Sermon for Pentecost 25

Narrative Lectionary Year 1

Micah 1:3-5; 5:2-5a; 6:6-8

 

With today’s reading, we leave the narratives of the Old Testament behind and enter into the world of the written prophets. And I want to start by reminding you all what a prophet is and what a prophet is not. A prophet is a person who speaks for God and tells the people what God wants. A prophet is NOT a person who tells us what is going to happen literally in the future, like a Nostradamus, although some of what the prophet says may include what God is going to do in the future. Instead, the primary purpose of the prophet is to tell the people what they are doing right and, more often, what they are getting wrong and what God is demanding that they stop doing. We have already met some prophets in the stories that we’ve heard thus far this fall. In the story of David and Bathsheba, for example, we encounter the prophet Nathan, who comes to David and tells him a story about a rich man taking a poor man’s lamb for himself, and when David condemns the man, Nathan tells him that the man in the story is David and that God is not happy with him. Last Sunday, we met the prophet Elisha, who was the means for God to heal the Syrian general Naaman—prophets did sometimes perform miracles as well. And so, with those two examples in mind, and a general idea of who prophets were and what they did, let’s take a look at our text from the prophet Micah today.

Micah operated in the southern kingdom of Judah in the 8th century BCE, during the reign of the kings Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah of Judah. He witnessed the end of the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 BCE, when it was conquered by the Assyrian Empire and its people scattered. Some of Micah’s themes in his preaching to the people are: (1) contrary to the idea that Jerusalem is indestructible because of God’s covenant with David, Jerusalem will fall to the enemy because the people are not obeying God’s covenant that was delivered through Moses; (2) even though God will punish the people of Israel and Judah because they have disobeyed God’s Law, God will remember God’s promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and will eventually restore Jerusalem and the rest of the people of Israel, and (3) in both the judgment and the restoration of Israel, the Lord stands alone; the Lord is God.

In our selected readings today, there are a couple of verses which I know that we have heard before: the one about the ruler who comes from Bethlehem, which gets a lot of publicity in the upcoming Christmas-Epiphany season, and the one that is printed on the stole that I’m wearing today: What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? It is the latter verse that I want to focus on today, and especially the part about doing justice. We in the church understand loving kindness and walking humbly with God better than we understand doing justice. We love kindness when we engage in acts of charity, such as feeding the hungry and clothing the naked. We walk humbly with God when we pray and when we seek God’s will, and when we come to worship God on Sunday mornings. But what is justice, and how are we to do it?

Growing up, when my brother or I complained about something not being fair, my father would always tell us, “Life isn’t fair.” And while that is very good wisdom and very good preparation for living a life in a sinful world, that doesn’t mean that we can’t work to make life more fair. Simply put, that is what justice is: making sure that each human being that God has created has the same opportunities and the same benefits as every other human being. Justice is seeking to make life as fair as possible for each person on this earth.

Here are a couple of examples from the book of Micah about what justice looks like. In chapter 2, Micah condemns those who covet fields and houses and take them away from the people who own them. And in chapter 6, after today’s portion, Micah condemns those who have “dishonest weights”; in other words, those merchants who cheat the people by having scales that weigh either too much or too little of something.

These might seem like issues that are long ago and far away to us. Yet, just this week, I read a piece in The Washington Post where the author says that, here in the United States, while we have a right to an attorney if we are accused of a crime, we have no such right in civil cases (https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/we-have-a-right-to-counsel-in-criminal-cases-why-not-in-evictions/2018/11/06/bbdb8600-d879-11e8-83a2-d1c3da28d6b6_story.html?utm_term=.c8973a23488e). Now, picture yourself as a low-income family struggling to pay rent with the income you have. You have a car breakdown or a large medical expense, and you’re not able to pay the rent. The landlord decides to have you evicted. And, since you can’t afford a lawyer to represent you, you don’t know what your rights are. For example, you don’t know that it’s illegal for the landlord to throw your belongings on the lawn. This article stated that there is an eviction crisis in the United States: 2.3 million evictions were filed in 2016. There is a lack of affordable housing and rents are skyrocketing. And, once you have an eviction on your record, it’s very difficult to find someone else who will rent to you. This is our modern version of people who covet fields and houses and take them away from the people who own them.

So, what does it look like for people of faith to do justice in this situation? Participating in Family Promise is one way to begin. We find out the stories of the families who are without a home and how they landed in that situation. We help to house them as they receive assistance and education to get out of the situation that they’re in, and to not land in that situation again. We learn to empathize. But doing justice doesn’t stop there. Doing justice means that we find out what the laws regarding landlords and renters in our state are. Doing justice means talking to our lawmakers and advocating for them to change the law, so that those who are in eviction proceedings have the right to a civil attorney just as they would to a criminal lawyer.

Besides talking about grabbing land, Micah also speaks of dishonest weights that cheat those who are poor out of what they need by weighing things at not the right weight, but either too heavy or too little in order to benefit the merchants at the expense of the poor people. We don’t have an exact equivalent of this that I could find. But there is such a thing as economic justice, and one form that takes in our society today is the minimum wage. The minimum wage in Pennsylvania is $7.25 an hour. According to the state Department of Labor, 190,800 people earn the minimum wage or less. I guarantee you that you have seen many of those 190,800 people in the neighborhoods surrounding our 4 Lutheran congregations. Of those workers, 65 percent are women, 74 percent are white, 58 percent are under the age of 25, and 60 percent do not have a high school diploma. People cannot afford to live on their own if they are only earning a minimum wage, and so they will do things like work two or three minimum wage jobs in order to make ends meet, or live with aging parents who can care for their children. This is part of the reason that I see the people I do coming and looking for help, and if they’re not able to earn enough to live on, they can’t break out of that cycle of poverty no matter how much they may want to. Doing justice in this case would be to talk to our state and federal legislators and advocate for raising the minimum wage to something that people could live on. Lutheran Advocacy Ministry in Pennsylvania, or LAMPa, recommends raising that minimum wage to $10.10 an hour.

Doing justice means that we take risks in order to make the world a little bit more fair for our neighbors around us. Sometimes the things that we advocate for are not very popular. Sometimes doing justice means that we need to take part in protests in order to make our voice heard by legislators who don’t seem to be listening to us. Sometimes it means that we need to explain our positions to people who disagree with us. Doing justice is not easy. In fact, doing justice is meant to disturb us from our comfortable lives in order to experience the discomfort of those who do not experience justice. And that is neither easy nor convenient. And yet, this is what God is calling us to do through the prophet Micah, alongside of loving kindness and walking humbly with God.

My father is right, you know. Life isn’t fair. And it won’t be completely fair until Jesus, the one whom Micah prophesied about in chapter 5, returns. When Jesus comes in his glory, then everything will be made right once more. All will have enough to live on, and not just enough, but more than enough. Until that day comes, we are called to do the hard work of the coming kingdom, knowing that we won’t always get it right, but trusting that Jesus is there with us, walking beside us, urging us onward. Therefore, let us be bold as we strive to follow God’s directive through Micah: What does the Lord require of you? Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God. Amen.

 

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Sermon for All Saints’ Sunday

Narrative Lectionary Year 1

2 Kings 5:1-15a

With today’s story, we are leaving behind Kings David and Solomon and the united kingdom of Israel. After Solomon died, the kingdom split into the northern kingdom, which was called Israel, and the southern kingdom, which was called Judah. We have skipped over the many stories of Elisha’s predecessor, Elijah, and his battle against King Ahab and Queen Jezebel for the soul of the northern kingdom and who the people would worship: the gods of Jezebel or the one God, the LORD. Elijah has ascended into heaven, and Elisha is carrying on in Elijah’s footsteps, being a prophet for the LORD. Elisha, like Elijah before him, is operating in the northern kingdom of Israel. It’s not clear from the text who the king of Israel is at the time today’s story takes place; the last king named in a preceding chapter is Jehoram, the son of the wicked king Ahab, so it may very well have been him. But we can see from the context that Israel is not on good terms with the neighboring country, Aram, which covers what is now Syria. So, it is a time of political tension for Israel, which includes skirmishes and raids from one nation into another.

Today, I want us to first take a look at the slave girl that clues Naaman in to the fact that there is a prophet in Israel who could heal him from his leprosy. Our text says, “Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. She said to her mistress, ‘If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria [the capital city of Israel]! He would cure him of his leprosy.” Think about that for a moment. This was a young girl who had been ripped from her family in a raid and taken to serve the enemy, and not just the enemy, but the wife of the commander of the army of the king of Aram. If that had been one of us, would we have said anything that could help our enemy be healed from a disease? Or would we have prayed to God for the leprosy to cause our master a slow and painful death?

While we sit with this discomfort for a while, I want to offer up another, more recent, picture for us. Last week, a gunman entered a synagogue on the Sabbath, during worship services, and killed eleven people there, all the time shouting out anti-Semitic words. This man was injured as law enforcement came and took him down, and his injuries required healing at the hospital. When he was brought to the hospital, the man was still shouting anti-Semitic slurs. The doctor and some of the staff who worked to heal him were Jewish. And when asked, the doctor said that he was proud to offer medical care to a human who was wounded. These are just two examples of what loving your enemies looks like. Would we who are Christians, whom Jesus taught to love our enemies, do what the slave girl and what this doctor did? Give our enemies hope for healing? I think that’s something for us to sit with, to meditate on, to pray on, and then perhaps to repent and to ask forgiveness for. And then, ask God to help us to do better at loving our enemies.

But let’s move on to the rest of the story now, for there is more that this Scripture text has to teach us today. Naaman hears about this prophet in Israel who can cure his leprosy, and he goes to his king, probably to ask permission to go to Israel, with whom his country, remember, was not on the greatest terms, in search of healing. But here’s the interesting thing: Naaman and his king hear the Israelite girl say “prophet,” and they think, “king”. Because, in their world, kings are the ones with all the power, including, apparently, the power to heal. And when the king of Israel receives this distinguished guest from the enemy country, he has no idea what they’re talking about. So of course he’s going to think that the king of Aram is trying to pick a quarrel with him and start a war. As I looked at the chapters that came before our story today, it seems that the prophet Elisha has had prior contact with the king of Israel, so I’m not sure why the king did not think to summon Elisha. Maybe he did not think that healing leprosy was among Elisha’s many gifts from God.

But, Elisha hears about what has happened and tells the king to send Naaman to him, “so that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel”. And what Naaman discovers, when he arrives, is that prophets are not like kings. Elisha does not even deign to come out to see Naaman. Elisha is not interested in all of Naaman’s wealth, pomp and circumstance. Instead, he tells Naaman to simply go and wash in the Jordan River, and he will be clean. And Naaman, who is used to great displays of power and who is used to people bowing before him, is angered and disappointed. He thinks, “I came all this way to simply be told to go and wash in the Jordan River? What’s wrong with the rivers in my country? Why didn’t the prophet at least come out and say, ‘Abracadabra!’ and wave his hand over me and heal me that way?” But, his slaves persuade him to give Elisha’s prescription a try, and when Naaman washes in the Jordan, he finds that his leprosy is gone and he puts his faith in the God of Israel.

We tend to look for miracles, healing miracles and other kinds, as big and flashy events, too. We all want to be the one whose disease seems incurable, and then when the doctors say that there’s nothing more they can do, something happens and our disease is miraculously gone. We want to be the one who gets their 5 minutes of fame, the one who says, “Oh, those silly doctors couldn’t do anything, but look! Here is what I did, and I’m healed!” Or, we want to be the one who gets credit for solving a huge problem in the community, or even to be that one congregation who was on the brink of closing and then, miraculously, revived and renewed and is thriving. We want those flashy miracles, just like Naaman wanted a flashy cure for his leprosy.

But what God teaches us through the prophet Elisha is that miracles come through the mundane, the everyday routine, and the ordinary things. By washing in a muddy stream, Naaman’s leprosy is healed. Healing from an autoimmune disease comes in the form of an injection that the patient must learn to give to herself over the course of many months, even though she is deathly afraid of needles. The work of healing and renewing a congregation comes in all of the little things, the seemingly small ministries that it does, that work out over a long period of time, in spite of conflicts that come along the way. God works miracles through the ordinary and the everyday, through the research and efforts of doctors, through the simple acts of kindness and love that the people of the church show to the community. And God works salvation through a baby born in a manger and through a man dying on a cross. And if we are not paying attention, we just might miss these ordinary, everyday miracles.

But there’s even more to this story than just looking for the miraculous in the everyday and the ordinary. In the Gospel of Luke, when Jesus is speaking to his hometown people in Nazareth, he says, “There were also many lepers in Israel at the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” First of all, Jesus’ reference reminds the people that God chooses whom God wills for healing, regardless of nationality or status as enemy of God’s people. That’s a reminder to us today, when we are wrestling with the question of why some experience healing and others don’t, that we don’t know the why behind God’s actions. But second, it is yet another reminder to us that God loves all people, even those we consider our enemies, and that we are to pray for all people and to act in love towards all people.

We’re not going to get this living as Christ taught us to live right. Today we celebrate All Saints’ Day, when we remember all of those who have gone before us in the faith. And we remember that, just like Naaman, who didn’t understand at first that healing could come through following a very ordinary command, those whom we honor on this day did not always get everything right. My paternal grandmother, as an example, was ornery. It seemed like she wasn’t happy unless she was complaining about something. The words that I remember that she said to me shortly before she died were, “Never marry an engineer, because you won’t get anything new.” But I knew that she loved me and she loved all of her family with a fierce protectiveness. She even overcame her phobia of snakes one day to chase off a snake with her cane that was going after a bird family living in her back yard. My grandmother didn’t always get it right. But I am confident that, right now, she is resting in the arms of Jesus and that I will see her again one day.

One day, the kingdom will come in its fullness, and we will be reunited with those whom we have loved, our family and our friends. And, we will be reunited with those whom we did not know, but who died trusting in the Lord. We may get to meet Naaman the Syrian, and hear his firsthand account of how God healed him from leprosy by washing in the Jordan. And we may get to meet the Israelite girl who became a slave in Naaman’s household, and ask to hear more of her story, and how she found it in herself to wish for healing for her enemy. You may have a list of people you want to meet and talk with one day; I know I do. But in the meantime, today, you can get a foretaste of what it’s going to be like by coming up to receive Holy Communion. In many churches, the altar rail has been designed in a semicircle, with the idea that the rest of the circle is in heaven, with people there sitting at the banquet. So today, and any day you receive communion, remember that you are feasting with your loved ones in the heavenly kingdom, who complete the circle. And that the Lord Jesus is present with us, even as he is present with them. Amen.

 

Sermon for Reformation Sunday

Note: After the shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh on Saturday, October 27th, we started out today’s worship service by reading the ELCA’s 1994 statement repudiating Martin Luther’s anti-Semitic writings. If you care to read that, you can find the statement at http://download.elca.org/ELCA%20Resource%20Repository/Declaration_Of_The_ELCA_To_The_Jewish_Community.pdf?_ga=2.34349479.788548289.1540726238-1345016708.1528066462. If this link doesn’t work, please go to http://www.elca.org and search for “Declaration of ELCA to Jewish Community.”

Sermon for Reformation Sunday

Narrative Lectionary Year 1

1 Kings 3:3-28

Today we move from a story during the reign of King David to the story of the beginning of the reign of David’s son, Solomon. After the incident with Bathsheba, chaos engulfed David’s family; the consequences of David’s sin were being played out. David’s son Amnon raped his half-sister Tamar. In revenge, Tamar’s full brother, Absalom, killed their half-brother, Amnon. Then Absalom led a rebellion against his father, David, which succeeded for a time, until Joab put the rebellion down and killed Absalom. David, who had not wanted another son of his killed, mourned for Absalom for a long time. After this, there was relative calm for the rest of David’s reign. But, as David was dying, there was another struggle among his children for who would succeed him. David’s son Adonijah thought that he was next in line and began preparing himself to be king, even though David was still alive. Nathan—yes, the same Nathan who confronted David about his sin with Bathsheba—told Bathsheba herself what was going on. At Nathan’s urging, Bathsheba went to David and said, “David, didn’t you say that my son Solomon was going to be king? Yet here is Adonijah proclaiming himself king.” While David lay on his deathbed, he summoned the priest Zadok and commanded him and Nathan to anoint Solomon as king. Then David died and Solomon did indeed become king and consolidated his power. This brings us to today’s story, at the beginning of Solomon’s reign.

God asks Solomon what gift God should give him. Solomon could have had anything he wanted, and what does he do? He asks for wisdom. That might not be the first thing that we would ask for. This week, the lottery went up to the billions of dollars, and everyone was running out to buy a ticket in the hopes that they might be the winner. And I think that, if God came to one of us and asked what God should give us, money might be our first answer. Money to pay off debts. Money to buy the things that we couldn’t otherwise afford. Money just to get by from day to day. Perhaps some of us might ask for long life. Or for the happiness of our loved ones. But somehow, I don’t think that wisdom would be our first choice. And yet, this is what Solomon asks God to give him. This is not long into Solomon’s reign. He has just finished consolidating power and he has made his country’s first alliance by marrying the daughter of Pharaoh, king of Egypt. And he must settle down now into the daily, mundane business of governing the people. He is probably a little frightened of the responsibility which has come upon him. And so, after reciting all of the good things that God has done for him, Solomon humbly asks for wisdom to govern God’s people rightly.

Now, any time that the theme of wisdom comes up, I like to tell this story. Some of you have heard it before, and for that, I beg your forgiveness for the repeat. There is a difference between wisdom and knowledge. When I was a senior in college, I managed to catch the flu on the last day before Christmas break. My plans had been to take my last final and then drive home, which at that time was in New Hampshire, a 2 ½ hour drive away. When I woke up sick, I went to the Health Center, where the nurse examined me and said, “Yep, you have the flu,” gave me a couple of Tylenol, and sent me on my way. Somehow I managed to take my final exam, but during the time that I was taking the exam, it started snowing. And not just flurries; a real, honest-to-goodness blizzard. After my exam, I went back to my room and called my dad, who said, “Well, if you’re going to come home, do it now, because it’s only supposed to get worse over the next couple of days.” My car had 4-wheel drive and I knew how to drive in the snow, so I decided to drive home. On my dad’s advice, I took the route that went up by the ski resorts and over to the interstate on the theory that they would have those roads better plowed. Which ended up not being true. During the drive, I had to periodically stop, get out of the car, and scrape snow and ice off of the windshield. And, the Tylenol that I had taken wore off, so that my flu symptoms came back. To this day I don’t know how I managed to make it home, but I did. I had the knowledge that I needed to drive home that day, but wisdom would have said, “Stay where you are until the weather passes and you feel better.”

Solomon asks for wisdom, not knowledge. And when God grants him that wisdom, God says that the other things that Solomon has not asked for—riches and honor all his life—will be his as well. And God also promises Solomon that if he keeps all of God’s commandments and statutes, then God will lengthen his life as well. And after this dream, Solomon demonstrates his wisdom in this strange story of the two women fighting over the baby, determining that the woman who wants the baby to live, even if the other woman gets the baby, is truly the baby’s mother. Our system of justice would ask for all kinds of evidence, including genetic evidence, eyewitness evidence, and the like. But would we take into account who loves the baby more? Because, here’s the thing: what if the woman who begged for the baby’s life was not the genetic mother of the child? Wisdom says that whoever wants what is best for the child is truly the mother, regardless of what genetics may tell us.

In his commentary on this passage, noted Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann writes, “On the one hand one may choose worldly wisdom . . . worldly might, and worldly wealth. On the other hand one may choose steadfast love, justice, and righteousness, the characteristic marks of Yahweh and the things Yahweh most delights in. The first choice is a decision to serve self at the expense of everyone else. The alternative choice is to serve the well-being of the community and to enhance it through fidelity and just dealings” (51). Today is Reformation Sunday, when we commemorate the day that Martin Luther began the Reformation by nailing 95 Theses for debate on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. If you have read those 95 Theses, they will seem very obscure to us today, because we struggle to understand the system of indulgences that Luther wanted to debate. But at its core, those 95 Theses showed a concern for the steadfast love, justice, and righteousness of God. The people of that time and place were being taught that they could buy their way out of purgatory rather than trusting that Jesus Christ had already done everything for them, and that their sins were forgiven. What Luther began on that day was to call the church back to a trust in God, rather than in human institutions. This is one example of what the wisdom of God looks like.

The wisdom of God keeps calling us back to trust in God for that steadfast love, justice, and righteousness and not in human institutions. Last Thursday, I went to a continuing education event called the bishop’s convocation. Our guest speaker was Bishop Craig Satterlee, from the North/West Lower Michigan Synod. And he had some good things to say about how we are to be about the mission of God in this time and this place. One of the things that he said was this: People are not looking for a church. People are looking for an encounter with Jesus that will change their lives. And so, he said, when you are speaking to people outside the church, you should not be speaking about your church: that is, how friendly the people are and what kinds of activities you do. Rather, you should be speaking about Jesus: how has Jesus changed your life? What does Jesus mean to you?

So, this week you all have a homework assignment. Are you ready? In your prayers and in your devotions, I want you to think about how Jesus has changed your life in specific and concrete ways. Not just, “Oh, I’m a much nicer person because of Jesus,” or “My life is so much easier because of Jesus.” That’s too general. People want to know the specifics. Like, for example, part of my story: I went to college with the goal of becoming a translator. Towards the end of my college career, I discovered that I would have to go on to graduate school to do that, and I was tired of school. So, I graduated and took a job as a reservations agent for a tour operator. But after a while, even though I had some good perks at that job, the customer service aspect of it got to be too much. I started expecting the worst out of people. And that wasn’t who I was. One day when I went to church, the president of the congregation came up to me and said, “I got this list of mission opportunities from St. Louis, and I thought you might be interested.” Long story short, I went to Taiwan as a volunteer missionary for 2 ½ years. And Jesus changed my life. By introducing me to new people who did not know Jesus, I got to think about my faith and why I believed in Jesus. And I began to love Jesus again, and I began to love people again. Your story does not need to be quite that dramatic. But I believe that if you reflect back on your life, you can find times when Jesus came and changed it from what it used to be. So find those times, and be ready to share them with others.

St. Paul writes in his first letter to the Corinthians: “For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (1:25). God’s wisdom prompted King Solomon to judge between two women by saying that the one who loved the baby more was the baby’s mother. God’s wisdom meant sending God’s Son to this world to die on the cross for us. God’s wisdom transformed the church when a German monk nailed a piece of paper to a church door. And God’s wisdom says that Jesus isn’t just showing up in our church buildings on Sunday mornings, but also that Jesus shows up in some of the most unexpected places in our lives. When we ask for God’s wisdom to guide us as we make decisions, not only in our individual lives but in our life together as a congregation, we don’t always know what we’re going to get. God’s wisdom doesn’t always look like what we think it should look like. But if something shows us the steadfast love, justice, and righteousness of God, then we can trust that God’s wisdom is there, even if it looks like foolishness to us. Amen.

Sermon for Pentecost 22

Narrative Lectionary Year 1

2 Samuel 11 & 12

Today we make a huge jump from last week, where Joshua addresses the Israelites after they have conquered the Promised Land, to an episode in the life of King David. To get from there to here, the Israelites have gone through an awful lot of history. After Joshua died, the Israelites were ruled for many years by a series of judges. Incidentally, this time period is when the story of Ruth, that we looked at over the summer, took place. Towards the end of this period, a prophet named Samuel arose, and Samuel led the people during his lifetime. But towards the end of Samuel’s life, the people looked at Samuel’s sons and determined that his sons would not be good leaders like Samuel was, and they demanded a king like all the nations around them had. God spoke through Samuel, expressing displeasure with this idea, because God alone should be the people’s king. But, the people kept insisting, and after warning them that a king would do nothing but take the people’s possessions and children for himself, Samuel anointed a man named Saul to be king over the people. Saul wasn’t too bad of a king at first, but after explicitly disobeying a command of the Lord, he fell out of God’s favor. God then sent Samuel to anoint David as king, but David did not fully come into power until after Saul was killed in battle. David then consolidated his power and ruled Israel, and the stories tell us that God loved David very much and blessed him with success.

And so we arrive at today’s story. This is a hard story for us to hear for two reasons. First, here is the king, the man that God has greatly loved and favored, making a colossal mistake that will spell trouble for the rest of the time that he reigns over Israel. And second, it involves a woman who becomes the victim of David’s lust and who doesn’t have many lines to say in this story. She reminds us of all that is going on in our society today with the #MeToo movement, and yet, because the men in this story are more active, and we hear their words and their motivations, Bathsheba’s feelings and motivations remain shrouded in mystery, and we are left to guess how the story would be told from her point of view. But, here are a few things that we can say.

The first thing is this: If you were to do a Google search for pictures of the David and Bathsheba story, you would have a very difficult time finding any that would be less than an “R” rating. I know this because, a couple of years ago when I preached on this text, I had to help my then-secretary find an image for the bulletin cover. Artists over the years have imagined Bathsheba as a temptress, bathing in an area of her courtyard where she knew the king would see her. Many modern authors who have retold this story in prose have portrayed Bathsheba in the same way. But according to Scripture, she was following ritual purity laws and bathing herself after she had been ritually impure. She had no way of knowing that the king would be walking the rooftop of the palace that afternoon. In fact, the first line of the story says that it was spring, the time when kings go out to battle, and yet King David stayed home when his general and his troops were out doing his dirty work. Bathsheba could have been under the impression that the king was out on the battlefield with her husband, Uriah. So I believe that when she went out to bathe that afternoon, she was simply doing what she was supposed to do and had no intention of tempting anyone, much less the king.

Second, here is an idea that I first spoke of several weeks ago when we were talking about Joseph and Potiphar’s wife: there is a power differential going on here. In the case of Joseph, Potiphar’s wife held all of the power while Joseph, although he was in the higher ranks of the slaves of the household, was still a slave. In the case of today’s story, David is the king. He has all of the power in this story, while Bathsheba has none. When there is such a power differential, there is really no such thing as consent. Scripture does not record what the conversation was between David and Bathsheba. We don’t know if Bathsheba protested or if she went along with what David wanted. But, just like Joseph those several weeks ago, Bathsheba does not have a choice. If she says no, she risks the king’s wrath, not only against her, but against her husband. If she says yes, she runs a risk, too, and that risk is actually what happens: she becomes pregnant, and her lawful husband is away at the battlefield doing the king’s bidding. So when Bathsheba sends word to David that she is pregnant, she does not know what’s going to happen. Will David protect her? Will David deny that he was the father? Will she be stoned as an adulteress? We can only imagine how frightened Bathsheba must have been.

This is a little bit of how I imagine this story from Bathsheba’s point of view. Now, let’s take a look at it from the point of view of the storyteller, who is focused on David. The first thing that we see David doing wrong comes in a very subtle jab from the storyteller: “In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab with his officers and all Israel with him . . . But David remained at Jerusalem.” The storyteller doesn’t tell us why. If this is the time when kings go out to battle, why did David remain at home and send his army out without him? That just looks bad on the face of it. As for the rest of David’s part, when I teach people this story, I like to ask how many commandments David violated in this episode. The first one is coveting: when David saw Bathsheba and when he found out who she was and whose wife she was, he coveted her: that is, he wanted someone who was not his to have. Then, when he commanded her to be brought to him, he broke the commandment against stealing. Then, he committed adultery with her. Then, he tried to deceive Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, which technically is not part of the Ten Commandments, although you could make a case for it coming under the “You shall not bear false witness,” commandment. Then, when David was unable to deceive Uriah, he ordered him back to the front and had him murdered. I count at least five of the Ten Commandments that David violated in one story. All so that he could have one woman for one night and then cover up this bad behavior.

Abuse of power. We are seeing this in the news media now as women are coming forward and telling their stories. Stories of men harassing them and the stories of why they didn’t report it when it first happened. Stories where they were not believed when they did report it, and how they were further harassed because people thought they were deliberately trying to bring their abuser down. We also are seeing this abuse of power as we are hearing the stories about the priests in the Roman Catholic Church who sexually abused children and who got away with it because no one believed it of them and/or because those higher up moved them from parish to parish to cover up their evil behavior. Having power in and of itself is not evil. People who are in positions of power can use their power to bring about great good in society. But, sinfulness is always there, lurking inside each one of us. And sometimes that temptation to use our power to satisfy our own selfish and evil desires gets the better of us, and we fall into sin.

But when that happens, we dare not think that we can cover it up for too long, because it eventually comes to light. God knew about David’s sin, and God sent the prophet Nathan to confront David with it. What always gets me about Nathan’s conversation with David, besides the sheer brilliance of using a story to get David to condemn himself, is that, while David did great damage to both Bathsheba, Uriah, and himself, David forgot the hurt that he caused his Lord. God’s speech, through the prophet Nathan’s lips, sounds like God is wounded by what David has done: God lists all the things that God has done for David, and, God says, if that hadn’t been enough, God would have given David even more. All that God wanted from David in return was for David to follow the laws that God had laid down, and David couldn’t even do that. But yet, even with this great sin, when David admits what he has done, God offers forgiveness. It doesn’t mean that there won’t still be earthly consequences. Because David has done this, this abuse of power gets played out among his children and David can’t do anything to stop it. But the Lord did forgive David’s sin, and even brought good out of it. David and Bathsheba had a son named Solomon, who grew up to become the wisest king Israel had known. And, if we look in the first chapter of Matthew, we see both David and Bathsheba listed as earthly ancestors of Jesus.

With the abuse of power that is coming to light in so many situations in our society today, it is hard to see forgiveness. And perhaps we have to live in that tension yet for a while, that tension between our faith which says that God forgives sins and our desire for justice, our desire for those who abused their power to suffer the consequences, in some cases long overdue, for their sins. For those who have been abused, it is not healthy to forgive their abuser right away, because they need to heal from their trauma, and healing often means expressing anger, hurt, betrayal, and a whole host of other emotions. And I have to believe that God understands that. Forgiveness should never be forced. Just as forgiveness is a free gift of God, when we forgive one another, it should also be a free gift from us and not forced.

But the good news is this: God forgives us our sins, whatever they are. God stands ready to forgive us when we confess our sins. And even though God is hurt by the things that we do, God continues to reach out to us and love us, calling us to return to God’s welcoming arms. Do you have any sins that are weighing on your heart? Then hear now God’s call: God loves you and invites you to return to that relationship with God by confessing what is on your heart and hearing God’s complete forgiveness of your sins. All of us have experienced this in our lives and know the comfort that comes from hearing of God’s love for us. So let us continue to extend that loving invitation to all of our neighbors, inviting them to hear of God’s love for all of us. Amen.

 

Sermon for Pentecost 21 Narrative

Narrative Lectionary Year 1

Joshua 24:1-26

Today we jump from the story of God parting the waters of the Red Sea so that the Israelites could pass through on dry ground to this speech by Joshua. And thanks go to Joshua, because in this speech he summarizes what has happened in between the Red Sea crossing and the present moment, so I don’t have to. But I do want to fill in some of the background information that Joshua leaves out, so that we’re all clear on what’s happening in this speech.

Moses, the man who God chose to lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, died before entering the Promised Land. Joshua, son of Nun, was Moses’ apprentice, and he was the man who took over leading the Israelites after Moses died. At the beginning of the book of Joshua, we see God giving Joshua encouragement as he takes on this awesome responsibility of leading the Israelites by saying, “Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.” And, reading through the book of Joshua, we see that Joshua did live up to this, and led the Israelites through battle after battle as they entered the land that God had promised them. Today’s speech by Joshua comes as he reaches the end of his life, and he wants to do what he can to make sure that his people, the Israelites, remain true to the covenant that the LORD has made with them.

So, what do you do when you’re trying to get people to agree to remain faithful to someone, whether it’s God or another human being? Well, one tried and true method is to list all the things that that person, or in this case, God, has done for you. And this is what Joshua does. He lists all of the great and awesome wonders that God has done for the Israelites, not just from the time they were in Egypt, but from the time of their ancestor Abraham. God chose Abraham and brought him from the area of Mesopotamia to the land of Canaan, and took him from idol worship to worshiping God alone. God gave Abraham descendants. When Abraham’s descendants, Jacob and his family, went down to Egypt, God sent Moses to rescue them from slavery, and God sent plagues to harass Pharaoh and his people until they let the Israelites go. When Egypt pursued the Israelites, God protected the Israelites from the Egyptians and saw them safely through, destroying their enemies so that they would not come after them again. God was with the Israelites through the wilderness, protecting them and feeding them. God turned the curses of Balaam into blessings over the Israelites. God gave the Israelites victory over Jericho. God gave them the land. After everything that God has done for you, why wouldn’t you, Israelites, want to be faithful and keep the covenant with God?

And, the Israelites do recognize all that God has done for them. And when Joshua tells them to choose this day who they will serve, they answer, “[W]e also will serve the LORD, for he is our God.” And then, after this rousing speech and wonderful answer, Joshua surprises them by saying, “You cannot serve the LORD, for he is a holy God.” He tells them what will happen to them if they fail. But they insist and respond, “No, we will serve the LORD!” And Joshua says, “Ok, then, you know what you’re getting into. So put away any foreign gods that are among you, and serve the LORD wholeheartedly.” And so the Israelites, with Joshua at their head, renew their commitment to serve the Lord their God.

So, I will admit to you that I struggled with this text this week, and the reason is because of the command that Joshua gives, and that we have probably seen on plaques and in embroidery in Christian homes: “Choose this day whom you will serve . . . but as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.” And the reason that I struggle with this text is because of the word “choose”. Martin Luther says in the explanation to the Third Article of the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy and kept me in the true faith, just as he calls, gathers, enlightens, and makes holy the whole Christian church on earth and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one common, true faith.” In other words, I do not choose to follow Jesus by my own will. After all, in this day and age, with the church in the condition that it’s in across the country, who in her right mind would actually choose to be a pastor? Who in her right mind would choose to follow Jesus? Because this is what choosing to follow Jesus looks like:

Choosing to serve God means turning my back on my own selfish nature and my own wants and putting other people over myself. Choosing to serve God means doing the hard work of learning how people different from myself experience the world, and trying to put myself in their shoes. Choosing to serve God means being in a right relationship both with God and with all of God’s creation. Choosing to serve God means being open to the movement of the Holy Spirit, which means recognizing things like, for example, God doesn’t care so much about the church building and the way we’ve always done church. Rather, God cares more about how we serve other people, how we tell other people the good news of Jesus Christ, and how we are going about in the world, recognizing Jesus in the hungry, the poor, the stranger, the sick person, and the prisoner. That’s some scary stuff, people. Who in their right mind would actually choose to serve God? On my own, I would never choose this way of life.

And so, I identify a lot more with Joshua when he says to the people, “You cannot serve the LORD, for he is a holy God.” On my own, I could never do it. Most days as I go through life, I feel my sinfulness. I feel it when I miss the mark, when I miss an opportunity to do good. The guilt of my sin can be overwhelming when I realize that I’ve made a mistake and that I am unable to fix it. There are days when I, like the prophet Elijah, stand before God and say, “I have done the best I can to do what you have asked me to do, and it’s not making any difference. I’m done, and I don’t know what to do next.” I recognize that, without the help and the encouragement of the Holy Spirit, I could never go on following God.

But the good news is this: With apologies to Joshua and the inspiration of Holy Scripture, Joshua was wrong when he said that God would not forgive the people’s transgressions or sins. He seems to have forgotten the times when, after the people had gone astray in the wilderness and God would become angry with them, Moses would plead with God, and God would relent and forgive. Joshua seems to be unaware of the time when God showed Godself to Moses and said, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” To give Joshua the benefit of the doubt, perhaps he was simply trying to impress upon the Israelites the seriousness of the covenant with God that they were agreeing to follow. But even after this, throughout the rest of the story of the Israelites, we see many instances of God’s mercy, love, and forgiveness. And after many generations, someone who bore the name Yeshua, which is the Aramaic form of Joshua and whose name would be translated into Greek as Jesus, would give himself to death on a cross for us, to show us how much God loves us and to show God’s forgiveness of us.

So, back to this whole idea of choosing. I think that Martin Luther would say that perhaps we do choose to follow God, but on those days when we succeed, it’s not really us that’s doing the choosing, but the Holy Spirit within us who does the choosing. And I think that, moving forward, we need to reflect on all of the wonderful things that God, through Jesus Christ, has done for us, starting with dying on the cross for us, rising from the dead for us, and forgiving us our sins. Such wonderful gifts God gives us to show God’s love for us! Who wouldn’t want to serve this loving God? But serving this God is not going to be easy. It will mean listening for the Holy Spirit and following where we do not want to go. It will mean having to change the way we always do things and stepping out in faith to become a new model of church in the world. It will mean recognizing the face of Jesus in people that we would never think to find Jesus in. It will mean putting ourselves in those people’s shoes and learning to see the world the way they do, and then finding ways to share God’s love with them.

So choose this day who you will serve, the God of mercy and love who will ask you to follow where you don’t want to go, or some other god. If you choose God, know that it is the Holy Spirit within you that is choosing, and know that the Holy Spirit will be with you when you fail. But as for me and as for this congregation, we will serve the Lord. Amen.

Sermon for Pentecost 20 Narrative

Exodus 14:5-7, 10-14, 21-29

In our journey through the Bible this fall, we last left our story in Genesis as Joseph ended up in prison after Potiphar’s wife falsely accused him of attacking her. But at the end of the story, we saw God already beginning to raise Joseph up again. Joseph would eventually become Pharaoh’s right-hand man who would successfully guide the country of Egypt through a famine. Joseph’s family came down to Egypt for food, because Canaan was also afflicted by the famine, and they were reunited with Joseph and he and his brothers were reconciled. Many years passed, and Joseph’s family grew and became known as Hebrews. The story of the book of Exodus then opens with this line, “Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.” This new Pharaoh was afraid of how numerous the Hebrew people had become, and he was afraid that they would rise up against him. So, his solution was to enslave them. The people of Israel were in slavery in Egypt for many years until God raised up a new leader to free them from slavery and take them back to the land of Canaan, the land that God had sworn to give to Abraham, and whose promise had been inherited by Isaac, Jacob, and Jacob’s children. The story of Exodus has been immortalized in movies from The Ten Commandments, starring Charlton Heston, to the animated film The Prince of Egypt that came out in 1998. So those of you raised in the church know how the story goes: God calls Moses; Moses goes down to Egypt and says, “Let my people go!”; Pharaoh refuses; God brings ten plagues. Who can name the ten plagues? (Water turned to blood; frogs; gnats; flies; livestock struck down; boils; thunder and hail; locusts; darkness; and finally, the death of the Egyptian firstborn) And it was this last plague, the death of Egypt’s firstborn children, that finally convinced Pharaoh to admit defeat and to let the people go.

So, today we see the Israelites have, in fact, escaped Egypt and are camped by the sea, waiting for Moses to continue leading them into their new life. Suddenly, the Israelites look back the way they came, and there is Pharaoh and the armies of Egypt coming in pursuit. Pharaoh changed his mind one more time when he figured out that he let all of his free slave labor go, and perhaps he also wanted revenge for all of the plagues that he and his people endured. And naturally, the Israelites are frightened—I would be, too, if I saw a horde of horses and chariots coming to run me down. And the Israelites complain to Moses, and they say how much better it would have been for them to die as slaves in Egypt rather than be killed by Pharaoh’s armies. And Moses tells them not to be afraid, for “The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.”

I want to pause there for a moment; to “keep still” as it were. What is our first response when we find ourselves in a crisis situation? As a church, I think our first response tends to be what the Israelites did: we look back to our past and see how much better it was. It doesn’t matter that perhaps we weren’t living out our faith to our full potential. It was good because we had people! People to do things! Children to fill our Sunday school classrooms! There were always plenty of people we could ask to serve on committees and councils! We had a large choir! Yes, Jesus was there, but often times we were so busy doing things that we had to do to keep the church going that perhaps Jesus wasn’t always our central focus. And now God has brought us out into this wilderness, where we are facing diminished numbers, where it’s always the same people on council, where there are only a few children here and there, and now we find ourselves with people who are aging and dying on one side and an unknown future through uncertain dangers ahead of us. But instead of looking back to our past and remembering how good it seemed, maybe we should be looking ahead and placing our faith and our trust in Jesus to get us through the unknowns in front of us. And in order to do that, the first thing we should be doing is to keep still, and to trust that the LORD is fighting for us. And part of that means to talk to God in prayer and listen for God’s answer: to discern how God might be leading us forward into the unknown.

And this is what happens next in the story. God answers Moses and says, “Why do you cry out to me? Tell the Israelites to go forward.” Forward to this sea that looks completely impassable, trusting only in God’s Word that it will be okay. The pillar of cloud that was guiding the Israelites suddenly moved from the front of the group to the back, and came between them and the pursuing Egyptians, so that the Egyptians could not get to them. Moses lifted up his staff, and the LORD then drove the sea back so that dry land appeared and the Israelites crossed through safely. And when the sea came back to its place, the Egyptian army was drowned. When they saw that they had reached the other side and the Egyptians were gone, and that they were truly free, the Israelites sang and praised God. They didn’t know that they still had hardships yet in front of them. In that moment, they were free, and they sang in praise and thanksgiving for that freedom given to them by God.

This is where I see our congregations, St. John’s and Salem, in this moment. We are looking at our past and we are realizing that we can’t do things the way we used to do them, because those ways aren’t working anymore. And yet we, like the Israelites did, are saying to God, “Why didn’t you just leave us alone so we could die in slavery? At least we had everything we needed there and we could have simply lived our lives and died.” Ahead of us is this unknown future, which may look better than what we left behind, but there is this great obstacle in front of us, like the sea was in front of the Israelites, and we don’t know how we’re going to get around it. And like the Israelites, we are frozen in fear, not knowing which way to go, forward or back, and not trusting that the Lord will see us through.

But just as the Lord parted the waters for the Israelites and led them through to their future, so is the Lord going ahead of us and removing the obstacles that are in the way of us moving forward. It doesn’t mean that things will be easy as we pass through the waters. One thing I loved about the animated movie, The Prince of Egypt, is how they drew the parting of the waters. As the Israelites moved through on dry ground, there were walls of water to either side of them, and flashes of lightning lit up those walls so that the people could see sharks and other fearsome creatures swimming around in the sea. I think the first time I saw this movie, I marveled at the technology that was needed to create that image. Now, as I think back on it, what I remember in that depiction is the image of a little girl becoming frightened of what she saw and an older woman coming alongside her to comfort her and to keep walking forward with her. This is what community is about: no matter the events that are surrounding us, we walk forward together, encouraging and comforting one another as we journey through the unknown.

We find ourselves at a crossroads today, just as the Israelites did those many centuries ago. We look back to the past, to the years that we grew up in full churches, and we remember them with nostalgia. But the thing about nostalgia is that what we remember as “good years” weren’t always as good as we think they were. God is asking us, in this moment, to give thanks for the good things of the past, but not to look back to them as a place we would rather be. Instead, God is asking us to trust that God will lead us into the future and to trust that God will be there, and will surround each of us with community to encourage us when the road seems difficult. God is even now setting us free from the chains of the past, and is helping us to move forward into the future, removing the obstacles in front of us, so that we may do God’s work in a new environment, a new society, a new land.

One final note about this story of the parting of the sea so the Israelites could cross through on dry ground. This is one of the images that we Christians use for baptism. In baptism, God has brought us safely through the waters and claimed us as God’s own. What does this mean? We are baptized for this moment. We are claimed and loved as God’s children. God will not abandon us. And so we can sing praises to God for the freedom that God has given us, even when we don’t know what’s coming next. I would like to end this today by having you join me in a prayer from our hymnals that, I hope, will give us the encouragement we need to trust in God. Let us pray.

 

O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending,

by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good

courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your

love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

Sermon for Pentecost 18 Narrative

Genesis 39:1-23

Today we move from God’s call to Abram and Sarai down through several generations to a story of one of Abraham’s great-grandsons, Joseph. A LOT has happened in between these two stories, so I’m going to try and hit the high points for you, and not get bogged down in too many details. After a long time and a couple of trips down to Egypt when there were famines in the land of Canaan, as well as Abraham having a son named Ishmael with Sarah’s slave, Hagar, Abraham and Sarah finally have a son named Isaac when Abraham is 100 years old and Sarah is 90. God commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac to him and, at the last minute, spares Isaac’s life and has Abraham sacrifice a ram instead. Sarah dies, and Abraham sends his servant back to his home country to find a wife for Isaac. The servant comes back with a woman named Rebekah, who marries Isaac. Abraham dies, and after this, Rebekah has twin sons, named Esau and Jacob. Jacob, the younger of the two, tricks his older brother Esau into giving him his birthright, and then tricks their father Isaac into giving him the blessing instead of Esau. Esau starts making death threats against Jacob, and Jacob hightails it back to the home country, where he meets his mother’s family, Laban and Laban’s daughters, Rachel and Leah. Jacob falls in love with Rachel, but Laban tricks Jacob into marrying Leah first, since she is the older daughter, and then Jacob gets to marry Rachel. Over the years, Jacob has twelve sons and one daughter with Leah, Rachel, and two concubines. Eventually Jacob returns home with his large family, and he is reconciled with his brother Esau.

And now the story narrows in on Joseph. Joseph is the favorite son because his mother was Jacob’s favorite wife, Rachel. Jacob gives Joseph a multi-colored coat, and Joseph starts telling his brothers about dreams that he’s had where he is ruling over them. One day, the brothers have had enough of their snobby little brother who’s too big for his britches. They sell Joseph to a caravan of slave traders who are heading down to Egypt, and then they trick their father Jacob into believing that Joseph has been killed by wild animals. In the meantime, the caravan of slave traders has reached Egypt and has sold Joseph to Pharaoh’s captain of the guard, Potiphar. This is where today’s story begins.

There are a number of reasons why the story that we have heard today is very troubling in our 21st century North American context, but perhaps the primary reason is that it involves a story of sexual harassment and a false accusation of attempted rape. It sounds familiar to our ears today, except for one thing: the person who is in power and who is doing the harassing and the false accusation is a woman, and the person who is the victim is a man. In our society, it tends to be the other way around. Now, let’s add another thought to this: the person who wrote this story down was most likely a man living in a patriarchal society who perhaps wanted to make Joseph look good, since he was the hero of the story. Could there have possibly been some truth to the accusation of attempted rape that Potiphar’s wife makes against Joseph? And could the author have rewritten the story to cover up what really happened and make Joseph into the victim rather than the perpetrator?

Well, those questions on authorship are probably best left to the scholars writing Ph.D. dissertations. I will say that it is okay to regard today’s story with a bit of suspicion, but for lack of proof, we will need to take the story of Joseph’s encounter with Potiphar’s wife at face value and wrestle with it for a blessing, to use a metaphor from one of the stories about Joseph’s father, Jacob. And the first thing I want for us to notice about the story is the power differential. Joseph rose up through the ranks of Potiphar’s slaves relatively quickly until he was the overseer, because, according to the story, God was with him and caused all of his work to prosper. But, even though Joseph was the overseer, he was still a slave. When Potiphar’s wife approached Joseph and commanded him to lie with her, Joseph had a choice: He could say yes and perhaps gain more favor from his master’s wife. But then he would risk Potiphar finding out and probably killing him. Or, Joseph could say no, risking the woman’s anger but preserving his integrity and his life. This is the textbook definition of a no-win scenario. Faced with this no-win situation, Joseph chose to keep his integrity and risk the anger of Potiphar’s wife, and he said no. From then on, he did his utmost to avoid her, but that was going to be hard when he was performing his duties as the overseer. And then, one day, she caught him alone, and the rest was history. This time her proposition must have involved actual touching, for he left his garment in her hands and fled. Now she has the evidence to frame Joseph for attempted rape and get her revenge on him for refusing her.

In this case and in all cases, sexual harassment is not about genuine love or even desire for another person. Rather, it is about one person who is in power over another seeking to exercise that power in unholy ways. And, even though in today’s society, most cases of sexual harassment happen with a man who is in power over a woman, there are some cases, as demonstrated in this story, where it happens with a woman who is in power over a man. And this misuse of power demonstrates itself by the person who has power seeking to use that power in the most sacred space: power over another person’s body, so that the person who is harassed will feel as if they don’t have the freedom to say no and as if they don’t have power over their own lives. This is what sinfulness looks like.

Looking at the general age of people in this congregation, you might think that this is not relevant to you. You might be tired of hearing everything in the news about #MeToo, about the sexual abuse scandal among priests in the Roman Catholic Church, and about the current nominee to the Supreme Court. I admit that I am a bit weary of it all, myself. But even if something like this has never happened to you, I guarantee that it has happened to someone you know. And I’ll briefly tell my story right now. I was the recipient of unwelcome touch by a man in a congregation that I served many years ago. I went to the pastor, trusting that he might speak to this man and tell him that he needed to stop. I found out that mine was not the first report by a woman about unwelcome touch from this man. But the pastor did not do anything about it. So, then I spent Sunday mornings trying to avoid this man, who was actually a prominent member of the congregation. I felt as though he was more important to the pastor than I was. And I did feel like my personal, sacred space, had been violated. And so, I will tell you now, that if any of you comes to me with a report of someone violating your boundaries, I will believe you. I will listen to you, and we will confront the situation. God has created each one of us as beautiful human beings in God’s sight, and in God’s church, we will respect one another. We will not abuse our power, perceived or real.

In our story today, when Potiphar’s wife makes her accusation against Joseph and tells Potiphar about what happened, Potiphar throws Joseph into jail. Yes, this is unfair, but again, there is a power differential going on here: Joseph was a slave, and even if Potiphar might have suspected that his wife was making this story up, he needed to make sure that Joseph knew his place: Joseph was still a slave. And as we look at Joseph’s life up to this point, we see him going from beloved son to nameless slave, then rising to overseer and going once more to nameless slave, this time in prison. We might think that Joseph just can’t win—except for this one line that the text gives us: But the LORD was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love. The LORD loves Joseph and stays with him and loves him no matter what.

And that is the good news for us today as well. The Lord is with us in every situation in life and loves us no matter what. If you have ever been sexually assaulted, no matter when it happened in your life, God is with you; God mourns for you and with you, and God loves you. And as God’s beloved community, we are called to love, support, and advocate for those beloved children of God who have been sexually abused and assaulted. We are called to say to these beloved children of God that we believe them—no matter what their gender or sexual orientation is—and to say that we mourn with them, that God loves them, we love them, and we will give them whatever help we can.

At the end of today’s story about Joseph, we read that God is raising Joseph up once more, so that he gets put in charge of the care of all of the prisoners. And, we don’t get the rest of Joseph’s story, but Joseph will eventually get out of prison and be raised up to be Pharaoh’s right-hand man, and Joseph is able to preserve the people—including his family, who comes down to Egypt—during a famine. While God does not cause bad things to happen, God is able to bring good things out of bad. God is able to bring good things out of something even as bad as sexual assault. It may take a long time—and for many survivors, it takes a very long time to heal. God is calling us to be part of that healing process by surrounding survivors with hope, love, and advocacy, and thus participating in the coming of God’s kingdom on earth. So let us help bring that healing, love, and hope to this hurting world around us. Amen.

Sermon for Pentecost 17 Narrative

Note: I have two small churches in two slightly different contexts. This week’s sermon had the same beginning and ending for both, with the middle section differing. I’m placing them both here so that you, gentle reader, may see how the same Biblical text could address each context.

Narrative Lectionary Year 1

Genesis 12:1-9

Today we move from the story of Noah to the call of Abram. And, there isn’t a whole lot to fill you in on with the chapters that we’ve skipped over. After God makes a covenant with Noah and all the creatures of the earth not to destroy the world again with a flood, we have a strange little story of Noah getting drunk and how his sons treated him when he was drunk. I don’t know quite what to do with that story, other than to say if I had been through what Noah had, I would probably want to get drunk myself. So, we’re just going to leave that there for another time. Then we have one of those genealogies that we don’t know quite what to do with, other than to say Noah’s sons had sons, and the world was populated once more. Then we have a story of how all the human beings used to speak one language, and how one day they all got together and decided to build a tower reaching to the heavens in order to make a name for themselves. God decides to drop by, sees what they’re doing, and confuses their speech, so that work on the tower is stopped and everyone now speaks different languages. We then get another genealogy, this one narrowing in on the descendants of one of Noah’s sons, Shem, and ending with Abram, who is one of the main characters in our story today. And I want us to take particular note of Genesis 11:30, which is not in today’s reading: “Now Sarai (that’s Abram’s wife) was barren; she had no child.” And after that, we get introduced to the man named Abram.

There is no particular reason that God chose Abram. Out of the blue, we see God speaking and commanding Abram to leave his father’s house and go to the land that God will show him. And God makes three promises to Abram: First, that Abram will become a great nation. Second, that God will bless Abram so that he will be a blessing. And third, that Abram’s offspring will inherit the land. Now, I find a few things about these promises very interesting. First, we just heard in chapter 11 that Sarai, Abram’s wife, was barren, and Abram himself was 75 years old at this time. So how on earth is God going to give Abram offspring and make of Abram a great nation? Second, God never promises that Abram himself will own the land that God is sending him to, and indeed, at the end of Abram’s story, we find that he only owns the land in which his wife is buried. And finally, and most importantly, that, in spite of his age and in spite of the fact that he has no children and doesn’t seem likely to, Abram believes these promises of God, packs up his family and his belongings, and travels to Canaan. That is a tremendous amount of faith being displayed there.

And so, Abram journeys to the land of Canaan, trusting only in the word of God that he will one day have children, in spite of the odds being stacked against him. This journey that he starts out on in today’s reading, and that continues on in many stories after this, will be a journey from barrenness to fruitfulness, and it will take many unexpected turns. The blessings that God has promised to Abram will not look like what Abram thinks they will look like. Abram will give up hope of having children with his wife, Sarai, and when God comes to remind Abram and Sarai of that promise, they laugh in God’s face. Abram will have sorrow and pain in his life when he bargains with God over the lives of the people in Sodom and Gomorrah, and then looks and sees the destruction of the cities and does not know if his nephew Lot and Lot’s family have survived. He will have further pain when, because of Sarai’s jealousy, he is forced to banish Hagar his concubine and Ishmael his son. Abram and Sarai will eventually die without seeing the fulfillment of the promise God made to them to make of Abram a great nation. But, they will also know God’s blessing in the birth of Isaac to them in their old age, and they journey through their life together sometimes believing, sometimes not, but somehow trusting and hoping beyond hope that God will fulfill these promises that God has made to them, and that their descendants after them will be blessed so that they may be a blessing to all of the families of the earth.

As spiritual descendants of Abraham, we too are on a journey from barrenness to fruitfulness. And like Abraham, our journey will take many twists and turns, and the blessings will be found in unexpected places. Our congregations of Salem and St. John’s are small, and in many ways, they may seem barren, especially as we see our membership and our attendance on Sunday mornings get smaller. The blessings, when they come, don’t look like what we think they will look like. But God is faithful to God’s promises, and God has promised us, as those spiritual descendants of Abraham, that we will be a blessing to all of the people around us.

 

Salem

For those of you who haven’t heard from the members of the council who gathered here on Monday night, I have asked our leaders to consider either closing this congregation, or possibly merging with another congregation in the area. I want you to know that I have not come to ask this of you lightly, and that it has nothing to do with our finances, which are still stable. This has come over the last year and a half that I have been with you, watching the congregation slowly fade and lose energy for its mission. I have seen you all exert tremendous amounts of energy for the fundraisers that you traditionally do, and I have heard you worry about not being able to get as many people to help out as you have in the past. I have struggled to find new ways of doing mission in this community and have even brought in folks from the Synod to try and help figure things out, and we are all at a loss. My heart aches for all of you, because I know that you have gifts to share for ministry, and I would love to see you use them in places and in ways that would yield more fruit.

I did not ask on Monday night, and I am not asking you today, for any kind of decision or vote. I am simply asking all of you to be in prayer and discernment about the future of Salem over the next few months. I am here to listen to you and answer any questions that I can answer, but please know that maybe right after worship is not the best time, as I have to get down to St. John’s. My phone number is in the bulletin; please call me and set up a time to meet with me. I believe that, just as Abraham was on a journey from barrenness to fruitfulness, so too, are we on that same journey. God has fruitfulness in store for all of us here at Salem. But also, just as the blessings for Abraham did not appear as he thought they would, those blessings and that promised fruitfulness may not look like what we think it will look like. God may be calling us on a journey to a new and strange country, and a journey that we ourselves will not see the end of.

 

St. John’s

And I see this blessing that God has given St. John’s played out in so many ways. If I may be so bold as to say this, I think that we have taken the promise made to Abraham seriously, and we know that we have been blessed so that we can be a blessing to others. Richard Jorgensen, the Synod’s Director for Evangelical Mission, likes to ask congregations this question: If we had to close tomorrow, who in the community would miss us? Well, here are a few groups that I thought of:

First, Safani, the daycare that our building hosts. Without us, they would have to look for another space. Next, everyone who comes to our monthly community breakfast. Some months we don’t serve as many people as others. But for everyone who comes, we have given them at least one free meal for that day, which may ease some budget woes for that person. And, I’m beginning to see a core group of “regulars” who come each month—even though they don’t make the transition over here to worship on a Sunday morning, they are forming a community that is beginning to know one another. With the monthly community dinners starting this month, perhaps that community can become even stronger. Another group who would miss us is the people who come looking for financial assistance to help with a utility bill, or groceries, or some other need. As the pastor who gets to help the people with the donations that you all place in the jar at the back, words just don’t do justice to the sense of gratitude and relief that I see on people’s faces when they know that they have money to pay whatever bill is hanging over their heads or to get food to feed their family. Yet another group who would miss us is Family Promise. Without the use of our building and without our support, Family Promise would lose a key spoke in their wheel that might not be easily replaced. These are just a few examples, but I want us all to take note of them when we start to get discouraged about our small numbers. Just as God did great things with Abram and Sarai, who by all worldly accounts were barren and dried up, God has done and will continue to do great things through us, even though the world may count us as dried up and barren.

 

Both

We are the spiritual descendants of Abram and Sarai. We, too, are called to have great faith in God and to believe in those promises, even when it seems like all hope is lost. And, we are called to that journey which may surprise us when blessings pop up in unexpected ways, which may cause us sorrow and pain when life doesn’t go as expected, which will almost certainly bring great moments of unexpected joy and wonderment, and which we may not see the end of. But, like Abram and Sarai, we know that God’s promises are true, and that we are blessed to be a blessing. And we also know that, when our faith falters, we are not alone—God is with us, and the community of believers around us will carry us along. So, let us have no fear. Let us continue on this journey in faith, remembering the example of Abram and Sarai, and trusting that God is with us and loves us—no matter what. Amen.

Sermon for Pentecost 16 Narrative

Sermon for Narrative Lectionary Year 1

Pentecost 16

Genesis 6:5-22; 8:6-12; 9:8-17

Today we begin a new cycle of readings in the narrative lectionary. Again, the idea is that our readings will take us roughly in the order that the Bible goes, just as we did last year, from Old Testament through New Testament, with the summer being short sermon series on different books of the Bible or topics that have relevance to our life in the church. And this year, our cycle of readings begins with the story of Noah. So, briefly, I would like to summarize what has happened before this in the book of Genesis. In chapter 1 through the beginning of chapter 2, we hear how God created the earth in six days, and how on the seventh day, God rested, thus making holy the seventh day. In chapter 2, we get a different story of how God created the earth; this one starting with God creating man, then planting a garden in Eden, and then, seeing that the man was lonely, bringing each living creature to Adam to name. And when none was found to be a fit companion for Adam, God put him to sleep and created a woman from Adam’s rib. In chapter 3, we hear the story of how the serpent tempts the woman to eat the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and how she gives the fruit to Adam, who eats, and how God pronounces a curse upon them and drives them out of the garden. But, in the midst of that, God still cares for them and provides them with clothing. In chapter 4, Eve gives birth to Cain and Abel, and Cain murders his brother Abel. Chapter 5 traces the family line from Adam to Noah.

And so, we arrive at today’s story of Noah. What Genesis has done for us so far is to show us that God created the earth and everything in it, but the creation went astray from God’s plans for it. And so we get this ominous opening line, “The LORD saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the LORD was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.”

With such an opening as that, and with the story following, I often wonder why we have made this story one that we always teach the children in Sunday school; why we decorate children’s Sunday school rooms with the animals heading up into the ark two by two; why we focus on all the cute animals and write poems about how the unicorns didn’t believe the news, didn’t get on the ark, and were drowned in the flood. (You can read that poem in Shel Silverstein’s collection of poems entitled, “Where the Sidewalk Ends”.) We focus on Noah and his family floating along with all of these animals, and we don’t think about the death and destruction that God caused with the flood. I read a story this week about how, in a children’s sermon, the pastor asked the kids to imagine what it must have been like to be on the ark during the flood, and one of the kids said, “I hear the people in the water outside the ark screaming for help.” That certainly doesn’t fit the cheerful, cute picture we have in our minds of the Noah’s ark story.

So, I think we need to talk about this death and destruction for a moment, because, just as we can’t have the resurrection of Jesus without first going with him to the cross, we can’t get to the rainbow in the sky without first going through the flood waters. In 6:11-13, the Hebrew word that gets translated as “corrupt” appears several times—first in connection with how humans have corrupted the earth, and second in connection with the destruction that the flood waters are going to bring to the earth. The use of this word throughout these sentences implies that, even though God is the one who brings on the flood waters, the flood is also a direct consequence of the corrupt behavior of humans. I want for us to keep this idea in mind as we move forward through this story.

So, that’s the bad news. What’s the good news? God is not ready to give up completely on the creation. He sees that Noah and his family are righteous, and so he chooses them and commands them to build an ark. And in this ark, God preserves Noah’s life; seeing them safely through the flood waters. This image of preservation in the face of destruction is so profound that we use it in our liturgy for the sacrament of baptism: Just as God preserved Noah’s life when the waters around his ark raged, we give thanks for the gift of the Holy Spirit who preserves the life of the person being baptized and welcomes that person into the life of the community of God’s church. And the further good news is this: after the flood waters have subsided, God makes a covenant with Noah and with all of God’s creation that never again will God destroy the earth in a flood. God loves the creation, and God finds a way to preserve it, even in the face of the wickedness of humankind.

So, what are we to do with this story today? The first thing to remember is that our actions have consequences. God has made the creation so interconnected that everything we do has consequences for another part of the creation. Climate change is upon us, and the consequences of what we have done to the earth are starting to be felt. Because we have warmed the atmosphere with our fossil fuels, the ice caps are melting and ocean levels are rising. Miami, Florida, now floods even on sunny days, and it is having consequences for people who live in those areas as they are trying to move to higher ground. Kiribati, an island nation in the Pacific Ocean, is in danger of being completely wiped off the map because of the sea level rise. Venice, Italy, also deals with flooding in their city. And polar bears are in danger of becoming extinct because of the ice melting, causing them to become cut off from the areas they need to be in order to get food. God may have promised never to flood the earth again, but God never said anything about human beings never causing floods to happen. We are suffering the consequences of our lack of good stewardship of this earth.

The second thing to remember is something from our stewardship series: nothing that we see around us really belongs to us; we are merely the caretakers, or the stewards, of God’s creation. And as good stewards, there are things we can do to reduce our impact on the creation around us. The mantra that you may have heard before is this: reduce, reuse, recycle. First, reducing: as one example, it is hard to avoid plastic. I know, because I have tried. But here is one thing you can perhaps start with: stop using straws. I know there’s been a lot of media attention lately on California banning the use of plastic straws. There’s a reason for that decision. Straws are not able to be recycled, and they end up in our oceans where marine life swallow them and choke on them. When you go out to eat at a restaurant, don’t use the straws that the waiter brings you. Or, if you really need to use a straw, and this brings us into the reuse part of the mantra, they are making reusable metal ones. You can get them for $10 on Amazon and then get in the habit of bringing them with you to restaurants. This is one small thing we can do to help be better stewards of the environment. And, finally, wherever possible, recycle as much as possible.

But the third and most important thing to remember is that God loves the creation. In the Noah story, God makes the covenant not to flood the earth again not just with Noah and his family, but also with every living creature that was with Noah, “the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth.” God loves the creation and everything in it, from the praying mantis that I found on my door the other day, to the polar bear looking for food in the Arctic, to the wolf howling in the West, to the wild turkeys that show up in my neighborhood from time to time, and even to those insects like roaches that we find detestable. God loves every bit of it, including you and me. And even in the face of changes in the environment that we are seeing now, I believe that God will find a way to preserve the creation and that God will be with us through it all. So, let us have no fear, but rather, boldly make those changes in our lifestyles that we need to make in order to be better stewards of the creation that God has loaned to us. Trusting in God’s love for us and for all creation, we know that God is with us always. Amen.

Sermon for Pentecost 15 Narrative

Note: There are times in the life of the church where words that apply to one congregation do not fit so easily for others. The bulk of this sermon was the same for both Salem and St. John’s, but there were some particular issues that I needed to speak to Salem about on Sunday that related to hoarding. Thus, I decided to only include the St. John’s version on my blog. 

Luke 12:13-34

Last week, when we talked about Jesus telling the rich man to sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor, I told you about all the books I had, how each one was important to me, and how I would have a hard time giving them all up. Today, as we hear the parable of the man who decided to build bigger barns to keep all of his grain in, I have another confession to make: I hoard books. Along with all of the books that I have read, I have a large pile of books that I have not yet read. And, courtesy of my brother, I have an Amazon Kindle. And on that Kindle are even more books that I have not yet read. The Japanese have a name for this condition that I have: tsundoku. It means letting books pile up in your home without actually reading them. Believe me, I do have every intention of reading these books that I have acquired. It’s just that I get busy and don’t get around to it. And what’s even worse is this: even though I have this pile of books that I haven’t read yet, I still go into bookstores and buy more books to add to that pile, and I still download books on my Amazon Kindle to read. And my dream is to have a room big enough to house all these books and to have loads of bookshelves to put them on, where I can go in and not have a cell phone, not have a TV, not have a computer, just the books and the Kindle, and read for days on end. You know, I don’t need a big fancy Japanese word to describe this. Let’s just call it what it is: I hoard books. And, if we’re honest with ourselves, we all hoard something. Here in America, hoarding is such a problem that in some cases it has become a legitimate mental disorder, with people not being able to throw anything out. There have even been reality TV shows done on hoarding. So, what is at the root of this hoarding behavior? Why do we hoard? The answer is fear: fear of not having enough.

Our Gospel story today shines a light on this behavior. And it starts out with a problem that some families today still have: that of dividing an inheritance. There’s something both comforting and frightening to know that fights about property left to you by your parents when they die have been going on since at least the 1st century! I imagine Jesus’ response as being very irritable when he asks the person who made him judge and arbitrator. But he uses this as a teaching opportunity, and tells a story about a man who had an abundant harvest. I’d like to look at this story a little bit more closely so that we can try to understand what Jesus might be saying to us.

The land of a rich man produced abundantly, Jesus tells us. And the rich man realizes that he does not have enough room for all of his crops in the barns that he currently has, so he decides to tear his barns down and build bigger ones, and then he can rest and take it easy. There are a couple of warning signs about this man in just these opening lines. First, there is no climate control in these barns and no way of keeping critters out. And so we wonder if the man is really going to be able to eat his way through all these stores by himself before the critters and the mold get to them. This leads us into the second question: the man seems to be by himself, without even family to share his abundant harvest with. He may be rich in stuff, but he seems to have gotten all that stuff at the expense of relationships with other people. This man puts me in mind of Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol: rich in material wealth and poor in relationships with other people. The third thing that we should note that is wrong with this man is this: he may have an abundant harvest this year, but that doesn’t mean he will have abundant harvests in future years. What would happen if he had poor harvests in the future and then had too much space to store it in? In just these few lines, we can see that the man seems to be thinking only of the present moment, not the future, and he’s thinking only of his self-interest.

And then, Jesus tells us, after this rich man decided to build bigger barns for his grain and store it all up, using it all for himself, God tells him that on that very night, his number is up: his life is demanded from him and he can’t take all of his stuff with him. And all of that stuff that he hoarded up for himself? Whose will it be now? Again, a scene from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol comes to mind, where Scrooge is shown the future, when he is dead, when the only emotion that anyone feels is relief and hope now that he is gone, and when the servants—those poor people that he so despised—come in and divide up his belongings among themselves. Jesus ends his parable about the foolish rich man with, “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.”

What does it mean to be rich towards God? When we discussed this in our stewardship classes at the Synod office, the image that came to my mind in contrast to Jesus’ rich man in his parable was the image of Boaz. If you remember from the sermon series that we had on the book of Ruth, Boaz was the rich man in Ruth’s story, who, even though he was rich, instructed his reapers to leave plenty of barley for Ruth to glean and who went out of his way to be kind towards Ruth. Boaz was not afraid of not having enough for himself; instead, he shared generously of what he had with those who did not have enough, trusting that God would provide for him. He knew that God was bigger than any fear he might have felt. And fear is what lies behind hoarding. If we go back to my hoarding of books, I think that perhaps I am afraid that I won’t find that particular book at that particular price again and that I will miss out on a good story, and that fear is what leads me to pile up books and hoard them against a day when I might read them. But when we truly trust in God, we have no fear, and we can relinquish our tight grasp on the stuff that we hoard and share with others who don’t have enough.

 

 

 

I want to say that we as a congregation have made a good start on cleaning out our church building; being bold and saying that you know what, we really don’t need those 8-track tapes that have been sitting up in the church attic for years and years anymore. And I’m proud of how we cleaned out the library to make room for a TV lounge for our guests from Family Promise. I think that we can continue to take stock of the things that we have and assess whether or not we really need them for the ministry that we do in this building.

And so, I want to focus on another aspect in our life together where we might be hoarding. We’ve been talking about money for the last couple of weeks, and so I want to put this in front of us today for us to consider. Yes, it is prudent to save money. It is prudent to save for retirement, so that you have something to live on when you are no longer working, and it is prudent to put some money away for large, emergency expenses, such as car repairs. But what we need to wrestle with is that line between saving and hoarding. I’ll be honest: I don’t know where that line is. That might be something that we each, individually, have to answer for ourselves, and as a congregation, we may need to wrestle with that line as well. I think the answer to that question comes as we pray and ask God to help us figure out when it is best to save money and how best we can give to help others. It is always good to remember that we won’t always get it right, and that with God, there is mercy and forgiveness.

As we close out this short stewardship series today, I want to end with a reminder of what stewardship is. Stewardship is realizing that everything around us, everything that we say we own, actually does not belong to us. Our possessions, our money, even our skills and talents, all really belong to God. God asks that we be good stewards, or caretakers, of God’s creation and all of the material stuff within it. Material things are not bad in and of themselves. It is when these things become more important to us than our relationship with God that we have problems. So, today, I’d like for us to remember Jesus’ words at the end of the Gospel text: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” As a people who trust in God to provide for us, we should not give in to our fears of not having enough. God desires us to share what we have with one another, so everyone has enough. Now, I am the first one to admit that this is easier said than done. But God will be with us, and the Holy Spirit will remind us of Jesus’ words not to be afraid. So, let us have no fear, for God is with us. Amen.