Sermon for Narrative Lectionary Week 14

Ezekiel 37:1-14

This week we find ourselves still among the Jewish exiles in Babylon, but now there is suddenly a change in the message. Jeremiah told the exiles to settle in and to live their lives in Babylon, because they were not going to come back to their homeland. Then last week, we had a story from Daniel to inspire the exiles to retain their Jewish identity in the face of pressure from the dominant culture to assimilate. Now, in our passage from Ezekiel today, we have a message of resurrection; of dry bones coming to life, and a hope for a return to the land that God had promised them. So, what has changed? Why and how have we gone from a message of “stay where you are,” to a message of hope for return?

Well, let’s start with what we know about Ezekiel. He had been a priest in the temple at Jerusalem, and he was part of the first group of exiles: the royal family, nobles, and other important people that were taken from Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 597 BC. As a priest, he became a prophet for the Jewish people who were in exile in Babylon; that is, he became God’s spokesperson, giving the people the words that God wanted them to hear. But, Ezekiel is also the kind of prophet who has weird, ecstatic visions given by God. For example, in the first chapter of the book of Ezekiel, we see him having a vision of four living creatures, some kind of strange wheeled machine that had eyes in the wheels, and above all this God appearing in human form seated on a throne. God speaks to the exiles in Babylon, through Ezekiel, in strange visions and metaphors. And the exiles don’t always want to hear what God has to say to them through Ezekiel, especially when Ezekiel tells them that the Babylonians will destroy Jerusalem and the temple, and that it will be many years before God allows the exiles to return home. The first part of Ezekiel is filled with messages of God’s righteous and justified punishment upon the people because they followed other gods. It’s no wonder that the people did not want to listen to Ezekiel.

But then, after Jerusalem falls, the messages that God gives to the exiles through Ezekiel change to messages of hope. Suddenly, God is concerned that, because Jerusalem is destroyed and God’s people are scattered, all of the other nations are going to laugh at a God who seems powerless to defend his name and his people. And suddenly, there is now hope that God’s wrath is finished and that God will bring the exiles back to the land of Israel. In the chapter before our lesson today, we hear God promise that God will remove the heart of stone from the people and give them a heart of flesh, so that they will follow God’s statutes and live in a holy manner in the land that God promised them.

This brings us to the vision of the dry bones. Probably the most famous story out of Ezekiel, this may be familiar to us from Sunday school lessons where we sang about, “Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones, now hear the word of the Lord!” And then we sang about “the foot bone connected to the ankle bone,” and so on and so forth. But, we need to look beyond the cute Sunday school songs and look more closely at what is going on here. Again, Ezekiel is speaking to the first group of exiles to Babylon: the royal family and the nobles of Judah. They are hearing the messages that they need to stay put, but they’re not really listening to them. They are hoping against hope that their time in Babylon will be short, that the Babylonians will leave Jerusalem alone, and that they will be able to go home again. But then, the worst news possible reaches their ears: Jerusalem has fallen, and the temple has been destroyed. In an instant, all of their hope is gone. Who are they now? They are a people without a homeland, living in a strange land with strange customs, and where once they enjoyed high status, they are now looked upon as lower class. Everything that they know and they love is gone. And they say, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.”

And so, God gives Ezekiel this vision. Many times, when we hear Bible stories, we gloss over the disturbing parts, so I want us to spend a few moments imagining what Ezekiel is seeing in this vision. God leads him through this valley, and it is full of dry bones. And it’s not like Ezekiel is hovering over the bones; he’s walking where God leads, through all of these human bones. Did you ever see Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade? If so, I want you to picture the scene where Indiana and his lady friend let themselves down into the catacombs beneath the library in Venice, and they’re walking on skeletons and trying to brush by the skeletons in the walls without touching them. That’s what’s going on here with Ezekiel. And perhaps he is imagining all of the lives these bones represent; all of the lives that fell in battle, or that died of disease, or of natural causes. Those that died too early and too tragically; those that died when they were supposed to. The emotions would be overwhelming, and I’m surprised that Ezekiel did not weep when he saw them.

And then God asks Ezekiel: “Mortal, can these bones live?” I think Ezekiel senses a trick question here. Everything that he knows and all of his experience tells him, “No, these bones cannot live. They have been lying here too long; the life that once lived in them is long gone.” But Ezekiel knows that God would not ask him this question without reason, and so he hedges his bets with a respectful, “O Lord God, you know.” And that’s when the miracle happens: when Ezekiel prophesies as the Lord commands him to, the bones start coming together and flesh reappears on them; and then, when the Lord commands Ezekiel to prophesy to the wind, breath comes into them. And there is a vast multitude of living, breathing people where once there was nothing but the driest of bones.

The Lord tells Ezekiel that the exiles should not give up hope. The Lord’s anger against the people is finished. The Lord is with the people in Babylon, and God will bring them back to the land that God promised them. And God will put God’s spirit in them, so that, when they return to the land and become a nation once more, things will be different this time. They will have a heart of flesh, not one of stone, and they will worship the Lord, and the Lord alone. And all the surrounding nations will see this and will know that God is the Lord, and they will acknowledge that the God of the Jewish people is the one, true God.

This promise that God once spoke to the Jewish exiles in Babylon is a promise for us, too. We may look at our circumstances in our congregations and feel that we, too, are dried up. For example, the choir at St. John’s took the bold step of pulling out many of the old robes that were worn when the choir was much larger than it is now and giving them away to a congregation that can use them. As we removed them from the closet, there was much remembering of the people who used to wear them, and some sadness as we remembered the way things used to be. But when God asks us, “Can these bones live?”, we will not hedge our bets like Ezekiel did. As a people of hope, we can boldly say, “Yes, God, these bones can live, and we know that they will live. And we know this because, through Jesus Christ, you gave us the promise of resurrection from the dead. So we know that, even though things may change around us, we have nothing to fear. Because Jesus lives, we too can and will live.”

The new life that Jesus gives us as congregations may not look like the old life. We are spreading hope in Jesus to everyone we meet in new ways. As St. John’s hosts Family Promise in January and hopefully again in the years to come, the other congregations in the cooperative are joining together to support them. We are looking at creative new ways to reach out to the people around us with the hope that we have in Jesus, such as a combined Blessing of the Animals. We are joining together for worship more often, realizing that our future life in Christ will be more full if we put aside some of the old things that divided us. We are beginning to experience that new and abundant life in Christ right now.

But the promise of resurrection is not quite fulfilled. And we focus on that hope for resurrection during this Advent season. It may seem like Advent is a time of preparation for Christmas, when we remember the birth of Jesus, the baby in the manger who was the Son of God and who grew up to be a teacher who loved all of us, and who died on the cross and rose again on the third day. But more than that, Advent is a season of hope and anticipation, where we look forward to that day when Christ will come again to reign on this earth, and when he will usher in a new creation where there will be no more crying or mourning or pain, and where we will see all of our loved ones again. This is the resurrection that Ezekiel saw in his vision: not only the resurrection of the Jewish people, but also the resurrection of everyone who hopes in God. And this is the resurrection that we, as a people of hope, anticipate. And it is the resurrection that we share with everyone we meet. So do not be afraid: we have this promise from God and the promise is sure. Amen.



Sermon for Narrative Lectionary Week 13

Daniel 3:1-30

Today we move from Jeremiah, the prophet who told the people of Judah that they were going to go into exile, to the Book of Daniel. The Book of Daniel is interesting, because, although we Christians count this book as one of the books of the prophets, the Jewish people do not—they categorize this book as a writing. And as we look at the book, we can see why. Daniel is very different from the prophets that we have encountered up to this point. The first six chapters of the book contain stories of righteous Jewish men, including Daniel himself, maintaining their Jewish identity while they are in exile in Babylon. The remaining six chapters of this book contain apocalyptic visions given by God to Daniel. We see none of what Amos, Isaiah, and Jeremiah have been doing by giving the people the words of God. Nevertheless, there is much of value in this unique book, and so we Christians do count Daniel as one of the prophets.

The story that we have before us today is one that is familiar to us from Sunday school. As I mentioned before, this takes place among the Jewish exiles in Babylon. Last week I talked about how, in 597 BC, the Babylonian army had come in and captured all of the Jewish royal family and nobles and forcibly removed them from Jerusalem to Babylon. Well, about 10 years later, in 587 BC, the country of Judah revolted again, and in response, Babylon invaded, destroyed the Temple, and took most of the people who were left into exile as well. So now there is a large Jewish community in Babylon, and they are asking these questions: Where is God? Why did God allow the Temple to be destroyed? And how are we to live in this strange land? How do we maintain our Jewish identity with all of these strange gods and customs around us?

In response, we have the story of the three young men and the fiery furnace, along with other stories in Daniel, such as Daniel in the lions’ den. But today, let’s take a look at the fiery furnace. In chapter 2, we find out that because Daniel had interpreted a dream correctly for King Nebuchadnezzar, the king promoted Daniel and gave him great power over the country of Babylon. Daniel then appointed the three young men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, as officials under him. So, these four young Jewish men had assimilated into Babylonian society enough so that the king entrusted them with great power. But, the story also tells us that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were not the true names of these three young men. Their original names were Hananiah, which means “God is gracious”; Mishael, which means, “Who is like God?”; and Azariah, which means “God keeps him”. So, think about that for a moment: these three Jewish men, who had the very name of their God woven into their names, were renamed with names that referenced the Babylonian gods. How do they keep their Jewish identity in a world where the king rips their very identity away by the act of renaming them?

The answer to that question comes in the story of the fiery furnace. They may have been given new names in order to better fit in with Babylonian society, but these three men never forget who they are and whose they are. They are Jewish, and they worship the Lord, the one true God. They belong to the one true God, and they trust that their God will deliver them from the worst that the Babylonian king or anyone else can throw at them. But even if God does not deliver them from the fiery furnace, they would rather die than change who they are under pressure from other people. Well, we know how the story goes: the three men are saved from the flames, and when King Nebuchadnezzar looks into the furnace, he sees a fourth man in there who “has the appearance of a god”. And when the three young men are let out, they are miraculously unharmed.

As I read through this story again in preparation for today’s sermon, this is the question that arose in my mind: In 21st century North America, where we have the freedom to worship God, and we do not expect to die for our faith, why do we teach this story to our children? After all, it is rather terrifying. What do we hope our children will learn from it? So, I posted the question to the Narrative Lectionary Facebook group to see what kind of answers I might get from the “hive mind”. One answer was this: that it inspired the person towards that kind of commitment to God that these three had. Well, that’s a good answer, but it lays the commitment on us. And we will eventually fail in that commitment, because we are sinful human beings. I think the better answer, and the one that we should be teaching our kids in Sunday school, focuses on that fourth person who appeared in the flames. You know, the one who “had the appearance of a god”. And that is this: when we encounter our own “fiery furnaces” in life, whatever they may be, Jesus understands and is with us through the flames.

Because here is another interesting piece of information about this story of the three young men and the fiery furnace: it is one of the readings for the service of the Easter Vigil. The Easter Vigil is the service that takes place on the night of Holy Saturday, as God’s people wait with eager expectation for the news that Jesus is risen. Originally it started out as an all-night service; today, the length of the service varies depending on the individual church. There are twelve Old Testament readings assigned to this service as the people of God listen to their story of salvation that culminates in Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. Some of these may be omitted if you don’t want the service to last too long. But one of the readings that is not omitted is this story of the three men and the fiery furnace. I believe this is to remind us that Jesus endured his own fiery furnace when he died on the cross and descended to hell, and yet, like these three young men, he was raised from the dead.

Jesus understands all the pain and the suffering we undergo because he also underwent pain and suffering on the cross, and he walks with us through our fiery furnaces. And even when things don’t turn out the way we hoped or expected, Jesus is still there beside us to encourage us to keep going and to promise us that he is with us and that he will, one day, fulfill the promise of our own resurrection from the dead. This is what we should be emphasizing as we teach this story to our children, because, even though we have the freedom to worship as we please, we may be tested as we live out our faith in our daily lives.

As one example, there are certain cities in different places across the country who have made it a crime for people to bring food to the homeless. Now, I want to give people the benefit of the doubt here. Those in power may have concerns about the safety of the general public. But this means that Christians who are in the ministry of feeding the homeless by bringing food to them, rather than making them come to a center of some kind, have a decision to make. Will they stop the ministry that they’ve been doing? Will they make some adjustments to the ministry and take the chance of missing some of the people they have been serving? Or will they continue their ministry and risk being arrested for violating the law? That is a decision that each person or group of people will have to make. And knowing the story of the fiery furnace may encourage people to continue doing what Jesus has called them to do, knowing that they may be arrested, but also knowing that Jesus will be with them through the trial as they live out their faith.

But more even than that: this story, especially when seen through the light of the death and resurrection of Jesus, is about hope. The three young men hoped that, even if they died in the flames, God would vindicate them for holding on to their identity and standing up for what they believed. Through this story, God gave hope to the exiles in Babylon that they could hold on to their Jewish identity, even in a strange land, and that one day, they might live out their lives in peace and freedom from those who would oppress them. And for us Christians today, this story is also about hope: the hope that we have in Jesus, who was born for us, who lived for us, who died for us, and who was raised from the dead for us. We have hope that, even though things in this world don’t always turn out the way we want them to, and even though it seems like evil wins more often than good, Jesus will one day return and set all things right, and that the kingdom of heaven will reign on earth.

We are a people of hope, and today, the first Sunday of Advent, we begin that season of hope. But we are not hoping for Jesus to be born. Jesus has already been born. We are hoping for Jesus to come again and to set all things right. Spreading that hope to everyone we meet means telling people about the good news that Jesus is Immanuel, God with Us, in every situation that we encounter in life. Spreading hope in Jesus means that, like the three young men in the furnace, we remember who we are—God’s children—and whose we are—we belong to God and we are loved by God. Spreading hope in Jesus means that, no matter what happens to us in life, the good, the bad, and the ugly, that God is with us. So go out and do not be afraid, and live out the call that God has placed upon your life. Amen.


Sermon for Narrative Lectionary Week 12

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-14

Today we make a jump forward many years in our look at the prophets as we go from Isaiah to Jeremiah. Last week we heard Isaiah speaking a word of hope into the kingdom of Judah, which was surrounded by enemies on all sides, and we heard Isaiah telling us that our hope is not in earthly kings and alliances, but rather it is in God alone. This week we’re going to a much different historical situation as we hear Jeremiah’s words to us, so I hope you’ll bear with me for a short history lesson. After Isaiah’s career in Jerusalem, things started to go badly for the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah. In the year 722 BC, the empire of Assyria conquered the northern kingdom of Israel, and displaced many of the people who were living there. However, in the years following, Assyria’s power waned, and the empire of Babylon took over in the east. In the west, however, was the mighty empire of Egypt. And stuck in the middle of these two empires fighting for ultimate domination over the Middle East was the tiny kingdom of Judah, with the city of Jerusalem as its capital.

Into this messy political situation steps the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah prophesied during the reign of King Josiah, who was the last truly good king that Judah had, and King Jehoiakim and King Zedekiah, the last kings that Judah would have. The Lord called Jeremiah to prophesy when he was a boy, so we can assume that he had a long career of being the Lord’s prophet. We can tell from the book that Jeremiah also had access to the kings to speak his prophecies, so he had some kind of connections in society. But the message that Jeremiah was called to bring to the people of Jerusalem was a hard one. God was not pleased with the people of Judah because they had disobeyed the Law and had worshiped other gods. Through Jeremiah, God pleads with God’s people to repent of their sins and to return to worship of the Lord. If they did not, Babylon was going to come and take over their kingdom and take the people away into exile. Because of this message, and because tradition says that Jeremiah also wrote the little book of Lamentations, Jeremiah is often nicknamed the “weeping prophet.”

And that’s the thing about prophets: they often say things that the people don’t want to hear. Throughout most of his book, we see Jeremiah telling the people that they need to repent of their sins and return to the Lord. We see him telling the people that God has told him that Babylon is going to come in and destroy them. We see him telling the king and the other politicians that an alliance with Egypt is not going to work. And the people don’t listen to a word that Jeremiah is telling them. The king listens to the false prophets who are telling him that everything is going to be okay and that there will be peace, and that Babylon is not going to bother them. And the king and his court get so annoyed with Jeremiah’s message of doom and gloom that they put Jeremiah in the stocks and then, later, dump him in a muddy well that had no water in it. It’s really no fun being a prophet with a message that the people do not want to hear.

But in the midst of all of this doom and gloom, Jeremiah also brings words of hope. The passage that we have today skips a few verses, because those verses have a lot of names in them that we have difficulty pronouncing. But they are important ones because they give us a date and a context for the letter. In the year 597 BC, Babylon came in to Jerusalem and captured the king, the royal family, and all of the important nobles and hauled them off into exile in Babylon. In King Jehoiachin’s place, Babylon installed his brother Zedekiah as a kind of puppet king—one who would keep the people in line and pay the appropriate tribute to Babylon. In today’s section of Jeremiah, we see Jeremiah writing to these first exiles in Babylon and giving them instructions from the Lord as to how they are to live. They are not to attempt to come back to the land of Judah, but instead they are to settle in Babylon, to live there, and to seek the welfare of the city to which they have been forcibly resettled.

So, let’s imagine the situation for a moment. We are the royalty and the nobles of the kingdom of Judah. Our king has surrendered to the Babylonian king, and we are forcibly taken to live in a country we have never been in before. We are surrounded by an unfamiliar culture, an unfamiliar language, and unfamiliar gods. We are terribly homesick. We are wondering where God is—after all, aren’t we God’s chosen people? Sure, we messed up, but is God really so angry with us that the Lord would send us away from the land that God promised us? And what about the people who are left behind in Judah? Are they going to take care of our home the way we would want them to? And is the king of Babylon going to leave them alone now, or will he come in again and do more damage?

And into this situation of questioning, homesickness, and confusion, comes a letter from the prophet Jeremiah. You know, that guy who was forever prophesying that Babylon was going to come in and conquer us, the guy who the king ignored and punished—and now his words are coming true. Maybe we should listen to him. And Jeremiah is telling us that we’re going to be in Babylon for a while, so we should stay put and live out our lives here, with no expectation of returning home. But, God has not forgotten us: the Lord is telling us that we are still God’s children, and that God has plans for our future. And that future will be a future with hope—no more doom, gloom, and punishment. Hope. And a plan for future restoration.

That hope extends to us today in the 21st century. We are a people of hope, and our business is spreading that hope in Jesus to everyone we meet. So how does this letter that the prophet Jeremiah wrote to the Jewish exiles in Babylon still bring hope to us and to everyone we meet today? Well, first, I want to take a look at what might seem like a minor grammar point, but is actually very important to what we’re thinking about today. Many of us have heard the verse, “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” Many of us have taken the “you” in this verse as a singular “you”. Actually, it’s not singular—it’s plural. God is speaking to the community of exiles, so what God is actually saying is, “For surely I know the plans I have for y’all.” God is not talking to you or to me, personally; God is talking to the community. The Lord knows the plans that God has for us, the congregations of Salem and St. John’s, plans for our welfare and not for our harm, to give us a future with hope. That is good news indeed.

Now, something important needs to be said at this point. There is a lot that God does not spell out for us here. God has plans for our welfare and for a future with hope. But this does not mean that God is going to bring us back to the days of the 1950s and the 1960s with children overflowing our Sunday school rooms and everyone coming to church every week. Those days are gone, and you know what? I think God is a lot more creative than that. As God’s people, we need to be open to the leading of the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit can take us in some interesting directions. Like the Jewish exiles in the country of Babylon adjusting to a new language and culture, we Christians need to adjust to a culture that does not always regard the church favorably or that simply thinks the church is irrelevant. We need to find new ways of bringing the hope we have in Jesus Christ to everyone we meet, and sometimes that means speaking about that hope in the new language of the culture that now surrounds us.

So, how do we learn the new language of the culture that surrounds us? I have studied several different foreign languages now, and what I can tell you is this: book learning is great to give you a foundation for how a different language works. But the language doesn’t really start to gel in your own mind until you go out, get over your fears, and start to practice it. So, here is your assignment: start talking to people. You can start with people you know who do not regularly come to worship on Sunday mornings. If you have adult children or grandchildren who do not come, ask them why. And don’t do it in a judgmental tone, and when they speak, don’t immediately reply or get defensive. Listen to them. Truly listen to them, and try to understand what they’re saying. Then, start talking to people you don’t know as well. Invite them to come to worship with you on Sunday—make the invitation for a specific date, and make sure you are there in church that Sunday to sit beside them. If they say no, start listening to their reasons. Sometimes the reason is simple. One of my colleagues said that they encountered someone who thought she couldn’t come to worship on Sunday if she wasn’t a member of the church. Other times the reason is more complicated, as in the person got hurt by the church in some way. But whatever the reason is, listen to the person, don’t be judgmental, and when it is appropriate, invite them to come to worship with you. I will periodically be asking you in meetings how this assignment is going, and if we are getting a better feel for the needs of the people in our communities. And as we practice the new language of this new culture around us, with God’s help, we will eventually be able to bring hope in Jesus to everyone we meet in a language that they can understand.

Like the Jewish exiles in Babylon, God has told us Christians today to settle in to this new, strange culture and to stay where we are. There is no going back to the way that the church used to be. But here is the good news: God has not abandoned us. God has said that God has plans for our communities of Christians, plans for our welfare and not harm, to give us a future with hope. We don’t know exactly what that future looks like yet. But we can trust that God will be with us, no matter what. Amen.


Sermon for Narrative Lectionary Week 11

Isaiah 9:1-7

Merry Christmas! Well, not really, but this passage that we have before us today is one that we are familiar with because it comes around every Christmas time. And it may be a little jarring for us to hear it when we know it’s not Christmas yet, and it’s not even Advent yet. So, as we did last week, let’s take a step back and refresh our memories on who prophets were and what they did. Then we can look at who Isaiah was and what was going on at the time that he prophesied. And finally, we can look at this passage afresh and see what new meaning Isaiah’s words have for us today.

In last week’s sermon, I said that we Christians tend to think of a prophet as someone who predicts the future, because we have generally been taught to believe that all that the Old Testament prophets ever did was predict the coming of Jesus. As we looked at Amos last week, we discovered that this is a misunderstanding of the call of a prophet. The word “prophet” in Hebrew means to be a spokesperson for God, and God had a lot more to say to the people than just to tell them about the coming Messiah, although that was very important. People as diverse as Moses and Samuel were named as prophets, because they gave people messages from God about what God wanted them to do and how they were to behave. Last week, we saw how God sent the prophet Amos to the northern kingdom of Israel to criticize the country’s economic system, and how it made the rich richer and the poor poorer. Amos gave the people the call to let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. And today, we come to the prophet Isaiah.

Isaiah was a prophet in the southern kingdom of Judah. Unlike Amos, who was a farmer minding his own business until God called him to go and prophesy, Isaiah seems to have been a career prophet. Isaiah lived in Jerusalem and from his prophecies, we can see that he had regular access to both the Temple and the king. He prophesied during the reigns of four kings of Judah: Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah. This would have been approximately 742 through 689 BC, so Isaiah prophesied shortly after the time of Amos. During this time, there was a lot of political turmoil in the area, and people were very afraid. As we look at the time immediately surrounding today’s prophecy, we see that the northern kingdom of Israel was threatening to attack the southern kingdom, Judah, and King Ahaz was desperately trying to help his kingdom survive. He wanted to make an alliance with Assyria, the powerful empire to the east. Isaiah repeatedly told the king that he needed to trust in God alone, and not in the political and military might of the strong empires around him.

So now, we come to the section of Isaiah’s prophecy that is our reading today. Again, as Christians, we have heard this read so often at Christmas time that we immediately think that Isaiah is referring to Jesus. But I want us to take a step back from that for a moment, and try to put ourselves into the shoes of the people of the kingdom of Judah in the 700s BC, including Isaiah. Remember what the political situation is at this time: a lot of turmoil and a lot of threat of war from the surrounding kingdoms. And remember, too, that one of the tasks that the prophets had at that time was to speak God’s word to the situation that was presently happening. Isaiah and the people were not looking for a far-off Messiah to save them from their sins. They were looking for a word of hope from God right then and there, to save them from the threats surrounding them.

And so, we can ask ourselves, if this prophecy was not initially referring to Jesus, who is the child who was born upon whom the people were going to rest their hopes? Well, the best guess is that a prince was born to King Ahaz at this time, and that prince was Hezekiah. It was common in ancient times to assign divine titles to kings, and so even though we are a little taken aback today by the idea that any human should be called, “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace”, it was nothing unusual at that time. And when Hezekiah grows up and becomes king, he is one of the better kings that Judah has; the book of 2 Kings tells us that “He did what was right in the sight of the Lord just as his ancestor David had done.” But even Hezekiah wasn’t perfect, and outside political turmoil continued during his reign. It turns out that peace did not come during Hezekiah’s lifetime.

So, early Christians who were looking at Hebrew Scriptures read this prophecy of Isaiah and interpreted it to apply to Jesus, who indeed came to save us from our sins. We believe that through his teachings, his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus did show himself to truly be “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace”. Because of Jesus, we and all of our brother and sister Christians around the world no longer walk in darkness, but have indeed seen that great light. But, you know, the world around us is still in as much turmoil as there was in Isaiah’s time. There is still darkness everywhere, and we only need to turn on the news to see it. So, what kind of word does this prophecy have for us in this time? Does it mean anything to us anymore, or is it merely part of the sentimental barrage of Christmas cards that we give and receive each year, only to throw away after Christmas is over?

I would argue that Isaiah’s words have just as much to say to us today as they did in his own time. We, too, are living in a time of darkness due to political turmoil. We worry about North Korea. We worry about men who lose control and who decide to shoot people at outdoor concerts and now, even in churches. And even though we all know that politicians are not always the best people in the world, it seems like every time we turn around, another one of our leaders has been accused of sexual assault or some other form of inappropriate behavior. We have to determine what news reports are “fake” and what are real, and our biases and political leanings often make that determination. We don’t see that there is an objective truth any longer. We feel helpless and without hope, and we put our heads down and try to make it through life one day at a time.

Into this mess, the prophet Isaiah speaks: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.” We are the people walking in darkness and we are looking for that word of hope, that light to shine upon us. And that light comes in the form of Jesus: the Son of God who became human for us, who was born just like we are, who lived just like we do, who suffered and who died for us, and who, in his resurrection, gave us the promise of what the coming kingdom of heaven will look like. When Jesus returns, he will indeed be God with us, and he will indeed be the Prince of Peace. There will be no more war, no more crying, and no more pain.

So, what do we do in the meantime? We hope. On Friday night, I went to see the Justice League movie, and at the end of the movie, one of the characters said this: “The truest darkness is not absence of light, but the despair that the light will never return. But the light always returns. Hope is real. You can see it. All you have to do is look up into the sky.” I think that’s what part of our problem today is. We are losing hope. We see everything that’s wrong in the world and are at a loss as to how to make it better. We see the struggles that we go through in our congregations and we lose some more hope. Perhaps it is because we have forgotten to put Jesus at the center of our lives—both individual and as congregations—that we are losing our hope. So, hear this now: As Christians, we are a people of hope. And we are in the business of spreading this hope—this crazy hope in someone who rose from the dead and who promised the same thing to us—to everyone we meet.

So, how do we spread this hope in Jesus to everyone we meet? How do we keep Jesus at the center of our congregational lives? Starting today, every time a new activity is proposed in a committee or council meeting for both Salem and St. John’s, I will be asking this question: How does this proposal spread hope in Jesus to everyone we meet? If we as a group can’t answer that, then I will ask us to rethink the project until the Spirit reveals to us how we can work it in such a way that it will be spreading hope in Jesus to everyone we meet. As we look at the projects we are currently undertaking, I will be asking that question so that we understand why we are doing what we are doing. And if what we are doing does not have anything to do with hope in Jesus, we are going to rethink it. Because as Christians, we are not just another social club. We are people who do what we do because we have hope in Jesus.

The light of hope has shined upon us in the midst of a dark world. And the name of that Son that has been born to us, the name of the one who gives us hope for peace, is Jesus. Jesus is the one who gives hope in this world troubled with political turmoil. Jesus is the one who we put our trust in—not our politicians, not our guns, and not anything else on this earth. Jesus is the one who we find our unity in, for Jesus binds us together over and across any lines we humans might be able to think of to divide us one from the other. That hope in Jesus is why we exist, and it is why we are doing the things that we are doing in the community and in the world. We are a people of hope, and we are in the business of spreading that hope to everyone we meet. Amen.

Sermon for Narrative Lectionary Week 10

Amos 1:1-2; 5:14-15, 21-24

Today we make a shift in our story of the Bible, from stories about what prophets did to accounts of what the prophets said. And we start our journey with the prophets with a man named Amos. If you remember from last week, we heard a story of the prophet Elijah who went up against King Ahab and Queen Jezebel of the northern kingdom of Israel. That would have been somewhere between the years 869 and 850 BC. Amos did his prophesying work during the reign of Jeroboam II of Israel and Uzziah of Judah, perhaps somewhere in the 750s BC. So this would be many years after Elijah; remember that years count down when we’re talking about BC. But before we get deeper into Amos’ background and what he said, I want to take a step back and talk about what a prophet actually is.

Most of us, when we think about prophets, think about people who are able to foretell the future. And we think of that probably because, as Christians, we have been brought up to believe that many of the Old Testament prophets said particular things that point to the coming of Jesus as our Lord and Savior. But actually, that was only a small part of the prophet’s call from God. The word “prophet” in Hebrew means to be a spokesperson for God. And God had many more things to say to the people than to just tell them about the coming of Jesus. If we look back in our series several weeks ago, we will see that one of the first Old Testament figures we encountered along the way was Moses. Moses acted as a prophet, or a spokesperson, for God, when he went back down to Egypt and told Pharaoh to let God’s people go. Moses continued to act as God’s spokesperson when he went up onto Mount Sinai and came down again with God’s law for the people. Samuel acted as God’s spokesperson when he anointed David as king over Israel, to show that God had chosen David. And, as we saw last week, Elijah’s call as a prophet was to speak out for God against the prophets of Baal that Queen Jezebel had allowed to promote the worship of Baal in the kingdom of Israel. Just like these prophets, God had a particular message that God wanted Amos to speak to the people of the northern kingdom of Israel.

So now, let’s get a little background on the prophet Amos. We find out from a conversation that Amos has with a man named Amaziah in chapter 7 that Amos never expected to be called by God as a prophet. He says, “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the LORD took me from following the flock, and the LORD said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’” We also find out from the first part of our reading today that Amos comes from a town named Tekoa, which was located somewhat south of Bethlehem in the southern kingdom of Judah. In other words, God takes a no-name farmer from the southern kingdom of Judah and sends him up to the northern kingdom of Israel to speak God’s words to the king and the people of the northern kingdom. The ways of the Lord are mysterious, indeed.

Now we can take a look at what God’s message to the king and the people of Israel through the prophet Amos was. The portions of Amos that we have today give a summary of what the main points of his message are. Seek good and not evil, Amos says. Okay, that’s pretty easy to follow; God’s been telling the people that since the beginning of the story. But then we get a surprising message: God is not happy with the people’s worship, but commands instead for justice to roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. When we just look at the snippet of Amos that we have for today, we can get confused, because we know that God wants us to come and worship. Is God giving a different message after all?

Well, not really, and this is where we have to look at some of what the rest of Amos says. The problem that God was calling Amos to address was an economic one. During the reign of Jeroboam II, the northern kingdom of Israel reached its peak of prosperity. Scholar Abraham Heschel writes, “When Amos appeared in the North there was pride, plenty, and splendor in the land, elegance in the cities, and might in the palaces. . . . At the same time there was no justice in the land, the poor were afflicted, exploited, even sold into slavery, and the judges were corrupt” (27-28). And so Amos says this: “Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land, saying ‘When will the new moon by over so that we may sell grain; and the Sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale? We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweeping of the wheat.’” When we look at the rest of what Amos says, we find that worship of God itself is not the problem; rather, it is the hypocrisy of the people that is the problem. Amos is asking how the people can come and worship God, and then turn around and exploit the poor. The people think that God doesn’t care about what they do outside of worship, and Amos is saying that yes, God cares very much.

“Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” So now we come to this idea of justice, and this is where things get sticky for us. We here in the church understand charity. We collect food for the hungry. We give money to the poor and we collect money to help those who have been hit by natural disasters, and we will soon be giving shelter to the homeless through Family Promise. And that is all good, and we need to keep doing these things. But there is a difference between charity and justice. Justice takes things a step further than charity. Justice asks why there are hungry people, poor people, and homeless people, and justice asks how we as a community are treating those people. Justice looks at the system that produces poverty, hunger, disease, and environmental destruction and asks how we can change that system for the better.

Changing the system is not an easy task. For example, every time I fill up my car with gas, I think about how I am part of the system that is polluting the earth and warming the climate. I want to do the right thing, but with the system that we have now, transportation is essential. I know and I confess to God that even though I try to care for the earth by reducing what I use and recycling all I can, I could still do more. And growing out of that confession of my sin is a call to work for change in the system: writing to legislators when they want to roll back emissions standards for cars and speaking out against reducing the size of national parks and monuments just so that oil companies can try to drill some more and pollute the earth even more, for example. In this way, and in other ways as well, I can do my part to work for justice for God’s creation, and to advocate for more respectful ways to coexist with other parts of that creation.

“Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” We think that church should not have anything to do with politics. And yet, here is the prophet Amos, criticizing the economic system of the northern kingdom of Israel that made the rich richer and the poor poorer. He was told to go back to Judah and leave Israel alone, but in response, he said he could not, for the Lord had called him to this post. And here is the prophet Amos, still part of our Holy Scriptures today. Here he is, telling us centuries later that we as Christians have something to say to the injustices around us that make it seem like we are getting political. We have something to say to environmental injustice, because God has created this good earth that we live on. We have something to say about the economic system that creates poverty and homelessness, especially as we help those people who are reduced to poverty and homelessness. We have something to say about racial discrimination and injustice, because through the apostle Paul, God has told us that “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).

“Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Amos is just the beginning of the message of the prophets. From now until Christmas, our readings will take us through a sampling of the writings of the prophets, and we will hear what messages they have for us today. It may be helpful for us to remember that, as a good Jewish man, Jesus would have been immersed in the message of the prophets, and that he continued to bring their message to the people. As we go through Advent, the time when we await the coming of the Lord, it will be helpful for us to consider the stories that we have learned about Jesus and how they fit in with the message of the prophets, because Jesus saw himself as the fulfillment of both the Law and the prophets—and not in a “predict-the-future” kind of way. We will continue to ask ourselves how we can hear the message of the prophets and use it in the 21st century. For now, let us go forth from here meditating on this most famous verse from Amos: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Amen.

Sermon for Narrative Lectionary Week 9

Note: Last week I did not post a sermon, as the four Lutheran churches in my area gathered for a joint Reformation Day worship service at St. Peter’s Lutheran in Highspire, PA. I did not preach at that service.

1 Kings 19:1-18

After a hiatus last Sunday, today we continue our journey through the story of the Bible. Two weeks ago, we heard the story of how Samuel anointed David to be king over Israel, and to get to today’s story, we have to get the general outline of what’s been happening over many, many years. Eventually, King Saul was killed in battle, and King David came to power. Although David made some pretty dramatic mistakes as king, he continued to be favored by God, and the period of David’s rule is looked upon as the Golden Age of the kingdom of Israel. After David died, his son Solomon came to power, and Solomon also ruled for many years. Under King Solomon, the temple in Jerusalem was built. Solomon was famous for his wisdom, and many people from other countries came to seek Solomon out for his wise judgments. But then, Solomon dies, and his son Rehoboam comes to power. Rehoboam is not as wise as his father Solomon, and he decides to rule the country more harshly than his father did. As a result, the northern part of the kingdom, led by a man named Jeroboam, secedes and creates its own kingdom, which they call Israel. The southern half of the kingdom, which includes Jerusalem, is still led by Rehoboam and is called Judah. The ruler of the northern kingdom, Jeroboam, sees that his people are still going up to Jerusalem to worship the Lord in the temple there, and worries that because of this, the people may want to come back under the rule of Rehoboam, which means that he, Jeroboam, will lose power. So he builds new places in the north to worship and puts idols in these places, and the people of the north go there to worship. This continually gets him and subsequent kings in trouble with God, who sends prophets to warn them of their sins.

Many years go by with different kings ruling over the two kingdoms. And then a king named Ahab comes to power in the northern kingdom of Israel, and he marries a woman named Jezebel. I know you all have probably heard of the name Jezebel before, and the name has certain connotations in our society: loose, immoral, wicked, may be some of the descriptors that come to your mind. Queen Jezebel came from an area outside of Israel called Sidon, and she did not worship the Lord; rather, she worshiped a god named Baal. And when she became queen of the northern kingdom of Israel, she instituted worship of Baal throughout the northern kingdom. As you can imagine, God was not best pleased with this situation, and sent the prophet Elijah to warn the king and the people that they were being led astray.

Elijah is another one of those big names in the history of Israel, and there are many stories of the things that he did. But to help us understand what’s going on in today’s story of Elijah, we need to briefly review what happened in the previous chapter. In chapter 18, Elijah had set up a contest between Baal and the Lord: whichever god could rain down fire on an altar with a sacrifice on it was the true God. And this is really a rather funny story, because all of the prophets of Baal start dancing around and praying to Baal, and nothing happens. So Elijah starts taunting them and saying that maybe Baal is taking a bathroom break, among other things. But then, when Elijah calls on the name of the Lord, the Lord is the one who rains down fire. When this happens, Elijah has the people seize the prophets of Baal, and he kills them all.

This brings us to our story today. When Jezebel finds out that Elijah has killed all of her prophets of Baal, she is furious, and she threatens Elijah’s life. And so Elijah runs. Elijah is tired and he’s just done with this whole prophet business; being a prophet of the Lord is never easy, but this threat against his life has just broken him down completely. But God is not done with Elijah yet. God sends angels to strengthen Elijah, and then God appears to Elijah on the mountain of Horeb, speaks with him, and tells him what his next steps will be. And Elijah is strengthened and renewed for the continuing work that God has for him to do, and he goes forward knowing that God is with him.

Today is All Saints’ Sunday—the day that we remember our loved ones who have gone on before us. This idea of a saint is something that we struggle with, because in popular culture a saint is someone who is perfect: who believes in God, who does something extraordinarily good to help other people, who makes sacrifices that most ordinary people would not be able to make, and who doesn’t make mistakes. Most of us don’t think of ourselves as saints. Most of us will not be officially named as saints by the Roman Catholic Church, for example. But our story of Elijah, that lion of a prophet who God sent to take down the prophets of Baal, tells us that a saint is still a flawed human being. A saint is one who will go from the high of a victory for God one day to the low of a threat against his life the next day. A saint is one who does get discouraged when bad things happen and who looks up to God and says, “God, I am so done with all of this.” And a saint is one whom God loves and whom God encourages and to whom God says, “I know it’s rough. But I will strengthen you and guide you in this journey. I’m not done with you yet, and I will still work great things through you.”

In Lutheran teaching, we are all saints. Martin Luther says that we are simultaneously sinners and saints: that even though we still sin, because Christ died for those sins, we are covered by his righteousness, and so, we are, in fact, saints. This is what enables me, for example, to remember my paternal grandmother, who was very ornery in this life and who, it seemed like, wasn’t happy unless she was complaining about something, and yet, despite all of her flaws, I am confident that she is now resting with the Lord—because Jesus died for her, too, and he covered her with his righteousness. Being a saint is not what popular culture imagines it to be. Being a saint means that we are not perfect and that we struggle. Being a saint means that we talk back to God when God calls us into rough places. Being a saint means that we can even lose our faith for a time. But, being a saint also means that, in the end, we trust in God because we can rest confidently in the knowledge that God loves us, no matter what.

Part of being a saint also means that we know there is nothing that we can do to earn God’s love. In our Thursday morning Bible study, we have begun viewing a video series on Martin Luther and the Reformation. And one of the questions that the leader’s guide asked was this: “Can you identify with Luther’s question, ‘When will I know when I’ve done enough to earn God’s love?’” And those of you who were there on Thursday know that I pushed you guys on this, and I’m now going to extend that to the entire congregation. We may have asked this question ourselves at some point, “When will I know when I’ve done enough to earn God’s love?” And the answer that Luther gave, and that I will repeatedly also give to you, is this: THERE IS NOTHING WE CAN DO TO EARN GOD’S LOVE. PERIOD. God has already freely given us that love. God loved us so much that God gave God’s only Son, Jesus, to die on the cross for us. Everything that needs to be done has already been done. You’re good. God loves you, no matter what. The good works that we do are things that we do in grateful response to how much God loves us. They are NOT what saves us. Jesus has already done that.

This is how we can be sinners and saints at the same time. We live in the time before Jesus’ return, and sin and evil still run rampant over this earth. We ourselves are sinful, because we are part of this fallen world. But, because we know that God loves us, and because we know that Jesus died for us and gave his righteousness to us, we trust in God’s word that we are God’s children, and that God can still work through us. God’s kingdom is coming here on earth, and we as God’s saints want to participate in the coming of that kingdom. And in order to participate in the coming of God’s kingdom, we need to be open to what God wants to do through us. We need to come and worship, to hear again through God’s Word and the Holy Sacraments how much God loves us, to allow God to strengthen us, and then to go out into the world again to show God’s love to everyone we meet.

I wonder how Elijah felt after his encounter with God. Relieved, perhaps, that God had given him definite instructions for what he was to do next? Still tired, but strengthened because he knew that he was going to have help with this prophet business by the man named Elisha? Renewed, because he knew that Elisha would succeed him and that one day, God’s call on his life would be finished and that he could finally rest? I’m guessing probably a little of all of those things. When it comes time for God to take us home and to join our loved ones around the throne, I imagine we will feel all of these things as well as other emotions. We are both sinners and saints while we are here on this earth, but when we go to be with Jesus, the sinfulness will drop like a veil and we will be revealed as saints. And those who are left behind will mourn, as we mourn those who have gone ahead of us. But rather than say, “My grandmother was a good person,” we can say, with confidence, “My grandmother had a good God, and God’s got her now. And I will see her again one day.” My sisters and brothers, we have a good God, and we can trust that we are in God’s hands. Amen.

Sermon for Narrative Lectionary Week 7

1 Samuel 16:1-13; Psalm 51:10-14

Last week we saw Samuel as a young boy, first hearing God’s call upon his life as he served in the house of God at Shiloh under a man named Eli. This week, we see Samuel towards the end of his life, going to Bethlehem and anointing a boy named David to be Israel’s king. So, what’s happened in between? We need some background information if we are to understand today’s story better.

After Samuel began to hear the word of the Lord at Shiloh, and gave a message of doom to Eli, a group of people called the Philistines began to fight against the Israelites. The Philistines defeated the Israelites in battle, captured the Ark of the Covenant (this was the box that held the tablets of stone with the law that Moses had brought down from Mt. Sinai), and among the other Israelites that the Philistines killed were Eli’s two sons—those corrupt priests that God had warned Eli about. When Eli heard the news, he fell over and died. Through a series of events, the Philistines eventually returned the ark to Israel, and then Samuel comes to power and judges Israel in place of Eli. Samuel does a pretty good job, but when he gets old, he has the same problem as Eli did—his sons are corrupt and take bribes for their own personal gain.

So the people of Israel see this, and they look around at the countries around them and see that other countries have a king, and they demand a king for themselves. God is not happy with this request, and Samuel also is not happy with this request, and through Samuel, God warns the people of Israel what will happen if they have a king: the king will just take and take from the people and give little, if anything, back. But eventually, God gives in, and Samuel anoints a man named Saul to be Israel’s first king. Saul leads the people into battle against their enemies, and with God’s help, they win the battle. Samuel then decides it is time for him to take a step back and retire from leading the people of Israel. King Saul continues to lead the Israelites in battle against the Philistines and comes out victorious. Then, Saul leads a battle against the Amalekites, and he makes a bad mistake. God had commanded Saul to completely destroy all of the Amalekites, but Saul decides to spare the king of the Amalekites and to save the best of their animals rather than destroy them. God is furious because Saul has disobeyed God’s command, and God calls Samuel out of retirement to tell Saul that God is angry and to give him the message that God has rejected Saul as king over Israel. Samuel leaves Saul and doesn’t see him ever again. And then we arrive at today’s story, which begins with God questioning how long Samuel will grieve over Saul and sending Samuel to Bethlehem to anoint a new king.

Make no mistake: what Samuel is doing in today’s story is dangerous. No one has ever heard of anointing a new king while there is already a sitting king leading a country, and to do so would be considered treason. That’s why God gives Samuel a cover: Samuel is to take an animal with him and to tell the elders of Bethlehem that he has come there for a sacrifice. And the elders of Bethlehem are afraid at Samuel’s coming because Samuel, although retired, is still a political force to be dealt with. The elders may not know what is going on, but they fear that Samuel has come to do something that will get them in trouble with King Saul.

Now we come to the story of how David is called. At this point, it should not surprise us that God calls the youngest of the siblings. God has a habit of doing that: favoring Isaac over Ishmael; Jacob over Esau; even the great Moses was younger than his brother and sister, Aaron and Miriam. God delights in choosing the “least of these” to take precedence over the ones that the world thinks should be first. But this story of the call of David to be king injects a new element into the call stories that we have heard thus far. When God appeared to Jacob at Bethel, God came to him in a dream and promised him that he would be blessed and that God would be with him. When God appeared to Moses, we saw Moses refusing God’s call and God not letting Moses off the hook, but again promising Moses that God would be with him. Last week, we saw Samuel not understanding God’s call to him until Eli realized it was God who was speaking to Samuel, and then Samuel eagerly accepting the call. This week, we really don’t see David responding verbally to God’s call; at the end of the story we hear that the Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward. But here is the new element: it is a warning to us that God does not look at appearances when God calls someone, but instead, God looks at what is in the person’s heart.

It seems like such a simple lesson to us, doesn’t it? It’s that old adage that we like to trot out when we’re teaching our children: don’t judge a book by its cover. But you know what? We live in a world where appearances are still everything. We don’t see the bad parts of other people’s lives, and we don’t realize that they have their own problems that they’re dealing with. We look on the outward appearance, and we don’t think to ask a person what’s going on in her heart.

Part of looking only on the outward appearance of others is recognizing that we all still have prejudices and stereotypes within us, so that, when we look at someone walking down the street, for example, we instantly judge that person based on the way she looks. The latest scandal that hit the news cycle this week was about a man named Harvey Weinstein, a very rich movie producer in Hollywood who was fired from his position at his company because of decades of accusations of sexual harassment and assault. In response, on social media, there has been a #MeToo campaign, where women have stated that they have been victims of sexual harassment and assault, just to let people know how widespread this problem is. And yes, I am part of that “Me, too,” campaign. I have been catcalled. I have been harassed by men who I was not interested in. In one congregation that I was in, long before I was a pastor, there was a man who, at the sharing of the peace, would kiss all of the women on the cheek. I was uncomfortable with that and expressed my discomfort to the male pastor of that church. The response I got was, “Oh, that’s just who he is. I don’t want to cause a big stink by telling him to stop.” And so I learned to avoid this man at the sharing of the peace because he was violating my personal boundaries and making me uncomfortable. All of this goes back to the idea of men looking at the appearance of women and thinking because they look a certain way, they have the right to go after that woman and get what they want from her. They do not regard her as a person who has a heart and is valued by God for much more than her appearance.

The Psalm that we have today paired with our reading of David becoming king cries out to God to create in us a new heart. As Christians, this is what we should be continually crying out to God for: a new heart. A heart that looks at people as people; a heart that treats others the way we would want to be treated; a heart that values people because, no matter who they are: black, white, rich, poor, female or male: each one of us is created in God’s image. That means that God values us for who God has created us to be and not for how we look. One of my favorite movies as a teenager was Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves starring Kevin Costner and Morgan Freeman. Morgan Freeman played a Muslim who came home with Robin Hood from the Crusades. One of the lesser-known scenes in that movie is when a little girl comes up to Morgan Freeman’s character and asks him, “Did God paint you?” And he laughs and says, “For certain.” And when the little girl asks him why, he says, “Because Allah loves wondrous variety.”

This is how we should endeavor to approach other people: with the eye of God who loves wondrous variety. We are human and we will notice how others appear: there’s really nothing we can do about that. But instead of looking at the other person as a person that is there for our benefit, we should be looking at the other person as part of the wondrous variety that God has created. And we should be wondering with awe what God has called that person to do in this life, and appreciating the gifts that the other person brings that we don’t have. That is the new heart that we should be continually asking God to create in us. And when we do something that offends the other person, we should immediately stop what we are doing, ask forgiveness, and strive to do better in the future.

Because when we say that Jesus died for all people, all means all. Jesus died for each one of you. Jesus died for me. Jesus does not look at people’s appearances, but Jesus looks at what is in our hearts. Jesus sees the beauty and Jesus also sees the pain in our hearts. Jesus sees when a woman is harassed or touched when she doesn’t want to be touched, and Jesus grieves with her. And yes, men are assaulted too—and Jesus grieves with those men when they are hurting. Think on this for a moment: Jesus said, “As you have done it to them, you have done it to #MeToo.” That is a rephrasing of something that Jesus said in the Gospel of Matthew, but it gets the point across. We should remember that, when we are doing things, when we are having conversations with others, Jesus is present in the face of the other. And this remembrance is what needs to be guiding our behavior.

And so, we cry out with the Psalmist: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” For only with that new heart can we teach others the ways of God, and see that they will return to God. And the good news is this: With God, there is graciousness, steadfast love, and forgiveness of sin. With the knowledge that we are loved and we are forgiven, we can go forward with that good news and share it with everyone around us, especially those who are hurting and saying “Me, too.” Amen.

Sermon for Harrisburg Conference

Note: In the ELCA, we have different regions known as synods. Within synods, there are local conferences of pastors. The Harrisburg area conference meets once a month for worship together, then a meal and a meeting. Today I got to preach at the conference worship. This is the sermon I preached. With thanks to Professor Richard Swanson of Augustana University for his unique interpretation of the Gospel of Matthew.


Matthew 22:1-14

In the first year of my first call, in Powell, WY, I was looking for something to do for continuing education. The Festival of Homiletics looked interesting, but May was always a busy time for my congregation there, and I couldn’t justify being away for a week when there was so much going on. So I began looking for something that would catch my interest and that would take place in the summer, when my congregation tended to disappear completely, and through a series of events, I landed on the Festival Gathering of the Network of Biblical Storytellers. This is a group of people whose mission is to encourage everyone to learn and tell Biblical stories. And this first year that I attended the gathering, I was hooked by one event at the conference in particular, and that was the epic telling. A series of people told Paul’s 1st letter to the Corinthians—by heart. Now, I had read that letter several times, but suddenly it became alive to me—I could see Paul writing the letter, at points struggling to find the right words to express what he wanted to say, and I realized that a lot of what he was writing about in that letter had to do with sex. Since that first gathering, I have used the techniques taught to me to learn Biblical stories, and have told several Gospel stories to my congregation in Wyoming as well as my two here in Pennsylvania.

In the last several years since I have gone to the Festival Gathering, I have met a professor of religion at Augustana University by the name of Richard Swanson. He has written a series of four books called “Provoking the Gospel” for Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. He has a unique way of looking at the Biblical texts, and one of the things he does is to have his students act out the stories found in the Bible. This acting out of the stories leads him to interpretations that we don’t often hear from other scholars. And Swanson’s approach to Matthew is what I want to use today as we wrestle with this parable of the wedding banquet once more.

Swanson talks about how much he struggles with the Gospel of Matthew, with this Jesus who casts people into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth; this Jesus who seems to rigidly divide people into categories like sheep and goats, weeds and wheat, the virgins who were ready and those who were not, and so on and so forth. And then he looked at the story that Matthew told of Jesus’ birth: Jesus being born in Bethlehem. In Matthew, there is no trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem as there is in Luke; Jesus is already there with his family. And then, after the visit of the wise men, Joseph takes Mary and Jesus and flees to Egypt. Leaving Jesus’ uncles, aunts, and cousins in Bethlehem at the mercy of Herod’s soldiers. In the story that Matthew tells, Jesus most likely lost much of his extended family at the hands of those soldiers on that day. And when the family finally returned from Egypt, they ended up in Nazareth rather than Bethlehem. In Matthew’s story, Jesus is a refugee, growing up in a town not his own.

Then Dr. Swanson asked his colleagues in the psychology and education departments this question: When a child grows up as a refugee, what does the child act like? And the response that he got was this: a child growing up as a refugee looks at the world as very black and white, with absolutely no shades of gray. There are good people and there are bad people, period. If a good person is perceived by this child as betraying him or her, the good person is now a bad person. And bad people very rarely move from that category to being good people, if at all. Suddenly, all the outer darkness, weeping and gnashing of teeth, and stark divisions in Matthew’s Gospel began to make sense: what if Matthew was telling a story of Jesus as a refugee Messiah? Isn’t this what a refugee Messiah might look like? Demanding purity from his followers? Dividing the good and the bad? Casting the bad into the outer darkness for eternal punishment?

While this interpretation probably does not answer all of the questions that we have of Matthew’s Jesus, it cast this gospel into a new light for me. And it is with this background in mind that I would like to approach this very strange—even for a refugee Messiah!—parable that Jesus tells in today’s Gospel. And to get into this story, we have to imagine ourselves in this imaginary world: a world where a king goes into a rage when guests he has invited refuse to come to the wedding banquet. In such a world, for subjects to refuse to come to a royal banquet when summoned is tantamount to rebellion. And when they laugh him off a second time and mistreat and kill the king’s slaves, the king feels that his throne is not secure. So in order to reassert his power over his kingdom, he has to make an example of them. But to think that a king is not loved enough that the people originally invited to the wedding banquet don’t come—this is a portrayal of an ineffective and cruel king. And how do the son and his bride feel when the original people invited would apparently rather be destroyed than come to their banquet? And what does it say when the slaves pull in a bunch of random common people and force them to make the hall full? And what about that guy who got in without a wedding robe? And how on earth is any of this supposed to portray the kingdom of heaven?

Well, the next interpretive move we can make, I suppose, is to say that not only is Matthew’s Jesus a refugee Messiah, but Matthew himself was writing to a group of Christians who came from a Jewish background; who were feeling those sharp divisions as they argued with their families and friends who did not believe in Jesus; who were generally feeling persecuted and longing for vindication that they were right and those others who hated them would eventually be cast into outer darkness. Yes, we can do that and we can make ourselves feel better about this parable. We’re not in the same context, after all, we say to ourselves. This is a parable that we can just relegate into the outer darkness, and not deal with the fact that Jesus actually said it—never mind that there’s a similar version of this parable in Luke’s gospel, arguing for the fact that Jesus probably did tell some version of this story. So we continue to struggle with this, not knowing how to handle it.

But what if? What if we are in a similar context? Many of us often do feel harassed and harried by other versions of Christianity out there that seem much more toxic. The version of Christianity, for example, that seems to get entwined with the government in civic religion and that shames Christians who kneel at the national anthem as a form of protest. Or perhaps we identify with living under a capricious leader who throws temper tantrums when we don’t rejoice when he tells us to rejoice, and perhaps we live in fear that one day, that leader might just decide to send troops against us when we rebel against him once too often. Maybe we are just too afraid to identify with this parable because the world that we live in looks like the world that Jesus paints in this parable. And we don’t like to think of the kingdom of heaven looking like the world that we live in.

And so, perhaps, that’s how we can look at this parable today: as a warning to us. When people refuse our invitation to come and learn about a God who loves us; when people refuse to come to the table at which we say all are welcome, it is tempting for us to wish hellfire and destruction to come upon them. It is tempting for us to wish for God to vindicate us as the ones who are right and to throw all of those “evildoers” into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. But perhaps, just perhaps, that’s not what the kingdom of heaven is supposed to look like. As I was learning this parable over the last several weeks, I kept coming back to the part where the slaves go out and invite everyone on the streets to come to the banquet: they “gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests”. The people who came into the wedding hall were a mixture of people—both the good ones and the bad ones. Perhaps, just perhaps, when the kingdom of heaven comes to fulfillment, we will be surprised at who we see there. Not just the good, faithful, churchgoing people, but the ones who we have been annoyed with in life, the ones who have been thorns in our side, and the ones whose public behavior we have cringed at. And perhaps all of that bad stuff will be forgotten as we rejoice with one another at the banquet.

Dr. Swanson carries through with his interpretation of the refugee Messiah all the way to the end of the Gospel of Matthew. He looks at Matthew’s account of Jesus’ crucifixion and notes that Jesus did not die the perfect martyr’s death; he, in fact, cried out to God and blamed God for abandoning him on the cross. And those are the only words that Matthew has Jesus saying from the cross. Swanson theorizes that, when Jesus finds himself resurrected on Easter morning and realizes that God has vindicated him in spite of the fact that he did not die a good death, that he is overwhelmed. And so, at the Great Commission, we find Jesus no longer making divisions between the faithful and not-so-faithful, but sending out all the disciples, believing and doubting, to make more disciples and teach them what Jesus has taught them. Perhaps we get a hint of that ending in the parable with the good and the bad at the wedding banquet. And perhaps that mixed bag of people is the vision of the kingdom of heaven that we should keep in front of us as we go through this life. Amen.

Sermon for Narrative Lectionary Week 6

1 Samuel 3:1-21

Again this week, we are making a huge jump in the Biblical story, leaving many great stories of Israel for you to read on your own, in your own devotion time. The summary of the story is this: last week, we saw God providing manna in the desert for the Israelites, who were newly freed from Egypt. The Israelites then wander in the desert for 40 years. Towards the end of that time, Moses dies, and Joshua takes over the leadership of the people. They take the city of Jericho, and they begin to settle in the Promised Land. The book of Joshua describes a military conquest of the land, and the book of Judges describes a more gradual settlement, with a series of different leaders known as judges ruling over the people of Israel. After the book of Judges, we get the short story of Ruth, the Moabite woman who returns to Bethlehem from Moab with her mother-in-law, Naomi, and ends up becoming part of the family tree of King David—who we’ll get to next week. As the book of 1 Samuel opens, we read about a woman named Hannah who was trying to become pregnant, but could not. She prays that if God will give her a boy, she will dedicate that boy to God. The boy is born and named Samuel, and when Samuel is old enough, his mother Hannah brings him back to the house of the Lord at Shiloh to serve God under a man named Eli. Eli’s two sons, Hophni and Phineas, were priests of the Lord, but they were corrupt: they cheated the people who brought sacrifices to God. Eli had spoken to his sons about their evil behavior, but the boys did not listen to their father. Right before today’s story of God calling Samuel, a man of God had come to Eli and warned him that God was not happy with the behavior of Eli’s sons. And then we come to today’s story.

The story of God’s call to Samuel is one of both humor and deadly seriousness. I’m sure all of you parents can identify, after all, with the child who comes to your bed in the middle of the night saying, “Mom, I had a bad dream and I’m scared.” “Dad, I’m thirsty.” “Mom, I can’t sleep.” And you sleepily tell the child that everything is okay and to go back to bed and go to sleep. Well, parents, now you know exactly how far back this kind of thing goes! “Here I am, for you called me!” the young Samuel says to Eli, and Eli says, “I did not call; lie down again.” All Eli wants, after all, is a good night’s sleep, and here comes this young boy once, twice, three times claiming that Eli has called him. By the third time, Eli realizes that maybe Samuel is really hearing something and is not just coming and bothering him in the middle of the night because he can’t sleep. And Eli tells Samuel that if he hears the voice again, he should say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”

When God calls a person, it’s always an interesting experience. Two Sundays ago, we heard the story of how God called Moses through the flames of the burning bush, and how Moses did not want that call and gave many excuses to God as to why he could not, in fact, go down to Egypt and tell Pharaoh to let God’s people go. And we heard how God didn’t believe any of those excuses and was persistent in calling Moses, but how God also promised Moses to be with him through the whole experience. Now, here we have God calling Samuel, and Samuel not even recognizing that it was God calling out to him at first. God is persistent in calling Samuel just as God was persistent in calling Moses, and God does not let Samuel go until Samuel responds to God’s call.

But the story of the call of Samuel raises a good question for us: how do we know when it is God calling us, and when it is just our own sinful desires telling us to do something? And the answer is that a call from God comes in the form of a combination of an individual call and a confirmation of that call from the community. So, for example, Samuel wasn’t sure who was calling him until Eli figured it out. And, after God spoke a message to Samuel, Eli demanded that Samuel relay that message to him honestly, without leaving anything out. And what Eli heard confirmed that it was, in fact, God who had spoken the message, because God had given him that message before. Thus Samuel is confirmed in his role as a prophet of God, and the story sets us up to see that Samuel will eventually be taking over that role from Eli.

So, too, with us. For example, when I heard the call from God to be a pastor, that was all well and good. But without confirmation from the community of Christians around me: the urging of my friends who thought I would, in fact, make a good pastor; the tough (but fair!) questions that my candidacy committee asked me in my interviews throughout the time I was in seminary; and, finally, without that first call I received from the congregation in Wyoming; I would never have become a pastor. And while the process of confirming and living out a call to be a pastor is a lot more formal than other calls we may receive from God upon our lives, each one of us goes through some sort of combination of an individual call from God and a confirmation of that call from the community around us.

As Lutherans, one of the great teachings that we have received from Martin Luther is the teaching of the call, or vocation. When we use that word “vocation,” today, we generally use it synonymously with the word “job”. But there is a much deeper meaning to the word, “vocation”. In Luther’s day, the only people who were truly said to have a vocation were those who were formally serving God: priests, monks, and nuns. But Luther said that the person who serves God as a mother or father was doing just as important work in serving God, if not more important, than any priest, monk, or nun. Have you ever thought of that in your daily lives? Your work as mother, father, brother, sister, nuclear plant worker, union leader, and whatever else you have done or ever will do is just as much a service to God as anything that I may do as your pastor. That’s pretty awe-inspiring, isn’t it?

And just as we as individuals have received calls from God to be and to do certain things in our lives, God has placed a call upon us as congregations. Now, there are certain things that God has called us to do as a congregation that are common to every expression of God’s church here on earth, and we can find those directives scattered in different places throughout the Bible. We are all called to love God with all of our heart, mind, and soul, and we are all called to love our neighbor as ourselves. Jesus calls us, at the end of the Gospel of Matthew, to go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that Jesus has commanded. In our short reading from John today, we hear Jesus giving us the Holy Spirit and talking about forgiving and retaining sins. And in the first chapter of Acts, we hear Jesus telling us that we will be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth. These things are a common call to all Christians, both as individuals and as congregations. What is different is how each congregation lives out those directives from Jesus in their context.

At Salem, these are some of the things we have been doing to live out this call that God has placed upon us: we continue to have regular Sunday worship; we have had a Mother-Daughter Banquet; we have continued our ministry of visiting our shut-ins on a regular basis; we have collected food to give to the needy; we have taken up a collection for those hurt by the hurricanes; we have hosted the Thursday morning Bible study; we will be hosting the local Veteran’s Day breakfast, reaching out to veterans in our community; and we are currently investigating opening up our building to host the expansion of the daycare center across the alley from us. These are all good ways of living out the call that God has placed upon us as a congregation. But we should also continue to listen for God’s call and ask God what more we can be doing to reach out to people with the good news that Jesus has died for our sins, and that now all people can have new life in him.

At St. John’s, I am going to dare to say that we may have discerned what God is calling us to do as a congregation, and that is to get involved with the community of Steelton. This started before I got here with the development of the once-monthly community breakfast and clothes bank, which has helped us to reach out and get to know our neighbors better. If you weren’t here for the Fall Festival yesterday, you missed a boatload of children—some with connections to the church and others who didn’t have those connections—who came and painted Halloween masks, ate snacks, and saw a wonderful puppet show about Noah’s Ark. This call has continued with our venture to host Family Promise, helping to care for homeless families in the greater area of Harrisburg with the resources that God has given us and the other churches in our local area. I am continuing to see new ideas from you all for reaching out to Steelton with God’s love, and I hope to continue to see this direction bear fruit. And on November 4, we will have the opportunity to sit down with the Synod’s Director for Evangelical Mission and our neighbors of Trinity in Steelton to discern in more detail how God has called us to serve God, our neighborhood, and the world by loving our neighbors. We still need some more people to commit to coming on November 4th; please come and talk to me if you are interested or if you have questions.

The call that God gave Samuel was not an easy one. He had to tell Eli, the man who had taken care of him from a young age and his mentor in the house of God at Shiloh, that God was going to punish the house of Eli because of the bad behavior of Eli’s sons, and because Eli hadn’t done enough to stop it. That must have been terrifying for Samuel to tell his mentor that God was not happy with him. But God was with Samuel, and this first message was only the beginning of a long vocation where God spoke to the people of Israel through Samuel. So, too, the call that we hear from God will not always be an easy one for us to hear or to follow. But we have the promise that God will be with us through it all, and that is good news indeed. Amen.


Sermon for Narrative Lectionary, Week 5

Exodus 16:1-18

This week, we don’t have too much of a gap in between stories to fill in. Last week, we heard about how God called Moses from the midst of a bush that was on fire, but did not burn up. We heard about how Moses tried to wiggle out of this call to go back to Egypt and tell Pharaoh to let God’s people go, offering up many excuses as to why he could not do it, and we heard about how God did not let Moses off the hook, but promised to be with him, to help him and guide him. Then comes the part of the story that we remember from Sunday school classes and countless movies, from Charlton Heston’s Ten Commandments, and from more recent movies like the animated The Prince of Egypt: Moses goes to Pharaoh and tells him to let God’s people go. Pharaoh refuses, and God sends plagues: the Nile River turns to blood; frogs swarm up over the land of Egypt; swarms of gnats appear; then flies appear; then all of the livestock get sick and die; then people break out in boils; then God sends thunder and hail; then locusts swarm over everything; then God sends darkness that covers the whole land; and finally, God sends the angel of death to kill the firstborn children of Egypt. It is this last plague that finally makes Pharaoh relent and set the Israelites free, and it is this last plague that results in the observance of Passover: the Israelites are commanded to slaughter lambs and to smear their doorposts with the blood in order for the angel of death to pass over them. Pharaoh finally lets the Israelites go free, and God leads the way out of Egypt by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. Suddenly, though, Pharaoh changes his mind, and he leads an army to come after the troop of Israelites, just as they are camped by the sea, with no place to run. And God works another miracle through Moses: the sea is parted, and the Israelites pass through on dry ground. As they reach the other side, the waters come back down and drown the Egyptians who had gone in after the Israelites.

Now, after all of this, the Israelites begin their travels through the wilderness. Remember, though, that these are people who have never been in the wilderness before. They have been born slaves, grown up as slaves, and until recently, had expected to die as slaves. Freedom is a new experience for them, and living in the wilderness is also a new experience for them. Trust in this God who miraculously brought them out of Egypt is also a new experience, and that trust is very fragile at this point. And one day they discover that they have no food, and they don’t know where to get food in the wilderness. So they complain. It’s easy to condemn the Israelites for not trusting in God, but which one of us, given the same circumstances, would not complain? When we human beings find ourselves in a tough situation, our natural response is to think about when times were supposedly better and wish ourselves back there.

But the thing is, the times that we remember as being better are not always as rosy as we think they are. The freed Israelites remember that, when they were slaves in Egypt, they could eat their fill of bread. They remember with longing how easy it was to fill their stomachs, but they seem to forget the long days of work with no pay; the command from Pharaoh to first find the straw they needed to make bricks but to make the same amount of bricks in one day as they had when the straw was given to them; and of course, the command to kill all of their baby boys. No, they only remember the thing that they immediately don’t have in the here and now: food.

Nostalgia is a tricky thing. I’ve only been a pastor for about five years, but I was brought up in the church and have been around the church for all of my adult life. And the churches today are full of nostalgia. They say, and perhaps you have said this, too: “Oh, if only we were still living in the 1950s and the 1960s, when everybody went to church and our Sunday school rooms were full. But God, you have brought us into this wilderness where our churches have declined, we are getting older, we have no idea where our young people went, and we don’t know what to do!” Does this sound familiar? Like the Israelites, newly freed from Egypt, we as a church have been wandering in a wilderness that we feel we are not equipped for. The church has been trying to be church in the only way we know how, and we are befuddled when those tried and true methods are no longer working. And the only thing we can figure to do is complain to God about it.

But our God is a gracious God. In spite of their complaining, God provides manna to the Israelites in the wilderness. The word that is rendered “manna” in our English translations comes from the Hebrew phrase “man hu” which means, “What is it?” This bread from heaven that God rains down on the Israelites is not something that they have ever seen before, so they name it a “whatchamacallit”. And Moses tells them that it is bread for them to eat, and they are only to gather enough of what they need for their families. They discover that, if they take too much and hoard it, the bread goes bad. In this way, God is teaching the people that they are to depend on God and trust in God for their daily food, and to trust that what God gives them is enough.

Today, God continues to give us what we need to survive in this seeming wilderness that we find ourselves in. And the first and foremost thing that God gives us is Jesus. In our very short one line from the Gospel of John today, we hear Jesus reinterpreting this story of manna in Exodus by saying, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven.” Every time we receive communion, we are reminded that Jesus is present in the bread and the wine, and God gives us enough of Jesus to sustain us as we go about the work that God has called us to do. The body and blood of Jesus, in, with, and under the bread and the wine, brings us into relationship with Jesus and into relationship with one another. It reminds us that in everything we do in this world, Jesus is with us. And it reminds us that no matter how much the world changes, Jesus is still with us.

Having received Jesus in Holy Communion, and knowing that he is with us, we have been freed from fear, and we are free to go into the world as it has become, using the gifts which God has given us. Those gifts may not always be apparent to us, and, when we look around and ask ourselves what gifts God has given us to reach out to the world, we may lift something up and say, “What is it?” As an example, the intern over at Trinity-Steelton has the gift of martial arts. He lifted it up to the light and said, “What is it?” And another person said, “How about this—wrestling church!” And he now has a group of kids who are coming and learning about a principle demonstrated in a Bible story, and being put into practice as they learn to wrestle. We see various gifts among our different congregations being lifted up and used as we come together as the four churches of Steelton-Oberlin-Highspire to minister in our communities: the gift of music as we prepare for a couple of musical events; the gift of hospitality as we open our buildings to children’s programs and to homeless families; and so many more gifts that God has not yet revealed to us. God has given us what we need as we journey through this wilderness.

I talked to the kids in the children’s message today about what we want versus what we need. And I want to put this thought out there: we want hordes of kids in the Sunday school rooms again and we want to see our church buildings full on Sunday mornings. But maybe, just maybe, that’s not what we need. Because when we had those things that we wanted, we became complacent. We didn’t have to put forth a lot of effort to tell others about Jesus or even to care for others in our congregation, because we figured that things would always be the same and people would come regardless of what we did and said, because people always came to church. And maybe God looked and saw that all of these crowds of people were not good for deepening our faith. And perhaps God has sent us out into this wilderness because being in the wilderness is truly what we need to become creative, to start truly caring for those on the outside and those on the margins, to think about our faith, and to bring in those who are truly lost. Now I’m phrasing these ideas with “perhaps,” and “maybe,” because I don’t claim to know the mind of God. But it certainly seems like these ideas are fitting what’s going on in the world today.

One of the many musical artists that I grew up listening to in my family was Billy Joel. In the song, “Keeping the Faith,” he sings, “You can get just so much/From a good thing/You can linger too long/In your dreams/Say goodbye to the/Oldies but goodies/Cause the good ole days weren’t/Always good/And tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems.” The Israelites learned this lesson as they spent forty years wandering through the wilderness. They learned that what God had in store for them was much better than anything they might have had in Egypt. And they learned that God would provide for them on their journey. We, too, as a church in 21st century North America, are learning that lesson. The good old days weren’t always good, and tomorrow is not as bad as it seems. What God has in store for us is, while very different from what we’ve been used to, better than anything we might remember from when we grew up. And we can trust in God to give us what we need—not what we want, but what we need—for the journey through the wilderness. Amen.