Bring Me Your Nothing

Sermon originally delivered to Calvary Community Church in New Berlin, WI. Text: Matthew 14:13-21

 

Jesus caught word that John the Baptist had been executed, complete with his head presented on a platter.

We may assume that Jesus was grieved as the gospel writer records that Jesus went off to be by himself. Much of the story of Jesus was him going off by himself and the crowds following him. So, when they heard this, they followed him. Jesus was quite popular at the time, and everyone wanted to hear him speak and for him to heal people who needed healing. Jesus took a boat, and when he came ashore, he saw the crowds, and while he may not have been thrilled about having them there — after all, he was trying to have some alone time, we are told that he had “compassion for them and cured their sick.”

Jesus stayed until evening and at that point, the disciples begin to worry because they had a large crowd of people and it was getting late, and these people needed dinner. I’m not sure if you have been around a mass of hungry people when there isn’t any food, but it is not a pretty sight. So the disciples do the prudent thing and ask Jesus to send people home so that they can get their own food. Sounds reasonable, right?

“Not so fast,” Jesus says, “they don’t have to go anywhere, you ought to give them something to eat.”

Can you imagine the feeling that disciples must have had? They have a responsibility to these people, and they simply don’t have enough, and what are they supposed to do? So they look around them, find all that they have — and find that they only have enough for them, it doesn’t really amount to anything at all, so they may as well not even have that.

“We have nothing,” they replied to Jesus shrugging their shoulders with their voices dropping, “nothing except these five loaves and two fish.”

Perhaps we may expect that Jesus would look to the ground, figure that it wouldn’t be enough, and finally do the prudent thing and send them away to get their own food. “That’s not enough,” we may expect Jesus to say, “go and find more food for them.” But he doesn’t, he tells them to bring them to him, to bring him the bread and the fish, but also because the word “nothing” is so emphatic, he asks him to bring their nothing to him.

So they bring their meager offerings, their not enough, their nothing to him.

And it is when Jesus has these items that they become more than simply the sum of their parts.

Bring them to me. Bring me your nothing.

I can imagine that they also would have had a bit of stage fright, feeling on the spot with over five thousand people looking at them — five thousand hungry people, hungry for food, yes, but also hungry for something more, perhaps something which they cannot even name. So many people looking to them for direction, that they begin to focus on what they lack. They don’t have enough, they can’t feed everyone, they focus on scarcity.

We hear this from the world constantly. So much is done based on what we don’t have, what we lack, what we are short of. The ever-present — “We don’t have enough money” and so we make our decisions based upon what we don’t have rather than what we have. Our vision, our values, are principles, these all come from a perspective of scarcity.

Jesus said to them, “you give them something to eat.’ They replied, ‘We have nothing here… but five loaves and two fish.’”

This also infects the church as well. We don’t have enough money, we don’t have enough members, we don’t have enough energy, we don’t have enough resources, our building isn’t big enough, we can’t do enough, we can’t be enough.

“We have nothing here…but five loaves and two fish.”

This is a part of who we are. We so often live out of scarcity. But just because it is nature does not mean that it is good. Jesus never operates out of a theology of scarcity, but always abundance, not necessarily an abundance of material things, but an abundance of the goodness of God. While this may seem to be semantics, the framework from which we operate drastically impacts how we live out our faith. The disciples were focused on what they lacked — We have nothing but these few loaves of bread and a couple fish. They began with what they didn’t have rather than what they did have.

Jesus, however, began with a theology of abundance, Jesus began with what they had, with the gifts that God had provided, meager as they were. The disciples never would have thought that what they had would have made any difference whatsoever, after all, they reported to Jesus that they have nothing. But Jesus saw that maybe, just maybe, those five loaves and two fish are more than simply the sum of their parts. And it is in this space, this beginning with the abundance of God, whatever form it may come — it is in this space that the miraculous becomes possible.

***

At our church, I wonder, do we operate from a place of scarcity? Do we begin with our not enough money or not enough people or not enough energy or not enough time? Or do we begin with the abundance of God, even if it is not made manifest in a way that appears to be abundant?

Now, this isn’t some sort of naïve optimism, or some sort of power of positive thinking. This is rooted in the hope that the body of Christ is more than just the sum of its parts.

When we operate from a perspective of scarcity, we often lose sight of the gifts that God has given, and we begin to think like the disciples — we have nothing.

But Jesus calls us to bring what we have, even if we think that it is nothing, even if it is meager, or not enough, even if we think that it cannot amount to anything.

The disciples said that they had nothing and Jesus asked them to bring it to him, and when God is involved, things are more than just the sum of their parts. Are people going to miraculously appear or time be multiplied? Maybe, but most likely not. But maybe our nothing isn’t really nothing at all, but perhaps it is the very stuff that God will use to accomplish God’s purposes.

***

The disciples focused on what they lacked, while Jesus focused on what they had, and in the end, the people were fed.

Sisters and brothers, as we go about our life together as a church, let us strive to operate from a theology of abundance — abundance of God’s gifts, God’s grace, God’s mercy — rather than from a theology of scarcity focusing on what we lack. When we come from a perspective of scarcity, we will never have enough, but when we come from a perspective of abundance, in Christ we are enough.

Sisters and brothers, over five thousand people were fed from five loaves of bread and two fish. If God can do this, certainly God can do great things with us and what we bring. Instead of looking around and seeing what we lack, let us bring what we have, and what we lack to Jesus, and allow him to do with it, things beyond our imagination.

 

The Siren Song of Success

We are driven by success. We dream of it, we strive for it, we sacrifice our families and our friends and our lives on the altar of success. This is no less the case in the church. We strive to be successful clergy. But what is success? If we are successful our churches will grow larger with more and more people. If we are successful, we will be highlighted as a model for other churches. If we are successful we will present at conferences and write books and perhaps have a blog which goes viral.

But success is a siren song.

An industry has been built around success and our thirst for it. Books are written, conferences are held, speakers are hired. Their ultimate goal is to show us that we are unsuccessful and offer success as something attainable.

“If it’s living it’s growing!” I heard a speaker exclaim to a room full of ministers and elders. The speaker was, of course, speaking of numerical growth. The implication is that big churches are alive and small churches are dead.

Our drive for success is only one side of the coin, the other is discontentment. Discontentment with the ordinary, discontentment with being one among many, discontentment with being a face in the crowd.

But scripture never gives us success as a value or a goal.

“‘Blessed are the poor in spirit,'” Jesus says, “‘for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt 5:3)

Not only the poor in spirit, but those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the pure in heart, the merciful, the peacemakers, those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.

To be sure, this is not a collection of successful people.

Blessed are the unsuccessful. 

The siren song of success is loud and nearly irresistible to those who come near it.  But when we find ourselves overcome by the song, we are unlikely to be able to see what is around us. In our pursuit of success, we see everything else as unsuccessful. The church doesn’t continually gain members, therefore it is unsuccessful. The preacher may not have the charisma to gain a following, therefore they are unsuccessful.

In my corner of the Bible Belt, our response to the last throes of the death of Christendom has been this cult of success. When our churches began declining in membership we turned toward church growth to find our salvation, and we labelled big churches and pastors of big churches successful, and all others unsuccessful.

***

I know well the siren song of success. I have fallen prey to its melody, and I try to resist. I try to resist not because success is bad, but because success is not the point. When we are overwhelmed by the siren song, we forget about the ordinary people in ordinary communities who are following Jesus in their ordinary ways. In our drive for success we have professional musicians, but have left out those who are growing in their abilities. In our drive for success we have made our worship services well scripted productions, and have left a majority of the congregation feeling inadequate to participate in leadership. In our drive for success we hold up big churches as faithful, and dismiss small churches as unfaithful. In our drive for success we have forgotten that our calling is not to be successful, or radical or extraordinary, but to be gloriously ordinary in our faith and life. Doing our ordinary things in ordinary ways.

***

To be sure Jesus wasn’t a success. Of course, he had a following, but when the going got tough, everyone disappeared, and even Peter couldn’t bring himself to admit to knowing him. He was eventually executed, which is certainly not a mark for success. But what we have seen in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is that what we understand to be success really isn’t. The last will be first, and the first last (Mt 20:16) and all that.

We love terms like “radical” and “extraordinary” and “success” but the truth is, Jesus came into the world in an ordinary fashion to live with ordinary people to show them that ordinary is not bad, in fact, perhaps ordinary life, ordinary faith, ordinary communities are the very seeds of redemption.

 

Leaning into the Wilderness

The Temptation of Christ, Simon Bening

A Sermon originally delivered to Calvary Community Church in New Berlin, WI

Text: Matthew 4:1-17

Immediately after Jesus’ baptism, the claim from the heavens that Jesus is God’s son, Jesus is led to the wilderness to be tempted.

While we may see these as different events, they are all tied together in one long narrative by the gospel writer to show Jesus’ identity as the Son of God.

The wilderness has a significant role in the story of scripture.

One day Moses was caring for the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, and he led them through the wilderness, to the far side. It is there that he sees, out of the corner of his eye, a bush that was on fire but did not appear to be consumed, and Moses thought to himself, I need to step aside, take a detour from where I am headed, and see this amazing sight. And it is here that God spoke to Moses and changed the history of the people of God.

As the people of God made their way to safety from oppression and slavery, they ended up spending 40 years in the wilderness as they learned what it meant to be the people of God. The desert was a time of challenge and temptation, but also grace and revelation. It was through this time that the people of God learned what it meant to be the people of God, not only for them, but also for future generations as they passed on these stories.

After the showdown with the priests of Ba’al at the two altars, Elijah gets word that he is going to die, and he goes into the wilderness and sits down beneath a solitary tree and asks to die. For forty days and nights he passes through the wilderness until he reaches mount Horeb, or Sinai, and there he meets God and he is given a new mission from God.

And it is in the wilderness that Jesus is led immediately following this statement by God. Until now, Jesus doesn’t really do much, he doesn’t gather disciples, he doesn’t teach, he doesn’t do miracles. These forty days in the wilderness is Jesus’ preparation as he, perhaps, learns as well. After all, Jesus was fully God, but also fully human.

Just as Jesus’ baptism is an extension of the epiphany to the Magi, his time in the wilderness is an extension of his baptism, the preparation for his ministry.

Jesus fasted for forty days, was tempted by the tempter and resisted and the angels came and waited on him. Just when we think things will let up a bit he leaves the desert and goes home to Nazareth to learn that John the Baptizer has been arrested. He leaves home and settles northeast by the Sea of Galilee in a village called Capernaum.

***

The temptation story also shows us what kind of redeemer, what type of king, what type of leader he will be. Even at his weakest moment, he will not embrace power, but will turn it down. He will let nothing stand between him and his mission. It is a mission which began in turmoil and will end in death, and ultimately a resurrection. Jesus does not exist for his own benefit, but for the benefit of others. He will not turn stones into bread for him to eat, but later in the story he will multiply bread for the people to eat. He will not take power over everything for himself, but he will offer the Kingdom of Heaven to those who follow him in righteousness.

The Gospel writer notes early on that he will be called Emmanuel, that is, God with us (Mt 1:23), and this shows how Jesus is with us, not only in terms of space, but also in terms of identification. Jesus not only lived among us, but could identify with us. Neither Jesus’ heritage, nor his identity, nor his calling would keep him from the experience of  humanity, from the experience of life, the good and the bad, the highs and the lows, the joys and the pains.

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, but without sin. (Heb. 4:15).

This is a transformative experience for Jesus, and one which will stay with him throughout his ministry. Indeed, throughout his ministry, Jesus will face temptations of various sorts, including the temptation to cut and run when his arrest and death was imminent. But this time of preparation in the desert, this will help him to understand his mission and to what he is called.

***

As God’s people we too are led into wilderness experiences. Not necessarily a physical wilderness, but a spiritual wilderness. We may not be abstaining from food, our wilderness experiences often make us feel a hunger, a deep hunger, as though we are not being nourished as we ought. It is a time of loneliness, isolation, fear, longing, hunger.

The wilderness experience of the ancient people of God was not a result of rejection by God, but rather, because they were God’s people. Jesus’ wilderness experience is not a result of rejection by God, but rather an extension of being claimed by God.

So often we may think that our wilderness experiences may be a result of rejection by or a turning away by God but perhaps this may not always be the case. Perhaps it is a part of being God’s people, perhaps it is a time to help us learn what it means to be God’s people, and perhaps these wilderness experiences help us understand what it means to be claimed by God.

But the best part about this is that we do not enter into these wilderness experiences alone, Jesus joins us in these wilderness experiences. Jesus joins us in the solitude, in the loneliness, in the hunger, in the thirst. Jesus joins us in the struggle and striving with God. Before Jesus leaves the people after his resurrection he promises to them, “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Mt 28:20). and this is a promise that holds true today, a promise that holds true for you and for me. That even in these barren and lonely and hard times, we do not trod them alone, but we trod them with Jesus, who went through these experiences himself while on earth.

Therefore, sisters and brothers, the wilderness is a part of life with God, a part of struggling and striving with God. In the wilderness lies growth, learning, an epiphany even, if we live into the wilderness experiences into which we may be led. But we do not enter into the wilderness alone. Many times we have other members of the body of Christ who can journey with us if we allow it.  But even more, we have Jesus who has walked in our shoes, who has lived a life like ours, who has experienced every piece of human life and can sympathize with us.

 

One Word for 2015: Wonder

Into the water

Wonder

Few things are more beautiful than to see a person filled with wonder. More often than not it is children that experience this sense of wonder when faced with a world that they are still trying to understand.

The capacity to experience wonder is the capacity to be surprised, to be amazed, to understand that there is something worth noticing in the world. In my own experience, my capacity for wonder has decreased with age, perhaps I am not alone in this. As a child, the moon followed me, but as an adult, it is simply large and ever-present. As a child, a second grade classroom blackboard could be the screen of the starship Enterprise and I was the helmsman, but as an adult it is simply the blackboard of a second grade classroom. As a child, snow was a magical gift, but as an adult it is simply ice crystals which form when the weather is sufficiently cold.

I am glad that I understand more than I did as a child, however, my struggle is that my capacity for wonder has drastically decreased, and more often than not, I function as a workhorse with blinders so as not to be distracted from the corner of my eye.

But it is distraction and wonder which saved God’s people from slavery in Egypt, as Moses noticed a curious sight: a bush that was burning but was not consumed, and decided to take a closer look at this strange and surprising sight. What would have happened had Moses simply kept his head down and focused on his work? What would have happened had he not had the capacity for wonder and allowed that wonder to take the driver’s seat, if only for a few moments? Surely God would have still effected the liberation of God’s people, but the story would certainly read differently.

***

My entries here have been relatively sparse over the past year, partly because of things going on in my life, but also partly because I have been struggling with my own capacity for wonder. It is so easy to operate in life without experiencing life. When I don’t notice, when I don’t wonder, I find it hard to write. But even more, I find it hard to see something which causes me to step aside and experience wonder, to see the presence of God in the periphery.

***

This year, I have chosen a word for this new year, something which has been relatively popular as of late. This will give me a single word, a single concept on which to reflect during the year in my spiritual and personal growth and development. This year I will be growing my capacity for wonder — to be amazed, surprised, to notice and truly see beauty in the myriad of forms which it comes.

I look forward to exploring wonder during this year, and I hope that you will journey with me in this.

After all, it is only when we have a capacity for wonder that we can experience the omnipresence of the divine in the daily (and often mundane) activities of life.

The Deception of Carols

Silent night, holy night,
all is calm, all is bright…

***

O little town of Bethlehem,
how still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
the silent stars go by…

***

Away in a manger, no crib for his bed,
the little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head.
The stars in the bright sky looked down where he lay,
the little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay.

The cattle are lowing; the poor baby wakes,
but little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes…

***

Christmas carols bring a sense of calmness and stillness to this time of year. Amidst the hustle and bustle of shopping and preparing for Christmas celebrations, from running here and there trying to find sales, a Christmas carol lets us slow down, gain an inner sense of stillness. It makes us feel better, more Christmaslike, more peaceful. We adorn our churches and homes with crèches — the peaceful, holy looks on the faces of Mary and Joseph, baby Jesus with a halo around his head, the animals silently sitting by, and the magi reverently kneeling before the newborn messiah.

During the holiday season, much ink is spilled with the words, “peace,” “love,” and “joy.”

It is a nice feeling.

But Christmas carols lie.

 

***

I’m over at YALT today, come on over to read the rest…

Finding Our Way

A sermon originally delivered at Calvary Community Church in New Berlin, WI.

Esther 4:1-17

By now the Kingdom of Judah has been conquered and all the people of any social standing whatsoever have been taken to Babylon in a couple of deportations. The Exile was a pivotal point in the history of the people of God.

For the history of God up to this point, they have been a holy people on a pilgrimage to their holy land. They have entered into their land and eventually a temple was built. Their entire identity has been wrapped up in the connection between their identity as a people, the land that God gave to them, and the temple which sits at the highest point of the holy city. But in the exile, the people were dispersed. Not all were taken to Babylon, others stayed, but still others went north, others went south, and this marked the beginning of the Diaspora, or the dispersion. From this point on, God’s people will not be concentrated in a particular geographical location, but will be dispersed throughout the world, something that exists until the present day.

By this time, there has been another major shift in the politics of the region, and the Babylonian Empire was defeated by the Persian Empire, and their king, Cyrus the Great, had a policy of allowing those in captivity to trickle back to their homelands, after all, they are more willing subjects if they are happier.

But the captivity was not just a couple of years, it was a significant amount of time. Following the commands from God through the prophets, they put down roots, built homes, established businesses. But more than anything, they had to figure out what it meant to be God’s people while they were away from the land and the temple. What did it mean? The Hebrew world would be forever changed. Instead of holding place as the center of their faith and practice, they held the text as a center of their faith and practice. This was when rabbis and synagogues arose, this is when the Old Testament as we understood it began to take form and become committed to writing.

But when they were allowed to go home, not everyone did. People had families and homes and businesses in the places where they had been taken. So while some people did return, many remained in the diaspora, in dispersion.

Our story takes place within the Persian Empire, a few kings after Cyrus.

***

Ahasuerus is king and at the beginning he is hosting a banquet. The King calls for the queen Vashti to come and parade her beauty. Now, it is important for us to remember that in this context, queens had prestige, but no power. They were to be seen when the king desired, but absent every other time. They were not to speak, just be pretty. This is not okay, but this is the context in which this story arises. So the king calls for Vashti, and she says, “No.”

Well, the king is very displeased by this disobedience and he deposed Vashti as queen.

So, now the king needs another queen. The king, then, calls for beautiful women be gathered from around the empire to brought to him so that he could choose another queen. Among them is Esther, who was being raised by Mordecai, her uncle, because she was an orphan. Mordecai and his family were Jews who lived in Susa, a principal Persian city. So to make a long story short, Esther is eventually the one who wins the heart of Ahasuerus and she is made queen.

Mordecai sat at the king’s gate, which denotes that Mordecai was in a relatively close position to the king. After Mordecai uncovered a plot to kill the king, Haman was made a very high official in the empire, above all other officials. Everyone else at the king’s gate bowed down and paid homage to Haman, but Mordecai refused to do so, after all, God’s people cannot pay homage to anyone other than God.

Haman, of course, didn’t like this one bit. scripture tells us that Haman was “infuriated”. Haman was then told that Mordecai was a Jew and so Haman didn’t want to deal with Mordecai himself, and instead, he went to the king, and brought up a bunch of fear within him.

“There are people in your kingdom, throughout your kingdom, and their laws are different, they are different, their language is different, and they do not obey the laws.” Haman also promised to pay a great deal of money to the king’s treasury if he signed this law. So Haman convinced the king to let him kill all of the Jews throughout the kingdom, to purge the kingdom of these foreigners, of these immigrants, those people who speak a different language and have different customs.

So the king signs this order with his signet ring and it became a law, a law which may have been popular amongst the native Persians, but a law which was wrong and unjust nonetheless, and it was done through a process with which we are very familiar to this day.

This is what brings us to our text, Mordecai learns of this plot, tears his clothes, put on sackcloth and ashes and let out a loud cry in the midst of the city, all signs of grief and mourning.

Now, Mordecai cannot go in and talk to Esther as she is the queen and he is in sackcloth, and no one in sackcloth is allowed to enter the king’s gate, so Mordecai and Esther send messages back and forth through one of the servants pledged to her services.

Mordecai wants Esther to do something to stop this, but Esther reminds Mordecai that if anyone, the queen included, approaches the king in his inner courts without being summoned, they will be killed. Mordecai responds that if this is carried out, it will come to light that she, too, is a Jew and that she will not be safe. And then Mordecai’s message ends with the very well known line, “Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.”

I can imagine that Esther had great fear and doubts within her, and likely let out a great sigh. She tells Mordecai to ask people to fast for her, as she will do for three days.

The story continues, “After that I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish.”

***

The Book of Esther is a unique book, in that it does not mention God by name — in any of the Hebrew words used for God. It does not speak of the burning bush or Jerusalem or the temple or deliverance from Egypt, or the law or Abraham or anything. We do not have any of the typical religious language that we associate with religiosity. Instead, we have the story about a family and a people and a king and injustice.

Esther’s people were still trying to figure out what it means to be God’s covenant people away from home, how to live out their faith in a foreign land. In the language of that great Psalm of lament, Psalm 137, they are still learning how to sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land. All the while they are longing for a promised Messiah, who will bring redemption to their peoples, trying to live faithfully in the time of waiting.

While the Book of Esther doesn’t mention God explicitly, God is still present. God is present in the background, God is present through Mordecai and the king choosing Esther and Esther. There are a number of coincidences in Esther, but in reality, they are the movements of God.

I think that in many ways, the book of Esther reflects our experiences. We all want to hear God’s voice in a burning bush, but very few of us will experience this. We all want to have messages from God chiseled into stone by God’s hand atop the mountain, but rarely, if ever, will we experience this. We want to hear God’s voice as clearly as it seems that Abram hears it, but very few of us will have this experience. We want to be able to do something big, like stand in front of Pharaoh, call “Let my people go” and lead them through two walls of water into freedom, but very few of us will have this role.  Instead, we have our ordinary lives filled with ordinary people trying to figure out what it means to be a the people of God, trying to live out our faith in a land where the overarching culture doesn’t hold the same religious convictions. We try to live out our faith remembering that the messiah has come, but looking forward to the time in which the messiah’s work will be complete, when justice and peace and wholeness and true harmony will reign. When sickness and death and crying and pain will be no more. When there will be no more hunger, when there will be no more gap between the rich and the poor, when there will be no one on the margins, when we will not have to talk about another unarmed black man getting killed by white police officers, because we will neither be prejudiced or colorblind, but we will appreciate the diversity of the palette with which God created us.

***

As we think about living out our faith, as we think about God’s command to feed the hungry, welcome the immigrant, clothe the naked, release the prisoners, and so on, we so often ask ourselves, “what can I do? the problem is so big?”

In Esther, we see people just doing what they can. Mordecai speaks to Esther, and Esther, although reluctant at first, sets aside her fear, and even though she is breaking the law and may perish, she stands before power to work for justice. Everyone does their part, and with God’s assistance in the process, their efforts become more than the sum of their parts. While it is likely that none of our efforts will bring forth radical and massive change, God doesn’t demand for us to do things on a grand scale. God calls for us to live out our faith, to be Christ’s hands and feet, to work for peace and justice in our lives because this is what God desires of us. And trusting that God is working in the background, we have the faith that the fruit of our labors will be more than the visible sum of its parts.

Esther’s people were strangers in a foreign land, as are we. Esther’s people were trying to figure out how to live out their faith without controlling the social structure, as do we. There was no burning bush or voice from smoke and fire. There is Esther who becomes the queen, Mordecai who is in the right place at the right time, there are a lot of coincidences in this book. Or maybe they are not coincidences, maybe they are the fingerprints of God’s action behind the scenes. So as we move through Advent, let us take a lesson from Esther, that even as we wait for the redemption that the coming of God will complete, we too cannot just throw our hands up at such a time as this, for maybe, just maybe, we are in the situation we are in for such a time as this. Perhaps this is all a part of us finding out way as we wait for redemption and restoration.

From Family Churches to Church Families

Churches love families. We have family nights, family worship, bring families up front and we have pictures of families on our websites and screens in churches. Churches ought to be a good place for families – a place to support families and strengthen them. In many of our churches, families are defined as the mid twentieth-century ideal: mom, dad, and two-and-a-half children.

But where does this leave people who don’t fit into this nuclear family ideal?

As a married person without children, people within the church often don’t know how to speak to me.

When I meet people and we exchange the traditional set of inquiries: where are you from? What do you do? We get the the dreaded question that I don’t like being asked: Do you have a family?

The exchange typically goes like this:
Me: Yes, I’m married.
Them: Do you have children?
Me: No, I don’t.

At this point, there is often a pause. Sometimes it is simply acknowledged, but other times a series of responses follow.

“Why not?”
“Not the right time?”
“Just wait for a bit.”
“Someday you will.”
“Go ahead and take your time, things change after children.”
“Children are such a joy, I hope that someday you can experience that same joy.”

In many instances it becomes clear that they are slightly uncomfortable with a Christian who has been married for nearly a decade with no children, and this is amplified by the fact that I am a pastor..

I’m at YALT. Come on over to read the rest of this post…

Fear or Hope?

Munch, The Scream

Sermon originally delivered at Calvary Community Church, New Berlin, WI. Text: Isaiah 36:1-37:7

The Kingdom of Israel has fallen to the Assyrian war machine. The focus now turns more singularly to the kingdom of Judah. Now this is not a match of equals, Assyria is the superpower in the region and Israel and Judah are quite small. Both sides knew that the war’s days were numbered, and both sides knew, in their heart of hearts, that chances were good that Assyria would win.

So Sennacherib, the king of Assyria, sent the Rabshakeh, a high ranking official in the empire, to bring a message to the king of Judah, Hezekiah. As he came, Eliakim, the head of the palace; Shebna, the secretary; and Joah, the recorder. Hezekiah was still a king, and kings don’t go out to receive messages, they have people to do that for them. So, the Rabshakeh gives them a message for Hezekiah, telling him that he cannot win.

Now, the three who were sent to receive the message asked the Rabshakeh to speak in Aramaic, a language that they, being educated, knew but that the soldiers of Judah wouldn’t understand. They were, after all, trying to help keep them from becoming demoralized in an already difficult situation. But the Rabshakeh instead called out loudly in Hebrew, so that everyone would understand, “Hear the words of the great king, the king of Assyria…”  He proclaims that Hezekiah cannot help them, that God will not be able to help them. “For thus says the king of Assyria” — make peace with me and you will have peace and prosperity. The Rabshakeh then goes through the list of nations who trusted in their gods, and were defeated by Assyria. None of these gods were able to save their nations — so why should yours?

Holding their tongues, the three men went back into the safety of the walls, they tore their clothes, which was the cultural sign of grief. So they go in to see Hezekiah, and already he knows that it is not good news. Hezekiah tears his clothes, as a sign of grief and put on sackcloth as a sign of mourning, and as does the king, so does the kingdom. The servants of Hezekiah come to Isaiah, the prophet, and Isaiah says to them, “Thus says the LORD: Do not be afraid.”

The Rabshakeh tells them, “Thus says the king of Assyria, be afraid.” Isaiah tells them, “Thus says the LORD” Do not be afraid.”

This whole part of the story hinges on fear, and what we do in response to fear.

***

Few things are more powerful than fear. The great philosopher and Jedi master, Yoda, communicated this: “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.” But even more significant than Yoda, scripture addresses fear over and over again, primarily with the words, “Do not be afraid.”

God comes to Abram, “Do not be afraid.”

God speaks to Hagar, “Do not be afraid.”

God shows up to Isaac, “Do not be afraid.”

God speaks to Jacob, Moses, and Joshua with the words, “Do not be afraid.”

An angel appears to Elijah with the words, “Do not be afraid.”

Gabriel shows up at the foot of Mary’s bed, and begins with “Do not be afraid.”

God speaks to Joseph and says, “Do not be afraid.”

Jesus was walking on the water and tells the disciples, “Do not be afraid.”

When Jesus was raised, and the women come to the tomb, they find an angel  who greets them with the words, “Do not be afraid.”

From the beginning of scripture all the way through the end of the written word, we are consistently told not to fear.

So here the people of Judah stand, nearly encircled by the political and military superpower and they are told to fear Yet Isaiah reminds them that although they have steamrolled other nations, God is indeed greater than Sennacherib.

While we are not in the same situation as Judah with an empire attacking from without, fear still plays an important role for us today.

***

We, too, regularly and frequently, are visited by the Rabshakeh, only the Rabshakeh takes different forms We have many voices speaking fear into our lives — sometimes the Rabshakeh comes in the form of Fox News or MSNBC. Recently we were visited by the Rabshakeh who came in the form of politicians and television and radio ads and mailings and canvassers. Sometimes the Rabshakeh speaks from within and speaks fear directly into our hearts. Regardless of the form, the Rabshakeh always has a task — to instill fear within us.

So the Rabshakeh calls to us to fear many things — immigrants, Muslims, cities, Ebola, people who look differently, think differently, believe differently. The Rabshakeh calls us to fear other cultures or languages or different economic system.s But fear is only the first step in the Rabshakeh’s plan, the next is to convince us to capitulate to the powers.

In our story the Rabshakeh was instilling fear in the people of Judah  so that they would capitulate to the Assyrian empire, so that they would abandon their trust in God, and trust in Sennacherib. He offers them hope if they will do this, but only a dystopic future if they do not capitulate to power.

So in our world, the threat is just as real, but in many ways it is more insidious. The Rabshakeh is not the captain of a foreign empire seeking to destroy our home, but the Rabshakeh that we encounter looks like us and talks like us and comes from within our borders. They are more familiar, but the function is the same: to fan the flames of fear so that we, too, will capitulate to the powers.

Notice here that Isaiah did not promise that nothing bad would ever happen, he old them not to fear, not to abandon trust in God and bow to Sennacherib.

So we are here, thousands of years later and on the other side of the world, and the problems that we face are quite the same. Will we give into fear, or will we trust in the promise of God?

You see, earlier in the Book of Isaiah, we read this:

In days to come
  the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
  and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
  Many peoples shall come and say,
‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
  to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
  and that we may walk in his paths.’
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
  and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
  and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
  and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
  neither shall they learn war any more.
O house of Jacob,
  come, let us walk
  in the light of the Lord(Is 2:2-5)

***

The Christian faith is an irrationally hopeful faith. But our faith is not hopeful in the abilities of humans or politicians or armies. Our hope doesn’t come from fear, our hope comes from the promises of God through Christ.  Our faith is founded on the fact that God continues to sustain, uphold, and provide for creation, God is not a clock-maker that winds a clock and leaves it alone.

This is why are are told not to fear. Because, as VeggieTales has taught us, “God is bigger than the bogeyman.”

The phrase of going to hell in a handbasket is ever-present in our culture, but it is not, in the slightest, a Christian idea.  Christianity is an irrationally hopeful religion, not because we believe that nothing bad will happen or that things will always turn out perfectly, or even well, for us, but our hope is that ultimately, God’s purposes will be accomplished and the fullness of the kingdom of God will unfold.

Now, I am realistic enough to know that Isaiah’s words in chapter two will likely not come to fruition in my lifetime, but we must remember that they are true, and we must orient our lives to that truth.

When we live out of fear it is fear of something or someone that drives our lives. We are guided only by a negative. But this is not how we are to live. We are to be guided by the calling and promises of God.

After all, “there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear…” (1 John 4:18a).

The world has enough fear and it is the calling of the church to point to Christ which means turning away from fear and toward the hope established, founded, and centered in Christ. In fact, if the church cannot herald this irrational hope, we may as well pack it in and go home, because we don’t have anything to offer the world any longer.

 

Eventually, Judah would fall, and Isaiah knew this. His point was not that nothing bad would ever happen. Isaiah told them that they did not have to fear because God is greater than Assyria.

Eventually both kingdoms fell and many are taken off into exile. This should have destroyed a people and relegated them and their religion to the annals of history. But instead, the exile spread the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob around the world. Now, no longer is the people of God restricted to a nation in the Levant. Instead, the people of God are spread throughout the world. What would have happened if the people of Judah capitulated to the might of Assyria? Chances are good that we would not be sitting here reading this story and following the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

The Rabshakeh may tell them to fear, but God tells them to not fear.

This fear-mongering continues today, and to this fear-mongering Isaiah also brings us the word of God with a resounding, “no” “do not fear.”

So, sisters and brothers, let us not capitulate to the modern-day Rabshakeh. Let us not give in to fear. Let us remember that we are not given a spirit of fear. As individuals and as a church, we must proclaim hope, not fear. We must live out of a spirit of hope, not fear. We ought not increase fear but to cast it out. The Rabshakeh comes knocking with convincing arguments, that is sure. But we follow Christ, and Christ brings hope for the world.

“Thus says the LORD: Do not be afraid because of the words that you have heard.”


The Ordinary Ones

Sermon originally preached at Calvary Community Church. Text: 2 Kings 5:1-14

 

Few things are more delightful to me in this passage, than the fact that this whole event happened, this story was recorded, this whole thing began with the words of a little foreign slave girl. This little slave girl, someone with no social standing or status to speak of, spoke words of wisdom that people heard, but no one truly listened to.

This little slave girl was in the service of Naaman’s wife. Now we are told that Naaman had leprosy. While typically we think of leprosy as the disease that makes body parts fall off, this may or may not be exactly what from which Naaman was suffering. In the ancient world, the term leprosy covered a multitude of skin diseases. But whatever it was, it was likely incredibly unpleasant.

So Naaman comes home from a day at the palace meeting with the king to discuss military strategy, and as he comes home it is apparent, again, to everyone in the household that no matter what their doctors have done, Naaman is still in great suffering. So as this little slave girl, whom they captured fromt the land of Israel, as she was helping Naaman’s wife to get ready for bed, she remarked to her mistress, “O, if only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.” And the slave girl finished her tasks and when she had left, Naaman’s wife went to speak to Naaman the words that the slave girl told to her.

I can imagine that Naaman would have been cautiously hopeful. On the one hand, this was a possibility for him to be cured from this awful disease, but I can also imagine that he would be cautious so as not to get his hopes up. Someone as important as Naaman would have received the best medical care available at the time, and the chances were good that he had sought medical attention. But whatever he may have been thinking or feeling, Naaman brings this to the King.

Of course, though, the king cannot send Naaman with just a camel, no, Naaman is important, and so he sends a letter to the King of Israel, but not only this but sends ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments. This is quite a sum, but for someone so important in the kingdom, this was well worth it. So this has now become a matter of diplomacy. The king of Aram, which is modern day Syria, sends him to the King of Israel with all of this money.

So Naaman and his grand royal caravan shows up at the palace of the King of Israel with the letter, requesting that the king cure Naaman of his leprosy. The king, of course, tears his clothes because he can’t heal Naaman, and he thinks that the king to the north is trying to set a trap for him, requesting the impossible from him.

And all of this because they heard the little girl, but did not listen to her.

But Elisha gets word of this, after all, the king doesn’t tear his robes without anyone taking notice. So Naaman goes to Elisha’s house. I love the specificity of this part of the story, “So Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the entrance of Elisha’s house.”

It wasn’t just Naaman who showed up, but his entire entourage, he comes with his status and his pride and his prestige, and he shows up at Elisha’s house, the ordinary house of a prophet.

But Elijah won’t play into this, and so he sends a messenger out to him with the instructions. Go and bathe in the  Jordan river seven times and you will be healed.

But Naaman will have none of this. Naaman didn’t want to be told this simple thing from this simple messenger, he wanted the great prophet to come out, and wave his hands, and call on God and bring all the special effects and do something fitting of his status. Not only this, but he was told to bathe seven times. That’s it? I came all the way from Aram for this? In the Jordan, no less? The murky and muddy waters of the Jordan River?  We have rivers back home, and they are cleaner and nicer and more pristine than these backwaters.

Naaman turns away and begins to lead his entourage away.

But one of his servants came to him. “If he told you to do something involved and difficult, wouldn’t you have done it?  Why not just do this simple thing, what do you really have to lose?

So Naaman got down from his horse, and took of his armour and put down the shield of his king. He walks down into the Jordan River and baths seven times, and his flesh was restored to perfection.

***

The beauty of this passage is not so much in the end of Naaman being restored to health, I mean, that is the climax of the story, but that is not necessarily the beauty. The beauty is that the driving forces in this story were ordinary simple folks. The slave girl who got the whole ball rolling, the servant who convinced Naaman that he didn’t have anything to lose give washing in the Jordan a try. When God is involved, these ordinary people can be capable of extraordinary things. When God is involved, an ordinary messenger can speak grace. When God is involved, servants and slaves can speak truth. When God is involved an ordinary river can take on miraculous properties, and when God is involved, the ordinary can do extraordinary things.

Today we celebrate the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, when we take these ordinary elements, bread from the earth and fruit from the vine and God does something extraordinary with them. In the moment, we are lifted up into heaven and we commune with, we are united with, Christ and all the saints of all time and places, and for a moment, for a brief moment, we can experience the glory of heaven.

This is what we believe about the sacrament, and it is beautiful, it is amazing. And all of this from these ordinary elements.

We serve a God who continually uses ordinary things. A nomadic person in Mesopotamia who would become the father of the people of God, a bush that is ablaze but is curiously not consumed, a person who had difficulties with public speaking, an unwed teenage girl who would give birth to the redeemer of the cosmos, and ordinary people like you and me. God takes these ordinary things, and by God’s grace, extraordinary things happen.

***

Today is All Saints’ Sunday — the day we observe All Saints’ Day. All Saints’ Day is not the day to think about Saint Augustine or Saint Francis or Saint Benedict or Saint Luke or Saint John, All Saints’ Day is when we remember all those brothers and sisters in Christ who have gone before, all those who are properly called saints, all those who have stood in the presence of God and have seen the beautiful vision of the glory of God. All Saints’ Day is not a day to glorify the dead, don’t get me wrong, but a day that we can give God thanks for those who have impacted our lives, either individually or as a church, those who may not be known to many, but who, in one way or another, represented Christ to us.

Faith is not something that we come to on our own, the journey of faith is not one that we trod alone. Each of us have, and have had, people in our lives who have told us stories about God and about God’s people. We have had people who have shared with us the story about grace and redemption found through Christ. We have had people in our lives who have spoken grace into our lives, who have spoken God, who have served as companions and guides on the way.

These people are not always the important ones, maybe not the obvious ones. Maybe these people are not the kings, but rather the little servants, the people who blend into the woodwork, the people who don’t have much prestige or power, people who are not often noticed, but who can speak or live wisdom.

The wonderful thing about God is that those who are far off have been brought near, the first will be last, and the last first, the weak will be given power, and the powerful will be cut down. God can work through unexpected people in unexpected situations.

So today, we can give thanks to God for God’s immense creativity, for God’s desire to work through ordinary things and ordinary people, we can give thanks to God because “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are” (1 Corinthians 1:27-28).

***
But God didn’t just work at one point through ordinary people, but God continues to work through ordinary people and ordinary things, this is God’s modus operandi

So as we look back at the past in the story of Naaman, we stand in the present as we give thanks for those who have gone before, we can also look to the future, and think of the possibilities that might be in store for this ordinary little church on the top of a hill in New Berlin, Wisconsin. We have a wonderful past and these walls could tell so many stories of so many different people. Stories of people coming to faith, and people growing in faith. Stories of life: marriages, baptisms, celebrations of birth, recovery from disease and illness. Stories of grief and loss, death and funerals. Stories of ordinary people doing ordinary things as God’s people. But think of the stories that they might yet contain. The stories of ordinary people telling about the story of how God took on flesh and lived a life like you and me, and taught people what God desired, and lived a completely obedient life which ultimately led to his death, only for him to raise from the dead.

It’s a story that begins relatively ordinary but ends extraordinary. It is a story which is like you and me, and those for whom we give thanks today.

A letter to Martin Luther on Reformation Day

IMG_0601.JPGDear Martin,

Here we are, October 31st almost five hundred years after you posted your concerns on the town bulletin board, and the church is more divided than it has ever been. For better or for worse, that date has gone down in the annals of history as the day we broke the church. That day that we began to redefine what it means to be a church.

You had legitimate concerns and protests. There were serious problems in the church that needed to be addressed. Would they have been dealt with eventually had you not tacked up your thoughts? Who knows. It is impossible to know for sure what would or would not have happened. But you did, and that the train began moving. Heading down a steep hill, it took a wrong turn, or at least an unexpected one, and the brake lever broke off, and at that point it officially became a runaway train.

I wonder if, knowing the state of the church today, you would have done anything differently.

For me, it is hard to “celebrate” Reformation Day. Instead, I think of it as a remembrance. I hope that is okay with you. I am thankful for your boldness to speak out for your convictions, to stand in the face of power and be a dissenting voice. This is the wonderful heritage of the Reformation. But the shadow side, is that we feel empowered to break fellowship with other Christians whenever we disagree on something that we deem to be important enough. In some ways, it is hard to speak of the Church, any longer, but rather churches. It is even hard to speak of Christianity, because of the diversity of opinions of the meaning of the faith. This is not necessarily unequivocally bad, it is simply different, and brings with it new challenges.

On the difficult days, I sometimes wish that you hadn’t opened that Pandora’s Box, that you hadn’t put that train into motion. When I sit in church meetings or have letters come across my desk and people and churches talk of leaving and splitting and seceding for various reasons, it bothers me. I think that it hurts Christ when we do this.

But it is not all doom and gloom these centuries later. Steps have been taken toward healing. We have learned that we don’t have to agree on everything to agree on some things, and that we don’ t have to agree on everything to work together. It has been a long and hard lesson, but I hope that we can keep working on it. You have left us with important lessons, particularly the Three Solae which have become central in our churches.

So, in remembrance of Reformation Day, I am reading the Bible in my own language, I am praying directly to God through Christ, and tomorrow, our church will celebrate the Lord’s Supper and everyone will receive both elements. Later today, I will be going to a local pub and I will raise a pint to you, Martin. For although we broke the church, we can take comfort in the fact that ultimately Christ will gather the church into the glorious Kingdom of God.

Yours sincerely,

Matthew