Can’t Keep Silent!

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While the Advent journey takes us through an emotional rollercoaster of joy, fear, humility, and anticipation, there is no other emotion to guide the days after Christmas than pure celebration.

 Each of the readings for this time of Christmas call us to take a deep breath of relief, to look around at the beauty of what God has done, and to simply enjoy it.

We have waited patiently for four weeks in this season of Advent and in these fast paced days, a month may seem like an eternity. 

 But our scriptures from Luke for this Sunday tell us of two people who had been waiting their whole lifetimes for the birth of Christ and then who absolutely couldn’t keep silent when they encountered the Christ-child.

  

First of all, a little background about why Mary and Joseph and the newly born Jesus find themselves in Jerusalem in our gospel reading this morning. 

 This probably would have been the second trip that the trio would have made into the holy city – first in order to name their child and to have him circumcised eight days after his birth, and then this second trip – in order for Mary to be purified after the birth according to the law. 

 In the book of Leviticus, the law proclaims that any woman who has given birth would be ceremonially unclean – or unable to worship at the temple or to touch holy things, for 33 days if the child born was a boy, or 66 days if the newly born baby was a girl. 

 While this may seem to be strange – it was actually probably a welcome time of rest and a chance for the new mother and child to bond in peace and quiet.

 But then after that time, the family would come to the temple to make the required offering. 

 Families who could afford to do so would bring a lamb, but there were allowances made for those who were less fortunate.  Scripture tells us that Mary and Joseph were only able to bring a pair of small birds as their gift to God.

 

These trips back and forth, all of this pomp and ceremony, were actually very normal, really, expected parts of what it meant to have a baby.  Mothers and fathers and infants would have been a common sight around the temple as they marked this important time of their lives in God’s presence.

 But in the midst of other mothers and fathers and babies – Luke tells us that two wise old saints- Anna and Simeon – picked this particular trio out of the crowd and knew that they were something special.

 Perhaps it was the fact that Anna and Simeon had been waiting for such a long time to see the Messiah.

 Perhaps they were just more in tune with the power of the Holy Spirit after lifetimes of faithful service to God.

Or maybe they just allowed themselves to be overcome by the joy of the moment and couldn’t help but be silent.

 In any case, both Anna and Simeon rushed to the new parents and their infant son, God-in-the-flesh, and gave praise to God.

  

Who are these people?  And why does Luke record their reactions?

  

Simeon was a man who was filled with the Holy Spirit, and long ago a promise was made to him that he would not see death until the Messiah had come. 

Most people were looking for a leader to rise above the people – a powerful and spiritual figure.  But Simeon was led by God to see that this infant child that crossed his path was something more… and he knew that his promise had been fulfilled.  

 He understood that this child would grow to become not just a light of revelation to his Jewish brothers and sisters, but would be the light of salvation to the entire world.  And the Holy Spirit helped him to understand that this path to salvation would be a heart-breaking journey for Mary and Joseph, but also for God.  

 Now that he had seen the Messiah, he could pass from this world in peace. 

 

 Anna was a prophetess, a woman of God who spent her life worshipping God through fasting and prayer in the temple. 

 It is likely that she had served God in this capacity for nearly sixty years of her lifetime!   

 In those sixty years, surely many babies had passed before her eyes. 

 And while we don’t know of anything particularly special about the way the infant Christ looked, something about this month old child caught Anna’s eye. 

 Her heart was filled with joy and Luke writes that she began to tell the story of this amazing child to everyone that was looking for redemption and hope in the city of Jerusalem.

 Hope has come! Light has entered our midst! was likely her cry.

She may have been eighty-four years old, but she wasn’t going to let anything stop her from sharing what she had experienced.

 Maybe she thought in the back of her mind of our text from Isaiah today: “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest.”

 Her years of prayerful anticipation had been answered, and now she simply couldn’t keep her mouth shut.

  

My question for all of you this afternoon is simple. If an eighty-four year old woman and a dying old man can share the joy of this birth with all of those around her—why shouldn’t we?

 I want to encourage each and every single one of you to go out from this time of worship and to share! To announce! To celebrate!  How God has entered our midst in this Christmas season.

 At dinner, tell a story of something that happened to you or your family this Christmas. 

 Find your neighbor later today and share the joy of Christmas with a hug or a word of encouragement.

 Call your children and tell them about something you are thankful for.

 Talk with the staff here at Wesley Acres and let them know you are still praying for them this Christmas season. 

 God has entered our midst!!!   And as we continue to celebrate the birth of the Christ child, let each one of us continue to proclaim good tidings of great joy…

Build the Church Again

It is the last Sunday of the fair.

The final Sunday of the Olympics.

The last Sunday before the school year starts for our children.

And the final Sunday of our Summer of the Prophets.

 

It might be hard to believe it, but this summer we’ve covered about 400 years of biblical history.  We’ve talked about, in one way or another, fifteen different prophets and their messages from God.  We have journeyed through Judah and Israel, Edom, Assyria, and Babylon.  We have watched the aftermath of a kingdom divided, watched their downfall and destruction.  We have wept with the exiles in Babylon and as they tried to make themselves at home in a foreign land.

 

Today, we get to celebrate that they finally returned home.

 

The Babylonians, you see, that great and mighty kingdom that conquered the world… well, if we remember from our  time in the book of Daniel, they aren’t the be all and end all of the story.  They, too, are conquered… by the Persians.  And the Persians dramatically re-write the story of the people of God.

Unlike many other kingdoms which forced their religion and perspectives on the peoples they defeated, Cyrus the Great of Persia greatly respected the diversity of all of the peoples of the kingdom.  Including their religions.  And so when the Babylonians were conquered, all of the kingdoms they had brought into their fold had the opportunity to return home, and rebuild their own cultures.

Cyrus, king of Persia, is the Messiah in Isaiah’s song of praise. 

Cyrus is the one in 2 Chronicles… a history of the people… that decrees “God, the God of the heavens, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth. He has also assigned me to build him a Temple of worship at Jerusalem in Judah. All who belong to God’s people are urged to return—and may your God be with you! Move forward!” (36:23)

And so the people return home.  If you are curious about their journey and what they experienced as they finally arrived… the process and details of the rebuilding of the temple, I encourage you to check out the books of Ezra and Nehemiah in our scriptures.  Rather than being prophecies, these books are included with the books of Chronicles as a history and testimony of that time. 

 

Haggai, for his part, was called to speak God’s word in Jerusalem after the exiles all returned home.  Darius was the third king of the Persian empire… coming to power after Cyrus’s son failed in a complicated game of thrones.    What is important for our story, is that Darius continued the policies of the previous rules and allowed the people he ruled to practice their own religions and cultures – even giving grants from the royal treasury for this work. 

In fact, the temple in Jerusalem was funded by the Persian kingdom.   Cyrus sent the Judeans back home to begin building it, but the work didn’t begin quickly. 

The people were preoccupied by their own households.  They were worried about a drought.  They focused on themselves instead of on God.

And so, once again, God’s word comes to the people through a prophet… Haggai.  In this short, two chapter book, Haggai helps the people understand the urgency of the need to rebuild the temple. 

Then the Lord’s word came, “Is it time for you to dwell in your own paneled houses while this house lies in ruins? … rebuild the temple so that I may enjoy it and that I may be honored.” (1: 4, 8b)

The people heard…. and in September of 521 BCE the rebuilding of the temple began.

 

In the passage that we are focusing on today, God provides words of encouragement to the people in this process. 

Generations had come and gone in exile.  Not many… if any… were alive during the time of the Judean kingdom or who had seen the previous temple.  They were in uncharted waters, unsure of what came next.

And these words were a reminder that God was in control. 

Be strong! 

Work, for I am with you!

My spirit stands in your midst!

Don’t fear!

I make the heavens and the earth quake and I will fill this house with glory. 

 

When I think about church today and the rebuilding of the temple, I for one am incredibly grateful to all of those who have maintained and planned and cared for this church building that we worship in.  Just yesterday, people gave their time to help renovated and rejuvenate this space in preparation for fall. 

This house is not lying in ruins.  We have been faithful stewards of this physical space and honor God through our care of this space. 

 

But, as we have heard in so many of the prophets recently, the temple, the church, is about far more than the building. 

Giving honor and glory to God far more about about creating room for God to dwell in your heart and your life than about bricks and mortar. 

And it is a lot more difficult as well. 

It is far easier to focus on our professional development than our faith development.

We are often preoccupied with our recreational life and don’t take time for our spiritual life.

We experience droughts in the form of finances or stress or illness and they become excuses that keep us from doing the hard work of building a relationship with God.

And so Haggai speaks to us, too.

Only we don’t need to build a structure for God to live in… we need to build on our commitment to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength.

 

And just as God spoke to the Judeans, God speaks to us:

Be strong! 

Work, for I am with you!

My spirit stands in your midst!

Don’t fear!

I make the heavens and the earth quake and I will fill this house… I will fill your life… with glory. 

 

 

Just as we are coming to the close of the summer and so many exciting things we have done and seen and shared, so, too, are we coming to the start of something new.  

A new school year.

A new Sunday morning schedule.

A new focus on discipleship in our church and what it means to live out our faith and follow Jesus. 

And we are going to challenge you to step up and step out in faith.

We are going to wrestle with what it means to put God first in our lives.

We are going to ask one another if we are really living lives of love, service, and prayer.

 

You see, God is doing a new thing in our midst.   

God wants to build this church again.  Build our faith again.  Build our hearts again.   

 

Maybe your relationship with God is like a house that has been neglected for too long.

Maybe your faith life is in shambles.

Maybe the windows have been boarded over or the roof is caving in.

Maybe structurally you don’t know where to start picking up the pieces and starting over.

Maybe you are like the Judeans who are heading to a home that was never really theirs to begin with and you have no idea what this is supposed to look like.

You are not alone.

We all have to start somewhere and as a church, this fall, we are going to explore our faith life one piece at a time.

We are going to celebrate where we are, and then lay out a plan and help each other grow. 

One step at a time. 

One choice at a time.

One day at a time.

 

The God who can shake the heavens and the earth can shake up our church and our hearts, too.  God will do this work in our lives, if we just give the spirit room to move… 

Because as God reminds us at the end of the book of Haggai…. I have chosen you. 

 

We didn’t chose God.  God chose us. 

God chose you.  And God wants to build this church with you and you and you.  Thanks be to God. Amen.

The Beloved Community

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Today, we enter the world of Micah… a prophet from the late 8th century…  just over 700 years before Christ.

And to put ourselves in Micah’s shoes, I want you to imagine with me for a moment a world that is under great stress.

Imagine pressure coming from an aggressive empire or state that believes their success is determined by how far they expand their influence and power and who will stop at nothing to do so.

Imagine attacks upon nations’ capitols.  Imagine an influx of refugees. Imagine increased social stresses. Imagine those attacks that were far away and in other places suddenly taking place in your own homeland.

 

Maybe we don’t really have to imagine, do we.

 

Like Isaiah, Micah wrote from the Southern Kingdom, Judah, and witnessed the downfall of the Northern Kingdom, Israel.    And also like Isaiah, there are sections of this short book of scripture that seem to come from AFTER the time of Judah’s own destruction and exile two hundred years later, possibly updated by others.

And that is because Micah, like so many of our prophets, is lifting up a timeless theme that is just as relevant today as it was 2700 years ago.  We, too, could update the names of nations and rulers and find ourselves right here in this text, right now.

The judgments and accusations against Samaria… against Jerusalem… those capital cities of these ancient nations… they could be leveled against Washington, D.C. or Des Moines, Iowa as well.

So let us hear them…  Let us hear these judgments and lift up our confession

We seek God in all the wrong places (1:5)… like Pastor Jennifer said last week, we often turn to everything but God in order to fill that God-shaped hole in our heart.  Whether it is the abuse of drugs or sex, Netflix binges or self-help books, we have a spiritual hunger that we seek to fill in so many ways EXCEPT by seeking God.  Forgive us, O God.

We exploit the work of others and we tear down their homes… even the meager homes and tents of the most vulnerable among us (2:1-2).  Here in Des Moines, we know the homeless are among us and yet our official city policy is to keep evicting the homeless camps, knowing that there is nowhere else for these people to go.  We do not have enough beds and shelter spaces or a long-term strategy in place.  Forgive us, O God.

We turn to prophets who say all the things we want to hear, instead of what we need to hear (2:11).  I think one of the biggest symptoms of this is the echo chambers we find ourselves in… only paying attention to the news or science or reports that we agree with and only being friends with those who share our opinions.  Forgive us, O God.

Our public officials who should guard justice are corrupt and take advantage of the very people they should be serving (3:2-3). No matter which sides of the political spectrum we are on, we recognize politics is a dirty business.  Unlike the political landscape of Micah’s day, we live in a democracy and have the unprecedented opportunity to hold our public officials accountable through our votes and yet, so often we choose not to exercise that right.  Forgive us, O God.

The pastors and religious leaders serve the highest bidder, yet claim to be serving and proclaiming God’s will (3:11).  Too often, our religious leaders try to whittle all of scripture down to a single issue and claim this is the only issue that matters above all else, and then use that one issue to influence our people and our politics.  I believe in doing so, we are neglecting the breadth and depth of God’s call to us as God’s people.  So for the times I have done this, Forgive me, O God.

 

What the prophet Micah offers to us are not simply words of condemnation and judgement, but also a vision of what true community in God could look like.  Micah calls us to a different way of living and being in this world. Micah paints a picture of the beloved community… a sort of antidote to all of the spiritual, political, and economic sins of our day.

That term, “beloved community,” was often used by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as a description of the ends sought by the civil rights movement.  In that time of turmoil and unease, he relied upon the wisdom of the prophets to help show the way forward.  And because the goal of the movement was redemption and reconciliation, the only path forward, Dr. King believe, was a path of nonviolence.  It was the only means that would seek the ends of God.

He proclaimed:  “the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community.  It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opposers into friends…. it is agape which is understanding goodwill for all men.  It is an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return.  It is the love of God working in the lives of men.  This is the love that may well be the salvation of our civilization.”

Now, that passage is from his 1957 message called, “The Role of the Church in Facing the Nation’s Chief Moral Dilemma.”

Right now, as a nation have a moral dilemma.  We have neglected the vulnerable. We demonize our opponents.  We are afraid of one another. We are unable or unwilling to speak out when we see our neighbors oppressed.

And, we, the church, are called to say something… to do something… to be active agents of God’s redemptive power in this place.

We, too, need to hear again the call of the prophets, the vision of God’s kingdom so that WE can live in the kind of way that might bring salvation to our civilization.

 

And in Micah’s vision, there are three things that we, the church, can do.

First, we need to stop waiting for our leaders and we need to go to the house of God, to learn from God and walk in God’s path.

We have to get deeper into our scriptures.  We need to sit with our bibles and in prayer and ask for God’s guidance.  If Pastor Jennifer is right, and I believe she is, that the moral famine of our world is preceded by our spiritual famine, then we need to start being fed once again by God’s word.   So make Sunday mornings a priority in your family and come to not only worship and fellowship, but get involved with a study.  Participate in a  life group.  Find a friend and pray together once a week. Ask daily for God to guide you.

Second, we need to set aside violence and bloodshed and stop being afraid.

We might not walk around with spears or swords, but our own weapons today include more than guns.  As Bishop Jonathan Keaton preached at our North Central Jurisdictional Conference, social media has allowed for daily combat.  We fire off shots like snipers towards unseen and nameless others.  We bully and taunt with a few taps of our fingers.  And we escalate conflict, learning war and hatred from one another instead of seeking the ways of peace.

Seeking nonviolent interaction with our neighbors or enemies is about more than refusing to physically strike them.  It is also refusing to impart spiritual or emotional blows.  It is about choosing to see your opponent as a child of God.  It is about choosing love over fear or hate.

And finally, we can live a life of worship.  A life, in our language, of love, service, and prayer.

Micah describes this life of worship, not in rituals meant to appease God, but in every waking moment we live out the greatest commandments… to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength and to love our neighbor as ourselves.

We worship by doing justice.

We worship by loving kindness.

We worship by walking humbly with God.

Or as the Message translation puts it:  Do what is fair and just to your neighbor.  Be compassionate and loyal in your love. And don’t take yourself too seriously… take God seriously!

Will the entire world be transformed if we do these things?  Not overnight.  But we can never get to that beloved community… we will never see God’s kingdom lived out right here on earth if we never take the first step.

If you are seeking an instruction manual or the blueprints for the beloved community it’s right here:

God’s made it plain how to live, what to do, what God is looking for in men and women.

Do justice.

Love kindness.

Walk humbly with God.

Serve. Love. Pray. Every single day. Amen.

Light of the World

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The prophet Isaiah is a difficult person to pinpoint.

Unlike some of the other prophets we have covered so far, where we understood who they were and when they were speaking, there has been great debate about whether the entire “Book of Isaiah” was in fact written by one person.

Whether the book is all written by one person, who wrote before and after the Babylonian exile… or if it was written by different prophets all within the school of Isaiah, may not entirely matter.

What is important is that we can divide the book of Isaiah into distinct sections that have some distinct messages.

 

Go ahead and open that pew Bible that is in front of you… or open it in the app on your smart phone.

 

First Isaiah, or the “Isaiah of Jerusalem” was a prophet about 700 years before the birth of Christ.  He was called to be a prophet in the Southern kingdom of Judah.

The message of First Isaiah can be found in chapters 1-39… although there are a few chapters that include material by the other “Isaiahs”.

Second Isaiah’s work focuses on chapters 34 & 35 and 40-55 and take place after the destruction of Judah and Jerusalem around 540 years before the birth of Christ.  The prophecies come near the end of the time of exile and captivity and these chapters are full of words of comfort and reassurance that they will soon return home.

Third Isaiah’s work focuses on chapters 24-27 and 56-66 and take place when the exile ends.  They remind the people that returning home will not be easy or simple.

 

For today, we are going to focus on First Isaiah, chapters 1-39.  First Isaiah understood that God’s home, God’s favor, God’s delight was Jerusalem.  And as such, the kings of the Davidic line that ruled from the capital of Judah, Jerusalem, were also divinely favored.

If you remember from last week, the Northern Kingdom, Israel, had rejected the heirs of David and Solomon and had set up their own capital at Samaria and temple at Bethel.

But the Southern Kingdom, Judah, remained true to the line of David and the temple and capital at Jerusalem.

One of First Isaiah’s central beliefs was that, “while Jerusalem and its king may suffer punishment for sin, God’s chosen city will never be utterly destroyed, nor will King David’s dynasty fall.” (The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, 955)

 

And punishment abounded.

As First Isaiah was called to proclaim:

“How the faithful city has become a whore!  She that was full of justice, righteousness lodged in her – but now murderers!  Your silver has become dross, your wine is mixed with water. Your princes are rebels and companions of thieves. Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts.  They do not defend the orphan, and the widow’s cause doesn’t come before them. “

“Therefore says the Sovereign, the Lord of hosts, the Mighty One of Israel: Ah, I will pour out my wrath on my enemies, and avenge myself on my foes!” (1:21-24)

First Isaiah finds himself called by God to remind the Kings Uzziah, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, to return to the Lord, to repent of their ways and turn to God.  If not, the wrath of God would be felt in the land.

The Lord was their only source of protection and only by trusting in God would they be saved from attacks from outside their borders.

But time and time again, the Kings chose to find security in weapons and alliances instead of in the Lord. They sought protections from Assyrian against Aram and Israel, and eventually found themselves as a vassal state instead of their own nation.  The land was ravaged. Jerusalem was preserved only by God’s grace… but barely… and only because it is the delight of the Lord.

 

It is in this context that First Isaiah speaks the prophecy we find in chapter 9:

But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish.  In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.  The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.

This small corner of the land – the tribal lands of Zebulun and Naphtali – were some of those ravaged by the wars of Aram and Israel.  There wasn’t much there, and one scholar notes it was a place where they “fought their wars so ‘nothing important’ was disturbed. (http://www.umcdiscipleship.org/worship/lectionary-calendar/third-sunday-after-the-epiphany4)

As later conquerors came in, the culture of this place was so diluted and transformed by the influx of peoples and languages so that there was no unity.  As Rev. Dawn Chesser writes: “Keep the mix of languages and cultures there mixed enough, and oppressed enough, and no one of them will have the strength or the urge to resist the new overlords.”

This is why it is “the land of deep darkness.”

It is a place that was hopeless.

It was a place that desperately needed good news.

 

First Isaiah firmly believed that in spite of the cycle of sin and punishment, wrath and forgiveness, God would never forsake Jerusalem.  Even if this was a time of struggle and conflict, God’s ultimate plan was that the line of King David would reign.

And that promise, that hope, was a light shining in the darkness.

 

John Wesley, a founder of the United Methodist Church, said that the scripture is twice inspired… once when written and again when it is read.

And I think that is a good reminder to think of when we read these prophecies from the Old Testament.

The prophets were by and large speaking to the people and context, the situations of their day.

In this beautiful hymn about light in the darkness, about a son being given for us, about the endless peace for the throne of David… First Isaiah was probably not thinking about the birth of Jesus.

This was likely a hymn written for the coronation of King Hezekiah, who First Isaiah believed would return the land to God.

First Isaiah, if you remember, had this really high view of the monarchy. He believed the kings were divinely called and eternally chosen by God.  And these words were full of hope and promise that the forsaken lands of Galilee, indeed ALL the lands, would be reunited under Hezekiah’s royal leadership.

 

But if we take seriously the idea that God can inspire the people as we read the scriptures, too, then it is understandable how early Christians, notably Luke and Matthew, remembered these words, remembered this prophecy, and saw it being lived out once again in the birth of Jesus Christ.

And so we find in the gospel of Matthew that this text is quoted and Jesus symbolically begins his ministry in that once and again occupied land of Zebulon and Napthali… before by the Assyrians and in the time of the gospels by the Romans.

And we find in Luke the promise this light in the darkness, this child that is born for us will deliver us from bondange and will uphold the Kingdom of David forever.

 

Even today, whenever we open these pages of scripture, God speaks.

You can read the same passage twenty different times in your life and every time you might have a new insight or learn something new about yourself or about God.

And that is because these words are alive.

These promises were true yesterday and they are just as true today and they will be tomorrow.

 

We are tempted to leave these old prophecies on the shelves, to forget about their harsh words and judgements, to leave the wrath of God with the prophets and to instead focus on the gospel.

But these words, though spoken to a particular context, still have meaning for our context today.

As we watch political ads on our televisions, I am reminded that we live in a time of political unrest and deception.

As I heard news that Iowa is now ranked last in our care for the mentally ill, I am reminded that we live in a land that has forgotten the most vulnerable.

As we watch the fallout from Brexit, some might say that we, as people of this earth pursue our own self-interest ahead of the needs of others.

Whenever we fill out houses with things we don’t need instead of generously letting go, we are putting greed ahead of compassion.

Our weapons, our security systems, our locks are reminders that we rely upon our own strength instead of relying upon God.

First Isaiah’s words need to be spoken into our midst today just as much as they did 2700 years ago.

And the call to be God’s people from Isaiah chapter 2 is a call that still echoes across this land today…

Come, let’s go up to the Lord’s mountain,     to the house of Jacob’s God         so that we may be taught God’s ways         and we may walk in God’s paths.” Instruction will come from Zion;     the Lord’s word from Jerusalem. God will judge between the nations,     and settle disputes of mighty nations. Then they will beat their swords into iron plows     and their spears into pruning tools. Nation will not take up sword against nation;     they will no longer learn how to make war.

Come, house of Jacob,     let’s walk by the Lord’s light.

I am NOT a prophet

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In 1908, a mining disaster in Monogah, West Virginia claimed the lives of 361 men.

250 of those men were fathers and nearly one thousand children in the area were suddenly fatherless.

And along comes Grace Golden Clayton, a Methodist, who had recently lost her own father.

She felt a call to do something, to say something… and so the first observance of “Father’s Day” was held at her church, the Williams Memorial Methodist Episcopal Church South on July 5, 1908.

Ordinary people are sometimes called to speak extraordinary things.

 

There were, in the time of Amos, professional prophets who lived in bands and studied with one another in guilds. They would often lift up apprentices, like Elijah did with Elisha, and sometimes the trade was passed from one generation to the next.  Often, they found their place near power… much like the prophets of Baal in the court of Ahab and Jezebel.

Amos was not one of these professionals.  As we hear loud and clear in our scripture this morning: “I am not a prophet, nor am I a prophet’s son: I am a shepherd and a trimmer of sycamore trees.” Amos 7: 14

And yet he is called by God to go toe-to-toe with the royal priest Amaziah. He is called to speak uncomfortable truths to those with power.  There is no community at his back, just him and God’s word.

 

And it is not an easy word.  Everything is hunky-dory for the elite and powerful of Israel. Life is good.

And that is precisely the problem.

In the words God speaks to Amos:  I won’t hold back punishment, because they have sold the innocent for silver, and those in need for a pair of sandals.  They crush the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and pus the afflicted out of the way.” (Amos 2: 6-7).

All of their wealth and comfort has come at the expense of the poor and afflicted.

They are fat and happy as cows, lounging around on couches, singing idle songs, drinking wine and buying expensive oils for their bodies… and they couldn’t care less about the suffering of others. (Amos 6:1-7)

Plague after plague was sent upon Israel… God’s way of gently pushing the people back onto the right path… Over and over God was calling the people to return and they refused.  They were too comfortable right where they were.

 

We live in a world of reality television, Netflix binging, and crowded airwaves.   We live in a time of consumer pleasure where everything can be bought for a price.  We live in an era of slacktivism… where we think that signing our name to an online petition or sharing an article on social media means that we are changing the world.  In spite of our own personal struggles, compared with the world… compared with history… we are fat and happy as cows, too.

The world of Amos was not all that different from ours.

 

One of the powerful images given to Amos in his vision in our scripture this morning is that of a plumb line.  As we demonstrated with the children this morning, the plumb line shows where adjustments need to be made.  The plumb line shows where things are out of whack.  The plumb line shows whether or not our foundations will be strong and lasting.

God was building a nation out of the people of Israel – a nation that would show the world how to live.

God wanted Israel to be a people who cared for the poor and oppressed.

God wanted Israel to let justice roll down like water and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

And just because Israel is set-apart and called to be God’s people doesn’t mean they are immune from judgement.

God desires true community and justice for ALL peoples, not just Israel, and holds all nations accountable to that same standard…  but perhaps there is no greater disappointment than when the one whom you love the best, the one you’ve chosen lets you down.

The walls of Israel are out of alignment.  The structure will no longer hold.  And so it needs to be torn down so that it can be rebuilt.

 

Sometimes, when we think about the Old Testament, we think of it as the collection of laws and judgment and so we write it off, because we have the New Testament… which is full of love and grace.

But that is to misunderstand both judgment and grace.

Both are acts of love.

They are two sides of the same coin.

Judgement helps you to have an accurate picture of where you are and where you should be and grace is the transformative power that moves you from here to there.

Tearing down the walls so that they can be rebuilt… better, stronger, more faithfully, is an act of love.

An act of love both towards the wayward elite who are full of sin and pride…. AND an act of love towards all of those whom they have trampled on in their climb to the top.

 

The world of Amos was not that different from ours.  And a plumb line is being held up in our midst, too.

 

I’m going to be completely honest that I stand in this pulpit today with a little bit of fear and trembling in my heart.

Much like how Grace Golden Clayton, who was very shy must have felt when she approached her pastor about starting a Father’s Day Commemoration.

Much like Amos must have felt when God sent him to the royal court of Jeroboam in the Northern Kingdom of Israel.

I am not a prophet.

I’m a pastor… which ironically comes from the Latin… meaning shepherd.

So I resonate with Amos.

When Amaziah threatens him and sends him away for speaking a word against the king, Amos answers:

“I am not a prophet… I’m a shepherd… but the Lord took me from shepherding the flock and the Lord said to me, God, prophesy to my people Israel.”

 

Friends, I am not a prophet.  I don’t want to be a prophet.

I have felt a call all of my life to be someone who stands firmly in the middle to help bring ALL of the sheep into the fold.  Black sheep, white sheep, grey sheep, brown sheep… they are all precious children of God and I have felt a call to care for them… to care for you.

At various points in my life, I have been the type of leader who finds a way for every voice to be heard, who finds a middle way in the midst of difference, and who seeks to keep everyone engaged and involved.

Yet, as a shepherd, as a pastor, I also am keenly aware that there are sheep who have left the flock… who have wandered away… or who have been scared away by the other sheep.

 

Last week as we gathered for worship, I didn’t yet know about the tragedy that had taken place in the night in Orlando.  Even as we worshipped that morning, more names, more lives were added to the death toll.

And all week, my heart has been broken by this massacre… by the taking of so many young, vibrant, lives.

But I think one of the things that has truly broken my heart is that I wonder if they knew that God loved them.

 

You’ve heard me talk about how we are called to love all people many many many times from this pulpit.  And so maybe you know that when I say that, I mean the lives of gay and lesbian, trans and queer, bisexual, asexual, pansexual, intersex… the whole alphabet of our lives, too.  But if you didn’t, I’m saying it.  God loves you, too.

But I have watched as friends I love have left the church because they were not accepted for who they were.  I have watched colleagues have to hide who they are in fear… and I’ve watched them come out and claim their identity… even if it means that they might lose their credentials.

Yesterday, one of my friends posted on facebook that a fourteen year old trans* child in her last congregation took their life.

Several researchers have found that faith is associated with a lower chance of risky behavior and suicide among youth.  Religious teenagers are less likely to kill themselves than their peers… unless they are gay.

If they are LGBT+ and religious, they are actually more likely to take their own life.

And its because too often, they feel rejected, at the core of who they are, by their faith families.

As we have learned as the week went on that the perpetrator of this act of hate and terror was likely also someone who wrestled with his own sexuality and took out his pain and hatred on the lives of innocent people, I can’t help but think about that statistic.

 

This past week, I’ve been forced to hold up a plumb line to how we, as people of faith, truly welcome LGBT+ folks.

Do our sons and daughters, grandchildren and neighbors know that God loves them? Are they welcome here, in this place, in this sanctuary?

Monday, I came here in the sanctuary to pray and to cry and to grieve for the loss sustained last weekend… to grieve for them and their families… the moms and the dads whose children were taken from them…. For the ones whose own parents didn’t know that they gay… who didn’t know that there in the dance club was the only safe place they could be themselves.

And I was struck by how this tragedy also lived at the intersection of color and sexuality and how violence disproportionally impacts people of color.  And I was struck by how the lives lost on that morning are only a fraction of the lives taken because of homophobia and hatred.  And I heard the call to reach out to my friends and colleagues, my family, my neighbors and to simply say these words:  I love you.  I see you.  I care about you.  You are beautiful and beloved by God.  You are worthy.  You are not alone.  If you need me, I’ll be here.

 

Too often, acts of violence and tragedy come and go with the news cycle in our nation.  We say a prayer and then turn our attention back to something more entertaining.

And in that we are absolutely no different than the people of Israel in the time of Amos.  We turn our backs on the downtrodden and the marginalized.  We say all the right words and then go right back to doing what we have always done and nothing ever changes.

Stephen Colbert, in his opening monologue on Monday night talked about how we accept that script and become paralyzed by despair, but then he said these words, which I leave us with today:

Well I don’t know what to do, but I do know that despair is a victory for hate. Hate wants us to be too weak to change anything. Now these people in Orlando were apparently targeted because of who they love. And there have been outpourings of love throughout the country and around the world. Love in response to hate. Love does not despair. Love makes us strong. Love gives us the courage to act. Love gives us hope that change is possible. Love allows us to change the script. So love your country, love your family, love the families of the victims and the people of Orlando, but let’s remember that love is a verb, and to love means to do something.

 

We hold up the plumb line today and I can’t help but wonder if changing the script means to tear down the walls built on hate, injustice and oppression… tearing them down and starting over as a people who share the love of God with every single person… who create a wide space in this church, in this building for all of God’s people.

Amen and Amen.

 

Cries for Healing

“I alone am left. “

That was what Elijah had started to believe in his heart, as Trevor shared with our congregation last week.

But Elijah was not alone.  He was not the last of the faithful prophets.

In fact, right there in that very cave, Elijah hears the name of the one who would succeed him – Elisha.

Elisha was no one special.  He was the son of a wealthy land-owner but not immune to labor and work.  And so when he is called, he tells his family goodbye and follows Elijah. For seven or eight years, he serves as his apprentice until Elijah is taken up into heaven by a fiery chariot and Elisha takes up his mantle.

And all summer, we will be exploring the everyday people who received an extraordinary calling to serve God in their time and place.

 

Lest we forget that these are simply every day people, one of the very first “miraculous” acts that Elisha performs is to get revenge on a bunch of kids that call him “Baldy.”

In 2 Kings chapter 2 – Elisha is walking down the road when a group of young people start taunting him for his lack of hair… “Get going, Baldy!  Get going Baldy!”

So, he curses them and bears appear out of nowhere and attack the youth.

No one is perfect.

 

Elisha answers his call to guide the people by warning the kingdom of ambushes, and has a role in the downfall of the house of Ahab.  He speaks God’s word about who will be king in both Israel and in Syria.

In the midst of political intrigue and the constant fighting between nations, Elisha’s story is also deeply woven with signs that the power of God was present in the lives of the people.  He was a great wonder-worker and filled with the Spirit of God he brings healing and resurrection, he multiplies loaves and creates food in the midst of famine. Water springs forth with a word and a song. And these miracles are for both the leaders and for the overlooked and downtrodden.

I find great comfort in that.

Because in our time and place, like Elisha’s, famines and disaster, war and politicking are an ever present reality.  The problems of this world are so big and seem so out of our control.

And sometimes it is hard to even imagine that God would listen to the cries of someone like me… like us.

But in the midst of even our individual pain and brokenness… God is present.

 

One of the most famous of these miracles of healing done by Elisha was that of the Aramean military commander, Naaman.  He was a great warrior and helped to lead raiding parties into Israel to capture and conquer.  Yet he lived with leprosy, a skin disease that greatly bothered him.

In our text for this morning, we discover a number of ways in which God works to bring healing to our lives… in spite of our preconceptions, our pride, and our inability to see the providential love of God at work.

 

First, God brings healing through providential bystanders.

Donald McKim describes God’s providence as “God preserving creation, cooperating with all creatures and guiding or governing all things toward the accomplishment of God’s purposes.”   Or, as Carrie Mitchell puts it:  “God employs ordinary people to act in extraordinary ways.”

 

In the story of Naaman, it is the voice of a young Israelite woman, a servant in Naaman’s household that points his way towards healing.

She has no name in this story and she had been captured and taken far from home, against her will.  And yet, in spite of her lack of power or agency, she allows God to use her to bless another.

I’ve been thinking a lot about bystanders this week, especially in the wake of the national conversation about the Stanford sexual assault case.  Two young men, who happened to be passing by, made a difference in that young woman’s life.

One of the realities of our human story is that we are not immune from pain and violence, tragedy and illness.  Our bodies our fragile, our spirits are bent towards sin, and we harm one another through our action and inaction.

But we also have the fantastic capacity to help.  In those moments when we become aware of the pain, suffering, and tragedy of another, God is guiding us, directing us, shouting out for us to hear the call to be a difference maker and work towards healing and hope in another’s life.

It is the prompting of the Spirit that causes us to turn around when we would have walked past.  It is that tug of the heart that calls us to speak a word of comfort or to reach out with a personal touch.

And that is exactly what the young servant girl did.  She knew the power of God was with Elisha and so she used her voice to speak a word of good news to her troubled master.

You may be an ordinary person, but wherever you are, if you are paying attention, God can and will use you to bring healing and hope into another person’s life.   Maybe God is calling you to visit someone or to pray for them.  Maybe God is inviting you to point someone in a different direction or refer them to someone who can help.

Pay attention to where you might be in just the right place at just the right time to bring healing and hope.

 

Second, God’s healing is bigger than our faith.

One of the fascinating parts of this story is that it is about the healing of an enemy.

That young servant girl is only in Naaman’s household because she was captured on a raid.  There is conflict and distrust between Israel and Aram… further evidenced by the way in which the King of Israel tore his clothes when the request for healing came.  He thought it must have been a trap, an enticement to war… rather than an opportunity to show the power of his God.

The king’s distrust in this moment put both his enemy AND his God into a box.

When we look upon another person and are not willing to see the possibility of transformation in their life, it is easy to write them off.  We do it with enemies, but we also do it with people who have disappoint us, or who are different than us.

And when we are not willing to see God work in the lives of the people we have written off, then we miss the opportunity for transformation in our own lives.

Last fall, I was part of the Right Next Door conference and we explored what it means to really listen to the stories and lives of people who are just down the street.  Sometimes, the label we attach to another person:  poor, felon, addicted… keep us from sharing the transforming love of God with them… AND keep us from seeing how the transforming love of God is already at work in their lives.

When we read this story of Naaman, what we discover is that the point is not even the healing of Naaman, but the way that Naaman is brought to faith because of the healing he experienced.  Elisha offers to heal him, even though he’s not part of the elect of Israel. Even though he is an enemy.  Even though he doesn’t believe in Elisha’s God.  And as Naaman returns from the river, he declares:  “Now I know for certain that there’s no God anywhere on earth except in Israel.”

And if we refuse to see God working in the lives of the other, we miss the opportunity to be transformed ourselves.

 

Finally, God’s healing doesn’t always look the way we want it to.

This is perhaps the most important lesson of our scripture this morning.

As Naaman finally got the opportunity to meet Elisha, he was greeted by a servant instead of the prophet.

The instructions seemed too simple and Naaman stomped away in anger.

When we pray for healing, we are initiating a conversation with God and the answer we get back is not always the answer that we want.

Healing does not always happen according to our plans and I have no simple answers as to why that is.

Sometimes we get miracles.  Sometimes we are invited into a difficult journey that is full of joy and sorrow.  Sometimes healing comes in the next life instead of this one.

All that we know is that this scripture, as Haywood Barringer Spangler puts it: “discourages our tendancy to look for God’s work in terms of our own desires or expectations. Naaman’s healing does not occur as he expects, but as God chooses.”

We are not immune from tragedy and we cannot always see God’s picture of this world.

Prayer is not a magic word.  Rather, it is a relationship where we both cry out and we must be silent and listen.  When we pray for healing we stay in the conversation, in a relationship with our God so that we might be comforted in our suffering and so that we might start to hear and understand God’s will is in the midst of our pain.

 

Today, we have the opportunity to pray for one another.  We have the opportunity to bring our prayers and concerns, our hurts and pains and to place them in God’s hands.

May we be the answer to another’s prayers.  May we look for God to work in unexpected people and places.  And may we listen as much as we speak so that we can understand God’s healing presence in our own lives.

 

Amen.

 

Accidental author #NaBloPoMo

As one writing discipline ends, another begins.

It has been good to return to regular blogging through the National Blog Post Month prompts. I have not been entirely consistent, but at least I never gave up.

Today, I had invites to share in two advent disciplines: one writing prayers and the other reflecting on a word each day. They both speak to me, so I might switch back and forth between the two.

Today’s advent word is “write”.

Much of our focus in scripture this time of year is on the prophecies of the Hebrew Scriptures. As we wait for Jesus to be born in our midst, we look back to those who were also watching and waiting.

What must it have been like to write those prophecies? Did they have any sense of the import of their words? Were they speaking with eyes focused only on their present reality… yet by the Spirit transformed into promises for every person in every time?

Today, when we write of our longing and hope for God to come down and tear open the heavens in places like Ferguson and Sierra Leone and Syria and under the bridges of Des Moines, are we merely echoing voices of the past? Are we speaking God’s word for this moment? Will our words carry meaning centuries from today?

I am merely an accidental author. I didn’t set out to write. But I find fulfilment in it. I speak from my life. I don’t really need anyone to read the work. Yet, sometimes a piece speaks to someone. The holy spirit moves. Something bigger than a girl with a blog is taking place.

And I wonder if folks like Isaiah and Nahum were really that much different. Were they just ordinary people, doing an ordinary thing, that by the power of God was transformed into something completely different?

I guess what I’m trying to say is this… If any sermon or blog or book of mine speaks to you, it probably has very little to do with me and everything to do with the how the Holy Spirit goes to work in our lives… translating, interpreting, transforming. I’m just an accidental author.

Hebrews Part 4: Jesus the Priest?

I. Introduction
A. Talking about who Jesus is – Christology and Atonement
B. [SLIDE] Already the book of Hebrews has told us some things about who Jesus is. He was with God before the foundations of the earth. He is the Son of God. And for a time, he was made a little lower than the angels – took human form and lived among us. He took on our life and because of what he has done for us, we are now children of God.
C. [SLIDE] We recalled how easily we forget what God has done for us. Like the Hebrew people in the desert, we wander and grumble and always want something else than the rest, the grace, that has been prepared for us. But Christ cuts through all of our excuses and denials and speaks to our heart, shows us the right path, if only we are willing to listen.
D. The answer begins with chapter 4 verse 14. Jesus is the great, high priest and we are invited to approach the throne of grace with boldness to find mercy and grace in time of need.
E. [SLIDE] Last week we did some background work and looked at different ways that we understand what Jesus did on the cross – go over them quickly
F. [SLIDE] This week, we are going to go even deeper. We are going to move on to some of the harder stuff – the meat, instead of the milk.

II. [SLIDE] What does Hebrews in particular have to say?

The author is writing to a bunch of Jewish Christians – they are people who have grown up their entire lives sitting in the synagogue listening to teachers read out of the Torah. They have made countless visits to Jerusalem to the temple to worship and sacrifice. But now, these people are also Christian. And they are having a hard time putting together the two parts of their lives – their old temple worship and their new faith in Jesus. And so he uses the ways God has spoken to us in the past to show how Jesus is the way that God is speaking in our future.

A key way that he does this is represented by this image right here. Does anyone know what this is? The ark of the covenant! This would have been located in the midst of the temple as the Jews came to Jerusalem to worship and to offer sacrifices. So when we hear in 4:14 – approach the throne of grace with boldness to find mercy… this is literally the mercy seat, where the grace of God is received.

Other important point – copies and shadows of the heavenly things.

III. Three main roles of Jesus as Prophet, Priest & King [SLIDE] –

A. [SLIDE] Jesus as Prophet (vs 1:1-4)
1). You think you had prophets in Israel… well Jesus is a true prophet.
2). Restores our knowledge of God’s will for our lives
3). Messenger of God’s true will – Announcement, message of deliverance
4). AND – Jesus is THE WORD
5). SLIDE] Gives authentic picture of God’s work of creation and redemption

B. [SLIDE] Jesus as Priest
1). What is the role of the priest in Israel? Think back to the three atonements… satisfaction, return of the righteous order
2). Mediation between God and humans
3). Why is Jesus a better priest? Priests die – Jesus doesn’t = all time; High Priest only one allowed into the holiest of holies sinned & had to cleanse himself – Jesus doesn’t. High Priest offered blood of goats and bulls and ashes – but Jesus offers his own blood – without blemish to purify our hearts.
4). Importance of Melchizadek
5). Jesus once for all.

C. Jesus as King
1). David as King, but also Melchizadek as King (of righteousness and peace)
2). Reign of God – restoration of our humanity and place in the community
3). New covenant…

IV. Conclusion

In light of all of these things, the writer of Hebrews reminds us: 19 Therefore, my friends,* since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, 20by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), 21and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. 23Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. 24And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, 25not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

This idea of encouragement is especially important, because there is also an idea in Hebrews that once we have been cleansed from our sin – once that sacrifice is made, that’s it. We get one chance. If we continue in our sin – then we are subject to the judgment. Next week we will talk about how that challenge – to live without sin, to live in the faith is carried out.