Sunday, November 27, 2016

Just Hope: King Darius' Long Night (Revisited)

Daniel 6:6-27

I’m going to start this morning with two asides. First, every once in awhile I need to preach a message that is directly in contrast with what I just said in the children’s sermon. This is one of those times. I don’t like to do this often because it feels like I’m saying kids can’t understand and most of the time kids CAN understand. It’s just in this case, I think we need both messages. Kids need to hear that God loves them and cares for them and watches over them. Adults want to hear that, too. But part of growing up is putting aside a childish faith, even as we strive after a child-like faith. This means acknowledging a broken world of sin where the lions often seem to win. This is the angle from which I’m going to approach today’s message. So, basically, some of you will prefer the children’s message, which is fair enough.
            Secondly, I’ve preached on this story once before. I’ve been here long enough that now we’re going back through the lectionary for a second time, reading the same stories from four years ago. So, naturally, I go back and see what I preached on four years ago, and, on a Thanksgiving week like this, it was awfully tempting to see how much you remember from a sermon four years ago titled, “Just Hope: King Darius’ Long Night.” I don’t doubt it has been frequent bedtime reading for you all ever since. Thus, I present to you: “Just Hope: King Darius’ Long Night (Revisited).”
            OK, let’s get to business.
King Darius has a problem. He likes Daniel. Daniel was his personal dream interpreter, which was for Daniel, as it had been for Joseph once upon a time, a lucrative career that got him into the royal house. Daniel is well-liked, but he is also Jewish. This was not such a popular thing to be in ancient Persia, especially with Daniel in a political role that the other presidents and satraps were looking to undermine. This is a story that reminds us that religious motivations have been used as a cover for political ambitions across the wide span of history.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Grace is Strange, Unfair, and Offensive

Jeremiah 31:31-34
Luke 18:9-14

A sermon for Harvest Festival

I want to talk to you today about grace, because harvests are about grace… because all of this is about grace… because anything we can be thankful for comes to us by grace. We say that grace is “unmerited love” or a “free gift”, which is a start but not enough. So then we do what Jesus did: We tell parables about grace. Grace is like the lost sheep. The shepherd leaves the other ninety-nine unattended, risking their safety, for the sake of the one. Grace is strange. Grace is like the son who returns home after leaving the family and squandering his inheritance. Grace is unfair. Grace is like the worker who works the last five minutes of the day and receives the same wages as the one who was hard at work 9-5. Grace is offensive. Grace is for the tax collector, who knows he’s a sinner, and the Pharisee, who thinks he is righteous. Grace is: Strange, Unfair, and Offensive.
            Yet, grace is how God interacts with us. Jeremiah gives us a new covenant centered on grace. Jeremiah tells us that this promise—unlike the ones made with Abraham and Moses, which depended so much on how the tribes of Israel would respond—no! This new covenant is written on the hearts of the people; that they will be God’s people, God will be there God—that’s that! Grace is God saying, “You are mine, like it or not.” Grace does not revel in freedom and liberty but takes it from us, nanner-nanner boo-boo.
            And there’s the problem! We like freedom and liberty, but grace takes them away from us. Why?
I want to turn for a moment to a story from Luke’s Gospel of the Pharisee and the tax collector (or the publican, as some of you have heard him called) (18:9-14). It’s not the most well-known of parables so I’ll briefly run through it. Jesus tells us about a man, a Pharisee, who prays in a certain way. He says, “God I thank you that I am not like others are, greedy, unjust, adulterers—and I thank you especially that I am not like this tax collector.” Then Jesus tells us about that tax collector to whom the Pharisee is referring, who prays a different way. He says, “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.” That’s the parable. Jesus explains it like this. He says, “I tell you, this man (the tax collector) went to his house justified rather than the other: for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
            I want to talk about the new covenant through the lens of that parable for two reasons: 1. It shows us what grace really is, and 2. It should remind us why we have a harvest festival in the first place. It is by the grace of God that we gather today; not our own merits, not our hard work, not because we deserve it.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Think that you might be wrong: On listening and healing

Isaiah 6:1-13

“The holy seed is its stump.” Nobody knows what that last verse of Isaiah 6 means. Nobody. The commentaries, the online lectionary aides, Bible inserts and footnotes. Everybody says the same thing, “Meaning uncertain.” I mean, people have guesses. Of course people have guesses, but this is one of those phrases that just doesn’t seem to translate and, since ancient Hebrew is a dead language apart from what we have written of it, this is one of those meanings lost to history.
Of course, it should surprise none of you that I love this, because it’s deep and confusing and mysterious. I love that there are words and phrases that remain uncertain. I love that even the most legalistic Bible-reader cannot say for certain what everything means. I love this because it seems holy to me to have an ounce of humility about our faith. Jesus did say, “Blessed are the humble.”
I also love that this verse sits here at the end of chapter 6 when Isaiah’s message is about listening but not comprehending, looking but not understanding. The poetry here is beautiful—not only will you listen but not comprehend, you’ll do so right now. “The holy seed is its stump.” What on earth does that mean?
There’s also a part of me that must confess that I like that God tells people they won’t understand. I find people who are sure they know everything boring. Don’t you? Why would I have a discussion with you? You already know everything! I much prefer people who are always in wonder. They feel more honest to me, anyway. They also seem less fearful, less defensive. Those who have it all figured out feel dull, and I wonder if they aren’t already under the condemnation Isaiah speaks. I mean, how truly sad to live a life unwilling to listen and learn! It feels like its own punishment. That’s the first punishment God lays upon his people who have gone astray: He makes their minds dull; he stops them from using their senses—their eyes and ears. They don’t experience the wonder of God’s majesty, because they close their eyes and shut their ears.
Jesus quotes this passage in the Gospels. In fact, we read it at our Men’s Bible study on Tuesday morning, which was a complete coincidence and/or God-thing. Jesus was telling the disciples that the purpose of the parables is this: “That they may listen but never understand, look but not perceive” (Mt 13:14). Jesus revels in the mysteries of God’s kingdom. When people come to him and ask, “What is the kingdom like?” He responds, “The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed.” This is not clarity; it’s mysterious. It’s the kind of thing that takes reflection. It’s gray; not black or white.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Jonah, the very worst elected person

Jonah chapters 1, 3, 4

            We need Jonah. Oh, how we need Jonah. This, this is the good news we need.
            Jonah was a terrible preacher, a god-awful prophet. He’s so awful that, looking at the book as a whole, it’s probably satire. It’s probably meant to be funny, because—like with most satire—the situation is so extravagantly backwards that it feels like there’s no way this could be serious. Jonah receives a word from God: Go to Nineveh. So he goes… to Tarshish; literally the other side of the known world. If he could have crossed the Atlantic Ocean that’s what he would have done.. Other prophets try to get out of their commitment—see Moses and the burning bush—but nobody goes to quite the lengths of Jonah to run away from what God was asking of him. So, it’s no surprise when God sends a storm and threatens the ship in which Jonah is fleeing. The sailors convert in a heartbeat—this is one of the funnier aspects of the Jonah story: No prophet has nearly as much success as Jonah in getting converts. He hardly has to try; in fact, he DOESN’T TRY. He literally does not seem to care. And here is God working through his hard head.
            You see, I’m pretty sure Jonah is satire, but—with most good satire—it’s also very true. God DOES work through our hard heads and often the faster we run away the more God pulls us back. When Jonah finally gets to the Assyrians in Nineveh it’s with great contempt in his heart. He hates the Assyrians. He believes they deserved to die for their heathen ways. They were people who, in the words of Jonah, “did not know their right hand from their left.”
Into this mix, finally, walks Jonah, dripping in whale vomit, and he preaches a momentous five word sermon that is long on judgment and without any promise: “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” The Hebrew verb for “overthrow” is haphak, which could mean that the city will be overthrown or that it will turn and repent. What Jonah seems to intend for ill, God means for good.
Jonah’s message might be the worst sermon in history. He completely misses the important part; the part where he tells them on whose authority this message comes—the prophetic introduction that always begins these kinds of sermons where the prophet says, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel” or something along those lines. Jonah makes it sound as if the message is just his idea and he doesn’t really offer any alternative. This is not turn or burn; it’s more like “Burn, suckaaaaazzzzz!” Or, put another way, you have forty days to get your affairs before God’s mighty smiting. Sorry, chaps.
And, yet, to the ears of the Assyrians this was a prophecy of their repentance. Absurdly enough, they listen and obey without a second thought. The king even goes to the extravagantly unnecessary step of putting sackclothes on the people AND the animals of the city. I can imagine walking around the giant city of Nineveh with its one hundred and twenty thousand people along with goats and sheep all wearing potato bags.
Jonah has more success than any other prophet in the history of the world, and he didn’t even want it. In fact, when he sees the “success” he is having he starts pouting. He retreats to a hilltop to watch, begging God to do the people in anyway!
            Not only is he a terrible preacher; he’s pretty much the worst person. Let’s be honest—and I don’t say this lightly—Jonah sucks.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Reflect. Be humble. Find meaning. Be Lutheran.

Today’s reading is from 1 Kings. I wonder how much that means to you.
I don’t say that to be a crass jerk, either. I legitimately wonder, because today is Confirmation Sunday; it’s Reformation Sunday. Today we celebrate the 499-year tradition of our church, started by Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany. Five hundred years ago Christianity entered the Reformation and emerged as a faith much more accessible to all people, claiming that all of us are priests; every one of you. But that doesn’t mean that we know that much about the religious narratives we confess. Do you really know more about 1 Kings than football? Do you really care more about 1 Kings than the presidential election? Would you rather read the Bible or hunt for deer? Do you know more about your Bible or quilting?
Again, I don’t want to be crass, because being acquainted with the Bible is only a part what it means to be Christian, but if we don’t practice our faith how are we to confess it? I see a lot of diatribes on the internet on TV and in the paper about Christian commitments, but I don’t see an equal amount of investment of time and energy into prayer, study, and discernment of what it means to be a Christian. Most of the time I feel like people go on the internet looking for Bible verses to quote to make their point without ever having spent any time struggling, wrestling, or praying over the question first.
You don’t have time. I get it. But what do you have time for in your life? What is the story you are going to chase in this life? What is going to be your north star, guiding you into your future?
I ask this today because it’s Confirmation Sunday and I always wonder on Confirmation Sunday how we prioritize our faith or not. It’s a question not just for our confirmands; it’s for all of us: Where are you going to invest your time and energy? What, ultimately, matters? If you don’t ask the question, the world is going to decide for you. It’s going to tell you that what matters is how much you contribute to the economy, or what matters is how you vote, or what matters is your carbon footprint, or what matters is your vertical or your SAT score. Maybe those things matter, but what matters the most?
This is a much harder question today than it was for your parents, because they didn’t have this thing called the internet. So they weren’t told as persistently and aggressively about all the things they were lacking. They weren’t as easily distracted by all the narratives. Instead, they had time for this thing called self-reflection that we mostly can’t do anymore. Sadly, the lack of time to contemplate is an absolute disaster for faith communities, because this is a place that requires time spent listening for God’s voice.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Is it over yet?

            Is it over yet? Can we move on with our lives? I just can’t wait for it to be done. I just can’t wait for …
            Life is full of events like these. Exciting things we anticipate and can’t wait to experience, other things that produce fear and disgust, and still other things we are anxious to put behind us. I see a lot of looking forward to things and looking forward to getting past things, and then when we’re in the midst of something I see plenty of anxiety about how that thing is going. I just want to say: Stop. Stop letting future worries dictate your present.
            We’re wasting away our lives trying to get to and/or past the next thing, trying to escape the dreaded thing that’s coming, and then we are captive to nerves during the things that we have been anticipating. We worry, “What if it doesn’t turn out well in the end?”
            We need a break. And not just from the things that cause us stress. We need an outlook that allows us to move through stressful times without being overwhelmed, without letting the temperature of those around us affect us so much. We need some perspective.
            This is what spirituality has to offer. In order to be spiritual you have to be present in the here and now. You have to attentively listen for God in this moment right now. We spend so very much time not being present. We look forward, we try to escape; we don’t sit attentively much. We don’t navigate the stress; we let it dictate the course and then we respond. Stop responding. Start stopping and looking for God in the midst of all the stuff.
            I look at the way our kids play sports as a metaphor for how the rest of us live our lives. Actually, scratch that, it isn’t a metaphor, it IS how we live our lives, because our kids ARE living their lives and they are stressed out as can be. So, when they’re in a big game—define that however you will—you see in their nerves what that means to them. Those who cope better with stress are in the moment—they navigate—but others just react. In every aspect of your life you can be in the moment or you can be anxious and looking for resolution. It will define every interaction you have.
            The spiritual life is also about being self-aware. This has tremendous implications for how we see ourselves, because we hear competing messages in our faith life and our business/personal/family life. Are we trying to justify our lives based on our accomplishments, or are we trusting in God to justify what I cannot?
            So, here’s the thing about Election Day (because I’m guessing a lot of you are worried, anxious, fill-in-the-blank about the election right about now). It matters, but it doesn’t mean nearly as much as we build it up. The foundation of our lives is not our government but our God. The election matters… just not as much as you think. What matters more are the thousands of little things within your control. What matters is smiling, laughing, dancing, singing… what matters is playing, having fun, sharing stories… what matters is falling in love, making friends…  what matters is all the minutia of life that we miss when we wish things away.
            I hope you don’t wish anything away. We only have so much time and we just don’t know what tomorrow will bring. But, even more than that, I hope you don’t wish anything away because God so often meets us exactly in the place we are most dreading. This is the kind of God we’re dealing with and this God ain’t scared of anything, so trust in this God—not your feelings of anxiety or fear of what may come.
            Then, the question won’t be “Is it over yet?” but “It’s over already?”

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Make me a house? I'll show you a house!

2 Samuel 7:1-7

            Make me a house? God scoffs. A house? What kind of house will hold the Almighty? What house, pray tell, can contain me?! You want to make me a house but you know what? I’ll make you a house. A house not of brick and mortar, a house that matters; a line—a legacy—that will last forever. A house!? Pfft.
            There’s something wonderful in God’s response to David. It’s interesting, because God makes a covenant with David even though it doesn’t seem at first to add anything to the covenants made with Abraham and Moses. They still have the promise of land and a future and descendants, but now God hints at something better, something eternal, and it all has to do with this misstep David has in wanting to build God a house.
            Quick history lesson. Actually, this requires me to flash-forward a little bit. If this were a movie we’d have a dramatic underscore that shows what’s coming. Solomon, David’s son, builds the temple and maintains the line of kings. It seems, for a moment, that God’s promise really is about a physical building. But then the kingdom divides. There’s Israel and Judah, the line of kings breaks apart; eventually, it fails completely. The Jewish people are conquered by Babylon and the reign of kings over Israel and Judah comes to an end. We know, looking back at history, that the eternal throne of David cannot be the promise here; not if it’s an eternal one. There has been no king of Israel since the Babylonian captivity.
            So, what happened? Why did God make an eternal promise with people who can’t keep their heads on straight for a week? This is just about the one way human beings are consistent: We are brilliantly reliable messers-up. No good thing in history ever lasts very long, and certain things are just fated never to work out. Vikings fans know what that’s all about. Cubs fans are testing that hypothesis at the moment. Among the many hilarious tweets from the Cubs pennant winning victory last night was one that read, “Cubs fans: This feeling you’re experiencing is called elation. Don’t worry, it will go away.”