Category Archives: Sermons

The unfair mercy of God

Sermon originally delivered at Calvary Community Church in New Berlin, WI. Text: Matthew 20:1-16

“It’s not fair!” I would protest.

I am the oldest of three boys, and as is typical for siblings, and perhaps especially older children, I was hyper-aware to perceived unfairness.  It is almost this primal preservation instinct, that we have to compete in order to gain the things we need to survive. Of course, I was not arguing for something crucial for my survival, it was always something comparably trivial. 

This often happened when the two of us would fight, and we would both be punished. “But I didn’t start it!” I would say. “It takes two to fight,” they would reply. “But it’s not fair!” I would protest. “Life isn’t fair” would come the reply. 

These words would come to me regularly, “Life isn’t fair.”

As a child I never really understood what they were getting at, but as an adult I understand, and I am learning more and more with each passing year. We like to think that the way that we do things is fair. If you do the right things, you will be successful. If you are good at your job you won’t find yourself unemployed. Except this isn’t the way things work. Fantastic workers find themselves unemployed. People with college degrees find themselves in living a homeless shelter. People who live within their means can still find a foreclosure notice come through the mail. But we live in a society that has the illusion of fairness, and we hold up fairness as the peak virtue. But life isn’t fair, as my parents reminded me so often. Life isn’t fair.

And here we have a story which, if we are honest, rubs us the wrong way. It is a story which is unfair, incredibly so.

Jesus begins his parable with, “The kingdom of heaven is like…”

The kingdom of heaven is like a farmer who went out early in the morning to the town square, the marketplace, the place where day laborers gathered to wait for work. 

This story reminds me of John. John was a day laborer. Every day he would get up at four in the morning so that he could catch the bus, if he was able, or walk the few miles to the agency so that he could be there at five to try to find work that day. He would never know if there would be work, some days he would work. Other days he would go home without work. It is a true hand-to-mouth life. In many ways, this is not that much different today as it was then. Day laborers would gather at a central location and hope that someone would come and hire them.

So this landowner needs helpers, so he goes and finds some to work. The day goes on and he sees that he will need more workers and so he goes back, and finds people who had still not been hired, and so he hired them as well. He does this again, and again. He goes back in late in the day, one hour before the work day was done and finds more people there. “Why are you here?” he asks. We cannot see the world “idle” and think lazy.

These people needed work so badly they stayed there in the off-chance that someone would come and hire them. “Why are you here?” he asks them. “Because no one has hired us,” they reply. So he hires them and they come to work in his vineyard.

As is typical, by the time that the day is over, it comes time to get paid. It would have been typical to begin with the people who were there first, and pay them first, as it is only fair. But the landowner does not do this, he starts with those hired last, and he gives them a Denarius, a full day’s wage. I can only imagine how excited the people down the line must have felt. Perhaps they were calculating in their head. Maybe I would get five, six, maybe even ten denarii. 

He moves to those who had been there a few hours, and gives them also a denarius. I can imagine at this point people would begin to wonder exactly what is going on.

By the time that he came to the first to be paid, and he gave them also the day’s wage.

But it’s not fair! they protested. They only worked an hour and we worked all day in the heat and the sun, and you paid them the same as us! The landowner reminds them that he paid them what he promised, and that he chose to pay others the same. After all, they too have families to feed and mortgages to pay. 

You see, from the perspective of those trying desperately to find work but no one hiring them, but for the last hour of the day, this landowner was being merciful. But from the perspective of those who had labored all day, he was being unjust. They had worked longer, they deserved to be paid more. It isn’t fair. And it is true, it isn’t fair.

And I think that this is what bends our noses about this passage. Even though the first ones hired were paid what they were promised, no less, this fundamentally isn’t fair. People should get what they deserve, and what they receive should be in proportion to what they do, right? 


 This parable, like so many others, functions as a mirror for us. When we think we are on top we plead for fairness, but when we think that we are an underdog, we plead for mercy. When I’ve put in the long day under the sweltering heat, I want fairness, but when no one wants to hire me, and the weight of providing for my family weighs on my shoulders and I stay out, desperately hoping that someone will hire me, I prefer mercy.

I wonder, where might you see yourself in this parable? Are you one of the first laborers hired who worked long hours under the hot sun. Perhaps you are the one who found themselves fortunate enough to be hired, even as it seemed as though there might not be a place.

Perhaps you compare what is given to you with what is given to the others and find that you are left wanting. Perhaps you are so overwhelmed with gratitude at the mercy of the landowner.

Perhaps you can see yourself in both groups of workers. In fact, this is often the case, that we can find ourselves in not only one character but several, and from those different perspectives we can see things a bit differently, and we can learn more about what it says about who we are and who God is and who we are in relationship to God.


The most shocking lesson that we learn from this is that God isn’t fair. We like the idea of a fair God. We like the idea that we can choose what to do, or not to do. We like the idea that God will give us what we deserve, and reward us in proportion. But God is not fair, and this is a good thing. Why is it good? Because if God gave to us what we deserve we would be in trouble, we would never enter the kingdom of heaven, we would be lost. God is not fair, and this is the best news that one can learn. God is not fair, but God is merciful and gracious.

This landowner did not have to pay everyone a full day’s wage, but he chose to. Those who worked the longest were not cheated or shorted, they were given what was due to them. But the wideness of the landowner’s mercy showed when he gave to everyone what they needed.

The kingdom of heaven is like…a vineyard where God calls so many people and provides for their needs. This is a marvelous view of the kingdom of heaven, isn’t it?

But this is not just for that some point in the distant future. Indeed, Jesus preaches that the kingdom of heaven is at hand, and we know that the kingdom of heaven began with the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus and is slowly unfolding, slowly continuing its progress of renewing and redeeming all of creation until the final consummation, when all things will be made right.

So, Jesus is not telling this parable to tell people about heaven, Jesus is telling this parable to help them understand about their lives here and now as well, and what God desires of their lives. And so I wonder as well if there is a third role in which we can find ourselves, that of the landowner.

Jesus was not about saving souls but redeeming lives. Jesus is not interested in getting people into heaven when they die, but about transforming creation to reflect the original created order, and perhaps the land owner is a role for some of us to consider, to not be so concerned about fairness, but about mercy and grace. As a culture we are obsessed with fairness, because this is what we think to be the highest virtue — and we cannot even do this. But for followers of Christ, fairness is not the goal, fairness is the beginning point, fairness is crawling. Mercy and grace — this is what it is to walk. Mercy is fairness-plus-plus.

So, sisters and brothers, let us remember that God is merciful beyond comprehension, thankfully not dealing with us the way that we deserve, but dealing with us out of God’s immense love for us and for creation, giving us far more than we deserve or can earn. And let us remember that we, as the church, are called to be a foretaste for the kingdom of heaven, and that we, too, are called to show forth mercy and grace, and through our actions, others can see God.


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.


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.


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.

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.

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.

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.


The Ten Words

Exodus 19:3-7; 20:1-17


In the beginning, when God created, there was nothing, and God brought into existence, something.

But creation isn’t something that was, but something that is. Creation didn’t end with the explosion of light and life and existence, that was simply the beginning. In our story this morning, we are seeing another act of creation, the creation of God’s people as a liberated people an identifiable people.

Last week I mentioned that the story of the exodus is a pivotal point in the story of the people of God. This is the moment that God’s people are reminded of time and time again. We sometimes wonder why God doesn’t do big and amazing and significant things like this again, but the exodus is something which only happened once. We don’t all have to witness it, because we tell the story on down the generations. Memory is so significant to our faith, not our own individual memories, but our collective memory. Many times throughout scripture the people are told to remember. Many of those times it was to remember what God did in liberating the people.

But here the people are told to remember, or rather that they do remember, what God did to the Egyptians, and how God had brought God’s people to Godself. God liberated God’s people and here they are gathered at the foot of Mount Sinai, the mountain where God has chosen to assemble God’s people.

The first thing that God does is remind them that they saw what happened back there, and that God had brought the people to Godself. It is after this that God commands obedience. And then they are reminded that the world belongs to God, yet they are special. They are to be a people to reflect God to the world, in this covenant community, the world will see the ways and desires of God.

At this point God creates something new, God creates the nation that God promised to Abram. This was not the fullness of it, but this is the fulfillment of it. God reminds the people of what God had done and then laid the foundation for their life together.


The ancient people of Israel have not experienced freedom, they have been enslaved for generations. How are they to begin their new life together? How would they function together?

So often we see the Ten Commandments as simply a set of rules, a collection of don’ts. But in reality, what we have here is so much more than just a list of rules, it is the foundation of a new creation, the people of ancient Israel, the people who strive with God. The commandments that are given here, the ten words as they are sometimes called, enable freedom rather than hindering freedom.

So God speaks these words to Moses to bring to the people. These words are more than just a law as we understand it, they are more than a code of ethics, they are a guide in how God desires for God’s people to live. The are not for pragmatic and utilitarian reasons alone, but for reasons of peace and justice and goodness and wholeness. The commandments are not a series of rituals to be performed in order to gain favor, but they are one half that helped them to understand who they were in relation to God and one half that helped them to understand who they were in relation to one another.

This was a people who did not only have responsibilities toward the divine, but also to one another. In fact, God is greatly concerned with how humans treat one another. Thus, these ten words serve as the guide for the building of their new community, a guide to living in freedom.

This is, in some ways, a contrast to our cultural narrative of freedom. We see freedom as freedom from — freedom from tyranny, freedom from oppression, freedom from this or that. At times, we take it to the extreme and understand it to be freedom from norms and guidelines — don’t tread on me and all that.

But this is not the biblical way to understand freedom, this is not the freedom that God envisions for God’s people.

God envisions a freedom for.  A freedom for peace and justice, a freedom for living according to God’s desires, a freedom for witness amongst the world. Freedom from and freedom for, it’s only a preposition, but prepositions often carry so much weight.


This is to be a community centered in God, pledging allegiance not to a nation, not to a local deity, but this one particular God. It is a community that is to be dependent upon God as is evident from not putting faith in idols, not using God’s name for their own personal gain, as we so often do in the political realm in our nation, and trusting God enough to rest at least once throughout the week.


It is to be a community where families respect and honor one another, not because they agree or even like one another, but because this is how things are to be set up. It is a community that values fidelity in relationships and commitment, a community in which people are not to kill one another, people are to be truthful to one another in speech and action, and people don’t steal from one another or cheat one another, either by commission or omission, and people don’t have a deep set envy for what others have.

It is to be a community based upon faith in God, mutual respect and trust. If it works, it will be a utopia, a perfect society.

But as we know, it never turned out to be a utopia, and the people could not live their lives according to these ten words. Because of this, more words were added, the law grew, and grew. The law became a burden rather than a blessing, it began to restrict rather than liberate.

The law became a way to determine one’s sinfulness, one’s missing the mark. The law does not condemn, but serves as a mirror through which we can see our own sinfulness, our own need for redemption, our complete reliance upon God.


But is this the only value of these ten words? to order a society which never succeeded and to show us our own sin.

No, we cannot forget the grace that permeates these ten words. God gave the ancient people these ten words not simply so that they could be shown their sin, but truly that they would strive to fulfill them. This is how God desires for us to live. Indeed Jesus summed up these ten words, indeed all of scripture in two commands. Love God and love others. This is the center of all of it. The first five words help us to love God, the second five help us to love one another.

God was very aware that humans could not keep these ten words perfectly, God knew that this was not a realistic attainment on their own. In fact, if they could do it on their own they wouldn’t need these ten words in the first place. But people are not able to fulfill these perfectly, and people are broken. However, God never left it to people to fulfill these on their own anyway. This is why God instituted rituals of sacrifice and atonement and chose priests and prophets to help call the people to faithfulness and God continued to work, even from the beginning, to turn people toward God.

We always approach the Old Testament as people living in a post-resurrection world. We don’t have to go through the rituals of sacrifice and atonement, because we have one who atoned for us. But this does not make the Old Testament inapplicable. Remember, Jesus said that not one smallest stroke of the smallest letter of the law will pass away?

These ten words are at the heart of the entire law, and loving God and loving others is at the heart of these ten words.

These are not just to restrain evil, although it is that. These are not just to show us our sin, although it is that too. It is also a guide to help us in our living, we ought to strive to actually live these out, because this is what God desires. We are to live them out in the spirit rather than the letter. We get a glimpse into this when Jesus taught, “You heard it said…” that even if we hate someone we are just as guilty of murdering them. Even if we lust with another in our heart, we are guilty of adultery. If we pledge allegiance to anything other than the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, we are guilty of having other gods.

Although we have not had the experience of being an oppressed and enslaved people for generations, we, too, must still listen to how God desired for God’s people to live. Because God still desires for God’s people to live this way.

Sisters and brothers, hear what our gracious God is saying to us. These are not rules to restrict our freedom, they are ten gracious words to help us to have freedom for service to God, for life with God, for life as God’s covenant people. Jesus told his followers that they were the light of the world, a city atop a hill which  cannot be hidden. This is because we are to reflect God’s goodness, God’s grace and mercy, God’s shalom and harmony and wholeness through the whole of creation. God has redeemed our people, God has freed our people from slavery with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and God has brought us to Godself. If we will hear God, and obey, we will be God’s treasured possession, the pearl of great price.

God calls to you and to me, that we are redeemed, we are now to live into that redemption and to help others do the same.

Future Glory

My sermon from this past Sunday. Text was Romans 8:12-25.

Henry was a fellow that I knew on the South side of Milwaukee. Henry lived outside, underneath an overpass which went over the Menominee Valley. Henry was a good guy, he had a good heart. He, of course, had demons with which he fought. He drank to excess, he was almost always in a some state of drunkenness.

Henry smelled bad, due in part to the fact that he lived on the street, and due in part to the fact that after a bender, he would sleep where we fell. He had no one to bring him into bed, or to pull him into a bathroom, or to change his clothes. He wanted to give up drinking, he really did. But he didn’t. In the winter it is hard to sleep, and so Henry, like so many other people in a similar situation, finds that drinking helps him get some sleep at night when the mercury drops dangerously low. Additionally, things were so incredibly miserable for him, that drinking is the only way to numb himself to the pain of it all. So in trying to escape his problems, he caused a whole new set. And in doing so, he entered into a cycle of destruction from which he would never escape.

He would spend his days going canning, that is, going around the city collecting cans into big bags, he would have a couple of secret places to hide his stash, and then when he had enough he would turn it in for scrap. Some times it would only be enough to buy a 40, but there were many other times in which he would have some left over and he would usually give it to the church.

Typically we only think of the cold when we know of people who stay outside, but that isn’t even the most dangerous part, the most dangerous part is the continual risk that one is at when they sleep outside. Every night Henry would try to sleep not knowing if he would get mugged or robbed or killed during the night. He would often keep a club next to him while he slept in case he was attacked during the night. Several times this would happen, and he would find that his ID card and his money was gone. We can lock our doors at night, but when you sleep outside, there are no doors to lock.

Henry was also an easy target for people who go out looking for trouble. On days when he gets some money and he drinks, his reactions are slow and he would often get beat up, sometimes to steal from him, other times just for the sick enjoyment out of it. But in spite of all of this, Henry would walk around with his snow shovel in the winter and shovel walks in the neighborhood, and especially of people he knew, and during the fall he would often find a rake and rake leaves for others.

Henry was the last person to leave after lunch after the service. Many times he would fall asleep and sometimes this would be frustrating, but as I reflect on it, it became apparent to me that it would likely happen because in the church he felt safe, he knew that there were people watching over him, and he could rest in relative safety.

But we would have to wake him, and so often I was the one who would be charged with that task, and I would help him up the stairs, not only because he was intoxicated, but also because being in his late fifties and being on the street for the last decade, it took a toll on his body.

As we would walk up the stairs toward the door to send him out into the world, he would express his frustration at the way that he would try to help people and in return they would steal from him (he would carry around all of his worldly possessions in a ripped backpack) or beat him, or some other way take advantage of him.

He would express his sense of utter hopelessness, that he wasn’t sure if there was a future for him, and if there was it likely would not get better. Henry had a lot of demons with which he battled, but the most significant one was this sense of utter hopelessness.

Henry was in bondage to decay, as the apostle phrased it.

There are roses outside of my office window here at church, and I greatly enjoy looking at them. But after too long, they begin to darken, and it seems that they have been ravaged by insects and they can’t keep going. The roses which were once beautiful become wilted and eventually the petals fall off.

Buildings which are vacant for even a short time begin to fall apart, literally decay before our eyes.

We have experienced, in the recent past, very personal examples of how we are in bondage to decay. Our congregation has lost several people recently. We have lost friends and family members in our own lives.

When we are sick or hurt, and family members and friends try to cheer us up by assuring us that things are going to turn out okay, but you still have that ever present realization that you are in bondage to decay.

“For the creation waits with eager longing,” the apostle writes, “for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”

All of creation is in bondage to decay, and in some way, the earth knows this, the animals know this.

Not long ago I was standing by the kitchen window and there was a spider web outside right in front of the window. An insect had the misfortune of finding itself stuck in the web and it struggled to free itself from the sticky web that it cannot even see, to no avail. As it struggled, the spider masterfully walked along this web and approached the insect, and injected it with paralyzing venom, and once the thrashing stopped, the spider grabbed the insect and began the process of wrapping it in the silky fibers of the web.

Studies have shown that plants have a defense mechanism that releases chemicals when they are being chewed on that change the taste of their leaves so that they no longer taste pleasant. Recently a study was released that showed the same response when a recording of a caterpillar chewing on a leaf was played to the plant.

While this may sound strange, I think that the creation knows that it is in bondage to decay and it groans. The earth rips itself open with earthquakes, it hemorrhages lava from volcanoes. Hurricanes and tornadoes and floods and droughts damage and harm all that is, but these pains are not death pains, no they are birth pains. The creation groans.

And it groans because Creation waits with eager longing.  You see, it is not just humanity that suffers from the broken state of the world, but the creation itself suffers as well. In the third chapter of Genesis, which we often refer to as the Fall of Humanity, but it is not just the fall of humanity, but the fall of creation. In the curses that are pronounced on the serpent, the woman, and the man, God says to the man, “cursed is the ground because of you…” Adam and Eve sinned, but all of creation paid the price.

The creation is groaning in great pains, but they are not the pains of death, but the pains of birth.

The creation groans because it waits with eager longing. It may seem odd to think of birds and ants and trees looking forward with longing, but is it so strange?

In scripture trees rejoice (Ps 96:12), floods clap their hands (Ps 98:8), the wilderness can be glad (Is 35:1), mountains and hills can burst out into song (Is 55:12), and stones can shout (Lk 19:40. Why should not birds and trees and roses and insects look forward with longing?

The creation groans, but not only this, but we also groan inwardly while we wait for redemption, for restoration. After all, our bodies are still subject to death.

“I consider that the sufferings of this present time,” the apostle writes, “are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.”

You see, it is not just the sorry state of our present condition that the apostle so beautifully speaks, if that was all he was trying to get across, he would be preaching to the choir, as the saying goes. You see, Christians live in a world between worlds. Sometimes theologians will refer to this as the “already but not yet” It is the idea that with Christ redemption has already come and restoration has already begun but these have not yet fully arrived. It is a time of tension, it is a time of upheaval, in a true way, it is a time of cosmic revolution.

And it is important that we live in this tension, and neither become too “this worldly” that we forget that there is something more than what we can see or touch or experience, or become too “other worldly” that we forget that this life has meaning, this life is not just a waiting room, but this is the only life that we have. After all, this is not waiting for the main event, this is the main event. The new heaven and new earth is not the goal, it is the rest which comes after a life well lived, a race well run, a journey well trod.

So we must remember the hope that the apostle gives us, “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.”

So while it is true that this is the only life that we will live, and this life is in bondage to decay, we must also remember that this is not all that there is from a cosmic view. There will be a point of restoration and redemption when all of creation will be loosed from its bondage and will be granted so great a glory, of which all of the great sufferings in this present world cannot even compare.


I wish that I could tell Henry that things would get better. There were times when he would sober up and clean up, and it was wonderful to see him in a better condition, but he couldn’t stay that way for long. I wish that I could tell him that if he sobered up that things would get better, but I didn’t know that. It was very likely that Henry would stay in this destructive cycle and eventually it would be the death of him.

And it was. After years of living on the street, of drinking so much, of being in and out of the emergency room from freeing cold, illnesses, and all the rest, he ended up dying after a short stay in intensive care.

And now, he can live into the hope that I had for him, that beyond the sufferings of this present time there would be immense glory, and there would be a time when he, along with all of creation, would be freed from this bondage to decay and can be restored to the glory for which we were originally intended. And this is what is in store for each of us, and the roses and insects and plants. Thanks be to God.