Sunday, December 17, 2017

Further up! Further in!

Isaiah 55:1-13

            One week on the book of Isaiah; that’s not remotely fair, but then again if your only exposure to the Bible is what I preach on Sunday mornings it’s going to be hard to get the whole picture. So, anyway, one reading from Isaiah to capture all of Isaiah is silly.
Firstly, you may not know this, but the book of Isaiah is the work of at least three authors from three different time period. We know this because chapters 1-39 cover the prophet, Isaiah, who lived in the 8th century BC; chapters 40-55 tell us that Jerusalem has already been destroyed and take place either during the exile or just after, meaning we are talking about the 6th century BC, and finally chapters 56-66 are written after the exile. Rather than taking away from the book of Isaiah, this gives it some arc. The book shows a movement of history over the course of centuries, and it holds a common theme, moving inexorably toward Jesus. It is for that reason that Isaiah has been called the fifth Gospel. Isaiah couldn’t have known about Jesus, but they anticipated something they couldn’t quite put their fingers on—something that turned out to be a baby born in a manger.
So, with that context in mind, it’s important to note that our reading from Isaiah 55 is the end of 2nd Isaiah. It’s the conclusion of Book II if you want to think about this like Lord of the Rings or The Last Jedi or something; it’s the finale of the exile. Israel is coming home. But, as many of you know, you can never really come home again; at least home isn’t what it was before. In Israel’s case, the temple has been destroyed; the people residing in the land worship strange gods; their faith has been tested in exile and they have come back to the “Holy Land” with an understanding that God is no longer housed in a particular place. Their God went with them into the wilderness, so what does it look like for God to return home?
It’s easy to get complacent at home. Familiarity breeds complacency. We’ve all had this experience: We face a new thing in life—it’s scary; it’s stressful—and we can’t wait until it comes to some resolution. It might be a new job, a new project, a new business, a new child, or simply a new normal. We spend so much time stressing over the unfamiliarity of the situation, and often we discover some strength we didn’t know we had in the process of overcoming those new obstacles. The problem often comes in the new normal, because, having faced the obstacles of the past, we lose our edge.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Not Change, Death and Resurrection

Ezekiel 37:1-14

            It is extremely normal to be afraid of death, and not just physical death. It is natural to fear the death of things, the death of ideals, the death of the past. Ezekiel and the valley of the dry bones is a response to all of this. What better sign of death than dry bones—and this is a valley filled with them! It makes a person wonder: How did they die? Some brutal war, famine, genocide… For me, it brings to mind pictures from Auschwitz or from the genocide in Rwanda. Bones upon bones. Bodies upon bodies.
            That’s a heavy way to start on a Christmas program Sunday, but I think it’s important that we don’t too quickly romanticize this story. It’s important not apart from Christmas but because of it. I don’t want to jump ahead straight to the resolution; I want to sit for a moment in the silence of the valley of dry bones, because that feels like Advent to me—because in the dry bones we have whispers of resurrection.
            God does nothing apart from death. This is where God and the rest of us are profoundly different. We have a strong desire to keep things alive. We remember what was good, and we recognize that good thing (or good person) for what it was, and so we, quite logically, put that good thing on life support and try to keep it going and going and going both to honor the good thing that once was and to hope that that good thing may one day come back again.
            “I remember when the church was full on Sundays,” we say with a hint of sadness.
            “I remember when we had so many people in town…”
            “I remember when so-and-so was here, doing such-and-such a thing. It will never be the same as when they were here.”
            I suspect all of these things are true. I hear them all the time. We need to say a couple things about those things from the past. One is that it’s true, we absolute can’t make things to the same; but the second thing we must do is admit that the past was great but the past is those dry bones. Trying to keep it alive is fruitless. Keeping it on life support drains us, and it’s ultimately futile. It’s like telling somebody in the nursing home who has lost their mobility that if they just started playing basketball in the mornings—because hey, it works for me!—they’ll get stronger. It pains us to admit that some goals have to change, some things die. And that’s either the end of the world or it isn’t; that’s the real question for us: Is death the end of the world or not?

Sunday, December 3, 2017

You need to think of a better question

Daniel 3

One of the wisest things I’ve ever heard was from a teacher of mine who was asked a question in class. The actual question doesn’t matter—I don’t remember it was at least—but he answered the question by saying, “Sir, you are not asking the right question. You need to think of a better question.”
I can’t begin to count how many times I’ve wanted to say that to a person. I mean, on the one hand you want people to be vulnerable and ask anything so those of us who teach like to say, “There are no stupid questions,” but that’s really an invitation to those who are shy or afraid to ask what they want to ask. The truth is that there are lots of stupid questions. Questions that are designed to show the correct-ness of the person asking it are bad questions; questions that are personal attacks are bad questions; questions asked to mock and belittle are bad questions. There are many cases where the best answer is: Think some more and come back with a better question.
            I thought of this today because the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego is really the story of Nebuchadnezzar asking bad questions. He starts out by making a golden statue to worship; it’s a statue of him, by the way, in case you were wondering. The statue is the first example of Nebuchadnezzar asking the wrong question, because the kind of person who makes a giant golden statue of himself has to be asking a question like, “How do I demonstrate that I am powerful?”
If Nebuchadnezzar asked a different question—a better question—something along the lines of, “From where does my power come?” he would have likely a gone a different path. Most likely he instead tempted by the question, “How do I get more power?” which is the most tempting of all questions, but it also not the best question when it comes to living a good life, especially a life of faith.
            Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego show why. Being good Jews and knowing the idolatry is a big no-no in God’s eyes, they refuse to bow to the giant statue. Instead of asking, “How can we get power?” they are asking, “From where does true power come?” and they realize true power cannot come from Nebuchadnezzar. He’s just a man—a king, sure—but just a man. True power empowers not just the person in power but all people; it doesn’t seek power for its own ends; true power comes from God, because God is not in it for himself, like Nebuchadnezzar—and many politicians. They can’t worship this golden statue because it isn’t true. But that’s not the interesting thing; the interesting thing is that all the people in the land know this, right? Everybody knows that leaders who make statues and require loyalty oaths and whatnot do so not because they have a lot of power but because they feel vulnerable; the question is whether we pretend and give it to them, or stand up for what is actually true.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Jeremiah 29:11 won't save us

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-14

            Do you know what is the most popular biblical verse among millennials? John 3:16? Nope. The 23rd Psalm? Nuh uh. Genesis 1:1, John 1:1, Philippians 4:13, Romans 8:28, Psalm 46:1, Hebrews 11:1? Not. A. One. Of. Them.
            The most popular verse among millennials is Jeremiah 29:11 and it isn’t that close. “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” It sounds so pleasant, so promising. It’s exactly what we want to hear. It’s also badly misused.
            Let’s keep reading starting with Jeremiah 29:12: “Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.”
            If you assume that everything is about you, then it’s easy enough to start thinking that you have been sent into exile proverbially; that you are being gathered in by God so you’re your fortunes will be restored—whatever that means. The problem is that God is not speaking metaphorically here because God is not speaking to us—at least that’s not the clearest understanding of this passage. He is speaking to Israel. I’m guessing you might hear this differently when you know it’s addressed to Israel and not to you: “I know the plans I have for you… plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” The most legitimate gripe leveled against millennials is that we make everything about us. I think that can be unfair, but in this case we are guilty; this scripture is not about us. Period.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Giving, Losing, Worrying, and Making the World a Little Better

Luke 12:13-21

I have to admit when I first read the scripture this week for Harvest Festival I turned skyward, maybe shook my fist a little, and said, “Whatchu doin’ to me?” Can’t I just have duckies and bunnies just one Sunday—on Harvest Sunday, pretty please? Why is the Bible filled with so much law?
            We had a rough start to the week in our house. Somebody stole my identity and managed to run our accounts into the ground and messed with our banking and did all sorts of damage. I’m still sorting it out. Anything with money can be just anxiety-producing, can’t it? I actually awoke in the middle of the night Tuesday and couldn’t get back to sleep because I had the sudden, paranoid fear that the person I had talked to the night before wasn’t actually who I thought it was. This is the kind of thing this does to you; like a break-in or a theft or worse.
            That anxiety stuck with me a good portion of this week.
            Then, Natalie and I went to see my grandma for her 100th birthday on the last couple days. Let me tell you what you don’t worry about at 100 years old: Much. You don’t worry about much. My grandma had a stroke earlier this year and it shows. She isn’t as aware as before, but she is still there when you’re up close and when she has the time to figure out who you are. It’s like she had her own small bubble and when a person entered it she just lit up. When nobody was in the bubble she just sat there peaceably, just soaking in the party. I had worries—worries about our finances generally with a lot up in the air for our family at the moment, worries about a funeral back here without me, which is silly because I knew Kate would do fine; I had stress about today’s services, about the Thanksgiving service tonight. Today is a tank-emptying kind of day for me, which means I’m also tempted to worry that I’ll probably get sick for Thanksgiving.
            Do any of you ever do this to yourselves?

Sunday, November 12, 2017

What is justice, really?

Amos 1:1-2, 5:14-15, 21-24
            Amos is a prophet who is well-known for talking about justice. “Let justice roll down like waters,” he says. I imagine in the pre-Jesus Jewish world this was something you would put on a bumper sticker—you know, stick it to the butt of your camel and show everybody what you stand for. But this, like so many words and phrases that means something to us—justice, righteousness, those kinds of things—are loaded words. Is our idea of justice anything like Amos’ justice? Like God’s justice?
            Everybody is “for” justice, right? Nobody is going to say, “I like injustice more than justice.” But once we get past the initial polling of whether we like justice or not there is the difficult question of defining what justice is. Is it retributive justice? An eye for an eye? Is it a fair sentence for a crime? Is it the bad guys getting karma? Is it restoring victims? What is it?
            See, I don’t really like preaching on justice because I think it’s too easy for all of us to hear what we want to hear. If you’re of a liberal persuasion you may hear justice and think “social justice”—equality, empowerment, all that—and if you’re of a conservative you might hear justice and think “just desserts”—you get back what you deserve, what you earn, what you worked for. God’s justice, according to the Bible, seems like both those views and neither at the same time. In order to understand God’s justice we need to understand the law and where better to look for the law than with Ten Commandments.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Searching for Silence

1 Kings 19:1-18

There was a great mountain-shattering wind… but God was not in the wind.
            There was an earthquake, fearsome-shaking… but God was not in the earthquake.
            There was a fire, a blazing inferno, all-consuming, destroying… but God was not in the earthquake.
            Then, lastly, finally, there was the sound of… silence. What is that sound exactly?
            The Hebrew says Qol demamah daqah—literally a voice of small silence. I think I like the Common English Bible’s translation best: “After the fire, there was a sound. Thin. Quiet.”
            Whatever it is, it is contrasted to the elemental forces named before. It makes sense for God to come in the wind, the earthquake, or the fire; we’ve seen God come in all of those forces to Abraham and Jacob and Moses and to Israel in its wandering. We know God comes with a bang, but what’s more surprising is that God comes in “thin quiet.”
            If you’re talking you won’t hear it. If you’re not listening closely it will pass you by. You’ll become convinced that God never speaks, but how could you hear the voice of God with all this noise in your life?