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

 

 

Blessed are the Autumn Daisies

Long after the trees have dropped their leaves, and the canopy of green becomes a jagged collection of branches reaching upward toward the disappearing sun, long after the geese have ceased honking and the birds have stopped their morning songs, long after the bushes begin to blaze but are not yet consumed, long after the patch becomes nothing but green stems without any sort of beauty, the autumn daisy blooms.

***

Autumn has always been a significant time for me. It is a time of transition. The leaves die and fall off, and the trees, which not long ago were thriving, look dead. Once the leaves have fallen it is nearly impossible to look and tell the dead trees from the live trees.

Flowers which brought forth color into the world have all wilted and died, leaving nothing behind but stems and a corpse.

Autumn is a time in which it is evident that we are in the midst of a broken world. The colors are beautiful, to be sure, but the beauty is fleeting, as each leaf which turns into brilliant reds and yellows and oranges are in throes of death. It is a transition that happens every year, and while I know that spring will be coming, and these very trees will bud and the flowers will once again bloom, there is a long and cold winter filled with ice and snow which covers all with which to contend.

Yet in the midst of the cooling temperatures and the ever decreasing sunshine and the clouds which cast a gray haze over all, something unexpected occurs, in the midst of the daisy patch when all of the flowers have given up their energy, one more blooms.

***

I never cease to be amazed at the resilience of the natural order. Trees which have cracked and have fallen down continue to grow and bloom, small and comparably weak blades of grass can burst forth through the concrete of a parking lot which has been vacant for only a short time, and dandelions, although they are mowed over again and again, are determined to finish their mission and go to seed.

And when all the other daisies have bloomed, when the bees are gone, when the temperatures turn cold, and there has already been a layer of frost, when the sunshine can no longer be reflected in its golden centers and white petals, a daisy shines like the sun in the midst of a gray autumn day.

***

There are days when I find it hard to face the world, days when I can relate to the trees which have let their leaves die and have dropped them, and they hunker down, and prepare for the lang haul. When the light lessens and the darkness grows, I, too, have the instinct that the rest of nature has as it begins to den and hibernate for the duration.

But I cannot do this, even when the days are difficult, even when the darkness is difficult, even when the world which I must face is harsh, I catch a glimpse of the daisy beaming in all of its glory, amid the dead leaves.

Blessed are the autumn daisies, for they point to life when it is difficult to find.

After God’s Own Heart

A sermon delivered to Calvary Community Church in New Berlin, WI

2 Samuel 12:1-9

We fast-forwarded quite a bit through the story of scripture. We moved through the book of Judges, which describes the early life of the Israelites in the land. Rather than a unified nation, at first they were a loose confederation of tribes, and when a crisis occurred, God would raise up these leaders, known as judges. This book is where we meet Deborah and Samson and Gideon.

In the early days, the people did not have a king like the other nations, as God was their king. But the people were not happy with this, and they clamoured for a king, all of the elders came to the Prophet Samuel and asked for a king to govern them, like the other nations have. But God doesn’t like this, as they are rejecting God as their king, and so Samuel warns them of all the things that will happen when they have a king like the nations do. But they are undeterred, and they desire a king. Samuel anoints Saul as king, and that didn’t turn out swimmingly and then Samuel anointed David as king.

Throughout much of 1 Samuel, we see David’s ascent and Saul’s demise. However, although we are told in 1 Samuel that David is “a man after [God’s] own heart,” David was certainly not above reproach, and his actions were far from consistently noble.

***

It was Spring and kings usually go out to war, but David stayed in Jerusalem. So late one afternoon, David was walking on the roof of the palace, and looked into the courtyard of one of the homes, and saw a woman engaging in her ritual bath. David inquires as to her identity, and sends people to go fetch her, to seize her, to carry her away from her home and take her to the palace. So after David had his way, he became pregnant. Something that the great King of Israel needed to cover-up.

So first, David calls Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband, back from the battle lines, to send him down to sleep with Bathsheba so that no one asks any questions, but the problem is that Uriah is so dedicated to his king, that he would not go to his home and his wife. This didn’t work. So David sends Uriah back with a note, a note that would order his death. David sent Uriah to the front lines of the battle, in the hardest fighting, and for the rest of the army to fall back so that Uriah would die.

So in David’s efforts to cover up his transgressions, he has killed one of his loyal soldiers.

But just as David thinks that he has covered all his bases, and have the secret confined to him and Joab, his commander. But God saw what David did and was displeased. God sent the Prophet Nathan to confront David on it.

Now, it was a risky thing to confront the king, often times there are court prophets around which would tell them what they want to hear, to oppose the prophets which speak from God, and are not always saying pleasing things. It could be a risky thing for a prophet to confront a king, after all, they are the king and generally kings don’t like to be confronted.

So Nathan confronts David. But how to help David see what he did? How can he ensure David will listen and get the point?

It is often easier to see the faults in others than it does ourselves, we can pick out others point out the speck in our neighbor’s eye while we still have a plank in our own.

Nathan approaches David with a parable, a story, a fable. Some way that Nathan can remove David from the picture for a bit for illustrative purposes. So Nathan tells this story which is so incredibly and objectively unjust. The injustice of this situation is not an opinion, it is a fact.

Nathan tells this story of a rich man with many flocks and herds, and a poor man with one little ewe lamb who was beloved and part of the family. But the rich man needed to prepare food and not wanting to sacrifice one of his own took the poor man’s lamb, that was almost like a daughter to him. There is no way that this could seem to be just, and David knew it. He knew it was so unjust that he became enraged.

But Nathan took David’s anger and turned it around, “You are the man!” It is only two words in Hebrew, but these words pack a punch. You are the one who had committed this injustice, Nathan tells him. Nathan then speaks for God, and speaks of all the things that God has done for David, and yet he had committed this great evil.

***

But the great King was able to see himself, was able to see what he had done. After God finishes pronouncing judgment on David and his house, David does not argue with him, he does not rationalize it, he does not try to argue why he is different from the rich man in this parable. The blood drains out of David’s face, and his heart sinks into his stomach, and the only words that he utters, “I have sinned against the LORD.”

Tradition, then, holds that David composed a psalm in response to this.

Have mercy on me, O God,
  according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
 blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
  and cleanse me from my sin. 

For I know my transgressions,
  and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned,
   and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence
  and blameless when you pass judgement.
Indeed, I was born guilty,
  a sinner when my mother conceived me. 

You desire truth in the inward being;
  therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
  wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
  let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins,
  and blot out all my iniquities. (Psalm 51:1-9)

***

I wonder, though, if perhaps David being a man after God’s own heart speaks not to his perfection and constant uprightness, but rather to his honesty about reality.

John Calvin, in the beginning of his central theological work, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, wrote this: “Nearly all wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves” (I.1.i). After all, we must first grasp the brokenness of our situation, so that we can seek healing in the Triune God. If we spend time rationalizing our faults, if we spend time arguing why we are less bad than the “other” guy or gal, if we spend our energy in showing how our sins are not really all that bad, we have little need for the healing power of God.

A few weeks ago, we read the Ten Commandments, or the Ten Words, and we discussed how this serves, in part, as a mirror for us, so that we can see our sins, see our faults, see our shortcomings. The point of this is not so that we can see ourselves as bad, or as failures, but so that we can seek after God, and pursue the healing power of Christ, who can right our wrongs, who can heal our brokenness, who can cover our blemishes.

David was so caught up in what he was doing that he lost perspective for a bit, he lost the fact that it the issue was not only his public image, but also his life before God. David spent so much time trying to cover up his wrong by committing other wrongs, that he forgot that from God there is no hiding, there is no covering up.

So Nathan came to David to hold up a mirror, and David had enough humility to look clearly into this mirror.

We often think of humility as thinking less of ourselves. When we hear humility, we often think that we have to think the other better than us, or we must think of ourselves as worse than the other. We have to always defer to the other. This, of course, is not true humility.  Humility is not thinking less of ourselves, it is not seeing ourselves as less important or valuable or smart, or anything else than another person.

True humility is understanding the truth of who we are in God’s eyes. On the one hand, then, we ought not be too puffed up with pride, after all, we are creations, not gods. On the other hand we ought not to think too little of ourselves because we remain God’s beloved children, the people for whom Christ came into the world — lived, died, and conquered death.

The humility here that David exhibited is not that of self-flagellation, but rather that he could see the truth of what he did, that he could take a step back, look in the mirror, see his transgressions, and then approach God for forgiveness. Perhaps, then, the fact that David was a man after God’s own heart refers not to his perfection but to his humility, his ability to see the truth of things.

***

And this is to what we are invited as well, we are invited to see the truth of our situations, to look in the mirror and see our own shortcomings, we are invited to see the plank in our own eyes. We are invited into this not because we are unworthy, not because we are bad or evil, we are invited into this because this is the first step toward healing, the first step toward wholeness. Understanding that we are broken and need redemption.

God helps us to see our shortcomings not because God wants us to see ourselves as bad, but rather because it is through this that we can be invited into something better.

I often say that God meets us where we are, but loves us too much to allow us to stay there. Sin is not bad because it violates some sort of law that we agree is wrong. Sin is bad because it disrupts the good order that God had designed, it adds dissonance to the perfect harmony which God originally envisioned, and which will be returned.

God had bigger things planned for David, things which were disrupted when David began this awful sequence of events.

There is a long Christian tradition of the daily examen. This is where one takes time each day to reflect on the day, to take a step back and look at what happened, look at where we saw God at work, look at where we could have followed God but didn’t. This is a way for us to live intentionally with God, this is a way for us to practice true humility. This helps us to gain perspective.


God invites us into something greater, greater for you and for me. God invites us into a peace, into a wholeness, into a harmony. We won’t get there completely on this side of the veil, but in Christ, the world has begun making steps, redemption has come, and it is slowly enveloping the world. This harmony, this wholeness, this peace has arrived, just not yet in its fullness. We as the body of Christ, are called to live into this redemption and restoration that we know is coming so that we can be, for the world, a foretaste.

On Litmust Tests and a Fractured Witness

In my corner of the Bible Belt, nothing is discussed more than human sexuality. One’s views on human sexuality is the way that we have come to judge the sincerity of someone’s faith, the strength of their orthodoxy, and the commitment of their discipleship. This is what search committees ask potential pastors to separate the faithful clergy from the apostate, this is what Christians ask one another to separate the wheat from the chaff. In my experience, the church spends an inordinate amount of time talking about sex: who can do what with whom and when. Somehow one’s view on human sexuality, particularly as it relates to LGBTQ folks, has become the litmus test for orthodoxy.

How did we get here?

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

…and while you’re there, read some of the other great content by a talented team of writers

From Beyond the River

Joshua 24:1-28

God comes to Abram with no apparent reason, makes a promise that God will bring forth from Abram a great nation which will be blessed so that they can be a blessing to all the world. So without any recorded hesitation, Abram goes, as God told him, to the land which God will show to him. When he enters into the land of Canaan, he stops at Shechem, It is at this point that God promised to give all of this land to Abram’s descendants. Abram then builds an altar to God, a monument, marking this as a holy place, a place of worship, a sanctuary.

We find ourselves many generations later and at the same place, at the edge of the promised land, at the time known as the land of Canaan. This is a generation after the people had been liberated from Egypt.

When they were enslaved in Egypt, they were mistreated and they cried out and God listened and saw and called Moses to the task of serving as God’s envoy. Many signs were performed and Pharaoh finally released the Hebrew people, but shortly thereafter Pharaoh regretted this decision and he and his army pursued the ancient Israelites, who found themselves trapped between an advancing army and a sea. God reached out God’s hands and held back the waters so that God’s rag-tag group of people could cross to freedom.

Almost immediately, the people began grumbling, after all, they needed food, certainly a legitimate need and complaint. So each morning, God gave them food, enough for each day, but not only this, but God gave meat to them to eat in the evening. But not long after this, the people needed water, which is also a legitimate complaint. God told Moses to strike his staff upon a rock, and then water came forth.

God dwelt amongst them in the tabernacle so that wherever the people went, God journeyed with them.

The people get to the brink of the promised land, and they send a few spies to see the condition of the land, the people who lived there, the conditions of their cities, and anything else they could find. After forty days, the spies return and speak to the beauty and fertility of the land. They also said that the people were strong and the cities were well fortified. The people again began to complain and long for slavery in Egypt, continuing to suffer from the disease of nostalgia.

Throughout their time, thus far, they would often speak of how they wished they were in Egypt, forgetting that the good ol’ days were not all that great. But this time was different. They actually began to make work of returning to Egypt, and the selected captains and organized themselves into companies to go back. While they were packing up, God became angry, after all, God had freed God’s people, led them through the wilderness, fed them, gave them water, brought them to the edge of the land that God had promised to their ancestor Abraham, and after all this they begin to make work of returning to slavery in Egypt. God determines that not a single person that walked out of Egypt, not a single one, except Caleb, would see the promised land. God would not kill them, after all, God is merciful, but God would continue to teach them trust and faith in the classroom of the wilderness.

***

So here we stand, Moses has finally died, and the people have crossed the Jordan River and have taken hold of the land.

After the ancients entered the land, after the tribes have been given their portions of the land, after God had given rest to both the Israelites and the Canaanites, “a long time after” as scripture reads, Joshua is old and near death, and he gathers everyone, all the Israelites at Shechem. The place where Abram was promised the land, the place where Abram built an altar, the sanctuary that Abram built.

The significance of this place would not have been lost on all the ancient people. they did not, as of yet, have a book, but they did have stories, and these stories about God and God’s people were told over and over again. The assembly would have recognized this place, where the aged Joshua called them to gather for his farewell address.

So Joshua speaks to them and begins at the beginning. “Long ago your ancestors—Terah and his sons Abraham and Nahor—lived beyond the Euphrates and served other gods.”

Gods of a place, gods of prosperity, gods of fertility, gods of good health and fortune. These other gods were bound up with their identity and it was understood that to be a good citizen meant serving these other gods. Here the people are reminded that Abram was no different than all the others. Abram wasn’t particularly special in his faith and practice, Abram did not come to faith in this one God on his own, no, Abram lived far off beyond the Euphrates and served other gods. But God took him “from beyond the river.”

The people are reminded again, they are told, again, this “old, old story” of what happened. The people are reminded them of God’s great deeds to them throughout the journey throughout the wilderness. God speaks to them, “I took, I gave, I sent, I plagued, I did, i brought, I brought, I handed, I destroyed, I rescued, I handed, I send, I gave…” Here the people are reminded of the things that God had done for them. In light of all this, the people are called to fidelity to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

The people could not be confused here, because Joshua does not speak of god in general, but rather, the specific God. Anytime you see the word “LORD” in caps or small caps, this is the divine name. God’s specific name. My name is Matthew, God’s name is often referred to as the tetragrammaton, the four letters, four letters which we translate into English as YHWH. It is not printed because of the long tradition that the average person is not fit to pronounce God’s name, we are not on a first name basis with God. So here, it is very clear that when Joshua tells them to serve the LORD, it is not to be confused exactly which god of which he was speaking, it was this particular one.

And so here, at Shechem, we have come full circle, the promise to Abram so long ago has been fulfilled. And so all the people stand, with the Euphrates behind them, the Promised Land ahead of them, standing at Shechem. The people stand, their past behind them, their future ahead of them, standing in the present, at the place, symbolically showing the promise to be fulfilled. Where once a man stood in a foreign land, now a nation stands in a land which is now theirs.

And Joshua says to the people, in the words of Bob Dylan, “You’re gonna have to serve somebody.” It is important that Joshua invites them to look over their shoulder at their past, look ahead to the future, and to remain in the present. Joshua is calling them to account, right now, they will have to determine whom they will serve, because “you’re gonna have to serve somebody.

But, Joshua tells them, if you will not serve the LORD, choose whom you will serve, because you have to serve somebody.

If you will not serve the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, then serve the gods of your ancestors behind you, before the LORD took your ancestor from beyond the river. Or, serve the ancestral gods of their new home.

You have you choose who to serve, Joshua told them, the gods whence you came, or the gods here. Because “you’re gonna have to serve somebody.” I, I am committed to the LORD.

But yet this is not even the climax of the story, the high point comes when the people proclaimed that they, too, will serve the LORD.

***

This is a riveting story, a story which is in our past, but is also a story in which we find ourselves. The Bible is not just a story, but it is the story in which we find ourselves.

So Joshua not only called the ancients to gather at Shechem, but also calls to us.

We gather and we, too, are told, “you’re gonna have to serve somebody.” We don’t have named gods from across the river or from a place, in the same way. But we have things that serve that function. We, too, have various gods which we sometimes serve. Maybe it will be the nation, or maybe it will be money or ourselves. We have to serve somebody, and we, too, are called to make a commitment to whom we will serve, will we go back across the river? Will we adopt the gods of the place? Will we serve the gods that promise health, wealth, prosperity, safety, security?

We can adopt the gods where we find ourselves, gods which we can see, gods which are supposed to bring us good things, or we can serve the God who called us, chose us, and journeyed with us through the good times and the difficult times.

***

As we stand in the present between the future and the past, Joshua calls to us to choose whom we will serve. This isn’t about in whom to believe, this is not about whom to accept into one’s heart, this is not about some kind of personal savior. Joshua asks them whom they will serve. To whom or what will you dedicate your effort and energy? To whom or what will you make sacrifices? On what hill will you die?

So Joshua comes to us and asks us not to accept Jesus into our heart as our personal savior. This is not a biblical way to understand it. Instead Joshua asks us whom we will serve. Will it be the gods from across the river, or the gods from this place, or the God who has fulfilled God’s promise, the God who has nurtured us and journeyed with us.

“You’re gonna have to serve somebody”, so let us serve the God who brought us from across the river, from our former life. Let us serve the God who brought us from beyond the river.  Let us serve this God not just with our hearts, but with our minds and our actions, and our lives.

You can only serve one master, as Jesus reminded us. and “you’re gonna have to serve somebody,” so we must ask ourselves, whom will we serve? This is not just a question that comes once, but many times. Many situations come to us and we are given this opportunity. We cannot give lip service to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and then serve these other gods with our actions. We cannot simply get carried off in emotion and make inconsiderate promises. Will we choose the nation, or money, or our house or possessions, ourselves or the Packers?

Or will we serve the God who guides us and tabernacles among us?

We may not see the fulfillment of these promises in our incredibly short individual memory, or even with our lifetimes, but this is why, again and again, we tell this story of what God has done in the past, because it is only through the telling of this story we can remember that God had brought us from beyond the river.