Sunday, January 15, 2017

Jesus didn't come for the hometown team

Luke 4:14-30

It’s hard to preach to people you know well: Friends, family, people who remember you as the snotty-nosed little kid who was getting into trouble or the pimply-faced, socially-awkward teenager. When people know your history it is very difficult to outlive it, and when prophets have a history in a place it changes the dynamic of what a preacher is expected to say. Prophets are temporary; they are always just passing through; but when it’s the hometown kid something changes—the temporary and the forever collide and our expectations change. This is what happens when Jesus returns home to Nazareth. You can hear the adults—you know, those of Mary and Joseph’s age—saying things like, “Hey, look, it’s the little J-man, all grown up and going to read the Bible to us! Wow, isn’t he smart?”
            To some extent—and this is probably even more true in small towns and rural areas like Nazareth or Hallock—people are always seen as kids, no matter how old they are. This can be endearing and it can be patronizing. It can mean that the message they bring is not heard when it is spoken or never spoken for fear of what the elders think. I tend to think it is far more challenging for a person (especially a young person) to speak up in this community than in a big city, for example, because whatever message they bring will get wrapped in their personal history. Being a prophet to the hometown team is hard. Preaching the Christian message to those who know how flawed you were—and are—is nearly impossible, because the Christian message is not one of preference for people who look like me or sound like me. Jesus brings a message that tears through the hometown advantage. He doesn’t preach what the people want to hear but what they need to hear. He tells them the hard truth, which is that you aren’t any more special than anyone else. Not surprisingly, the people tire of this message quickly.
            We want Jesus to be on our team—and what could be wrong with that? Why wouldn’t we want Jesus on our team? If we were drafting a team of the most important people in our lives wouldn’t it be a good thing to include Jesus? There’s just one problem: Jesus doesn’t do teams. Jesus has preferences but not teams. And his preferences tend to look the same, which is a preference for the one who is in the greatest need, for the lost and the lowly and the powerless.
            This home-town phenomenon is pretty much the same today. We talked about prophets in Confirmation last Wednesday with the 7th and 8th graders and their parents, and we made up a list of all the people who might be modern-day prophets. Whenever we do this I’m struck that it begins to sound a little like we’re listing the people on our podcast playlist. For example, I might say that Wendell Berry is a prophet, but that may be because I rather like what Wendell Berry says. You might like what Mike Rowe says. Or you might like what Pope Francis says. Or you might like what Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders say. I don’t know. Does that make them a prophet? If Jesus and if any of our examples from the Old Testament are any indication the best way to tell if you are listening to a prophet is to ask yourself A) is this person preaching for the visitors rather than the home team, and B) is this person about to get his or her self crucified for what they are saying? If you can answer “yes” to those questions then you may be dealing with a prophet. People don’t like what a prophet has to say. People didn’t much like what Jesus had to say. Because of this, we are forever domesticating Jesus to fit our already-held beliefs. We make Jesus into our image. We tone down the harshness of the prophetic voice at least as long as the prophecy is aimed at us—the hometown team. We follow Jesus to whatever extent it makes us feel good about ourselves, but the moment it makes us question things we turn away

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Thanks be to God!

Good news. That’s what John the Baptist proclaims according to the Gospel of Luke. “I baptize you with water,” says John, “But one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” Then, Luke continues, “So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.”
            This Christian Gospel is a funny thing sometimes. We are people who will read something like this, or we’ll have a Gospel that ends with damnation for sinners to which we’ll respond, “The Word of the Lord! Thanks be to God!” We take a word of damnation and return it with thanks, which is very strange. It’s also strange that Luke’s proclamation about clearing the threshing floor and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire is, in fact, good news. It feels like news, for sure, but good news? Gospel? Is that what this is?
            One thing we do know is that good news looks different for us than it did for John the Baptist. After all, we have something that John didn’t—at least not yet. We have the promise not just of a Messiah who is coming but of one who was here—who is here—who came and died and rose again. We have Jesus. And that’s a pretty sweet thing to have. It’s the only reason we can respond as we do. Without Jesus, we could not read those words of judgment—those words of wheat and chaff—and respond, “Thanks be to God!” We couldn’t do it, because we would have no assurance that we weren’t the chaff, destined to damnation due to our imperfection. We know that we are both wheat and chaff, yet because we have one who threshes on our behalf, who separates us from the weight of sin and guilt we carry, even a word of judgment can be worthy of thanksgiving.
            Now, if you were listening closely to the reading you might be thinking, “Pastor, aren’t you ignoring John’s words that we are to be good people first, to give away our things and not to defraud? Isn’t that what this scripture is about?” Well, it is true, but what the scripture is about? Not really. Yes, you should be good people. Yes, you should give your coat to someone in need. Of course you should not defraud. You should definitely strive to be better. You should do your best to follow the laws given to Moses, those Ten Commandments. You should be good stewards of what you are given, period.
            But no, that’s not what it’s all about, because John’s advice—like the baptism he offers—is a this-world promise for a this-world solution. John commands that you be good because God has commanded it in order that we might live abundantly, but all of that stops in death. Moreover, our actions and our blessings are always going to be unfair; most will not get according to what they give. People who die don’t deserve it; many who suffer don’t deserve it. Some who seem like they probably do deserve it thrive all the same. John’s words are God’s command for us to have life; the obligation is for us as individuals but the reward is always plural. The promise is a promise for nations, but I don’t experience life as a nation; I experience it as Frank. You experience it the same, each through our own little point of view. And if we are suffering then it’s not that much consolation that the people around us are thriving. Our pain is not made much easier by the joy of others, even though that is precisely the promise that the law gives us.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

This is for you! A Christmas promise to shatter the darkness

Luke 2:1-20

“Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord!”
            The great thing about tonight is that I don’t need to preach—not really. I mean, everything tonight preaches itself. These are words that shatter the darkness where the shepherds are standing. Whatever I say is just pointing back at what angels have already given us. Then again, many who receive a great promise hear it suspiciously, as if it, like most things in life, are really too good to be true. Sometimes it’s not enough to hear the words; we have to actually believe and trust in them.
You see, the shepherds knew the words of the prophet Isaiah when he said, “You who stand in great darkness shall see a light” (Isa. 9:2), but who really thinks Isaiah meant that for them specifically? Which people actually believe they are the ones to whom God is speaking? Do any of us? Into a world of darkness comes this word: Tonight, a Savior is born for you! The reason I have to preach and the reason we need to do communion and light candles and all of this is because you need to hear these words tonight over and over again: this is for you. For every last one of you!
            We who stand in the darkness will see a light. There is a long history in the Bible with darkness. God created out of darkness. Genesis 1:1: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was wild and waste and darkness covered the face of the deep…” That’s where we always start: Sitting in darkness… waiting, watching.
            This has been our history: From the time before there were stars, before the sun, before the universe came—bang!—out of the mind of God into the reality we call “life.” This is the story we tell over and over again. Darkness versus light. Good versus evil. Dark is scary; it has a weight and a power to it. Deep darkness seems eternal, overwhelming, impossible to overcome. And, yet, the strongest darkness cannot match the tiniest flicker of light.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Mary knew

Luke 1:26-56

            This is the most wonderful time of year, isn’t it? Lights and presents and cookies and 20-below zero—hey, two of three ain’t bad!—and music! Christmas music! And Christmas music is a wonderful combination of all the best and the worst of all music. It’s the calm of “Silent Night” and the sweet ding-dong of “Carol of the Bells;” it’s the beautiful melodic canvasses painted by “Coventry Carol” and the joyful exuberance of “Jingle Bells.” It’s so much good stuff, and then it’s terrible songs like “Santa Baby” and “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”—just go ahead and write off any song with “baby” in the title—and it’s other smarmy music that I’m not going to list because odds are some of you love it and that’s your own opinion, and, hey, we all like some terrible things.
            But there is one song that has to be mentioned on this Sunday where we read Mary’s Magnificat, because the Magnificat itself is so stupendous and timeless and bold. Whether it’s Marty Haugen’s version we’re about to sing, “My Soul Proclaims Your Greatness” or the “Canticle of the Turning” or many-a-Vespers service, Mary’s words have been put to music in many magnificent ways I suppose largely because the lyrics are so good. But there is a bad apple—a little song that some of you love because it’s beautiful and Pentatonix does a great version of it and it’s got a lovely melody and soaring bridge. It sounds lovely; it’s just that the words don’t add up. I’m talking, of course, about “Mary, Did You Know?”
            Now before you call me the Christmas Grinch that I undoubtedly am I just have to point out one little detail that jumps off the page from the first chapter of Luke every time I hear this song. “Mary knew!” If anyone in the Gospels knew who Jesus was it was Mary. She might be the only one but gosh darn she knew! She got it. Her song is a testimony to a revolution that she sees coming even when others are burying their heads in the sand.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

The End of the Revolving Door

Joel 2:12-13, 28-29

            I just can’t believe in a God who… fill in the blank. We’ve all heard this. Somedays we probably think it. I just can’t believe in a God who…
            Of all the hard questions I get the toughest is the question of God and evil. It comes in many forms—the ones I just mentioned, “I just can’t believe in this kind of God…” or “But what kind of God allows this,” or just “Why?”
This feels apropos for the book of Joel, because Joel begins with lament over the destruction of Jerusalem and it’s fairly clear for Joel, as it was for all the prophets, that the “why?” of death and destruction is the peoples’ sinfulness. The people went astray. God punished them. That is evil explained for the Old Testament. This is the revolving door of history before Christ.
            Joel’s solution is that the people return to the Lord. Once they do that God will pour out his spirit on them and all, apparently, will be well in the world. This sounds great, in theory, but for those of us who’ve read the Old Testament you know it never seems to work out for long. The people chosen by God do eventually repent. They return to the Lord. But, before long, they turn again to their golden calves; they do what is evil in the sight of the Lord; they will forget the one who brought them out of the Promised Land. And so the revolving door continues. Evil, it seems, is very persistent.
            This kind of repentance-blessing, sin-punishment cycle runs its course while the chosen people are in exile. The prophets start to look for a different answer; a more permanent one. The old system just doesn’t work. East of Eden, people do not stay faithful. The expectations of the law are too much; they have short-memories and ravenous appetites. The chosen people and the unchosen people alike seem one and the same—sinful, through and through, capable of repentance, capable of returning to the Lord, their God, but ultimately bound for disappointment. What good is a spirit poured out that is dependent on our response when we inevitably fall short of God’s expectations for us? It is our flaw, born from our freedom that we stole from that tree in the Garden of Eden.

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.