help refugees and immigrants better assimilate into our communities? Or will we fall prey to fear of the other and tell them they should go back to their countries, where they face certain death? What would Jesus do?  His words ring out, haunting us: “I was a stranger, and you welcomed me.” Amen.

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Sermon for Pentecost 17 Narrative

Deuteronomy 5:1-21; 6:4-9

Two weeks ago, we heard about how God called Moses to go down to Egypt and to tell Pharaoh to let God’s people go, and we heard Moses’ response, and how God told Moses to go down anyway. Today’s text finds us with Moses and the people again, but this is not the time when Moses came down the mountain with the tablets on which were written God’s commands only to find the people worshiping a golden calf. That story takes place in the book of Exodus. Instead, what we find here are the Israelite people 40 years later. They have wandered in the desert for 40 years, and during that time, most of the original people who left Egypt have grown old and died. What Moses has now in front of him are the children and grandchildren of those freed slaves as they stand on the border of the Promised Land. And what Moses is doing in the Book of Deuteronomy is to remind these children and grandchildren of the laws which God has given them and get this new group of Israelites to recommit themselves to following the laws that God has given them before they enter the Promised Land.

So, in other words, today’s chapter is a review of the Ten Commandments that the Israelites first heard in the book of Exodus. And even though these Israelites are the children and the grandchildren of the first Israelites to come out of Egypt, Moses tells them, “Not with our ancestors did the Lord make this covenant, but with us, who are all of us here alive today.” In other words, you may not have been around when this covenant was first made, but as descendants of those who were, you are heirs of this gift of the law. We Christians might think of the law as a burden, but that is a misreading of God’s intention. When God gave these commandments to the Israelites, God was showing them a better way to live than the way that they had lived under slavery. These laws described the way that the people could live in relationship with God and with one another.

And the portion of our passage today that covers the Ten Commandments starts out with a statement of relationship. God says, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the house of slavery.” This is the God who freed the Israelites so long ago from the hand of the Pharaoh, and this God is saying that now that they are free, they will never have to live under slavery again. In the same way, we Christians believe that, through Jesus Christ, God has set us free from slavery to sin, and we never have to live under sin’s mastery again. That does not mean, however, that we are free to do as we please. If we were truly free to do as we pleased, then sin would have free rein over us once again and our relationships with one another would be irreparably broken. So, God gives us these laws, these boundaries, to help us live in good and harmonious relationships with others.

One danger with the Ten Commandments, though, is that we become too legalistic. We try our best to follow these commandments, but then we look down upon others who have messed up in spectacular ways. We forget what Luther called the second use of the Law, and that is that mirror that we hold up to ourselves to see that we, too, have failed miserably at keeping these commandments as we ought to. As an example: we may look down our noses at someone who is in prison for murdering another person, and we become self-righteous, because we think, “I have never murdered anyone.” This seems like such an easy commandment, right? But Jesus doesn’t let us get away with that kind of thinking at all. He tells us, “if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire” (Matthew 5:22). In his Small Catechism, Martin Luther says, “We are to fear and love God, so that we neither endanger nor harm the lives of our neighbors, but instead help and support them in all of life’s needs.” Any time we do any of these things, or fail to help and support our neighbor, we are found guilty of committing murder.

Realizing that we fail to live up to the commandments that God has given us can lead us into despair and lead us to the other end of the spectrum. If we have no hope of keeping these laws as we should, why even bother trying? We can also go in the direction of, “Well, I will mess up anyway, so I won’t even try, and God will forgive me when I come to church on Sunday.” This is also not the correct way of approaching the law. Back in the spring, we heard the Apostle Paul saying in his letter to the Romans, “How can we who died to sin go on living in it?” Remember, these laws that God gives us are about helping to preserve our relationship with one another and with God. Are we going to be perfect? No, because we are sinful human beings and that is not going to change until Christ returns. Relationships with one another, as I told the young couple who got married at St. John’s on Friday, require compassion for one another, forgiveness, humility, and patience. But above all, they require love. Without love flowing through all of these other things, even forgiveness and patience can become condescending and not ring true. And it is love for us that motivated God to give us these Ten Commandments in the first place, so that we would know what is needed to make our relationships and our communities work well together.

But the Ten Commandments are not the end of the story that we have from Deuteronomy today. In the next chapter, we have Moses summarizing these laws with these words: Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Jesus repeats this in our Gospel lesson from Mark when he is asked which is the greatest commandment of all. This is so important that pious Jewish people still today repeat this first line, Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. We’re going to have a little interfaith lesson today and try to learn this in Hebrew: Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai echad. Everything, every law, every good gift from God, flows from this belief, that the Lord is God and it is God alone who we worship. And our relationships with others, our love for others, flows from the love that God has first given us and that we are to show God. Martin Luther himself picked up on this. Every one of his explanations to the Ten Commandments start with “We are to fear and love God.” It is that reverence and love for God that motivates us to love one another.

And after this summary of the law that Moses gives to the people, he also gives a command to teach these words to our children and for us to talk about them and bind them to ourselves and to put reminders of them on our doorposts. I think this is important for us to remember, too. Too often in our Christian faith, we have the idea of, “This is what the Bible says, so I believe it, and that’s the end of it.” Ending discussion of these laws is not what God intended when God gave them. God intended for us to discuss them and to interpret them in light of our changing society around us. They are meant to be a standard, but, for example, when God says not to covet our neighbor’s male or female slave or ox or donkey, and most of us don’t own these things anymore, what does this mean for us today? So, talk about these laws, pray, ask God for guidance in a certain situation that Moses never dreamed of, and then interpret the laws in the best way possible. So perhaps, we’re not supposed to covet our neighbor’s car or TV instead of an ox or a donkey, following the above example.

The laws of what we Christians call the Old Testament are not dead laws, written in stone with no possibility of discussion. They are rather a living document as we struggle to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and might, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. And so, I would like to close this sermon today with an interpretation of this from one of our Jewish brothers, spoken in a Temple for Rosh Hashanah, the celebration of the New Year:

Love God with your mind:
stay curious, open to questions;
marvel at the wonder of what is.

Love God with your heart:
stay alive to suffering and joy;
yearn for the world that could be.

Love God with your strength:
open your hands and give;
work for the sake of what ought to be.

Amen.

Sermon for St. Michael & All Angels

As it was the 5th Sunday of the month, we had a joint 4-congregation worship service and I was elected to preach. So I ventured back into the land of the Revised Common Lectionary, heavily reworked a sermon I preached 9 years ago when I was on internship, and voila! This is what the Holy Spirit said through me today. 

Revelation 12:7-12

What comes to mind for me when I hear about the feast day of St. Michael and All Angels is how we observed this festival day when I was at seminary in Gettysburg. If any of you have been in the chapel there, you may remember that, in the chancel area (that’s the area at the front), if you look up to the left and the right of the organ you will see two angel statues in alcoves there. Most of the time these angels are part of the scenery and fade into the background next to the big, beautiful organ up front. But if you get to the chapel early enough when they are observing St. Michael and All Angels, you will get treated to the sight of someone standing on a chair with a long stick attached to the candle lighter and attempting to reach up high enough to light the candles that the angels are holding. It’s both hilarious to watch this and a little scary, as you pray that the person lighting the candles does not fall, injure himself or herself, and set everything on fire. But generally, God is with the person, and the candles get lit without any more drama than that of watching this ritual, and we all applaud the person who has done the lighting. And I guarantee you that those angels in the high-up alcoves will never be part of the scenery for you again.

So, are angels a part of the religious scenery for us? Or are they something more? And what are they, exactly? Folks who are here from my Bible study today may be laughing because they know what’s coming next. The word “angel” comes from the Greek word meaning “messenger,” and in our Holy Scriptures, that’s generally what angels do: they bring messages from God to human beings. We can think of the angel Gabriel, who brought a message to Zechariah that his wife, Elizabeth, was going to have a baby, and who also brought the message to Mary that she would become the mother of God. Or, we can remember the angels who appeared to the shepherds and told them that Jesus had been born. Or, the angels at the empty tomb bringing the message that Jesus had risen. There are also many instances of angels appearing to people in the Old Testament. But you know what we don’t always notice? Angels must be pretty frightening in appearance, because the first thing out of their mouth is always, “Don’t be afraid.” I remember reading in a devotion someplace that if the angels had a handbook, their first rule would be, “Tell the human beings not to be afraid.” This would seem to indicate that angels really don’t look like the fat baby cherubs in classical art or the beautiful, gentle women that we often see them portrayed as. There is something about the appearance of angels that is terrifying to us human beings.

This would seem to be borne out by our reading from Revelation today: “And war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon.” Here we see the angel Michael, who is also known in church tradition as an archangel, as not only a fearsome warrior, but a leader of a band of warrior angels. And not only is there a war, but there is a war in heaven. And not only is there a war in heaven, but there is a war against a dragon. What is a dragon doing in heaven, anyway? What exactly is going on here?

Well, as it just so happens, my Bible study group also recently had a study on the book of Revelation, so hopefully this will be review for you, as well. The book of Revelation was written by a man named John, in exile for his Christian faith on the island of Patmos, to seven churches in Asia Minor, what is now Turkey, during a time of great persecution.  Revelation was meant to give hope and encouragement to these seven small churches to persevere in this distressing time.  But, in order for the churches to be able to receive Revelation and read it without their persecutors coming after them even more than they already were, it had to be written in a way so that their persecutors would not understand what was going on, but they would.  So, that means that most of the imagery we see in Revelation is symbolic.  For example, when the book of Revelation references the city of Babylon, it’s not talking about the actual city of Babylon. The actual city of Babylon was no longer in existence at this point in history. Instead, Babylon is a symbol for the city of Rome, which was the one doing all the persecuting of the Christians at this time. Therefore, when we look at this passage from Revelation again, we can see how those early Christians took comfort from it, and how we might take comfort from it today.

The key that unlocks this passage for us is verse 9. There we find out who this great dragon really is—the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world. In Hebrew, ha-satan actually means “the accuser”, and we see that in verse 10, where this accuser has been thrown down after accusing the saints night and day. Before Jesus was incarnate on earth, suffered and died for our sins, rose again and ascended, we can imagine heaven as a courtroom, with Satan, the accuser, as the prosecuting attorney. Day and night, Revelation says, Satan would stand in the courtroom accusing God’s people. Then, something changes. In the verses prior to our text today, we hear of a woman giving birth to a son, who was “snatched away and taken to God and his throne”. This is Revelation’s way of talking about Jesus’ ascension into heaven.  Once Jesus is seated on the heavenly throne at the right hand of God the Father, war breaks out in heaven.  Why does war break out now? Because with his death, resurrection, and ascension to heaven, Jesus has won the victory. All those who believe in Jesus “have conquered . . . by the blood of the Lamb”. There is now no longer any place in heaven for Satan, the one who had accused the saints of wrongdoing. God no longer listens to the prosecuting attorney, but instead listens to the defense. The defense attorney, Jesus, wins the argument, and there is no longer room for Satan in heaven. Enter Michael and his angels to make Satan leave in a mop-up operation after the major victory has been won.

Who is this Michael and his army of angels, whose feast day we celebrate today?  Revelation is not the only place where Michael appears. In our Old Testament reading from Daniel today, Michael is named as “the great prince” and protector of the people of Israel. In the letter of Jude, Michael is named as an archangel who disputed with the devil over the body of Moses—unfortunately, we don’t know much more about that particular story other than that one mysterious line. It seems that the author of Revelation, then, names Michael not only as the protector of Israel, but also as the angel who kicks Satan out of heaven.

When Michael does kick Satan out of heaven, notice where Satan ends up. The imagination of popular culture has Satan being sent to hell. Of course, he and his demons are allowed up on earth periodically to mess with us, but his chief residence is hell, right? Wrong. That’s not what Revelation says. Verse 12 says: “But woe to the earth and the sea, for the devil has come down to you with great wrath, because he knows his time is short.” The devil has been kicked out of heaven and lands here on earth. Maybe he landed in Georgia, if the Charlie Daniels song has it right! The devil is here, not in some distant hell, and he is full of wrath. Here is the prosecuting attorney who has lost his case for good.  He knows he’s defeated—but he’s going to try his best to wreak havoc against all of those who, with Christ, have won the victory. He’s going to do his best to win some small points—to make a few of Christ’s saints trip up so he can accuse them and perhaps win his case against one or two of us. And it’s even more urgent for him to do so “because he knows his time is short”.

Not only is this an encouragement for the persecuted churches of Asia Minor in the 1st century, it is also an encouragement for us today. There is still a battle going on here on earth.  Although Jesus has won the war, the devil still rages. We see his rage in all the evil that we see reported on the news on a daily basis. We see the devil’s rage as he delights in dividing us, one against the other, so we can no longer have civil conversations to figure out what is best for our society. We see the devil raging as he urges the mistreatment of those who come to our border seeking asylum. We see the devil raging when children go hungry at night in this country that has plenty of food to go around. We see the devil raging when God sends a child to shame us into doing something to save the environment, and people who fear her words belittle her in public. The devil is all around us here on this earth. When we see him raging, our temptation is to believe that the victory belongs to the destructive powers here on earth.

But that is not the message of Revelation. Through John, God tells us, “Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Messiah.” Now is the time of our salvation! Jesus has come, and through his death we are freed. We have hope for the future which is grounded in these past actions of Jesus! The kingdom of God reigns, and the cosmic powers of good are and will continue to be victorious. Jesus, our defense attorney, has the last word in the closing statement, not the prosecutor, Satan. And God pronounces the verdict: those who believe in Christ “have conquered [Satan] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death.”

Did you catch that? We conquer by the blood of the Lamb, and not by our own abilities.  The kingdom of God is both here and not here—the reign of Christ began around 2000 years ago with the breaking in of heaven into earth, and through that we have the promise of the life to come, when heaven fully breaks into earth, and we welcome Christ’s return in the resurrection.  Until then the devil may rage, but we know that we have the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.  When we become discouraged by all of the evil we see around us, we can remember what Revelation tells us—that the devil’s time here on earth is short.  Martin Luther once said that Christ has bound the devil on a chain, and he may bark and threaten us, but the chain will only let him go so far.  Luther further explains that the “power of the devil is not as great as it seems to be; for if he had the power to rage as he pleases, you would not live for an hour”.  Perhaps instead of focusing on the evil that happens in this world, we should look for the evidence of the kingdom of God breaking in.  We can see it when we see justice being done, when children are fed, and when we care for the world around us. God’s kingdom has been breaking in since Jesus walked the earth and will continue to break in until its fulfillment at the end of time. Pray and look for the kingdom of God breaking in, and when you see it, focus on those signs of hope rather than the signs of evil. The mop-up operation is still happening here on earth, but we have faith that, in the end, Jesus will be victorious. Amen.

 

Sermon for Pentecost 15 Narrative

Exodus 1:8-2:10, 3:1-15

Today we’re jumping over about 400 plus years or so between last week’s story of Jacob wrestling with God and the story of God calling Moses to go down to Egypt and tell Pharaoh to let God’s people go. So, I’m going to paint the story in between with broad brush strokes. Last week, we left Jacob wrestling with God as he prepared to meet his brother Esau. That story turned out well, for Esau and Jacob were reconciled one to another. After that episode, Genesis tells a few more stories about Jacob, but after a few chapters, it moves into the story of Joseph. If any of you are familiar with the musical, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat, well, that took its inspiration from Joseph’s story. Basically, Joseph lorded it over his brothers, even though he was the youngest one, because he was Jacob’s favorite son. Jealous of him, they threw him into a dry well, and then, when some traders came along who were traveling to Egypt, they sold Joseph as a slave and told Jacob that an animal had killed him. Joseph had some ups and downs in Egypt, but eventually interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams correctly and rose to be Pharaoh’s right-hand man. During a famine, Joseph’s family came down to Egypt for grain, and after some testing by Joseph, he revealed himself to them. Jacob and all of Joseph’s brothers then ended up moving down to Egypt and were treated well by the Pharaoh. Many years went by, and Joseph’s family multiplied and became known as the Israelites or the Hebrews.

And then, we get today’s story: “Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.” This is the start of Moses’ origin story. In this world where a king had absolute power over the territory in which he ruled and had absolute power to say who lived and who died, God used ordinary people to thwart the will of this man who did evil. When the king told the Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, to kill the baby boys, they defied him by saying that the Hebrew women gave birth before they got there, so there was nothing they could do. And Pharaoh, powerful as he was, could not argue with that. But even when Pharaoh stepped up his game and ordered all his people to kill the baby boys born to the Hebrews, God thwarted him again. God gave courage to Moses’ mother, who hid her baby and then, when she could no longer do that, put him in a basket in the Nile, trusting in God to protect him. When Pharaoh’s daughter discovered Moses in the basket, God filled her heart with compassion to claim him, even though she knew he was one of the Hebrews, and to raise him as her own. And God gave Moses’ sister, Miriam, the cleverness and the courage to approach Pharaoh’s daughter and ask if she would like one of the Hebrew women to nurse him, thus reuniting Moses with his birth mother until he was able to be weaned. In a world where it seemed like Pharaoh had absolute power, God used ordinary people to protect the one whom God would choose to carry out God’s will for the Israelites.

But we’re skipping over part of the story today: the part of how Moses left Egypt and ended up herding sheep for his father-in-law Jethro. Moses went out one day and saw that his people were slaves, and he saw an Egyptian taskmaster beating a Hebrew slave. Moses was very angry when he saw this, and he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. He was later surprised to learn that someone had witnessed this act, and he fled Egypt, winding up in Midian where he saved Jethro’s seven daughters from harassment at a well as they were watering their flocks of sheep. Moses then married one of the women, named Zipporah, and you would think that the story would end, “and they lived happily ever after”.

But the story doesn’t end there, because God is not finished with Moses yet. This is where I want us to think about God calling Moses out of the flames of the burning bush. We only get some of the story today; that is, we only hear a couple of Moses’ many excuses for not returning to Egypt. But the rest of the story details all of the reasons Moses came up with for why he can’t do this; why he can’t return to Egypt and tell Pharaoh to let God’s people go. And he comes up with plenty of excuses, plenty of reasons why God should choose someone else. But if we think back on Moses’ origin story, we realize that Moses has exactly the right experience for this job. He was raised by Pharaoh’s daughter in the palace, so he knows how the royals think and what words and actions might persuade Pharaoh of God’s will. And yet, he knows that he is not an Egyptian, and he was angry enough at the injustice of slavery and how his people were being treated that he killed one who was mistreating them. That’s all God needs to work through us: the right background, the right preparation, and a passion for doing God’s justice.

And yet, when God calls us, we are often afraid to answer the call, and like Moses, we offer up all kinds of excuses as to why God has the wrong person. But in response to one of Moses’ excuses, “But, sir, I don’t even know your name. What am I supposed to tell the Israelites?” God calls Moses’ bluff and gives the name, which is not even really a name. It translates from the Hebrew as “I am who I am,” or “I will be who I will be”. The one God, the God who created everything, is the essence of being. And believe it or not, this is a comforting thing that God does. One commentator suggested that one way of understanding this name of God is to hear God saying, “That’s for me to know and you to find out.” In the journey that God calls us on, there will be ups and downs. We will alternately rage at God and find joy in God at different stages in our life. But we will never be able to pin God down as any one thing. God is mysteriously both the essence of being and the creator of everything that is, both seen and unseen. And one thing that this “I am who I am” promises us is that God will be with us throughout our lives and even after death, because there is no place that God isn’t.

Therefore, when God calls us, we can offer up all the excuses that we can think of, but there’s no way that God is going to let us off the hook. Yesterday, across the globe, many people marched in the climate strike to make the point to our leaders that something needs to be done to stop the drastic changes that are happening and that are fueled by how we are misusing the earth with fossil fuels and other unsustainable ways of living. Do you know how this massive climate strike march started? With a young Swedish girl stepping out of her classroom and sitting all alone with a sign saying that she was on strike until something was done. If you search the Internet, you will find a picture of Greta Thunberg doing this. And she is 16 years old and she has started a worldwide movement. I don’t know what her religious beliefs are, and I don’t want to impose any on her. But I look at her and say that I believe that God called her, and that God is using her to light a fire under us and get us to be concerned about what we are doing to the world around us. And, hopefully, to do something about it.

This is how God calls us: not in a lightning strike where we become instantly famous and are able to perform flashy miracles, but rather, in those small and understated ways, using the people that the world would call the smallest ones and the forgotten, sometimes even the unwanted. God uses everything that has happened in that person’s life to prepare them for the challenge that God has put before them, and God promises to be with them through everything. The call does not mean that the person won’t be scared. But the difference is that the person depends on that sustaining, higher pull; that righteous anger that God’s justice is not being done, for the courage and the motivation that they need.

How is God calling you to resist the injustice in the world? There are tons of little ways that evil can be thwarted. Shiphrah and Puah, those otherwise unsung midwives, came up with a plausible reason to not kill the boys that the Israelite women gave birth to, thus defying the all-powerful Pharaoh’s will. Perhaps you can speak up for a neighbor who is facing an unjust deportation order. Perhaps you can find a way to speak up for those unjustly imprisoned, or to demand better conditions for those who are in prison. This week I read that currently, prisoners in the Dauphin County Prison are woken up at 3:30 in the morning for their breakfast, and the current warden is working to fix that and other inhumane conditions going on there. Perhaps there are ways we can support the warden’s efforts. Pharaoh’s daughter thwarted Pharoah’s will by rescuing Moses from the water and raising him as her own. There are always ways to help those in danger of losing their lives, from giving money to organizations like Lutheran World Relief, to donating school supplies to help children around the world have a better education, to helping to find ways to relieve the suffering of those already dealing with the effects of climate change. And who knows? Perhaps God is calling you to be a Moses, or to be a Greta Thunberg, or a Joan of Arc, or a Gandhi, or a Martin Luther King, Jr., and fight injustice on a more spectacular level.

The point is, God calls each one of us, in small ways or large, to resist the forces of evil and injustice in this world. Jesus tells us in the Gospel reading today that God is not the God of the dead, but of the living. As Christians, we are not to look back and lament the days of the past, but instead, we are to look toward the future and to what God is calling us to do. We are to remember our story: the story of how God saved us through Jesus Christ, and that because Jesus Christ has saved us, we are empowered to act in love and without fear to work for God’s justice in an unjust world. And even though we may offer excuses, God will continue to call us until we listen and follow where God leads, trusting that the great “I am” will be with us always and forever, because there is no place where God is not. May we continue to heed that call without fear. Amen.

 

Sermon for Pentecost 14 Narrative

Genesis 32:9-30

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon for Pentecost 13 Narrative

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Sermon for Pentecost 11 Narrative

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Sermon for Pentecost 10 Narrative

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

humble and terrify all of us.

 

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

Sermon for Pentecost 9 Narrative

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon for Pentecost 7 Narrative

Hebrews 4:14-5:10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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