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


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.