Monday, November 6, 2017

The Kindness Challenge: Breaking Bread

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Luke 22:14-23:

A little more than two week’s ago, former presidents Bush and Obama made speeches about the current political atmosphere in the country. Obama said “Why are we deliberately trying to misunderstand each other and be cruel to each other and put each other down? That’s not who we are!” while Bush the younger said “We have seen our discourse degraded by casual cruelty…. Bullying and prejudice in our public life sets a national tone, provides permission for cruelty and bigotry, and compromises the moral education of children. The only way to pass along civic values is to first live up to them.” Now, this decline in civility has been building up for a long time, and is clearly found in more than just politics. Just turn on the television and we see people screaming at each other on cooking shows. I’ve spent some time in kitchens, and every kitchen I’ve been in that type of behavior would not be tolerated, but it makes for good television. There is a reason why we don’t have a show called the sweetest housewives of Beverly Hills, because that’s not exciting, and people don’t want to watch two political commentators agree with each other. Instead we’d rather watch people be oppositional, except we’ve moved passed just disagreeing to being disagreeable. And as much as we say that we don’t like it and we want it to be better, the truth is our behavior says exactly the opposite because people are watching these shows.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Reformation and Re-Formation

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Matthew 22:34-40:

When European Christians began building their great cathedrals, and then began to paint the ceilings, they encountered a unique problem, that is it’s hard to project true geometry onto vaults and domes. Because the space starts large at the beginning, but then pulls into a point at the top, the sense of perspective gets totally off. If you were, for example, to be painting the image of a saint in the dome, the saint’s feet would be really large, but then the body would have to get consistently narrower until they ended up with a really small head. So, artists had to create a new way of showing perspective, but even then, sometimes it would be a little off depending on where you stood, that is in some churches there is an ideal viewing location. When he was painting a soaring trompe l’oeil dome, that is a fake dome, on the ceiling of the church of Saint Ignatius of Loyola in Rome, the artist Andrea Pozzo had an even more unique problem. Because not only did the perspective need to be done correctly, but because the entire thing was fake, and there was no true vanishing point in the center, he inserted a marble disk in the pavement of the church to indicate where people should stand to be able to witness his masterpiece. There is only one place to stand to have proper perspective on the painting, and the farther you get from that, then it stops being effective.

When I read of that a few months ago in a book on the trial of Galileo by the Inquisition, I thought it was the perfect metaphor for what’s going on in the world today. That for a long time, most people were standing on the marble disk and so the world looked okay, it looked like they expected it to look, and certainly how they wanted it to look, and how others said it was supposed to look. But now, we have moved off of the marble disk and everything seems weird, the image to some people is now distorted and they are searching desperately for the marble disk, so they can go back and stand on it and the world will make sense again. Except that we can’t go back to the marble disk for the very reason that the disk isn’t even there anymore and the image itself is changing anyways, so even if we could find the spot where it used to be the image still wouldn’t be the same. As much as this strikes anxiety and outright fear into some people, and celebration into others, this I not all that unusual in the history of humanity and its true in the church as much as it is in politics.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Give All You Can

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Matthew 21:15-22 and Mark 12:41-44:

Last week after worship someone came up to me, and they will remain nameless, and asked if I was now done preaching on money. I told them that we had one more week left, and they were grateful that that was it, although they would have been just as happy if we were done last week, and perhaps that’s you as well. If it is, know that you just have to make it through today, and then we will make our way onto other things. But those things might not necessarily be more important things, because money is a spiritual issue. We don’t normally think of it that way, but the Protestant reformer Martin Luther said that there were three steps to conversion. First was the conversion of the heart, second was the conversion of the mind and finally was the conversion of the wallet. But, he said, they didn’t always happen at the same time, and he argued that the wallet was the last to come around. Now, as James Harnish says, “salvation is about a lot more than money, but it is never about anything less than money, particularly in a culture that is compulsively driven by the power of money.” That is, ideas of salvation end up being partly about money because money plays such an important role in our culture and in our lives.

This is nothing new, Jesus was dealing with the same issue which is why he talks about money and possessions so much, and he tells us directly that we cannot have two masters, that we cannot serve both God and money, or God and possessions. That we have to choose our allegiance. Now he doesn’t say that money in and of itself is bad, but what we decide to do with it, how we are going to treat it and relate to it that makes all the difference. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism emphasized exactly the same things when he talked about money, and in establishing what have become Wesley’s rules on money which are to first make as much as we can, with some very clear stipulations about what that means, the second was to save all that we can, and the third, and I know this is the message you have all been waiting for, and you’re sitting on the edges of you seats now in anticipation, give all you can.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Save All You Can

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Luke 12:13-21:

A clergy friend of mine told me about a member of his church who was very wealthy, or at least everyone thought he was very wealthy. That was the rumor, although no one was really sure if it was true, and there was much speculation as to his true worth. Well, one day he died, and as the ladies of the church were gathering to prepare a reception at his funeral, one of them said, sort of casually, “I wonder how much he left behind.” There was sort of an awkward pause, and then one of the other women responded, “all of it. He left all of it behind.” Although you don’t see it much anymore, there was a time, and many of you remember it, when you were prone to see the bumper sticker that said, “He who dies with the most toys wins.” What they won was never really clear, and I think part of the reason you don’t see that anymore is because people came to realize that you didn’t really win anything, because, in fact, you did leave it all behind. That you can’t take it with you, and so while it might help here in this life, and we might argue about the true merits of that, it doesn’t matter in the next life. And so perhaps the other bumper sticker that says, “we are spending our children’s inheritance” might be a better way to think about it, and yet we are also called to be good stewards of the resources with which we have been entrusted, and what we hear in Proverbs is that the good leave an inheritance for their children’s children. But simultaneously, Jesus tells us not to save earthly treasurers were moth and rust can eat them, and don’t worry about tomorrow, so which are we to do?

With those questions in mind, we continue in our series on the money rules of John Wesley, which are to earn all you can, which we covered last week, to give all you can, which we will cover next week, and today we discuss his rule to save all you can. As I’ve been saying for the past few weeks, when the Methodist movement began, John Wesley laid down some rules, three of them, that people had to agree to abide by if they were going to become a Methodist. They were to first do no harm, second was to do good and the third was to attend upon all the ordinances of God, which Bishop Job changed to stay in love with God. Among the things that it meant to do no harm, which was not just to others, but also to yourself, was not to buy spiritous liquors, love that phrasing, or to drink them, which sort of closes the loophole of someone else buying it for you. Not buying things on interest, that is not buying anything you can’t afford to pay cash for, and not wearing gold or expensive clothing. What Wesley, and those in the church found, was that when people started doing these things, especially not wasting money on alcohol, which is still an enormous amount of money, that people then had more disposable income which could then be used for other things, like education, which then allowed people to get better jobs, which paid better, and thus more income, and so that was the reason why Wesley then established his rules

Monday, October 9, 2017

Earn All You Can

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Matthew 25:14-30:

Last week Samantha asked me if I would rather have too much or too little? Would you rather have too much or too little? I had to think about it for a moment, and then I said too much, and there are some things we would rather have too much of it, but then it occurred to me that I wouldn’t really like to have too much pain, or sorrow, or illness. On the flip side, we might like to have less of those things, or something else, but we wouldn’t want to have less happiness or joy or laughter. I think sometimes we think the same thing about money. We want to have more money rather than less, right, but at the same time we also know that have too much can bring problems, and there is also a sort of guilt that comes with having too much money, although perhaps we all think we’d like to be a little more guilty than we are. But, it’s that idea that leads us into today’s message continuing in our series looking at Wesley’s rules on Money. As I said last week, as people began to follow some of the expectations that Wesley had set down on how to live your life if you were going to be part of the Methodist movement, people found themselves doing better economically, which we’ll hear about more next week, and so Wesley felt he needed to respond to new economic issues and he laid down three rules, the first was to gain all you can, or as James Harnish said, to earn all you can, the second was to save all you can, and the third rule was to give all you can.

Now today we start with the first rule, and for most people it is the rule that is most surprising and that is being told to make as much money as you can. That’s shocking because of some of the comments that Jesus makes that would seem to contradict such an instruction, like that it’s easier for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle than it is for someone who is rich to get into the kingdom of God. That would seem to say that being rich is a problem, and Wesley would actually agree with that, but it’s dependent upon why we are seeking money and more importantly what are we doing with that money. Wesley says that “the right use of money” is “an excellent branch of Christian wisdom… inculcated by our Lord on all his followers.” And then says of Christians, who don’t normally talk about such things, that they “generally do not consider… the use of this excellent talent. Neither do they understand how to employ it to the greatest advantage; the introduction of which into the world is one admirable instance of the wise and gracious providence of God.”

Thursday, October 5, 2017

2017 Reading Challenge

This list was a "challenge" that was going around Facebook at the beginning of the year, so thought I would add it to my list as I am selecting books to read this year. I will update the list with what book qualifies as we go through the year.

1. A book you read in school
     1984 by George Orwell
2. A book from your childhood
     The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis
3. A book published over 100 years ago.
     Damnation of Theron Ware by Harold Frederic
4. A book published this year
     Irresistable: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked by Adam Alter
5. A non-fiction book.
     Lost at Sea: An American Tragedy by Patrick Dillon
6. A book written by a male author.
     The World America Made by Robert Kagan
7. A book written by a female author.
     A Fighting Chance by Elizabeth Warren
8. A book by someone who isn't a writer.
      This is a hard one because if they wrote it aren't they a writer? But going with Raising the Floor by Andy Stern and Lee Kravitz (Lee Kravitz is a named ghost writer, or assistant writer)
9. A book that became a film.
     The Hunger Games series
10. A book published in the 20th century.
     Mere Christianity by CS Lewis
11. A book set in your hometown/region.
      Christmas Every Day by Lisa Tawn Bergren set in Taos, which is the region, but the main character is also an alum of St. John's College in Santa Fe, as am I, and will be joining the faculty there by the end of the story.
12. A book with someone's name in the title
      The Second Death of George Mallory by Reinhold Messner
13. A book with a number in the title.
      23 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism by Ha-Joong Chang
14. A book with a character with your first name.
     John Birch: A Life by Terry Lautz
15. A book someone else recommended to you.
      The End of White Christian America by Robert P. Jones
16. A book with over 500 pages.
     One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson
17. A book you can finish in a day.
     How English Became English: A Short History of a Global Language by Simon Horobin
18. A previously banned book.
     Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by JK Rowling
19. A book with a one-word title.
     Thrawn by Timothy Zahn
20. A book translated from another language.
     Utopia for Realists by Rutger Bregman, translated by Elizabeth Manton
21. A book that will improve a specific area of your life.
     The Kindness Challenge: 30 Days to Improve Any Relationship by Shaunti Feldhahn
22. A memoir or journal.
     Three Weeks with My Brother: A Memoir by Nicholas Sparks
23. A book written by someone younger than you.
      Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
24. A book set somewhere you will be visiting this year.
     Engineered for Murder by Aileen Schumacher (takes place in Las Cruces, NM)
25. An award-winning book.
     In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick (National     
     Book Award Winner)
26. A self-published book.
     All that Glitters by Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez

Monday, October 2, 2017

Know The Cost

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Luke 14:25, 27-33:

Today we begin a new sermon series looking at John Wesley’s rules about money.  Wesley, who is the co-founder of the Methodist movement, put down some strong rules and expectations for those who chose to join the movement, including about simple economics, which we will hear more about over the course of the next four weeks. As people then began to live out those rules, they began to advance in economic possibilities and opportunities, moving out of the lower economic classes, and then Wesley faced an unexpected situation with members wanting to buy nice clothing and bigger houses and, heaven forbid, they even wanted to finance fancier churches. And so, Wesley responded in several ways, but one of them was in writing a sermon entitled “On the Use of Money”, of which we will also cover more, but in that sermon Wesley expounded on three rules when it comes to money which was first to gain all you can, which James Harnish, who wrote a book on this, changed to earn all you can, second was to save all you can, and then finally was to give all you can.

Now I know some of you are saying, O pastor John is talking about money, it must be stewardship time again, and the good news is that it is. But, this sermon series is not about how much you should give, as important as that is, but instead this is about your personal finances and making them better, or at least helping you understand them better, especially from a biblical perspective. Because the truth is, I could tell you that you need to be giving ten percent, or even 50 percent of your money, to the church and other causes, but if you don’t have even 1 percent to give because of other issues in your home economics, then it doesn’t matter what I say to you about what you should give because you can’t do it. But, if I can teach you some new skills, or maybe some new ways to think about our resources and how best to be a good steward of those resources then we enter a space where I can actually give you guidance about giving and how to invest your money for God’s Kingdom.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Proverbs: A Woman Of Valor

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The passage was Proverbs 31:10-31:

Today we conclude our series on the book of Proverbs by looking at what has become known as the Proverbs 31 woman. When I began planning this series, I knew I was going to address this passage even though I didn’t know what else I was going to talk about. But, I wanted to address this, because it has become one of the most used, and in my opinion, most abused scriptural passages, at least for a portion of the church. In her wonderful book A Year of Biblical Womanhood, Rachel Held Evans says “In the [Fundamentalist] Christian subculture, there are three people a girl’s got to know about before she [hits puberty]: 1) Jesus. 2) Ronald Reagan, and 3) the Proverbs 31 woman… Wander into any Christian women’s conference and you will hear her name… [and] Visit a Christian bookstore, and you will find entire women’s sections devoted to books that extol her… [visit any] Christian College” and you will find guys wanting to date her and girls trying to be her.

Now, I do have to admit that I did change Rachel Held Evans quote a little because she didn’t originally use the term fundamentalist, but instead talked about the evangelical church, but I reject the cooption of that term. In the past few decades Fundamentalist Christians rejected the term fundamentalist because of the negative connotations that began to accumulate with that term, and instead started calling themselves evangelical, but we in the middle or progressive side of the church need to fight against the claiming of that word, because we too can and are evangelical, without being fundamentalists, but that’s just me on a personal tangent.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Proverbs: Righteousness

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The scripture was Proverbs 11:2, 4, 21; 12:10; 15:3, 25; 16:31; 17:15; 19:17; 21:13; 24:17-18; 31:8-9:

Righteousness is one of those words we only seem to use at church. I mean there was the 80s surfer dude, like Sean Penn’s performance as Jeff Spicoli, saying “the waves were totally righteous,” and we talk about someone being self-righteous, that is believing themselves to be morally superior to others, but about the only time we talk about or hear about righteousness otherwise is in church. I’m not sure why that is, but today we’re going to be talking about righteousness, and in particular about what it means to be righteous according to the book of Proverbs in our penultimate message in this series, but first I’d like to do a little, of what is the word I’m looking for, oh, pandering by starting with one of the passages we heard from this morning which says that “gray hair is the crown of glory; it is gained in a righteous life.” And so, everyone who is trying to hide your grey hair, in doing so you are hiding your righteousness, or as Linda likes to say her wisdom highlights. Now, just because you have grey hair does not actually mean that you are either wise or righteous, because Proverbs also wants to say, as the immortal Buck Owens encapsulated in a song, there is no fool like and old fool.

Now righteousness means different things in different places in scripture. In the Hebrew scriptures, righteousness is something you earn by your behavior. But it is more than just virtue, or virtuous behavior. Instead it is tied directly to covenantal relationships. So, you can be righteous in your relationship with another human with whom you have entered into a covenant, which means honoring and preserving that covenant, but, in particular, righteousness refers to our covenantal relationship with God. One of the reasons God is referred to as righteous is because God is always faithful to the covenants that have been made with humanity. So, actions on our part that also maintain and honor God’s covenant are deemed righteous, and those that “corrupt and violate” the covenant are considered unrighteous. While obeying the law is considered the standard for righteousness, as we will see, it goes much farther than that, including injunctions made by the prophets as well as further instruction from God. So, righteousness on our part is a reminder that we are in a covenantal relationship with God, and that there is active engagement by both parties in that relationship, and it’s about our obligation to remain faithful and observant to that relationship. That’s why this about more than just ethics, but about the entirety of the relationship and how what we do preserves or breaks that covenant.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Proverbs: Money

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Proverbs 10:22; 11:24, 28; 13:7, 11, 22a; 19:4; 22:2, 7, 26-27; 23:4; 27:23-24; 30:8b-9:

Huey Lewis and the News once recorded a song that opens by saying “If money is the root of all evil, I’d like to be a bad, bad man.” The title of that song is Time Aint Money, because, as Huey sings, if time were money, ah-ha, “I’d already be rich.” Of course, that opening line is a misquote 1 Timothy, which actually says that it is the love of money, which is the root of all kinds of evil. In its entirety, scripture has a conflicted message about money. In some places wealth is seen as being a blessing from God, and indeed as we heard in last week’s message from proverbs, being rich is seen as being a direct result of both hard work and God’s bounty. But, scripture also sometimes implies exactly the opposite of that. Jesus’ view on money is that while it’s not necessarily a sin, it is potentially a significant problem. And, contrary to what is often said, Jesus actually does say give all your money away, although it is not a universal rule, because there is context to the situation in which he says that. The book of Provers tends to have a fairly positive view of money and of wealth, as long as that wealth was not gained in illicit ways, such as lying, cheating, stealing or unjustly, to name just a few. and, just as Jesus has a lot to say about money, and we ignore that

Now a few weeks ago, Wanda Wanczyk, won $758 million in the Powerball, which was the largest jackpot ever won by just one ticket. I heard from lots of people who said they had bought a ticket and, I’ll be honest I bought one too, and while there is something to be said about dreaming about what we’d do with that, but winning it is actually something entirely different. And winning is not all it’s cracked up to be, as columnist Gregg Easterbrook said, $1 million will change your life, $100 million will ruin it. And I know most of us have probably said something to God like, “The money won’t change me, just let me win and I’ll prove it,” but it will change us, and not for the better, and it’s not a gift from God. Proverbs says, “The blessing of the Lord makes rich, and he adds no sorrow with it….” Did you know that 70% of those who win large jackpots declare bankruptcy within 5 years? Just five years. That doesn’t sound like a blessing, that sounds like sorrow. Now this proverb doesn’t mean that if you are blessed that bad things won’t happen to you, although there are some proverbs that do want to say that, but we know that’s not true. But, the difference is in whether the sorrow comes as a direct result.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Proverbs: Work and Reward

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Proverbs 6:6-11; 14:23; 21:5, 25; 24:30-34; 26:13-14:

In 1904, Max Weber, a German economist and philosopher, began work on what became his seminal work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. It is considered one of the founding works in the creation of the field of economic sociology as well as within sociology itself. Weber argued that it was the Protestant reformation which created the spirit of capitalism and drove the northern European countries to economic prominence because Protestantism imbued the idea that everyone was a minister, that everyone was called by God to be productive in life, that all had a calling, and that the ideal was no longer to be secluded in the religious life, which eschewed things like making money, and instead the ideal became working hard for the community and for yourself, with all the benefits that came from that. Weber argued that in particular this was driven by the Calvinist belief in predestination, and since you didn’t know if you were truly saved or not, the only evidence might be seen in what happened in your life, and hard work and frugality were seen as signs of election, plus if you were gaining wealth it must mean that God was blessing you, and therefore another indication that you were saved. Now it could be argued whether Weber is correct or not in his analysis, but this idea of hard work has been tied to our understanding of work, wealth and worthiness in America. And yet, some it goes back much further than Weber. It goes back to scripture, and in particular, to the views, or at least some of the views, in the book of Proverbs, and so appropriately enough for this Labor Day weekend, we are going to be looking at some of the proverbs about work and laziness.

Now, as we heard from the few passages from this morning, Proverbs wants to make a direct correlation between work and prosperity, laziness and poverty, remembering that in Proverbs it wants to present that there are two paths we can choose, the path of wisdom or the path of folly, and thus you can guess which path it is that those who are wise follow. This is also a critical piece in Proverbs of warning about consequences. That if you do x, y will happen, and thus the results of the bad things that occur are not because of outside forces, it’s not because God is punishing you for something, but because of what you have chosen, or not chosen, to do. So, for example, it could say, if you choose to step off a tall building, you will fall to your death. If you smoke for 50 years, you’re going to get cancer. While much of wisdom literature is concerned with the question of why, and in particular of asking God that question, why did this happen? Why is there suffering or evil in the world? Proverbs, for the most part isn’t concerned with that question because it knows what the answer is: Because we choose not to follow the right path.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Proverbs: Words Like A Sword

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Proverbs 12:13, 18; 13:3;14:17, 29;15:1, 28; 18:6, 21; 19:19; 21:23; 29:22:

I can be an angry driver. Not like cutting people off and then slamming my brakes angry, but calling people not nice names, or responding to things they do. So, for example, the other day a woman decided to make a turn in front of me, when I clearly had the right of way, and so I hit my brakes and honked at her. She in turn hit her horn, as if I was the problem, and flipped me off, and so I returned then gesture and then quickly thought “I hope that’s not a member of the church.” Now the positive side of this is that the girls are learning the rules of driving, because when I say something like “what are you doing idiot?” they will ask me what the other person did, and then I explain how what they did was wrong. Or at least the positive parts is the story I tell myself. Of course, the things I yell at the tv, especially when the Yankees are playing can be even worse. But, the problem is that by saying the things I do, and reacting the way I do, I am also teaching them many negative things as well, and some of the things that we are told not to do in scripture, and in particular in the book of Proverbs, and so we continue in our series on Proverbs looking at anger and the power of the words we use.

Now we may say that sticks and stones may break our bones but words will never hurt us, and even though that rhymes and therefore has the ring of truth to it, we know that it’s not true. That, in fact, words not only can hurt, but they do hurt, and can do considerable damage to us and to others. Words are powerful things, and we should understand this as Christians because we know that words matter, that they can make a difference, that they can change the entire world because we proclaim that Jesus was the word made flesh. The Word made flesh, and so words matter, but how much attention do we really pay to the words we use, the words we say, how we say them, or even the thought process that goes behind them, even if we don’t say them. Do we understand the power they can hold over us and over others?

Monday, August 21, 2017

Proverbs: Wisdom

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Proverbs 1:1-9:

Today we begin a new sermon series looking at the book of Proverbs, which is part of the wisdom literature of the Hebrew scriptures, and I’ll explain exactly what that means in a moment. We are undertaking this series for several reasons. The first is that I track what scripture readings I preach on, and there were some glaring holes in areas of scripture that we had not covered in my four years here. We obviously do fine on the gospels, and other areas of the New Testament, although I’ve been a little light on what are known as the general epistles, or the letters not written by Paul, which we’ll cover at some point, but there were clearly large gaps in the Hebrew scriptures. One of those was in the prophets, which we made some dents in by looking at the 12 minor prophets in the spring, but then there is a lack in the histories, cover books like Kings, Chronicles and Samuel, and then the wisdom literature.

Wisdom literature as we find it in the Bible, is “an umbrella term that encompasses humanity’s quest to understand and organize reality, to find answers to basic existential questions, and to pass that information along from one generation to another.” It seeks to provide both instruction for how we are to live our lives, but also exploration or explanation about the way the world works, especially around the problem of suffering. The books of the wisdom literature include the book of Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, which is also sometimes known as Quoheleth, as the name Ecclesiastes comes from the Latin name of the book, whereas in Hebrew it’s called Quoheleth, and then Song of Songs, also known as the Song of Solomon, a series of love poems that the rabbis said no one should be allowed to read until they were adults, with the age of 35 sometimes thrown around. Sometimes the Psalms are included with the wisdom literature as well, but while there are some Psalms that have the marks of wisdom literature, scholars are not in agreement on which those are, but do say they are not the majority of Psalms, and so are more often not listed as wisdom literature. There are some other books in the apocrypha which are also counted as wisdom literature, but since they are not part of the Protestant cannon of scripture, that is the accepted books, we’re not going to address them now.

Monday, August 14, 2017

How To Read The Bible

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was 2 Timothy 3:14-17:

I want you to think back to the first Bible you can remember receiving? Who gave it to you? What did it look like? Was it a children’s Bible or a regular Bible? How old were you when you got it? Did you have a special place in your room or in the house where it went? Did your family have other copies of the Bible? How did your copy compare with theirs? Do you still own it? If not, what happened to it? I want you to think about that and then share with someone sitting near you for a few moments and tell each other about that Bible. The first Bible I can remember having was big and it had a blue cover, and it wasn’t a little kids Bible, but it wasn’t a full translation either, or at least I don’t think it was, and for the most part it just sat on my bookcase. I would occasionally take it out and open it up and read something, but it wasn’t something I read all the time. I knew the book and the stories were special, but I couldn’t tell you why they were special, I just knew they was special. It was different. I mean it’s pretty rare these days to hear any book read out loud in a group, but we do that with the Bible. But no one ever sat me down to tell me why it was special or to teach me how to read the Bible, or even if to say that we had to read the Bible differently than we read other books. I think I assumed we had to read it differently, but I didn’t know how. I suspect that is true with you as well, that few of you ever had someone walk you through a Bible or talk with you about how to engage with scripture.

It is regularly said that the Bible is the bestselling book of all time, but I think it also has to rate right up there with Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time as book that people own but don’t read. In polls people say they read and understand the Bible, but then their answers to follow-up questions show the exact opposite, such as that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife, 10% of the population, or the 40% who believe that both the Old and the New Testaments were both written a few years after Jesus’ death. We know it’s important, we say it’s important, but yet few people actually engage with the Bible on a regular basis, and perhaps some of that is because we’re not really sure what to make of the Bible or even where to begin. And so as we send our students and teachers back to the classrooms this week, I thought it might be an appropriate time, to do a quick sermon on how to read the Bible. And let me start with my first caveat that there is no way I can even begin to say everything that might be said about how to approach scripture, and the different ways to read scripture, but I hope to give just enough that some who might be sitting on the sidelines saying “I’d like to play, but I don’t know how” will get off the bench and begin engaging with scripture.  So that’s the first point. The second point is I want to provide a little bit of background that I think is important and necessary to know as we look at, think about and engage with the Bible. The last caveat is that this message didn’t turn out the way I had imagined it as I was preparing for today, which could mean either that I listened to the movement of the Spirit and went a different way, or I didn’t listen and went a different way. We’ll find out in about 25 minutes which of those it was.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Giving All You've Got

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The scripture was John 15:12-17 and based on Star Wars: Rogue One.

When we think of the word love and when we talk about love, the most common reference is that of romantic love or the love we feel for our families. The love that’s expressed in Hallmark cards and Lifetime movies. It’s not necessarily physical love, but it does make us feel something different than what we feel for other people, and thus when we hear that we are to love everyone, or that, as the Beatles prophetically said, all we need is love, and we realize how difficult or impossible it is we begin to despair thinking that perhaps we aren’t worthy. That perhaps there are people who are capable of doing this, but we aren’t, and are thus failures. It’s as Father Zosima said in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, “The more I love humanity in general, the less I love man in particular.” Or worse, we begin to think that maybe Jesus wasn’t actually being serious about this, that it was hyperbole, just as he said that we should rip out our eye or cut off our hand if it causes us to sin. It’s there to help us to understand the seriousness of the command, but to understand that it’s not really what he is saying to do.

Now there are multiple different words in Greek that are translated as love. One of those words is eros, from which we get the word erotic, that touchy feely love, but that is not the word that is translated here that Jesus is using. Instead, the word here is agape, which when translated into Latin was caritas, from which we get words like charity. That is that this is not a feeling that we are supposed to have for one another, this is a doing, a way of being. So, while we can have eros for a few people, we can have agape for everyone. And I think it’s crucial to pay attention to the fact that Jesus does not say this is a recommendation, or even just come out and say love one another. Instead, what does he say? Let’s read it together. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. And no one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” This is a commandment. The reason why the Thursday of Holy Week is called Maundy Thursday is because this passage is read, and Maundy comes from the Latin word Mandantum, meaning commandment. Jesus commands us to love one another, just as we have first been loved. And so, we are going to be looking at that idea as we conclude our all too brief sermon series on the gospel in Star Wars, although perhaps some think it’s been too long, by looking at the last of the Star Wars films to come out which was Rogue One.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Redemption

Here is my sermon from Sunday. It was based on Romans 8:31b-39 and Star Wars: Return of the Jedi.

When people are asked to name the best villains in movie history, Darth Vader is consistently near the top of the list. He is easily responsible for hundreds of deaths, and that’s before we begin to talk about the entire destruction of the planet alderon. But one of the things that separates Vader from the other top movie villains, people such as Hannibal Lecter or Norman Bates, is that he is not psychotic, or at least to me Vader doesn’t appear to be psychotic. Now I could be wrong on that, and I’m not saying he’s a good guy. He’s not, for example, Atticus Finch, from To Kill a Mockingbird, who tops the list of the best movie heroes. He seems more like Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, or Mr. Potter from It’s a Wonderful Life, who are not mentally ill, they are just mean and nasty people. Perhaps that’s even worse because it means that they intentionally chose to be the people they were, and they are not people you want to invite over for a dinner party. But the question we have to ask ourselves, and the question we will seek to answer today is whether these nasty people, these villains, because of the choices they have made in their life have moved beyond God’s grace and redemption, and we will do so by looking at the film that completed the original Star Wars trilogy Return of the Jedi, which is my personal favorite film.

Released in 1983, Return of the Jedi has the empire working to rebuild the death star, but it begins in the palace of Jabba the Hutt, sort of the Godfather of a crime syndicate, who has Han Solo encased in carbon and hanging on his wall, and so Luke, Chewbacca, Leia and Lando Calrisian undertake a rescue operation that eventually leads to Jabba’s death at the hands of Leia. Intelligence, and a trap set by the emperor, then leads the rebels to the forest moon of Endor where the new death star is being built and is protected by a shield being generated on the moon’s surface. While Han, Leia and Chewie make their way to Endor, where they encounter the Ewoks, a race of small teddy bear like creatures who will help them in their battle with the empire, Luke goes for some final training with Yoda, who dies, but not before revealing that Princes Leia is Luke’s twin sister, and thus the daughter of Vader. Luke eventually joins them all on Endor, voluntarily surrendering to the imperial troops so he can meet with Vader, who takes him to the emperor. Vader and Luke again engage in a lightsaber duel, but Luke puts his weapon away because he will not kill his father and he finally realizes Yoda’s lessons about violence and the dark side, and when he refuses to fight, the emperor then seeks to kill Luke himself, but I don’t want to give away the ending just yet, as it works into the understanding of redemption. But two issues to point out.

Monday, July 10, 2017

You Must Choose

Here is my sermon from Sunday. It was based on Genesis 4:1-9 and the movie Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.

Today we continue in our series on the Gospel in Star Wars by looking at the Empire Strikes Back. Released in 1980, it is widely considered the best of the Star Wars films, although it is not my personal favorite. After the rebel alliance had destroyed the death star at the battle of Yavin at the end of the first film, the empire strikes back, as the title says, and seeks out to find and destroy the rebels who are now hiding from the empire. After their base on the ice planet of Hoth is attacked, they retreat again, with Luke Skywalker going to the Dagobah system to receive instruction from Yoda, the last remaining Jedi Master, and put in a different order, his words are, therefore making him sound super smart. Meanwhile, Han, Chewie and Leia are being pursued by the evil Darth Vader when the hyperdrive on their ship won’t work and so they retreat to the cloud city of Bespin, controlled by an old friend of Han’s, Lando Calrisian. Calrisian betrays them to Vader who uses them as a trap to get Luke to come to their rescue, where he and Vader engage in a lightsaber battle, with Luke losing his hand, and where Vader reveals, and I hope this isn’t a surprise to anyone any longer, that Luke’s father was not killed by Vader as he had been told, but that Vader himself is his father, and along the way Luke learns somethings about the force and himself that turn out to be important as well, and we are going to use this is a way to discuss the issue of predestination versus free will and our relationship with sin and the dark side.

Now the Star Wars movies play both sides of the card when it comes to whether things are predestined or not. In the later prequels, when Qui Gon Jinn meets the young Anakin Skywalker for the first time, Anakin makes a remark about how fortunate that they had to land where they did to get their ship repaired, and Jinn says “Our meeting was not a coincidence. Nothing happens by accident.” And then of course there is both Vader and the Emperor, known by his Sith name as Darth Sidious, who tell Luke that it is his destiny that he join the dark side and rule the galaxy. Of course, that doesn’t happen, putting a question about whether everything is in fact destiny, and then there is what Yoda has to say. Now I think we could do an entire sermon series on the wisdom of Yoda, who really does have some of the best lines, like Size matters not, do or do not, there is no try, and better yet, fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate and hate leads to suffering, but about destinies, Yoda says that the future is impossible to see, or as he says in the Empire Strikes Back, always in motion the future is. That means we can’t predict the future because there are too many variables, too many choices that people can make, to be able to determine the future outcomes. So, which do we believe?

Monday, May 29, 2017

I've Got The Power

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Acts 1:1-14:

I want you to imagine that you have found a ring that makes you invisible, no one can see you when you have it on. What would you do if you had such a ring? Think about that for a moment and then share with the person sitting next to you what you think you would do….  Now, that scenario is known as the Ring of Gyges, which comes to us from Plato’s Republic, in which a tale is told by Plato’s brother, Glaucon, of whether someone could actually be so virtuous as to not do something even if they knew they could get away with it. He argues that if we had the power of this ring that we would use it for our own benefit, just as the shepherd boy in the story who has found the ring does; using it to seduce the queen, kill the king and become king himself. If you have the power of the ring how could you not use it for your own benefit, or how could you not exercise the power that you have? I was a political science major in college, and I remember the first time encountering this story in a political philosophy class, but before we had read the Republic, the professor asked the same question I asked you. If you had the power of this ring, what would you do with it? My answer was that I would use it to travel the world without having to pay for it, not exactly honorable, but better than some of the other answers, but I still remember one of the women in the class who said that she would refuse to use the ring. She would not trust herself with it and so therefore wouldn’t give in to the temptations of its power. I remember being amazed at that answer, and perhaps she had already read the Republic, because that’s similar to what Socrates eventually says, which is that the person who uses the ring becomes not its master but its slave because they become entrapped by their own passions and appetites in the use of the ring, whereas the person who refuses to use the ring remains in control over their own lives, they retain their own power, and thus remain happy.

But is that our understanding of power? What does it mean to have power or to be powerful? One definition of power is the act of being able to do something, such as having the power of speech. A second definition, and one that is very important, is the ability to get extra base hits, that is the Yankees right fielder Aaron Judge hits for power. Third definition is the one most of us think of, and that is having the power, control or authority, and those are not the same things, over another in order to direct, coerce, influence or use force to get them to do something that you want or need them to do. But, there is another corollary to that, and that is having power not to be forced by another. So, for example, I have the power to tell members of the staff that they need to be at worship, and I have the power to enforce that statement. But while I may have the authority to say to all of you, you need to be at worship, I don’t have the power to enforce it, because you have the power to say “no” to me. So, we now have some understanding of what it means to have power, but what does it mean when we are told that when we receive the Holy Spirit that we will receive… power. Unfortunately, I can unequivocally say that that power is not the ability to get extra base hits, but what does that power actually look like in our lives? Is our power as Christians different from the power of the world? What does it mean to say we have the power of the Holy Spirit?

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Spiritual Milk

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was 1 Peter 2:2-10:

According to futurists, the first person to ever live to be 1000 has already been born. That seems really hard to believe, but we really have no idea of what medicine will be able to do in 50 years, or how the things that are likely to kill us now will be fixable in the not too distant future, and so I have to at least give those who postulate these things some benefit of the doubt. Or at least admit that while they might not be born yet, they will be born in the near future. Just to give you a perspective, if you had an ancestor born a thousand years ago, and they were still alive, you would be roughly the 50th generation, and when they were born, the emperor Charlemagne’s death would be as recent as Thomas Jefferson’s death is for us. They would have been alive when the Chinese perfected gun powder, Macbeth was becoming king of Scotland, and in 1066 they would be alive to hear about, or participate in, the Battle of Hastings, one of the most  important events in Western history. They would have celebrated their 500th birthday at the time of the Protestant Reformation, and been 600 when Shakespeare actually wrote about Macbeth. That type of life span will radically change how we live, perhaps how we love, and definitely how we relate as family, or perhaps even how we have families.

Rabbi Harold Kushner has written about what might happen if we became immortal, and questioned whether people might stop having children, if for no other reason than a form of population control. But, he says, that means that not only would humanity stop having the joy of having children around, but that they would also stop having the joy of being a parent, and if that happened we would lose the concept of what it meant not only to have the love of a parent, but also of what it meant to dedicate your life, and be prepared to give your life for another person. We would also lose the understanding of the needs of infants, and of milk as life giving force, as we hear in the passage from 1 Peter.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

In the Breaking of Bread

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Luke 24:13-35:

In the Protestant tradition, we have two things which we consider to be sacraments, baptism and communion. This stands in contrast to the seven sacraments in the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox traditions. During the protestant reformation, the seven were narrowed down to two because these are both things that Jesus commanded that we do and also things in which Jesus also participated. And what we see in scripture is that the early church continued and participated in both of these things from the earliest days, and so in today’s scripture readings we find both of them, or at least a form of them, taking place. The first is Peter’s call to baptism in which 3000 people are baptized, which makes me think about the logistics of baptizing 3000 people in one day, and while we never are actually told that the disciples are ever baptized, we presume that they were, maybe by John the Baptist, or perhaps by Jesus, but this becomes an important and identifying aspect of the early church that obviously continues through to today. And then we have Jesus implement the practice of communion on his last night with the disciples, which we know from the writings of Paul continued to be a significant act in the early church, and we have at least a part of a communion meal in today’s passage from Luke.

Even though we are now several weeks past Easter, in today’s passage we find ourselves back on Easter morning, with two followers of Jesus who are traveling out to the town of Emmaus which is said to be some seven miles from Jerusalem, although some manuscript traditions say 19 miles, although where the town is, is unknown because there is no record of a town by that name, although there is much speculation of where it might have been. But, it’s entirely possible, and we’ll return to this idea, that we’re not supposed to know, that it’s supposed to be sort of any town, a generic town, one that is meant to represent our town, or a place where we can put ourselves in the role of making this journey. But regardless of where it is, on Easter morning, they have heard that Jesus’ body was not there, and that the women, or at the very least Mary, have encountered the risen Christ, but, like the other disciples, they don’t appear to believe it yet. They’ve heard it but have not processed it, have not accepted it, it has not taken root in their hearts and mind. And so, they set out going home and as they are making their way, they are discussing the events, although the Greek word used here could also be translated as arguing, when Jesus appears before them. Except, like in other versions of the resurrection story, they don’t know that it is Jesus.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Learning to Let Go

Here is my sermon from Easter Sunday. The scripture was John 20:1-18:

Benjamin Franklin once said that there are two certainties in this life: death and taxes.  One of the oldest translated pieces of writing is about the collection of taxes, and people have been dying for as long as there have been people. But today, on this day, we get out of both, or at least a little bit for a little while, because we get to delay filing our taxes until Tuesday because April 15th fell on the weekend, and we celebrate the fact that when Mary went to the tomb on that first Easter that Jesus wasn’t there, that he had been raised from the dead. Now this is not to deny either taxes or death, because they are still a reality for us. Now you may think you can cheat on our taxes or cheat death, but we have to remember that of the two, only one of them can truly be overcome. And totally off the topic, I would be remiss in noting that yesterday the 15th was the 70th anniversary of Jackie Robinson playing his first game in the major leagues, and while he was not the first African-American to play professional baseball, that honor goes to Moses Fleetwood walker, he was the first in the modern era and he was also the first to stay playing and set the stage for the integration, not just of sports, but also of society as his event happened more than a year before President Truman desegregated the military and 7 years before the supreme court held that segregated schools were unconstitutional. A truly momentous occasion in our society, but unrelated to today, or at least only tangentially related to today.

Now, if Shakespeare were to have written a play about Easter, he would have used the version of the story we find in the gospel of John, and it would have been a comedy as there are lots of characters running around, coming in and out of the scene, there is confusion and missing bodies and mistaken identities and then doesn’t end with a resolution, but instead leads on to what will happen next.  And, just another piece of trivia, does anyone know the only Shakespearean play to mention Easter? Romeo and Juliet. Now in the synoptic gospels, that is Matthew, Mark and Luke, Mary and some other women show up at the tomb on that Sunday morning because they want to prepare Jesus’ body for burial as there wasn’t time to do so before putting his body in the tomb and the beginning of the sabbath when no work could be done. But, in John Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus prepare the body, in fact it seems they over prepare it as John says they show up with 100 pounds of spices, and so instead of coming to prepare the body, it appears as if Mary comes to the grave, just by herself in this version, simply to be there in order to grieve. Her weeping is mentioned four times later in the passage. This too is unique to John, as in the other versions while there is fear and astonishment and confusion, only John mentions her grief over Jesus death.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Malachi: Prepare Ye the Way

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Malachi 1:1, 3:1-3, 4:1-6:

Repent, for the Kingdom of God has come near. That is the message that begins Jesus’ ministry, it’s also the message proclaimed by John the Baptist, although how we normally hear it is repent for the end is near, or at least that’s how cartoonists like to picture it, and I think that’s appropriate for today’s message because we are coming to an end. Today is the end of life without real baseball. It’s the end of our normal Sunday’s of Lent as next Sunday is Palm and Passion Sunday. Malachi is the last book in the Hebrew Bible, and so his writings marks the end, or as Tertullian says, the boundary of the New Testament, and today also represents the end of our sermon series on the 12 Minor Prophets, and we end with the prophet Malachi and his message about the coming of the messenger who will make the way for the messiah.

Malachi is another one of the prophets that we are not given any genealogy about, as the book simply starts telling us that these are some oracles from God delivered by Malachi, of whom we know nothing. The word Malachi means “messenger of God” and so it’s possible that this is not even a proper name but instead that it is a title that this prophet held, much like is possible with the prophet Obadiah. There is no specific information given about events that are taking place during the time of his prophecy, but we do have some hints that give us possible dating points. The first is that he refers to governors of Judah, rather than kings, which would seem to indicate that the Jews are not in political control of the territory, and he also refers to sacrificial activities as if the Temple is built and functioning, which would mean that it has to be either before the destruction of the first temple, when there were kings not governors, or after the Temple has been rebuilt after their return from the Babylonian exile, which is certainly the most likely period. In addition, the linguistic style that is being used is from the Persian period, and so most scholars date the work around the mid 5th century, but there is no certainty on that dating.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Zechariah: This is a King?

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Zechariah 1:1, 9:9-12:

When President Trump was deciding on cabinet picks, he said that one of the criteria he was using was to find people who, in his words, looked the part. He wanted them to look like they came from central casting so that people would believe they could do they job because they looked like they could do it. That’s not an unusual position, although it’s probably not stated as bluntly as that. One of the things Prince Charles was always going to have a problem with was the fact that he doesn’t look very king like. Now Prince William, who inherited some things from his mother, he looks like a king. We do the same thing as we see movies where Harrison Ford is plays the role of president, but we do not cast Danny DeVito as president. We have an idea of what rulers, leaders, important people are supposed to look like.  In scripture, we are told, when God is deciding to make David the king of Israel, that God looks at what people are like on the inside rather than on the outside to decide if they are worthy or not, and so David is being chosen over others, but then what are we immediately told about David? That he is a good-looking guy. We still do the same thing, after all, we cast Harrison Ford as president but we do not cast Danny DeVito. It’s true even in the church. The clergy who get appointed to the largest churches are all men, an important issue to be considered, and they tend to be tall and they tend to have been jocks in high school, and quarter backs of the football team in particular. That is, they look the part. They match what we want to see in important leaders. But what if the one we are looking for, what if the king does not look like or match what we expect them to be? Will we accept them as such? Or will we seek to change them to become we want them to be rather than who they are and perhaps even who we need them to be?

The prophet Haggai, who we heard from last week, and Zechariah have many similarities. The first is that they are contemporaries with each other, including both beginning their prophetic careers in the same year, 520 BCE. This is the second year of King Darius, the leader of the Persian empire who is ruling over Judah after the people return from the Babylonian exile. Malachi, the last of the 12 Minor Prophets who we will hear from next week, also prophesies during the Persian Empire, so the last 3 books in the 12 all take place roughly during the same time period. Unlike Haggai, we are given a genealogy about Zechariah although there are some questions about it. In Zechariah, we hear that he is the son of Berechiah and the grandson of Iddo, but in the book of Ezra, we are told that Zechariah is the son of Iddo. Because often the superscriptions, which are the lists of genealogies appear to be later additions to the works, not things the prophets included about themselves, we don’t know which is correct.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Haggai: You Can't Go Back

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Haggai 2:1-9:

In just two weeks the Major League Baseball season will start, and baseball is one of those sports that in the more things change, the more they stay the same, so for example, one well known player said of the younger players coming up "The great trouble with baseball today is that most of the players are in the game for the money and that's it, not for the love of it, the excitement of it, the thrill of it." Does anyone want to make a guess what year, or decade, that was uttered in? It was Ty Cobb, and he said it in 1925 while he was still playing the game. So, for all those people who complain today that the athletes are only in it for the money, that’s a complaint that goes back a long, long way, and I am sure that others had said exactly the same thing about Ty Cobb and his peers when they broke into the game as well. There seems to a natural tendency among humans to look to the past and to long for the ways that things used to be done, to wish that if things could only be like they were back then, then everything would be great. Or to phrase it differently, everything was awesome back then, and it’s terrible now, and who do these kids think they are anyways, kids in my day yadda, yadda, yadda. Perhaps it will make you feel better, or maybe not, to know that we see this same story taking place in scripture. There are the people complaining to Moses as they are wandering in the Egypt, who say “remember how good we had it back in Egypt? I mean sure we were slaves and all, but at least we weren’t walking all day following a cloud, Moses, when are we going to get there? Yadda, yadda, yadda.” And then there are the people who were complaining about the state of Judah after the people returned from Exile and how good it used to be, which is where the prophet Haggai comes into play.

All of the minor prophets we have encountered so far have been making prophecies in or to Israel, the northern kingdom, or Judah, which was the southern kingdom during the time of the Assyrian and Babylonian empires. As you may remember, Israel was destroyed by the Assyrian empire in 721 and the 10 northern tribes were removed from the land and basically disappeared to the sands of history. They were replaced on the land by the Samaritans. Then the Assyrian Empire was destroyed by the Babylonian empire, who then laid siege to Judah and Jerusalem destroying the city in 587 and then the Temple in 586 carrying off all the treasures of the Temple, including the Ark of the Covenant, which contained the ten commandments, and set in place Indiana Jones’ search. They also carried off the elites of the society, including the political and religious leaders, into captivity in Babylon, which is why it’s called the Babylonian exile. This is one of the most important events in Jewish history with most of the books in the Hebrew Scripture focusing on the issues surrounding these events. But, then in 538 the Persian Empire conquered the Babylonians, ending their reign, and starting a whole new empire in the region, see you didn’t know you were going to get a history lesson on the empires of the ancient near east. But the last 3 prophets we will encounter deal with Judah under the rule by the Persian Empire. And just so you know it’s Alexander the Great who defeats the Persians, although I’m guessing the Persians didn’t think he was too great.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Zephaniah: A Celebration

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Zephaniah 3:14-20:

In Star Wars: Rogue One, the lead female character Jyn Erso says about the rebellion, “We have hope. Rebellions are built on hope.” Of course, we have known that all along because what we know as the original Star Wars was later retitled Star Wars: A New Hope, but this was the first time that phrase had really been uttered in the movies about its necessity for the rebellion. If they didn’t have hope for the future, no one would join the rebellion, no one would dare to take on the empire, no one would risk their lives for something bigger than themselves because what would be the point? If there was no hope, why do anything? Why not just slink back into the woodwork, just keep on keeping on, seeking just to live one more day, and then the day after that. If there is no sense that things will get better, if there is no sense that things can get better, then there is no need to do anything. Thus, saying that rebellions are built on hope says that things not only can, but they must get better, that there is something better out there even if we cannot see it, even if it seems impossible, it’s still there.

Of course, long before we had the wisdom of George Lucas, we also heard the same thing from Paul who tells us “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God… For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” (Romans 8:18-25) That is also part of the message that we get with Zephaniah, that although he gives a prophetic claim not just of the coming destruction of Judah, but of the surrounding nations, that he closes with this truly remarkable message about God and about hope that we heard this morning.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Habakkuk: When Good Things Happen to Bad People

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The scripture was Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4:

Last week when we looked at the prophet Nahum, we addressed his gleeful delight in God being an avenging warrior who was going to bring destruction to the city of Nineveh, and I used Nahum’s position as a sort of launch pad to look at the question “why do bad things happen to good people?” I didn’t really give a full answer to that question, first because we don’t have enough time in one setting to do that, but secondly because in many ways that question is ultimately unanswerable.  The technical word for the inquiry is known as theodicy, which is if God is just how come there is injustice in the world, or if God is all powerful why doesn’t God use that power to stop bad things from occurring. If superman can stop a plan from falling out of the sky, and even turn time back to undo something that had happened, why doesn’t God do the same? The prophet Habakkuk is asking the same question, although he asks it in a different way, which is why are good things happening to bad people, and they are getting away with it, and in his inquiry Habakkuk is very unlike the other prophets we have encountered.

We know really nothing about Habakkuk, and yet can speculate about a lot. He is the first of the minor prophets we have seen who is specifically called a prophet in the introduction, although several others do have a similar introduction. Like others, there is no specific information given about when he is prophesying, that is there is no list of kings included. But because he is talking about the Babylonian Empire, who are here referred to as the Chaldeans, which is how the Biblical historians called them, we can come pretty close to his dating, or at least make a pretty good guess about it.  The Assyrian empire is not officially defeated by the Babylonians until the year 605, and then the Babylonians appear on the Judean coast in the year 604. Since Habakkuk makes a proclamation that God will use the Babylonians to destroy Judah in punishment for their sins of injustice, it is presumed that Babylon is actually a known threat to them, but has not yet appeared on the scene, although it could be that they are hovering, increasing a sense of doom, but have not yet attacked, which happens when Jerusalem is sacked, but not destroyed, in the year 598. That means we might be able to guess his prophetic career, or at least what we have record of, to a five-year period, which based on some of the other minor prophets we have encountered is remarkable. There is also some speculation that because of Habakkuk’s use of wisdom, lamentation and psalm literature, or at least their genres, that Habakkuk might be involved with, or a member of, the cultic operations of Judah. That is, he might be an official prophet for the Temple. Much of this speculation comes about because of chapter 3 which is phrased as if it is a psalm, and if you didn’t read it in preparation for today, I would encourage you to do so.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Nahum: Vengeance Is Mine

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Nahum 1:1-9:

In his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Rabbi Harold Kushner recounts an event early in his career when he was called on to help a couple whose only child, their 19-year-old daughter had died suddenly and unexpectedly of a burst blood vessel in her brain. He said that when he went over to their home he expected anger, grief, shock, but he didn’t expect the first words they said to him which was “You know, Rabbi, we didn’t fast last Yom Kippur.” Yom Kippur is the Jewish day of atonement, the most important of the high holies in Judaism, a day in which people, even many non-observant Jews, will refrain from work and will fast and seek forgiveness for the sins they have committed in the past year, and committing not to do those sins again. When this couple was struck by tragedy, they reverted back to a basic belief that God punishes people for their sin, and thus the death of their daughter had to have been caused by their failure to participate in Yom Kippur six months earlier. If only they had done that, they thought, then their daughter would be alive.

When my brother was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 20, my father had the same thought. He believed that God was punishing him for the sin of pride, by striking out at my brother. My brother’s cancer was a lesson that God was trying to teach my father and to punish him for a perceived slight to God. These are not unique stories, because they happen all the time with people seeking to give some meaning, some reason, some purpose for something that has happened in their life, and often it comes to a belief that God has caused this to happen, which often comes with a statement like “everything happens for a reason” or more specifically “This is part of God’s plan even if we don’t understand what that plan is.”

Monday, February 20, 2017

Micah: What Does The Lord Require Of You?

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Micah 6:1-8:

This week I did a google search to find out what the most famous passages from the Bible were. The results I found were not necessarily the most famous, but they were the passages that were most looked up. At the top of the list were some passages you might expect like John 3:16 “for God so love the world that he gave us his only son,” and there was the 23rd Psalm “the Lord is my shepherd” and 1 Corinthians 13, Paul’s famous statement about love, “Love is patient and kind, love is not boastful or envious.” And there were some that I was totally surprised by, like a passage from Zephaniah, who we will discuss in 3 weeks, saying “Lord, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.”  A nice passage, probably taken totally out of context, but not one I have ever found myself quoting. But the reason I wanted to look up what the most famous passage were was to see if any were included from the prophet Micah, because he has at least two with which most of us are familiar, and another we know although we don’t know that we know it.

The one we don’t probably know is that it is from Micah that we get a prophecy that the messiah will come from the town of Bethlehem. In the 5th chapter we hear “O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.” (Micah 5:2) A more famous one is from the 4th chapter, where we hear “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” Now that’s a phrase most of us are more familiar hearing from the prophet Isaiah, who was a contemporary of Micah, but it appears word for word in both books. But by far the more common passage, and one of my favorite scripture passages, is Micah 6:8, which we heard this morning, which the New Revised Standard Version translates as “God has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

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.