Sunday, October 22, 2017

God Chooses Nobodies

1 Samuel 16:1-13

            Four years ago when I preached on this text from 1 Samuel, on the subject of electing leaders, I began by pointing out a survey at the time that Congress’ approval rating was a whopping 10%. Believe it or not, things have improved in the last four years! Today, 13% of Americans approve of Congress; this in spite of the fact that by all appearances they’ve haven’t actually done anything in those intervening four years.

            Still, 13% approval is pretty terrible, so I think the point I was making four years ago stands today: We make terrible choices when it comes to electing people. Now, we can say that all the choices are bad, which may be true however uninspiring. We can point to local and regional leadership that is much better than our national leaders. This is more hopeful. However, at the end of the day, most of us take issue with the way most leaders lead us most of the time.

            Thank goodness God doesn’t elect democratically. God elects with a backwards kind of politics. He elects the shepherd boy. The youngest. The least mature. The least wise to the ways of the world. The one we choose last. That’s who God chooses first.

            Human beings look on the outside, but God looks on the heart, says God in verse 7.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Trust in children? Trust in parents? No, trust in God.

1 Samuel 3:1-21

Eli is not a particularly well-known biblical character, and I’m not going to say he should be. But Samuel is. He has two books of the Bible named after him (1 and 2 Samuel). These are books that tell the story of David, but they are not named after David; they tell the stories of Saul and Hannah and Bathsheba and others, but they are not named after them either. They are named after Samuel. Samuel is a big deal. So, today’s reading introduces us to Samuel by way of Eli, so we’re going to talk about both.
Samuel is a child—a young boy—and he is ministering to the Lord under Eli. A bit of needed context here: Samuel’s mother, Hannah, dedicates him to God from the time he is born because she had been unable to have a child and Samuel is her reward, whom she returns to the Lord by sending him into ministry. Samuel has spent his entire life next to Eli. Yet, when the voice of God comes to Samuel we have this odd report in verse 7 that “Samuel did not know the Lord.” It is not until Eli realizes what is going on and tells Samuel to listen that perhaps God is calling to him that Samuel learns what is going on. Then there is the message. This is where things get uncomfortable as a parent, a pastor—really anybody who oversees children. The message God gives to Samuel is that Eli is about to be punished. He’s about to lose his priesthood, his legacy, and his life.
That’s the message Samuel is supposed to bring to Eli.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Complaints are a mark of... faith?

Exodus 16:1-18

            A lot happens between last week’s story of Moses and the burning bush and today’s reading: Plagues descend on Egypt; Moses and Aaron stand before Pharaoh again and again, saying “Let my people go;” eventually, the plagues crescendo into the death of the firstborn and Pharaoh gives in, albeit momentarily; Israel escapes from Egypt, the Red Sea parts and Pharaoh’s army, following after them, are overwhelmed by the crashing waters; and finally the Israelites begin to wander in the wilderness.
            So it is that the complainers start to arise… again and again and again. You have to remember: Moses just saved this people from slavery; it was through Moses that God sent plagues on the land, and it is through God that their own children were spared while the Egyptian children were not. It was by the hand of God, working through Moses, that the people walked through the Red Sea on dry land. If ever there were a people in the history of the world who should be grateful it should be Israel; it would have to be Israel.
            Yet, according to Exodus 16, on the fifteenth day of the second month Israel cried out: "If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger."
            We all know that hunger does irrational things to people; it makes them angry; and they do have a point in a way. Death is death—whether at the hands of Pharaoh, or free but starving in the desert, death is death. On the one hand it has only been forty-three days since God parted the Red Sea; you would think this would make them a people who would trust completely; you would think that since God got them this far they would trust even further still. On the other hand, maybe they did trust. Maybe they trusted that food would come on the third day and the fifth day; maybe they held out hope until the tenth and the fifteenth and the twentieth. Come to think of it, it’s kind of remarkable it is the middle of the second month—40-odd days since escaping the slavery of Pharaoh—before the people rose up in complaint. They are human after all.
            You see, if you’re thinking the message here is about Israel’s faithlessness, think again. Raising one’s voice in complaint, begging even, is not the opposite of being faithful, or at least if it is God gives no indication that this is the case. God only commends them; suggests, even that this complaining is a mark of faith, and not a blemish.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Is everything a joke to you? Only the things that matter.

            Comedy is hard, like really hard. I know because I say jokes in public on occasion. Now, given I say jokes in a church where people aren’t sure if it’s appropriate to laugh and I’m not exactly Jimmy Kimmel, or Robin Williams, or Bob Hope (I think I got the generations covered there). There are some obvious differences in expectations anyway; most of you don’t come to church specifically to laugh, which is all well and good. Laughter is often seen as the opposite of taking something seriously. However, I tend to think that humor and piety or faithfulness are much more closely related than we give them credit. Sometimes we need to laugh in order to see what is true. Worship should often be a place of laughter, not because we’re pretending everything is alright but because we know it’s not and we need that freeing joy of things that are just plain funny. One of my favorite movie quotes is a line from V for Vendetta where the heroine Evey asks the comedian Deitrich, “Is everything a joke to you?” And he answers, “Only the things that matter.” And I think there’s something profoundly true in that.
It is very possible to laugh and take things seriously at the same time. Most of us are not children; we can do both! But because we tend to set some times aside for humor and other times aside for serious worship we tend to have our eyes closed to the ways that God uses humor to tell us something. Did you catch what was funny about our reading of the day today? Maybe not. If we’re expecting dour seriousness that’s what we get, and sometimes biblical humor is, you know, biblical. It’s old and dated and not all that funny. But some things are just funny no matter what. Moses’ speech in Exodus 4 is the perfect example.
Now, when I read this speech as the Reading of the Day a few minutes ago I read it with the reverence that you expect from a reading during Sunday morning worship. I did this because I didn’t want to confuse you and because I like keeping my job, but now I’m going to read it how I think it should be read, but in order to do so I’m going to have to change the language a little—make it feel a bit modern. The setting I imagine here is God trying to put Moses to bed, because that’s a situation that speaks deep to my heart these days for some reason. If you listen for it, I think you’ll hear why.
Exodus 4:10-17.
Moses: “O Lord, I have never been eloquent either heretofore or even now that you have spoken to your servant, but I am slow of speech… and of tongue.”
God: <open-mouthed stare> (I don’t know what it looks like for God to stare open-mouthed at somebody but I’m pretty sure that’s what happened here… you know, the look you give when somebody says something so foolish that you’re trying to figure out if they’re being intentionally idiotic or if they really just don’t get it.) Anyway, God says: “I’ll be doing the speaking, ya dummy. Plus, mmm, don’t know how to break this to you... but that speech you just made about not being able to speak sounded like something straight out of Shakespeare. You’ll be fine.”
Moses: “But I don’t want to!” (Full tantrum mode now)
God: “OK, have it your way. Your brother, Aaron, speaks. So, here’s how this is going to go: I’m going to put words in your mouths. You’ll speak to Aaron. Aaron will speak to the people. I mean, basically all you’re going to have to say is “Let my people go!” anyway. Now, Moses, take this staff; it’s going to come in handy…”
I feel like I should mention at this time that it’s sort of a pet peeve of mine when people are listing all the biblical characters that God uses unexpectedly they list lepers and children and women, who had no standing in society, and then inevitably they list Moses and say God used him in spite of his speech impediment. Moses was just being a toddler. That was his impediment; he was a grown-up cry-baby.
That changes the whole tenor of the story, doesn’t it? No longer is Moses this perfect biblical character; he’s sort of just like you and me—dragging his feet, kicking and screaming, from doing what God expects him to do. It’s funny because it’s true and because we recognize that in ourselves, and those of us with toddlers or teenagers recognize it immediately.
The humor doesn’t lessen from the message at all as far as I’m concerned. It just reminds us the kinds of dummies that God uses; so that even when we feel like we’re pretty much the worst of all sinners we should remember that God used a guy like Moses who went in full cry-baby mode when God asked him to save his people from slavery. If God uses Moses, then any of us are free game. So was Jonah, who was the very worst prophet, who had by far the most success. That’s an entire book of the Bible I believe is written as satire—as one big joke.
I guess what I want to say with the burning bush as the background is that it’s OK to read these passages as humorous. You have permission to laugh. A lot of permission. And I’m not just saying that so you humor me with the occasional chortle when I say something I imagine might be funny; I say it because there is something good and true in humor. And while the church might not be the primary place you go to have a laugh I do think we should laugh more; not because we aren’t taking this seriously but because we know it matters and things that matter are often funny.
I can’t tell you how many times death and humor are intertwined; how many times the funniest stories are told around the time of death. Humor disarms us, helps us from taking ourselves too seriously, and it reminds us what really matters. I get all this from Moses, because I recognize in Moses the same unwillingness I sometimes feel—and I’m guessing you feel it too—to step up and do anything. It’s humorous because I know it’s true. I know it’s easier to do nothing—to pretend like everything’s great in Egypt; to not speak up.
Somehow, humor makes getting over that hump easier, and that’s no mistake, because God gave us laughter for exactly this purpose: To do God’s will for a world that needs it. That sounds somber, but it’s a holy calling and holy callings are funny, because we are still just silly little human beings trying to do God’s will. Nothing is funnier than that. Nothing is more humorous than a human being trying to be like God. But thanks be to God, because he calls and uses us all the same; no matter how silly and stupid and Moses-like we are. It’s funny because it’s true.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

The hero that wasn't: Why the Jacob story isn't about Jacob

Genesis 27:1-3, 15-23; 28:10-17

            God works through cheaters and scoundrels and all the sort that don’t do things right. Of course, those aren’t the only kinds of people God uses but since we are talking about Jacob… the thoughts that come to mind are: stubborn; cheater; thief of his brother’s birthright; fought with an angel; wasn’t exactly repentant about any of this.
            I want to start by saying this: This isn’t a story telling us to be like Jacob. Most stories in the Bible aren’t fables telling us to be like the heroes; most stories, like this one, are about who God is and what God does and not what are we supposed to do. In this case, God chooses to promote this nation, Israel. Jacob becomes Israel later in life—another of those biblical name changes. Israel is God’s chosen people. God’s chosen people can trace their history to a cheating liar that stole a birthright and, apparently, that’s not all a bad thing.
It could have been Esau. Volumes have been written on why God chose Jacob over Esau; they say that Jacob was more cunning, cleverer, he had the right heart, or whatever that means. At the end of the day, God chose a cheater. Jacob—the name—literally meant “he cheats.”
            So, we could also say that this is about God choosing somebody and transforming him. Perhaps God takes all the Jacobs and turns them into Israels. This feels closer to being true but still not the point. Not every Jacob turns into an Israel. And this story still is not about Jacob. It’s true that God uses good people and bad people—after all, he used Saul, the murderer; Jonah, the pathetic prophet; and also widows and children and all sorts of people whose powerlessness is their defining characteristic. God tends to use the people who we would least expect, both good and bad. But the main point is that God uses Jacob because Jacob is in the right place at the right time. Our world is messy, and God seems to do the best he can with the mess we’ve made.
            This isn’t about Jacob; it is about God’s plan, which is a plan for nations. Through Jesus, it becomes a plan for all people. The plan, however, is not a smooth road. The danger in making every biblical story about the hero is that we imagine that God’s plan for history is to make all of us into heroes. Turn on the news and you know this isn’t exactly true. Instead of a smooth road, God’s plan is to take the bumpy road of life and have it lead somewhere meaningful. It’s a plan that even when we are sent in the wrong direction and even when we crash and burn—even, especially, when we lose something that can’t be fixed—God is there to pick up the pieces.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

God rested: A Rally Sunday mini-sermon

Genesis 1-2:4a

Why does God rest?
            It seems like a silly thing for the God of the universe to do. God is infinite. God created it all… spoke and there it was. God is perfectly energetic. Clearly, God doesn’t need to rest. Since God is the utmost, the ultimate, the holiest—the outer perfection toward which humanity is striving, we might assume that God is also a perfect worker, a perfect controller of destinies, a perfect worker bee…
            But God rested.
            God didn’t need to rest. It’s not like God gets tired. It’s not like God couldn’t do whatever God pleased to meddle with creation. It’s not like God didn’t have plenty of work to do. And yet… on the seventh day God rested.
            God spent six days speaking things into existence, and it could be six days or years or six billion years—doesn’t matter in the slightest—but it does matter that God rested. God took his foot off the accelerator and said, “Here. Why don’t you take a drive?”
            That’s either the most brilliant or the most dumbfounding moment in history. God let us decide things for ourselves.
            Imagine a world where God decided not to stop and not to rest; a world where God kept things completely under control. We might still be here… but freedom? There would be none of it. Pain and suffering? No, not that either. But neither would there be love or joy. Contentment, perhaps, but joy? Nah, you need freedom for joy. You need sorrow for joy. If God never rested then there would be none of that. Life would be about us being the worker bees in turn—serving God, not knowing a thing else. Instead, we were set loose with this terrible, wonderful thing called freedom, and here we are. God rested because God loved us enough to let us mess everything up.
            That is parenting, really. And it’s rough. But God did it first.
            So, today is Rally Sunday and the service is packed full of so much stuff I’m not going to say much today. I’m going to give it a rest. I figure if it’s good enough for the God of the universe it’s good enough for me. Some of you may need a rest, too. You may feel like there’s no time for it, especially now that the fall is here. Others of you may rest too much and you might need a kick in the pants, but I’m not talking to you. Most of you need more rest than you give yourselves. If it was good enough for God it is good enough for you.
            So, as we get into the busy-ness of everything, today I just want to sit with the creation story and ponder what it means that God took a break. Then, I’m going to do the same.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Living on the side of the coin

Matthew 12:1-8

            One day, Jesus and the disciples were walking the wheat fields on a Saturday—Sabbath-day in the Jewish world. You probably know the story. They’re hungry so they grab a few grains to eat, infamously breaking that commandment of honoring the Sabbath day by keeping it free from work. The eating is not the problem; the plucking, however, is strictly forbidden. They also might be breaking the stealing commandment as well, since we have no reason to believe this was a field any of them farmed, but putting that aside let’s focus on the Sabbath-violation because that’s what the Pharisees are most concerned about anyway.
            They have Jesus dead to rights. This is a clear violation of the law. More to the point, no holy person—if that’s what Jesus really is—would allow this kind of sacrilege under his sight. It’s an affront to their religion; they might as well be Roman pagans.
            This sets the stage for a conversation that we are still having today. You might not realize it, but this debate between the Pharisees and Jesus is happening in Christianity in the modern world every single day. It is scripture like this around which many of the biggest disagreements between Christians are staged, because it is scripture like this that calls into question the law and the law is a big deal for Christians.
            Here’s what I mean: Imagine a scenario where Jesus agrees with the Pharisees. He says, “Yep. No plucking grain on the Sabbath. You are no longer my disciples. You can’t be disciples because my disciples are perfect followers of the law.”
            Imagine what that would mean. It would mean that we—today—would have no choice but to be orthodox followers of the law if we were to call ourselves Christian. It would mean that the Christian faith was only about making good choices, being good people, following the prescriptions set forth by the law—found in our Bible—and that would be it. End of story. Honor the Sabbath. Period. No excuses. No lake homes. No sports. Nothing. No doing homework. No turning on the TV to watch football. To do any of that would be anti-Christian.
            Imagine a world where Jesus took the law to its fullest conclusion, as he does with the rich man who comes to him and tells him how holy he is—to whom Jesus says, “Give it all away”—and imagine that world without the follow-up, “For mortals it is impossible but for God all things are possible.” This would be an easier faith. It would be about absolute devotion. Christianity would be like Hassidic Judaism or Orthodox Islam. For some, Christianity is exactly like this, even if the devotees of this kind of Christianity often seem to be the biggest hypocrites.
            But for most of us we have, whether we realize it or not, sat with scripture like the one today and begun to ask the question, “What is the purpose of the law?” Is it to make us holy? There are a lot of people who would say “Yes” to that question. They are Christians, Jews, Muslims—some people of all faiths believe this. For them it is about devotion, submission, complete observance. Others have taken scripture like this and said, “It’s a free-for-all! Look, Jesus says there are no rules!” So we have relativists who use the parts of the Bible they find palatable, but as with so many things if you go around the circle of belief far enough you end up in the same place. Relativists, too, tend to judge their worthiness based on how faithful they are to a cause, whatever that cause may be, and so whether you are a right-wing fundamentalist, who claims the ultimate authority of the law, or a left-wing fundamentalist, who claims there is no law, you tend to find yourself in the same place: Justifying yourself by your observance of principles.
            So many people find themselves on one side of the coin or the other, but Jesus—like Jesus always seems to do—straddles that tiny grooved notch between the sides of the coin. Jesus seems to be the only one not at all interested in the things we are doing in and of themselves but instead he turns around and asks the Pharisees (and us along with them), “Why are you doing what you are doing?”
            Plucking grains on the Sabbath in itself could be good or bad. If it’s about your own selfish hungers, if it’s because you planned poorly or because you don’t care about stupid traditions, then it’s a real problem; but if it’s because you’re feeding somebody in need, if it’s because your love of God and the people around you trumps your love of yourself then by all means break the stinking law because the law exists for God, not God for the law. This is a radical statement. Have you thought about this? The law exists for God, not God for the law, which means in every point of the law we are to ask ourselves “Am I observing this law for God or to feel better about myself?” And if it’s the latter then we are condemned even by following the law!
            So, this gets really interesting for us today, because just about every contentious issue we face as Christians exists on this continuum of law and gospel that comes out of scripture like this. And it’s not a free-for-all. We can’t do anything we want, but Jesus does change the rules. The question we face is the same one Jesus implies to the Pharisees: “Why are doing what you are doing?” That might be the biggest question for any Christian to answer. “Why are you doing what you are doing?”
            But the thing about that question is that it’s a personal question. It’s for you and God. Too often our debates in Christian circles become about other people. We like to imagine we have God’s boundaries all figured out, so other people need to get themselves inside the boundaries, but more often our desire for others to get into the box of the law has more to do with us than it has to do with them. How often when somebody talks about sin do we imagine the way we most often sin and then apply it to others?
I’ll give you an example. Some of you may recall the story of the Prodigal Son. Here’s the Cliff notes version: Father gives Son his share of the property, he goes away and squanders it, he returns and the father welcomes him home, and the brother of the Prodigal Son gets his underpants all in a bunch. I want to call attention to the blunt, stupid response of the elder son who gets stark, raving mad at his father for throwing his brother a party—that prodigal son who went away and squandered all his share of the family fortune. The elder son says, “When this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you [threw him a party]” (Luke 15:30). This seems like a valid criticism, except nowhere anywhere in the story does it say the prodigal son did anything with prostitutes or had any sexual endeavors whatsoever. The elder son is projecting his own sinful desires on the brother. He is projecting what he would have done on his brother, because he is assuming his brother’s sin is the same as his own. His brother did mess up but his vices were different. When we assume we know how others sin we are usually only projecting our own sin.
There’s one more example of this that came to mind for me. There’s a cartoon that goes around Facebook in pastors’ circles every once in awhile. I assume it’s only in pastor’s circles because, let’s face it, most of you don’t share pastor-related memes on Facebook because most of you have a life. Anyway, this cartoon has a pastor in the pulpit preaching on the woman at the well, who you might recall is called a “sinful” woman according to scripture, and the pastor says, “And we all know what her sin was…” And in the pews are several men thinking, “Adultery… prostitution… sexual indiscretion...” And then there’s a woman in the back thinking, “Wanting to kill all the men who assume a woman’s sin has to be something to do with sex.”
It’s funny but it’s true. We love to assume sin on other people. Instead, we need to turn again as Jesus would have the Pharisees turn and look inside ourselves and ask “Why am I doing what I am doing?” Not “Why are they doing what they are doing?” It starts, and ends, with me. It’s a lot easier to tell other people about their own shortcomings than it is to deal with your own, and it’s easier still when you become confident in your own standing before God to tell other people that they should be practicing their beliefs just like you. God doesn’t call each of us to be the same. We are called to different things in life and we are called differently to be followers of Christ. To assume otherwise is foolish and it leads to thinking that, “Well, probably only a few people like me will be in heaven.” That, my friends, is blasphemy and its own special kind of sin.
I know because Jesus died so we can forget about nonsense like that. Jesus died so that this law-business is more than wisdom given or taken at a whim, but so that all it is null and void in the face of the grace of the cross and the empty tomb.
            Because of Jesus’ death we are free to live a life worthy of the Gospel, not confined to living a life in worry of the law. We are Easter people; not Pharisees; which means we live on the side of the coin. Not trumpeting the law because we see the sin in others; not saying “Anything goes!” and everything is true; but instead clinging to Jesus as the one way, even as we see Christ in all the unexpected places doing all the unexpected things, even breaking the law. It’s easier to live on one side of the coin or the other, but the one nice thing about living in that challenging place between the law and the gospel is that you have Jesus on your side. And that’s a pretty good thing to have.