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.”

Sunday, September 9, 2018

The stinky church

I want to tell you today about the stinky church. Strangely, it’s the story of a boat.
Now, there are a lot of boats in the Bible. Jesus falls asleep in one; Peter jumps out of another; the baby Moses floats in his own kind of basket-boat in the Nile, but no boat is quite as famous as the ark. The big one. It is this boat that so captures our imaginations.
            It’s also a tough one to preach on Rally Sunday, to be honest, having seen the state of us, God decides he’s seen enough. Get rid of it all! Let’s start over! If you’re hoping God doesn’t come to a similar conclusion today, then you really have to hope that God doesn’t have Twitter. At the last second, stopping short of obliterating the human race, God gives us a boat. He gives it to Noah, but that boat just keeps floating, even to today.
            That boat is the church.
Now, when I say that, I want to point out that this isn’t some radical, millennial pastor off-the-wall thought. Boats have been a sign of the church for as long as there has been a church. In fact, many sanctuaries have been constructed to look like an upside-down ship. If you’ve ever been in a church with flying buttresses and a large curved ceiling, there’s a decent bet that the architects had a boat in mind in the construction.
Also, you know, “Jesus, Savior, pilot me… over life’s tempestuous seas.” That kind of thing.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Earning salvation isn't hard; it's impossible

Mark 10:17-31

            I preach on this story so often when it is not the reading of the day that I hardly know what to do with it when it is. I actually went back and looked and I’ve never officially preached on Mark 10, or the same story as it appears in Matthew or Luke, but I’ve probably mentioned the story of Jesus and the rich man a half dozen times or more in sermons through the years. So, it’s probably no surprise to you that I believe this is one of the most important passages in the entire Bible. Naturally, we’re reading it on Labor Day weekend when everybody is at the cabin, but hey, you can’t have it all.  
It goes like this: A man comes to Jesus with a fantastic question. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” he asks.  In fact, that really is the question isn’t it? If you knew for certain what it took have eternal life, then all the other questions would sort of be moot, wouldn’t they? If you had salvation assured, then all the secrets of how to live follow.
            Interestingly enough, Jesus does not answer the man with a parable. A parable would be more typical of Jesus. Somebody comes to him with a really big, difficult question, and his response is to say, “A man was going down the road…” or “A farmer went out to sow his seed…” Jesus does not go that route here. Instead, he asks how the man is doing with following the commandments. “Have you not murdered? Have you stayed faithful? Have you not stolen?”
            “I’ve done none of that,” says the man, “More than that, I have never used the Lord’s name in vain, I have never put another god before the true God, I have never coveted. You name it, I haven’t done it.” Sounds like a fun guy.
            More to the point, this is remarkable response. I mean, everybody violates the commandments! Some of us might be better at following the rules than others, but to keep them all—even the parts about coveting, which, honestly, most of us covet about twice a minute? That is astounding—impossible, really. What’s more astounding, however, is that Jesus doesn’t even question it. Jesus doesn’t go down the ‘Yeah, but…” rabbit hole, pointing out that this schmoe is obviously lying to himself. He doesn’t need to point out how wrong he is. Instead, he turns back to the man and says, “Alright, then go and give away all your possessions.”
            Hit him where it hurts, Jesus. Hit him where it hurts.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

"Don't worry!" -- Why faith and optimism are not remotely the same

Matthew 6:19-34

Matthew 6 is just great, because it is the most appropriate time to use one of my favorite quotes, from Newt Scamander, in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the one that goes: “My philosophy is worrying means that you suffer twice.”
            I love this quote, as I love this scripture, because at first they both sound tremendously optimistic. Don’t worry, be happy; it will all work out. That feels so much like the messages our society sends around faith, which can be summed up by the ol’ Jeremiah 29:11, “For 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.” Our society eats that stuff up! Don’t worry; God has plans; you’re set. Wonderfully optimistic!
            Nothing about that is wrong, per se, but all of it is misleading, because Matthew 6 and Jeremiah 29 and Newt Scamander are not at all optimistic. Scamander’s quote doesn’t say, “Don’t worry because you won’t suffer;” rather, it assumes you will suffer, so why double the suffering by adding worry on top? That’s not optimistic. Now, we can excuse that, because that quote comes from a movie about wizards, so maybe it has little to do with our faith. But Jeremiah 29:11, which is quoted as much as any scripture, most certainly does come from the Bible, and it is most often quoted in an optimistic way. Nonetheless, this verse about God’s plans is said by Jeremiah to a nation in Israel in exile, currently suffering, and the plans do not involve individual people finding their best life now, or anything like that. In fact, many will suffer and many will die before Israel is ever restored from captivity in Babylon. Jeremiah 29:11 is about God’s plans for everything, but not you, specifically. It is not optimistic about individuals avoiding suffering.
            But surely Matthew 6 must be optimistic! Don’t worry, says Jesus. Consider those lilies of the field, how beautiful they are, and God takes care of them. Surely, God will take care of us, too! Absolutely, definitely! This scripture is about assurance in the face of adversity; it is about an ultimate promise that God watches over and protects. However, because it is ultimate protection, we have to be a bit careful. The first paragraph in Matthew 6 ends by saying, “That’s what the Gentiles worry about!” That’s what those pagan Romans worry about—food and drink—because they worship gods who provide for them in the here and now. They are, in fact, obsessed with the comforts of now—nice food, nice clothes, nice things; comfort. To be a Christian is something different; it is not to pray to God asking for food and drink and clothing, or even security and comfort; it is to say, “Jesus, I will follow you wherever you go, even through death, so what sense does it make to worry?” Matthew 6:33, at the very conclusion of this paragraph that begins “Do Not Worry!” concludes by saying, “But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”
            There are two ways to read that. One is to say: If I strive for the kingdom of God, God will reward me with nice things in this world. That is a possible reading, even if it doesn’t seem to match up with reality. After all, so many Christians through the ages have suffered, have died, have watched their loved ones get snatched from them, sometimes directly because of their faith. If anything, Christianity shows itself strongest in despair. So, I’m inclined toward the other reading of Matthew 6:33, which is that we are to strive for the kingdom of God with the assurance that when we suffer, when we struggle, and, eventually, when we die (which will happen for all of us, after all), that is when we will receive our reward; that is when all the pain of the world will be justified. The party is coming at the end of the story; all we have now are reflections.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

God uses the least qualified. Are you still surprised?

Ruth 4

Why is the book of Ruth in the Bible?
I started three weeks ago by pointing out all the obstacles the book of Ruth faced in ever making it into the Bible: A story of a heroine in a world run by men; a moral about loving kindness for a mother-in-law to whom Ruth had no legal obligation; a story about a foreigner who was not part of the tribe. It’s one of those things that may well have happened and then dissolved into obscurity; the great-grandmother of King David who nobody talked about, as it might betray his royal blood.
And, yet, for exactly those reasons, it is so powerful that the book of Ruth persists. This is about a foreigner whose audacity to stay by Naomi’s side changed history. This is about a woman, who was property, and yet shows us a model for how to live in dark and dangerous times. This is a story that reads well today, in spite of the many and obvious differences between our society and theirs, precisely because of the unlikelihood of it all—because there are so many little, seemingly insignificant, people who do little things that make all the difference.
Ruth loved Naomi. Naomi advised Ruth. Boaz worked within the rules of the society, subtly influencing the unnamed next-of-kin to give up his inheritance, which included Ruth. All of these are little things that change the lives of all those involved, but they also suggest something about how God works through people. It’s rarely dramatic shifts, conversion experiences like Saul’s, or experiences more dramatic still, as it was with Jonah. More often, God moves just behind the scenes, subtly stirring hearts in a direction we will never see. Ruth has no idea of her part in all this, but she doesn’t have to see the big picture. Instead, because of her actions, not only does she save her mother-in-law from a life of poverty and death in obscurity, she also becomes great-grandmother to David, the great king of Israel. In that way, she becomes a central figure in the bloodline that eventually leads to Jesus.
Just a little person, doing little acts out of love.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Sex, love, power, and why the church is missing the point

Ruth 3

Well, this is an awkward part of the story of Ruth to preach, if I’m being completely honest. I guess, at least there isn’t a children’s sermon today?
I don’t mind talking about relationships, and marriage, and sex, but it’s nice when there’s something else besides it—you know, something Jesus-y, or gospel-y, or anything else, really. What is a person to do with this? What are the underlying lessons from Ruth and Boaz on the threshing floor? Is it even something we should care about, or in the words of a seminary professor, who I asked one time to write an article for our student newspaper, and who said, “I’m happy to write, as long as the subject isn’t sex… again.”
            I suppose Ruth and Boaz could appear to be a story about sexual morality, as fun as that is to preach. From a quick sampling of sermons taken from, admittedly, largely evangelical sources on this scripture, I saw a lot of stuff about sexual boundaries. That’s thrilling and all (not really), but the other thing about that is simply: That has nothing to do with what is going on here. Ruth and Boaz do not exist in 21st century America, and if you pretend that they do, then you’re not being faithful to the scripture.
Ruth is, quite literally, property. Now, that might rub you the wrong way, and it probably should, but it is simply how the world worked in those days, and that has to color the way we look at this relationship. It’s not like Ruth and Boaz can date. Their relationship is necessarily about contracts and assurances, which is not romantic (at all), but this was life in those days. Whatever you think about the way our society handles marriage, and the role of the church in it, it has to be said that we are miles away from what Ruth was dealing with. We have our issues, but they are completely different.
It’s really hard to culturally commute between 21st century America and 11th century AD Israel. To that point, using the Bible as a key to sexual morality is really fraught with difficulty, because morality in the Bible is a constantly moving target. At various times, scripture allows polygamy, levirate marriage (in which a brother of a deceased man is obliged to marry his wife, which is sort of what’s going on here with Ruth), and many other versions of marriage which we would aspersions on today. The society of Ruth’s age began with the clan, which was the immediate family system. You could never marry outside of the clan. This is why Ruth goes to Boaz, because he’s a close-enough relative that he might take her in and protect her. Marriage, in that time, was about security for women and property for men.
Love? The only love here is between Ruth and Naomi, her mother-in-law. There is no romance; it’s just obligation. So, the first, and perhaps greatest, lesson here is that if you’re looking for a good message about morality in marriage today, you’re barking up the wrong tree. But if you’re curious about what it looks like to value commitment to meaningful things in a broken world, then yes, delve a little deeper into Boaz and Ruth. So much of our conversation on matters of marriage, sex, and sexuality, when it happens in the church, if it happens at all, is really a guise to talk about boundaries. We don’t actually talk about sex; we talk about boundaries around sex, and it’s awkward. I know, because I have to bring it up on occasion with a bunch of middle-schoolers. You think you’re squirming! The thing is: When the church talks about sex, it is usually to hold boundaries, to say, “This is appropriate and this is not”—whatever “this” is.