Sunday, December 2, 2018

Prophet of death--prophet of hope



Last week, we read from Jeremiah, who brought a message for those of us who have some power—to care for the immigrant, and the widow, and the orphan. Well, this week, we turn to Habakkuk, who is bringing a message of hope for those same folks who are oppressed. But… it might take some time.
I often think about what it would be like to live in the times of the prophets. Let’s say you hear this message from Habakkuk. You’re an Israelite living in the Promised Land six-hundred or so years before Jesus. The Babylonians are beginning their march toward the place where you live. Things moved slow in those days—it might be years until they got there—but you know when they arrive it’s going to be bad. So, you’re a Jew living in the land promised to you by God, knowing that within your lifetime outside invaders are coming to take it away, and everything you have—your property, your work, your place of worship—is going to be taken from you. And into this anxiety comes a prophet, in Habakkuk, preaching a message that says, “There is hope, but it may take a while.”
Now, imagine you can see the future and know that that hope is coming in six hundred years. Not only will you not see it—neither will any of your children, or grandchildren, or anybody else in living memory. By the time that hope arrives, you will be forgotten. This is the context of Habakkuk. It’s all going away, and it won’t be made right for a long, long time.
Frankly, this is why I get so agitated when people read from Jeremiah and pull out that one verse (Jeremiah 29:11) and talk about God knowing the plans he has for us and giving us a future with hope, because the prophets are talking about the same thing here! This is hope for a nation. It is hope for a telos—God’s ultimate purpose for creation. It is not a promise that life will be peachy in the meantime or that everything that is happening is according to God’s plan. This is, in fact, the opposite of what the prophets are preaching. They are telling us that things are most definitely NOT happening according to God’s plan, and that’s why the nation is being displaced, and anxiety is rampant, and this hope is far, far off. The prophets are saying that things are, in fact, really bad, and the hope we have is not one for this world, because most of us won’t see it.
At first this doesn’t feel like a better kind of hope. I can understand why we want God to tell us that it will all work out for us in ten years, because we want to experience that telos on this side of death. We want to see our children and grandchildren fulfill our hopes for them. It’s perfectly natural to give God our timetable. The problem is that it doesn’t always happen that way.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

God keeps sending prophets for some reason

Jeremiah 7:1-11

Most of the time when I go back and read the sermon I preached on certain scripture four years earlier, there’s not much I want to reuse. Too much has changed—mostly, I read myself four years ago and think, “Man, that’s really not what I feel compelled to say today,” and sometimes I think, “Boy, was I an idiot.” However, today, I found some nice notes on Jeremiah 7 and a sermon with three themes from four years ago, which I am not going to re-use… not completely.
Theme 1: Generational warfare, Theme 2: Who is the alien? and Theme 3: A loss of monoculture is messy but also good.
            I can easily preach on those again today. #1: Generational Warfare. Not a week goes by that I don’t hear about millennials killing some industry. Yesterday, it was that millennials are killing the turkey industry by cooking smaller turkeys. Business Insider is keeping a running tally of things millennials are killing, including eating out at restaurants, starter homes, beer, and napkins. Personally, I think half the things millennials are killing deserve to be killed, but that’s maybe just because I am one. On the other hand, not a week goes by that I don’t hear fellow millennials complaining about boomers. Millennials are lazy; boomers are the worst—pretty much the usual stereotypes. Sometimes, I want to point out to people that generations create the next generation, ya know? So if one generation is terrible it’s maybe because they were raised to be that way, but whatever, that’s neither here nor there. Yep, generational warfare is alive and well, and Jeremiah is low-hanging fruit for a millennial who might want to point out that God calls the ones who are too young—or too old. So, I’ll let that be for now.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Not life, liberty, and happiness; but justice, kindness, and humble-walking

Micah 6:6-8

Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly with God.
It starts with justice. Wow, justice. This is one we have a hard time wrapping our heads around. We live in the country with the most prisoners in the world—with over two million people locked away. What is justice for us? And as a country who celebrates Veterans Day but so often fails to provide adequate services for veterans upon their return to society, what does it mean to do justice? For that matter, when we talk about justice, are we talking about criminal justice? Is it God’s justice, or is it something else?
I think we need to jump to the end of this passage from Micah in order to get at this question.
Walk humbly with God—now there’s the pivot point for the entirety of the ethical Christian life. What does it mean to walk humbly with God?
In Philippians 2, it says that Jesus “humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” I think that’s the best example we get of what it looks like—humble-walking means walking toward the cross. Be obedient not to the powers of this world that tell you it is this way or that—black or white—left or right—red or blue. Instead, humble yourself, trusting God far more than you trust your judgments.
We are told in a million ways every day of our lives that the world out there is black-and-white; it is me versus them; good versus evil; and—funny—I’m always the good one. Humble-walking with God requires us to see we are not just victims but perpetrators. It’s not relativism; it’s not saying everything is the same and the world is grey. Rather, it is saying that everything is far more colorful than I gave it credit, and I can’t possibly understand it all. I won’t understand every nuance of what it means to be human; I won’t be able to put myself in your shoes—never completely. So, I will choose to fear God, rather than other people; I will choose to fear my own capacity for evil, rather than things I don’t understand. Again, humble-walking is trusting God more than I trust my judgments.
This judging—that’s the problem. It’s hard to be humble and to do justice at the same time, but in order to live in this world we have to make judgments—both snap judgments and those carefully considered. How can we judge not, lest ye be judged, be humble, and still get by in this world? That’s the question.
In order to get at that, I want to talk a little about my family:

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Politics, Cynicism, and the Foolishness of Grace

2 Kings 5:1-14

The books of Kings takes place in a time that’s a bit depressing to look back on, to be honest. It was a time when people assumed the worst of one another, when leaders led through threats of violence, when poor nations were ravaged by the rich and their people were turned into politic tools, when entire nations became refugees, and most of all, this was a time when everybody in leadership assumed the worst of one another. Good thing none of that happens today!
In the days when Naaman was a commander of the army under Aram, the world was predicated on violence. The law of the day was the law of the sword. It was very much a game of thrones world out there. This is dream world for the military leaders, who could freely judge one another with suspicion, and justify themselves based on conquests alone. Leadership in that age was defined more or less exclusively by how many battles you won and how many people you killed. It was a world of “us versus them.” In a world like this, what room is there for a prophet? Well, Naaman is going to have to find out, because Naaman is in need of healing, and no amount of war is going to solve that.
            The world in which Naaman lives is the worst of the world that we live in today. It’s a world that assumes violence is justified, politics means doing whatever it takes to make your side “win,” and that the only thing that matters is power. It’s a hard world to combat through persuasion, because it becomes a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. Suspicion breeds suspicion, and pretty soon we assume that everybody is just like me—suspicious and cynical and out for themselves. Then, nothing else matters, because—if we assume everybody is the devil-incarnate—we can elect whatever leaders we want, even those who exemplify the very opposite traits of what it means to be a Christian in the world. Meekness and humility have no place in politics, we might believe, because we have made it so—because we have hardened our hearts and assume the worst of everyone.
I don’t have any advice on how to vote in such a world, but I do know this: The kingdom of God is not like this. Not at all.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Wisdom is knowing yourself--and that you're not that wise

1 Kings 3:4-28

Solomon is famous for his wisdom, so I figured on this Confirmation Sunday that I would talk a little bit about wisdom, since that’s something we could all use a bit more of.
            For Solomon, wisdom might have been a gift from on high, but for most of us, wisdom is something learned. It requires practice, discipline, and time, which is why many of our elders are so wise. They’ve had a lot of time to practice wisdom, and they’ve done a lot of listening in their lives. But age is also no guarantee of wisdom, because it doesn’t just come to us through osmosis—and it doesn’t come randomly either. Instead, the wise possess a few traits—actually, more or less the same traits that Jesus talks about on the Sermon on the Mount. He said: “Blessed are the poor… the mourners… the meek… those who hunger and thirst for righteousness… the merciful… the pure in heart… the peacemakers… the persecuted… the reviled… and those falsely accused.”
If you want to be wise, you have to practice being those things. Have you practiced being poor? Mourning? Being meek? Being merciful? Have you practiced any of that? Because if not, you will not learn wisdom. The opposite is also true, have you practiced richness? Haughtiness? Triumph? Have you been the persecutor? The one mocking others? Then, you can’t learn wisdom.
This might sound all well and good, but if it only lives off in the realm of theory it’s not of much use, so I am going to be explicit and specific.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

The real king and queen of Israel

2 Samuel 11-12

            There was a king and queen of Israel during the time of David, but it was not at all as the nation of Israel thought.
I’ll get to them in a minute.
            You might recall, deep in the recesses of your memories, that God didn’t want to give the people of Israel a king. God was supposed to be their king, and anybody else was going to be a shallow imitation. But they asked and asked and asked, and God, being the parent that he was, unable to say “No” forever, eventually said, “Ask your mother,” which was also him, so that was confusing, but eventually he relented.
            “Fine!” God said, “You can have a king.”
            And much like that rare occasion when a child gets rewarded after hearing “No” from their parents a thousand times, the result of the children of Israel getting what they want is a disaster. The line of kings leads Israel through the Promised Land and out of it before you know it.
            David was supposed to be the greatest king. He’s the subject of our reading today, but by the time we pick up with the story, we should realize it may have been better if he would have been killed by Goliath long before, because when David falls, he falls hard. The hero-David becomes the villain-David, who uses his power to have an affair with a married woman named Bathsheba, and afterwards, unable to coerce Uriah, her husband, into covering his tracks, he goes and has him killed instead. It’s the kind of thing we would hardly be surprised to hear on the news today, as everybody expects their politicians to abuse their power.
Not everybody! You might say. Surely there are those in power who don’t abuse it, and there are—absolutely—but there are only two paths with power: You either use it and abuse it, or you give it away. Neutrality is not an option—not in this game. Any time a person in power gives away power they are starting down that road toward discipleship, following Jesus who told us that to be a disciple we are to deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow. The problem is that giving that power away also means giving away your influence. History is littered with anonymous people who had power and gave it away, but we don’t know who they are.
Meanwhile, anybody with power who we consider “good”—our moral leadership, you might call them—has figured out how to work this world of transactions and keep enough power to keep doing “good.” This may well be pragmatic, but it isn’t righteousness. At best, it’s making do in a broken world. The paradox of Christian discipleship is that you can’t follow Jesus and retain any power for yourself whatsoever.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Why the Old Testament is so stinking repetitive (and baptism is not)

Joshua 24

What do you know about the Old Testament? If you’re like many Christians, the answer is not much. You probably know a few stories—there’s the creation of the world; there’s an ark; Moses, plagues and parting the Red Sea; there’s Jonah; and maybe, if you really stretch your memory back to Sunday School, you might remember a few other things. Perhaps you know quite a bit more than that, or maybe even those few events were testing the limits of your memory. Wherever you find yourself when it comes to the Old Testament, there is some good news: The Old Testament is really good at repeating itself.
            Many of our readings, including today’s from the book of Joshua, spend a large amount of time retelling a series of historical events. Often, God is the one sharing that history. God says, “Long ago your ancestors—Terah and his sons Abraham and Nahor—lived beyond the Euphrates and served other gods. Then I took your father Abraham from beyond the River and led him through all the land of Canaan and made his offspring many. I gave him Isaac…” etc, etc, etc. Pretty soon, God is listing off the entire history of Genesis and Exodus. Then, God just keeps on going, telling us about kings and nations and history, lots of history. You might wonder: Why? Today’s reading could have been 90% shorter if God just skipped to the point. Many of you probably would have liked that.
            In order to understand why the Old Testament is so repetitive, you need to imagine the way these stories were passed down. People didn’t write them down. Few people were literate—why would they be? Even if you had the materials to write a book; you can imagine the effort—writing each individual copy! It would be centuries before there were scrolls, and even then most people—even devout Jews—would never see them, and only the priests could read them. This was an agrarian society; people didn’t need to know how to read, but they certainly did know how to tell stories. For centuries, these stories about God were passed on around campfires and dinner tables. People told them over and over, each story like a thread weaving the tapestry of the history of the nation, each character stacking their rock on the cairn that is the history of the Hebrew people. God became known through these historical characters. God’s name became “I am the Lord, your God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”