Monday, February 13, 2017

Jonah: God Loves Us Anyways

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Jonah 3:1-10:

Last week in our series on the 12 Minor Prophets, we heard from Obadiah, probably the least known, and definitely the least read of the minor prophets, and a reminder that the term minor here does not have anything to do with importance, but instead with the lengths of the books as compared to the Minor prophets. This week we move on to probably the best known of the minor prophets, Jonah. Even if we don’t have any idea what Jonah actually says, or what the book is about, at the very least we remember the story of Jonah and the whale, except that it’s not actually a whale. The book of Jonah is unique in many ways. The first is that he is the only minor prophet mentioned by Jesus. But more importantly, he is the only one of the minor prophets in which we are not really given any prophetic statements or oracles from God, but instead the book consists of a series of stories about Jonah.

At the beginning of the book, we are told that Jonah is the son of Amittai, which doesn’t tell us much now, nor is there any king listed to give us the time Jonah was living. But, in 2 Kings 14:25, we are told of a prophet by the name of Jonah, the son of Amatti, who was from the town of Gath-Hepher, which is a small town in Galilee, about 3 miles from Nazareth, and was prophesying under king Jeroboam of Israel. There are some problems with that dating, however, because Nineveh was not yet a “great city” as it is described in the book of Jonah, so there are arguments that take place amongst scholars about dating, but it’s not probably ultimately important, because the story can be told and interpreted without knowing fully what was going on at the time, or at least the minute details, because the overarching point is that is that Jonah is told to get up and go to Nineveh, which is the capital city of the Assyrian Empire, the most important and powerful city in the ancient-near east at the height of Assyrian power, and he is to cry out against the city because, God says, “their wickedness has come before me.” What exactly this wickedness that God has taken notice of is never mentioned, but we can make some guesses because we do know that the Assyrians were hated by nearly everyone.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Obadiah: Turning Back Those In Need

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Obadiah 1:1-4, 10-17:

There is a Depeche Mode song from the 80’s that says “I don’t want to start any blasphemous rumors, but I think that God’s got a sick sense of humor and when I die I expect to find him laughing.” That’s how I feel sometimes about God when it comes to Sunday’s messages. I began planning this series on the 12 minor prophets last summer, long before we knew the results of the election and certainly long before I knew what that president would or would not be doing when we got to each of the individual prophets, but sometimes the scriptures just seem to match up with world events, especially when it comes to controversial events. Just once I would like the scripture to match up positively with something that’s happened in the world, but that doesn’t seem to happen nearly as much, if ever, as scripture calling us out as individuals and as a nation for some action we have undertaken, which, I think, is where we find ourselves today.

Now just by a show of hands, who here had ever heard of Obadiah either before today, or before you saw that Obadiah would be covered today? That’s about what I thought. The first time I heard about Obadiah, or at least could remember it was while I was in seminary, but it was not in class, instead it was through my wife Linda who came home and told me right at the beginning of the school year that she had a student named Obadiah, a girl by the way, and I was like “okay.” And so, she had to tell me why she thought this was important information for me to know because she was named after one of the prophets, and so then I had to go look it up. Obadiah is one of the few books that is not covered at all in the lectionary, and according to what Biblegateway.com, based on what verses and books people look up and read on their site, Obadiah is the least read book in the bible, and six of the top 10 least read books are all minor prophets. So, if you have never heard of Obadiah you’re in good company.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Amos: Economic Inequalities

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Amos 1:1, 5:6-7, 10-24:

Most of us are familiar with the words and images of the prophet Amos, even if we didn’t know that they were his words, or more appropriately God’s words conveyed by Amos. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, routinely used the words that close the passage we heard from this morning “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” If you look up that quote, sometimes you will even find it attributed to MLK, rather than to Amos. The book of Amos is rich with imagery, and with language, that made it appropriate to be used in civil rights and other social justice movements of the last two hundred years, and these modern-day prophets, plumbed the depths of Amos for a word of God to be used in support of their cries for justice. In that, our exposure to Amos is unusual, because the book has largely been ignored by both Jewish and Christians except at the time it was written, and in our times, and the reason is because there is little word of hope to be found in Amos, as there is in other prophets, but more importantly because of the message that Amos proclaims about justice, especially economic justice, and a call to God’s righteousness.

We know a little more about the prophet Amos then we do about Hosea and Joel, the first two minor prophets we have covered. Our introduction to Amos is also different than the others, in that for Hosea and Joel, we are told that the word of the Lord came to them, but here we are told that it is the words of Amos which he saw concerning Israel. That is that Amos is not only conveying the words of God, but he is conveying visions that God shows him. While this is common among some prophets, Amos is the first prophet we have giving us visions. We are also told that Amos is from the town of Tekoa, which is about 9 miles south of Jerusalem. What that means is that Amos is from the kingdom of Judah, but is being sent and is making prophecies about the Kingdom of Israel. That is and of itself makes him an unpopular figure. Just think of how we would deal with someone from another country coming and telling us how we were doing everything wrong and God is going to punish us for it. We don’t deal well with our own people saying that let alone someone else, and so we even have the high priest of Bethel telling Amos “O seer, go and flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there, but never again prophesy at Bethel.” (7:12) Of course that is one of the things that Amos says, is that “they hate the one who reproves in the gate, and they abhor the one who speaks the truth.” (5:10) So if you don’t like today’s message it’s okay, because Amos has already said you won’t like it because it’s hard to hear things that hit too close to home.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Joel: Inward or Outward

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Joel 1:1, 2:1-18:

When we were living in Melrose, NM, which is a small farming community in the eastern part of the state, they were dealing with a significant drought. Most of them were dryland farmers, which meant they depended upon rain to water the crops. In our two years there, the only people who brought in a harvest, in two years, were those who had irrigation, which were all people who grew corn. All the wheat farmers simply watched their crops wither and die every season. And because there were no crops to hold down the top soil, it began to blow away. There was nothing you could do to keep the sand and dust out of the house. As soon as you vacuumed it up, there would be a new coating over everything within a few days.  In our last spring there, we had a massive windstorm come through that just blackened and sky and had the old timers talking about it being just like the dust bowl, especially the storm that hit on Palm Sunday 1935 that is now known as Black Sunday.  The dirt and sand covered and coated everything and was beginning to bury fence lines, and in some cases starting to cover abandoned and collapses houses. Where do you find hope in a situation like that, when everything you need to survive depends on the crop coming in, and you haven’t had one what do you do? That is the image, and the experience, that came to my mind as I thought about the prophet Joel and the imagery he uses of destruction in a plague of locusts which eat and destroy everything, and then are followed by a drought that destroys everything that might have remained. Where is hope in that moment? Where is God in that moment? What are we called to do in that moment? Are we responsible for the drought? Has it been brought on by God because of our sin?

Like with Hosea last week, and really most of the minor prophets, we know very little about the prophet Joel. We are told in the first line that he is the son of Pethuel, which means nothing to us because we don’t know who he is. Obviously to those who first recorded this, his name had to have had some significance. Joel’s name, is really ya-el, which means “The Lord is God”, ya being an abbreviation for Yahweh and el meaning God. What is striking, especially when compared against the other prophets, is that there is not a list of names of kings at the beginning of his prophetic career, nor is there a single name of a king mentioned anywhere in Joel’s prophetic writings.  That makes dating the book very difficult, and so possible dates range from the 9th century to the 4th century BCE. Most scholars date it from the end of the 6th century to the beginning of the 5th, that’s still like a 150 year period. None of the reasons for this dating are incontrovertible, but they include the fact that no kings are named, which since there are no kings after the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 and the beginning of the exile, this would make sense. In addition, there is an emphasis on priests and elders and the centrality of the Temple, which could mean Joel is just ignoring the kings, or again that it takes place after the return from exile, and the rebuilding of the temple, along with the wall around Jerusalem, which is also presupposed in this writing. But probably the best argument for this dating is Joel’s use of other prophets, most importantly Obadiah, whose prophetic career takes place in the 5th century. But, ultimately, the dating of Joel doesn’t have any impact on its interpretation, because unlike the other prophets, while there is a call to repentance for where the people have gone astray, there is no specific sin or transgression that is ever addressed.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Hosea

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Hosea 1:1, 2:14-23:

This past Monday, on January 9, happens to be the day on which more people commit marital infidelity than any other day of the year. I don’t know how they figured that out, but it was what I heard this past week, and I thought it was rather appropriate for today because what Hosea, the first of the 12 Minor Prophets that we encounter, deals with is infidelity, the breaking of relationship, and in particular the breaking of covenantal relationships. Of course, when we think of breaking of vows, it is the breaking of marriage vows that tends to come first.  But there are lots of other vows, sometimes merely implied, that we can also break, which can lead us to break relationship. Several years ago, I showed a video of from the Jimmy Kimmel show where he asked parents to give their kids terrible Christmas presents, but this week I came across a similar video in which he asked parents to tell their children that they had eaten all of their children’s Halloween candy. Take a look…  I am pretty sure that Jimmy Kimmel is going to hell for that, and perhaps I am for showing it, and you for laughing. But that breaking of relationship between these parents and their children, and the responses the children have, I believe are appropriate for the message we see in the prophet Hosea.

We know very little about Hosea. We are told in that opening passage of the book that he is the son of Beeri, a typical introduction in prophetic writings, about whom we know nothing, and then the kings who were ruling in Israel and in Judah.  His prophetic career lasts from the year 750 to 724 BCE, which is a fairly tumultuous time for Israel, or the northern Kingdom. And as a reminder, after the death of King Solomon, the united monarchy, as it is called, is divided into two kingdoms. The northern kingdom, known as Israel, and the southern kingdom, known as Judah. The northern kingdom is larger and contains 10 of the tribes of Israel, while Judah is smaller and contains 2 tribes but also contains Jerusalem. While there are several prophets who make prophecies about and for the northern kingdom, Hosea is the only prophet that we know of who is from the northern kingdom, not from Judah. Outside of the book of Job, Hosea is the hardest book for Biblical translators. Not only is the text obscure and difficult in the Hebrew, the Greek version of the Old Testament, known as the Septuagint, is also difficult. Since it is then believed that the difficulty of the text comes not from mistakes in transmission through the millennia, they believe that what we have in the book of Hosea is evidence of a different dialect in ancient Hebrew. I think that’s totally cool  because that means there were much larger divides between Israel and Judah than we might otherwise not be aware of besides for a political boundary. I think that’s totally cool. It’s like George Bernard Shaw’s quote that Britain and America are a people “divided by a common language.”

Monday, January 9, 2017

The Prophets

Here is my sermon from Sunday, and introduction to our sermon series on the 12 Minor Prophets.

Today we begin a new sermon series on the 12 Minor Prophets which will take us through the next 13 weeks, ending the week before Palm Sunday. This will be by far the longest sermon series we have done and by the end of this you and me both might be really ready for it to end, although I hope that’s not the case because I think these books have something important to say to us, and the reason this series is being called “Major Messages in the Minor Prophets.” I’ve wanted to do this series for a long time, but never got there because it is a bit overwhelming in covering an area that I did not know a lot about, and so you get to hear it all now, and if nothing else by the end of it you will have been exposed to all 12 of the minor prophets, and something about what they had to say, and perhaps you might even be able to remember 8 or 9 of their names.

But before we dig into each of the books individually, I thought it was important to give you some background on who the prophets were and what was happening at the time they were writing to give you a better context and understanding of who they are. And we begin with some semantics. First, the term minor prophets has nothing at all to do with their importance or significance of either their messages or their meaning in the tradition or cannon of scripture. They are called the minor prophets because of the length of their writings, which range from a single chapter to 14 chapters, are significantly shorter when compared against what are known as the major prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel. These works are also sometimes called the Book of the Twelve as they were all contained on one scroll in ancient manuscripts, and idea to which we will return. The second semantic issue is that technically there are not any prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures. There are not any prophets because the word prophet comes not out of Hebrew, but out of Greek, so it came into our lexicon first when the Hebrew scriptures were translated into Greek, known as the Septuagint, which also happens to be what most of the people who wrote the New Testament used in creating the New Testament which is written in Greek. One meaning of the word prophet in Greek is “to foresee” which is where we get the idea that prophets are people who give predictions, or prophecies, about the future, which, while true sometimes, is not the primary role of prophets as we understand them. Their job was not to provide horoscopes of Israel. Another meaning of the word is “one who speaks for another.” This is closer to the meaning of what prophets did in the ancient world, which is that they were spokesmen and women for God. Thus, prophetic statements often, but not always begin, “thus says the Lord…” or “Hear the word of the Lord…” or something along those lines.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Which Way Do We Go?

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Matthew 25:31-46:

Well another new year has begun. For some, 2017 may be better than 2016, and for others it may be worse, but what the future holds is totally unknown. As they say, hindsight is 20/20, but we don’t have the same effectiveness in gauging what is to come, otherwise we all would have put money on the Cubs to win the world series.  And yet we try and make guesses about the future all the time. People are claiming who is going to win the super bowl, people saying Trump will be the best president ever and others saying the worst ever, some saying that the Red Sox will never win another world series title, that’s me, although it’s more hope than prediction, some predicting economic collapse, and they have predicted 20 of the last 2 recessions, and some are predicting huge economic growth. And for what applies to the church, some predicting who will go to heaven, and who might go somewhere else. It’s that last prediction that we seek to tackle today based on the passage we just heard from Matthew, known as the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats.

If you’ve been attending here for a while, you have heard me say before that I think the question many Christians use to try and bring others to the faith, which is “if you were to die tonight, do you know where you would go?” is an awful question. It’s awful for several reasons, one them being that it makes an affirmation of faith all about fear, not about trust or love, and that’s not a good place to start in any relationship, let alone a relationship with God. But more importantly it’s a bad question because the proper answer is “No, and neither do you.” Of course, that is not what the people asking the question think, but I believe that is the appropriate answer because of what Jesus tells us in this passage. This is the only scripture passage in which Jesus talks about a final judgment, the only one that says anything about how a decision of which way people might go is made. The only one. That may seem surprising based on how much emphasis that some in the church put onto the issue of the afterlife, but we should remember that Jesus’ message was always much more about life here and now, about God’s kingdom here and now, then it was about some time to come.  That doesn’t mean those things are unimportant, and this parable does deal with that and, for me at least, it is always one of those passages that leaves me not only a little uneasy, because I’m never sure if I am reading it and interpreting it the right way, and if I am I’m always happy and deeply disturbed at the same time with the conclusion.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Books I Read in 2016

Here are the books I read in 2016. (This is more for my information than for others)

  1. 10 Things Your Minister Want to Tell You (But Can't Because He Needs His Job) by Oliver Thomas
  2. 11 Days in December: Christmas at the Bulge by Stanley Weintraub
  3. 81 Days Below Zero: The Incredible Survival Story of a World War II Pilot in Alaska's Frozen Wilderness by Brian Murphy
  4. A Hundred and One Days: A Baghdad Journal by Asne Seierstad
  5. A Place Called Hope by Phillip Gulley
  6. A Plain Account of Christian Perfection by John Wesley
  7. A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail by Bill Bryson
  8. As Far as the Eye Could See: Accounts of Animals Along the Santa Fe Trail 1821-1880 by Phyllis S. Morgan
  9. As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of the Princess Bride by Cary Elwes
  10. Beatitudes for Today by James C. Howell

Saturday, December 24, 2016

To A Maid Engaged To Joseph

Here is my sermon for Christmas Eve. The text was Luke 1:26-38:

If you’ve been alive long enough then you have regrets.  There are things you regret that you did and there are probably things you regret that you did not do. Robert Frost famously said “two roads diverged in the woods and I, I took the one less traveled and that has made all the difference.” Perhaps you regret not taking the less traveled path, or perhaps you didn’t even take either of those paths but instead turned around and went the other way. We regret the times we said yes instead of saying no, and we regret the times we said no when, in fact, we should have said yes, and perhaps we wonder what would have happened if we had made a different choice. I sometimes wonder what would have happened if people in scripture had done something different. What if Mary’s response to the angel about her bearing Jesus had been different? What if Mary had said no?

We really don’t know very much about Mary. Most of what people think they know about Mary are stories that develop much later in the history of the church. Luke, who we just heard from, mentions her the most.  She is named 12 times in Luke, but all of these are in his infancy narrative.  She appears in two other stories in Luke, but is not named in those.  In Matthew, she is named 5 times.  Four of those times are in his infancy narrative, and then she is talked about two other times, being named once, although it’s a reference to her, not something directly involving her.  In Mark, she is named only once, and like in Matthew it is simple a reference of a crowd saying that Mary is Jesus’ mother, and then there is one story in which she is not named.  In John she is not named at all, but there are two stories make reference to her.  And that is all that we have in the gospels.  Not really a lot to go on, but when we compare Mary against other characters in scripture, especially women, the fact that we know as much about her as we do, and that she is referenced in all four gospels, is quite extraordinary.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Blue Christmas: Snow on Snow

Here is my sermon for our Blue Christmas Service. The text was Isaiah 9:1-6 and John 1:1-5, 10-14:

We, as a culture, have an obsession, or at least a seeming obsession, with having a white Christmas. The last report I saw said Albuquerque has a 4% chance of having a white Christmas, that is either having it snow, or having snow on the ground come Sunday.’ We have this obsession with a white Christmas even though it doesn’t match the reality for large parts of the world, including Bethlehem. Someone I went to seminary with was from the southern hemisphere and she said it wasn’t until she was a teenager that she understood why all the Christmas images had snow on them because of her Christmas took place in the middle of the summer, whereas we have Christmas in winter. But this idea of a white Christmas came around long before Bing Crosby’s immortal White Christmas was recorded. In fact, according to Ian Bradley, an expert on Victorian hymnody, he has said that In the Bleak Midwinter, which was written in 1872, “has probably done as much as anything to give generations of children the impression that the birth of Jesus took place in the snow.”  Although not as popular today, this hymn used to be one the Christmas standards, and to give some indication of that, the house where Gustav Holst, best known for writing the Planets, wrote the tune is known as Midwinter Cottage in honor of this connection.

For the season of Advent, we have been looking at the hymns of Advent and Christmas to see what they teach us about our faith and the meaning, and need for Christmas, and I thought that In the Bleak Midwinter was the appropriate song for this evening’s service.  There is something beautiful and magic about snow and the environment it creates. The author John Milton said of snow and Christmas, snow was nature covering herself with a veil to hide any ugliness from the Christ child. Snow covers everything and gives the world that soft edge while simultaneously absorbing noise to add the serenity and peacefulness that we associate with the Christmas season, or at least that we say we want in the Christmas season. But that beautiful image of snow is not what Christina Rosetti is talking about in this hymn. Instead she is talking about the ugliness and coldness of winter, the deadness, of frozen ground, and whipping winds and snow piling up snow on snow. This is not the winter wonderland that we like to sing of at this time of year. This is the bleak mid-winter, the end of February when winter has lost all its appeal, the snow is no longer beautiful, but a burden, when you are stuck up inside and you can’t wait for spring to arrive.  It feels like Bill Murray’s weather prediction from Groundhog Day about winter: “It’s gonna be cold, it’s gonna be gray, and it’s gonna last you the rest of your life.” This is not “it’s the most wonderful time of the year,” this bleak midwinter is the dark night of the soul.